Bute Street is slowing down. The chicanes, narrows and parking bays
of urban traffic calming have made their appearance throughout its
length. The render on the Queen Street - Butetown rail link embankment
retaining wall has been chipped back to reveal clean Victorian stone.
At one stroke some of the city's most innovative graffiti has become
dust. The pavements are riddled with art work from the Bute Street
Public Art Project. Ten signposted sections celebrating former Bute
Street buildings - the Cairo Hotel, the Powell Duffryn Steam Coal
Co. The pavers are embossed and engraved with art works: kids drawings,
South African shillings, bits of poetry, Islamic zig zag, fish, memorials
to one-armed Joe Erskin, Shirley Bassey, the things that happened
here. To de-code it all you need a local guide. There's hardly any
unblemished pavement left.
Before the railways this was mostly tide-field meadow, marshland,
drainage ditches, fishing henges, the Cardiff south moors - Soudrey.
No one lived here much until Bute drained it for his great docklands.
Calling it Tiger Bay came later. Portuguese seamen reputedly sailing
though the rough waters of the Bristol Channel said reaching Cardiff
was like sailing into a bay of Tigers. Did they? Who knows. The name
rose, stuck, then, when they pulled the old streets down to replace
them with high rise, fell. There's the Tiger Bay Café on the bright
new frontage and they are planning a Tiger Bay Bar for the new Millennium
Centre but the name is not much on the lips of the locals. This is
Butetown. Was, is, still.
Butetown is now a Muslim district. The sprawling two-up two-down,
back to back bad housing to the west was replaced in the fifties with
new brick link and high-rise. These are already worn to the wire and
being replaced again. Turn left at Hannah Street and there's a mosque.
Further up near Maria Street is the Greek Orthodox. But hardly anyone
attends now. The Loudon Square, upper Butetown population has a high
proportion of Somali and Afro-Caribbean with a smattering of Bengali.
Three women pass wearing full veils, a big man jogs with his track-suit
hood pulled right up. Three black kids cycle down the pavement on
bikes they've long outgrown.
Bute Street looking north.
At the north end are the twin towers of the Church of St Mary the
Virgin and St Stephen the Martyr. This celebration of Christ is the
replacement for Cardiff's lost and sunk original, the first St Mary's
Church which stood on St Mary's Street when that road bordered the
Taff. It was the flood of 1607 that did for it. Foundations surfaced
and skeletons were washed down river and out to sea. The great church
entered a period of terminal decline. Its replacement, erected with
cash from the Marquis of Bute and funds raised by, among others, William
Wordsworth, opened on the new site to fanfare and flags in 1843.
The Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Stephen the Martyr
There was a fete in progress when I passed it during a blazing afternoon
in August, 2000. The stall holders were wilting. Two or three decorator's
tables were covered with car boot junk, a fat lady in a hat was running
a cake stall which also sold crisps and cans of coke. There was a
spot where you could throw darts at cards, and, next to it, a table
loaded with bin bags, plastic clothes pegs and washing bowls. Someone
had resurrected, from a basement, one of those zigzag wires connected
to a bell where the object was get a wooden handled hook to traverse
the course without making anything ring. But there was no battery,
so it didn't work. House music thrummed from two huge speakers set
in the Church porch. There were at least half a dozen stall holders,
smoking, smiling and talking, but not a single punter anywhere. This
was three o clock on a Saturday. Next door ran the cut grass of a
medium sized playing field, goal posts at each end, no dumped cars
or other wreckage. Empty. In all the thousands of times I've passed
it I've never seen anyone there.
Further up towards the new Bute Square (now renamed Callaghan Square
after one of C ardiff's greater political successes) - lay the site
of the legendary Charleston Club. This was a forties-style drink and
gambling joint complete with a bow-tied doorman. Charles took your
coat and directed you to either smoky roulette or soft, hip modern
jazz. The clientele were largely media types, a few writers, the odd
actor, and the occasional administrator. Most of these guys simply
fancied a drink after ten thirty in the stumbling city once everything
else had shut down. This was the early seventies and lifestyles in
Cardiff had yet to make their significant hedonistic shift.
Today clubs dominate the city centre, south to the Hayes, north
up Park Place. Finding somewhere to drink is no longer a Cardiff worry.
The wrecked old Salvation Army Hostel has given way to a bright new
development which looks like a Dan Dare vision of future housing.
The diesel rattles gently along the embankment top on its regular
shuttle. First car empty, three stragglers in the second. There's
a bunch of dust from a passing lorry. A few tourists fluttering their
guide books head south on foot. Clean trainers. Bright faces. Not
far. Ahead Amber Hiscott and David Pearl's toughened glass green and
orange art works dominate the square on the bay side of the rail line.
The city is trying hard to move south.
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