Sporting death

What is the single visual image that most defines Cardiff? That’s the question I’ve been asking everyone I meet recently. The runaway leader, streets ahead of the Pierhead Building in second place (that must be because it’s the backdrop to the Welsh news programmes) is – you’ve guessed already – yes, correct: the Millennium Stadium. Ho hum.

Why? It’s obvious. Until the creation of the National Assembly in 1999 sport was the only walk of life in which Wales actually existed as a three-dimensional, tangible entity. Expressions of Welsh nationhood had no outlet other than sport. Were it not for, in particular, its rugby union and football sides Wales as a concept might not have survived at all. It was left to a couple of ball games, by default, to substitute for the normal spheres of public discourse enabled by the apparatus of statehood and act as the forums where the buried questions of identity, allegiance and autonomy could surface. Little wonder then that the capital’s national sports stadium is the symbol that most readily springs to mind.

Cardiff and sport are, indeed, intimately entwined. But that doesn’t mean the sporting scene here is fixed and immutable. Within living memory the city was in thrall to sports that seemed invulnerable in their heyday but are now no more…

Dog racing was first staged in Cardiff at the now forgotten Grangetown Stadium, built in 1912 for whippet racing and athletics. The rudimentary oval, tucked under the Penarth Railway embankment at the bottom of Clive Street, lasted just 15 years before it was erased to make way for South Clive Street. Having seen there was an audience for the sport in Cardiff, the Greyhound Racing Association (GRA), based at the White City Stadium in west London, constructed what became known as the ‘Welsh White City’ on open moorland at Sloper Road. The striking arena with white concrete perimeter walls, raised terraces and a theoretical 40,000 capacity held its first meeting in 1928 and Cardiff was instantly bitten by the bug. It was considered in vogue to go to the dogs – the legendary Mick The Miller drawing 20,000 through the turnstiles to see him set a track record winning the Welsh Greyhound Derby in 1930. As was customary at the time, where greyhounds went speedway followed and Sloper Road Stadium soon became home to both hectic sports (see below). But the GRA couldn’t make it pay and cut its losses in 1937, selling the Stadium to GKN steelworks for use as the company sports ground. Both greyhound racing and speedway ceased.

The reason for the failure was the fact that Cardiff simultaneously had another greyhound racing venue in a far more convenient location: the Arms Park. Cardiff Athletic Club, needing more income streams to help fund the upkeep and modernisation of the Arms Park, which then only had covered seating on the south side, had laid out a track around the circumference of the rugby pitch in 1927 and hounds began haring around it in 1928. Regular meetings on Mondays and Saturdays became part of Cardiff’s way of life. From coal trimmers to articled clerks, the raucous, mainly male crowd enjoyed themselves milling round the bookies on the terraces, frittering away the wife’s housekeeping on a querulous punt. Excitingly debauched night meetings were introduced when floodlights in the form of lamps suspended from gantries encircled the track – to the irritation of rugby fans, and subsequently TV audiences, who had their sight-lines interfered with by the jarring poles.

After WW2 the prestigious Welsh Greyhound Derby was transferred to the Arms Park from Sloper Road, but greyhound racing was gradually falling out of fashion. Seen as low-rent and slightly disreputable, and increasingly criticised for its treatment of animals whose racing career barely lasts two years, the sport went into decline. In its last years at the Arms Park attendances were down to a few hundred stalwarts, the terse rasps and falling intonations of their Cardiff voices echoing from the empty grandstands. The WRU, now main owners of the lease, set about clearing out the tenants so that the National Stadium could be built. Glamorgan County Cricket Club left for Sophia Gardens in 1967, Cardiff RFC was moved to the cricket ground and then, in 1977, the last greyhound race was run. There are no greyhound tracks in Wales today. Culturally, Cardiff lost something special, but ethically it is hard to justify a sport entirely dependent on gambling – especially when the price is paid by soppy beasts who, when their hind-legs go at age three, end up in a tin of cat food, sorry that should read “adopted by a loving home.”

Sloper Road 1933
The Welsh White City, Sloper Road, 1933

To lose one racecourse is unfortunate, to lose two looks like clumsiness. For 200 years a day at the races was as integral to the Cardiff experience as a pint of Dark. From the 1750s the townspeople would wend their way to Mynydd Bychan, the Great Heath common lands stretching from Cathays to the foothills of Wern Fawr, where a racecourse was laid out by Heath Farm. The autumn steeplechase meeting drew folk from all over Glamorgan, itinerant vagabonds to gentlemen farmers, gossiping, gambling, fighting and drinking on the gorse-covered acres. The Enclosure Act of 1802 marked the beginning of the end for the Great Heath. The smallholders, grazers and squatters were violently evicted by the 1st Marquis of Bute’s private army of hired thugs and, bit by bit, Cardiff Corporation sold off the land at giveaway prices to the Butes and other powerful landowners. By 1849 the last section had passed into private hands and the racecourse was closed.

