Monday, 4 August 2025

The Lozenge-Shaped City

Cardiff - what sort of city is this?  Where does it come from?  How does it progress?

The first volume of Real Cardiff appeared from Seren Books in 2002 and went into at least two reprints.  Real Cardiff Two  - The Greater City followed in 2004 and Real Cardiff Three - The Changing City appeared in 2009.  The author Peter Finch is currently working on a fourth volume.

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 displaced and dispirited walk down it now.  Heading east, for City Road, for Clifton Street, for Broadway.  East for Broadway.  It’s sounds  like a musical but it’s never that. 

Right across the city apartments have risen like corn.  There are blocks towering whichever way you look.  The classy, the serviceable and the cramped rattled together in a florid rush of windows stacked like the sixties revisited.  Arriving now are block upon block of new student rentals gusted into place to provide accommodation for attendees at Cardiff’s constantly expanding universities. There are four now.  They fill the city with learning.  Their support apartments infest the south of the city like teeth.  New blocks have appeared on the site of the old art college, surrounding the Adamsdown fire station, facing down the Castle, and circling the back of Queen Street in spaces formerly occupied by banks, accountants and solicitors. Their occupants fill the clubs and bars and make the city bounce.

Altolusso, Bute Terrace, Cardiff - 23 floors.  Photo: P Finch

Down the years 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 high-rise linked by first floor pedestrian decks. Conference centres, offices, malls, concert halls, shops.  Everything in the old centre lattened 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 Motorpoint Area, ticketed by Ticketmaster, home to trade shows, wrestling and concerts by Bob Dylan, Michael McIntyre, Harry Enfield, Duran Duran and the Vaccines).   

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

The Stadium as a plane.  Photo: P Finch

City centre living began to return  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.  

Hoarding, Central Cardiff.  Photo: P Finch

Back on Newport Road, and despite the demolition of that star of the Cardiff accommodation firmament, The Blue Dragon Hotel,  it is mostly as if the fifties are still with us. Victorian three-storey housing constantly 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. Two men erecting a wooden cover for their multiplying  wheelie bins.  Couple of kids on skateboards. Woman smoking. Man on a bike, no helmet.  Cardiff as it was, still is.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Cardiff's Twenty Rail Stations

Whitchurch, Rhiwbina, Birchgrove, Ty Glas, Heath Halt Low Level, Queen Street, Lisvane, Llanishen, Heath Halt High Level, Cardiff Bay, Cardiff Central, Grangetown, Ninian Park, Waun Gron Park, Fairwater, Danescourt, Radyr, Llandaff, Cathays. 

and some of the ones we've lost:

Ely, Roath, Marshfield, Tredegarville, Cefn Onn Golf Club,  Woodville Road, Maindy North Road, Clarence Road, Adam Street, Pentyrch, Llandough Platform, Walnut Tree Bridge, and Newtown.  

Cardiff Queen Street Station's Brand New Signage.  Photo: P Finch

In the search for Cardiff's metro these twenty stations were all visited in a single day by Peter Finch in the company of photographer John Briggs.  The results will be revealed in the forthcoming Seren title Real Cardiff Four.

Sunday, 30 August 2015


There are a number of ways to drain land.  Time-honoured is the drainage ditch.  Put in a network, take the water slowly somewhere else.  More costly, but neater, are deep-dug land drains: pipes that let the excess enter the sewers.  But if resource or logistics are problematic then making a feature of the dampness might be the best route forward.  The malarial bog which occupied both sides of the Lleici south of where the Lisvane and Llanishen reservoirs now stand had always been resistant to solution.  So why not build a dam and make it a lake?  In the autumn it was mostly that anyway.  This part of Cardiff was Bute land, vast acres of it.  A commendable solution.  But the Marquis was not given to philanthropy without purpose.  Bute knew that in order to build and sell high value property you need to provide amenity.  In 1887 he offered 103 acres of upper Roath to the Corporation, got this matched by 18 acres from Lord Tredegar, and established the chain of public spaces that still run in a green line out from the city’s heart.  The spaces were centred on what was to eventually become Roath Park Lake and Botanical Gardens.  It took the Corporation several thousands of pounds and a further seven years to dig, drain, pave and plant this Victorian splendour.  The gardens opening in 1884, water at their centre,  and the imposing  properties Bute built along its flanks, some of the most imposing Cardiff had yet seen, sold magnificently well.

