Hurricane Myfanwy is coming across the Bay in a mounting roar. There
are white-tops out there and churning boats. Storm is a permanent
condition this time of year. Autumn. Rain and rain. Pewter skies.
The new Assembly Building web site shows that the architects have
done plenty of work on wind analysis, designing in shelters and lots
of screening along the entrance steps. Doesn't stop doors shaking,
though, as hair gets ripped back from faces and plastic carriers spiral
like weather balloons high into the air.
I've walked round from the airport check-in that is the Millennium
Centre entrance foyer where Dafydd El has been introducing the poet
Grahame Davies as a sort-of washing machine for the ideas of our nation.
Grahame was launching his new Barddas book Achos (in English
that's Because). The Assembly's Presiding Officer lent presence,
illumination and gravitas. He'd also come with his resident instantaneous-translation
service - two women with microphones and a stack of headphones for
the non-Welsh or those not yet able, all sited behind a table fronted
by bottles of wine and complimentary crisps. Grahame had done brilliantly
banging out half a dozen incisive poems and looking as much as he
could like the ten years younger photo of himself inside the book.
Dafydd - Yr Arglwydd Dafydd Elis Thomas, former leader of Plaid Cymru
and now the Presiding Officer for Wales - just by being there had
shown that politicians in this small country value culture just that
little bit more than they do elsewhere.
Dafydd is with us again on the other side of the Assembly's security
machine. Put your keys in the basket, sir, and your coat and your
phone. If there's a positive threat they also check who you rang up
last, what's among the lint in the bottom of your pockets and have
a look at the soles of your shoes. We, the Millennium Centre Arts
Community, are there to check the site prior to the Royal Opening.
In the presence of HMQ our National Poet, Gwyneth Lewis, will read
a poem to mark the occasion. Gwyneth is taller, of course. Most people
are. But by use of clever camera angles the public will never know.
Diversions will Dance. The National Youth Symphonic Brass will play.
Dafydd has fixed the problem of anthems. Sending her victorious inside
the new home of our burgeoning Welsh democracy could not possibly
make the right historical mark. We'll sing it on the steps. Military
bands. Fanfares. The Welsh Regiment in red coats. The Navy in the
Bay. Taffy the Goat. But once inside we'll do Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau Yn
Annwyl I Mi although I hate those words. We need new ones. Can I quote
you on that? Of course you can.
The Senedd is being built for the Assembly Government but once it
is complete it will be handed over to the Parliament. The Government
will use it but the building will belong to the people rather than
the politicians. This fine distinction in ownership is important and
one that means much to the Presiding Officer. It is an important component
of the democratic process. "We would not be a proper country
without a proper Parliament," he tells me. "The world has
to see that."
The Richard Rogers designed Building has been a long time coming.
On the earliest maps the area of future build is shown as sea. Tidal
flats. When Bute got round to building his first dock at Cardiff in
1839 the debating chamber's site was sunk in salt marsh, south of
the town's fragile sea wall. When that West Dock was joined by the
still extant East in 1855, and the complex connected to the sea by
a series of basins and locks, the Assembly's land, reclaimed by drainage
and infill, became the site of the Rumney Railway's coal sidings.
Steam and dust. Dolphins and coal staiths. Black gold.
But a twentieth century of stagger and decline put paid to all that.
The Docks dimmed and the railways went. Basins were filled, locks
removed. By the 1990s, under plans for redevelopment, the site was
shown as a luxury hotel. Near it was the Roald Dahl Centre for Children's
Literature, a spinnaker tower at the end of a spiralling jetty, a
leisure flag for an as yet unreborn Wales.
The 1997 referendum changed everything. Wales would be like Scotland,
deciding its own destiny, with its own government and its own parliament.
But reined in, just that little bit. No powers of primary legislation.
No powers to tax. Downgraded so as not to frighten the urban middle
classes, parliament avoided, called an assembly. But by a combination
of stealth and forthright rebranding we are hard on the way to changing
all that. Already the Assembly is a Government and its principle building
a Senedd. There's a new Act with new powers in the offing. We have
Ministers, a Cabinet, and a Presiding Officer.
In 1998 Ron Davies, First Minister elect, rejected the claims of
Carmarthen, Swansea, Aberystwyth, Wrexham, Llanystumdwy and Merthyr
as site for our new government and chose the fifty-year old capital.
Not the City Hall (wrong image, too cranky, too difficult to police
and upgrade), not Callaghan Square (wrong shape, too noisy, inglorious)
and chose the heart of the Bay - full of water, space, and light.
Crickhowell House on Pier Head Street was selected to house support
staff and a temporary debating chamber while the site next door was
earmarked for the real thing. The Richard Rogers partnership won the
bid process with their vision in sustainable wood and stone. Their
house would be of air and glass with a torrent of grey steps moving
ghat-like into the south-West waters of Cardiff Bay. Their edifice
was topped with an enormous and louvered wind cowl in stainless-steel,
largest in Western Europe, bent like an oast house, pushing out waste
air into the prevailing winds.
