Pubocalypse 2

Picking up where I left off in a previous blog, http://tinyurl.com/l2x9suw, here, in alphabetical order, are another ten recently closed Cardiff pubs for the record:

BAR ELEMENT – Sleazy dive on Crwys Road summarily shut for good by the licensing authorities this year after guns and Class A drugs were found on the premises. It’s now a restaurant. Did you know that the Crwys Road bridge upon which Bar Element perched, built in 1864 to get up and over the Rhymney Railway on a diagonal, was Cardiff’s longest road bridge until the Southern Way flyover spanned Newport Road, the River Rhymni and the mainline railway in 1984? You didn’t? Nor did the guys in Bar Element when I last went there to pick up a .357 Magnum and a bag of crack. JOKE!!!! 

THE BERTRAM – Broadway today is a woebegone Skid Row barely able to sustain a single viable business; a dark phase in the time-worn road’s long story. It was once part of the main highway across southern Wales, laid out by the Romans in the 2nd century upon an even older Celtic route. When the highway was improved for coach travel in the 1760s, this section was by-passed so that the turnpike could swing past the gates of the ancient manor house at Roath Court – a northerly bend still evident on Newport Road today. The redundant wide track through verdant countryside, known as Green Lane, was unchanged for over a century; but then Cardiff lunged eastwards in 1875 and quiet Green Lane was transformed into busy Broadway, Roath’s main commercial thoroughfare. Among Broadway’s first buildings, opening for business in the same year, was the Bertram, a quality small hotel on the Bertram Street corner with a public bar for travelling salesmen and genteel out-of-towners (the streets south of Broadway were built through the 1870s on the farmland of minor Cardiff landowners the Bradley Estate and all were named after members of the Bradley clan, Bertram among them). Between 1902 and 1962 the Bertram was one of four hotel/pubs in Cardiff owned by local independent Chamberlains (the others being the Colbourne, the Terminus and the Victoria). Ignoring the true origins of the pub’s name, Chamberlains erected the sign that still hangs from the handsome gabled building: a top-hatted proletarian posing as posh in the vein of 1915 music hall song Burlington Bertie from Bow. Through the years it thrived, a well-mannered watering-hole for grown-ups, as did Broadway, a prosperous road pulsing with pride and purpose. But both spiralled into slow decline as Cardiff thrashed around in search of a post-industrial future until they reached today’s lamentable condition. The Bertram passed through many hands before coming under the wing of Punch Taverns – a death blow if ever there was one – while Broadway became a grim reality-check of boarded-up, crumbling dereliction, starkly contradicting the smoke’n’mirrors branding exercise being cooked up just ½ a mile away in the city centre. With supermarkets virtually giving alcohol away as a loss leader, pubs in this increasingly impoverished area couldn’t compete. The Locomotive derailed (it’s been pulled down), the New Dock was filled in (it’s flats – most unlet) and now the Bertie has bowed out. But the Royal Oak still stands, the gnarled and cracked last Lullaby of Broadway. Sleep tight, baby.

THE CITY CANTEEN – All the major banks commissioned showpiece premises down the Docks during Cardiff’s coalopolis prime, Lloyds’ 1891 bank on Mount Stuart Square, a sturdy Italianate classic by the Bute Estate’s in-house architect EWM Corbett (1849-1934), being one of the more restrained efforts. The bank shut in the 1980s and in 2001 the vacant building was converted into the self-consciously hip City Canteen. The independent hoped for a slice of the credit card action going on at Mermaid Quay 250 metres away (a hope not fulfilled), and prayed there were enough creative bo-hos in Butetown to lurk in those deep armchairs and pontificate around those trestle tables (a prayer not answered). I liked the musty gloom, the laid-back vibes and the Tuesday night ‘Think Club’ discussions – but didn’t like the prices, or my ideas being nicked by rogue Guide Book writers (scum of the earth), so stopped going. Oh well, it got through a decade – and that earns you a long service medal in modern Cardiff. The listed building is back in use as Soundworks music studios. I wish them well, but Mount Stuart Square and music are not enjoying a good relationship lately. Soundworks is sandwiched between the still empty 1902 St Stephen’s church where live gig venue The Point was unforgivably killed off by the property lobby in 2010, and the still empty 1885 Coal Exchange where Cardiff’s best music venue is suffering the same fate. Girded in scaffolding just to stop lumps falling onto pedestrians below, King Coal’s decomposing cathedral is as good an image as any of the Bay project’s essential meanness and lowest-common-denominator philistinism.   

