To Cardiff, where I have never been before – for recording a TV program not that that’s relevant to this blog other than that the BBC paid for me to go to Cardiff and stay in a hotel overnight.
Well, the hotel isn’t actually in Cardiff but the Copthorne which is by a motorway junction in some bypass shedlands about ten miles west of the city. In the 1990s these places looked like the future – which is to say they looked like America in the 1970s – and we used to go on about “Edge Cities” and all that but now they already look as dated as a Nissen hut – and petrol prices drag us all back to the town centres and the railway station.
Anyway for a bit of only-just-post-industrial wasteland surrounded by motorways the Copthorne is actually quite nice outside (if not inside where it look just like almost every other medium-price chain hotel – and why are hotel bars almost universally so badly run? and why do they never have decent beer? ) but they have a little artificial lake or pond and a wooden terrace overlooking it where people go out to smoke but the wooden seats are in fact more comfortable than the ones in the bar (there must be a vast factory in Poland somewhere where they mass-produce those squeaky upholstered chairs that look comfy but in fact aren’t) and it was much cooler (why are hotels always so unpleasantly hot?) and despite the roar of the HGVs there are ducks and coots and swifts and house martins (which seem to be nesting in the eaves of the hotel) and at least one swallow and crows and thrushes and a heron and it was all rather nice.
And so actually to Cardiff itself the next day for a walkabout…
Driving in in a taxi I’ve never seen so many stadiums in one small city.
Cardiff will be nice when they’ve finished it. I’ve hardly ever seen such an amount of building going on in one city centre.
Actually that’s a little unfair – central Cardiff keeps a lot of its old industrial street plan. Its a sort of anti-Brum, the exact opposite of Birmingham. Over in Brum they demolished most of the old centre (supposedly the best preserved early centre of any large British town) and replaced it with a new one in Victorian red brick. Which probably looked modern and progressive at the time but we’d think was wonderfully ornate and Olde-Worlde if it still existed but it doesn’t because they tore it down in the 1950s and 1960s and replaced it with a new city centre on a new street plan based on the twin principles that if you don’t drive you don’t count and that the greatest architecture of the twentieth century was the Todt organisation’s bunkers on the Atlantic Wall. And now they have torn that down and they are replacing it with the kind of buildings that are funny shapes and clad in high-tech alloys that change colour depending on the mood of the occupants.
But Cardiff is mostly NOT like that. The old centre still makes sense. Not that its that old because Cardiff is mainly a late 19th century town and a lot of the apparently old buildings are largely Victorian fakes anyway – but well faked Victorian fakes . There is a High Street with the Castle at one end, the station at the other and the parish church and the market next to each other in the middle. There are side-streets and alleyways and arcades off it – lots of them. And lots of smaller passages as well – Cardiff is a city of twittens. You can usually get behind things or past things or walk through the middle of things. Its a pedestrian-friendly city centre, its “penetrable” in the jargon
And the main concourse of the Central Station looks lovely in the bright sun. It seems more like a bit of Trieste or Slovenia than Wales. Pity there isn’t a decent bar.
Walking south from Central Station towards the Bay area an odd mixture of new office buildings, rather grotty 1960s council flats and a little bit of industry. A huge Anglican church visible from miles away, a Greek Orthodox church, and a couple of mosques. But not a lot in the way of pubs or shops. Vaguely reminiscent of walking south from Oxford Road station in Manchester towards Moss Side though on a smaller scale and without the University.
This, apparently, was once the famous Tiger Bay. No longer lively as far as I can see, but still very black. Something I don’t ever remember seeing in England – a Job Centre with thirty or more men hanging around outside it smoking or drinking coffee from plastic cups and they are all black. Every single one. In any part of London there would be a mixture. I’d be surprised if I’m walking down a street where every single person is black (though I’ve seen no white people on this estate and few Asians) but I might well be walking down one where every unemployed man is black. That’s odd.
Down by the Bay and to Plas Roald Dahl. Which turns out to be not as silly a name as I thought because apparently he was baptised in the little church overlooking the Bay.
All this Assembly and Millennium (and Dr Who) redevelopment works. Its much better than I thought it would be. Well, I guess it works for Cardiff as a whole. Whether it works for the rest of Wales is a different problem. And it doesn’t seem to be working for the residents of Christina Street and Maria Street and Loudon Square, who are now just those grotty houses you see on the half-mile between the centre of the city and the new Bay. Butetown behind the front looks like a place to go through, not a place to go to.
