Swansea: City By The Sea
*this blog contains affiliate links
Three cities, three sisters, three connections on the map, dotting the southern Welsh coastline. The second largest is Swansea, a mere 40 odd miles west of Cardiff yet I’ve barely been there. This is only my fourth ever visit and by some considerable distance my most comprehensive.
The first was in 1986, a rushed affair which took in HMV (where I saw David Sylvian’s Gone to Earth and INXS Kiss the Dirt single). The second I can’t remember and the last one was at least 10 years ago when the city was draped in a drab grey and very cold which dampened my mood; so much so, I lasted a couple of hours and hopped on the train back to Cardiff.
Historically Swansea is known for its University, the Vetch (old football stadium, now a park), the Liberty (newish football stadium, now given the idiotic moniker of ‘swansea.com’), Dylan Thomas, Bonnie Tyler, and Catherine Zeta Jones. But its shining jewel is not necessarily the city itself but the peninsular to its immediate south west, the Gower but I’ll get to that in due course.
So how is Swansea in 2022? Depending on how you look at it, the train station is in a bad or good spot. If you’re dreaming of cruising into Swansea along the coast with twinkling estuary views this is sadly not the case. On the other hand with the future sea levels rising the recently revamped station is in a better place perched on a hill atop the High Street – almost like a miniature Brighton.
Since my last visit High Street has been transformed with lots of cafe’s, Cinema and Co (cafe by day, cinema by night) and Volcano Art Haus who are rearranging an exhibition when I call in to ask about the general lay of the land.
Mike (not real name) tells me which suburbs might be worth investigating, notably Uplands, Town Hill, Mount Pleasant, and Sketty. He also recommends Coastal Housing association across the street but they are behind an iron gate with a sign alluding to their absence. In addition ‘Mike’ informs the buses are expensive (in the end I never need one so can’t verify the claim).
Fortunately the second city now has a swanky new hostel Cwtsh near the castle ruins bang in the centre. I will mention this in the Where I’ve Stayed blog. If you’re looking for a hotel then it’s pretty much the Marriot (near the marina), Travelodge, The Dragon, Morgans and over the sail bridge and far away The Village and further again, an IBIS (no wonder it was bloody cheap).
Wind Street (which has a rather foreboding reputation) is the Friday/Saturday night party zone and as such I avoid it like the plague. I stroll down it during the afternoon merely to get an idea of what’s what – and in the day it’s the best way of getting to the Swansea Museum – more on which to follow.
SWANSEA FOR THE RECORD
To my surprise there are three (four if you include HMV) record stores in the centre of town. These are High Street’s Tangled Parrot – a cafe and record store (I indulge in the cafe to modestly support them – the staff are super kind and switch my coffee into a mug with a handle when I realise the one he’s given me doesn’t have one).
Tom does the coffee, Matt (absent that day) handles the record shop which deals in second hand (£15 for New Order’s Blue Monday) and new stock too. Elsewhere lie Derricks Music which has some great artwork on show (OMD’s Crush and Ultravox Quartet), and Swansea Bay Records.
HMV can be found in the Quadrant shopping centre. I am not sure if this is the same location as it was in 1986 but it feels familiar. In 2022 there is no Gone to Earth, in fact the only thing by Sylv is a compilation. They do however have a nice synth pop display. As for INXS, well they fare better than ICEHOUSE who are nowhere to be seen despite Iva Davies being a descendant of Swansea folk.
The Quadrant has something else Cardiff doesn’t have – a bus station! Another odd factor is that Swansea is the HQ for the Chinese in Wales Association but I’ve missed their Friday meeting. The only thing orientally I come across is some of the calligraphy at the Art Haus and a restaurant (Gigi Gao’s) in the Marina.
By this time it’s late afternoon and I can see the sun glinting off the futurist bridge on Cupid Way (nothing to do with Scritti Politti or as it turns out, love but named after an athlete Cyril George Cupid).
