The distinctive pitched roofs of the red brick Brynmill School dominate the area. Sitting on the crest of a hill they can be seen from miles around. From the seafront and beach to the south as well as from Uplands and Mount Pleasant to the north. It is one of two local primary schools. It is a handsome building. Bold red brick. Confident and happy looking. The other is the Welsh-medium school Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Bryn-y-mor, which had previously been Brynmill Infant’s school.
Brynmill School was opened on 31st August 1896 and was big enough to accommodate over a thousand pupils. In its early days, boys and girls were taught in separate classes. The girls were taught in classrooms on the ground floor and the boys on the first floor.
During the Second World War many buildings in Brynmill were damaged. On 21st February 1941, the girls’ school was hit and the school had to close for a fortnight. Rhyddings House was also badly damaged by a bomb and it became known as “the bombed house” and a place where the local children would play.*
The school undergone quite a few changes. The many tall chimneys and the tower on highest part of the roof are gone. Extensions have been added at the front and back of the school. There are relatively few school-aged children that live in the heart of Brynmill, those that attend the school most seem to walk from Uplands or are driven in from other areas of Swansea. Schools are at the heart of sustainability. Many rural communities have lost their post office, pubs and schools and then cease to fully function as communities. Brynmill School, however, has clearly worked hard to keep their numbers up and continue as a beating heart of the community.
*Information about Brynmill School came from an article by Juliette James “Life in the district of Brynmill in the early 20th century” published in “Minerva: Swansea History Journal, Vol 24, 2016-7.
As a trained Historian as well as being an artist, I feel the need to place my “urban minimal” paintings in context. I think it helps me understand the city around me too. Swansea is a town in which nothing in particular has happened. There was no workers’ rising (Merthyr and Newport), no cross-dressing protests (Rebecca Riots to the west of here) although Emily Phipps and the suffragettes were pretty active here in the years before the First World War. Again and again I come back to Poet Dylan Thomas who grew up here.
“Metroland” or “Metro-land” was the name dreamt up by advertisers for the new commuter belt communities to the north-west of London that was served by the Metropolitan Line. The 1920s and 1930s saw the rapid growth of new houses often in a mock Tudor/rustic style. In Wales, the presence of swathes of brand new Metroland-style houses signalled that the middle classes were as respectable (or “tidy”) and as well off as those in England. This was in stark contrast to the working-class mining communities in the South Wales during the Great Depression. They were experiencing destitution and extreme poverty. The 1930s in the Rhondda Valley was all about soup kitchens and the means test, not faux rustic idylls.
Not so in the heart of suburban Swansea. Poet Dylan Thomas, was born in an Edwardian house in 1914. His home was in the bosom of Swansea’s version of Metroland; Ffynone, Uplands and parts of Sketty. He grew up in Swansea in the 1920s, well before the Luftwaffe and the town planners destroyed the town centre. He famously wrote that Swansea was “an ugly, lovely town … crawling, sprawling … by the side of a long and splendid curving shore. This sea-town was my world.”
Writing to his friend, Trevor Hughes, in early 1934 he describes himself as “living in Metroland” in the midst of “respectability and subservient to the office clock”. This is quite ironic as Trevor lived in Harrow, outside London which was part of the original “Metro-land” served by the Metropolitan Line.
Young Dylan clearly found the respectability suffocating. Indeed, Dylan Thomas’s antics were not always to the tastes of the people of Swansea. After all, his birth place number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, was only made into a museum and restored to its former glory in 2005. As a teenager, Dylan acted in several plays at the Swansea Little Theatre which was based in a small church hall in the sea-side village of Mumbles near to Swansea. His alcoholism was already affecting his life as he frequently needed to slip out of rehersals for a quick drink.
The Antelope and the Mermaid Hotel were closest. He later wrote about breaking his tooth playing “cats and dogs” in the Mermaid. Dylan entered wholeheartedly into the game by crawling about on his hands and knees, barking loudly and finally shuffling outside to bite a lamp post and breaking a tooth! However, when the Company producer gave him an ultimatum at a dress rehersal, he left the company.
Mermaid Hotel Mumbles
It was at number 5 Cwmdonkin Drive that he wrote more than 200 poems in his tiny bedroom before he was 20 years old. Later in the same year he wrote to Trevor Hughes about “living in Metroland”, he left Swansea for Fulham, in London. To live with his artist friend Alfred Janes. He had well and truly left Metroland now.
