Bridge Street Blues

The folly and incompetence of Cardiff’s rulers never ceases to amaze.  The news that the precious public open space of Bridge Street Square, only laid out two years ago, is to be obliterated for a new HQ building for Admiral Insurance beggars belief.  The Council tell us they regret the loss but it’s nothing to do with them because the small print in the agreement they signed with St David’s 2 developers, London property giants Capital Shopping Centres and Land Securities, always stated that the Square would be temporary (although, funnily enough, this was not mentioned in the promotional material touting the development to the public back in 2005, in which there was much emphasis on Bridge Street Square as “a gateway feature”). Here, then, is an open admission that Cardiff no longer has any control over its own city centre, the Council having handed it over lock, stock and barrel to unaccountable, unelected corporate interests.  It doesn’t matter what Cardiffians want or what the city needs, the only thing that now matters is what can best boost the dividends of a few faraway fat-cats – and there sure ain’t no profit in a patch of grass, some park benches and a few trees.

The Square had quickly become an essential antidote to the turbo-consumerism, alienating concrete jungle and snarling traffic all around.  The first new open space in the city centre since Bute Park was acquired in 1947, it was an uplifting green lung that brought desperately needed human scale, blessed respite from commercial transactions, an interesting new social sphere, and a potent urban space pitching nature into a brutalist cityscape, common in other cities but most unusual for Cardiff.  We will never know how, when the plants had matured and memories had accrued, the Square might have developed into something special for communal, collective Cardiff, and for Cardiffians to come.

Let’s leave to one side the sheer profligacy and contempt being unashamedly flaunted by the developers – par for the course from the financial sector that has brought the global economy to its knees and for whose benefit the UK is organised – and look at what will shortly start rising in Bridge Street Square.  Admiral already occupies the perfectly adequate Capital Tower, the monstrosity in Greyfriars Road erected in 1967 atop a 12th century friary and the 2nd highest building in Wales, and could easily expand into its many vacant floors, or else move into one of the nearly 2,000 empty commercial buildings around the city.  But that won’t do for Admiral’s American chief executive Henry Engelhardt, at whose feet Council flunkeys have been grovelling since he brought his uninspiring car insurance business to Cardiff in 1993.  Henry wants a prestige, chest-thumping HQ building all of his own: Henry shall have.  As he put it, “this new building cements our commitment to the city,” a tacit confession if ever there was one that the “commitment” would be weakened if he didn’t get his way.   The planning committee couldn’t find a single redeeming quality in the design, calling the 12-storey tower “awful”, “unimpressive”, “a wasted opportunity” and “like a convection heater”, before nodding it through anyway.  The word “no” is not in the vocabulary of the LibDem-controlled Council when big business clicks its fingers, and the simple solution of insisting on the re-negotiation of that supposedly sacrosanct agreement in order to protect the interests of Cardiff’s people doesn’t seem to have crossed anyone’s mind.  The LibDems will reap the consequences in next year’s Council elections, after which Rodney Berman faces the prospect of leading a group consisting of just him and Nigel Howells – not even enough to make a daisy chain.  On Bridge Street Square the earthmovers are expected soon.

This Category Error completes the sad story of Bridge Street, a seminal Cardiff thoroughfare with a tale or two to tell…pull up a seat, draw closer, chuck a log on the fire…time now to sing the Bridge Street Blues…

We must begin with a bridge.  But what bridge?  Today’s remnant stump has no bridge, nor anything that requires bridging.  The bridge after which the street was named began as a plank of wood placed across the town moat, Cardiff’s first man-made waterway.  The water for the town moat, as well as for the castle moat, was diverted from the Taff at Blackweir by the Norman invaders in the 12th century, to provide extra defences in front of the town wall for the implanted medieval borough. Over time tracks were worn to this crossing point, which gave access to the marshy pastures of the East Moors.  Here cows would be brought up from the Moors for milking; thus the widened and strengthened wooden bridge became known as Pont y Laethferch (the Milkmaid’s Bridge).  From this focal point one path led eastwards to ‘the Tumble’, an enclosed field set aside for sports, a path that would evolve into Bridge Street.