Sweeping across to the new state of the art Arena and no that was not a nod to Duran Duran. This is but the first phase of a development called COPR Bay. If Portsmouth has been remodelling itself on Dubai, Swansea’s new bridge with cut out swans, looks like something you’d find in Abu Dhabi!
Beyond the shining gold arena is a play area and a little further, an ageing Civic Centre with an ageing library (think Brutalist Barbican in London) attached. It would be better if you could see out of the window to the bay outside. It feels like Alicante without the Palm trees (the library there also looks directly onto its own bay for those who don’t know).
Outside you begin to see Swansea’s appeal, the bay and its sandy shore leading down to a hazy Gower peninsular is captivating in the late afternoon sun. The journey towards it though is for another day, for now I return to the Marina; one of the key assets that differentiates it from Newport or Cardiff though the background vales are definitively Welsh.
For some reason I get the idea the adjacent and ascending Kilvey Community Woodland could make Swansea a Welsh Bergen? But what would I know having not yet chanced on Norway at all. The new pedestrian bridge across the River Tawe is however a dead ringer for Newport’s imaginatively titled City Footbridge.
WELCOME TO ZETAVILLE
Morning begins with a visit to (I tried to avoid it) McDonald’s as my intended The Continental wasn’t open at 7:30am. I receive the standard lukewarm muffins, strawberry jam and abysmal tea. What I should have done is not be so easy and waited for an alternative.
And yes Swansea too has a homeless problem and at that time of morning there is nowhere warm and cosy for these people to go except McD’s (they are asked to leave, I feel slightly sorry for them but at the same time there is something unnerving about them – the homeless in the UK are different to the homeless in Spain).
I do a quick walk retracing my steps from the first evening and cross the Sail Bridge over to the tech zone to see who operates there, not Google or Facebook although it looks like the kind of place both would set up shop. It’s also where, in my opinion, Swansea train station should be.
Back in the thick of it, I pass the Plantasia (£9 to enter for adults) and then run by the Parc Tawe row of shops and back up toward the castle. After a quick recharge of my phone and feet I’m back out in search of culture.
The first is Swansea Museum (the oldest in Wales) but this is not a city museum save a few photos which are useful in educating us visitors about the three day blitz (courtesy of Hitler). Hard to believe, but Swansea once looked like Mariupol now which puts it on par with the rebuilt Warsaw and Rotterdam.
Next up is the National Waterfront Museum which is also not what it seems. I nearly don’t bother believing it’s some kind of Maritime snore fest. What it should be called is National Museum Swansea. It covers more or less what the National in Cardiff does only in a more modern context and setting.
Within are displays about Swansea’s industrial past including the railways, the remains of which are evident in the courtyard outside, the ship Zeta and other design faves like a typewriter and a tape recorder.
Upstairs celebrates some of Wales most famous musicians, writers and artists except Scritti, the Manics and Phonics – perhaps they are too recent and relevant to be in a museum? Nor is there any mention of Swansea’s airport – granted it hasn’t had much of a commercial history but it is nonetheless of interest.
Third and final of the museums is the Glynn Vivian (opposite the city’s art college) and incredibly it is an art gallery named after the man himself. I quite like the sound of him in that he travelled alone and valued people and cultures but what of the gallery?
It’s between exhibitions though of what is showing, Barbara Hepworth and Ivor Hitchins are the two that stand out. There is a new cafe or at least I don’t remember seeing it on my previous visit. It’s modern and has plenty of light and the usual temptations (coffee and cakes) on offer.
The afternoon finds me scaling the heights of Kilvey Community Woodland for views of the sun setting on Swansea. It’s steep and the pine needles and gorse remind me of New Zealand, especially Wellington’s Mt Victoria.
There may not be (according to Sylv) a railroad that meets the sea but you can definitely view the setting sun through the slender towering trees and great vistas of the city and bay. Somehow I manage to avoid killing myself on the way down on its slippery slopes of loose shingle and avoid having a headache too. Result!
