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Real Cardiff #2
The Canna
Billy Banks
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Llys TalyBont



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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 telling.

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.

Poncanna Houses

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 mortar.


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.

Canna Map

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 a trickle.


Grahame finds no Canna water
Grahame Davies 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.


Pontcanna cafe life
Pontcanna cafe life

Peter Finch


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