Y FUWCH GOCH – Opened in 2009 by the owners of Clwb Ifor Bach opposite, y Fuwch Goch was named after the Red Cow, a seminal Cardiff inn from where the Cowbridge stagecoach used to depart, which had occupied the Womanby Street site between 1776 and 1885. A heartening alternative to the gormless commercialism of the city centre, enlightened, gregarious and cool because it didn’t try to be cool, the dimly-lit cavern seemed to signpost a way forward for Cardiff. But there isn’t much call for understated sophistication in Dave’s Big Society and it shut at the end of 2011. Thankfully, music bar the Full Moon (+ the Moon club upstairs + So-lo in the building next door, the address of quintessential Cardiff alehouse the Horse & Groom from 1776 to 1998) quickly filled the vacant slot. The lunar names, incidentally, continue the  vogueish practise of paying homage to a famed Cardiff venue from the past; a transparent ploy to bag instant antiquity also tried round the corner in Quay Street where Brains have remodelled the Model Inn as Greenwood & Brown,  the wine merchants who owned it until the 1950s. The knowing reference here is to the New Moon, fondly remembered by those with enough functioning brain cells left to do memory. Located on the corner of New Street and The Hayes (more or less where the Central Library is now) and demolished in 1981, the New Moon was a late night live music clip joint that made today’s club scene look about as racy as a Rotarian coffee morning. Shine on (nouveau) moon, shine on.

HA! HA! – A dire ‘canteen bar’ concept from the Laurel Pub Co chain that besmirched The Friary for a mercifully few years. It featured exorbitant prices, dirty glasses, rank food, atrocious service, gorillas on the door, tragic wannabes who get their life tips from Cheryl Cole and 30-something suits texting their wives to say they’re working late at the office while rubbing a semi-erection against a Penylan Princess who reads Marie Claire. I went to a stag-do here once and people were queuing to get in. No, not get out, GET IN!! It couldn’t last and it didn’t, as Laurel retrenched in the eternal UK recession. Now Browns ‘bar and brasserie’ has taken over this centrifugal Cardiff plot, where a 13th century Fransiscan Friary gradually disintegrated across four centuries following the dissolution of the monasteries until finally being built over in 1967. The upmarket chain wants suckers, I mean customers, to buy a pig in a poke, I mean to enjoy a fine meal in elegant surroundings. Ho! Ho! 

HAVANAN CUBAN BAR – The disastrous Millennium Plaza development that has blighted Wood Street since it replaced the much-loved Empire Pool in 1999 staggers from crisis to crisis, changing ownership and undergoing desperate revamps seemingly on a daily basis. Obsolete almost before the last fibreglass panel was screwed into place, the architectural excrescence was dumped on Cardiff by the WRU and the last Labour Council and, a mere 13 years old, already looks ripe for the rubble yard. The latest reinvention has meant a change of name to Stadium Plaza, and there’s airy talk of a “world class” conference centre just as soon as pigs grow wings again. One definite plus is the ditching of that “Millennium” millstone, an increasingly redundant and anachronistic label that serves only to rekindle nightmares about Peter Mandelson. While I’m on the subject, isn’t it about time both the Wales Millennium Centre and the Millennium Stadium dropped the embarassing M-word? In the WMC’s case the Millennium Commission contributed £31 million to the £106 million cost while the remaining £75 million came from the Assembly and the Arts Council of Wales, meaning anorexic Welsh coffers forked out double what came from Tony Blair’s fluffy Millennium Commission – wound up anyhow in 2006 and hardly deserving of permanent memorialisation. A building specifically for Wales, about Wales, paid for by Wales, belonging to Wales and home to eight autonomous Welsh organisations should act on its promise and its remit and select a name that doesn’t cravenly fawn to London. Similarly, the Millennium Commission only contributed just over a third of the £121 million cost of the Stadium, the WRU getting itself into huge debt to find the remainder. I know the WRU are holding out for a whopping sponsorship deal but their Stadium cries out now for a name of relevance to Wales (Welsh rugby is spoiled for choice: how about the Alfie Arena?) before the lazy colloquialism “Len-yum” becomes so rooted it will be unshiftable. Anyhow, back at the plastic Plaza, the as-bad-as-its-name-suggests Havanan Cuban Bar (+ Code nightclub and the Millennium Music Hall) slipped away unnoticed earlier this year, allowing Fidel Castro to stop spinning in his grave. Is he dead yet by the way?        

