THE PENARTH MYSTERIES: No 2 – THE BURIED SECRETS OF PENARTH’S PLYMOUTH PARK

A digger gets to work on the Penarth Marina "Green" near the Oystercatcher pub

A digger gets to work on Plymouth Park (the Penarth Marina “Green”) near the Oystercatcher

Engineers have now moved in to the Penarth Marina “Green” to dig up the grassed area (known as Plymouth Park) and begin the next stage of a four-month programme of underground pipe renewal…for which we’re all paying.

Many residents at the “Tesco” end of  Penarth Marina may well be unaware that their homes actually stand on the quaysides of what was once the western end of Penarth Docks and are all built around what later became a municipal rubbish dump  .

1855 The formidable Baroness Windsor along with Robert Clive MP, Crawshay Bailey MP, John Nixon and Lewis Davies form a company to develop a dock in Penarth.

It will rival the docks built by the Bute family in Cardiff and be serviced by the Taff Vale Railway Company.

The astonishingly beautiful stonework of Penarth Docks has been buried under tons of municipal rubbish

The astonishingly beautiful stonework of Penarth Docks has been buried under tons of municipal rubbish

1858 Architect Sir John Hawkshaw designs the Penarth Dock with – unusually – a slight curve in it to follow the line of the Penarth Escarpment and the route of the River Ely alongside . It consists of an sea lock, an outer basin, an inner lock and long curved inner basin .

1859 The contract to build the dock is signed.  The contractors are Smith and Knight who hire  1200 men – mostly from Ireland – dig out the foundations and the dock itself – mostly by hand but also with horses to cart away the spoil and some steam shovels.

1861 Smith and Knight ejected by the company directors who replace them with contractors by Hawkshaw of London and Dobson of Cardiff .

Baroness Windsor fails to arrive in time to declare Penarth Dock open

Baroness Windsor fails to arrive in time to declare Penarth Dock open

10 June 1865:  The Dock is completed . A large pavilion  has been erected on the South side of the dock where guests are served breakfast before the official opening – at which  Baroness Windsor, the instigator of the project, is due to officiate. There too is James Poole Chairman of the Taff Vale Railway whose company has leased the dock for 999 years. There is no sign of Baroness Windsor. James Poole steps up to the podium and says “Ladies and gentlemen. The Baroness Windsor was to have been present and assist in the ceremony of opening the dock, but by some unforeseen accident her ladyship has not arrived – and as time and tide wait for no man, I have been requested to open the dock in her name. I do so – and may God bless the undertaking . I now declare the Penarth Dock open ” A four-gun salute is fired by the Cardiff Artillery Volunteers.  The tug William Cory is the first ship to enter the dock to the cheers of the assembled crowds, followed by the national Lifeboat Institution’s boat “Harriet” .   Such is the demand for Welsh coal the dock is immediately filled with cargo ships waiting to load at its many staithes and hoists .

1870 : In this year Penarth Dock exports 900,000 tons of coal.

1880: The Penarth Dock and Harbour Company obtains an Act of Parliament to extend the dock to the northwest by 870 feet and add four more coal tips.

1882: Penarth Dock exports 2,000,000 tons of coal.

1884 The extension work is completed. The extra dock area and the extra four tips are in action .

February 6th 1886 Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s revolutionary steamship “Great Britain”, once a passenger liner but now a coal trader, leaves Penarth Dock for Panama . It is to be her final voyage. She catches fire and has to divert to the Falkland Islands where she spends the next 84 years before being brought back to Bristol for preservation .

1913  4,660,648 tons of coal are exported from  Penarth docks – an all time record. .

Penarth Docks after WW2 with the full length of  the original "Inner Basin" intact

Penarth Docks after WW2 with the full length of the original “Inner Basin” intact

1920: There are now 14 tips on the south side of the dock and four moveable tips on the north side. Every colliery in the Rhondda, Ferndale, Aberdare and Merthyr valleys  is sending coal by rail to Penarth. Loading is rapid.  A steamer can now arrive in Penarth on the rising tide, load a full cargo of more than 2000 tons of coal and , within less than two hours, be sailing out of Penarth on the ebb of the same tide.

1922: The Great Western Railway takes over  the Taff Vale Railway and amalgamates Penarth Docks with other South Wales ports.

1932: In the teeth of a world depression plans are made to close Penarth Dock – but the Earl of Plymouth intervenes to keep the dock open by foregoing the royalty payments to which is he due.

July 6th 1936: Trade at Penarth has dropped to only 685,000 tons. Penarth Docks are closed. Only the repair facility is kept open.

1940: With the outbreak of the Second World War Penarth Dock is made operational again. 5000 men are trained in the techniques of stevedoring – the science of loading and unloading ships.

Captain Arnold Winfield Chapin US Navy - in charge of Penarth Docks

Captain Arnold Winfield Chapin US Navy – in charge of Penarth Docks

26th October 1943: Penarth Dock becomes an United States Navy Base  under the command of Captain Arnold Winfield Chapin USN for the Eleventh Amphibious Force. After the war Captain Chapin writes to Penarth Council to thank the people of Penarth for their support. He says Penarth  ” was regarded by the Americans not only one of their best repair establishments, but also one of the very few places in the entire command where L.S.Ts could be taken alongside the dock for repair. The base was transferred in its entirety to the Mediterranean Theatre early in July 1944 and its loss from British waters was seriously felt and soon apparent”.A painting of Penarth Docks in 1944 is presented to Penarth by Captain Chapin and  now hangs in town council’s Kymin House, Penarth.