The Lake with the lighthouse that has no lights

Over the years the Lake developed its own mythology.  Tram routes led to it.  Trolley bus terminuses were set at its entrance.  Rare plants were planted in its gardens.  There were band-stands, ice-cream parlours, elegant walkways, rock gardens, rose terraces, waterfalls, paddling pools, maple plantings, and boats.  Loads of boats.  The lake was filled with rowers you could hire, pedal boats for kids, motor launches for those who wanted the tour with low effort, barges for the swimmers, model yachts for the seafaring, and for the rest - ducks, swans, geese, fish and islands.  Five artificial mysteriosos were created at the north end.  After his first gig in Cardiff during the late sixties Jimi Hendrix was reputed to have woken up, stoned, on one of them.   Where am I, man?  Don’t worry bro, you’re in a foreign land. 

There’s something about this thin waterway which attracts people more than the coast does.  Try walking round it on a Boxing Day and you’ll be lucky to find yourself a free couple of yards.  The pathways will be packed with scarf and coat clad Cardiffians pumping their systems free of turkey sludge, towing their kids on new bikes/scooters/skate-boards/in-line rollers/electric shoes/zippo trainers.  And there’ll be dogs too: pooches, Alsatians, lap-dogs, yappy mongrels, and old-timers with smiles in their tails. 

Lake myths:

Full of gold
Horse and cart buried at centre
Fish all die
Tunnel straight to the Castle
Big bivalves
Cyncoed house drains exhale here
Buried Money
Lady of Lake and silver sword

There’s not that much of Roath Park Lake in Cardiff literature.   To correct this  Jarman and I planned a reading which would have the poets on the islands shouting their verse by megaphone to assembled fans in deckchairs strewn along the banks.  Didn’t come off.  Jan Leslie Olsen, lunatic Norwegian follower of H.P. Lovecraft, borrowed a row boat in 1968 and drifted oarless along the side of the promenade shouting out his mad stanzas.  Rimbaud of the Welsh capital.  Ignored by passers-by.  Small children threw bread.

Periodically the Lake gets drained and the ducks retreat to the decreasing slop of water at the long body’s centre.  The waterfall at the south end cascades down a series of low steps from the ice-cream stall, seat and flower-box strewn promenade (just like the sea side) to the rose garden and botanic adventures below.  I climbed in once and found the step shelves full of coin.  Visitors making a wish threw away their money.  No history, no tradition, no bent pins nor bushes covered with votive scraps of cloth.   This was a unilateral, popular solution to  life’s difficulties.  Parks are places where you can sort your problems, the swan is the resident oracle, the waterfall the epicentre of suburban dreams.

Glory be to Bute, no one’s yet stuffed this place with public art.  It’s still mostly as it was.  Crazy golf at the side of the kid’s playground, occasional sets of paintings hung in the cafĂ© .  No installations glint among the bushes; there are no intrusive statues among the leafless trees. 

You could swim here, once.  But now,  like all other public water this stretch harbours virulent algae, stuff that’d take the skin off the small of your back and send you home with testicles swollen  like peaches.  No move to clean it.  The bathing platform and changing rooms have given way to a walkway for fishermen and model boat owners.  The water is stocked.  The fish have not been asked.

I’m in shorts and iplayer.  I run, it’s a good mile right round.  There’s something about running next to water, the ozone, the light, the serenity, that makes the straining breath all worth it.  There are legions of us.  Nikes, track-suit-bottoms, sticks to ward off snapping dogs, headphones playing Elbow, watches you punch to tell you how many seconds that 1000 meters took, how high the blood count, where the heart is, how to mend it, how the eyes rove out and stick onto glory.  Stop and draw in air.  Gallons.  Climb to the roadside and open the car boot.  Find the secreted Malvern and take a long draw.  The Lake glistens in the sun or greys and slides in the rain.  Either will do.   I watch a swan land.  He comes in like a flying boat, flick of water, whoosh of air, then a glide to serenity.  Calm.  That’s what the lake is for.

(an amended extract from Real Cardiff One,  the book that began the series)

Friday, 7 August 2015

Roath By Bike

I’m sitting on the Brompton at the bottom of Penylan Hill.  This is Cardiff’s highest point until you get to the Garth.  It’s an asphalt upward climb that steepens to  leg break before flattening to the twisting fairground zig-zag that is Cyncoed Road.  Last time I hauled myself up here I was passed by a kid on a skateboard, a lycra-clad aficionado on a road bike with three-hundred gears and a blue Lamborghini sounding like something from Le Mans.

