Real Cardiff

the new symbol of Cardiff's power - the Pier Head Building

Read about

Real Cardiff #1
Bute Street
Charles Street
City Road
Flat Holm
The Four Elms
The Garth
Gorsedd Gardens
Hadfield Road
Lloyd George Ave
Mount Stuart Square
Newport Road


The Parks of Roath
The Pearl
Ty Draw


Womanby St.

What else?

Real Cardiff #2
The Canna
Billy Banks
Ely Fields
Llys TalyBont


Real Cardiff #3
Now the Boom
Has Bust


Leckwith Bridge

What's in the Book

Real Cardiff Extra

Cardiff Poets Map
Cardiff City Map
Cardiff, New York
Shots of the Bay
and the City

More Scenes

Cardiff Fictions and


What the Critics

Real Cardiff

Hamadryad Park
The Bay
St David's Hall
The Museum
The City
Check Your Accent
Ffynnon Denis

Big Book of

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to site map


Native Cardiffian Peter Finch's view of some of the dramatic changes going on in his city. Is the city all drink and glass? Who needs it? What chances are there for the capital of Wales in the twenty first century? Is Cardiff now a Celtic Faliraki or Ag Nik? In the city that never sleeps - 24-hour supermarkets, 24-hour burger bars, 24-hour clubs is there room for culture? Is this Independent Tropical Wales or a manufactured aberration? Do read on.


Somewhere in the middle of the nineteen-nineties in one of those vox pop polls beloved of the tabloids, Cardiff got itself voted as 'most desirable destination' in the UK or something like that. "Cardiff is the new rock and roll", remarked one chubby-faced fresher from the East Midlands, displaying that innovative turn of phrase that only the English possess. "It's the place where it all happens." The description has stuck.

This is not a Welsh perception, naturally, far from it. For most of the Welsh population Cardiff remains a centre for permanent suspicion. It is regarded as too English, too distant, too flash, too fast, too large and far too anti-Cymraeg for many. Half of its population still think they live in the West Country. The rest don't care. Nevertheless, the excitement of being one of the newest of European capitals hangs light in the air. All you have to do is stand in the middle of Queen Street and look at the place. Something is going on - and going on at a considerable rate. But we're not quite sure what it is, are we, Mrs Jones?

Cardiff is a post-industrial city. There was a time - one which many who live here now can still remember - when the place stank permanently of coal, fume and ash. The vast East Moors steel works at its centre turned the air dark. Most of the south Wales valleys' coal output clanked its way through the city's heart to leave through its port. Cardiff was a place of smog and dark sunrises. But all that has gone. Its residue flattened and built on. The stonework has been washed and the streets are full of trees. Cardiff is now a city of call-centres, leasing agents, insurance companies, utility providers, transport undertakings, media hqs, plc head offices, government centres, banks and building societies. Hardly anyone gets their hands dirty. There are lots of suits and cell-phones. It is a metropolis. These are rare in Wales.

Cardiff has been the Welsh capital since 1955 when it saw off Wrexham, Aberystwyth and a few other pale pretenders. It is also the site of the National Assembly despite the population overwhelmingly voting against having one in 1998. This piece of disingenuousness is shrugged off by many locals who have now embraced Welshness totally, rather in the style of Shirley Bassey, and can be observed flying the Ddraig Goch from the back of their taxis and sticking croeso on their shop front doors. Wales' new nation status has given Cardiffians an alternative big brother to next door England. Now there is also Europe. The English may be reluctant these days to say who they are but we, almost xenophobically, are not. Our sense of identity is vivid. We wear it well.

Nonetheless Cardiff does not feel a very Welsh place despite the bilingual street signs and the willingness of the Halifax Building society to take your money from you yn Gymraeg. The city is overtly multi-cultural with, for Wales, a large percentage of Asians, afro-Caribbeans and significant enclaves from Somalia and Yemen. You can go out at night and listen to bhanghra music and there are cinemas that show nothing but Asian films. The University attracts Arabs and Iranians like a magnet and the centre streets can be full of dark, well dressed students with chador-clad women in tow. You can take a stroll down Queen Street of a Saturday and in quick succession be converted by charismatic Methodists, Moonies, Hare Krishnas and evangelical Muslims. Against this background it is difficult to believe that Cardiff is actually home to more Welsh speakers than anywhere in Gwynedd. When you leave home for the bright lights in Wales you don't go to Aberystwyth or Swansea, you come here.

