Newport: Jigsaw Falling into Place
SEE THE BEAUTY IN YOUR DRAB HOMETOWN
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It is not often I get to blog about the hometown (technically speaking somewhere between the M4 and Caerleon), so rare in fact it’s never been done, so here goes…
It’s fair to say that Newport doesn’t exactly conjure up positive imagery; even Lonely Planet has previously referred to it as ‘a bit of a dump’. A faceless grey town on the banks of a muddy brown river with an equally bland name (it sounds better in Welsh – Casnewydd). Nor is it likely to trouble Paris or Venice for a romantic break.
The last time I was in the ‘port so to speak was probably a decade ago just short of leaving Cardiff for a stab at a publishing career in Oxford which courtesy of a whopping great recession never happened. However according to Wales Online, thanks in no small part to the Friars Walk shopping centre, tourist numbers are up! Well, why not? You have to start somewhere and aside old haunts it’s the revitalised centre I’ve come to see.
Having negotiated the semi-new station, I find the old ticket hall in the main building is now a council run information station with no photography permitted so I couldn’t shoot anything – not that there was anything to shoot but at least the building is in use unlike some but I’ll get onto that.
A recognisable feature comes at me in the form of an old lecturer. With white hair and beard, not only has he not changed one iota in over 20 years but walks straight past me into the modern edifice blissfully oblivious to who I am. I think of Marty McFly in Back to the Future when he asks the Doc if his high school lecturer Strickland ever looked any different.
COMMERCIAL FORTUNES AND MISFORTUNES
To say the transformation in Newport is staggering is a bit of an understatement and again I feel a bit like Marty McFly in Back to the Future 2, half expecting a holographic shark to appear from Cineworld to scare me whitless! It’s Newport but significantly reimagined. Friars Walk and the revamped Kingsway add colour and natural light to the city experience while opening up Charles Street straight down to the river was inspired urban planning.
My former haunt of Roxcene records is now a Wilko (department store) and while Our Price, Hit Man and Virgin may have joined the ranks of retail record shop past, Diverse Music still survives! Though it’s come full circle and trades mainly in vinyl from its Charles Street base, no longer the Upper Dock Street de facto arts centre it once was.
Newport however is a partially completed jigsaw and much as I wanted to write a glowing review, outside the small bubble of Friars and the riverside it’s very much a case of the song remains the same with much of the arcades and the entire upper level of the market shuttered. Even at Friars a young man asks me if I have any spare change so he can go buy a bag of chips – very Newport.
In the late 80s and early 90s Commercial Street was a narrow but vibrant high street. BHS, BOOTS and WH Smiths among others kept things ticking over nicely (the latter two still survive). Now it resembles something like Quatermass, Children of Men and Dawn of the Dead rolled into one.
In Back to the Future terms alternative 1985 24/7! The drunks, homeless and addicts not helping the overall mood of the city or encouraging business. This and the current state of British high street retail are the biggest problems facing Newport.
SOCIAL OR ANTI-SOCIAL?
Within this lies a myriad of social questions; without being demeaning of these people and whatever personal demons they possess one must determine who they are, Why Newport? Why the centre? Is it merely a need to be seen, to demonstrate a carefree existence or simply an attempt to be socially accepted, warts and all – to flaunt the imperfection so to speak.
Some may find these inhabitants threatening and question safety. Perhaps the city could engage in dialogue with its Chinese sister city Wuzhou. One of the best aspects of living in China was the metropolis I found myself in were generally safe at any time. This will be a sensitive part of the puzzle to solve should Newport council want to rise to that particular sociopolitical hot potato.
In any case, the city now seems too big for the business that it’s currently capable of attracting with many boarded up stores and some on the verge of closing. This is not exclusive to Newport but many British cities in the age of online shopping and retail parks. An individual can downsize, discard what he or she no longer needs but how does a geographic space such as a city do this? Or to put it another way, how do we fill the empty spaces?
Perhaps the answer lies in Folkestone on the English south coast. Faced with a diminishing population and dying town a consortium revitalised it as a creative hub. This could be a useful solution to the arcades, the upper level of Newport market and Commercial Street stores with the above floors becoming (artists) apartments and perhaps a hostel for the homeless or indeed a boutique hotel which leads to my next point.