TAKE ME TO THE BEACH
I have breakfast at the hostel, so much free food is left it’s a pity to waste it. Why is there always a bag of flour in hostels? Anyway, the third day is reserved for a walk along the beach and one can’t help but think of that bloody song by Chris Rea (to his credit the fact he wrote something so ubiquitous for the sandy shorelines of wherever is no small feat).
But I digress, you can walk it all the way to Mumbles if you wanted to (and I’m up for the challenge). The beach offers up an interesting array of landscapes and a lot of dog walkers. Fortunately there’s room for everyone.
What I didn’t know is that it takes 2.5 hours and the buses appear to have no Sunday service so a five hour walk leaves me limping into the hostel for a much needed rest. Mumbles town itself is rather pleasant and there’s a few B&B’s down that way too. The pier at the time of writing is closed to the public.
UPLANDS AND SINGLETON
Day 4 begins with a stroll to Uplands which is a bit gritty to begin with (lots of estate agents and homeless orgs) but becomes more salubrious the further you climb. Notable eateries include The Bookshop, and Brewstone. There is also a petit Starbucks – the first I’ve seen in the city.
Further up just before the Sketty shops is Singleton Park which has everything from a botanical garden (closed) to a Swiss Cottage! In addition is an Ornamental Garden and a stone circle. This park adjoins the university or you can continue down its gentle slope to the busy Mumbles Road from yesterday.
This time I opt for Swansea University which has its own botanical garden, the Taliesin Arts Centre (opened in 1984) and the Egypt Centre born from the collection of Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome (the same guy whom part of the London Science museum is named after).
MARKET SQUARE HEROES
The final morning with time to kill I have one last sortie around the central area to the market. Unlike Newport and Cardiff, Swansea’s is more modern, that’s modern as in 1970s in character, more like the one in Birmingham.
It’s open and a lot of stalls are packed close together and most are still closed though you could get a coffee if you wanted one and speaking of coffee don’t expect to see a Starbucks in the centre, COSTA is king here, or Coffee #1 or the aforementioned independents on High Street.
Don’t forget that to the north from the market on Portland Road is the Kardomah Cafe where Dylan Thomas used to hang, stupidly I didn’t go in but should have (there was an hour before my train out) but I had yet to pack. In the end I needn’t have worried. So let’s sum up…
Just from these few days in Swansea it is staggering how many places certain locations remind me of. The approach road up to the university recalls Castellon’s own campus in Spain, the university’s botanical garden the main boulevard in Shenzhen’s OCT.
Another time in the central city I exit a street and stare across to a stone building and instantly found myself transported to Tallinn’s Architecture centre. Singleton’s delightful Boating Lake and its Pub on the Pond reminiscent of one of Helsinki’s smaller parks (sans the Pub – great décor by the way). Clyne Valley Woods is also in the vicinity.
I suppose with all of this in mind you could question whether Swansea has its own soul and maybe that is a marketing project for the years ahead – see the place that reminds you of others but has its heart on the beach?
In any case, I definitely warmed to the spring sunshine and would define Swansea as not just a city by the sea, but a city of academia and a city for the future. Sydney overtook Melbourne to become Australia’s primary location and much as I love our capital one wonders if Swansea might be holding some sort of ace hand up its sleeve. I get the feeling visit five may not be too far away.
PLAYLIST AND CREDITS
Thanks for reading here, should you be interested in my work; principally writing, photography, and teaching. Please contact me to discuss what works for you! FREE Overview PDF available on request. Meanwhile, please check out The Atlas for more cultural shenanigans!
Further still, if you like what I’m doing please consider hitting the social channels: Kulture Kiosk on Facebook and Twitter, and Instagram. More photos on 500px (Kelvin Hayes) and for books try Good Reads (Kelvin Hayes). Playlist and Photo Credits to follow…
Taking the Veil (extended mix) – David Sylvian
Kiss the Dirt – INXS
Fade to Grey – Visage
Pale Shelter – Tears for Fears
The Blue Sky – a-ha
On the Beach – Chris Rea
Pure Shores – All Saints
Song of Sand – Suzanne Vega
Sunlight Seen Through Towering Trees – David Sylvian