Compared to most rival European debating chambers the Senedd is cheap.
Almost £67 million for a national landmark which will demonstrate
further to a reluctant Wales the pre-eminence of Capital Cardiff.
The Senedd steps up from the water on slate, throws itself skywards
in glass, and then bends back in a huge roof soffit made from western
red-cedar, to plummet into the building's centre and the circular
mother nest that is the debating chamber itself. Chapel, Star Wars
cruiser, concert hall. The space is full of rounded air and plunging
Our group cross the steps from the south to hide from the wind in
the large slate-floored neuadd. "This is the Neuadd," Gwen
Parry, the Assembly's Head of Communications, tells us. "Neuadd.
That name won't be translated." Security working for the builders,
Taylor Woodrow, are not keen on me taking photos. I might see something
I should not. Although I can't imagine what. Gun emplacements. Bomb
shelters. Drinks cabinets. A workman padded tight inside a yellow-green
security vest goes by. He is carrying a motorised stone-cutter and
has his hard-hat ear pads swivelled up reminiscent of Mickey Mouse.
Keith from Music Centre Wales reckons that the building, which he'd
christened a filling station when we were outside looks more like
a crematorium now we're in. Totally unfair.
The giant slatted-wood ceiling high above us undulates as if the
sea had come here and left its waves behind. The views of the Bay
and Penarth head beyond are huge. The Debating Chamber itself is surrounded
by a 125 seat gallery, made from local oak and installed by a wood-turner
from Bridgend. You can peer down and watch Members click their keyboards,
check their notes, scratch their heads. There are glass screens to
stop you chucking things or throwing yourself off. Like CJ from The
West Wing, Gwen shepherds us on to view the committee rooms and the
glass fronted elevators. The Monarch doesn't do lifts, she tells us.
The world would end if HMQ got stuck. Her Majesty will climb the stairs.
The Building is significantly green. Ventilation will be natural
Cardiff Bay prevailing, the boilers will burn wood chip, wind will
be harnessed to generate some of the Senedd's electricity. Tokenism
is the scale of things but significant in the signal these things
Outside again we walk back across the yard where a multi-storey may
someday be built. Or maybe not. Car transport and the Bay do not mix
well. The Roath Dock to the south of us berthed the rebuilt Sir Galahad
last time I looked. The week before it was a nuclear sub. Today there
is only the Helwick lightship A red painted water-borne outpost of
multi denominational Christianity, sandwiches and tea in cups. Lloyd
Robson did a poetry reading on deck once, said there was little swell
but a whole lot of roaring from the ships generators. He reached a
new audience. A small one but growing. Like the Senedd's. And at £67m
for five thousand new built square meters that's not a bad investment
In the event it snows. An inch or so. March 1st, St David's Day 2006
is white for the first time in decades. School trips to witness the
historic opening are cancelled. In most places outside Cardiff the
Welsh world slows and stops. Children watch us on TV, stamping around
in the slush. The Army is here, red dress uniforms. HMS Westminster,
a type 23 frigate and about the best the Navy can do these days sits,
guns ready, in Roath Dock. There's a flypast from four Hawk trainers.
Dafydd El is inadvertently broadcast from the Senedd Chamber, adjusting
the height of a seat and referring to the monarch as a short arse.
Later he says that, of course, he was referring not to HMQ but himself.
No one cares. In the Neuadd Gwyneth Lewis reads her official verse.
A challenge resolved to perfection. Over the road at the WMC Simon
Mundy gives an alternative view. There is cheering. Mike Jenkins reads
a short story with strong republican leanings. The front row of his
audience walk out.
Outside the local police (yellow jackets) stand and shuffle, the
specials (wearing red) stride, test doors and ask people who they
are. There are a couple of bomb threats and a few low key protests
"Colonial Governor (Hain) Out Of Welsh Democracy" and "People's
Rights Not Royal Prerogatives" are seen on banners tied to the
Dock railings. There are cameras on cranes and podiums, hand-helds,
in floating studios, atop buildings, on stalks and sticks. More media
than visitors. More visitors than locals. The locals are back there
in The Packet and The White Hart and The Bute Dock. This isn't for
At tea time Charles and Camilla meet the crachach before taking in
an Opera. Their audience is thick with Brigadeers wearing medals and
dignitaries from the greater Commonwealth. Robes, hats, turbans, ceremonial
headgear of kinds I've never seen. When he speaks, in Welsh first,
rather like Churchill once used French, the Prince is surprisingly
entertaining. A dozen camera phones take snaps. Then on the Millennium
Centre stage it's Bryn Terfel's Dutchman. But I go home. Outside someone
skateboards along the edge of vehicle barrier. Snow's gone. Everything
is different now. Is it?
The Carpet Rolls
Photo: Peter Finch
Real Cardiff #3: The
End of the Boom - Senedd - Whitchurch
Hospital - Leckwith Bridge - Contents
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