Forest Farm

Forest Farm and Glamorganshire Canal Nature Reserve 

The Forest Farm Nature Reserve is just one of the many local areas where Mary was involved in protecting the local flora and fauna, and preserving the natural environment for future generations to enjoy. As you can read below, the area contained within the current reserve boundaries has a long and diverse history, from agrarian to industrial, its various uses ranging from farming and the milling of corn in medieval times through to transporting heavily laden barges on its canal and manufacturing tin plate in a specially built factory.

Creation of the nature reserve

On 1 April 1967, with the extension of Cardiff’s boundaries, the area comprising Long Wood and an approximately one-mile-long section of the Glamorganshire Canal came under the jurisdiction of Cardiff City Council and was designated an ‘Amenity Area’. Soon after, Mairead Sutherland, a resident of Whitchurch and member of the Cardiff Naturalists' Society, proposed that the area be recognised as a Nature Reserve and, with support from the Glamorgan Naturalists’ Trust and the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society, Cardiff City Council approved the designation in June 1967. Mary Gillham had generated a huge species list of plants found within Forest Farm to help demonstrate the need to protect it and also wrote about the new Nature Reserve in the ‘Transactions of the Cardiff Naturalists’ Society’ published that year. Listen to the introduction, read by project volunteer Hazel, below:

In 1970 the Cardiff Parks department took over management of the reserve and in 1981 it was formally declared a Local Nature Reserve. In 1982 the main part of the reserve, the area containing Long Wood, Sheep’s Bane Wood and the Glamorganshire Canal, was designated a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) by the Nature Conservancy Council, which helped to further ensure its protection. Long Wood is of special interest as an ancient broadleaf semi-natural woodland, and, as Mary wrote, the standing waters of the canal are ‘a sanctuary for birds and a haven for wild plants, including not a few rarities and the invertebrate life which goes with them’. Several threatened species, including the rare Arrowhead (Sagittaria sagittifolia), were amongst the plants Mary recorded there.

Major changes to the Nature Reserve: A470 and M4 construction

Work on the A470 dual carriageway (replacing the ‘old’ road of that number that joined the Cardiff outskirts to Tongwynlais) was undertaken and completed in the late 1960s / early 1970s. Then, during the mid to late 1970s, construction of the M4 and Longwood Drive (the access road to the new Forest Farm Industrial Estate) had a further effect on Forest Farm, both by cutting the nature reserve in two and removing part of Long Wood and a section of the canal.

As Mary writes, ‘Environmentalists wanted bridges, on conservation grounds. Those responsible for building the roads wanted embankments, on financial grounds. The latter, of course, won. Embankments involved the loss of one 230m length of canal and the adjacent woodland.’ In March 1974 planners came up with a scheme for landscaping the area cut through by the M4 and Longwood Drive (see below) – luckily, local naturalists had some say in these plans: ‘Native substitutes were advised in lieu of the suggested aliens, with the banning of all sycamore, but a remarkable number of exotica escaped the cull. Many proved to be more colourful than the natives and no-one, apart from a few botanical purists, were troubled by the results. Quite a few of the strangers [were] crowded out, some died on the spot without trying, others have survived and add extra glamour to summertime visits.’

Plan for the land between Longwood Drive and the M4, c1974

Occupying about 35 acres (14.25ha), the Coryton roundabout / interchange, which links the A470, M4 and Longwood Drive, is one of the UK’s largest and almost certainly the largest in Wales. While the development of this infrastructure was detrimental to the environment it replaced – ‘What escaped being churned up by giant diggers was likely to have been covered over by giant dumpers’, the centre of Coryton roundabout contains a surprisingly diverse flora (by 1999 Mary’s annual surveys had identified an incredible 180 plant species – ‘a feast, indeed, in today’s impoverished countryside’). The area has become renowned for its orchids (in 1997, Cliff Woodhead, warden of the nearby Coed-y-Bedw Nature Reserve, counted sixty-four bee orchid flower spikes in one patch) and many other species of wildflowers can also be found thriving within the roundabout’s constantly noisy confines.

Two pyramidal orchids, Coryton, 07/07/2000

Friends of Forest Farm

Forest Farm was one of Mary’s favourite places in Cardiff, and she remained involved in its protection and management throughout her life. In 1989/90 she helped to set up the Friends of Forest Farm, a group of people who work to ensure the ongoing success of the Reserve, and Mary even left the Friends group money in her will to help them continue their work. Find out about the wetland that has been created with her money in the video below!

Thus, by December 1992, when the area was officially confirmed as a Country Park, Forest Farm included the SSSI as well as buildings from the original Forest Farm, and the Melingriffith feeder canal. The remaining buildings of Forest Farm are now used as the base for the Cardiff Park Rangers, as the offices for local conservation organisations Plantlife and Buglife, and as a welcome centre during open days.


The industrial history of the Nature Reserve

The Melingriffith Tinplate Works

Opened some time prior to 1750, the Melingriffith Tinplate Works is claimed to have been, by the end of the 18th century, the largest works of its kind in Europe. Built on the site of a medieval corn mill and situated between the banks of the Glamorganshire Canal and the River Taff, the works once covered an area of some four acres.

