Somewhere, hopefully in a light and airy room with a plentiful supply of tea and biscuits (the nice kind that have been dipped in thick mik chocolate and come in a commemorative tin that later will be used for storing alll sorts of useful things, most likely more biscuits), there sits a group of people who are responsible for Cardiff’s town planning, and my word do they deserve those posh biscuits, because in this era of cosmetic enhancement gone crazy, Cardiff’s facelift is putting all those trout pouts to shame.
It’s been 11 years since I’ve lived in Cardiff (by which I mean I spent somewhere between 3- 9 months of the year here and got paid to do something that somebody found useful). I left in May of 2004, with the vague intention of ‘going travelling for a year or two’. This is now the third time I’ve come home for a visit, which doesn’t quite fit in with my original plan of popping over for a fortnight every six months once I got settled. But then the original plan also involved independent wealth and owning a small, tropical island. To be fair, I first hatched the plan at the age of 5 so some goals were formed without a great deal of research into logistics.
The upside to not coming home very often is that when I am here I get to marvel at the huge changes that are being wrought to the once sleepy little capital where I grew up.
When I was 10, and allowed to go into town on the bus on my own for the first time (after going on a couple of practice runs with my sisters who rigorously tested my navigational knowlede of the city centre), ‘town’ consisted of 2 major streets – St Mary’s St and Queen St; a pedestrianised area that nobody thought of as a street (because it didn’t have cars on it obviously) called The Hayes; half a dozen arcades dating back to the 1800s and all the smaller streets that ran around these places. Geographically it was much bigger than that of course, but the interesting stuff (um, the shops and places you could waste time) was only in a few areas, all the rest of the space was taken up by offices, and businesses that a 10 year old doesn’t care about). If you were particularly daring you would venture out of town and walk a few hundred yards under the railway bridge to the delapidated old building that housed Jacob’s Market, a mecca for antiquing bargain hunters and indie teens searching for grungey T-shirts and multi-colored skirts adorned with fringe and teeny mirrors. I’ve still never been to Jacob’s market. Somehow it passed me by..like ET and Schindler’s list.
Today though, Cardiff city centre is a bustling, shiny, creature that may only take you 15 minutes to walk from one side to the other when it is the middle of the night and most things are shut (Cardiff is a civilised place that has 24 hours licensing laws), but during the day takes you three hours because there are so many stores, and restaurants and bars andd tattoo parlours and tea rooms and coffee shops and charming boutiques and knick knack places and galleries and jewellery studios, and all of them demand at least a 2 minute gaze in the window, if not a brief pitstop or a thorough investigation. Everything new is aesthetically pleasing and charming (although I am miffed that they took out the toilets in the Hayes which were practically a historic feature, and the mens’ cisterns were rumoured to have goldfish in them – it’s probably not true but since they are now gone and this can neither be confirmed nor denied, I’ll choose to believe it.
Meanwhile, the enormous swathe of public parkland that starts in the heart of the city at Cardiff Castle (It’s true! We have a castle, and a posh swanky one at that , Obama had dinner there, so …yeah, it’s wicked posh innit) and rolls through the metropolis following the river Taff all the way to – well now that I think about it and look at it on a google map, the green belt actually goes all the way out into proper countryside – has also received a face lift. Where there used to be rough dirt tracks worn away by people persistently using the fields as a short cut, there are now tree lined, softly graveled paths. What was once a lonely stretch of river bank, empty save for litter and suspicious characters up to no good (my best freind and I spent every day down there), is now an urban paradise for joggers, cyclists and fishermen (was really surprised by the fishing, we caught an eel once in the river when I was very, very, very small, it died from the shock of being in non-polluted water. Poor Wiggles.) The smallest grass golf course in Wales that was only open for public use 3 months of the year and attracted boys who practised their drives at the windows of the school over the road is now a delightful meadow of tall summer grasses and occasional glimpses of picturesque pathways (again for joggers, bloody fit people).
The real triumph though is Cardiff Bay. Cardiff Bay used to be known simply as The Docks, and it was always said in an ominous tone of voice. The phrase “I went down the docks last night” generally received the same level of attention as “I dug up old Witch Crawley’s bones last night and put them in the cauldron with a pint of holy water and gin”.
Cardiff was once a thriving port trading in iron, coal and grain, and it still is a working port, but nowhere near the size it used to be (the harbour side measured 11km in length at one point). During the 1900s wave after wave of economic crap hit, and the docks gained a notorious reputation for being a dangerous place to be, not helped by the fact that sailors in the early part of the century had quite often taken to the sea to escape retribution for a string of crimes and misdemeanours. By the time I was around it was just depressing, there was a permanently grey, eerie cloud over the place. Imagine driving through a ghost town on a wet, cold day, and then realizing that the sign in the dark, smashed windows of the shop says open, and the dark shadows under a stark tree are actually people waiting in a trance for a bus. There are children playing the street, but there are only three of them in the entire street, and the laughter sounds jarringly loud and out of place, leading you to wonder – unfairly – just how innocent is that laughter. The answer of course is that children’s laughter is never innocent because the stuff they find funny is the stuff that they know would not meet with mum and dad’s approval!
In the late 1990s though something changed, funding started to appear and a plan to gentrify the area was born. What started as a multi-screen cinema and bowling alley complex attracting people from the rest of the city, has now turned into a major renovation, that spans several kilometres along the waterfront.
Gorgeous sweeping architecture that perfectly encapsulates the nautical history of Cardiff as buildings emulate the prows of ships, the roll of a hull and the curved shape of a sail catching the wind. The largest structures combine local stone with enromous windows so everywhere you go you are bathed in light, and a huge dollop of Welsh pride and history. There is a plethora of gastropubs to be found along the wooden decking that skirts the water, and every effort has been made to make the Bay family friendly, full of fun activities for kids, and crowned off by our favourite thing as always – a pretty walkway. If you have the time you can stroll all around the bay, across the barrage and into Penarth…. non Cardiff dwellers, take a look at a map, it’s very impressive. I cycled it last weekend on a sunny day (the only sunny day in the last two weeks) whihc was marvellous because it was FLAT, very important, and I got to be one of those lucky ladies that cycles joyously along on a mild summer’s day. (You know those ladies – they live in ‘quarters’, in whihc their are no rooms, only chambers. They always have fresh flowers, and tea in a pot with a cup and saucer. They have a wardrobe full of flattering, floaty clothing, and are never hampered by anything heavier than a small clutch purse and a jaunty hat.)
Those are the just the big changes, I could go on for pages about how everywhere you look there’s upgraded attractive housing, or well thought out piazzas and green spaces. Even the need for a good skate park has been recognised. And there are still more improvements coming, this week one of the grottier parts of Cardiff still standing, is about to be deomlished and revamped so that when people arrive in the capital city and get off the train they’ll be walking into a beautiful terrace against the backdrop of the glorious Millenium Stadium (biased, me?) as opposed to a rundown grey concrete mush.
So yes, congratulations you anonymous group of people in charge of making Cardiff look nice, have another cup of tea and a posh biscuit – you deserve it.