Peter Finch, poet and psychogeographer, reflects on the identity of Cardiff's City Road. His Real Cardiff – The Flourishing City is due from Seren early next year.

Everywhere has a history but City Road might have just that bit more than most. Before the industrial revolution’s march into south Wales it was known as Heol-y-Plwca, a name anglicized to Plucca Lane. It was a path of medieval origin. It ran from the preaching cross at its southern extremity (the Longcross) through the gallows fields of Death Junction to a second cross, Y Crwys. This was pretty much where Cathays Library in all its restored glory currently stands. Plwca means dirt or mire or sludge. Not the brightest of street names. On the corner of St Peter Street  was Plwca Farmhouse. The lane itself was a muddy track that marked the parish boundary, the edge of the town.

The nineteenth century expansion of Cardiff’s suburbs filled Plwca’s farmlands with Victorian terraces. Cardiff, town of immigrants, was pushing its eighteenth century population of 2000 souls relentlessly upwards. The new docks, the endless trains of coal, and the arrival of large-scale iron and steel making had turned the town into a version of the Klondike. Workers came from Ireland, the West of England and everywhere else in Wales. Their numbers were boosted by those pulled in from anywhere the British Empire’s ships sailed. The port of Cardiff expanded exponentially.

Between 1860 and Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897 virtually every field surrounding Plwcca Farm was built on. Plas Newydd mansion, built in 1780, was initially known as Roath Lodge. In 1829 castellations were added (still visible) and the property renamed Roath Castle. Plwcca Lane became Castle Road. In 1905, to mark the upgrading of Cardiff from town to city, the road’s name was changed again. Castle became City, the Road we know today.

Change rushes. In Edwardian times the Road was thick with drapers, saddlers, butchers, furniture shops, sign-writers, greengrocers, Solomon Andrew’s cab depot, bird dealers and florists. The 1937 street directory lists 20 car suppliers but not a single restaurant. There are no hairdressers but there are four boot repairers.    

By mid-century it was all car showrooms – everything from BSA House flogging motorcycles with sidecars and Reliant three wheelers to Glanfield Lawrence’s used vehicle dealership. The road became famous for its second hand cars. The upwardly mobile spent their Saturdays walking the pavements selecting their next purchase. Austin 7, Morris Oxford, Sunbeam Talbot. The cars came in one colour. Black. They often had their mileage clocks rewound. They worked when you drove them away but often broke down later. You paid your money and hoped.

By the turn of the twenty-first century with Cardiff’s kingdom of coal long gone almost all heavy industry had vanished from the skyline. Instead we were a glistening municipality of insurance companies, law firms, call centres and banks. Devolution had brought in the offices of governance. National institutions clustered. Working men no longer showed up at the city’s declining roster of public houses. Occupation of the workers terraces, mostly still in situ and with only the minimum of upgrading applied, had changed. Traditional working class families had moved on to the new greenery of the peripheral suburban estates - Llanrumney, Pentrebane, Pentwyn, St Mellons. The tight Roath terraces surrounding City Road took on new and often transient populations. Rents were low.    

Cardiff was now a major centre for education with three universities and one major college filling the city with newcomers. With its long established settled immigrant populations  the city was also an attraction for others fleeing poverty and war and seeking a new life. In the new millennium the city had been designated as one of the UK destinations for the Home Office’s asylum dispersal scheme. Many newcomers were housed in the streets off City Road. The road itself took on a new vibrancy.

The car showrooms had gone and nobody cobbled shoes anymore. Instead there was a saree retailer, a sex shop, a phone repairer, a picture framer, a store retailing African exotica, a muslim bookshop and eleven barbers. In a walk down the road recently I also counted 51 restaurants along with at least 10 chip shops, bakers, pizza operations  and fried chicken takeaways. The eateries were all multi-racial. Nobody other than Weatherspoon’s served bangers and mash anymore. The offer was kebab plus Moroccan, Lebanese, Syrian, Turkish and other chicken and lamb specials. These all sounded radically different from each other, of course, but were, when you came to eat them, pretty much the same. Running restaurants and cutting hair are readily transportable skills. Cooks and waiters and those handy with razors and scissors can work anywhere. 

Writer and PR Guru Dan Tyte has suggested that Cardiff could capitalise on the Road’s multiplicity of eateries by turning it into a south Wales version of Brick Lane. This would be Cardiff’s exotic dining half mile. Cleaned up, pedestrianised, and with street markets added the Road would become a real destination. All would benefit. It’s a brilliant idea.

City Road, the most culturally mixed place in the whole city, has a bohemian magic available nowhere else. Artists have often tried to capture this wash of street life, spice, and music. MadeinRoath, the annual arts festival, has based exhibitions in shop fronts and side street galleries. Lloyd Robson, famous for his dynamic novelisation of contemporary city life Cardiff Cut, ran his Making Sense of City Road project here. For this he drove the length of road and stuck a camera randomly out of the window. His dangerously acquired dadaesque results were exhibited to much acclaim.

The Roath Park pub, one time home of 1980s poetry and performance trendsetters Cabaret 246, found new life as a voting centre for the 2014 Roatherendum organised by Dr Glen Roy and Sir Alfred Street. The result was an overwhelming victory for complete independence so long as access to the sea down Clifton Street could be maintained.

At the start of 2017 a local project recording the memories and experiences of current inhabitants was passed to Andrew Sterry at the Sherman Theatre. The result was Love, Cardiff: City Road Stories, an hour-long choreographed stage performance. 

 

This involved 13 players – most of them non-professional – who told their back-stories and illuminated brilliantly the radical and enthralling mix of origin and experience that is the twenty-first century Road. Among the cast Issa Farfour, a refugee from the conflict in Syria, told us that among those of middle-eastern origin City Road was universally referred to as Arab Street. Thaer Al-Shayei, a boxer from Basra, told of how it was and how it now is and how really, underneath, we are all the same. The Khans from Pakistan celebrated the granting of their visa and their ability to finally be able to feed themselves properly. Faith Atwell talked about the running of Passion, the Road’s bright pink non-pornographic sex shop. Carol and Charles Ball reminisced about the clubs that flourished here 50 years ago. 

The play was a huge success attracting hundreds to experience its mix of humour and pathos as life stories of survival and celebration were retold by as diverse a cast as could pitch up anywhere.But it’s not all glory. Buildings are often as uncared for as it’s possible to be. There have been fires and demolitions that leave yawning holes in the road’s shop frontage. The eateries change hand at a prodigious rate. The latest arrivals often removing the front of their restaurant’s illuminated sign to leave a gaping strip-light filled box. The new name will be installed once the management have earned enough to pay for it.

Walking up from the Infirmary the Road may be rich in saree and hijab but it looks rough, neglected, part of the city’s transition to the future at which budget holders have not yet got round to looking. On a bleak winter afternoon you can easily feel as if you are in hoarding barraged slumtown. Yet on a warm evening  the pavements are as diverse as Marrakesh – full of music, street food, people dancing, conversation and life.

But change never stops. Already a six-story block of portal-windowed student accommodation called Livin is being built at the town end. Nearer Death Junction the Gaiety Cinema is about to be demolished with the run of shops on towards the Con Club removed in advance of a new high rise. The nature of the road will shift with this intrusive change in scale. The demographics will alter. It’s a new thing, bad thing, a frightening thing, but it really isn’t. It’s just change and City Road has been at the forefront of that for two hundred years. Long may it go on.

Peter Finch

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