Real Cardiff Three

Real Cardiff Three cover

Read about

Real Cardiff #3
Now the Boom
Has Bust


Leckwith Bridge

What's in the Book


Real Cardiff #1
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
Ty Draw


Womanby St.

What else?

Real Cardiff #2
The Canna
Billy Banks
Ely Fields
Llys TalyBont



Cardiff Poets Map
Cardiff City Map
Cardiff, New York

Shots of the Bay
and the City

More Scenes

Cardiff Fictions and


What the Critics

Real Cardiff

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

Big Book of

to Cardiff

to site map


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.

The Senedd Glass

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 light.

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 send.

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 at all.

HMS Westmisnter Roath Dock

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 them.

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?

red carpet at Senedd
The Carpet Rolls
Photo: Peter Finch

Peter Finch

Real Cardiff #3: The End of the Boom - Senedd - Whitchurch Hospital - Leckwith Bridge - Contents


back to the top