Massive tides, interesting geology, and a past built on coal….and steam locomotives!!


Barry (Y Barri) – and the former Barry Island (Ynys y Barri), now linked to the town since the 1880s by an embankment and the docks – is a town of extremes. You wouldn’t think so now, looking at its genteel Victorian housing stock, the modern estates ringing the edges, and the centre of town (Canol y dref in Welsh) which desperately needs an infusion of commercial life, but this sleepy little town was once the busiest coal port in the world. The ‘black gold’ of the Welsh Valleys, good Welsh steam coal and the harder anthracite, flowed down railways in the direction of the coal ports of Cardiff and Barry. The output of Rhondda, Ebbw Vale, CynonTaff and many other parts of the South Wales Coalfield caused a huge boom in Barry as coal exports grew and grew. Indeed, by 1913, Barry had become the busiest coal port in the world with 11 million tons exported (Cardiff managed only 10 million). What caused it to shrink to almost nothing? Changing technology meant that the Royal Navy built no more coal-fired ships after 1914, and neither did many other countries. Also, at the end of World War One, Germany had massive reparations to pay to the victorious Allies, about the only way she could pay was in German coal! This almost destroyed the market for Welsh coal in Europe.

Coal was also used for powering the steam engines on British railways, of course, and when the change to diesel-electric mainline motive power came (the first, in 1947, was No. ‘10000’ was built in Derby, by the London, Midland, Scottish Railway Co.) that was a body-blow from which coal did not recover. Many of the withdrawn locomotives from the Southern and Western Regions of British Rail came through the Woodham Brothers scrap yard, following the withdrawal of steam traction. By 1968, there were 217 locomotives stored, awaiting scrapping. My brother lived on Broad Street, opposite the Woodhams yard, in the early 1970s, and I remember being utterly amazed at the rows and rows of steam locomotives. Dai Woodham was heavily involved in scrapping freight waggons and brake vans, at this period – they were easier – and railway enthusiasts began to  make bids for the locomotives, which lead to the rise of heritage railways!

Barry is remarkable for having the second highest tidal difference in the world at 45 feet (the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada holds the record at 48 feet), so it is hardly surprising that large areas of beach and foreshore should be available for bathing and recreation. Here you can see a small beach, below Redbrink Crescent, to the west of Barry Yacht Club. The cliffs are spectacular, and exhibit some of the local sedimentary Carboniferous limestone strata, overlaid with Mercian mudstones of the Triassic Period. The limestone is very fossiliferous, containing many examples of crinoids, solitary corals, colony corals and productid brachiopods.

I have visited Barry so much over the years that it has a pleasant, ‘familiar’ feel to it. Whether you are just relaxing on the beach, watching the ships move down the Bristol Channel towards the Atlantic, taking a quiet drink in a country pub, sailing out towards the islands of Flat Holm (Ynys Echni ) – part of Wales, or Steep Holm – part of England, or just prospecting for fossils, it has much to offer.

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