Arcade serenade

The ‘City of Arcades’ – the self-congratulatory slogan peddled by those paid to sell Cardiff to the gullible and the unwary. But the awful truth is that Cardiff’s arcades are dying, unable to compete with the economies of scale, monopolistic practices and cheap Far-East production costs of the blood-thirsty big boys closing in on all sides, continually pressurised by rising rents, and weakened by the inbuilt obsolescence and contradictions of the shop-till-you-drop economy. Every month another idiosyncratic independent bites the dust, and survival in the arcades now increasingly depends on a strategy of high-value, extremely narrow niche-marketing, with the result that they are being transformed from stimulating, surprising delights for all types of people into snooty, excluding ghettos for tourists and the rich. Meanwhile, ‘The City of Arcades’ has eliminated five of its arcades entirely, two more are in dire straights and another two look vulnerable. With friends like Cardiff council, Cardiff’s beleaguered arcades don’t need any enemies. Here, in chronological order of construction, is their story:

•CHURCH STREET ARCADE – Cardiff’s original arcade opened in 1835 as a covered passage linking Church Street to the just completed indoor market. It had six shops: basket maker, dyer, shoemaker, tobacconist and two dressmakers. The Birdcage Inn, which stood at the Church Street end, was soon renamed the Arcade and extended over the passage. When bigger and better arcades followed the pub became the Old Arcade, still with us today. But Church Street Arcade itself has long gone, squeezed out by enlarged buildings by 1900. All that’s left is the remnant passage leading to the Central Market’s side (north) entrance.

•ROYAL ARCADE – As Cardiff rapidly grew in the mid 19th century, the drive to extend its commercial facilities came up against the still-rural core of the town and its inhabitants. There was only going to be one winner. In the area between St Mary Street and The Hayes the ancient pattern of small dwellings with long, narrow strips of land for cottage gardening had hardly altered since the Middle Ages. Ownership of these ‘burgage plots’ was spread among a number of owners holding leases dating back to the Norman conquest: Cardiff’s burgesses, whose borough privileges were conferred by their land holdings. Seeing an opportunity to cash in on the entirely unplanned population explosion, these forerunners of the anti-social and greedy landlords who plague Cardiff to this day (check out Cathays) crammed as many tiny tenements as possible along the sides of the plots and raked in a windfall by renting them out to the incomers (mainly from west Wales and south-west England). Called ‘the Courts’, within no time these instant slums would be among the worst in the industrial world. By 1850 45 Courts had been developed between the river to the west and the Glamorganshire Canal to the east. The rows of shacks arranged around a central gutter were reached by dark, narrow alleys leading from the main streets. Lacking water supply and drainage and with each hovel accomodating as many as 50 lodgers sleeping in shifts in their own putrefying waste, the Courts were death traps. 396 people died of cholera in 1849 alone, and in the decade to 1850 33% of all Cardiffians died for want of clean water – the highest percentage in the UK. The Public Health Act of 1848 gave councils the powers to improve living conditions, but there was no compulsion in the Act and Cardiff’s councillors, elected by the mere 2.5% entitled to the vote and entirely in the pockets of the Bute Estate, refused to take action. Even as the unburied corpses of the town’s poor decomposed in the streets, unsurpassed Cardiff villain Edward Priest Richards (1792-1856), the Bute agent, lawyer, rent-collector, cashier and steward of the manors, as well as town clerk, alderman, corporation solicitor and clerk to the lieutenants and justices of Glamorgan, was whipping up opposition to any provision of the Act being implemented in Cardiff, arguing in missives from his privately plumbed Crockherbtown mansion that “…fulfilling this insidious and dangerous Act would double the rates.”  It took the intervention of central government in London to shame Cardiff into change. The Board of Health, alarmed at the death rate, sent an inspector. The outcome was the infamous Rammell Report of 1850, which painted an appalling picture of squalor beyond anything imaginable even in a Third World shanty town today. Cardiff, the inspector declared, was “a huge bog of sewage matter” with a stench that was “hardly endurable.” In one Court off St Mary Street he found a hovel where 54 men, women and children lived without furniture or beds, sharing one earth privy and hoarding their pitiful possessions (animal bones, rags and rotten potatoes) in holes in the floor. 

