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Time to remember: Turning back sands of time to Barry Island's great days.

Byline: Dan O'Neill

IRONIC, eh? Every day the big jets climb over Barry Island beach, next stop somewhere in Spain or Corfu or maybe Cyprus where the waters are warm, where the sun shines down, where it's summertime and the livin' is easy.

Why ironic? Because once upon a time the parents or grandparents of those package-tour pilgrims would have been on that same Barry Island beach. Or packing Porthcawl. Or in any of the little bays between, from Lavernock (Barebum Bay) to Rhoose.

Time to remember, then, what summer used to be like in our sea-splashed slice of the globe. But it's one particular stretch of sea, or rather seaside, that sparkles in the memory.

Porthcawl, with Kiss-Me-Quick hats and peppermint rock...bright Barry Island afternoons, the sound of shrieks filtering down from the rockiest ride of all, the famous Figure 8...and even placid old Penarth, with the paddle streamer puffing patiently at the end of the pier. For the day-trippers from Cardiff and the Valleys, Barry was Benidorm, Porthcawl a breezy bit of Majorca.

But a century or so ago, Barry really was an island, with just two houses, one of those a ruin.

Earlier it had been home for one John Thomas, an eccentric who sold rabbits to passing ships. He would swim over to his island, hanging on to his horse's tail, his valuables tucked away in his top hat. But the building of the docks, the coming of the causeway, ended the island's isolation - while paving the way for the bucket-andspade brigades.

In 1891 a visitor to Whitmore Bay would write that: ``Already the sands are studded with bathing machines, and Barry bids fair to be a favourite seaside resort.''

How right he was. For generations of kids from Cardiff and the eastern valleys, Barry was Shangri-La!, trains trundling in by the dozen to discharge battalions of bouncing boys and giggling girls.

A beach that any Med resort might envy provided cricket and baseball pitches, its sand fit for world-class castles. And donkeys, always donkeys.

The Figure 8 came in 1912 along with the promenade and the sea wall, displacing the ancient Switchback Railway, the original stomach churner. Meanwhile, Porthcawl had the water chute and this failed coalport, breeziest beach of `em all, was a magnet for lads from the Rhondda: for kids from Splott it was as distant as the dark side of the moon.

Barry Island had to work at being brash: Porthcawl did it naturally. Both had fairgrounds, sticks of rock with name stamped through, but in a way they were like Brains and Hancocks, the legendary local ales - you made your choice and stuck with one or the other.

The Figure 8 disappeared just before the war to be replaced by the speedier, slopier scenic railway which itself slipped into the world's attic in 1973 - and since then rides have arrived to whiten knuckles even more.

Porthcawl won itself an advantage when a true phenomenon came along - a collection of caravans that boasted of being Europe's Biggest Holiday Camp. Yes, Trecco Bay. Or, during the fabled Miners' Fortnight, Hiyabut Bay. At its peak up to 15,000 people packed themselves into 3000 caravans all close to the shows, the shops and the pubs and Porthcawl put another one over on its rival - it had a Grand Pavilion, proof that people STAYED there instead of shooting in and out in a day as in Barry.

Then Barry Island got its own camp. In 1964 Butlin's was greeted by the locals with the sort of enthusiasm they might have shown at news of a massive oil strike just off Porthkerry. Vast prosperity was on its way.

It didn't happen. While the holidaymakers in Trecco Bay wandered the town, Butlin's preferred to keep their ``guests'' inside the walls.

In time the Miners' Fortnight faded - no miners, see. And Butlin's departed from Barry. They are trying hard to bring back the golden days - but unless they can arrange to top up the temperature by 10C, warm the water and remove the rain...well, those big jets will keep leaving our beaches behind.


THE GOOD OLD DAYS Thousands of holiday makers would flock to the beaches of Barry Island during Whitsun and summer holidays.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Aug 12, 2002
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