A Walk in Coychurch

Paul Farley and Michael Roberts (2012: 5) write that edgelands are, ‘where urban and rural negotiate and renegotiate their borders’ and this­­­­­ describes well the ongoing process in Coychurch, South Wales. It might seem odd to reclassify a village as an edgeland, but the classification of village is slowly slipping away. Coychurch has not outgrown its village status; rather it is being swallowed by the urban and industrial sprawl of Bridgend. It was Marion Shoard who coined the term edgeland as a category that captures the in-betweenness or liminal characteristics of areas like Coychurch. She defines an edgeland as:

Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouse, superstores and derelict industrial plants, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland. All these heterogeneous elements are arranged in an unruly and often apparently chaotic fashion swatched with riotous growths of colourful plants, both native and exotic. (Shoard, 2017: 1)

What follows is my account of a walk taken on the Ramblers Cymru, Healthy and Active walking route in Coychurch. The route is a 2.5-mile circular walk starting and finishing in the centre of the village. I describe my walk along the path focusing on the areas edgeland characteristics.

I begin the walk outside Williams Memorial Hall. The sun is out and seems to have drawn many of the residents out too. I stop to look at the notices on the community board. On Aug 3rd, 2021, the Annual Front Garden Competition will be taking place and the judges will be looking for colour, neatness, and wow factor. In the neatness category, it seems that being ‘weed free’ will play an important factor in the judges’ deliberations.

I wander off from the notice board, half concentrating on taking the correct turn and half thinking, in my botanical ignorance, about what makes a weed a weed and do they all really need to be eradicated. Further inquiry relieved me from ignorance as I discovered that a weed is simply a ‘wild’ plant that grows in an unwanted place. Therefore, plants are potential weeds, and it is dependent upon the individual to decide if the plant is wanted or unwanted. This can be dependent upon the time, space, socio-economic and cultural conditions (Vissoh et al., 2011: 162). 

Back on the main road through the village, I pay attention to the houses and, of course, their front gardens. With less than a month until competition day, many of the front gardens were looking well-manicured, weed free, and with plenty of colourful flowers on display. Further on from the memorial hall the trickle of the Nant Bryn Glas brook can be heard as it appears and then quickly disappears back under street. The houses are a mix of newer built bungalows interspersed with the older houses and cottages, but all seem well presented and maintained. 

From the main road I turn left out of the village following the public footpath sign. The narrow path is jammed between two old cottages, and I am quickly deposited into a housing estate. I compare the estate with the main road and guess that these houses and bungalows were built in the 1970’s/80’s. Compared with the houses and gardens on the main road, these are slightly shabbier and have some ‘weeding’ to do if they have any desire to do well in the upcoming front garden competition. 

I leave the estate using a footpath of a similar width, but much more vegetated than the one that brought me into the housing estate with brambles and stingy nettles scratching against my legs as I walk up the steps to a level crossing. I wait for the dark green Great Western Rail train to rattle along the South Wales Main Line towards its destination in Swansea. I walk through a small field which is home to three friendly donkeys and head up the hill to a picturesque viewing point with an aqua coloured plastic bench which sits the shade of a large oak tree. 

After admiring the view from the bench, I headed to the top of the hill and followed the path through a private garden with a flashy-looking house with flashy-looking cars on the drive. I walk quickly through the garden, trying not to look too observant, and exit over a stone stile and find myself surround by a mass of brambles, stingy nettles, and other vegetation that I cannot identify but I presume would be classified as weeds.

A few meters forward, on the right, I notice a large circular indent in the vegetation. In the centre of the circle, the floor has been scorched with black marks and ash covering the area. On top of the burnt ground lies empty beer boxes, toy boxes along with discarded cans, plastic, and glass bottles. It was not clear what had been burnt or if the fly-tipping was a later incident. Judging by the intactness of some of the items, I guess people had decided the scorched ground made a good fly-tipping spot.

Suddenly, I become aware of birds chirping nearby and I follow their song further into the field. Quickly the brambles and nettles disappear, and I am in a meadow. High pitched frequent chirps, with an almost rhythmic quality fill my ears. Intrigued by the sounds, I decide to test out a bird identifying app on my phone. The app conveys that the chirps are those of the European Goldfinch, and it is ‘almost certain’ about it too. The meadow’s grass is long and has started to run to seed, with the tips of the grass turning a pale yellow. I experience a moment of excitement and begin to make my way slowly through the meadow following the playful paths of Meadow Brown butterflies through the grass. In the grass I still hear the Goldfinches from the trees behind, but I can now also hear the clicking and buzzing of insects and bugs that are not dissimilar to the sounds heard in overhead electric pylons. As I move through meadow, the long grass gently brushes up against my body. Where the grass has run to seed, I occasionally rub between my finger and thumb to feel the bristly texture crumble out of my hand and fall back into the grass.

Nan Shepherd ([1977] 2014: 105) writes that it is through her senses she finds her way into nature and as my senses are awakened in the meadow it is where I feel most in nature. Sadly, as noted above, the field also holds evidence of human detritus. Perhaps the corner of the field was chosen to have a fire and fly tip because it is closest to the entrance. Or maybe it was because the perpetrators decided that the brambles, weeds, and nettles are aesthetically undesirable and therefore justify their arson and fly-tipping. Perhaps those responsible for the fire even thought that they were doing a service in burning away some of the weed covered area. I’m not suggesting that the perpetrators took their guidance from the Annual Front Garden competition brief, but there seems to be an understanding of the cultural and aesthetic values attached to certain plants in certain places.

