Caroline Street. Some call it Chip Lane, some Chippy Lane, some Chip Alley, some Chippy Alley – and the other day I heard it referred to, only semi-affectionately, as Salmonella Street. Regular readers will be well aware I’m an alliteration addict, always angling to inject the puerile poetic ploy into my prose, so the temptation to take this formula further with, I don’t know, E.Coli Avenue, Dysentry Drive, Puke Parade, Wind Walk, Typhoid Terrace, etc, etc, is strong – but it’s a temptation I’m going to resist. Why? Because it’s too easy – and it’s not true.
The linchpin of Caroline Street’s line-up of fast-food outlets has to be Dorothy’s at number 39/40. There can be few Cardiffians who haven’t at one time or another sluiced back Cardiff’s signature dish – chips and curry sauce – outside Dorothy’s distressed doorway. Actually, you can sit at a table and eat your food inside if you like, although few do this. I tried it once. “Where’s me fork’n’knife?” I slurred to the the guy at the deep-fat fryer. “Under your fuckin’ plate,” came his deadpan retort. Oh, how we laughed!
Food industry design teams could spend years concocting concepts at their drawing-boards and never come close to the uncontrived unalloyed perfection Dorothy’s achieves without effort. And the whole point of it – the food, stupid – is in fact far superior to anything dished up at the overrated brothels of cuisine that cram the city centre. From the rip-off ‘foodie’ restaurants through to the ersatz ‘pan-Asia’ conveyor-belts, all, when you think about it, are complicated and silly charades to obscure the fact that this evening’s noisette of venison in redcurrant jelly or dried abalone with smoked tofu cubes will tomorrow come out exactly the same as if you’d eaten bread and jam for your supper. At Dorothy’s there is no such uptight displacement activity: you eat to live not live to eat and, if it’s all too much, you can promptly, even proudly, chuck it up across Caroline Street’s granite paving slabs, to be hosed away later by the Council’s street cleaning regiments. The problem, of course, isn’t the food – it’s the gallons of drink slopping round in people’s bellies, as Dorothy’s 5-Star rating from the Food Standards Agency proves (see www.food.gov.uk/ratings).
Dorothy’s will celebrate 60 years in Caroline Street in 2013. I have spent a lot of time that I will never get back trying, so far unsuccessfully, to establish biographical details about the eponymous Dot, but one thing’s certain: Caroline herself is much older.
Caroline Street came into being in 1839. It was one of the first new roads laid out by Cardiff Council following the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which effectively abolished feudal control of local government and, along with the 1832 Reform Act, initiated the slow crawl to universal suffrage in the UK, eventually attained in 1928. The grip of the Lords and burgesses who had run Cardiff for centuries was loosened and the councillors of the reformed borough began tackling the countless neglected problems of the small Severn harbour town (population 6,000). One of the most pressing was the town’s roads, as the map below of Cardiff in 1828 illustrates.
Existing roads between St Mary St and Canal
Future route of Caroline St
Bridges over Canal:
1 Crockherbtown (tunnel)
2 Hayes Bridge
3 Custom House Bridge
The Hayes was still divided into the narrow strips of land owned by the burgesses since the Middle Ages and traversable only by ancient footpaths barely able to accomodate a horse and cart. The Glamorganshire Canal, opened in 1794, formed a barrier to the east with the hump-backed stone footbridge of Hayes Bridge (called Waterloo Bridge until 1872) the sole crossing point between overburdened Crockherbtown and the Custom House. Action was needed to drag Cardiff’s communications into the 19th century, particularly as work was well underway on a monumental engineering project that compelled improvements: the Bute West Dock (opened 1839). Caroline Street immediately brought an east-west alternative to the Hayes Bridge bottleneck and, via Bute Street, provided a route from town to the Dock that by-passed the bottom of St Mary Street, another bottleneck until the straightening of the Taff was completed. This map is from 1840, when the Street was brand new.