Should you click with the city, another problem presents itself, where to stay? The Kings and Westgate hotels have gone. In fact the only one I saw was the Travelodge in the old cinema (in turn the old Lyceum Theatre) and even that looked worse for wear.
When you look back at photos of old Newport you see just what a travesty the council made by tearing down notables like the Lyceum and the town hall and have to question what on earth they were thinking!
However moving the university into the centre was smart as that will be one of Newport’s biggest financial assets (pity the Caerleon campus couldn’t be saved but progress can be merciless). Nevertheless, the lack of hotels in the centre is another moot point; IBIS Budget or Hotel Indigo anyone?
DROWNING IN MY NOSTALGIA
Speaking of the university, as said at the beginning my secondary raison d’être is to go on a nostalgia trip across river to the old arts college on Clarence Place, now apartments shedding new light through old windows.
On Church Road is Fairoak Annexe where I did my foundation art course and further up is number 43 the house where I wrote most of my first two books ‘A Lyrical Oasis’ and ‘Notate.’ All around Maindee are several sites that became part of my visual set ‘The Hopper Season’ (long since vanquished as I couldn’t afford to relocate them and no-one wanted to buy them).
I make two more excursions; one to the city symbol of the transporter bridge in keeping with my recent wanderlust to Bilbao and the other to another former residence on Tewkesbury Walk behind the castle and train bridge.
The old Sainsbury’s where I used to shop has in the space of a month been reduced to rubble (still is as of Feb 2022). Back in ’96 I liked having the Sainsbury’s nearby as it made the warren of two storey white apartment blocks more like a community. Where is the nearest alternative now?
The modern developments are good but I’d go a little further, why not demolish the train station – if it’s going to be Newport it might as well all be new and let’s face it, that futuristic bridge doesn’t go with the rest of what is an otherwise elderly station does it? Except Platform 4. *there is a new bridge being built as we speak replacing the shabby one that used to be used for crossing the platforms.
The former bridge across the station tracks is in the process of being rebuilt for the future as the Devon Place project connecting the back end of the station with the city, so things are happening. A new build behind the station is as much of a surprise as the Admiral Insurance building directly in front of the station.
As for the Chartist Tower either demolish that too or if it must stay then at least reclad it. I can see it maybe as a Tate Modern-style building with a thick band of light and look out at the top (not even Cardiff has a city look out although Capital Tower should be). *As of 2022 it has been remodelled as the Mercure Hotel but the former Passport office at Olympia House still lies empty.
The future? Like any city there are pockets of hope, the riverside houses look great, certainly a far cry from the industrial units that used to line the same site. The area around the civic centre remains a leafy enclave and while I don’t have the legs for the summit of Stow Hill, St Julians or upper reaches of Allt-yr-yn I imagine they are in reasonably good shape.
If the Chartist Tower does remain and is successfully reworked the way Friars has re-energised John Frost Square (now more or less a lane), then it’s possible that Newport could become the Ho Chi Minh City of Wales (minus the heat). Whatever the outcome, let’s hope the developers don’t give up on the rest of the jigsaw.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
As always before I do the playlist and photo credits, check out MEDIA if you’re looking to hire me as a writer and the UNIVERSITY for teaching work and The Atlas for more music, travel and culture blogs. Also if you like what I’m doing hit the socials: Facebook, Twitter, 500px and Good Reads. Blog originally posted April 2018. Playlist and credits follow…
See the Beauty in Your Drab Hometown (album) – Savoy
Everything Must Go (single) – Manic Street Preachers
Flaunt the Imperfection (album) – China Crisis
Empty Spaces (from The Wall) – Pink Floyd
Neglected Space (from Sparks) – Imogen Heap
Hometown Glory (from 19) – Adele
First Goodbye (from Anomie and Bonhomie) – Scritti Politti
The View From Stow Hill (from Futurology) – Manic Street Preachers
Jigsaw Falling Into Place (from In Rainbows) – Radiohead