Landore Court, c1890

Grudgingly, and with bad grace, the Council began the long process of providing a water supply, drainage system, burial grounds and waste disposal facilities. The Courts began to be tackled, and it was their thin, linear form that would set the template for the arcades to come, since this was the piecemeal way the land was sold. The Cardiff Arcade Company, encouraged by the thriving Church Street Arcade, was formed by a group of landowners to try to replicate its success. They acquired and cleared the cottages of Tabernacle Court and Colliers Arms Court and hired architect Peter Price (c1815-c1890) to design the Royal Arcade. It was completed in 1858 and boasted an Italianate frontage with twin pedimented gables at the St Mary Street end and panelled chambers on its upper level. The trademark eclecticism of Cardiff’s arcades was established by the sheer variety of the first set of occupants. Hatters, hosiers, milliners, ironmongers, tobacconists, gunmakers, engravers, watchmakers, jewellers, wine merchants and confectioners were there, as well as one-offs like John Cording, taxidermist, William Bibbings, china dealer, and Asher Finkelstone, toys and fancy goods. None of those original businesses are in the Royal Arcade 150 years later, but some of the Victorian store-fronts have been preserved, the St Mary Street entrance survives and the slight kink in the Arcade’s course is a ghostly remnant of the boundary between the two Courts it replaced. 

•QUEEN STREET ARCADE – The next arcade to be built no longer exists. It was a dog-leg from Queen Street to Working Street opened in 1875 with a northern entrance in the middle of Queens Chambers, an extraordinarily detailed gothic work-out inspired by the Doge’s Palace in Venice by architect CE Bernard (c1835-c1900). The pierced pinnacles, trefoiled decorations and balconied windows looked down on the Glamorganshire Canal which passed under Queen Street to the immediate east of the building at this point; so Bernard’s Venetian indulgence was not so fanciful – Cardiff in the 1870s was also threaded with waterways. Initially Queens Chambers was the HQ of musical instrument dealers Thompson & Shackell, later the Cardiff Corporation Waterworks, and at its peak the Arcade bustled with offices, tailors, wine merchants, jewellers, architects and artists as well as Queen Street Hall for dancing and music and the Queens Chambers pub. In 1992 it was all swept away to be replaced by the giant ‘Queens Arcade’ (see below). The diverse, unique small retailers made way for the uniformity and anonymity of the multinational chains in what is not an arcade at all, but just one more shopping precinct using the ‘arcade’ tag to suggest tradition and quality. Thankfully Queens Chambers, a listed building, could not be demolished. Today it’s one of a growing number of vacant Queen Street premises as Cardiff’s finite disposable income shifts southwards to The Hayes. Nothing remains at the Working Street end; the triple-gabled, half-timbered old entrance was located where Reed recruitment agency is now. 

•HIGH STREET ARCADE – Arcade construction now entered its purple patch in Cardiff with the High Street Arcade of 1885, sinuously curving in a gentle s-bend from High Street to St John Street. The burgeoning middle-classes of the booming coalopolis were targeted by Frederick de Courcy Hamilton (1856-1940), a dynamic Norfolk solicitor whose many speculative property developments in Cardiff included the Coal Exchange. He eventually accumulated a fortune and built himself a mansion near Pentyrch called Tylamorris, which as De Courcys restaurant and wedding venue is the sole reminder of  his name in Cardiff today. Hamilton set up the High Street Arcade Company to acquire the plots needed and hired prolific local architect JP Jones (c1825-c1905) to produce a pair of brilliant, pedimented, Italianate entrances and a vaulted glass tunnel to wow the Victorian nouveaux riches. It was an immediate success, allowing the vanguard consumers to stroll from High Street, cleared of its agrarian past by this time, through the teasing sight lines of the Arcade and across St John Square into the Queen Street Arcade without having to contend with too much Welsh drizzle. Enhanced by the Duke Street Arcade in 1902 (see below), it maintained a prosperous air through the years but is beginning to struggle these days. The vacant units sprinkled among the sparky boutiques are as much a rebuff to the council’s unnecessary ‘Castle Quarter’ twaddle as a testament to the meltdown of the UK’s unsustainable shopping economy. 