I leave the meadow and pass through a narrow gap in the bush and enter onto the Coed-Y-Mwstr golf course. The course offers green panoramic views into the Vale of Glamorgan countryside. Large trees run the perimeter, with a strip in the middle to split the course up. The views are pleasing, but I cannot help but feel like the golf course is a sterile environment with its meticulously kept greens and obviously carved out shape. 

The golf course is a staple of edgeland areas, and it is easy to be lured in by the green open space and scenic views and think that golf is a game that is played in a natural setting. In reality, the golf course is more a showcase of human domination over nature (Richards, 2021: para 5). The local activities and maintenance of the Coed-Y-Mwstr golf course reflects the general degradation of the wider global environment (Hammond and Hudson, 2007: 128). As a land use concern, golf courses take up a large amount space with the average 18-hole course (like Coed-Y-Mwstr) taking up 58 hectares, which is equivalent to about 93 football pitches. To create the space needed, the pre-existing landscape is reshaped with trees and hedges removed and bodies of water moved or diverted. This is inevitably catastrophic for the associated wildlife. Once the land has been cleared it is then treated with a range of pesticides that stop the growth of unwanted plant life and killing insects as well as the use of artificial grasses and surfaces. As many golf courses are in rural locations or at the edges of towns, they are often close to waterways, and this is where the pesticides often find their way, polluting water. This is not to say that Coed-Y-Mwstr has or is doing all the damaging environmental acts listed, it is more to say that as a golf course it is symbolic of our relationship to and domination of nature.

The route leaves the golf course about halfway down the fairway and I turn left into a farmyard, through large clanking gates, and passed some stables and an enclosure where horses stretch their legs. As of 2011, those working in the agriculture industry in Coychurch totalled just 1.6% (ONS, 2011). Over recent decades farming has shrunk as an industry in Wales (Roberts and Kelly, 1994) and although there are still working farms nearby, it is the large industrial estates that border Coychurch that is the main source of employment for the inhabitants. It is from this point on the route, I start to become aware of the traffic on the A473 dual carriage way which is headed to and from said industrial estates. 

I start to descend through a field with inquisitive sheep and then down through a narrow wood until I finally arrive at another farmyard. Here the roar of the road is even more audible. I follow the path under the railway bridge and immediately the environment changes from rural to industrial. I turn left onto the shared foot and cycle path that runs along the side the dual carriage way to head back towards the village of Coychurch. 

The air is hot and every time a vehicle wooshes past I get hit with a gust of turbulent hot air. The sides of the road and the lower sections of grass in the central reservation are covered in dirt that has turned grey in the heat. As the vehicles continue to fly through the stale summer air, it strikes me that Coychurch is a place that is situated between two main arteries of movement. The A473 that I am walking on now and the South Wales Main Line that I have crossed over and walked under. ‘Edgelands are part of the gravitational field of all our larger urban areas, a texture we build up speed to escape as we hurry towards the countryside, the distant wilderness’ (Farley & Roberts, 2012: 5). I do not think the people speeding on the A473 or chugging past on the train are trying to ‘escape’ Coychurch. It still shows signs of being a quaint village with community spirt. As eluded to above, Coychurch is being swallowed by the edgelands of Bridgend, and as such it is not necessarily a stopping point on people’s journeys. Farley and Roberts (2012: 5) think that it is a problem that edgelands are largely bypassed as it renders their characteristics and identities invisible, and I agree.

I turn right off the dual carriage way and start to walk back into the village of Coychurch. A barely visible sign attached to a tall lamppost embedded in tree foliage proudly proclaims: ‘The best kept Village of the year Vale of Glamorgan 1989 – 1995’. I have walked and driven past this sign a few times and had totally missed its presence. The competitions inaugural year was 1953, but in 2016, there was a call for help organising the event as interest dwindled, and it is not clear that the call was ever met. A sign perhaps of the changing nature of Coychurch and other nearby villages as they negotiate and renegotiate their borders.

References

Farley, P. and Roberts, M. (2012) Edgelands Journeys Into England’s Ture Wilderness. London: Vintage.

Hammond, R. and Hudson, M. (2007) ‘Environmental managment of UK golf courses for biodiversity – attitudes and actions’, Landscape and Urban Planning, 83, pp. 127–136.

ONS (2011) Coychurch Lower Ward (as of 2011).

Richards, A. (2021) Golf is a giant board game damaging the planet: Time for it to goeuronews. Available at: https://www.euronews.com/green/2021/01/09/golf-is-a-giant-board-game-damaging-the-planet-time-for-it-to-go.

Roberts, G. and Kelly, R. (1994) ‘The Welsh hill farm – a cultral landscape in decline’, Landscape Research, 19(3), pp. 149–150.

Shoard, M. (2017) ‘Edgelands’, The Land.Vissoh, P V et al. (2011) ‘The social construction of weeds: different reactions to an emergent problem by farmers, officials and researchers’, International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, 5(2–3), pp. 161–175.

Published by Robert Mathlin

PhD student at Cardiff Uni researching walking.

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