I never realised how much Cardiff looked like the south of France. Well, it does when its 28 degrees in the shade and if you hold your camera just so…
Its hot. Too hot. I want a drink. Its bloody hot. And there are no real pubs on the posh bit of the bay – none that are open anyway. Just some Wetherspoon-alikes and some Eclectic International Brasseries. And Harry Ramsden’s. But I want a cheap pint of Brains and a glass of tap-water with ice in it, not an expensive cooking lager and fish and chips for eight quid a shout.
Back to the little streets between Mount Stuart Square and the bottom end of Bute Street and come across the Bute Dock Hotel. Which looks like a real pub. Its dark and cool inside. I’m the only customer until an elderly gentleman with a Muslim-sounding name and what may have once been an RAF blazer comes in and orders a pint of Guinness. I think I’m starting to like Cardiff.
Too hot to walk all the way back to town and when I come out of the pub there are about half a dozen beautiful women walking in the same direction so that’s obviously the way to go. It turns out they are going to Cardiff Dock station, so I get in the train. My fantasies of getting a ride from the Bay up to the Valleys is dashed when I find out that its just a single-track shuttle to Queen Street. (Or is it Queen’s Road) But its only £1.20 and the train does seem to be full of beautiful women so that’s not too bad.
Why are stations names “Queen’s” anything always in slightly the wrong place?
The beer in the Queen’s Vaults (whixh is a pub, not a railway station) is 40p a pint cheaper than in the City Arms but its at least 60p a pint less good. The QV seems to be the pub (there are one or two in most town centres) where rather dodgy-looking scrffy middle-aged or elderly blokes sit around nursing pints, drinking very slowly, smoking roll-ups, and making remarks about the women passing by.
Gross overgeneralisation: north of the main-line railway most black people in Cardiff have dark skin and African or West Indian accents. South of the railway they have medium-brown skin and Welsh accents.
Even grosser overgeneralisation: young women in Cardiff don’t dress up as much as they do in the industrial north of England. Compared with Manchester and especially Leeds (& slightly less to Newcastle) Cardiff runs more to jeans and T-shirts and less to heels and hairdos. Maybe that is why so many of them look so lovely. That or the hot sun and the Brains.
Us poor benighted straights have no natural sense of dar. But a pub called “King’s Cross” near a chip shop called “Dorothy’s” and “Colin’s Adult Bookshop” and clubs with the circle-arrow biologist’s male symbol instead of Os in their signs give me the impression that these days even Cardiff has a pink light district.
I have a bad habit of comparing cities. The centre is not on the scale of Manchester or Glasgow or even Newcastle (never mind London), more on the scale of Brighton or Sunderland though clearly more substantial than either. Something of the feeling of Leeds in the way there is (or was recently) industry close in to the centre and things become low-density and suburban very fast if you go in some directions. In the University area and civic centre north of the Castle, something of the feeling of Cambridge or parts of Brighton (parts of Birkenhead too, though we don’t talk about those) in the way some of the streets are laid out (though not in the architecture – Cardiff doesn’t have much of the Georgian about it – though much of the Georgian in Brighton is in fact fake Victorian Georgian because we hung on to the neoclassical stucco style of facade on brick houses for a generation after it had gone out of fashion everywhere else).
But its more of a Place than, say, Birmingham or Leeds (most places are more of a Place than Leeds). The civic furniture is on a different scale. Its a capital city now and they want you to know it. So there is the National Museum of This and the Welsh Centre for That and the town feels just a little self-important. Which is OK. Cities ought to boast a little, to show off, to make themselves out to be more significant than they are. Its part of what they are for. Its one of the reasons Glasgow is more fun than Edinburgh, Brighton than Southampton, Preston than Blackburn. They are show-off cities that think they are special, take themselves just a touch too seriously, that get a bit brash and in-your-face and sometimes fall over and make fools of themselves on a Friday night.
I think I like Cardiff.
Overheard in a pub in Cardiff:
Landlord: “I had that Simon Weston in here the other day…”
Young Visitor from London: “Oh is he from Cardiff then?”
Landlord: “Now, he lives in Cardiff now, but he’s not from round here. He’s a Taff”.
(Landlord to media types up from London to make some sort of advertising video)
Overheard in another pub in Cardiff:
“None of her children are mine. I put all my eggs in one basket.”
(Two men talking about “Rachel from Splott”)