The town walls gradually crumbled as the conquest of Wales was completed.  The moat silted into little more than a ditch.  By the 18th century Cardiff had still not crossed Pont y Laethferch and Bridge Street was still a country lane, but this era as a quiet pastoral backwater drew to a close with the first strirrings of the Industrial Revolution when, in 1794, the Glamorganshire Canal utilised the old town moat for its route around the town and down to the coast.  A new wooden footbridge was built, but almost immediately this was inadequate as industrialisation spread along the busy Canal’s banks. It was replaced by a hump-backed stone bridge in 1821 and renamed Waterloo Bridge, a triumphalist commemoration of the famous battle six years earlier that had ended the Napoleonic Wars and paved the way for the British Empire’s most expansionist period.  Then in 1839 Bridge Street was born, a west-east thoroughfare taking Cardiff beyond the town walls and coming to an end at the 1832 County Gaol, its slight dog-leg an echo of the meandering old track.  Soon it was built up on both sides with early Victorian housing as Cardiff’s explosive growth began.  But Bridge Street’s period as a residential area would be brief.  The first Bute Dock opened in 1839 and it too required a water supply from Blackweir, the Dock Feeder, skirting the town’s new eastern limits to truncate Bridge Street short of the Gaol.  When the neo-gothic paired villas of Pembroke Terrace, East Terrace and Edward Terrace (today’s Churchill Way) were constructed on either side of the Feeder in the 1860s, Bridge Street met the junction with a bridge over the Feeder – so giving it a bridge at both ends.

Foreclosed from the east by the embankment of the 1858 Rhymney Railway framing a handsome, neo-baroque 1863 Methodist chapel (a Masonic Temple from 1895 to this day – those Freemasons are nothing if not persistent), Bridge Street entered its heyday as a Cardiff artery.  In 1872 Waterloo Bridge met its Waterloo when it was replaced by a wider, stronger bridge to bear the weight of horse trams to the Docks and renamed Hayes Bridge.  At this centrifugal Cardiff junction, where Bridge Street, The Hayes, Caroline Street, Mill Lane and Hayes Bridge Road converged over the slithering, silent Canal, town met docklands; and by the parapets of Hayes Bridge the contradictory impulses of numberless forgotten people negotiated the nitty-gritty of Victorian Cardiff.

On Bridge Street a proliferation of shops, small businesses and pubs mingled with housing to form an unplanned townscape of pulsating rhythm, given momentum by the come-hither bend halfway along at the Union Street/Mary Ann Street crossroads and melody by the wildly differing elevations and frontages of the buildings.  Unlike the bullying and belittling biceps of St David’s 2 now covering all of Bridge Street’s western section, the scale was congruous with human nature: high enough to instil pride and curiosity, but not so high that it’s only absorbable by switching off.  To the east the gracious, three-storey, retro-Georgian rows of Nelson Terrace and Wellington Terrace faced the 1850 Wesleyan Methodist Hall on the Charles Street corner (demolished 1979) and the 1878 Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapel on the Pembroke Terrace corner, the masterpiece of tragic Welsh architectural tyro Henry Harris (1851-1885).  The plaintive strains of Welsh hymnody floated down Bridge Street every Sunday, but for the rest of the week it was boisterously secular.  The accurately named Love Lane was an exotic back passage, the scene of many a quick tryst, leading south to Little Frederick Street, and a necklace of some of Cardiff’s most eclectic pubs stretched westwards towards the Canal, providing a social scene of limitless potential.  Let’s hear it for the East Dock, the Greyhound (last to go, in 1981), the Hope & Anchor, the Lion, the Lord Palmerston, the Nags Head, the Severn Stars and the Queens Head; they also served who only stood and drank. The juvenile popcorn of the multiplex cinema on nearby Mary Ann Street is today’s piss-poor substitute for all that.

Bridge Street in 1922, Canal to the west, Feeder to the east

As Cardiff slumped into its long post-coal hangover in the 20th century, Bridge Street fell into stately decrepitude, blighted by the Council’s ever-changing city centre development plans.  The Rapport clockmaking business, founded in 1898, bought up much of the eastern section, building their Ivor House HQ on the site of Nelson Terrace and replacing Wellington Terrace, East Terrace and the delights of Love Lane with an open-air car park in the 1950s.  By then Bridge Street’s name had lost its rationale: the Glamorganshire Canal was filled in at one end and the Dock Feeder culverted underground at the other.  The bridges were no more.