If you walk north of Brynmill, you start to go up in the world. The surburbs of Ffynone, Uplands and Sketty are perched on one of Swansea many hills. The houses that were built here after the First World War are big and spacious. Swansea, like the rest of the UK, experienced a house-building boom in the late 1920s and the 1930s. This put home ownership within the reach of many for the first time. Now families with modest means could see their aspirations realised in bricks.
Some edgy flat roofed Art Deco houses were built. Much more popular, were detached and semi-detached mock Tudor styles with front and rear gardens. Their interiors had to be fashionable. Art Deco fireplaces were everywhere. Electricity was also installed. That way, the family’s maid could use new domestic inventions like the wireless and vacuum cleaner. They were light, clean family homes that were both practical and elegant. This was suburban splendour.
Old time house buying
This was the chic of “Metroland”. This so-called”Metroland” or “Metro-land” was the name given to the suburbs of north-west of London that was served by the Metropolitan Railway (The Met). The term “Metro-land” was coined by the Met’s marketing department in 1915 when the Guide to the Extension Line became the Metro-land guide. It promoted a dream of a modern home in beautiful countryside with a fast railway service to central London. The Metroland style was self-consciously rustic. It was a peaceful Eden that harked back to a Shakespearean “golden age” of England. It was a style that was adopted by builders wanting to appeal to the professional classes of Wales too.
Metroland was part of popular culture of the 1920 and 1930s. There were several songs about Metroland. Evelyn Waugh had a character Lady Metroland who appeared in several of his books (“Decline and Fall”, “Vile Bodies” and “A Handful of Dust”). Poet John Betjeman, wrote poems about Metroland. He even made a celebrated documentary for BBC Television, called Metro-land, in 1973.
SPTS1070, Dunlop Tennis, 1930s advert for the tyres on an English country house sporting theme
We took the train down to Cardiff on Friday to look at the venue for my “Gafnu Cymuned: Hollowed Community” exhibition in the
madeinroath 2017 festival. It was great to visit Cardiff again. I used did my degree and PhD in Cardiff in the 1990s and I used to know the areas close to the university, Roath and Cathays, very well.
The city has changed massively in the last 20 or so years. It has become more European, in its feel. The centre is full of massive shops and eateries. Around the edges of the main shopping district was full of building work, where lots of purpose-built student accommodation was being put up.
My exhibition will be in the Inkspot Art Centre, off Newport Road. I have the wall by the windows on the right hand side and a hall with a beautiful Victorian wooden ceiling. The Festival runs from Sunday 15th to 22nd October 2017.
Here is a view of the length of Bernard Street from the South end, looking towards Uplands. It was quite hard to paint as I felt that I was trying to capture an absence. The light cuts across an empty road. When I saw this scene late on a Sunday evening in August I was struck by this emptiness, absence. No people. No cars, anywhere along its length.
Usually there are are cars outside the convenience store half way along the road, but it was closed. In term time the road is crammed with cars belonging to students, some who live in the streets that branch off from Bernard Street, some are parents dropping their children off at the local schools, some are passing tradespeople, many more are students attending lectures on the Singleton Campus. Yet, on this summer evening there was no one. It was like a ghost town. This one image, more than any sums up the transient community that Brynmill has become. It has become an unsustainable community. A community without families, especially those with children is a dying community.
Brynmill and Uplands suffer from the fact that the majority of students are absent for about 4 months each year. The situation has parallels with that in North Wales and Cornwall, where holiday homes mean areas are practically deserted in the winter. This has resulted in businesses closing due to a lack of all year custom and for the same reason has led to closures of libraries, schools and GP practices. Here, and in Uplands many shops and businesses have closed and have been taken over by bars and coffee shops. Are the losses of our library, post offices, banks and local businesses due to the lack of all year trade?
In Brynmill there are no banks, post offices, libraries, swimming pools or leisure centre. The Victorian swimming baths opposite Victoria Park were pulled down years ago. The public toilets were also destroyed (the week before the preservation order was to come in place). We have two junior schools but few of the children live locally. You see children walking to school but that’s only because their parents have parked in places like Bernard Street and walk them to school. The pollution caused by all this additional traffic has a negative effect on the environment and people’s health. Yes, we do still have a chip shop, a pub, a coffee house, a community centre, a bread shop, a convenience store, a launderette and a DIY store. But for how much longer? Its difficult to sustain a business on 8 months’ trade. It was probably a large part of the reason why The Cricketer’s pub closed down.