Today I’m leading fifteen adventurers on one of Pol van Steelant’s Cardiff Cycle Tours.  £15 a go, bike hire included.  The tour features the standard mix of inveterate inner-city explorer, cycling enthusiast, visiting tourist and intrigued local.  It’s  supplemented by 12 Belgians here after soccer defeat at the new Ninian Park and today at a total loose end.  Pol’s Flemish countrymen.  They don’t hang their heads, they shout and dance.

Finch In Action  Photo: John Briggs

The idea is that I, psychogeographer, poet, urban enthusiast and author, should conduct a tour of some of Cardiff’s districts.  We stop at points of interest where I discuss, illuminate, wave my arms and perform verse.  My stuff is non- standard, avant, full of lists and subterfuge.  My sense of place and history is like that too.  We don’t visit standard city features, we check out the lost and recently recovered instead. 

We do it by bike rather than on foot, which increases the range.  Tours last two and a half hours.  They involve an amount of checking out the spaces where things once were, tracking little-known byways and listening to loud performances of poetry that attract the attention of non-cycling passers-by.  We’ve already put on visits to Cardiff Bay, Cardiff Central and Inner Roath.  Today it’s the turn of Roath writ much larger, Roath Capital of Wales, as of course it should have been.  The naming of the Welsh capital as Cardiff is an historical accident.  That’s my contention anyway.

The tour involves a mix of cycling on roads, paths and through lanes.  Where we can we avoid places with dense traffic.  In my experience, though, most fellow road users seem quite willing to allow a raggle-taggle of twenty plus bunched cyclists free and easy passage.  I tell participants that on hills we’ll get off and push but in the event no one does.

The Tour At Roath Park Recreation Ground  Photo: John Briggs

Psychogeographers explore urban spaces mainly by wandering.  We follow  unconventional systems of direction, travelling from A never simply to get to B.  I once attempted to visit all the streets in Cardiff which were named after women – Arabella, Helen, Alice, Sophia, Margaret yes - but no Ashlee nor Billie Jean nor Chardonnay.   I also traversed Llandaff using only maps published before 1900.  How much was still there?  Quite a lot it turned out.  In the city centre I crossed following the routes of old watercourses – difficult when they went through buildings. 

I invented Tall Buildings Day and attempted to climb all of our highest structures and photograph what I could see from the top.  Building management were pleased, given my fabricated occasion, to allow me access.  The view from Capital Tower was stunning.  The top of Loudoun was covered in chicken bones left there by seagulls.  From St John’s Church tower you could see what the medieval Welsh could – graves, gaggles of shoppers, markets. 

Leaving Cathays Cemetery  Photo: John Briggs
The bike gives you more range.  It also has another major attribute, invisibility.  Exploring by car is completely useless.  You see nothing but fellow car users and once at a destination there’s the problem of where to park.   Buses are an improvement but until you disembark there’s the issue having to go where they do.  Walking, the ultimate transport mode say many, should nail it.  But, as anyone who has entered the protected spaces of St Mellons or the vast grass and brick stretches of the Llanrumney Housing estate will testify, walking where you are not known can attract unwelcome attention.  For me it’s often been like the stranger entering the wild west saloon and everyone putting their cards down and turning to stare.  But on a bike this never happens.  There’s an assumption that on two wheels you know where you are and have a purpose. You disappear into the background and are totally ignored. 

On the Roath Capital of Wales trip we’ve reached the edge of Roath Park Lake.  I point of the island where Jimi Hendrix awoke one concert morning back in 1967.  “Really?”  “Sure,” I tell them.  “The island has its own blue plaque.”  “Where?” “On the island of course”.

We discuss the lost passages that run from lake bottom connecting it with the Castle, the sea, the moon, the underground land of King Arthur.  I mention the lake-bed’s giant clams, grown huge through radioactivity just like in the Simpsons.  I tell the tale of Bute donating this land out of public spiritness and the desire the see the people of Cardiff well and then making a mint by selling high value houses built along the lake’s side.  I read John Tripp’s poem about wanting to live inside the white clock house of the Captain Scott Memorial.

