Big, busy projects at work this summer meant that we all had to book our holidays much more in advance than I’m used to. I usually come up with something I want to do, then book the time off. This was just all arse-backwards for me. And what with being busy with work, finding a new place to live, and finishing up the City Guides course (which I passed, hurrah!), I didn’t really dedicate much time to actually thinking of something to do. Let alone planning and booking it.
Seeing as there is still lots of the U.K. that I am yet to see, m’colleague suggested that I give Wales a look. He’s been and he knows me, so his advice was pretty sound. With only about a week before my week of holiday, I finally hunkered down and had a look at my options.
Lots of pretty, scenic stuff in the north. However, public transport, trains, weren’t so great. Also, knowing me I’d get bored of just non-stop nature no matter how lovely it is. I started looking at South Wales instead. Lots of options train-wise, a couple of cities to check out and for ticking the green scenery box I could get to the Brecon Beacons easily enough.
In one fell swoop (or actually it may have been two), I booked my train from Paddington to Cardiff, two nights in Cardiff, a night in Swansea and a night in Abergavenny. Cardiff gives me a ‘new city to explore’ fix as well as lots of social and industrial heritage, Swansea was something on the coast and again some industrial heritage and Abergavenny would get me up to the hills with a bus connection to Brecon town on the other side of Brecon Beacons to check out.
Feeling a bit beyond the backpacking/hosteling scene, but yet not really one for hotels, I booked up 3 nice bed and breakfasteses.
On Sunday the last day of June I was up-and-at-them to Paddington to catch my train. It seems I’m always at Paddington when it’s very quiet there, so I have this false sense that it’s a quiet station that doesn’t have many trains coming and going at any one time. I grab some food and my seat on the train.
A couple hours on the flat tracks of Brunel’s Great Western Railway and I was at the very 1930s Cardiff Central station.
Now I did get as far as booking trains and rooms, but didn’t really do much on the itinerary side of things. For each place I just had a list of things that may look interesting and figured I’d just generally have a good mooch around. To do that though, I wanted to loose my rucksack and get checked into my first place. I now know there were loads of better ways to get to my B&B rather than the way my tired, coughing butt took, but c’est la vie. I took my time and got there just at 2pm – bang on check in time. Figured I’d take the gamble. Alas! The chaps who run the place were out but I was able to leave my bag with a friend of theirs who was also staying. I can’t tell you how odd that felt (maybe as a Londoner?) just just leave my bag there, but all was good.
Freed up (but proper camera-less, d’oh!), I walked back into the city centre. Cardiff is well known (so they say) for it’s Victorian shopping arcades. There were quiet a few and they all were really lovely pieces of work. I believe this one was the Royal Arcade:
This arcade is home to what claims to be the world’s oldest record store; Spillers. They opened here in 1894 so that claim has some weight to it I reckon. There was also the poshest Oxfam Book Shop I’ve never been in. There was another 2nd had book shop here as well that had pretty straight-forward advertising…
I walked around for a bit and stumbled upon one of the places I had wanted to see – that being the Story of Cardiff exhibit. I actually found it by it being in the same building as the Tourist Info Centre. Always hit those up for a map that won’t drain your phone battery.
The Cardiff Story is exactly what it sounds like – a decent sized exhibit on the history of Cardiff. It goes back to the Roman settlement and fortifications, then the Norman invasion and the building of Cardiff Castle, the subsequent battles and additions to the castle until Cardiff hits its boom time with the industrial revolution.
Cardiff was built on the back of coal and would become the largest coal shipping port in the world in the early 20th century. In 1913 107 tonnes of the stuff was shipped out of Cardiff from various coal mines in south Wales.
There did seem to be a big divide in the city between the old, middle class city and the docks in Cardiff Bay, or Tiger Bay as the area was called (this was because the water was so rough, it was said landing in Cardiff was like fighting a tiger). It’s a bit of a hike down from the city center. The guide on a walking tour I did said that the railway line was always the ‘border’ if you like between ‘nice Cardiff’ and ‘rough working Cardiff’. I could definitely see how that would have been the case.
It was really one family and one member of that family who was responsible for the building up of Cardiff; John Crichton-Stuart also known as the 2nd Marquess of Bute (as in the Isle of Bute up in Scotland). The family owned large chunks of land in south Wales that just so happened to be full of some of the finest steam coal in the world. Between coal and iron, this part of Wales would be completely transformed from farms to a large industrial sites.
In part 2! More on Cardiff docks and Cardiff Castle a.k.a. More Butes.