Looking west down Bridge Street from the Union Street corner, 1961

Demolition was piecemeal but continuous until by 1981 nothing of old Bridge Street was left.  The Council promised world-class wonders to come: the multi-storey car parks and superstore sheds that ensued lasted a mere 25 years.  The bulldozers and wrecking-balls moving in at the start of the 21st century amounted to an admission from the Council that, once again, it had all been a big mistake.  There are few better examples of this than the blink-and-you-missed-it lifespan of the multi-million pound Central Library raised on Bridge Street in 1988.  Trumpeted as a futuristic marvel when the ribbon was cut, within 15 short years it was being written off as an obsolete, ugly dinosaur.  Deleted in 2006, it is already wiped from Cardiffians’ memories.

Then came St David’s 2 to cut Bridge Street in half.  Anything would have been an improvement on the eyes-down, get-me-out-of-here, windswept wasteland centred on a branch of Mothercare that Hayes Bridge had become, so the great wall of John Lewis, Cineworld, the shopping mall and its multi-storey car park rearing up from Bridge Street at least has the merit of visual interest – even if only to provide a crash course in bad architecture.  All are clad in a range of cajoling, post-modern, kooky appendages so as not to look like the concrete-framed tower blocks they actually are.  Even the car park is dressed in a veritable light show of twinkling colour, the architectural equivalent of applying pan stick to a leper, while the cinema has a fearsomely ugly brown pterodactyl shape bolted on for no obvious reason, the patterned and tinted wedges of John Lewis appear to have been designed from the outside in and the St David’s entrance to the industrial food quarter they call ‘Eastside’ looks like the developers assumed we wouldn’t notice the astounding mundanity of their vision if they sprinkled on a few derisory contrasting materials.  Bridge Street itself peters out at a zebra crossing bending straight into the halotitic kisser of TGI Friday.  Here there’s the obligatory nod in the direction of “small independent businesses” with the Barrack Lane “Retail Enterprise Quarter”, squeezed in where nothing else would go under delivery ramps.  The miniscule units, dwarfed by all around, are supposed to be “affordable” – at the time of writing this there’s just one tenant.  Whether by accident or design, atmospheric new zones have been created in the canyon-like, curving passages provided through to The Hayes and for service vehicles; but there’s something very phoney about what’s been done on the site of Hayes Bridge.  The new Central Library of 2009, a concept-heavy pointy effort in shades of blue where the schoolboy error of its predecessor in devoting the ground floor to shops is repeated, jostles with a massive sculpture of an arrow and a hoop by French installation artist Jean-Bernard Metais.  Insistent, but vacuous, the creation is called Alliance with glib feel-good abstraction, its spelt-out representation of skyward pointing presumably signifying thrust and the pavement around peppered with the words of Cardiff poet and literary éminence grise Peter Finch. The Canal here was incorporated into the drainage system in 1949 and the partially submerged hoop taps into the drain to “rise and fall with the tides,” according to Metais.  Hmm…it might be me, but I’ve stood in front of that damn hoop for hours on end and still haven’t noticed anything more than some shifting blue and yellow lights…is that it? And, I’m sorry, but how come the Severn’s tides are running uphill through pipes under the city – wasn’t the Barrage supposed to block them off?

Despite it all, Bridge Street Square’s bizarre, random dichotomies and clashes were somehow beginning to become part of the city’s ebb and flow.  The low-rise Job Centre to the north, the Traders Tavern on a remnant of David Street to the east (originally the Panorama, it’s the last pub in a huge wedge of the city centre between Queen Street and Bute Terrace), and on the south side the apologetically mirror-tiled CIA, which we are now supposed to call the Motorpoint Arena, helped the space add up to more than the sum of its parts, even allowing for the empty lots in the clutches of the Rapport dynasty waiting to be filled when the time is right – the scions of Glamorgan Toryism having evolved from watchmakers into property developers over the last century. With the UK’s spiv economy plunging deeper into recession, those gaps are likely to remain for some time yet. And now the Square is to go, and with it the one small bonus of the whole St David’s 2 project.  For Cardiff to rip its core out, privatise its public sphere, surrender its autonomy and hitch its wagon to the dangerously fragile shopping/leisure economy just as the whole sorry farce collapses under the weight of its own contradictions could be as big a mistake as any made in the past.  This Council’s predecessors infamously did it with coal: ignoring the carved-in-stone fiscal rule not to put all your eggs in one basket.  And, when Admiral’s new tower rises, creating another bleak, joyless non-place of buffeting winds and mounds of office workers’ fag-ends, we will know that despite all the bitter lessons of the past, nothing has yet been learnt.  That’s the next bridge Cardiff must cross.

Picture: Brian Lee/Popes