Yet, Brynmill has so much to offer. It has two fantastic parks; Singleton and Brynmill. There is a university on our doorstep. It is 5-10 minutes walking distance from the seafront. There are several well attended churches. I love the sea air. It is mild here. We rarely have frosts. It has a Bohemian feel to the place. As an artist, I don’t think I would thrive in suburbia where people would expect you to be neat and tidy. I am not neat and tidy. I love the hilly, terraces and the mix of people. People are friendly. You can start a conversation with anyone in a shop and they talk back as if they know you.
I want this community to live and to thrive, not to become a hollowed out dead place full of strangers who know nothing about the area. This project has been part of that. I have asked questions and have found out about the people who were born and grew up here. I walked up and down streets and back lanes. Again and again, trying to catch the shadows at different times of the day. Morning is my favourite time. I have counted the number of houses that no longer have lounges with sofas at the front of the house but rather desks and beds for students. The official figures are wrong. There are many more student houses (HMO) that are on the council register.
This has become an unbalanced and unsustainable community. The Local council and Welsh assembly are ignoring the problem. Chasing short-term profit at the expense of people’s lives and the local economy. I have seen the place where I have lived for 18 years in a different light and I have only scratched the surface. I want to keep digging.
I think that I have enough paintings for my “Hollowed Community” Project, for the time being. So now I am walking further afield to find new subjects. I walked up hill to Sketty, parts of which have fantastic views across Swansea Bay. I loved this large white house on the corner of a quiet street, Grosvenor Road, because I think there is some of the “sea-side” light on this building although it’s further inland and Brynmill, where I live.
Nothing sums up my Gafnu Cymuned:Hollowed Community project more than the sight of The Cricketers public house now shut and boarded up. It is just across the road from the St Helens Rugby and Cricket ground where sport has been played for over 140 years. On 19 June 1928 the ground was the venue of a mile race, for Swansea Grammar School’s Sports Day, won by a teenage Dylan Thomas; he carried a newspaper photograph of his victory with him until his death. Seven years later, Swansea RFC defeated the New Zealand 11-3 at St Helen’s, becoming the first club side to beat the All Blacks.
A famous cricketer, Gary Sobers, once hit six sixes in a row, in one over, during a cricket match in the nearby St Helens cricket ground in 1968. The final ball of the six sixes supposedly sailed through the air and crashed through the window of the Cricketers pub. In later years this great sporting feat was commemorated with a cricket ball drawn in the window that the ball supposedly crashed through all those years ago.
Sadly, an important piece of local and international history, has been bulldozed by the march of Swansea University. Now this window is boarded up and like much local history rubbed out by the advancement of student houses (HMOs) and the student ghettoisation of Brynmill and Uplands. Its rather curious, that despite being surrounded by students in Bryn Road and King Edwards Road, that this pub was not a viable business. A rather telling piece of evidence against those who always claim that more students bring more money to the city. They didn’t bring enough money to this local business.
Recently, stories have appeared in the local press claiming that discarded needles have been found around the back of the pub. These claims have been fiercely rejected by locals who see the newspaper reports as fake news planted by the developers, in order to strengthen their case for another massive HMO. I don’t think Dylan Thomas would have approved of the passing of this historic pub.
Long before I came to Swansea in 1998, there used to be a corner shop and a post office, side by side on Marlborough Road. There were both there in 1986. There is a photo to prove it (see below). The Corner shop had gone by 1998. The building was completely renovated; the large side window on Bernard Street was blocked up, the upstairs windows made smaller, the front door was moved and the shop window removed and replaced with modern uPVC double glazing. The front of the building was pebble-dashed. The chimney was removed, presumably when the new roof was added.
I do remember the post office. It was still open when we moved to Waterloo Place in 2000 – I remember queuing to buy stamps and posted my Christmas parcels there. Soon after, the government decided that there were too many Post Offices, and although people said that the elderly would struggle to walk the half a mile to the Uplands, to pick up their pensions, it was closed in 2003.
The red pillar box remains. The only clue to the former identity of one of these nondescript houses. The other clue is the lack of a boundary wall at the front of the former shop. Just an apron of grey concrete. They are both student houses now. There is still a “for let” sign in the window of the former shop. They sit in a street which is well over 50% student houses.