At Roath Park Lake  Photo: John Briggs

We head on the visit the grave of William Tatum, Cardiff shipowner and high sheriff.  The man who donated a large cheque to Lloyd George’s Liberals and signed the document “Glanely”.  “But that’s not your name,” complain Lloyd George.  “I know,” was the reply, “and if it doesn’t become so within two weeks then you won’t be able to cash that cheque.”  The Prime Minister duly elevated him and Baron Glanely he became.  Cash for honours is no new thing.  Tatum’s great house was on Penylan Hill.  Gone now, but us psychogeographical cyclists, we visit it.  We  stop and stare at the place where it once was, now empty Penylan air.

We finish at St Margaret’s Church, heart of Roath Village.  The village green is now a roundabout, the manor house a funeral home, and the pub is up the road.  True psychogeographers would now try to visit all of Roath’s remaining uncycled streets in alphabetical order.  But my fellow cyclists go for a pint instead.

(A version of this post appeared in CDF - Events, Reviews, Venues - and the cycle tour will run again.  Check here for details)

Thursday, 6 August 2015

Cardiff South

It’s big enough, this city.  It’s the biggest thing on the whole walk and hangs its eastern side right at the sea’s edge.  I’ve crossed it many times and now I’m doing it again with John Williams, just to be sure I’ve covered it all.  In the large and mostly empty car park of Tesco Pengam Green, down at the bottom of where the runways once were when this moorland doubled as Cardiff Airport, we’re discussing who the clientele of this south Cardiff superstore might precisely be. Tremorfa, the Cardiff district this technically is, barely seems large enough. The gypsy camp I tracked around the back of a couple of hundred yards further on would hardly tip the balance. Celsa Steel Mill workers at the end of their shifts buying four-packs to quench their thirsts. Leisure sailors walking in from the Rhymney River Motor Boat Sailing and Fishing Club. Maybe there’s an expansion to Cardiff that we don’t yet know about. Tesco in place, ready to serve the new apartment blocks being built among the scrap metal yards and the car breakers, on piles sunk into the foreshore and on piers cantilevered out over the river. If this were still 2003, when anything was possible, then maybe.

John Williams  Photo: P Finch

John Williams
John Williams, master of Cardiff Dead and biographer of Shirley Bassey,  has just told me that he’s thinking of changing his name. Ten books down the road and he’s just discovered that the one he’s been using is hopeless.

John Williams guitarist
John Williams composer
John Williams New Zealand horse breeder
John Williams football sociologist
John Williams Welsh historian
John Williams Welsh artist
John Williams user interface designer
John Williams Blackburn Rovers chairman
John Williams BBC reporter
John Williams philosopher
John Williams Texan novelist
John Williams Brooklyn blogger
John Williams Detective Chief Superintendent

It’s this last one that rankles. Detective Chief Superintendent John Williams, head of the 1980s investigation into the Lynette White murder. That murder, in a flat in James Street, Butetown, Cardiff, in 1988, became the obsession of the John Williams I am with. The murder changed his career direction from chronicler of detective fiction and novelist of the noir to Cardiff fictioneer par excellence. He’s the man against whom all other narratives set in the capital are now measured. 

So, if you were not John Williams, then who might you be? John reflects. “Johnny Highnote, maybe.  I got that one from a dream. On the other hand I quite like Johnny ‘Nightlife’ Williams. There was a Bertie ‘Nightlife Jarrett’ who was one of Shirley Bassey’s early co-stars. People I tell this to think I’m insane.”

The Plan - A Walk To The Barrage
Our plan is to walk from here to the Barrage, right through the centre of the city’s southern half. The working class suburbs, the office units built where heavy industry once was, the playing fields, the lines of shops. We go up through the Pengam Green private new build, along Hind Close, De Havilland Road, Handley Road and Hawker Close, the names of the planes that once flew from here now celebrated in orange brick. Tremorfa Park, in full socialist fashion and untroubled by herbaceous plantings, is large, flat and dense with football pitches. A notice at the entrance still announces last November’s firework display. At the western end St Alban’s School sports, sack races, penalty shoot outs, team relay and slam dunk is in full end of term swing. 