•CASTLE ARCADE –  Next came the remarkable Castle Arcade in 1887, a Cardiff Arcade Company triumph by Peter Price featuring triple-decks under an overvaulting glazed roof with mid-height walkways and galleries linked by footbridges. Running south from Castle Street before taking a sharp 90° turn to come out in High Street through Price’s 1882 Albert Chambers, it allowed shoppers to perambulate even further while protected from the elements. The Arcade continued the modernisation of Castle Street begun in the 1870s: the demolition of the Cardiff Arms and the original Angel; the sweeping away of Angel Street and Broad Street along with their taverns the White Lion, the Cowbridge Arms, the Five Bells, the Ty Dderwyn Deg and the Myrtle Tree; and the commencement of the opening up of Cardiff Castle’s frontage. The Castle Arcade quickly established a reputation for interesting specialist shops and over the years it has had hosts of intriguing tenants, a tradition hanging on today with the likes of Madam Fromage, the National Theatre of Wales, Troutmark Books, Clair Grove Buttons and the Welsh Tartan Centre. Beautifully preserved and a fairly safe distance from the corporate takeover to the east, this Arcade seems to have the most secure future; the main threat to it being the council’s never-ending fiddly road works for the sake of their otiose and overcooked ‘Castle Quarter’ concept. Note the perceptible uphill gradient as you walk from the Castle Street entrance – a faint trace of the ancient contours of the valley of the long-lost Tan brook.

Castle Arcade upper galleries

•WYNDHAM ARCADE – The Cardiff Arcade Company also created the Wyndham Arcade in 1887, clearing most of the remaining Courts in the process. It was named after the Wyndham-Quin family, the Earls of Dunraven, major Glamorgan landowners since the 17th century who through judicious marriages had accumulated over 40,000 acres of the county and pocketed the parliamentary seat too after coming to a truce with Bute interests in Cardiff. At the time the Arcade opened, the 4th Earl sat in the House of Lords as Lord Adare and was Justice of the Peace for Glamorgan. It was he who descended from Dunraven Castle, the dynasty’s mighty castellated seat on the cliff-top at Southerndown (demolished 1963), to do the honours and cut the ribbon. The Arcade emerged at its Mill Lane exit to face the Glamorganshire Canal at an acute angle, necessitating a sharply pointed southern flank that is even more pronounced today, now that so much of higgledy-piggledy Cardiff around it has been removed. Beneath the Wyndham’s arched glass roof between 1923 and 1969 was the uniquely atmospheric Glamorgan Wanderers Club, a totemic Cardiff watering-hole full of deals, scams and hustles. Some of that tradition lingered on with Kiwis, the last pub within a Cardiff arcade until relocated to St Mary Street in 2011. Many a quirky business has set up stall in the Wyndham Arcade over the years, and it remains pleasingly weird to this day. No Cardiff shopping experience would be complete without a visit to The Bear Shop, where a mangy stuffed Russian bear in the window has been thrilling Cardiff kids for generations, or Rebel Rebel, the HQ of goth/emo/metal Cardiff where the artfully alienated can get their nostrils pierced, see-thru Rizlas and any-colour-so-long-as-it’s-black clobber. But planners and property developers have suggested the Arcade’s demolition on more than one occasion and the turbo-consumerist St David’s mall opposite could well crush this outpost of non-conforming Cardiff. The bear’s clinging on; if we lose him, Cardiff’s stuffed.  

