By Tim Cooke:
On my fourteenth birthday, I was presented with a new bike, complete with front-fork suspension, and the freedom it brought saw a change in my attitude to rules and regulations, borders and boundaries: they became less concrete. As such, the local edgelands, many of which were totally off-limits – both geographically and by parental decree – became my choice stomping grounds. In tow with the more feral and exciting of my friends, I tore through sun-baked industrial estates, ploughed headfirst into monastic woods and derelict graveyards, took up with rogue youths hanging out in car parks beneath brutalist recreation centres and explored the grounds of water treatment plants hidden on the salty flanks of wild coastal scrublands.
One of the first of these potent and dynamic – but often, at a glance, unremarkable – landscapes that demanded our attention was the old POW camp at Island Farm. A close friend of mine, who lived around the corner and introduced me to Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, second-wave punk music and Camel cigarettes, had visited with an older schoolmate and returned with beguiling tales of BMX tracks, booze and beautiful girls. It was a daunting prospect, particularly because this strange zone had attached to it many dark and mysterious mythologies that served to keep us clear – not least those concerning satanic rituals and predatory criminals. I’d lived less than half a mile from the site for fourteen years but had never before set foot on its hallowed ground. It was daunting, yes, but compelling, too.
It was midsummer and the sun was hot and high in the sky when the boys called at my door. We’d crossed the large, somewhat monstrous, graffitied sewage pipe in the field behind my house – over the River Ogmore and into Bluebells Woods – every day for the previous week and we needed somewhere new to explore and claim as our own. I fetched my bike from the padlocked shed in the back garden and we set off in single file. The road emanated that warm stench of scorched tarmac, released by a light morning shower that had failed to clear the thick humidity, and the beech trees sizzled with birdsong; we waved to our smiling neighbours, who had known two of us since birth, as we passed.
We rounded a blind bend at reckless speed, forcing the still air into a gentle flurry, and arrived at a treacherous junction that bled onto the A48, a fairly busy dual carriageway separating the town’s southern-most suburb from its surrounding countryside. This is still the point at which the suburban realm leaks into rural territory. The cars whooshed by one after another – red, yellow, black and blue – and we pedalled across to an inlet from where we could join a narrow track into a profusion of slim tress and overgrown shrubbery. A sign warned that trespassers would be prosecuted; we all turned our heads, hocked back our best phlegm and spat at it with embarrassing vigour.
I recall the journey up until this point with surprising clarity, but the next portion has slipped entirely from my mind, the topography obscured by a dark mist that simply won’t shift. I’ve created the right conditions: I’m sat in front of a window at the top of a hill, looking out onto the Black Mountains, the only noise is that of the tits, chaffinches and siskins pecking at the birdfeeder in the garden. I have a copy of an article I recently wrote, detailing some of the camp’s many fragmented histories via a walk I undertook earlier this year – in search of the one remaining hut that contained the prisoners – but still the memory refuses to take any discernible form. I do, however, remember that incomparable feeling of anticipation, a kind of excitement only teenagers on the cusp of something brand new can feel.
We must have weaved our way around the labyrinthine system of footpaths, tearing clouds of dust from the dry earth with our wheels, perhaps stopping momentarily to fill our mouths with sour blackberries, before emerging onto a wide expanse of grey land with no apparent purpose. When I revisited this spot a few months ago, it gave off an eerie sense of transition, as if something was happening. There were wooden stumps hammered into the soil, with rubber boots placed on top to serve as weird markers of some kind. Drinks cans hung from painted trees. Felled wood peppered the terrain and two sets of tattered blue overalls were cast nonchalantly over a stump, an empty bottle of homemade wine or cider resting in the crook of a nearby branch. It was ugly and beautiful, the same but different.
I imagine as youngsters we would have dragged our bikes in rapid, imperfect circles around this nondescript plot of pallid ground, unaware that we were riding on rubble formed during the destruction of nineteen of the twenty units that once constituted the POW camp; the debris was supposed to extend a runway at Cardiff Airport, but it was scattered instead to level the uneven surface. Grass has since grown over it in wild tufts that suit the landscape like an untamed hairstyle.
This is where it comes back to me: we dismounted under a cover of oak-tree foliage and wheeled our bikes along yet another passage surrounded by tight knots of bracken and bramble. First from below and then suddenly above the chirruping birdsong came the aggressive conversation and trigger-happy laughter of adolescents eager to prove something and impress, some relishing the challenge. We swept clear the final twigs and leaves and arrived at a sort of amphitheatre – a dome cut into the topsoil and layered with improvised obstacles to make a gnarly cycle track. Around its circumference were strewn three or four groups of boys and girls, smoking, drinking and flirting.
The air surrounding this congregation was hot and hormonal and laced with pollen. I scanned the faces for any I knew and spotted that of a lad I’d met in the schoolyard after hours, described to me by a friend as one of the best skaters in town. Today he was on a BMX, throwing himself at the final ramp, which was composed of a dented white washing machine turned on its side and a heavy layer of turf thrown over the top. He skidded to a halt at the foot of the banking we were descending and raised his chin: “Alright, boys?” We nodded in return and the chatter that had suddenly dissipated resumed.
For the next half-hour or so we sat alone about five metres from three girls I recognised from the year above. I knew one of them as mouthy and popular, prone to hurling abuse at unsuspecting victims she passed on the path between lessons, while the other two were, as far as I was concerned, beautiful and unobtainable. It was about this age that something chemical had rendered me incapable of talking to anyone I found attractive. The idea of spending any length of time in the company of good-looking older girls was totally outrageous, but before I knew it we were in a circle, sharing Super King cigarettes and swallowing gulps of cheap cider from a plastic flagon. I hardly said a word, which didn’t matter, because they carried me along with their jokes and small talk; it was bliss.
The rest of that first visit remains mainly as a kind of montage, or mosaic. I recall my longing for the brown-haired girl with faint freckles and braces on her teeth. The disproportionate ache I felt then makes me think now of the artwork produced by the prisoners once held at the camp: images of scantily-clad women – wives and girlfriends left behind, perhaps never to be seen again other than as memory-traces scratched into prefabricated concrete. I recollect, too, tumbling from the top of the repurposed washing machine, the pain that dug into my groin on impact and crawled into my stomach. Then there were the feelings of belonging and community that would stick with me right through my years on the darker edges of town.
Finally, we arrived at the far end of the zone and smoked in the shade of Hut 9, from which seventy prisoners escaped in November 1945 by tunnelling into an adjacent field. All of them were recaptured and later dispersed around the world, but I’ve no doubt their ghosts returned from wherever they perished – this landscape needs them somehow. The structure itself, its weathered brickwork and boarded-up windows, meant little to me then – I would even scrawl my name on the wall, adding inadvertently to the tangible palimpsest this site also requires. It feels now, divorced from any official history, like a monument to a significant moment in my life. Strangely, I can’t recall a single journey back from Island Farm, only getting there, staying awhile and, eventually, moving on.
About the author:
Tim Cooke is a teacher and freelance journalist. He writes about film, literature and place for various publications, including the Guardian, Little White Lies, the Quietus, Ernest Journal, the Nightwatchman and the Hackney Citizen. His creative work has appeared in the Lampeter Review, Drain Magazine, Foxhole Magazine, Stepz, Particulations and Litro Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @cooketim2