John, described by the Independent as bald and stocky and with “the air of Donald Pleasance” (which is a little unfair, I’d say it’s more the air of Peter Sallis or, if he were white, Willie Dixon) finds a hole in the park fence and we emerge on Runway Road in the heart of the council house territory that Tremorfa always was. Sunset gates, half-rendered pebbledash semis, badly cut hedges, notices warning of dogs and against junk mail, NO MENUS. There’s no sense anywhere of the sea that you could virtually touch if you stood on stilts. These are post-war homes for heroes, housing for East Moors Steelworkers when that place filled the local skyline with smog, an eastern Splott beyond the Roath Dock rail link. Hardly any of these things are relevant now. A train a day to the rolling mill comes down the link. The steelworks closed in 1979. The space is now a business park.

We cross the bottom of Splott Park, going under the South Park Road railway bridges, to emerge by the now boarded-up Grosvenor. These south Cardiff workers’ pubs are closing as fast as the industry that once supported them. John is talking about his latest enterprise – touring the capital’s social clubs in the company of novelist Rob Lewis. They’ve already tracked City Road starting at the Conservative Club, taking in the New Park Liberal Club, the Cardiff and General Municipal Works Club and Institute, and then ending in Charles Street’s Cardiff Ex-Serviceman’s Club. These places, once all-male bastions of working-class exclusivity, are now pleased to hear from anyone pressing their buzzers. Obtaining temporary membership is no longer the problem it once was.

Splott Proper
In Splott proper, where we now are, the nineteenth century terraces are a familiar sight. John lived here in the early eighties. We walk along Splott Road to the refurbished Star Centre. Here at night, when I regularly came twenty years back to learn martial arts, they’d steal the wheels off your car if you didn’t pay the local kids a pound to guard it. In the centre’s window are adverts for Zumba Dance Fitness and Flash-mob meditation. It’s a changing world.

Railway Street running past both writer Susie Wild’s former place and the now closed Cardiff Arms eventually reaches the New Fleurs, Skittles & Darts, Function Room, Bar Food, on Walker Road. “A place of great significance in the history of Cardiff punk,” John says. For a late-70s guitarist who couldn’t really play like John the arrival of punk was a gift. “I regarded it as mass conceptual art movement,” he tells me. “The music business was promoting bands like ELP and Yes and you couldn’t just have a bash at being them. But with punk anyone could join in. I was living in London and running a punk fanzine called After Hours I got it printed, appropriately after hours, by a friend who worked at Communist Party HQ. The whole thing was very socialist. On a visit back home to Cardiff to see my folks I put copies on sale in Spillers. Cardiff band Reptile Ranch who’d recorded a do it yourself 7-inch single bought one and wrote to me. They lived at 1 Walker Road and invited me down. I ended up staying.”

Is the War Over?
Z. Block Records, Reptile Ranch’s label, operating out of the Grass Roots Coffee Bar in Charles Street, but using Walker Road as a business address, then put out Is The War Over. This was Cardiff punk’s trailblazer compilation album. In addition to Beaver, Mad Dog, The New Form, Addiction, Test to Destruction, and The Riotous Brothers the album had two cuts by probably the only Cardiff band from this period that the world will remember, Young Marble Giants.

Outside the Fleurs was once a red phone box. John and I stare at the empty space it occupied.” We gave out the number of that box for Z. Block,” says John. “Rough Trade rang us there to offer a contract for the Young Marble Giants.” The future was bright. For a time.

John’s own band, The Puritan Guitars, then fell apart when his inability to actually play started to become apparent. Instead he formed a band where you sang. This was a nine-piece doo-wop with added David Bowie outfit called the Skeleteens. The band practised over there. John is pointing at the Maltings Warehouse, a little to the west of The Fleurs. “We went to Paris to busk. I was there more for my ability to speak a bit of French and pass the hat round than my ability as a singer.” Music, despite considerable desire, wasn’t to be John’s future.

East Dock Early Morning Photo: P Finch

Beyond the magic roundabout lies the now enclosed East Dock, full of water, weed and sometimes fish. It’s a sanitised reminder of how this area once was. Warehouses demolished to be replaced by apartment blocks resembling warehouses. A single preserved dock crane. Metal loading buckets cemented to the walkways. The dockside itself railed for safety. No ships bar the preserved and rotting barge, the Eben Haezer, moored outside the Wharf pub. Diving ducks in action. Floating bags and half-submerged cans.

