You can’t take it with you

The Devil might have all the best tunes, but God’s definitely got the superior property portfolio. Every deity, sect, schism and splinter-group, every period of history and every architectural style is represented among a huge over-supply of religious buildings in Cardiff. Many have been lost but there are plenty left, often converted to secular use. Here, in alphabetical order and avoiding the obvious like Llandaf Cathedral, St John’s and the Tabernacl, are ten selected highlights:

•AL-MANAR CENTRE The very first mosque in the UK was founded by Yemeni and Somali sailors in 1860 at number 2 Glynrhondda Street Cathays. That’s what Wikipedia says; it must be true. I’d like it to be true, but it can’t be – Glynrhondda Street didn’t exist until 1880. However, if we take 1880 as its foundation such a mosque would still be the UK’s first, beating those at Liverpool and Woking by nine years. And, amazingly, the plain, 3-storey, Victorian end-terrace house remains a working mosque today, the oldest surviving place of worship in Cathays, and, as such, a useful weapon against islamophobes: Allah was here before Jehovah! As a potent symbol of Cardiff’s best characteristic, its live-and-let-live insouciance, the Al-Manar forces itself onto this list. Also, it gives me a chance to include all three of the Abrahamic monotheistic sky-god religions (for Christianity and Judaism, keep reading). The infighting among Cardiff’s Muslims is every bit as ferocious as that found in the older religions. A mosque that opened in an empty warehouse on nearby Lucas Street in 1992 was burnt to the ground by a disaffected Muslim in 2006 and work on its lavish purpose-built replacement has entirely ceased while various intransigent factions drag each other through the courts in never-ending litigation over ownership. Oh, brother.  

•CANTON GOSPEL HALL  Religious Nonconformism came to Wales in 1639 when a Congregationalist chapel was built at Llanfaches near Chepstow. From that small foothold independent Protestant sects spread throughout the country to play a central role in the history of Wales. Why the ordinary people embraced Nonconformism so readily is easily answered: just look at the alternatives. The religious schisms of England during the 16th and 17th centuries as a consequence of Henry VIII’s break with Rome saw Protestants string up Catholics, Catholics lynch Protestants, Protestants garrotte Catholics, Protestants turn on each other as the new Church of England persecuted any dissent from its dictums and demands, an 11-year reign of Puritan terror, and then the restoration of absolutist control and royal power. Wales was barely a factor in the ferment, powerless to do anything but swallow whatever was dished up by these terrible competing armies of fanatical Englishmen. When the dust settled the sole church permitted in Wales was the Church of England, which conducted its services in English only with utter contempt for the 95% who were monoglot Welsh yet compelled to pay tithes to it or be prosecuted. The CofE was for landowners, Tories, social climbers and collaborators. Catholicism would remain a hanging offence until the 1689 Toleration Act, and effectively outlawed until the 1829 Catholic Emancipation Act, so that was not an option either. Nonconformism, although also discriminated against, was recognised by the Toleration Act and, being Protestant, avoided the outright persecution Catholicism endured. With Welsh language services, an atmosphere of equality, opportunities for laymen to play a part, intrinsically democratic structures and passionate forms of worship, the chapels attracted the downtrodden all over Wales and trumped the state church with ease. You see, it’s like this: God didn’t create Man in his own image – it was the other way round. Cardiff’s first Nonconformist chapel was a 1696 Presbyterian meeting house in Womanby Street (it survived until 1847 when destroyed by fire). Within 200 years there were more than 300 working chapels in Cardiff, representing all the nit-picking demarcation lines into which Nonconformism splintered: mutually hostile sects expending energy arguing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. From that highwater mark the tide has ebbed relentlessly. There was a last nostalgic spasm during the Welsh Revival of 1904/05, but from there it’s been downhill all the way for chapel culture and today the Welsh, to our enormous credit, are the least religiously-inclined people in Europe. We saw through that glass, darkly. Cardiff’s extant collection of chapels, many converted to other uses or standing empty and disintegrating, provide a complete prospectus of Nonconformism in all its guises and I’m spoiled for choice picking a favourite. On reflection, I’ll go for Canton Gospel Hall on the Llandaff Road/Romilly Road corner. It was built in 1859 for the Wesleyan Methodists (architect unknown) in what was then open countryside, a serene, squat presence with Venetian fan-light windows that must have intrigued the local market-gardeners. The Wesleyans moved into grander premises on Conway Road in 1869 (they’re still there), allowing the Congregationalists to take over. They in turn left the building in 1894 for a statement chapel on Theobald Road (demolished 1998) and made way for the Plymouth Bretheren, who converted what was already pretty utilitarian into the lean, stripped-down Gospel Hall we see today, an unheralded, unaffected, undesigned gem that never fails to satisfy. They still let Jesus’s big love enter them behind those whitewashed walls, and now the Bretheren keep the wolf from the door by hiring it out to all and sundry as a really useful community hall –  form and function: who could ask for more? 

