Cardiff: A Different Man
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CROESO – A 2022 UPDATE
Hi or Shw mae (‘sure-my’) as we say in Wales. This piece was originally written in 2018 in what was in travel terms, a completely different world. I had returned from many years living in China and extensive travel in Europe. In 2022 Cardiff again beckoned still in the midst of the COVID19 pandemic although this now has become almost as tired as some of Cardiff’s signs and buildings, more on that below.
If you’re moving to the capital you’d better be loaded, budget accommodation is very much almost exclusively reserved for the city’s students who are important, vibrant and necessary to Cardiff’s cultural make up and economy BUT what about anyone else needing modest accommodation?
If on a budget you’re pretty much at the mercy of the IBIS Budget, the few Travelodge hotels dotted around, and the new Easyhotel and even they will cost you around £100 over 3 or 4 nights. The pandemic has forced the exquisite Riverhouse hostel to become private rooms which now cost more than the hotels I mentioned. The Urban Space aparthotel at least £60per night.
If you are loaded and looking for a home then you should be looking in either the Bay, or the north: Lisvane, Llanishen, Rhiwbina, Llandaff for example. Heath is also a reasonable area. Hotels? HILTON, Radisson Blu, Park Plaza.
Bear in mind the Six Nations rugby tournament happens in Feb/March so the city can be quite busy on match days and obviously you would need to book accommodation well in advance. Oh estate agents don’t appear to like emails so best call in and expect to be referenced by outside bodies. Now let’s take a guided tour of the city as I know it.
WELCOME BACK TO WALES
Time and resources dictate swift action so London is lost, exchanged for the M4. After four decades and four years since my last visit (following a stint teaching in China and travel in Europe) it was time to press reset. Before long the familiar view of the two Severn crossings lay before me. These vistas are indelible only this is the first time I’ve had to do the journey with a face mask on.
Cardiff is modern but at the same time feels a little worn and a bit like going to your granny’s house after the gleaming towers of new town Guangzhou. The changes are most dramatic around central station where the new BBC building and School of Journalism, Culture and Media stand, the bay (Gloworks) and parts of Cathays (the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, the CUBRIC university buildings on Salisbury Road and the Sherman Theatre for starters).
Every time I return it seems Cardiff University has a new building to show off, this time (2022) it’s the ABACWS (possibly Welsh for Abacab) and Student Experience building on Synghennydd Road and Park Place respectively.
Once this was all one building straddling the train track but is now a combination of three: ABACWS, the SE and the original structure which couldn’t be demolished for the reason given above, it still bridges the railway and looks a mess as does the station it serves, Cathays.
Does Transport for Wales not have a budget for cleaning stations? Worse still Cardiff Central is now dwarfed by the buildings of Central Square and while it has new interior signage its exterior platform shelter in Great Western Railways (GWR) signature deep green could be given a lick of paint.
In my Helsinki piece I mention not knowing the cities we visit intimately and only being able to digest what we see in that moment. With Cardiff there is a personal history. It is my capital. It is a city I’ve lived in and a city I’ve been coming to since 1984!
SHOPPING IN THE DIFF – THEN AND NOW
Cardiff is known for its many arcades largely concentrated around St Mary Street and The Hayes (High Street becomes St Mary Street and The Hayes branches into Mill Lane toward their southern reaches). The arcades are therefore portals, bridges between different streets and can be confusing to visitors not familiar to the city.
These are namely Duke Street, Castle Arcade, High Street, Wyndham and the oldest the Royal Arcade which remain intact and always make a nice photo should that be your bag and you’re up just before rush hour. Then there’s the market in action since 1891, the more recent St David’s 2 mall is still looking ok and THE IVY ASIA is on the way.
The Virgin store on Castle Street (where co-incidently I first saw Wang Chung’s Points on the Curve in all its shrink-wrapped vinyl glory, resplendent in graphic grey and jade type – perhaps an inkling of my future Oriental life) which morphed into comic book haven Forbidden Planet had again changed face to Mountain Warehouse.
