On Cardiff Bay
Otis Redding had no trouble writing about his Dock Of The Bay. "Two thousand miles I roamed, just to make this dock my home" he sang in his Sixties hit about the heaven he finally found in San Francisco.
For me, the journey was no more than a couple of miles. But where to begin writing about my Dock of the Bay is difficult. Where to end it is virtually impossible.
Why? Because firstly, I have a personal connection and passion for Cardiff Bay, which means I could write about it to my heart's content. Secondly, there is so much to tell - it’s a location of many guises, with a hugely rich past, a diverse present and still so much more to come in the future.
I have a strong affiliation with the area. As a youngster, I defied the warnings not to go down the few miles what was then a distant echo of a shipping nidustry phenomenon known as Tiger Bay. "Good boys don’t go down the docks," was every mother's mantra. But I was a Bad Boy.. Or so I convinced myself at the time. I thoroughly enjoyed dancing to the sounds of sweet soul music in The Big Windsor. That club no longer exists, like so many of the other old haunts which vibrated with locally-nurtured musicians and radiated love,sweat and the odd tear to those who appreciated that unique atmosphere.
A friend of mine has a burning ambition – to visit all the capitals of Europe and experience only the best of what they have to offer. He’s taken weekend breaks everywhere from Paris to Prague, Budapest to Berlin, sampling the delights of no fewer than seventeen cities to date.
This travelling superhero won't allow me to reveal his identity in case the burglars call at his home whist he's away, so I'll simply call him Mr.D. What I can tell you is that Mr.D stays in top class hotels, dines in the most distinguished restaurants and shops in places where only millionaires would dare to flash their gold credit cards When he tires of travel, he returns home.
To Canton. No, not, Canton, China, as you may expect of an intrepid traveller, but Canton, Cardiff.
I know a lot of people who live in Canton. Most live on the ‘right side’ of the road, unlike Mr. D. (perhaps that’s why he doesn’t want to be named!) What is the ‘right side’ of the road? It’s supposedly the better side of Cowbridge Rd East. The Pontcanna side. That’s the left side if you’re heading towards Cardiff Centre. I can’t see a great deal of difference myself – this busy thoroughfare with its scramble of restaurants, charity shops, bakeries and pubs – is surrounded on both sides by beautiful Victorian terraces and three storey town houses. However, there is a difference in the house prices the closer you get to Llandaff fields.
As a youngster, my mother was brought up in a two bed terrace which backed onto the fields. In those days, it was a less salubrious place to live - as was Severn Grove, where , when her family could afford to move up a notch, she spent most of her Canton years. Severn Grove is now one of the most respectable places to have an abode. People argue about whether it’s in Canton or Pontcanna now it’s become ‘posh’. Romilly Crescent and Conway Road have been gentrified too. Fifties modernistations have been ripped out and original dressers, clawfoot, roll top baths and pewter door knobs reinstalled. Syr David Avenue next to Thompson Park, and the houses surrounding Victoria Park are also in big demand today.
Billy the Seal was once Victoria Park's most famous resident. He was caught in the net of a fishing boat off the Irish coast in 1912, and was presented to Victoria Park's little zoo, where he soon became the star attraction. When the Canton area was flooded in 1927, Billy escaped and was found boarding a tram in Cowbridge Road!
I’d place a small bet that you know a thing or two about Chepstow . . . and that those one or two things are likely to be about its major landmarks. I'll wager it'll either be its Castle or its Racecourse.
So I'll have a double banker on History and Horseracing. For indeed, Chepstow is best known for its splendid Norman abode and - for those of us a little less historically cultured and more partial to a ‘flutter’ - the home of the Welsh Grand National. An outside bet is that literary fans will know that Chepstow was the home to the creator and author of Harry Potter - J K Rowling.
But, what’s not commonly known , I suspect, is where Chepstow got its name. So here’s a piece of information for you to add to your town trivia bank. Chepstow’s name is derived from the Saxon chepe meaning market and stowe meaning meeting place. Market Meeting place. There, bet you didn’t know that! Now you do, there are no prizes or winnings for guessing that Chepstow's long history has revolved around industries such as shipbuilding and salmon fishing . . . and its market place
I usually have a tale or two tell about each location I write about. There is usually a memory or experience which enthuses me to start putting pen-to-paper or keyboard-to-screen. Not so with Blackwood. I’ve always imagined it a dark place – black, in fact. An obvious clue is in its name, its coal mining history and being the birthplace of The Manic Street Preachers – producers of such happy-go-lucky songs like Suicide Alley and Generation Terrorist. You get my point?
I'm not alone. Whilst having coffee with a friend, I mentioned I would be writing about Blackwood. ”Where exactly is it?” he asked. This, a question from a man who has trav ll ed the world and could tell me where to eat with tribesmen in Timbuktu and the best place to flag down a tuk-tuk in Thailand. He has lived in Wales all his life – his home town is Barry – not that far from Blackwood really. We both agreed a visit was vital. Blackwood had one up on us – but only for a short while. We would not be too hasty in calling this kettle black. Blinkers off. We would be enlightened.
Our journey begins in Cardiff on a bright, blue - skied, Saturday morning in February. We decide not to take a map, but to bodly go and follow our noses and the signs for Blackwood. Our trek on the Road to Find Out starts on the A470 towards Caerphilly – we know it’s that direction and there are sure to be signposts . . But, there are none. So, a couple of circles around Caerphilly later, accompanied by a few squabbles about which route to try next, my woman’s wisdom points us in the direction of the Rhymney Valley on the A469. Still no signs. We turn off right, because that feels right. Another ten minutes driving and still not the foggiest idea of whether we’re on track. Then, at last a sign for Blackwood. One hour into our journey, we arrive at our destination with the knowledge that we have wasted half the time ‘exploring’ Caerphilly! Now, let there be light.
Welcome to Blackwood - Coed Duon, says the bilingual sign. This town is very open, modern sprawling - and light! There are not the lines of terraced houses running along steep , dark valley sides that we expected. Excellent link roads skirt around vast numbers of newly built (small and very large) family homes, which themselves loop around the heart of ‘old’ Blackwood. The developers have maximised its proximity to Cardiff , Newport, Merthyr Tydfil and the M4. This is most definitely a base for commuters. Had we done like most cilivised people do and looked at the map, we could have done the journey is half the time.