A pin-eyed zoom-head in a check shirt driving a McNiff van takes
the polish from the back of my left shoe. I'm turning off Tyndall
Street towards the new Lloyd George Avenue. It's sheeting rain, a
grey slash coming up the boulevard from the south. The wind is slamming
the velcro of my anorak collar into my reddening face. Cardiff weather.
I round the corner by Edward England Ltd - 1842 Potato Merchants
for 150 years - flogging bagged maris piper from their stone built
warehouse. Their car park is marked out in new white stripes to be
sold to city centre day shoppers. The site is placed well enough.
It's at the interface between the bay and the town, the barrier the
planners want to see dissolve like a set of A&E stitches. Nothing
is completely finished when I visit. Dug up tarmac, patched pavement,
loose brick, sand, JCBs doing 40 down the dual carriage way, guys
in hard hats. But when it's done it'll flow like an airport runway
directly to Pier Head Building, that Big Ben symbol of Wales' parliament,
red brick focus of the nation - clock, history, weather vane, future
- all in one.
The Avenue runs parallel to the site of the former Bute West Dock
- the first great break for maritime fortune made by the second Marquis
of Bute in around 1839. This is where Cardiff first began to stretch
its economic muscle. Exporting Dowlais iron from the town quay in
Westgate Street wasn't enough. How could it be? King coal was arriving.
Like a nineteenth century Bill Gates the Marquis made his early move,
established the operating system, and took over the city. Docks and
the land they're dug into. Own both and you control the world.
When the second Marquis got to it, the land here - the great East
Moors - was nothing but salt marsh, fog and sinking mud. "A direful
swamp over which the spring tides flowed, leaving dangerous dykes,
swamps and gullies" (Wm Rees - Cardiff - A History of the City)
. Everything south of the end of present day St Mary Street was
open field. Cows grazed and were brought to be milked roughly where
the Mill Lane sex shop currently stands. Land drains went in, a sea
wall was erected, a deep cut made out to the Bristol Channel through
the silky, clinging mud. The godwit, the sandpiper, the plover moved
south. Give them another 160 years and they'd be moved again.
As the industrial revolution roared through the western world Cardiff's
time arrived. On the back of iron and steel coal exports rose exponentially.
New docks went in - bigger, better, deeper - Bute East Dock, Roath
Dock, Roath Basin, Queen Alexandra. Shipowners set up shop. By 1880
the city was host to more than 90 companies including Blue Jacket,
White Jacket, Evan-Thomas Radcliffe, the Cardiff Steam Navigation
Company and John Cory. Local population exploded. Cheap workers terraced
housing spread out from the city centre like a glowing stain.
But revolutions fade, and in Cardiff today, as far as heavy industry
goes, the paleness is palpable. The Bute West Dock is filled-in and
covered with brick and glass apartments. No gardens, no sheds, no
place to store your muddy boots. £250,000 for three rooms of
ash, chrome, multi-sink and panoramic view. Rigarossa, Atlantic Wharf,
Mallards Reach, Hightower, Adventurers Quay, Millennium Waterfront,
Scott Harbour. Wonderfully pronounceable names, saleable as addresses
to the never-Welsh, non-Welsh and the anti-Welsh and with hardly a
lexical connection to the land they occupy between them. The dock
feeder goes through here. Like a canal through a wet Venice. Beautiful,
impractical, its original purpose gone forever.
When the idea for the great link between the Bay development and
the city was first mooted by Cardiff Bay Development Corporation the
connecting highway was to be called Bute Avenue. It would have a hi-tech
tramway running parallel to it. The old Taff Vale rail link between
Queen Street Station and Bute Road was to be no more. But money and
politics intervened. The rail link - frequent, cheap and usually empty
- terminates at the renamed Cardiff Bay station. It's separated from
Lloyd George Avenue by heavy urban planting and a barbed wire intruder
fence. On the far side is the real Bute Town. Does the fence protect
the residents there from death by diesel two-car? Or does it just
keep them out? The City and County of Cardiff - CBDC's successors
- gave the Avenue its new name. Lloyd George - Welsh, proud, redolent
of high point history and achievement. At the opening ceremony the
Labour council failed to invite a single Liberal. This was politics.
Lloyd George would have understood.
Through the unending rain I go down it. Leaves. Hoardings painted
by local schools, you have to keep the community happy. Graffiti already
on the Letton underpass. No Macdonald's wrappers. Lots of street furniture.
Bunch of joggers in streaming kit. At the bottom is a chrome tower
and fountain telling us that this really is the future. Water cascades
across its surface. This is Wales, after all. There's a gull parked
to the top