Absent friends

I feel privileged to be a core regular in one of Cardiff’s few remaining traditional inner-city pubs. Nobody is more surprised than me that this has happened. In the flesh I am more or less exactly as I am in print, so readers of this blog can imagine what they’ve had to put up with in my local. Yet, despite my quick temper, rude jokes, sarky attitudes, demagogic rants, faraway moods and drunken antics, I am accepted. They take me in. They let me be. I belong.

Therefore I count myself a lucky Cardiffian, to be a strand in a complex, unpredictable web of public relationships rather than an isolated atom stagnating in the privatised confines of home and family. As there are only about 20 ungentrified Cardiff pubs left, and each has only about 100 integral customers, this means there are just 2,000 of us in a city of 300,000 who now have this rich, fulfilling experience. Once, the vast majority enjoyed such communal ratification as a matter of routine, but those special pubs have nearly all gone – along with the special people who lived out their lives in them.

But the loss is profounder still: in Cardiff, pubs have been far more than mere purveyors of an anaesthetising disinhibitor; they have been the factories in which actual Cardiff-ness was constructed. Here I’ve tried to select five illustrious pubs of yore, in chronological order of their opening, to best illustrate this point.

THE HORSE & GROOM (opened 1776, closed 1998)
Womanby Street
The Horse & Groom provided the quintessential Cardiff pub experience: anonymous but personal, coarse but humane, sleazy but honest. The medieval narrows of Womanby Street have had many noted pubs over the years, such as the Red Cow and the Cardiff Boat, but the tiny Horse & Groom, arriving on the scene just as Cardiff was beginning its dramatic transformation from sleepy creek to coalopolis, was the first to reflect the full implications of the revolutionary changes. In a corner of Cardiff left high and dry by the coming of the Canal direct to the sea and then the straightening of the Taff, and away from the centres of commerce and industry, the pub developed organically on its own terms. Without a captive congregation to service, it became that uncommon thing: a weather vane pub, metamorphising over the years according to the characters that drifted through the door. As Cardiff prospered, so did the Horse & Groom – it got a fancy refit in the 1890s as the coal rush approached its apex. As Cardiff suffered, so did the Horse & Groom – it was a haven for the dispossessed during the long 20th century decline. As Cardiff navel-gazed, so did the Horse & Groom – its cordial intimacy the last outpost of the pre-industrial sensibility. As Cardiff refreshed its Welsh wellspring, so did the Horse & Groom – it was the best place to be on international day, roaring and soaring with hwyl. And as Cardiff’s sea-saga died, so too did the Horse & Groom – it was shut down for licensing breaches while the city was being barricaded against the ocean tides. Boarded up and left to rot for a decade as Cardiff hitched its fortunes to another one-trick pony – the consumption-for-consumption’s-sake economy – the building has lately been given a new lease of life by various left-field occupants, currently bar/club So-Lo. Is the tide turning?    

THE ROSE & CROWN (opened 1787, closed 1974)
There were wayside hostelries on this site just outside the walled borough’s North Gate since the 17th century. It was where the people of the hill country, coming to market or laboriously hauling coal by pack-horse and mule, were greeted by the town after their long descent down the ancient road from the north. After the North Gate was pulled down in 1786 the Rose & Crown was built. With its cobbled courtyards and extensive stables it became the cornerstone of the interaction between the coalfield and the coal port when the Glamorganshire Canal opened in 1794. Lock 49 (North Road Lock) of the 52 on the journey from Merthyr to the sea was close by, and many a tired boatman, along with his butty and his boathorse, would stop for refreshment here. Railways superseded the Canal in the 19th century, but the Rose & Crown’s position on what was then called North Street meant it remained the first sign they had arrived in Cardiff for travellers from the Valleys entering the Victorian metropolis. Within its whitewashed walls the prickly relationship between Valleys coal and Cardiff gold developed – an unequal contest that would grow into today’s stubbornly one-way love affair. The coming of the University of Wales to nearby Cathays Park in 1903 gradually added a new element to the equation; the Rose & Crown became Cardiff’s very first hang-out for students and, consequently, the pub of choice for many an alcohol virgin excitedly getting to grips with a first pint of Brains on reaching age 18 – nobody could have guessed that all of Cathays would come to be devoted to the 18-25 demographic a century later. Cardiff put up a fight to save the Rose & Crown in the 1970s, but the Welsh Office in London prevailed and road-widening removed the pivotal pub. It was replaced by a basement bar positioned a little to the east. After periods as Coopers, Barfly and Bogiez it is now Hop Bunker. Hey! A spoonerism!      