•ANDREWS ARCADE – Queen Street began to rival St Mary Street as Cardiff’s main shopping thoroughfare in the mid-Victorian period. In the 1860s it was widened to include Smith Street with the removal of Middle Row at its western end, and then in 1887 it was lengthened from the short stub between Duke Street and the Canal to include all of what was previously called Crockherbtown. Private villas with large gardens began to be replaced by imposing shops, offices, theatres and hotels. Then in 1891 Solomon Andrews (1835-1908), one of Cardiff’s most vigorous Victorian capitalists, got in on the act with the construction of the five-storey Andrews Buildings, through the centre of which ran the Andrews Arcade to exit at the rear onto what was then Institute Lane, now Crockherbtown Lane. ‘Solly’, as Cardiff came to call him, had moved to booming Cardiff from Wiltshire in 1851 and in 1855 took a lease on a shop in James Street down the docks and set up as a baker and confectioner. From those small beginnings he built a business empire of extraordinary range: horse buses, stables, medicines, undertakers, furniture removals, skating rinks, cinemas and shops. He made a killing selling his bus interests to the Council and moved into property, being instrumental in the development of Penarth and Pwllheli as seaside resorts and erecting a number of commercial buildings in Cardiff, including the showy façade of the Central Market in 1886 and his very own arcade in 1891, an ego-trip in Bath stone with five double-decked bay windows. After Andrews died son Emile carried on the business, but the next generation gradually sold off its component parts very lucratively and by 1939 the firm no longer had an interest in the Andrews Arcade. The company lives on as Castle Leisure, owners of Castle Bingo and Cadwalader’s Ice Cream, while House of Fraser and Pickfords contain parts of Solly’s empire – but his Arcade has gone. The airy, tiled haven was given over to chain stores in the 1990s and the Zara and Topman clothes shops now straddle the old entrance. 

An Andrews’ horse-bus, 1863 (The number 2 follows the same route today)

•MORGAN ARCADE – Into the picture now strides David Morgan (1833-1919), a farmer’s son from Breconshire who opened his first drapers at Pontlotyn in the Rhymni valley in 1858. He took a small shop at nos 23/24 The Hayes in 1879 and began a process of remorseless expansion which would eventually result in David Morgan’s department store becoming the biggest shop in Wales and a Cardiff institution. Morgan was initially stymied by the surviving Courts stopping him from connecting his outlets on The Hayes and St Mary Street, so he became a director of the Cardiff Arcade Company in 1892, the better to pursue his goal. And by 1899 he had achieved it. Union Buildings, Greenmeadow Court, Knockers Hole, the Rising Sun pub, Golden Lion Court, the Golden Lion pub and stables for the mail-coach horses made way for what was at first called the Central Arcade. Designed by Edwin Seward (1853-1924) in Jacobean style, the Arcade had to accommodate the ancient pathways it crossed, particularly the winding route southward from Wharton Street called Bara Lane. As a result, it divided into two at one end and was crossed by narrow alleyways. These passages along with Bakers Row and Barry Lane have survived to this day, fossilised residues of Cardiff’s medieval map. Morgan didn’t have everything his own way however: the tenants of Green Garden Court resisted his overtures even as they became surrounded by the department store. When Morgan died he was still frustrated by them and it wasn’t until 1925 that his progeny acquired the last Court (for a flavour of the Courts check out the two that have been partially preserved: six one-up-one-downs at Jones Court off Womanby Street, converted into offices in 1982, and the secret Crown Court off Duke Street, an enclave of law firms and tiny flats originally called Edys Court). 

