Coming up Womanby Street in August with the sun on my back. There
are three women in front of me wearing heels that haven't been this
high since 1961. They've got glittery bags big enough to hold a cigarette
lighter and a lipstick. One's got celtic interlacing tattooed around
her bicep and the other two have ankle chains. I've no idea if they
are going out or returning home. This is the oldest part of the city,
the dirtiest, the most exciting.
At one time Womanby would have risen away from the town quay at lower
Westgate Street. Before the Taff was realigned, tall ships unloaded
their cargoes more or less where Macdonald's and the multi-story car
park are now. The Glamorgan County Council Staff Club would have been
a sailor's tavern. The Millennium Stadium would have been a tidal
swamp. Womanby, the name is actually a corruption of Houndemanneby,
a Norse word meaning 'huntsman's dwelling', goes back to the twelfth
century which is possibly an all-comers record for Cardiff. As a street
it is narrow and dark, readily betraying its mediaeval origins.
As the street rises slowly past the City Arms, an unreconstructed
Brains pub now taken over by youth, Jones Court appears on your right.
This tiny run of workers terraced houses are the joy of the local
council. Restored to chocolate-box perfection and with the most beautiful
of pointing they are cleaner today than they have been since they
were built in the early nineteen-hundreds. They are home to an architectural
practise and the council weights and measures department. There's
a gate that locks the quiet Court from night-lively Womanby. Dope
deals are done in its shadows.
Beyond here, where the old town slaughterhouse once stood, is Club
CF1 into which the girls I have been following turn. They vanish through
an anonymous boarded door next to a notice which announces The
Bikers Ball and Every Friday American Table Dancing At The
Devil's Lounge. There are a bunch of tourists here in soft shoes
and plaid pants taking photographs of each other with the Castle at
the top of the street as a background. Cardiff Marketing are at last
seeing some results from their work.
Womanby Street looking north to the Castle
For its size, it's only a short stubby little thing, Womanby has
a huge number of drinking places. It always did have. Westgate Street's
latest, vast Wetherspoons has a rear entrance here. Above The Horse
and Groom (which was once called the Red Cow) is the Toucan Club.
Opposite is the famous Clwb Ifor Bach. Established in the 70s Clwb
was a bright new intrusion for traditional Cardiff drinkers, most
of whom had either West country or Irish origins. To get in you had
to join and to join you had to siarad cymraeg. Economic necessity,
however, forced the owners to relax this rule a bit at weekends. Most
Cardiffians had no idea who Ifor Bach might be. They imagined, perhaps,
that Mr Bach was the owner. An entrepreneur down from Blaenau Ffestiniog,
here to make a buck from his fellow countrymen stranded in this heathen,
English-ridden encampment of the south.
Ifor was actually a Glamorgan chief whose base was in the trees above
Castell Coch, on the hills which surround Cardiff to the north. In
1158 the Norman, Robert Fitzhamon, ensconced in Cardiff Castle, decided
to have done with the liberty and privilege of Hywel Da and to impose
new English law on the local Welsh. Ifor Bach, the little and very
strong, would have none of it. He raided the Castle, scaled the walls,
and kidnapped Fitzhamon holding him and his family until the imposition
was revoked. The Normans always found the native Welsh hard to control.
Periodic upsurges against authority have formed the basis of our way
of life ever since.
Before it rose to fame as Clwb Ifor, the Womanby Street four-story
premises were home of the British Legion, doubling as the Middle Eight
Jazz Club at weekends. Control was tight. Punters arriving for an
evening of local big band music were handed cyclostyled warnings against
using marijuana. Beer was okay. Weed was not. But on most nights that
sweet smell was still there. Same thing today. Champion Jack Dupree,
the black boxer boogie pianist with the diamond stud in his ear, played
the Middle Eight in the early sixties. It was the blues boom and the
place was packed to the entrance stairs. Dupree, who at the time lived
in Paris, and was hardly the downhome cotton picker his listeners
expected, hammed the part. He leered, winked and smarmed at his almost
entirely white audience. The place began to lose its feel of Queen
and Country. This was the blues, man. Right here. Right now. Dupree
got included in rounds. People gave him cigarettes. The piano top
became stacked with pints. The good times rolled. At precisely 10.30
a badge and blazered Legion official came on stage to tell us that
o dear o dear the licence wouldn't allow it and we had to stop. Dupree
smiled, sparkled, and boogied seamlessly into Mama Don't Allow
No Piano Playing Round Here. The house continued to rock.
Top of Womanby, three or four dark doorways on, is Dempseys, Bia
Agus Deoch, the Irish reincarnation of Brain's Four Bars jazz
pub. Facing the Castle and as disreputable as it can be while still
staying open, Dempseys is where the drama students go to test their
one-acters, bikers to beat their brains flat with alcohol and black
dressed goths and weirdos to smoke their mostly paper rollups and
sip at their halves of beer. The Cardiff literary scene flows in and
out of here like the tide. Cabaret 246, the eighties performance
poetry workshop risen from the ashes of Chris Torrance's university
creative writing class, met in a back room, weekly, for years. Undercover
Writers, the less mouthy extension of that idea followed on in
the nineties. Antony Howell tested out sonnets concerning his mother's
bodily function, Topher Mills reinvented roofing as a vehicle for
genuine poetry and Chris Broadribb retrod Allen Fisher before changing
his name to Ozzard and fleeing west.
Benjamin Heath Malkin, coming past the end of Womanby Street in 1803,
was not that impressed with this slice of ancient city. The Welsh
consider this "a neat and agreeable place", he records but
he found it had little "symmetry in the construction of its buildings"
and was not much pleased with the accommodation or the layout either.
Mud and waste. Little new paint. Things have been really slow to change.
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