1 Glamorganshire Canal
2 Junction Canal
3 Bute West Dock
1 Caroline Street
2 Bridge Street
3 Bute Street
Given that these new roads were the first ‘public’ highways of the reformed borough, it is somehow comforting that, nearly 175 years on, Caroline Street stubbornly remains Joe Public’s stamping ground. You see: Cardiff can occasionally do continuity. Bridge Street has largely disappeared, as has the top half of Bute Street (later renamed Hayes Bridge Road), but Caroline Street has stayed the course. Even more remarkably, many of it’s early Victorian houses are still there from number 29 to number 42 on the south side plus number 19 to 21 on the north side. The reason for this highly unusual bit of conservation within Cardiff’s city centre is simple: pure accident. Shortly after Caroline Street came into being, further seismic changes reduced its strategic importance. The Taff Vale Railway of 1841, the Great Western Railway of 1850 and the associated diversion of the Taff completed in 1853, and then the Bute East Dock of 1855 shifted Cardiff’s axis away from the old core to new focal points at Crockherbtown (Queen Street), the mainline station and down Bute Street to the Docks. Built early enough to avoid being turned into one of the unfit-for-habitation ‘Courts’ that were thrown up in the following decade between St Mary Street and The Hayes to house waves of immigrant workers, Caroline Street thus avoided the Courts’ later slum-cleared reincarnation as shops and arcades, and having the 1713 Old Brewery running along most of its northern side also helped. By 1850 the Old Brewery was the pre-eminent brewery in town (Brains took it over in 1882) and Caroline Street was vital to its smooth operation. So, by chance, Caroline Street was left alone to evolve organically.
One further point must be made about the Street’s history: the name. Bridge Street, leading to a bridge, and Bute Street, leading to the Bute dock and sited on Bute land, named themselves. But with Caroline Street Cardiff’s councillors and aldermen had a blank canvas and, for the first time in the town’s history, could select a name from scratch. Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821), the Queen consort of King George IV (1762-1830), had been dead nearly 20 years and had never set foot in Cardiff, but she got the nod. The next new street, Charlotte Street a little to the south on the other side of the Canal (demolished 1890), continued this pattern by honouring Caroline’s daughter Charlotte (1796-1817). Fawning to English royalty in the manner of servile colonial governors is a practice Cardiff’s leaders have stuck to rigidly ever since (for instance, the 1995 Butetown Tunnel under the mouth of the Taff is encumbered with the official name Queen’s Gate Tunnel). I may well have written this before, but it cannot be repeated too often: this unspoken policy of perpetual grovelling has resulted today in Cardiff being the ONLY CAPITAL CITY IN THE WORLD without a single city centre street-name dedicated to somebody from its own nation. The Cymru-cleansing kicked off with Caroline.
The numbering of Caroline Street, following the pre-industrial method, was consecutive rather than odd/even on opposite sides. Number 1 began at the northern St Mary Street end and ran to number 25 at the northern Hayes end; number 26 started across the Street at the southern Hayes end and continued back down to number 46 at the southern St Mary Street end. This numbering system remains today, albeit heavily interfered with by subsequent developments.
At first it was a mixed-use street of homes, cottage industries and shops, but within two decades shops had entirely supplanted domestic use as Cardiff’s population soared. The tightly-packed terraces of Temperance Town to the west plus Cardiff’s leap eastwards across the Canal with a densely-populated grid of streets between Crockherbtown and widened Whitmore Lane (renamed Custom House Street and Bute Terrace) removed the need for housing in Caroline Street and it became a busy branch of St Mary Street, the town’s commercial spinal chord. In contrast with today’s food ghetto, mid-period Caroline Street had a wide variety of traders; in 1890, for example, there were three greengrocers, three shoemakers, two hairdressers, two butchers, two drapers, two clothiers, two jewellers, two pawnbrokers, two beer retailers, a baby clothes seller, a china and glass dealer, a framemaker, a baker, a photographer, a tobacconist and, pioneering what would become Caroline Street’s staple trade, Mary Fisher’s Dining Rooms at number 20 (today’s Taylor News).
