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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.

heart of Cardiff's 70s clubland and still not bad today
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.

how it all falls apart

Peter Finch

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