Real Cardiff

all roads lead to Cardiff

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Real Cardiff
Bute Street
Charles Street
City Road
Flat Holm
The Four Elms
The Garth
Gorsedd Gardens
Hadfield Road
Lloyd George Ave
Mount Stuart Square
Newport Road

The Parks of Roath
The Pearl


Womanby St.

Cardiff Poets Map
Cardiff, New York
Shots of the Bay
and the City

More Scenes

Cardiff Fictions and

Hamadryad Park
The Bay
St David's Hall
The Museum
The City
Check Your Accent
Ffynnon Denis

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If you look at John Speed's 1610 maps of Cardiff you'll see a walled town hugging a meandering river. To the east and west are great marshes open to marauding floods and tides. To the north the disenfranchised Cymry; southwards the still clean waters of the Bristol Channel, and the open sea. At the bottom end of town is the great church of St Mary. Cardiff is tiny - fifteen or so streets - a castle and two monasteries. These, flanking the battlements, one to west and one to the east, are the poor and holy houses of the Black and the Grey Friars. In medieval times Christ was still strong.

Today both monasteries are gone, long gone. You can walk the foundations of the Dominican Priory, Blackfriars, at the Castle end of Bute Park. The walls were largely collapsed by the late 1500s and it was the Marquis of Bute who rediscovered the foundations when he was creating his great park in the mid-nineteenth century. Greyfriars, to the east, stayed the course for much longer. After the dissolution the buildings were turned into a town house by John Herbert and used by his family for two centuries until internecine dispute, decay and inevitable collapse set in. In terms of local history they were long lived. The walls, or some of them, were still there as late as the 1960s; a seven hundred year monument to how the city had once been. Developers, however, have no heart, no soul, no sense of the past. Why should they? Money is a matter for today.

When Pearl Assurance House, Cardiff's first genuine high-rise, was built in 1967 the builders arrived wearing white contagion suits and carrying oxygen. The JCBs had uncovered mass grave pits from the time of Black Death. The Plague could still be there, waiting its chance, still alive in the ancient bones. But there was nothing to fear. Cardiff's damp had seen the evil off. The trenches went in, the dust and debris and came out. Llywelyn Bren, leader of the Welsh revolt of 1315 and whose wooden tomb was here when Rice Merrick visited in 1578, was excavated with the rest. Lost. Glass and concrete were all that was important now.

At 26 stories the Pearl was high. Given over to offices with terrific views - the Welsh Development Agency and the Crown Prosecution Service both relished their sea vistas - the building had lights on top to warn passing aircraft and became a marker for Cardiffians everywhere. You could see it from Bristol, from the Vale, from far out to sea. At Christmas they put an illuminated star on top. Yet as a structure the building was hated. Ugly. Inappropriate. Damaging. Unwelcoming. Inessential. Unwanted. Uncalled for. Built despite. In your face. You're having it. Screw you.

so many windows

Around its base were multi-storey car parks for users and a large expanse of paved court. Sky buildings require space in which to flex themselves where they touch ground. Over the years there have been a million bright ideas for the use of this pedestrian bonus. Excellent, many of them. Make it a cafe quarter, put out tables, chairs, sun umbrellas. Let it for open-air art. Paint the slabs. Run a market. Kids play ground. Make music here. The ideas arrive from the mouths of out-of-town developers, wizz kids, impresarios with an eye to demography and foot traffic. Never from those who live and work on Greyfriars and who know well that the tall Pearl pulls down wind and spins hurricane where once the sun simply shone. From the bookshop that for a time occupied a ground story here shoplifters were regularly seen losing their prizes as the gusts shook their coats from them and blew their lifted paperbacks like leaves. The space ended as an irregular spin for Skateboarders and a place where drunks tried to lie down, but found they couldn't.

In our literature the Pearl is one of the least mentioned of Cardiff landmarks. In the flurry of novels and short fiction with a Cardiff background that have appeared in the last thirty years no one appears to have plotted the high rise in. Duncan Bush, John Williams, Dannie Abse, Lewis Davies and Sion Eirian give the block scant coverage. Great writers, however, regularly visited, read-at and launched their works in the Oriel Bookshop which took over the ground-floor premises when it moved here from Charles Street in the mid-nineties and sold lit, crit, po and fic until the space was rebuilt as sparkly Ha-Ha's bar and eatery in 1999. Literature flourished against the sounds of ducted air conditioning, slashing rain and distant car alarms.

In 1998 the building changed hands and was rechristened Capital Tower, a name almost all locals have decided to ignore. The incoming venture capitalist developers have reclad the car parks and re-hashed entrances and walkways to bring the Pearl into the Twenty-first. The bookshop, galleries and job centre which occupied the lower levels during the 80s and 90s have been replaced by wood-laminated and chrome-embossed café-bars where the food looks like art work and is served on oversized plates by slim black-clad waitresses with towels folded neatly into the backs of their belts. The money flows from the pockets of the new-gen young whose target of regular alcoholic oblivion differs only in the matter of scale from that of the gin palace and skunky pub clientele who came here through the centuries before.

On my most recent visit I sat in Ha-Has with a lager and a plate of multi-plex sandwiches and felt utterly dislocated. In a former incarnation I sold poetry here. Hard to imagine. Then I noticed the woman at the next table had a copy of The World's Wife in her bag. Carol Ann Duffy. The acceptable face but still the real stuff. The world still on track.

Peter Finch

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The Pearl



Chew string. Make it as wet as you can. Lay it along the gutter of your chosen book Put it next to the plate you wish to remove. Replace the book on the shelf. Leave quiet for five minutes to enable the saliva to penetrate the paper. Return and slide the plate out. It will rip soundlessly. Art for free.

Wear a greatcoat. Large, scarf, double breasted, flap and hang. Books can slide in easily from shelves at waist height.

Bags. Never underestimate the two handled tote, open zip, half full of compressible clothes. Drop in the paperbacks. Crush them up.

Fall over, diversion. Accomplice clears the shelf.

Fall over, diversion. The stock you shower from the shelf with you ends up under your coat.

Fall over, diversion. The books you have in your briefcase they help you carry to the door.

Insult the counter staff. They will not want to continue eye contact. Help yourself.

Take the book to the cash point and insist it's yours, given to you as a present in error, you have it anyway, you don't want it, it's a mistake, can you have a refund, this once, no receipt sorry but you are a regular customer even if you are not, smile, yes yes, they flicker, the money comes at you, take it and go.

Take the £80 art coffee table masterwork from the display shelf and boldly march with it out through the entrance. Such audacity. Half the time no one will notice you've gone.

Complain. Makes you innocent.

Run. You are usually faster.

Not at closing time or first customer. Join the crowds mid-morning, lunch-time, 3.00pm Saturday afternoon.

Oh the brilliance of Christmas and heavy rain.

Oriel prosecuted. The manager could manage 6 minute miles. Someone once made off with 400 postcards showing the grave of Dylan Thomas. Oriel got them all back.