The old British Gas building near Queen Street Station (itself revamped) is now a Premier inn. The Primark (British UNI QLO) has moved from one side of Queen Street to the other. St Mary Street has been transformed into a part pedestrian zone flanked by Welsh flags (currently seen along the castle walls instead). The biggest shock of all though is the once thriving Capital Centre is now more or less deserted!
Where the old Virgin megastore stood (it had moved there from Castle St) is now a TESCO and this brings me to my next point. Cardiff now appears to be little more than a city food court. Greggs, Starbucks and supermarkets make up a big percentage of what is currently on offer. Did I mention coffee? Well there are loads of cafes per head too.
I’VE BEEN TO CARDIFF AND I’VE BEEN TO CATHAYS
I see how expensive my country is compared to China, the middle kingdom. When I left a standard sized Snickers was 45p. It’s now around 80! Chinese food enthusiasts will be pleased about the arrival of Wok to Work on St Mary St and CHOPSTIX on Queen Street. No Chinese staff that I saw so not exactly authentic but westernized oriental food never is.
The other pleasant surprise is how warm the people are. I’d heard this previously but as my experience during my Cardiffian days in the noughties were solely British and never noticed. Now returning from many months of international travel it’s resolutely clear. ‘Alright my lovely’ from complete strangers seems crazy though positively and gratefully received!
Best of all though is the change in me. No longer letting trivial things get the better of me. Suddenly everything is as I thought it would be. China seems like a strange dream – did it really happen? At the local Chinese take-away I attempt a clumsy and slightly embarrassing ‘Ni Hao.’ Although oriental in appearance the woman stares back at me and utters a definitively Kairdiff ‘alright, you been there is it?’
At TESCO one of the cashiers asks me if it feels strange to be back. I give an affirmative. Where language had been reduced to a wash of sound I could once again understand what people were saying. Titbits of urban life, fragments of other people’s worlds and lives. I could order a coffee or go to a movie without using a dictionary or translation app.
Now I appreciated English, the language I am fortunate enough to speak more than ever. Was there a time when reverse culture shock kicks in or did it not apply to me? Or to put it another way, having undertaken so much travel was I immune?
One thing I was keen to avoid was the British winter. I took due diligence returning via surface transport through France, Luxembourg and Belgium but my plan spectacularly backfires when a miniature snow storm sends temperatures plummeting. Not good. I was in for a late spring in more ways than one.
A LITERAL ICEHOUSE
Across Blackweir bridge, Pontcanna fields are scanned from wincing eyes in the icy chill as I ferry myself across surprised they have not yet become more houses. In the village itself the coffee shops have diminished. Only Brava is left standing as are the exclusive members clubs down the end. The Italian consulate is still a house on Kings road.
Canton remains as busy as ever and reigns supreme as hub to many of Cardiff’s charity shops (or op-shops if you’re reading in Australia). The Ivor Davies pub stands proud and on this day might as well have been an ICEHOUSE (pun intended).
Chic eateries like Bangkok Cafe, and the cool Danish Bakery Brød a touch further up the road into Pontcanna add contemporary culture to Cardiff’s suburban mix. Another development is the Corp, formerly a pub and now a cool emporium, a little like Afflecks in Manchester.
Chapter arts centre has also been transformed. More space and while it was often a salvation for housing notices there are slim pickings these days. Most are for community events, actor extras (you need a criminal record check) or to give blood.
A Chinese woman in thick yellow puff jacket arrives with her offspring and I manage a proper Ni Hao! Aside the incident above, it’s the first time I’ve spoken Chinese in the ‘diff. Perhaps it really did happen. She (a genuine Chinese) responds but is otherwise busy with her purchase while her kids look up silently bemused who this world weary traveller could be.
Make no mistake, you will need a good jacket if in Cardiff for much of the year. But here’s a nice sweetener for you, walking back to Rhiwbina (in the far north of the city) on a cold rainy night may not sound like much to write about but for the air scented by toasted hot cross buns, the wet shiny streets reflect traffic lights and the stark leafless trees are lit by streetlight. This was magic Cardiffian style.