Canton Gospel Hall

•CATHEDRAL ROAD SYNAGOGUE  The Jews of Cardiff pulled out all the stops with this bulbous, evocative synagogue in 1897, bringing in expensive synagogue specialists from London to design a loud declaration of visibility. Erecting such an edifice was evidence of how far Jewry had progressed in the town since opening their first humble synagogue in Bute Street in 1858 (demolished 1899). A second was added in Edward Street, off Queen Street, in 1889 (closed in 1918, demolished along with all of Edward Street in the 1960s), before the Chosen People made the step up to Cardiff’s most prestigious residential road. When the irreconcilable split between the Reform and Orthodox wings of Judaism reached Wales, Cathedral Road became increasingly redundant (along with other synagogues in Windsor Place and Clare Road) since both sides insisted on their own separate premises: in 1952 the Reform Jews moved into a defunct Primitive Methodist chapel of 1875 on Moira Terrace; the Orthodox Jews countered in 1955 with a move to Penylan – and the two unforgiving factions have not communicated since. Cathedral Road Synagogue closed in 1989, but the delightful building with its bulging twin domes was preserved after costly conversion into swish “serviced offices” – most of which are currently in search of tenants. This saga looks rather like a breach of the 11th Commandment: Thou shalt not get caught. 

CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST OF THE LATTER-DAY SAINTS  Let’s head up to Rhiwbina for this next one: the Mormons’ menacing Cardiff HQ on Heol-y-Deri, opened in 1976 and built according to the Utah sect’s generic in-house template – part animal research laboratory, part business-park vernacular, featuring over-manicured lawns, chimney-like brick tower, razor-sharp spire and aggressive bricked-up front wall. From here scary, over-groomed men in Ivy League suits with crew cuts and heaving biceps spread out to door-step the city. It seems there are some willing to buy the load of twaddle about golden plates and Egyptian papyri cooked up by psychotic American Joseph Smith (1805-1844) in order to supply himself with money, wives, power and more wives before his violent death in an Illinois penitentiary. But then, is that any more ludicrous than the virgin birth, the resurrection, the holy trinity, transubstantiation of the soul or, for that matter, taking a multi-authored book of mythology written in a Middle East desert in the Iron Age as a guide to ethical conduct? I only ask – spare me the thumb-screws.              

•CHURCH OF THE RESURRECTION  A case-study in the evolution of the Church in Wales since it was disestablished in 1920 and became free to run its own affairs after winning an independence not enjoyed in any other sphere of Welsh life. It’s taken well nigh a century, but today there isn’t a single Welsh Anglican who advocates a return to the authority of Canterbury – a clue to how long it might take for the British Nationalists in Wales who argue for the scrapping of the Assembly to fall silent. In the early years the Church in Wales was a cowed, cautious body, stubbornly addicted to the colonised mentality and hopelessly dependent on the largesse of wealthy individuals. When the huge Ely council estate was completed in 1930 the Anglicans were forced to have a presence because the Baptists, Methodists and Congregationalists had got in early and were already proselytising from purpose-built pulpits. Unwilling to stump up the money for a new church, the Llandaf diocese instead relied on the deep pockets of one of Cardiff’s most famed docksmen: William Tatem (1868-1942). The larger than life Devonian who made his fortune as a shipowner in the coal boom had set up home at St Fagans Court (demolished 1950, now the site of Glamorgan Wanderers’ rugby ground), where he ostentatiously flaunted his nouveaux-gentry pretensions and became a leading racehorse owner (he won all five Classics). Known semi-affectionately as ‘old guts and gaiters’, he was one of the many peers created in Lloyd George’s brazen sale of honours after WW1 (“Lloyd George knows my father, father knows Lloyd George”), paying £50,000 to become Baron Glanely. None of the resulting scandal deterred the Church in Wales from taking Tatem’s filthy lucre in 1934 to pay for the Church of the Resurrection – and they even specially created the stand-alone mini-parish of Glanely to satisfy his massive self-regard. However, the gamble turned out to be worth it because the Byzantine confection cooked up on Grand Avenue has aged gracefully in the subsequent 80 years, the very uncertainty of the concept (a replica of an Anglican college in Yorkshire), mundanity of the materials (brown-red brick) and confusion of its execution (domes, towers, vaults and windows pulling in all directions) making for an exhilarating waywardness. Inside, it’s a cool, airy cavern, the domain for over 30 years of one of Cardiff’s most plausible Christian Socialists, Bob Morgan (1928-2011). The Old Labour stalwart was vicar at ‘the Res’ as well as leader of South Glamorgan County Council between 1977 and 1989. His open-house policy and commitment to social justice was vital in embattled Ely, helped shift the Church in Wales away from the established Church of England’s ‘Tory party at prayer’ identity, and paved the way for today’s mildly leftish, progressive institution, at last becoming congruent with Welsh ideals.