Simple urban redevelopment, however, is not new nor in any way unique to the Welsh capital. Both Swansea and Merthyr have been completely rebuilt and in Merthyr's case so well that the past there is now extremely hard to find. What is different in Cardiff is the combination of imagination and scale. Twenty years ago, well before identity took over as a driving force and the city slumbered with an old-fashioned museum, shows at the Sherman Theatre and films & exhibitions at an old school converted into art centre, the decision was taken. The money was found. One of Europe's largest inner-city regeneration projects was born.

St David's Hall, a genuine concert hall with a working acoustic shell, was erected opposite the old central library (later to become the short-lived Centre For The Visual Arts and now a visitor centre and on target to become the City's museum); the city centre was comprehensively pedestrianised and kitted out with the best shopping malls east of New York; and the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was brought into being. This often controversial quango - now wound up, its work completed, its powers gone back to Cardiff County Council - was given £2.5 billion pounds to redo what looks to the casual observer like the entire south of the City. The marketeers took over. What was the Docks became Cardiff Bay. This was much to the annoyance of locals who continue to call the place what they always have - Butetown.

bay apartments
New apartments
cream and glass
all facing the sea

£350,000 waterside penthouses have gone up in places redesignated with marketable names like Adventurers Quay, the Sand Wharf, Sovereign Quay, and Rigarossa. A five-star hotel has been built on the waterfront (like the Hall also named St David's to capitalise on the reputation of a saint who never actually came here). A new grand boulevard - Lloyd George Avenue - has gone in behind the railway along which traffic now sweeps from the glittering city centre to the red brick Pier Head and the glories of the all-glass transparency of the Senedd - the National Assembly debating chamber. This is a new parliament for Wales with space and sweep and steps to the sea. The Wales Millennium Centre - Jonathan Adam's splendid slate and heritage coast concert hall, opera house, and international arts complex - stands the Senedd's north. Like a vast helmet it dominates everything. The WMC houses, among others, the Welsh National Opera, Touch Trust, Ty Cerdd,The Urdd, Diversions Dance, The Academi and HiJinx Theatre. It has a text composed by poet Gwyneth Lewis across its front formed from windows 15 feet high celebrating our literary present. The area is thick with corporate new millennium headquarters. Glass, light, style. And there is copious supply of cafes, bars, gourmet-class restaurants, galleries, and open air coliseums. People flock. The concept works.


poster players
Poster advertizing Rizla on Queen Street Station

Real Cardiff Three cover

Real Cardiff Two

Real Cardiff - Seren

Real Cardiff
#1 published by
Seren Books
ISBN 1-85411
-385-2 - £9.95

#2 - The Greater
ISBN 1-85411
-384-4 - £9.99

#3 - The Changing

Seren. £9.99

purchase via

Big Book
of Cardiff

edited by
Peter Finch
& Grahame Davies
Seren Books
ISBN 185411
- 3984; £9.99

Seren Books
57 Nolton Street,
CF31 3AE
Wales, UK
Tel: 01656 663018
Fax: 01656 649226

What's in the
Real Cardiff books?
Real Cardiff #1 &
Real Cardiff #2

some Real
Cardiff extras
at the BBC

& corrections






cardiff general sags

sections from this site
covering the Kardomah,
Roath Park Lake, The
Lambies, and Elm Street
appear in issue #148
of Planet -
The Welsh Internationalist
(PO Box
44, Aberystwyth,
Ceredigion SY23 3ZZ)
under the title
Cardiff Mix.

