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)

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