We're making our way through the beech and ash thicket looking for
a watercourse. Among the fallen branches and undergrowth of ivy and
ground elder Grahame Davies has found the remains of a medieval bridge.
It's half submerged in the undergrowth and massive. Conclusive proof
if ever we needed it. But on investigation it turns out to be a tumbled
remnant of the boundary wall from a property on the Penhill ridge
above. The breeze blocks give it away. Discovery defeated.
We're in Llandaf Fields looking for the Canna. The white brook that
gave its name to a large part of upwardly mobile north Canton. Despite
a whole load of smoke about it being a saint's name, holy relics at
St Tudor's Mynyddislwyn, and ley lines jetting through Canton Cross
on their way to Mars, Canna is far more likely to be simply the Welsh
for to whiten. As usual I've got a bag of photocopies of old
maps with me. The 1840 (Environs of Cardiff 1840 as re-drawn by
John Hobson Matthews) shows Nant-y-Ty-Gwyn (The White House Brook)
rising somewhere below the Penhill ridge and then snaking south to
join the Taff opposite what's now the Millennium Stadium. There's
an overgrown ditch at this spot but it's dry. We follow it north.
Grahame is talking about his novel. Inspiration is arriving at the
most inconvenient of moments but the thing is demanding to be written.
He's already done 25,000 words, most of them after midnight. The best
work always gets done under pressure. Books jamming themselves into
the corners of their author's lives. Plots hammering around the table
at breakfast. William Golding completed Lord of the Flies in
a flat above a chip shop. He had a young family squalling around him
and wrote after teaching all day to pay the rent. There's a message
here. Grahame's book is bubbling out of him rather like the Canna
ought to be from the ground we're surveying. It's about a young Welsh
nationalist who keeps the faith while the world around her slides
into post-devolutionary torpor. She's naïve, unworldly, guiless
and outmanoeuvred by her Labour opponents. She's a metaphor for the
nationalist movement as a whole. What happens to her? Grahame is not
Eventually we discover a fenced-in spread of marsh just below Penhill's
Pontcanna Court. There's an obligatory milk crate sinking into its
wet centre. The Canna's ancient source? Could be. Pont Canna (In
Welsh Pont means Bridge) derives its name from the bridge that
reputedly once crossed the whitening stream. Historical sources
claim this to have been situated near Pontcanna Cottages. These were
a short thatched row that stood, until 1896, between the former Presbyterian
Church on Cathedral Road and Teilo Street. Photographs exist and the
dwellings are there on all the maps. But of
the Canna at that point and its mythical bridge? Not a sign.
If the Whitehouse Brook and the Canna were the same thing, and that
seems likely, then the watercourse would have crossed Pen-Hill Road
and headed south in the direction of the Conway public house. Grahame
spots a green lane to the back of Llanfair Road with an obvious water
relic along its route - an ancient mill. But it's not. It's a garage.
Foiled again. Maybe we should come down here with a hazel twig and
try water divining.
This whole area of upper Canton has been progressively gentrified.
Victorian mansions have had their fifties modernisations ripped out
and original clawfoot baths, dressers, newel posts, and pewter door
knobs reinstalled. Gardens have been tended, roofs fixed, doors re-knockered
and re-painted. Prices have risen like apricot sponge.
We pass John Ormond's house along Conway Road and go round the corner
into Romilly Crescent. The district has immaculate credentials. Behind
the Urdd is St Winifreds Nursing Home. Both Saunders Lewis and George
Thomas died there. Sun leaks through the plane trees. Is the Canna
still here, deep below us in the City drains? Does it rise when the
rain comes to return as street flood, dampening people's cellars,
swarming up their brick-work and drawing maps on their wallpaper?
Can you hear it, in the sewers, heading towards the sea? Wyndham Crescent
is dust dry. Dead leaves. Dying grass. Water a memory.
Some records talk of the streams that were once here being the Turton
and the Glas, minor tributaries of the Canna, trickling in from Canton
Pool and Plas Turton, the great house that preceded Plasturton Gardens.
Maybe the area was once a flood plain criss-crossed by damp ditches
and alluvial sludge. As we walk south the nature of the district begins
to change. Houses are closer together, smaller yards, flaky paintwork,
less refurbishment. Locals I've spoken to know nothing of the river
that once flowed beneath them. But dampness, yes, that they do recognise.
Wallpaper comes off. Skirtings need replacing. There's salt in the
At the border, Canton Bingo on Cowbridge Road, the unofficial district
of Pontcanna officially ends. CV'S & TYPING - Premier Business
Services - Gardian Property Management - Secura Windows. The Balti
Wallah Punjabi Tandoori. The historian William Rees talks of a bridge
here which once crossed the Canna at the King's Castle . Long gone.
Grahame is explaining to me how a single shrieker is all you need
among a poetry reading audience in order to get the whole crowd going.
If they enjoy themselves them they'll buy the book. Smile and the
world smiles with you. Rocet Jones did this at the Coopers' Arms on
Grahame and Lloyd Robson's Cymru Cut tour of 2002. Grahame
shifted a shed of his Cadwyni Rhyddid and Lloyd sold dozens
of Cardiff Cut as a result. We cross the road. Make them laugh.
Obvious really. We pass the back of Mandeville House and turn into
Brook Street, on its corner The Miller's Arms, beer, breakfast, b&b.
Here were actual mills, once, just south west of the castle. A town
enterprise, reputed to charge more to grind your corn than anyone
further out. You want to lug your grain to Llandaf where it's a penny
a sack cheaper, you do it squire. Nothing changes. I ask someone unloading
their Escort if there's a brook still here. No idea, sorry.
Before it degraded into a damp ditch with its
power gone and its waters dispersed though a hundred new Canton drains
the Canna went along here. It rushed into the Taff in foaming leap.
Doesn't now. Although there is a pipe half way down the stone reinforced
river embankment. Under its corroded lid we find damp street detritus,
crisp packets, mud and debris. The Canna, what's left, a memory of
finds the Canna outfall
Pont Canna - The northern
part of the hamlet of Canton (1702.) The bridge from which it takes
its name was probably the little rude stone one which here crossed
the Whitehouse Brook. Both bridge and brook disappeared in 1896, with
the old Pontcanna Cottages hard by, when the northern portion of Cathedral
Road was completed- (Cardiff Records, 1898). The bridge itself was
supposed to be a rude thing, little more than a couple of slabs slung
across the Canna's ditch.
Pontcanna Cottages show up
clearly on both the Tithe maps from the 1840s and the OS's detailed
survey of the 1880s.
"The Whitehouse Bridge 'in a
place called Durton' or Turton (Plas-Turton), near the site known
as King's Castle" - Cardiff, A History of the City, Corporation of
the City of Cardiff, 1969
The Whitehouse ditch was condemned
as a nuisance and filled in during 1874. Some traces remained until
1895. When it flowed this rivulet was reputed to mark the ancient
boundary between the parishes of Cardiff and Llandaf.
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