All this is draped around the flats of Loudon Square and the tenements of Angelina Street. Take a walk up Bute Street. The wall retaining the last remnant of the Taff Vale Railway into the Bay has been chipped clean. The large white-letter and very legible graffiti once painted there and offering a welcome to INDEPENDENT TROPICAL WALES is now no more than dust. Beyond it are high-rises, domes and minarets. Under the shutters of the Beirut-battered shops are handbills which announce bands at The Packet and purifying Islamic lectures at the Alice Street mosque. The streets here have the highest rate of car crime anywhere in the city. Do the new disparate communities get on with each other? They pass each other like ships in the night.

Cardiff has been attracting change like a rolling snowball attracts snow. Unlike Dublin or Edinburgh it has little long history to hold it down. Ask what makes the City so exciting and the response will be unhesitating. You can drink here. But you can do that anywhere. Ah, but not with such variety, in such style, with such raging music and for such a continuous swath of time. Cardiff is the city that never sleeps. 24-hour supermarkets, 24-hour burger bars, 24-hour clubs. The new bands that have made Wales so famous world-wide may not originate from Cardiff but they live and play here now. This is the land of shirts outside your trousers and studs in your nose. Hardly a week passes without a new café-bar or chrome, minimalist drinkery starting up. Most are vast by traditional standards. The Wetherspoons Prince of Wales, built on the site of old theatre of the same name, is the largest in Wales with space for a thousand drinkers. It is also the cheapest which has set off a welcome if very localised price war. At the height of the rush, when the place first opened and you couldn't get served for the crush, there was allegedly a chalked sign behind the bar reading "if you want to complain to the manager he's in Mulligans over the road". The Slurping Toad, Scotts, Henrys, Bar Med, Ha-Has, Bar Cuba, Amigos, Stamps, The Pen and Wig are some of the latter-day arrivals. Count them. None are relabelled traditional public houses. All are brand new ventures. The city's drinking provision climbs daily. On a recent look the Council's web site recorded 236 pubs, 293 off-licences and 102 clubs. Not bad for a city whose centre was once known as Temperance Town.

The culture is driven by drink. The Millennium Stadium without a doubt a world standard attraction with its Thunderbirds Are Go sliding roof and unmistakable corner towers is encircled by bars equipped with machines that deliver half a dozen pints at one pull. Nothing new opens without a booze concession. Everything from the New Theatre to the Rugby World Cup runs on alcohol. But from where come the drinkers? Can the entire population of Cardiff be pissed all the time? The South Wales valleys provide a fair input but most of the regular punters come from Cardiff's estates and suburbs. Here, in the distant reaches of St Mellons, Rhiwbina and Whitchurch, last stop before the accent changes, the pubs, where they hang on, have all switched to food and families. If you want life you go central. Check the Hip'po, Po Na Na, Zeus, Latinos, Reds and the new Apocalypse. Living here may not be quite as you see in Torchwood but pretty much as depicted in Justin Kerrigan's Human Traffic.

It's not all low life. Cardiff does offer its cultural elite something - it always has. Mainstream drama at the New Theatre and opera and west-end musicals at the Wales Millennium Centre, Martin Tinney selling Harry Holland, The Albany moving Kyffin Williams, good orchestras at St David's Hall, and some of the best public art anywhere in the world. And after the failure of the Centre for the Visual Arts the National Museum of Wales' galleries now reassert themselves. They do a good job. Chapter, full of buzz and alternatives, is being redeveloped. Oriel was the best but that's long gone.

Over the years the writing community has not served the city as well as it could have. There is still not as much identifiable local literary fog as there is, for example, in Swansea. Not enough focus, not much status, too little style. Dannie Abse came from here and celebrates this in his books but he's a eminence grise living in London now. Unlike Dublin, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Huddersfield and other regional centres Cardiff has low pull in the literary world at large. Chapter and the Tesco stage at the WMC host regular readings but for a Capital it isn't much. That band of poets, Happy Demon, once had their heads above the parapet, but they've moved on. The New Welsh Review used to be edited in the city but now it's now in Aberystwyth. Red Sharks Press has died, and Parthian Books, one of the great new lights, has moved to Cardigan. There are readings in centre pubs and a flock of writers' circles but that's no different than it is, say, in Newport. In literary terms Cardiff has spent far too long exhibiting Victoria Park values, harking back after Billy the Seal, Clarksies pies and pints of dark. Only John Williams with his genuinely realistic string of books - Five Pubs, Two Bars And A Nightclub, Temperance Town, The Prince of Wales and Cardiff Dead (all Bloomsbury) has attempted to catch hold of what's really going on. But there are signs, out there, of a revival. London publishers scratching at the city's surface. Anna Davis, proud of her Cardiff origins uses the place as background for her thrillers, Lloyd Robson's Cardiff Cut roars through the streets as a piece of excellent literary grease, Sean Burke, Nia Wyn, and Trezza Azzopardi have set books here, and Grahame Davies's Welsh language verse takes the place to bits. Look hard and you'll find more. The Big Book of Cardiff (Seren) edited by Peter Finch and Grahame Davies shows some of the directions authors have been going in these post-industrial, post-modern, urban times. The city's reputation is on the up.