Church of the Resurrection

•COLLEGE CHAPEL  Cardiff’s greatest native architect, John Prichard (1817-1886), had completed his stunning neo-gothic transformation of Llandaf Cathedral and was working on a house for himself, close by in Cardiff Road, when he died unexpectedly with only a turreted, multicoloured office and a couple of walls of the house completed. Those walls were incorporated intoSt Michael’s Theological College by Prichard disciple FR Kempson (1838-1923) when the Anglican institution was relocated to Llandaf from Aberdâr in 1907. Two sides of Kempson’s dull quadrangle were destroyed beyond repair by the Luftwaffe during the same 1941 night raid that wrecked the Cathedral, thus accidentally releasing space at the site for Cardiff’s finest new religious building since, well, ever: the incredible College Chapel of 1959 by George Pace (1915-1975). Radical English innovator Pace had just completed his dramatic parabolic arches holding Jacob Epstein’s (1880-1959) sensational Majestas statue down in the Cathedral and was given free rein by supportive dean Glyn Simon (1903-1972) to create something special. Boy, did he deliver: a deeply serious modernist masterpiece which tears up and bins every single rule of church architecture. Standing pugnaciously alone on the College lawns, it is a soul-searching Boschian fantasy referencing warehouse, factory and gaol, with strangely angled blank end walls, a spine-tingling lop-sided roof, blue-grey Pennant sandstone masonry oozing golden rust from its iron oxide marrow and over 100 deep-set rectangular windows seemingly scattered at random. After the brute beauty of the exterior the succulent interior is all the more startling: a smoothly curving white womb of tranquillity, shot through with myriad beams of light. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven…

•St ELLTEYRN’S  Founded as a wayside holy place on the Roman road to Llantrisant by 6th century Celtic monk Ellteyrn, this magical little sanctuary in the dreamy valley of the Nant y Glaswg, a tributary of the river Ely, punches well above its weight. The Normans replaced Ellteyrn’s wattle-and-daub cell with a stone-built chapel-of-ease for nearby St Fagans in the 13th century and the scattered hamlet of Capel Llanilltern grew around it. Then in 1863 the Windsor family of St Fagans Castle rebuilt it as a powerfully simple, retro-Celtic pastiche, one of the lesser-known works of renowned English gothic revivalist GE Street (1824-1881). Using rough-cut local stone with Bath stone dressings, Street showboats exquisite windows at the east and west ends while still wearing his medievalist learning lightly. Among the preserved artefacts within the hushed, mellow space are a fine 13th century font and a rare 6th century grave stone with a Latin inscription the cream of Academia has been trying to decode for centuries: VENDVMAGL HIC IACIT. St Ellteyrn’s is now part of the Church in Wales’ Pentyrch parish, used only for the occasional choral evensong. Catch it while you can, because Capel Llanilltern will be history if the plans for an “International Business Park” on land north of the M4 Junction 33 are revived.

•St MARGARET’S  Roath’s parish church on Waterloo Road is a very special building, one of the finest works of John Prichard (see above). It was commissioned by the 3rd Marquis of Bute (1847-1900) in 1868 to replace the simple, lime-washed medieval church with a bell-turret where his great-grandfather, the 1st Marquis (1744-1814) had established the family mausoleum in 1800. The old church was pulled down and by 1873 Prichard, with the leading patron of the gothic revival looking over his shoulder, had conjured up a gloriously quirky exercise in Celtic exuberance. From the outside the squat, cruciform building (a planned spire never got built) with walls of split Pennant sandstone gives no hint of its sensational interior. Inside is a mind-blowing display of virtuoso polychromy unmatched in Wales, featuring stone, marble and alabaster in black, red, cream, pink, grey and green, fusing walls, arches and columns in a rhapsody of colour patterns. Even more astonishing is the Bute mausoleum, rebuilt as a chapel by Prichard in 1883, where the nine coffins from the original crypt are held in six massive, sombre sarcophagi (plus a smaller seventh) of polished red granite which have no parallel in the UK. This is a Cardiff must-see; eye-popping evidence of the Butes’ unimaginable wealth and overweening self-importance. The words “camel”, “eye of” and “needle” spring to mind. A wander round the churchyard, the original “Rhath” (“mound”) which gave Roath its name, is also recommended. You can feel the ground rising beneath your feet, a vestige of the pre-Christian Celtic meeting place on dry ground that became a llan, a consecrated enclosure, with the arrival of Christianity in the 5th century. Here too are the last components of the 12th century Norman church swept away with relish by Prichard and the Marquis: a couple of carved stones, once part of an arch, now placed on each pillar of the churchyard’s south gate. Best of all, you must meet one of Cardiff’s oldest residents: a yew tree that, going by its 6m (20ft) girth, could be over 1500 years old – a survivor from the sacred Druid grove still breathing in the machine age and sending this message loud and clear to all “people of faith”: hey, you’re mortal, get over it. 

