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Coast cleared

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The Millennium Coastal Park at Llanelli in South Wales is an undoubted local success. But design compromises had to be made to meet the tight timescale and grant conditions

Arguably one of the greatest millennium achievements is one of the least well known, the Llanelli Millennium Coastal Park.

Mention Llanelli and people think rugby, steelworks and defunct docks - but not spectacular coastal landscape. Just four years ago the site of this new park was a mixture of rough pasture and industrial brownfields, riddled with railway tracks, punctuated by the occasional pithead, and covered by rubbish. It is remarkable that anyone in the local authority had the vision to restore such a wrecked landscape and 'give the coastline back to the people'.

Millennium Commission finance offered such an opportunity, but meant that the entire scheme had to be completed in less than three years. The timescale imposed put pressure on all involved, and forced planning and costing to be done at high speed.

The project's scale alone is astounding, encompassing over 20km of coastline from picturesque Pembrey Harbour in the west to the Loughor estuary, a nature site of international importance in the east. The cycle route along the new coastal path passes sand dunes, salt marshes and two Sites of Special Scientific Interest, with a Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) reserve at Penclawdd on the Loughor.

In late 1996 the local authority appointed landscape architect MacGregor Smith as design co-ordinator for the site overall. It was to review the masterplan devised by Land Use Consultants of Bristol as part of the initial millennium bid, and then to implement it over two years. At about the same time Cywaith Cymru. Artworks Wales was made art co-ordinator. The inclusion of artists from the outset has ensured a particularly sensitive appreciation of the site, as well as providing memorable individual features.

However, the massive civil engineering input necessary simply to make the site safe for public access proved very costly. Major works included the demolition of a power station, but dealing with the contaminated land and enormous dereliction came at the expense of the landscape architects and artists. An initial idea of splitting the park into 10 areas with a different artist working in each was cut back to commissioning just four artists overall.

The scheme also had to cope with a change of authority midway - from Llanelli to Carmarthenshire - which entailed retendering for the masterplan.

This, and the fact that extra funding was secured by breaking the project down into 18 elements, has fragmented its overall coherence. There are certainly moments where it seems as if the cycle path alone is holding it together. Yet the overall result is impressive.

Along the cycle path, Mike Fairfax has designed five waymarkers (see left). These elegant, stainless-steel obelisks rise almost reticently from the sweep of flat land, but serve their function of catching the eye by reflecting the flickering sunlight.

Towards the western end, leading into Pembrey Country Park, the landscape architect Wardell Armstrong has deftly accommodated the cycle path while consolidating the shifting dunes. It has also designed tough, site-specific furniture from railway sleepers, including seats tucked into sheltered niches - all highly appropriate on this stretch of wild shore directly exposed to the elements.

Moving eastwards, old Pembrey Harbour is a magical place.Once the scene of coal and iron shipping, it now lies silent, with powerful brown Pennant stone walls thrusting out into the sea.When the artist Lynne Bebb was appointed here the intention was to obliterate the old harbour structures by rebuilding them anew in black limestone. Her detailed photographic survey and analysis of the existing stonework led to a reversal of strategy, with restoration of the harbour walls in local stone instead.

The patterns created in the sandbanks around the end of the cobb are extraordinary, reminiscent both of fractals and of satellite photographs, and are continually being changed by tidal forces. Inspired by Bebb's study of flotsam marooned on the shore, Wardell Armstrong designed the surface treatment at the end of the pier, which was to have served as a moundlike plinth for a sculpture, her monument to industry and geology.

Funds ran out before the sculpture could be erected but she has nonetheless made a strong yet sensitive impact on this site.

Further on, the promontory at Pwll has probably witnessed the most dramatic change, with the demolition of the old power station and its replacement by new woodland; 'greening' on a really grand scale.

In fact the entire promontory has effectively been remodelled, in the form of an enormous earthwork incised with winding paths, designed by the artist Richard Harris.

Rising gradually from the shoreline, to which it then returns, it has already been likened to an Iron Age hill fort, a sign of its immediate acceptance.

