When I was a youngster living in Cardiff the docks area was still known as Tiger Bay. It had a decidedly dangerous feel about it – certainly after dark when the district’s banks and shipping offices had closed. There were rough, tough pubs and unkempt, weed-sprouting dock basins and wasteland. The world’s seamen still wandered around in groups speaking languages from Ukrainian to Chinese.
It had character all right, but polite society kept away, apart from those risk-takers who fancied taking the chance of finding some local colour. Then in the 1980s the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation began to redevelop the area. Now forty years on there are chic cafes and bars, classy shops and restaurants. Then came international insurance companies in elegant modern buildings, the National Assembly for Wales in its Lord Rogers-designed chamber building, multi-screen cinema complexes and Techniquest which is one of Europe’s best hands-on science centres.
Tiger Bay has become Cardiff Bay and draws crowds of people round the clock and at all times of the year.
It has a public art policy with fine modern sculpture dotted around the waterside. And “waterside” is in itself the crucial factor. Nowadays it actually has permanent deep water in its lagoon. When I was young the world’s second highest tidal range meant you stared at deep, oozing mudflats for half the day. Now the barrage allows ships and salmon to pass, but impounds more than 300 acres of lake.
The days of shipping more than ten million tons of Rhondda coal worldwide each year have gone, but it’s still worth walking a couple of hundred metres away from the waterfront to find some of the area’s history. The Victorian Coal Exchange and the grand Natwest bank building in West Bute Street still conjure-up the glory days. The Exchange is now in dire condition and in danger of demolition as shrubs sprout from its upper floors.
I still know older pubs with cosmopolitan dockland character and Welsh versions of Paul Whitehouse’s “dodgy geezer”.
So after wandering maybe a mile around the Bay – and don’t miss the timber-built Norwegian seamen’s church now restored as a café and gallery – head north towards the city centre. There are basically two parallel routes. I’d keep away from the new, five-storey commercially-built flats that line Lloyd George Avenue. It’s dull and characterless in the extreme. Instead follow old Bute Street which will at least offer a little local atmosphere even if it is a bit rundown.
Once you cross to the north side of the main railway keep an eye out for the old Golden Cross pub. Its Victorian ceramic tile murals are worth a quick detour. For more, old Cardiff atmosphere you could look into a couple of other pubs in the centre – the Cottage and the Old Arcade beside Cardiff’s Victorian indoor market. And don’t forget to saunter through the city’s many Victorian shopping arcades.
Cardiff has always been the most popular rugby venue in the world because the stadium is right, slap-bang in the city centre. It’s as if England’s Twickenham ground had been airlifted in next to Piccadilly Circus. The Millennium Stadium towers above everything. You can tour it if you want – but it would be more rewarding to buy tickets for a match.
While the Scottish aristocrats, the Marquises of Bute, were coining it from their industrial developments in the Docks, the third marquis was returning the profits to the city through the castle and the Edwardian civic centre. He employed distinctly quirky architect and designer William Burges – on a budget of £300,000 in mid-Victorian times – to rebuild the castle. The public rooms are an absolute must for visitors. To say they’re rich in design is a huge understatement. This is crazy Victorian Gothic at its brashest and best.
Heading north from the castle you once more have two distinct options. You could stroll past the castle’s “animal wall” with its statues of wild animals and affectionately known by locals as “Cardiff Zoo” and into the thousands of acres of Bute Park and the riverside Llandaff Fields – or head east just a couple of hundred metres to City Hall, the Law Courts, the University, the Wales Office and the headquarters of the National Museums and Galleries of Wales.
The white, Portland stone exteriors are as impressive as any civic centre in Europe and many of the collections in the museum ( particularly the Impressionist paintings) are worth a couple of hours of anyone’s time. Either way head on north through the parkland for another mile. It’s all flat along the course of the River Taff and after crossing the four lane A48 by footbridge you’ll see Llandaff Cathedral ahead of you. It’s interior is dominated by the Epstein “Christ in Majesty”
It nestles on the river plain with the Cathedral Green, Bishop’s palace and Deanery on the hill above. Llandaff village has adequate restaurant eating, some friendly local pubs and a couple of quality art and craft shops.
The total, straight line walking distance from Cardiff Bay to Llandaff village is a little over four miles without detours around the Bay area, the city centre or Llandaff. It’s almost directly south to north the whole way. You’d better allow six miles by the time you’ve strolled off the route to see other attractions or buildings. You won’t have climbed more than eighty feet along the entire walk.
GETTING TO CARDIFF.
By Rail …. Cardiff is served by First Great Western trains from London Paddington and by cross country services from the North of England, Midlands and the West Country.
By road …. If you’re driving swing off the M4 just west of Newport where the M48 diverges left and follow signs for the city centre or to give you your first Welsh lesson – it’s called Canol y Ddinas. There’s low cost parking as you approach the centre from the north.