I should add that the humble Welsh capital houses one of the best museums in the UK and that is The National Museum. Many visitors mistake the neighbouring City Hall as the museum but alas that sits next door. At the time of writing you’ll need to pre-book to enter the museum and yes sadly the face mask is required for now.
BUT you will see – no exaggeration – a feast of visual art commandeered by the shrewd John sisters as well as special exhibitions (in 2018 I caught the KIZUNA Japan – Wales show but that was a very different world). It’s also got the smarts on Wales through history so in London terms it’s the Natural History Museum and the Tate rolled into one.
Since 2011 The Cardiff Story museum is the exactly that, a little smaller last time I visited and at the moment has limited opening hours but is well worth a look. The Ffotogallery is no prizes for guessing for Photographic art and this one seems to be the musical chairs of galleries in that it moved from Cardiff to Penarth and now resides in a shitty backstreet in Roath – quite a pity really.
To the north of the city is the fairytale Castle Coch (red castle) and to the west St Fagans National Museum of History (still no train station even though the tracks roll right past it and that says it all about Wales sadly, we just don’t know how to make the best of what we have).
SINGING CARDIFF’S PRAISES
Whenever I return to Cardiff I think about where else I’ve been and weigh up the similarities. Some years ago I wrote about ‘seeing the city through a new set of eyes’ and that still rings true. Could the bay be a mini Barceloneta? Yes it could.
Is Roath or Bute park as good as any other in Europe? Yes they are, read more about Cardiff’s northern parks and meadows here. Cardiff has it all, though is still living with the blinkers on, lax in promoting itself which in some ways is good. Hopefully we will never see the foot fall of London, Paris or New York. And in turn, will hopefully never see the tourist fuelled hate scrawled on walls that Barcelona has.
However the airport is still unfortunately lacking (the pandemic hasn’t helped) and in my opinion there is no reason why Cardiff cannot attract the level of air traffic that Amsterdam, Geneva and Malta have. Perhaps too this is in some way good for the future; there are now electric buses and trains on part of the city’s network and beyond to London.
So what’s the overall view. Cardiff is very much a city of two halves. The optimism of the future with the new builds lining the skyline but on the other, the homeless who line the doorways of just about any main street, some of whom can be mouthy even to those trying to help. Bottom line is a lack of accommodation and care workers.
While China and the Orient basked in the 20s, Cardiff was still chilly, struggling to break into double figures. Normally by now my winter garb would’ve been washed and packed away. This year was different and I had no option to wear the same few tops day in day out, grateful I’d kept them and my seldom used sleeping bag.
Magic or not, Cardiff wasn’t going to come easy. It was the right city but like Paris, and Shenzhen it may never be home. Even in my own country I was forever the outsider; a dreamer, a poet from the past, it might have been winter, it should have been spring, one thing was for certain I was a different man (and most definitely the eternal nomad).
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Meanwhile, subscribe via the arrivals page and stay tuned with things here at Kulture Kiosk via THE ATLAS or on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram where you can see some of my photos from around the world. Blog originally posted April 2018.
*the 2018 trip home would not have been possible without the aid of a friend whose generosity knows no bounds. I remain in his debt and ever grateful. In 2022 I stayed at IBIS and Travelodge hotels at my own expense.
**for anoraks, A Different Man as mentioned on the PLAYLIST below, is of course the debut recording by Peter Kingsbery and I mention it as it was purchased in Cardiff HMV in 1993, a couple of doors up from its present site.
*Songs I’ve either heard or purchased in the ‘diff over the years.
Points on the Curve (album) – Wang Chung
Wot’s It To Ya (Single) – Robbie Nevil
Something Got Me Started (Perfecto Mix)(Single) – Simply Red
Sorry and Glad Together (from Umbrella) – The Innocence Mission
Loveblows and Lovecries (album) – No-Man
A Different Man (from A Different Man) – Peter Kingsbery
Through the Hill (from Through the Hill) – Andy Partridge Harold Budd
Path Not Taken (from Things Buried) – Richard Barbieri
Mending a Secret (from Tender Extinction) – Steve Jansen
Cardiff Afterlife (from Lifeblood) – Manic Street Preachers
Photo Credits: KH except the Wang Chung image from discogs.com