The coastal path offers views out over the water to Gower or inland across the park to hills beyond. Intended as 'a place to feel openness, wind and light', it succeeds in drawing people out to the edge, instead of simply cutting across the promontory neck. More pragmatically, it also consolidates pulverised fuel ash left on site after the departure of the power station. The result therefore makes good sense in ecological terms, as well as being spectacular visually, yet it is so well integrated that it seems always to have been there.

At Llanelli, MacGregor Smith worked with Arup to create the park centre, a permanent show site. A new promenade along the front has seats and stylish landscaping to rival the waterfronts of Barcelona. At the North Dock, however, the workaday maritime character has been retained through an unobtrusive restoration of the old boatsheds. By contrast, at the nearby New Dock a comparable small harbour has been turned into a placeless marina.

Arriving finally at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, this was always intended to have the strongest artistic input. The centre was already well established, but a Millennium Wetland has now been added, exclusively for native and migratory bird species.At the initial stage of development, the artist Mick Petts worked with Land Use Consultants (LUC) of Bristol, the Millennium Park and Cywaith Cymru. Together they elaborated concepts (such as a series of imaginatively designed lookouts), from which a bid document was then compiled.

With the LUC masterplan for the site complete, work on detailed designs was a collaboration between Petts, plan implementation designer Chris Blandford Associates, Dr Geoff Proffitt from WWT and engineer Gordon Howe, seconded from sponsor Welsh Water. Howe invited the Pembroke-based practice Acanthus Holden to design the principal buildings, using a sustainable agenda.

The basic problem was how to let the public wander around a wildlife reserve without frightening off what they had come to see. Hence people are contained in 'corridors' behind bunds, whose landform treatment is driven by the imagery of 'ripples in the sand'. Earthworks rise up along the paths, with hides or screens through which the birds can be watched.

Announced by Petts' feather-shaped benches, the reworked entrance by Petts with Blandfords links Holden's new Discovery Building by a gently curving glazed walkway, apparently floating at the water level of one of the surrounding ponds. On emerging into the Millennium Wetland a sinuous path leads towards the dramatic Gateway Hide, which is accessed at first floor level across a 35m long, green oak bridge.

The hide overlooks a specially created lake, which, with its miniature 'fjords' indented all around to increase its perimeter for feeding birds, suggests the form of an outstretched hand. These man-made 'reefs', recycling concrete from the site to avoid landfill costs, have pockets underneath to encourage invertebrates to breed, thus providing the birds with an underwater food bank.

A green oak tree trunk provides the focus of the structure inside the hide, and block the view on entering from the bridge. Together, Petts and architect Julian Bishop of Acanthus Holden married the sloping land form of the site with their building, incorporating public cycle and footpaths, a narrow waterway and emergency access lanes, all at separate levels.

Petts drew his inspiration, appropriately, from the heron which is prominent here. The building's tapering form and wing-shaped splay fulfil the imagery, as does the two-tone black and grey cladding, recalling the heron's feathers. This effect was achieved using split oak shingles and riven boards, pegged in feather form. Partly patinated with ferrous oxide, the bright ochre of the shingles has quickly weathered to varying shades of grey.

Another feature of the wetland is the Swan Maze: a giant nest scaled up to human proportions, with four stone-clad concrete eggs to illustrate stages in the development of a cygnet.Water Vole City is child-sized, with a network of tunnels, mounds and live willow arches evoking a warren in a river bank.

Other artworks are destined for use by wildlife. Woven wicker and grass nests perched within live willow poles highlight reed warblers' presence on the site; these also create vertical landmarks on a flat site.

Whatever one's reservations, the Llanelli Coastal Park is proving thoroughly worthwhile. The throngs of people strolling along the promenade at Llanelli, or young families enjoying a cycle ride together through amazingly wild landscapes, provide proof enough of its value to local residents.

The result so far is a site with potential to keep on evolving, and the local authority does not yet see the park as finished.One key issue for the future, however, should be careful maintenance of the works which have already been completed.

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