When you reach Whitchurch Common from the south you expect
to find a green lung surrounded by cottages; something old with oaks
at its fringes and a maypole; but this is Wales and this is Cardiff
so there's nothing like that. The Common - Gwaun Treoda - is a badly-formed
egg shape, criss-crossed by roads and dotted with outbuildings, including
an upholster's works, and on a rise on the north east side, Ararat,
a Baptist chapel. There's no circuit, no boundary dog amble or path
for walkers or runners which doesn't make itself cross the blistering
A4054 road to Merthyr at least twice.
The common has been here since the times of the ancient mediaeval
manors when Whitchurch was entirely a village and Cardiff a town miles
away across Mynydd Bychan, the Great Heath. In the late twentieth
century John Tripp lived here, with his blacksmith father, in a bungalow
to the back of Ararat. You'd meet him, occasionally, wearing a suede
jacket that he'd lifted from an admirer, taking his notebook and his
browsing self to the Plough or the Malsters where he'd scratch a draft
or two then lose himself in the fog of beer that generally filled
his afternoons. Tripp was a fervent Nationalist and a long-term supporter
of the Welsh deciding their own destiny on their side of Offa's Dyke.
His father, however, took a different view. On days when I went to
the bungalow to collect JT's contributions for my literary journal,
Second Aeon (he wrote the literary reviews) I would often be
confronted with the incongruity of Coronation plates displayed across
the living room wall and portraits of Her Majesty in small frames
in the hall. The Bungalow resembled the bedsit in Tony Hancock's Sunday
Afternoon. A fifties style disarray of strewn newspapers, a cigarette
smouldering in heavy glass ashtray, socks in the armchairs, a half-drunk
bottle of Sandyman's Port on the mantle-shelf, a cross-word, incomplete,
on the table. On one famous occasion - Empire Day, Commonwealth Day,
the Queen's Birthday, something like that - Paul Tripp, retired, had
hoisted the Union Jack on a small flagpole rigged in the Bungalow's
front garden. He was an unbending traditionalist. JT stoically stood
grimacing in the lounge.
Tripp was a celebrator of Cardiff. His small book from the early
seventies, Bute Park and other Poems, had verse set in various
Cardiff locations with photos of the poet visiting the same spots
to illustrate the text. The Castle, the Station, the nightclubs, the
city centre's pubs are all here. But there's little about Whitchurch.
A short poem about a funeral at Pantmawr and a piece about the library.
But nothing closer to home.
At the west end of the Common where the Whitchurch Brook takes a
right turn before vanishing south the locals once kept pigs. Whitchurch
water got so polluted that council inspectors were sent to confiscate
the offending animals. Whenever they showed, however, the sties were
always empty. No, no pigs here. But you could smell them. Hogs were
hidden under beds, sows were camouflaged with rugs. A bunch were herded
into the chapel vestry where god protected their rights. The vicar
ate bacon for months.
When JT died in 1986 - suddenly, young, mid-fifties and still writing
like fury - a local group proposed and erected a memorial bench. It
sat on the path to the West of Ararat, a wooden affair with an engraved
plaque. JT, Whitchurch's greatest bard, could just as well have been
a rose grower or a scout master. Whitchurch has a bookshop now, cross
the Brook and head up Merthyr Road, past what used to be known as
Millward's Terrace (now 87-111 Merthyr Road), beyond the Tabernacle
Presbyterian Church and into the Lower Village. Can you buy John Tripp's
books there? What do you think?
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