In - Mewn
coke legals
shirt-tail bay
boy whoppa
cymraeg Korea
siapan mall
sneakers ice
devils 5.00 am
suit and
Koran pack
glass fat arse
plane crap
train Tom
Jones Iwan
Bala Cerys
dragon flags
café money
Reach Flying
Atlantic Wharf
Leisure Village
Glass Waving
slate stacked
the Russell
cycle way
speed stripe
pile of bricks
glory future
proof young


Standing at the Penarth end of the Cardiff Bay Barrage - the dam that has turned the bird friendly mud flats either into a swamp or a world-class boating lake, depending on who you listen to - I can see a glistening, high-rise city full of flash and street art, glass and cash. It's great to say I belong. The light here is different. But there are pockets of backsliding. Progress never moves forward like a wall. The Bute East Dock, a showpiece of municipal-run regeneration with the Odeon cinema, Dr Who Exhibition, restaurant mall plus bowling complex, the Dragon Centre complex at its south and the pagoda roof of County Hall along its western edge, is by now showing strong signs of neglect. The brick walkways are overgrown, there are breaks in the cast-iron railings, sections have been uprooted and hurled into what was once a working waterway. There is a sign which reads WARNING - TOXIC BLUE GREEN ALGAE MAY BE PRESENT IN THIS DOCK. DO NOT ENTER THE WATER. And beyond there are others who seem determined not to join the great new society. The vast lumpen enclaves of Ely and, to a lesser extent, Llanrumney remain walled cities with their own cultures running in oblivion to what's going on elsewhere. They support Cardiff City, a team bobbing the league's lower echelons and with a reputation for violence not usually witnessed in Wales. Their traditional culture makes few concessions to the new wealth around them. What, here, does street art, café culture and grand opera actually mean?

Cardiff is not all culture. Millennium Stadium and Millennium Centre apart, the top attractions are places where you eat and where you drink. Stand around Mermaid Quay in the summer and you'll be served by a rubber wheeled tourist train and carriages which shuttles between the Norwegian Church, the Docks and the Barrage for an amazing few pounds a go. At last the centre of Wales has made it as Disneyland. Soft-shoed Americans in drip-dry slacks and baseball caps drift along the sidewalks. Cardiff has become a true holiday destination. Billy the Seal would be proud.

Cardiff Bay Mud
The Cardiff Bay mud before the flood

This is an updated version of Peter Finch's article which appeared in Planet #138 and which forms the basis for the Real Cardiff series published by Seren Books.

For a comfortable base to explore Cardiff at your own pace choose Citybase Apartments. They have a great range of Cardiff apartments, so if you want to be steps from the Millennium Stadium, in the heart of the city or out at Cardiff Bay – they have the accommodation for you.

Mas- Out
Victoria Park
coal and steel
mild pale
Sophia Shakin
Dunleavy night
Jim Callaghan
west of
England red
light Vic
Parker aright
skip ship matey
pint of
10.30 Spanish
club afternoon
valley day
Portland stone
Metal Street
black mortar
Taff Vale Tom
Jones Shirl
Caribbean red
light bike
salvaged beam
engines Pink
Floyd flood
Polski coffee
bar Italiano
fog Welcome to
the Pearl
Building do
not walk in the
gutter sorry