1963 : Penarth Dock is closed again although the outer basin is still used by yachtsmen to berth their boats on swinging moorings. The Inner Dock is sealed off by an earthwork bund with water still in it. The dock gates are out of action . The level of mud rises until access to the outer basin is only possible two hours either side of high water.

1970s: Penarth Dock is  acquired by local motor dealer and entrepreneur Norman Harvey. He plans to build a Woolworths store in the disused inner basin –

October 1 1980 : Norman Harvey dies at the controls of his Cessna Citation executive jet when coming in to land at Jersey Airport.  There are unproven reports that he was “chimney-potting” – flying deliberately low over a friend’s house which was below the approach to the runway. Penarth Docks are taken over by the South Glamorgan County Council – although the British Transport Docks Board still claims to own the area of water in the docks.

1983 ; In one of the silliest  decisions ever made in the history of local authority planning South Glamorgan County Council decides (before the days of environmental awareness and recycling) to cut the inner dock in two, build a “bund” across the middle and use the western (upper) half of the docks –  with its exquisite Victorian stonework – as a municipal rubbish dump.

1984 A huge aerial net is installed  on massive arches across the dock to keep seagulls away whilst the dumping goes on on. No record is kept of what is being dumped there. . Some of the contents, reputedly, are old HTV television programmes recorded on obsolete 2inch videotape.  The dumped content – consisting of both organic and non-organic material  begins to give off gas – lots of it and a liquid – leachate. This gas and liquid has to be  extracted and pumped into a lagoon before being admitted into the sewerage system.

1985: Crest Nicholson acquire part of Penarth Docks – the part where rubbish is not being dumped – to develop as a marina and housing complex .

1987 : The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation is  set up to redevelop Cardiff’s docklands and tales over ownership of Penarth Dock from the local authority. CBDC considers rectifying the Penarth Dock refuse problem with the drastic solution of digging out all the rubbish which  had been dumped in the dock by the county council, and opening up the entire length of the dock so as to enlarge the marina – but by that time the cost was prohibitive.

There was no alternative but to – in effect – put a lid on the dock, seal it and install piping to flare off the escaping gas . Eventually all the gas is piped to a specially installed plant at the east of Plymouth Park to be burned off. Housing is developed around the perimeter of the filled section of the dock.

1986 The Docks are sealed off and made watertight. The thick mud in the remainder of the dock is  hauled out  by relays of Volvo earthmovers and levelled to a standard depth suitable for yachts and cruisers rather than ocean-going ships . It is re-opened as a marina by Crest Nicholson – who also develop housing around the perimeter.  The mud is dug out down to the very bottom of the original lock – revealing the immaculately smooth stonework surface of the lock base . The harbourmaster’s office and lock control building is built on the edge of the original dock which is then narrowed to form a smaller shallower lock . This still opens directly to the sea. The Cardiff Bay Barrage has yet to be built.

March 2000:  Cardiff Bay Development Corporation is wound up and the  ownership of Penarth Dock is assumed by the Welsh Assembly Government. To cure the gas problem, huge impermeable plastic membranes have been  laid on top of the rubbish, equipped with pipelines to draw the waste gas (mostly methane) away to a burner unit at the eastern end of the top half of the dock.

Contractors replace thousands of yards of underground pipes to draw the methane away from the rubbish beneath

Contractors replace thousands of yards of underground pipes to draw the methane away from the rubbish beneath

2013 Twenty nine new wells are now drilled down into the layers of rubbish below and are connected up to a network of new gas and liquid-carrying pipes. New pumps are being installed to move the liquid out. Existing fans are being used to propel the gas to the burning-off installation. The area is then re-turfed and landscaped with “wildflower meadows” and an informal play area installed .

The replacement gas and leacheate extraction systems are installed by  Alan Griffiths Contractors Ltd – who specialise in landfill gas extraction – and PE Pipe Technologies working to a Welsh Government contract.

No one has yet calculated the cost of the original disastrous decision to dump rubbish in the dock – but the remedial work since incurred must run into many millions and far outweigh any short-term advantage gained by using  – or misusing – the dock as a rubbish receptacle.  The decision made by the long-since-defunct South Glamorgan Council 30 years ago – in 1983 –  will cost taxpayers many more millions in the years ahead .

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5 Responses to THE PENARTH MYSTERIES: No 2 – THE BURIED SECRETS OF PENARTH’S PLYMOUTH PARK

  1. RJ says:

    Well at least they can’t build on it, so Plymouth Park should remain a green belt into the future! The land was owned by the WDA and now the Welsh Assembly Government I believe, so the costs are not being charged to council tax (unless anyone knows differently?).

  2. Not too certain about your comment. The Vale of Glamorgan Council purchased the whole of Penarth Dock years ago (for around £3 million) following the demise of former owner Norman Harvey of garage fame in a plane crash.
    The Council still owns the freehold of the site although there MAY have been differing arrangements for the refuse site. It will be worth an enquiry to find out the exact position at this time though, especially when we are being asked to pay for the pipe netwoork renewal scheme.

  3. liuhj says:

    Surely the methane is a sellable resource – why is it just being burnt off?

    • Ian Perry says:

      The methane would need to be collected and then transported, possibly using more energy than is recoverable by burning the methane.

  4. Fred Pigeon says:

    If the council bought it for £3 million – how much did Harvey pay for it ?

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