THE GREEN DRAGON (opened 1792, closed 1962)
Duke Street
At first called the New Green Dragon to differentiate it from the ramshackle Green Dragon nestling under the Castle walls opposite, this inn on Cardiff’s main crossroads, where the road north to the coalfield intersected the west-east highway, was a crucible where town met country, shopworker met collier and clerk met canal boatman to forge the framework of Cardiffian identity – a downbeat, passive-aggressive knowingness born of necessity, pulsing on through the city’s veins 200 years later. In 1859 it was one of the earliest Cardiff pubs to undergo an upmarket overhaul, becoming Fulton Dunlop, where quality wines and spirits were served alongside the draught ales. Many a Cardiff pub has followed that path to this day, refusing to learn the lesson that the pub should fit the people, not vice-versa. In 1905, inspired by the extravagant neo-Gothic restoration of the Castle, Fultons introduced the Mahogany Room upstairs, a riot of carved wood, stained glass and mock-medieval exotica. It evolved into a superior sort of gin palace where Aldermen and Councillors often preferred to hold their committee meetings rather than at City Hall, and in its panelled nooks the wheelings and dealings of Cardiff politics were played out for 50 years. All came to an end in 1963 when the pub was converted into Gas Board showrooms. From 1985 it was Techniquest’s first home until the pop-science charity moved down the Bay in 1988. Then followed a period as the UK’s largest Wimpy Bar and now, to complete a spectacular fall from grace, it’s a Burger King – an indignity for Cardiff akin to Rome having a Starbucks at the top of the Spanish Steps. Somehow the Mahogany Room has survived, permanently locked away from the fry-up downstairs – perhaps in waiting, for the day the Green Dragon breathes again.

THE WINDSOR (opened 1855, closed 1993)
Stuart Street
The Windsor Hotel, called the ‘Big Windsor’ to distinguish it from the ‘Little Windsor’ (the Windsor Arms in nearby South William Street), is still an imposing presence with its three stuccoed storeys, ornate entrance and arched windows. But the listed building gives no hint of its former life as the docks’ nerve centre. It opened in the same year as Cardiff’s 2nd dock, the Bute East, in a key position overlooking the inner harbour and the graving dock of John Batchelor (1820-1883) and next door to the equally grand 1855 Sailors’ Home that accommodated retired seamen and crews waiting for their next ship. By 1882, when it was rebuilt retaining its original features, the Windsor had become the favourite meeting-place of the new Cardiff breed of  merchants, shipowners, coal exporters, middlemen, agents and bankers. Notorious for having “the caution of a Scot, the shrewdness of the Tynesider, and the cunning of the devil himself,” these Cardiff docksmen honed their unscrupulous skills over very long lunches in the light-filled lounge, fashioning Cardiff traits of shady-dealing, social-networking and it’s-not-what-you-know-it’s-who-you-know back-scratching that are still very much alive today. Through a small side door was a different Cardiff: the ‘snake pit’, where coal trimmers, tippers, dockers and sailors of all nationalities jostled, cursed, bickered and told tall tales while glugging the rough cider; a sweaty mayhem where other enduring Cardiff characteristics like mateyness, broad-mindedness and verbosity were cemented into place. As the docks declined post WW1 the Big Windsor attained the status of a Cardiff icon. Valleys folk, returning from day-trips to Weston-super-Mare or Ilfracombe on the pleasure steamers, would queue around the block to get in and sample urban sophistication before heading home to the hard life in the mining villages – to this day people from the valleys are far more drawn to the Bay than Cardiffians.  After WW2 French chef Abel Magneron (1890-1954) brought haute-cuisine to the Windsor and made it the destination of choice for celebrity performers when they were in Cardiff, Noel Coward (1899-1973) being the most famed repeat visitor, issuing his barbed one-liners between mouthfuls of Magneron’s signature Bouillabaisse. Note that the maestro of suave English refinement coped just fine with looking out across the muddy bay – refuting the later insistence of Barrage propagandists that a tidal Taff put posh people off. Ultimately, the Big Windsor could not be immune to the economic forces gathering on its doorstep. Like the docks which brought it into being, and the docksmen who jousted under its nicotine-yellow ceilings, it was no more. Indian restaurant Spice Merchant opened in the restored building in 2002. The new bars closest to the site, Salt and Terra Nova, are where threads of future Cardiff personality are now being weaved. But don’t despair: Cardiff will always revert to type.   

THE CUSTOM HOUSE (Opened 1859, closed 1998)
Bute Street
The desolate wasted opportunity of Callaghan Square now covers the site of this most fabled of Cardiff pubs. Such was its reputation as a dangerous, sordid hive of prostitution, drugs, gangsters, intoxication and general debauchery that straight-laced suburban Cardiff deemed it unwise to even set foot ‘below the bridge’ and pass its battered door, lest they be somehow infected by contagious animal desires. To be seen anywhere near the Custom House could put a respectable middle-class career in jeopardy, but nevertheless many a white-collar married man risked all to gratify his urges in this seminal Brains pub.  Off-the-leash boys from the Valleys were not so reticent: storming down to the docks looking for adventure on a Saturday night after the rugby, they would relish the classic Bute Street pub-crawl, which started down at the Pierhead in the Mount Stuart and usually ended in fisticuffs and fellatio in the Custom House. And, if such sinfulness palled, a few yards away on the Crichton Street corner was the Quebec, Cardiff’s best live music pub for much of the 20th century. Decorating the Custom House bar was an elegant multi-coloured mirror carrying the emblem of original owners the Crown Brewery of nearby John Street. The mirror has survived; Brains moved it to the Heath pub in Whitchurch Road where it can be seen today. Prostitution, of course, survived also; contemporary red-light areas still orbit the Custom House’s ghostly star at the Central station and the Magic Roundabout. The only difference is that the oldest profession is now a business conducted by pale, anorexic  teenage junkies from Albania on windswept arterial roads instead of by fat, gap-toothed Tiger Bay washerwomen in the warm, safe, clammy heart of the dear old Custom House.