The sprawling David Morgan’s store, where one could get totally lost, and its long-running rivalry with James Howells’ store, two obese wrestlers jostling for supremacy in St Mary Street, were part of the warp and woof of Cardiff life until 2005 when the descendants of the thrifty Welsh-speaker from Builth sold out for £25million to London property developers Helical Bar. You could tell the direction Helical Bar intended to go by the first tenants of the refurbished buildings: T K Maxx. The Morgan Arcade and near neighbour the Royal Arcade then suffered badly during the five years it took to extend the St David’s Centre down The Hayes. Meanwhile other chains moved in, amalgamated small units and further diminished the Arcade’s appeal. Then the credit crunch culled favourites like Woodies – where bald geezers from Cardiff City’s ‘Soul Crew’ would gather to fuss over designer gear on Saturdays until their banning orders expired – leaving 25% of the Arcade empty. Cranked-up rents and the sheer non-negotiable scale and wind-tunnel effect of the glowering blocks at The Hayes end threatened to deliver a fatal blow until the arrival in 2010 of truly iconic record store Spillers after eviction from their previous premises on The Hayes. The “oldest record shop in the world” (it’s not hype, it’s true!) began life in 1894 in the Queen Street Arcade (see above) and has somehow ridden out all the music business revolutions to become the very symbol of independent retailing. The presence of Spillers gives the Morgan Arcade the backbone it will need to withstand the storms ahead. 

Spillers on the Morgan Arcade bend

•DUKE STREET ARCADE – The 6th arcade to be constructed in 17 years was another Frederick de Courcy Hamilton venture. Completed in 1902, it was designed by architecture firm Ware & Williams to run south from Duke Street, using an old lane at the back of the Three Tuns pub, to join the High Street Arcade at an aesthetically-satisfying oblique angle. When built, the triple-arched façade on Duke Street, faced with grey-brown stone from the Forest of Dean, looked out over a notorious Cardiff bottleneck. The main east-west highway across southern Wales was only 14ft/5m wide here because of the cottages, inns and shops that stood in front of the Castle’s south-east wall. They were not removed until 1923, when the opening up of the Castle to the rest of Cardiff begun in 1890 was finally completed. Today the Duke Street Arcade, barely 150ft/50m long, suffers from being lumped in with the ‘Castle Quarter’ brand that the council seem determined to foist on us and also from having fallen into the ownership of Curzon Real Estate (along with the High Street, Castle and Wyndham Arcades), whose security guards swagger around and pounce on anyone they don’t like the look of (ie: the poor) (eg: me). 

•DOMINIONS ARCADE – There was a 19-year gap before the next arcade was built. Taking ground previously occupied by Nash’s car showrooms and a number of small shops on the north side of Queen Street, Eagle Star Insurance raised the austere, six-storey Dominions House in 1921 and, following the established pattern, created a shopping arcade via a central entrance. The Dominions Arcade lacked the urbane panache of its predecessors, but within its zig-zag halls barbers, tobacconists, cafes and gift shops plied their trade in an earthy, fast-talking Cardiff ambience. That was until the 1980s when Lloyds Bank expanded to snaffle up the shops on the west side, leaving them as blacked-out windows. Then the first phase of the St David’s Centre on the other side of Queen Street brought big-time, US-style shopping to panting customers wielding their deregulated credit cards, rendering individualistic, localised, low-key places like the Dominions redundant. It just about hangs on today, but the decline has not ceased. The closure of Baileys, to concentrate effort on its Army Store in the Wyndham Arcade, was a body blow. Units lie vacant and there’s little left to draw punters; you can be virtually certain that the ‘City of Arcades’ will surrender this one soon to more clone-store purgatory.

•DICKENS ARCADE – Opened in 1924 and closed in 1989 (Revolution vodka bar now occupies the site), this marvellously moth-eaten undertaking was not really an arcade at all, in that it had no egress at the other end so was no more than a covered corridor leading from the back of a converted Victorian building on Castle Street. This was an arcade for people without much money, ahead of its time by giving a home to shops that recycled used goods long before Green Bags were invented. Many a Cardiffian wiled away an afternoon gathering new reading material for nothing at Paperback Exchange – something unimaginable in the city centre today. 

