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Growing Up in the Parish of Caerau with Ely

By Delia Jay

I grew up in this area in the fifties and sixties, and St. Mary’s church and the ancient hill fort were the focus for many of my childhood and early teenage activities. I attended church and Sunday school classes at St. Mary’s and the Caerau Infant School. On special occasions, for example on Mothering Sundays, the children and their parents would gather on the hill fort for the service. Afterwards, posies, made up of spring flowers and foliage, which had been gathered earlier by older children from the surrounding woods and fields, were presented to our mothers. My first communion service following Confirmation at the Church of the Resurrection on Grand Avenue was at St. Mary's.

Like most of my peers I spent many happy hours roaming the unspoilt local countryside, particularly the Caerau Woods and Spillers and Leckwith ridges which encircle St. Mary’s. However far I and friends wandered, St. Mary’s wonderful, iconic West Tower with its two small crosses, which could be seen from the hills and ridges, acted as a beacon, guiding us all safely back.

We liked to stand on top of the medieval castle ring work and look out across the whole of Cardiff, taking in the ‘fairy-tale’ red castle, Castell Coch, which can be seen standing among the trees at Tongwynlais.

One of our favourite walks was to cut through the farmer’s field, adjacent to St. Mary’s church, avoiding the cows (and the farmer!), through a shallow gorge or gulley which in season was carpeted and scented with primroses and bluebells, and on to Cwt-yr-ala Park, past the hospital for ‘old soldiers’, to whom we would wave. Sometimes, we would walk through the park all the way to Dinas, catching the bus back if we had money for the bus fare.

As young children I and my peers looked forward to the Whit-Monday (Whitsun) Treat. I recall one in particular, when, on a lovely warm and sunny day in late spring dozens of open-top lorries arrived at St. Timothy’s church to take the children to a large field, which was full of buttercups, somewhere out along the Barry Road. On the journey standing in our Lorries we children waved to the people, several hundred and more who had come out of their homes to watch the procession of Lorries carrying us, slowly making their way along the old A48. More people were sitting on the walls of the Culverhouse Public House and on the grassy banks of the Culverhouse Cross near the Barry turn-off, which was beautiful open countryside before the trading estate was built.

When we arrived we were greeted with the sight of long trestle tables, tantalisingly sagging under the weight of enormous slabs of fruit cake, piles of tomato and fish paste sandwiches, jellies, blancmanges and trifles, numerous bottles of brightly coloured ‘pop', and also several large tea urns for the thirsty adults who had worked so hard to make the day special for the children.

After tea there were games to be played and prizes to be won. Before the Lorries took us back home, small gifts of sweets and toys were distributed to each child. I received a wooden spinning top. Happy days indeed.

I remember too I was sometimes taken by my grandmother, Mrs. Quick, to St. David's church on the main road. I particularly liked Harvest Festival services when the church was festooned with huge displays of fruit and vegetables and flowers of the season.

Great piles of golden sweet corns, large cabbages and every root vegetable imaginable, plus rosy apples, hedgerow berries, and other fruits were piled up at the front of the congregation. All the produce was fresh; few tins back then, and donated from parishioners and the many local farms and market garden nurseries. After the service everything was distributed around the parish to those most in need.

When St. Timothy’s church-cum-hall was built in Heol Pennar it was used for a variety of activities, including a youth club. The person responsible for the youth club was a young priest who came to live and preach in Caerau. He was known to all as Father Jones. The youth club was attended by children and teenagers from the estate and village and became a great success with the young of the parish, but was not always approved of by older parishioners, my grandmother included.

When I moved away from Cardiff to study and work, St. Mary's was never far from my thoughts and when my friend Rosemary wrote to say St. Mary's was to be pulled down to make way for housing, we knew we had to do something. Rosemary and I founded the Friends of St. Mary's followed by twenty and more years of campaigning to stop its destruction. Our website charts our journey, successes and failures. The loss of so many precious artefacts, for example the 13th Century Sutton Font, left unprotected to the elements and vandals, still causes great sadness. But, a fragile outline of the church still stands, and remains very recognisably a fine medieval church.

Vandalism continues and it is concerning that one day there may be nothing left to show St. Mary's ever existed. We still, however, remain confident/hopeful that Powers will undertake repairs as and when, so that this striking reminder of St. Mary's church and its centuries of local history will not be lost. Caerau and Ely are culturally richer because of St. Mary's symbolic presence.

Delia Jay
The Friends of St. Mary’s at Caerau with Ely