THE NEW ADDIE – Whenever I meet someone new to Cardiff I always ask them for their first impressions of the city and, almost without exception, they come up with the same answer, despite me egging them on to be as critical as possible. “It’s so friendly,” they gush in unison, to my great annoyance. For years my stock retaliation was to recommend a visit to the New Addie on the Moira Street/Meteor Street corner, built on Tredegar Estate land as the Adamsdown Hotel in 1871. Of course, I was being unfair: I knew that the profoundly inhospitable hostelry would clinch my case (which goes something along the lines of, “We’re all sociopaths. You won’t like it here. Go back to England. Now!”). The Addie had been run into the ground for years to become a fly-blown hell-hole where it was quite difficult to get the surly barman to tear himself away from the racing page and pull a pint, even when there were no other customers. This was a far cry from the pub’s hey-day as part of Cardiff brewer Hancocks’ empire when Adamsdown hummed with industry, commerce and social life. In the clutches of Bass Charrington after they bought out Hancocks in 1968, it was briefly renamed the Comet in the 1980s before becoming the New Addie after a perfunctory revamp in 1995. Eventually falling into the hands of pub buy-out group Avery hastened its demise; it’s for sale with planning permission to convert it into flats. So, I’ve been deprived of my best example of Cardiff crankiness – but perhaps it was time for me to drop this schtick anyway, because by schmoozing up to complete strangers to pursue my hobby-horse I was rebutting it by exhibiting the very friendliness I claimed to be myth – tsk!  Adios amigos, Adios Addie.

THE NINIAN PARK – I wanna tell you a story. Long ago, back in the olden days when there was a Ninian Park football ground, I threw my specially-for-City-fans curveball question at a group of inebriated, lairy neanderthals in this 1975 shit-pit. “Who is the only player to score the winning goal in the FA Cup final and then commit suicide?” I slurred, a little too confrontationally, before recklessly adding “and if you don’t know you are total idiots.” After much scratching of shaven skulls none of the tattooed hulks could come up with the answer, and when I told them with a snort of derision that it was Cardiff City’s own Hughie Ferguson (1898-1930) my mate had to drag me quickly from the building before they could eviscerate me with their bare hands. “That was a lucky escape,” he said as we scarpered off down Wellington Street, “you don’t want to fall out with women like them.” The anodyne Sand Martin, opened in 2011 nearby, can be no substitute – with its kiddies’ play area, wine menu and drinkaware notices, it’s the corporate antithesis of the Ninian Park’s, er, homespun charms. Sold by Brains in 2010 to local businessman John Bassett, the Nin was beyond even his transformative powers. He’s worked wonders going back into the future with Bar YK in Elm Street (reborn as the Four Elms, its name from 1859 to 1994), but this was asking too much. There are plans to convert it into a fast-food outlet.      

THE OLD TON – One of a number of Tongwynlais pubs to emerge following the completion of the Cardiff-Merthyr turnpike through the village in 1767, the Old Ton shut in 2011 to join the New Inn, the Castell Coch (both demolished to make way for the Cardiff Railway in 1897), the Bute Arms (closed 1920s, demolished) and the Cardiff Castle (later the Castle, now Tongwynlais RFC clubhouse) on the roll-call of gone Ton taverns. Only Brains’ Lewis Arms remains. Generalising slightly, the Old Ton was the rumbustious and rowdy one whereas the Lewis Arms on the other side of the road was the respectable and refined one. It says it all that the latter ended up winning their century-long contest. The extraordinary transformation of the British (and I don’t use that word lightly) pub, from the communal heartland of working-class culture into the epitome of status-seeking middle-class culture, shows no sign of abating.      

THE VULCAN – What was so good about the Vulcan? Answer: the people. Not the tiles, the urinals, the spit’n’sawdust floorboards, the unreconstructed Victoriana, the accumulated ephemera of old Newtown, nor even the bracing Brains beers; but the people. Here no leisure industry charlatans ever calculated a demographic or pitched at a market sector, here was no ghetto for those who only want to mix with other versions of themselves. Man, woman, black, white, gay, straight, old, young, rich, poor…all were welcome at the Vulcan. And, on those nights when serendipity threw together random individuals magically synchronised in some socio-alchemical chain reaction, the bounteous potential of urban life came to fruition. That’s rare, not to say endangered. The building, currently being dismantled, can be replicated in St Fagans; the hwyl cannot. I’ve got into trouble with some friends for calling the ‘Save the Vulcan’ campaign a failure in a blog – but I stand by what I’ve written. What sticks in my craw is this: when it was still open the Vulcan was an outdated hindrance to Cardiff’s vibrant thrust, but as soon as it’s shut, hey presto, it’s a National Treasure. A similar sleight of hand was done to Tiger Bay and to Newtown itself. I’d prefer the real thing rather than a sepia-tinted avatar. However, we are where we are, and I’m sure the many excellent people at the National Museum will interpret the Vulcan with intelligence. Here is an opportunity to examine the ruinous economic experiment inflicted upon Wales by the market forces maniacs over the last 30 years, the very cause of the Vulcan’s demise as well as so much else that was precious, and to draw attention to the fact that these policies were never voted for by the Welsh people – and thus point at the inescapable conclusion that this is what happens when a small, egalitarian country is joined at the hip to a hierarchical country 20 times its size. We can forge new Vulcans in the fires of freedom.  

Look out for Pubocalypse 3, coming soon.