Real Cardiff Three

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Real Cardiff #3
Now the Boom
Has Bust


Leckwith Bridge

What's in the Book


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

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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I'm in the lozenge-shaped city again. Water south, hills north. A city of rhomboid sprawl. Where else would I be? I'm standing on the B4487 in bright early-morning sunlight. Traffic low. Birds in inner-city twitter. This was the Via Julia Maritima once, the paved Roman route west. A thousand years on it was the stage coach route to London. Full of ruts and mud. Then it was the hard-topped A48, when A roads meant something. Newport Road when I was a kid. Still is. The Africans are walking down it now. The endless displaced. Heading up beyond Roath Court for the Refugee Council at Phoenix House. Fewer now that the recession has hit. Polski Sklep having a hard time. The Czech shop already closed.

Cardiff How it sometimes is

We always wondered why in this place there was so much new housing. Apartments rising like corn right across the boom city. Concrete mixers. Deliveries of brick. Tower cranes like locusts. Men in hard hats in every bar. What drew them to this capital? What were we doing that made them come? Nothing, it turns out. Investors are blind. Invest where walls rise and your money will climb in step. No need to sell what you've built. Let the vacant towers glitter. Let their apartments stand empty, value accumulating as prices soar. Manage a let if a visitor asks. Sell one to an executive needing a town centre toehold. Rooms with a water view for singles. Wasp territory. Audi in the undercroft. Wine in the rack. Families not needed. No toy cupboards. No gardens. No schools.

Now that boom has bust these investments stand barren. For Sale. To Let. To Let. Those not yet completed stay so. Across the city are half-finished metal frames, surrounded by fencing, waiting for the interest rates to rise once again. Build has stopped, all but. Apart from the mega projects like St David's 2, the new Ninian Park and the scatter of enterprise across the sports village on the Ferry Road. On the hoarding at the north end of St David's 2, our new city of malls and inner-city accommodation, are graffitied the words More Yuppie Flats Please. Word on the street is that the blocks inside will stand largely empty. Shells. Unfixed, unfinished walls. A city waiting for the bankers to take control once more.

There have been many visions for this place in which Cardiffians live. Plans for the port to take ocean liners. For the rich to sail for America from Tiger Bay rather than Southampton or London or Liverpool. Passengers would arrive by Great Western. There would have been grand hotels, piers and custom sheds and deep-water berths, but the Severn's giant tidefall defeated them all.

When the Second World War came bombs hit the docks and there was a dangerous scattering across the suburbs but nothing like the devastation that visited Bristol or Swansea or London. Those flattened places were first in line for rebuild. They got the Brutalism and the concrete early. Cardiff, with its drab and dismal streets, slumbered on. Plans for reconstruction, when they came, embraced the spirit of the age. There would be city centre high rise linked by urban motorway. Roads would dominate, flying in on elevated concrete platforms. The city would resemble Metropolis. You wouldn't live here, you'd come here. The centre would stretch north as far as Maindy. Cars stacked in giant parks. Pedestrian walkways woven among them like raffia. This was Buchanan's plan of 1964. Cardiff couldn't afford it. Only the outer distributor roads were built along with some of the centre car parks.

Buchanan's successor was Ravenseft's Centreplan of 1970. More centre highrise linked by first floor pedestrian decks. Conference centres, offices, malls, concert halls, shops. Everything in the old centre flattened to make way. The 1973 property crash saw that one off.

What Cardiff actually ended up with was piecemeal redevelopment. Smaller scale. One block at a time. St David's Hall. The pedestrianisation of Queen Street. The opening of the St David's Shopping Centre. The bus station redesigned and made more welcoming. The entrance-way to the city from Cardiff Central Rail Station cleared. Trees planted. A new library on Bridge Street. On the site of the old open market and the bend in the Glamorgan canal the arrival of the prestigious Holiday Inn. The building by Brent Walker of the city's own World Trade Centre at the back of Mary Ann Street (now known as the Cardiff International Arena, home to trade shows and concerts by Bob Dylan and the Manic Street Preachers).

By the time the new Cardiff unitary authority was created in 1996, with Russell Goodway in charge, the boom was well underway. Cardiff, the newest European Capital. Cardiff, the world's youngest city. Cardiff reborn, rebuilt, rebranded. Come for the glass and the grass. City of malls and parks. Cardiff with a Bay. City of opportunity and joy. A smogless place of life and light. And come they did. The European Summit in 1997. The Bay's Mermaid Quay in 1998. The Rugby World Cup at the new Millennium Stadium in 1999. The National Assembly the same year. Fireworks everywhere. The MacDonald Holland Hotel created in the former Hodge Building, Cardiff's first high-rise, in 2004. The Parc Plaza in 2005. The Altolusso apartments on Bute Terrace, centrepiece of Torchwood's opening credits, in 2005. This was boosterism. Sell the city, turn the place from manufacture to call centre, from exporter to destination. From heavy industrial to financial screen spinner. Come here to make your decisions. Cardiff media city. Cardiff centre for international sports. For opera and the arts. Visit to get pissed. More vertical drinkeries per acre than anywhere else in the western UK.

City centre living returned in 2003 when Fanum House, the former AA headquarters on the corner of Queen Street and Station Terrace was renamed The Aspect and its floors sold as apartments with a view (the railtracks and the prison actually). Immediate access to all the shopping you could ever need. Greggs opened a sandwich shop below.

The centre flourishes. Come here on a match-day to see it at its peak. Street theatre, music, men on tightropes playing violins, Roma bands with clarinet and double bass, student duos with bright guitars, the Red Choir - some of them sitting now - still ushering in freedom outside the covered market, Chinese selling me my name bent in wire, Ninjah in bling and Sgt Pepper Jacket beating rhythm on the street furniture. The Big Issue seller with his dog in costume. The Coptic Christians. The Gaza protestors. The shaved heads of the Hari Krishnas weaving through the crowd. More vibrant life on Queen Street than at any previous time in its history.

St David's 2 - the comprehensive redevelopment of those parts of the centre unscathed by previous interventions - hit the concrete mixers in 2004. Not only were the broken wrecks beyond Hills Street and all final centre traces of Victorian Cardiff to be wiped but much of Cardiff's seventies restructuring along Bridge Street and the Hayes would go too. Twenty-five years was as long as Iceland and the new library lasted. St David's, because he is our patron saint and a Welsh symbol the world will recognise. St David's, to be filled with "garden architecture and animated facades, storytelling public art and a 'portrait gallery of Welsh achievement within the Mall' in an imitation of the City Hall statuary" . Cardiff, city of new height. Capital of Wales. Darling of the valleys. Principal shopping magnet for all of western Britain. And in terms of the boom, opened a year too late. Vacant lots waiting for the fall to bottom. The recession has taken the gilt. I went through yesterday. Brave faces. Glass and just that little bit of echo. Promise as yet unfulfilled.

Back on Newport Road it is as if the fifties are still with us. Victorian three-storey housing still in need of a repaint. Bed and breakfast vacancies. Hopeful signs saying that Construction Workers are Welcome. En-suite at no extra charge. Chip shop at the end of Broadway selling Clarks pies. Someone removing their front wall so that they can park their car in their front garden. Couple of kids on skateboards. Nigerian with an iPod. Man on a bike, no helmet. Cardiff as it was, still is.

The new Cardiff Library and the John Lewis sky
The new Cardiff Library and the John Lewis sky
Photo: Peter Finch

Peter Finch

Real Cardiff #3: The End of the Boom - Senedd - Whitchurch Hospital - Leckwith Bridge - Contents stretch
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The Lozenge-
Shaped City
Now The Boom
Has Bust