Access is officially via Schooner Way but Atlantic Wharf, as the top end of the dock is known, can be reached by climbing a low wall on Tyndall Street. John is telling me about how Cardiff ended up being the place that defined him as an author. If doo wop wasn’t going to get him there then crime would. The printed version, anyway. Beyond music his abiding interest was the novel noir – crime made literature, crime written down. He’d completed Into the Badlands, a book about American crime writers, and, along with the black London crime novelist Mike Phillips, had decided to research a book on the event that, as we’ve heard,  changed his own career direction, the killing of Cardiff prostitute Lynette White.

Lynette White
On Valentine’s Day, 1988, in a flat above the Kingsport Betting Shop in Cardiff’s James Street, White had been brutally stabbed more than fifty times. The police, floundering around for a suspect, selected three locals as perpetrators, massaged the evidence, and got their conviction. Stephen Miller, Yusef Abdullahi and Anthony Paris, the Cardiff Three, were sent down in 1990. Local indignation was considerable and a campaign to prove their innocence was launched.

John, who’d parted from Phillips at this stage, found himself in Canal Park at the annual mix of dope, Clark’s pies, curried goat, Haile Selassie and dub that is the Butetown Carnival. Here he met Abdullahi’s wife, Alex, working a fundraising stall. Perceived, correctly as it turned out, to be on the side of the innocents, John was invited back to the family house in Alice Street. In the tiny terrace he was confronted with boxes and boxes of prosecution evidence, formally released to the defence. There were interviews with almost every drug user, pimp, sex worker, petty criminal, street walker, layabout, alcoholic, and low-lifer at large in greater Butetown on the night of the 14th February, 1988. Five thousand reports. A sociological document without equal.  

As the book progressed John found himself sitting in Butetown’s now rebranded Paddle Steamer pub surrounded by known criminals and drug-dealers getting the news straight from those who made it. Around him spun an outrage of incredulity and barely repressed rage.  People who would normally never speak to a middle-class boy sitting there with a notebook were induced to tell him how their world worked.  The cause was everything.  John was fighting for them.

John was inspired. His Bloody Valentine, the true tale of justice appallingly being miscarried came out in 1993. The Court of Appeal had ruled that a gross miscarriage of justice had taken place and the Three had been released. It then took until 2000 for the Police to reopen their investigations and a further three years for the real killer, Jeffrey Gafoor, to be convicted using DNA evidence. In 2011, eight more years down the line, ten of those involved  in the original Cardiff Three conviction were finally put on trial for conspiring to pervert the cause of justice.  In the way of things this trial  then collapsed.  The judge ruled that eight of the defendants were not guilty of perverting the course of justice and two more as unable to get a fair trial. The truth recedes and the mist returns.

Cardiff Bay Seafront  Photo: P Finch

The Sea Lock Pound
I’m getting all this as we cross Dock bottom to wend our way through West Close, where the Taff Vale Railway once built steam engines. We go along the side of the old Slipper Baths and enter Canal Park, the grasslands that run south from Cardiff Central Station almost to the sea. This was once the basin of the Glamorgan Canal – the Sea Lock Pound.  The place where the barges carrying coal and iron all the way from Merthyr met the sea. The Pound stayed full of water until the steam dredger Catherine Ethel ripped the sea lock gates off in 1951 and the waterway was abandoned.

We sit on a bench pretty much from where the famous 1950s Bert Hardy Picture Post photo of the Canal Basin that currently adorns John’s study wall would have been shot. John is talking about the Cardiff Trilogy that made his name, linked stories of low-life grit and humour set in the city of his birth. He’d written a short story about a prostitute ripping off a sailor and sent it, along with the manuscript of a spy novel he’d finished, to his agent. “The novel is okay but it’s the short story we like,” was the reply. “Do more.” With the Lynette White evidence to hand and the prospect of publication up ahead the idea for what eventually became the first book of that trilogy, Five Pubs, Two Bars and a Nightclub, was born. 

Beyond the park is Dumballs Road. To the north this leads to Curran Road and off that to Williams Way. This was once site of the Williams steel stockholding and – later – aluminium window family business. Famous enough now to be marked on the map. We forgo the chance to take a photo of John standing by a road sign that bears his name to walk instead past South Wales’ Police’s new fortress-like HQ and over the bridge into Grangetown. The sea, or at least Cardiff Bay’s fresh-water empounded replacement, is in full view. The sun is glinting, aeration pumps are pushing up their bubbles and, officially, there’s not a leak in anyone’s basement for miles around. Prior to the building of the Barrage this was the district’s fear – ground water would rise, sewage would back up and roads would be deluged. Didn’t happen.