I love Victorian tin chapels. Maybe it’s because a playgroup I went to as a child in Hereford was held in one. I think that one was painted dark green. It was near the racecourse.
This tin building is at the crest of the hill, on Rhyddings Park Road. The corrugated iron is painted cream. It is jammed in by the side of the much larger and grander Argyle and Rhyddings Park Presbyterian Church.
The tin chapel is a friendly and welcoming building. The painted blue door always seems to be open. Playgroups meet here. I often see people with small infants coming and going.
There is a banner hanging above the door advertising “English Corner” for visitors to come and practice their English. This Welsh church has clearly gone out of their way to welcome international students and immigrants. I knew nothing about this community until I looked at their website and discovered that the church has been led by two energetic and thoughtful overseas mission workers, Charles and Molly Chua ,from Singapore for the past 11 years.
English Corner was set up by Charles and Molly after they found two lost Chinese students wondering the streets of Swansea. Charles and Molly took the two students to a Chinese shop and then drove them home. Over a cup of tea, the students pleaded: ‘we need someone to help us with our English!’ So they did something. The church set up weekly English classes on Friday evenings, and “English Corner’ grew rapidly, from 9 to 29 Chinese students in 3 weeks. Now 50-60 students regularly attend. It has since grown to become an international community linked with the Universities and Language Schools in Swansea. This proactive and positive work has had many benefits for the local community, students and new residents as well for the church which has a diverse congregation of Welsh and Chinese, Asians, Europeans and Africans worshipers.
So this unassuming little tin building holds a strong and vibrant community. I like that.
People remember Edward VII. He is in History books and TV programmes. In Brynmill there is a road named after him. Kings Edward’s Road was once part of Gorse Lane, the narrow road that runs along side Patti Pavillion and St Helen’s Rugby and Cricket Ground that has been there since the 1870s. The street had its name changed in 1904, in honour of the new-ish king Edward VII, known to his family as Bertie.
On 20th July 1904, Bertie came to visit Swansea. He arrived in the royal yacht “The Victoria and Albert” and “cut the first sod” of the new King’s Dock named in his honour. Thousands turned out to see Bertie and his Danish wife, Alexandra, drive through the streets of Swansea in an open-topped carriage. They also traveled up and down on the Mumbles railway in a specially decorated carriage.
Ordinary people liked Bertie. He had the common touch. He had been Prince of Wales for many, many years before his mother, Queen Victoria, died in 1901. He had spent many of these years drinking, gambling and womanising, but when he became king, he proved to be a popular king.
When I first moved to Swansea in 1998 to do my teacher training course, I used to walk around the area, exploring. My friend bought a house at the top of Rhyddings Park Road. She later moved to Sketty and now rents the house out to a PhD student and his family. Rhyddings Park Road had very few student houses in 1998 many three or four. It’s all changed now. There are 40 students on Rhyddings Park Road.
King Edwards’s Road is over 52% students houses (that’s about 90 of them). It feels like more. Its a rather soulless street now. The large pub on the corner is closed. The grocers on the opposite side of the road is gone. The house in the painting isn’t very pretty. Covered in ugly pebble-dashing. I can’t remember if it had pebble-dash on it in 1998.
I remember going into the shop and admiring its wooden floors. It was light and airy. However, grief haunted that shop, like a heavy pall. I never forgot it. The old grocer sat, silently next to his till, starring into to space. There were not many vegetables in the shop but there were some green apples. On a piece of folded paper on the counter there was a colour photograph of a cheerful old lady wearing glasses. In wobbly old fashioned hand writing, next to the photograph was the statement “SMOKING KILLED MY LOVELY WIFE”.
It was heart-breaking. I didn’t know what to say to the grocer. So I just asked for a few apples. He put them in a brown paper bag and I paid for them. Later I saw that the notice had been placed in the window. Then the shop closed. I suppose the grocer died or went into a home. He didn’t look like he’d go into a home. Now, it is a characterless house. The shop front was changed, the windows were made smaller. Maybe, the pinkish pebble-dash was added to the house then. It’s a personal history lost.
I suppose that’s one of the distressing aspects of this transient community, no-one remembers. We are just here for a year. Passing Through. No point investing time or energy here. All is forgotten and something very important is lost. I don’t know what the grocer’s name was, but I still remember him.