Bute Mausoleum, St Margaret’s

•St MARY OF THE ANGELS  Did you really think I was going to let the Catholics off the hook? No chance. It’s back to Canton for this audacious 1907 attempt to outdo all the other Christian denominations already established in the area. Constrained by the Kings Road site’s dimensions, big-shot London architect Frederick Walters (1849-1931) cooked up a soaring Pennant sandstone castle of rough-cut squared blocks – emphasised, unusually in Cardiff, by white pointing – in a masterclass of leaping arches, steepling piers, marching bays and glowering turrets that generate terrific lighting effects of half shadow and deep gloom pierced by shafts of dazzling light within the ethereal aisles. Of note to the rear in Talbot Street is another Cardiff rarity: a building entirely clad in Bath stone – dinky priests’ quarters decorated with a repeated crucifix motif. With this church Catholicism completed its Cardiff second coming, begun in 1842 with St David’s on the David Street/Bute Terrace corner, the first new Catholic church in the town for 500 years. That wasn’t enough; they had to have their own “Cathedral” too, the better to make their primary point: Papa’s Back!  So St David’s Cathedral was erected with Bute money on Charles Street in 1887 to replace the small church (which served as a church hall until being demolished in 1970, Motorpoint Arena now covers its location). Then the Cathedral, an underwhelming, back-of-an-envelope job by Peter Pugin (1851-1904), was gutted by a German bomb in 1941 before being rebuilt exactly as before and reopening for bells’n’smells in 1959. A succession of paedophile scandals in the archdiocese – part of a bigger picture of systematic, institutionalised, organised, centuries-long, worldwide child abuse – has turned St David’s into an embarrassment, especially as the Cathedral’s priests have obstinately refused to apologise or even take responsibility. A previous Archbishop, John Ward (1929-2007), only acquited of assaulting a seven year-old girl in the 1960s because it was his word against the child’s, was forced to resign in 2001 after Panorama exposed his cover up of his press spokesman’s conviction for indecently assaulting a 13 year-old girl, his ignoring of parishoners’ complaints about clergy sex offences and his ordaining of a priest blacklisted by the Dept of Education as unsuitable to work with children who then went on to be  jailed for assaulting two boys. If only there were a hell: Ward would be stoking the boilers. The current Archbishop, George Stack, while intoning the usual stuff about “prayer and repentance” employs as his communications officer someone who has tried to blame it all on “homosexuals” – which is the equivalent of calling a man who interferes with little girls “heterosexual” (Fact: 95% of male paedophiles are convicted for assaults on girls). They’ve obviously still got a lot to hide in that dark and joyless Charles Street monolith; that’s why regular, invigorating bouts of queer-bashing are handy as a smokescreen and the thought of gay sex is just about the only thing that can fire up the dwindling faithful these days – injustice, inequality, poverty, oppression and war leaving them quite unmoved. Today there are 20 Catholic churches in Cardiff as well as 15 state-funded Catholic schools. Why would anyone let their child anywhere near these places? And, no, “the Lord moves in mysterious ways, His wonders to perform” will not suffice as an answer.   

•SHREE SWAMINARAYAN TEMPLE  This outlandish sepulchre tucked away on the corner of Mardy Street and Merches Place was originally the Regent Ballroom, the spawning pond of many a Grangetown romance. After falling into disuse in the anti-social 1980s it became the temple for Cardiff’s Gujarati Hindus in 1993, when they made the short move from the old Clare Road synagogue they had occupied since 1982 (today that building is a Pentecostal chapel – God being nothing if not flexible). A complete rebuild, done over stages by teams of volunteers at a fraction of the commercial cost, transformed the shed-like 1920s oblong into a delirious riot of eastern mysticism, a wonderfully over-the-top cream and gold palace decorated to within an inch of its life with twiddly mouldings, encircled by 10 mini-domes on the parapets and crowned with three fat, shape-shifting domes on the roof. As camp as Christmas in a pink tent, and an inspiring example of what can be achieved by people outside the orbit of big business or municipal machismo, the Temple is best viewed during Diwali, when all the domes are lit up like a…like a…like a very well-lit thing. Holy Cow!

Pictures: John Lord; Gerard Charmley; Alan Mayer