The birds that once dined on the flats here have gone, to be replaced with swan and duck. On the Taff’s western bank Channel View Leisure Centre looks out at serried rows of moored yachts. If you live in Butetown then Grangetown is another country. But Henry Bassey, Shirley’s brother lived here, says John. So did Lynette White, once. We pass the Marl, drained playing fields now but once tidal flats, to reach the blue and yellow bulk of Ikea.

Ikea is a Cardiff magnet. Built on the site of the gasworks at the top of Ferry Road it’s been a destination for the upwardly mobile, the wannabe, the hunter for cheapskate shelving, the newly-wed and the working class kitchen replacer for most of the past decade. It’s seen off Maskrey's and Habitat and wrecked the profitability of BHS’s lighting section. There’s pretty much no one under thirty who does not possess an Ikea cutlery drainer or one of those battery coffee frothers that cost a pound. 

John, it turns out, carries an Ikea Family Card. We are here for a traditional lunch and since we’re too early for the much advertised Ikea Swedish Crayfish Season – be a part of the largest crayfish party in the UK & Ireland – which is a pity, we stick with what they’ve got. Mash, gravy and Swedish meatballs with Lingonberry Sauce followed by jelly that looks like Swarfega but tastes like Sunny Delight. What else.

Penarth Head From The Barrage  Photo: P Finch

The Trek Back
I trek back through the Grangetown streets, over the much celebrated Clarence Road Bridge, to side-cut through the residential docks south of James Street. If it were not for the liner-styled buildings that line Mermaid Quay ahead this could be Cardiff’s past hanging on. Thin terraces, gulls, sense of the sea beyond.

I pass the waterside conglomeration of restaurants on which the Bay centres, thick with customers in slow shoes and Marks and Spencer coats. Ahead is the white spire of the wooden Norwegian Church, moved, rebuilt, everything cleaned and replaced so that virtually nothing of the original remains, yet authentic to the last nail. South of it is the Barrage.   The coast. Back on track again.

(This is an updated slice taken from Edging The Estuary - Peter Finch - Seren Books - not quite a Real Book but almost)

Tuesday, 4 August 2015

Cardiff Walking

In this city you need a different approach. Check the wind first. Know that rain arrives like a flight of tigers from the south west.

Nearly all of this place is hard top. Unmade roads and paths full of brown and grass finished thirty years ago. No longer do you need to scrape your boots. 

Cardiff rises. It seems so flat, there in the centre. But it’s not. Bay’s edge to Boulevard de Nantes climbs imperceptibly but steadily. You can roll a marble at the top of Bute Street and watch it track right back to the Pier Head.  

Of poems on walking there are any number but few on urban joy. The unexpected street you’ve never seen before, the new view of a familiar vista, the plantings in the gardens of others, the paths and driveways fabricated from rock and gravel, brick and hardcore, worn slab concrete, sheets of black polythene below scatters of chipped slate. Anything to hold the green growth back.

Names of houses: Ger y Lan, Brook House, Cartref, Homewood, Red House, The Firs (no firs anywhere), Woodside, Wayside, Westside, Hillcrest, Maes-y-Gareg, Lincoln House, Cymric House, Mount Stuart House, River House, Lake View, Fairwinds, Mallards Reach, Brynhyfryd (no lovelies, no hills), Glamorgan House, Cardiff House, The Rectory, The Vicarage, The Old Post Office, The Old Rectory, The Old Surgery, The Old Vicarage, Ty Newydd, Felin Allt, Ty Ni. Nothing great, little grand. No Fort Apache. Just names to mark these places out from the swamp.

Inner city you are invisible. The further out the more your body lights. Flicker crossing Roath.   60 watts over Rhymney. By the time we reach St Mellons you glow like fire. In these suburban brightnesseses the walker cannot be surreptitious. Covert is not a Cardiff word. Enter a street and no matter how silent you are your first step will make everyone look. Why are you here.   What do you want. You can warm your hands on the glowering. Walk on, don’t stop.

But don't walk here.  Whitchurch, Cardiff.  Photo: P Finch