Originally a forge, the mill later began producing tinplate, iron plates, wire and other specialities so that, by the start of the 20th century, the works employed well over 500 men and had an annual output of more than 17,000 tons of tinplate, with the USA and Germany the mill’s principal markets. Water for the works was taken from the River Taff just above Radyr Weir by means of the Melingriffith Feeder Canal. With the shrinking of the market for its products – mainly due to overseas competition – the Melingriffith Works was forced to close in 1957.

The Works’ buildings were left abandoned until, finally, in the 1980s, they were demolished as part of the scheme to construct a new housing estate on the site, and nothing of them (other than the mill’s water pump) now remains to be seen.

The Melingriffith Water Pump

Constructed around the mid 1790s (its creator being a source of some disagreement), the pump’s role was to return water from the Melingriffith Tinplate Works to the Glamorganshire Canal in order to ensure the water in the canal was kept at a level that permitted traffic to navigate it. After working for some one hundred and fifty years, and following the closure of the tinplate works in 1957, the pump fell into a state of disrepair and became both covered and choked with weeds.

Initial refurbishment of the MWP took place by means of a series of works undertaken between the years 1972 and 1989, in which latter year the pump was placed in the care of Cardiff City Council. Further restoration work – this costing £100,000 and being funded jointly by Cardiff Council and CADW (the Welsh Government’s historic environment service) – was undertaken between 2009 and 2011, though this second phase was delayed for a time when it was discovered that bats were roosting in the pump’s rocker beams.

During this most recent restoration, the pump was converted from being water-powered to running on electricity. Currently, the Melingriffith Water Pump – and a cast-iron towpath bridge that formerly crossed the Glamorganshire Canal – can be found in a fenced enclosure adjacent to the listed circa 17th-century Oak Cottage at the southern end of Forest Farm.

The pump is a scheduled monument and is the centrepiece of the 1975-designated Melingriffith Water Pump Conservation Area.

The Cardiff Railway Company

The section of the Cardiff Railway Company’s track between Tongwynlais and Coryton stations – the original plan being to name this latter station ‘Asylum’ because of the nearby Whitchurch Mental Hospital! – crossed the Glamorganshire Canal above Middle Lock (i.e. across the top end of what is now Longwood Drive). Construction of the railway commenced in 1898, with the first 3½ miles being built from Heath to Tongwynlais. It was then extended past Tongwynlais and on to Treforest, where, after crossing the River Taff, it joined the Taff Vale Railway's line at a point just south of Treforest station.

However, the Taff Vale bought a vital strip of land running along the east side of their railway south of Pontypridd, claiming it was for the provision of sidings, and thus refused Cardiff Railway permission to run over it. A lengthy legal dispute ended with the Taff Vale Railway’s position being upheld so that, on 15 May 1909, the first train to travel over the two connecting lines (this train carrying Lord Bute and other dignitaries) was also the last.

Subsequently, the section of the line north of Coryton was closed to passengers on 20 July 1931 and closed in total in 1952, the track being lifted the following year and the bridge crossing the Glamorgan Canal demolished, leaving only its northern buttress extant today. Though much of the area where the railway track lay is now under the A470 / M4 roadways, both the railway embankment and the former railway cutting that runs north from Coryton Station to Longwood Drive are included in the Forest Farm Country Park boundaries. As a matter of interest, however, a proposed plan to join Coryton station to that at Radyr by rail still exists, so that a complete railway loop around Cardiff might be completed, though there is no plan to actually attempt this undertaking in the foreseeable future.

You can read much more about the Forest Farm Country Park, its history, flora and fauna, and the local area’s industrial heritage in Mary’s 2002 book A Natural History of Cardiff


Then and Now

How some of the scenes Mary captured have changed... Click on the arrows to slide between Forest Farm past and present.

In 1977 Longwood Drive, the access road for the industrial estate, was completed. The newly completed M4 can be seen in the background along with the machinery of the little garth quarry in the top right. The land between Londwood Drive and the M4 was planted soon after this picture and has grown into the small woodland you can see in the recent (2017) picture.

In 1972 Forest Lock underwent repairs. At that time to the West of the canal was an open field. In 2017 that field is a combination of ponds and woodland with bird hides. The industrial unit (white building) visible at the back of the photo has made way for a housing development.

In 1972 Forest Lock underwent repairs. At that time to the West of the canal was an open field. In 2017 that field is a combination of ponds and woodland with bird hides. 

In 1972 Forest Lock underwent repairs. At that time to the West of the canal was an open field. In 2017 that field is a combination of ponds and woodland with bird hides. The industrial unit (white building) visible at the back of the photo has made way for a housing development.

The cast iron bridge where the Mellingriffith feeder canal joins the Glamorganshire Canal. The arched shape of the bridge was lo enable the ropes from canal barges to pass over the pridge easily without becoming snagged. The bridge has not changed much between 1972 and 2016.

Radyr weir and old salmon trap in October 1986 and how it looks in 2017. The fish trap has been replaced with a fish pass to allow salmon to navigate upstream.


See more Then and Now pictures here or check out more of Mary's Forest Farm pictures on Flickr.