At this stage Caroline Street had a pub on three of its four corners – the Cambrian, the Duke of Wellington and the Kings Cross – plus, at number 15, the Neptune, used as a recruiting station in WW1. The Neptune was demolished, along with much of the northern side of the Street, when Brains modernised and expanded the Old Brewery in 1975, but there are still licenced premises on those three corners: Kitty Flynns, Wellingtons and the Corner House. Like so many city centre pubs, the latter two have surrendered to gentrification and gastrification, but Kitty Flynns maintains much of the old Cambrian’s unassuming informality.
From the 1960s onwards Caroline Street’s fast-food character began to take shape, with Dorothy’s in the vanguard. The small buildings were neither suited to orthodox retail uses nor earmarked for wholesale demolition, since that would involve complete redevelopment on the Mill Lane side and planners have (so far) not got round to this zone. Shopping as an activity in its own right had yet to become the post-industrial motor of the whole UK economy. Cardiff Council’s 1965 Handbook devotes just two of its 200 pages to shopping; today’s equivalent city guides feature almost nothing else – such is the joyless and unsustainable work-spend-borrow-work treadmill that London governments and global capital have colluded to impose. Food was also not yet an economic sector of importance: in the same Handbook only Asteys in Wood Street, the Model Inn in Quay Street and the New Continental in Queen Street get a mention. Cardiff, then as now, was a low-wage, working-class city and dining out was confined to urbane elements of the middle-classes. However, a piece of battered cod with some fried potatoes wrapped in an inky page from yesterday’s Echo was affordable to all and Caroline Street’s humble buildings and central position made it the ideal place for chippies to congregate. The salt’n’vinegar flowed and was gradually augmented by other mass-market fodder as the food industry ransacked the world’s menus and reworked them for the brutalised British palate. Curry, kebab, pizza, chicken and steak came to Caroline Street, cementing its position as a populist, on-the-hoof snackery.
Caroline Street then rode out the most drastic change in its history in 1999 when Brains moved out of the Old Brewery and converted it into the unedifying ‘Brewery Quarter’ leisure and apartments complex. Nearly all the remaining buildings on the Brewery side between Kitty Flynn’s and the Wellington were removed (leaving just numbers 19-22) and replaced by the ugly, out-of-scale abomination we see today. Barely 13 years old, the Brewery Quarter’s fabric is rotting already: the vulgar blue tiles crack and loosen, the horrid glass bricks are smeared and dirty and rivulets of rust streak the grubby concrete facade. Inside, the line-up of multinational chains serving re-warmed fake-foreign slurry did Caroline Street a favour, making the old alley look wholesome, authentic and proportionate by comparison. In a perfect symbolic clash of alternative realities, the pompous portals of the Brewery Quarter look straight across Caroline Street at the gaping bare plot of number 35, once El Greco’s restaurant until destroyed by fire in the 1980s. Behind the bill-stickered hoardings (the prime location for unofficial poster sites in the city centre), a derelict micro-habitat of buddleia and willowherb provides the city centre’s last refuge for countless insects. Straddled by vacant number 37, its original sash windows elegantly disintegrating in the damp air, Morgan’s fish bar at number 36 with its 5-star hygiene rating pointedly displayed, and the marvellously murky Colins Books at number 33/34 where dirty old men without an internet connection placidly peruse back issues of German Anal 11 (slightly soiled), there couldn’t be a more jarring dichotomy with the calculated corporate hype of the likes of Thai Edge, La Tasca, Bella Italia and Nandos desperately pleading for your attention opposite.
This then is a Cardiff fault-line of geological proportions. On the one side, food as frivolous cultural dabbling, as jaded recreational spending and as yearning status signifier; on the other, food as stomach lining. On the one side, Cardiff for city-break weekenders, for marketing men’s imaginings and for minimum-wage bosses; on the other, Cardiff for Cardiffians. On the one side, lies; on the other, truth.