Real Cardiff

The Royal Oak hides beyond

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Real Cardiff
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The first few hundred yards of Broadway at the town end are called Four Elms Road, after the trees that once stood here. Beyond, religion stakes an early claim. Just past the site of Longcross Barracks (now an outbuilding of the increasingly defunct Royal Infirmary) rises Trinity Methodist with its hardwood doors, flowers, glass and bill-boards offering punters "a wide range of mid-week activities for all ages". Next door is an imposing but derelict Wesleyan pile, once used for God, then the BBC and now abandoned. Broadway itself begins rather uneventfully at the traffic lights next to The Clifton, the first of the street's many pubs. And there are quite a few. Even by working-class Cardiff standards Broadway is well served. A long time ago I made the mistake here, when drinking with Ray Smith, the late Welsh actor, of attributing his lack of UK national success to his status as a valley boy. "It's not fashionable", I told him, "Being Welsh. Doesn't work". Smith, a small man but with a rich commanding voice of Richard Burton quality, erupted. I should have expercted it. What did I imagine he'd do? Agree? Then, as these things do, in public houses after several beers, indignation turned from the personal to the general, seeping out and away from the table at which we sat. "This place doesn't even stock Welsh beer," yelled Smith. "Doesn't exist," replied the landlord. "What about Felinfoel." The regulars watched impassively as we were escorted out.

Before the city and its buildings encroached and the land here was still open, boggy field Broadway was known as Green Lane. Its exact line holds, even on the very earliest of Cardiff maps. That's one of the great discoveries of local history: the courses of rivers may be changed, lakes may be filled, land can be drained, buildings rise, houses fall, and habitation can move about like an amoeba but the lines of the main thoroughfares remain stable, most of them, just where they've always been.

By present day standards Broadway is not broad at all, although I guess that in the days of green lanes it might have been thought so. Two carts could pass each other here unhindered. No doubt they did this at the kink in the road where the massage parlour and Jerks black, gold chain and t-shirt café now stand. Most of the shops are either places which reprocess second hand cookers, bedroom furniture and carpets or are boarded up and falling down. After a hundred years of rain and neglect the housing stock, which went up towards the end of the nineteenth century, is on its last legs. In between those buildings that remain habitable have sprung small trading enterprises of the kind you just don't see in city centres - Lalazar Halal Take Away, the Tattoo Studio, the Saroosh Fish Bar, charity shops, a TV aerial erection outfit, places selling chrome fitments for motor bikes, heavy metal amps and, in the middle of it all, Reg Braddick's cycle shop, a legend in the city.

Locomotive on right
Broadway looking east

At the far end things get rougher and women with shaved heads and tattoos on their necks start to appear. The Locomotive, now all satellite TV lounge and Karaoke, used to house the city's best sixties folk club. Dominic Behan sang here, accompanied by a whole tray of single malts. Bright women with English accents and Appalachian mountain dulcimers held the cord jeaned crowds in awe. And here the Hennesseys got an early taste of public acclaim. These were the glory days before Cardiffness got into their songs and certainly before half their lyrics turned Cymraeg. Their music was unashamed Irish. It's a flavour that hangs on in Broadway today.

Outside The Locomotive someone passes in a car which has all four indicator lights flashing and a woop woop alarm going on under the bonnet. Nobody takes any notice. There's not a flicker among the two women with wheeled shopping carts or the Asian family stringing their way along bearing red Kwik-Save carrier bags. The road pitches on past The Bertram, the Labour Club, the second-hand record shop (now simply a second hand shop, no blues, no rock, no mouldy unplayable Frank Sinatra or Funk Hits in Hi-Fi, full now of ill-shaped wardrobes and stacked settees), a cod-Elizabethan boarded-up edifice on the corner of Blanche Street, and the New Dock Tavern, to finally rejoin roaring Newport Road at The Royal Oak.

When I passed the Oak had an Irish flag flying from one upper window and, rather incongruously, a Canadian one from another. This is the pub that has a working boxing gym upstairs and a ground-floor ultra-traditional bar dedicated to the memory of Peerless Jim Driscoll. When Alexander Cordell came here researching for his novel about the boxer the locals he spoke to were all certain they'd have cameo roles in the great man's next historical adventure. The Oak is one of Cardiff's best known unreconstructed Brains pubs. It exudes that welcoming dark, smoky, scuff and spit atmosphere which is utterly absent from family pubs and completely alien to the light wood and chrome favoured by drinking's new generation. The Oak's band room at the back can be a brilliantly furious sweat shop. The Socialist Worker Party and other people's political manifestations of the far left meet here over roll-ups and dark ale. Prose writers gather in the lounge. James Hawes (Rancid Aluminium, White Merc With Fins) and John Williams (Cardiff Dead) can sometimes be seen the other side of several beers. It's a friendly place. When carrying out what could laughingly be called research for this piece I tried to get myself a seat on the long bench in the bar. Take in the atmosphere, that's what you do. "Could you move up, do you think?" I asked a big guy in builder's boots. The giant satellite TV screen above was showing football, what else. "No," he muttered. "I bloody well carn't".

Royal Oak

Peter Finch

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