•OXFORD ARCADE – It went up in a blast of fanfares in 1962, taking its name from the extravagant Oxford Hotel on The Hayes that it replaced; it was refurbished to more fanfares and promises of a bright future in 1983; it was flattened in 2006. The builder has always been a busy man in Cardiff, and now the cycle of demolition and reconstruction gets shorter and shorter to keep economic activity pumped up, and the new buildings get bigger and bigger as cities everywhere beat their chests and holler the stock rhetoric of civic one-upmanship. The Hayes has been overwhelmed by the St David’s monster-dick extension, so already Cardiffians who can remember it are bathing the pretty charmless Oxford Arcade in the warm fug of nostalgia: the rugby mural, the coloured tiles, the raised shrub beds, the low-status independent shops. From The Hayes to its exit on Frederick Street the Arcade is now buried beneath the ‘Grand Arcade’ (see below). Only time will tell if the newcomer manages to last as long as the Oxford: don’t bet on it. 

•QUEENS ARCADE – Today in Cardiff the word ‘arcade’ has been reduced to a marketing ploy stripped of all meaning. Whereas the city centre was once so much more than the sum of its parts, it is now essentially just one very big indoor shop servicing the interests of private corporations. Scarcely anything more than a few decades old has been preserved in a frenzy of destruction. The St David’s Centre in 1982, Capitol Centre in 1983, Queenswest in 1990 and then Queens Arcade in 1994 erased a great chunk of the northern city centre, replacing it with characterless mediocrity. Each poached off their predecessor until the limelight moved on as the council pursued the bankrupt policy of making shopping an end in itself (a recent phenomenon – the council’s Official Handbook of 1965 in my possession does not mention shopping once in its 200 pages) and tossed away Cardiff’s quirks, visual distinction and urban authority to fill the city centre with consumers rather than citizens. Deserving to be singled out for special vilification is the Queens Arcade, an absolute turkey behind a ludicrous flight of steps at the Working Street end and a klutzy mess completely eclipsed by the adjacent sensuous apparition of Queens Chambers (see above) at the Queen Street end. Its only noteworthy feature is the way the ground floor at the Queen Street entrance is the upper floor at the Working Street entrance and vice versa – an effect achieved by using the depth and sloping levels of the Glamorganshire Canal’s tunnel. 

•GRAND ARCADE/HAYES ARCADE – With these two abominations, completed in 2009 as part of the St David’s Centre extension that wiped out most of the southern city centre, Cardiff has managed to pull off the difficult trick of making what was alluring repellent by flogging the arcade idea to death. That’s really dumb. The Hayes, Cardiff’s most endlessly rebuilt stretch of road, is now an oppressive space with ugly, unfriendly, sterile apartment blocks (those that sold went sight unseen to buy-to-let investors) squatting on top of ranks of chain stores that can be found anywhere. The battered old corridor has been rendered authoritarian, disproportionate and brazenly exploitative, while within the bombastic, dehumanised precinct everything is pitched at the puerile tastes and priorities of a particularly dull and undiscerning 16 year-old girl – the easiest demographic to relieve of her  money. Jointly owned by London property conglomerates Capital Shopping and Land Securities, this is a privatised, vulgar, bling-brimming hell, locked and sealed off at night except for a section devoted to horrible industrial food. It’s virtually impossible to avoid if you’re heading across town by foot unless one does a two mile detour. Whatever you do, don’t dare to take a photograph or even get out a pen and paper within these hallowed halls, or else you will be instantly surrounded by security guards informing you in no uncertain terms that such behaviour is banned in “their” mall. This is what has been done to our city. This is what future Cardiffians will have to dismantle if the city is to be reclaimed as a public sphere and leisure shopping put back in its proper, proportionate place. And, until then, perhaps it’s time that the ‘City of Arcades’ falsehood was quietly laid to rest.

Surviving authentic arcades: 1-Castle; 2-Duke Street; 3-High Street; 4-Dominions; 5-Morgan; 6-Royal; 7-Wyndham