A consortium of Glamorgan farmers and hunting enthusiasts set up a new racecourse in 1855 at Ely just south of Cowbridge Road. The rectangular jumps track was bisected by Caerau Brook and had the ghostly mounds of Ely Roman villa as a centrepiece and the slopes of Plymouth Wood as a southern backdrop. Ornate grandstands were erected on the northern side and by 1895, when it staged the first running of the Welsh Grand National, Ely was Wales’ premier racecourse. Race days at Ely were a Cardiff revel. The charabancs and carriages formed a continuous line along the old highway as most of the town headed west to jostle through the entrance between St David’s church and the Workhouse and pour onto the course. Huge crowds would turn up for the Welsh Grand National meeting every April, frightening the horses as they roared on Welsh jockeys like Joseph Jones (1843-1924), Ivor Anthony (1883-1959), Jack Anthony (1890-1954) and Evan Williams (1912-2001). As leading Welsh horse-owners like Baron Glanely (1868-1942) and Viscount Tredegar (1867-1934) struck deals with their cronies in the parade ring, out on the course the people picnicked and the Cardiff underworld ran amok with muggings, protection rackets and general criminality. Never on a sound financial footing and seen as seedy and unsavoury by Cardiff’s growing bourgeoisie, Ely races slowly declined in popularity. Economic depression and a major fire in the grandstands were final blows. Ely closed for good in 1939, going the way of other racecourses in south Wales at Caerleon, Monmouth, Stalling Down (Cowbridge) and Usk.

There are now three racecourses in Wales: Bangor-on-Dee (the oldest, dating from 1859), Chepstow (where the Welsh Grand National lives on having moved there in 1949), and the much-needed 3rd opened in 2009 at Ffos Las in Carmarthenshire – bankrolled by plant-hire millionaire Dai Walters. The age-old Welsh affinity with the horse endures, flourishing in National Hunt racing in particular: Fulke Walwyn (1910-1991), Harry Llewellyn (1911-1999), Dick Francis (1920-2010), Carl Llewellyn and Hywel Davies carried on the tradition, through to Sam Thomas today. Ffos Las is an exciting new home for Welsh racing, and Cardiffians are getting into the habit of making their way there in numbers, as they do to Chepstow for the Welsh National meeting at Christmas, and once did to the Heath and Ely. But within the city horse racing is over. Housing and schools covered much of the Ely racecourse after WW2. The sports pitches of Trelai Park maintain the green sward around the ancient villa where torn betting-slips once fluttered. Not a hoof-print remains of the Heath racecourse, the suburb of Birchgrove covering the remnants in the 1920s. However, it is possible to detect the old finishing straight in your mind’s eye by looking down the line of King George V Drive.

Speedway can still be seen in Cardiff at the annual British Grand Prix, ensconced at the Millennium Stadium since 2001. But that circus, shown live on Sky Sports in the dog-days of summer when there’s no footie on, and costing up to £95 a ticket for the privilege of being bludgeoned by two-stroke engines, has nothing to do with Cardiff. It’s just the WRU trying to reduce the overdraft, and is no more about Cardiff sport than a Bruce Springsteen concert is about Cardiff music. This is Cardiff as mere venue not participant – as helpful to the city as Wembley Stadium has proved to the shabby north London suburb.

It wasn’t always this way. In 1928 a speedway craze, coming via Australia, swept across the UK. The flat, soft shale track at the new Sloper Road Stadium (see above) was suitable for bikes and speedway was launched there on Boxing Day 1928, attracting a 25,000 crowd. Those were the days when the internal combustion engine was still thrillingly new, especially when powering strange two-wheelers without brakes or gears. Anything to do with motorcycles, the affordable option for working-class people, was popular and speedway’s dirt-track version brought acute cornering, clouds of dust and spectacular tumbles. Soon, local heroes with flashy nicknames like ‘Hurricane’ Hampson and ‘Lightning’ Luke were starring in the Cardiff Dragons team, but the bubble was to burst. Attendances dwindled as the novelty wore off and the speedway operators, unable to afford the big bills, went bust in 1937. The ‘Welsh White City’ was sold off before eventual demolition in 1981. There’s nothing left today of what was a substantial structure with grandstands on three sides, the cinders entombed beneath the housing opposite Ninian Park Primary School.

Speedway had a brief revival in Cardiff in 1951 at a new venue constructed on a reclaimed tip off Penarth Road, but this was even more short-lived. Speedway’s appeal had withered as cars replaced bikes in the affections of petrolheads. By 1953 speedway ceased at Penarth Road Stadium, there was a single season rugby league experiment which also flopped and then it fell into dereliction until demolition in 1969 when the area was covered in light industrial units and car showrooms. Its position is marked by Stadium Close. Incidentally, adding Ninian Park, Leckwith Stadium, Cardiff City Stadium and the Cardiff International Sports Stadium to Grangetown Stadium, Sloper Road Stadium and Penarth Road Stadium means there have been a total of seven full-scale sports stadia within half a mile of each other in this part of Cardiff!

And that was that for speedway in Cardiff. In Wales it lingered on in Newport at Somerton Park until 1977 and Hayley Stadium from 1977 to 2012. Now Cardiff is lumbered with the Millennium Stadium event. They come over the Severn Bridge in their High Street leisure-wear with their ghastly children in their Peugeot estates (no real bikers bother with speedway – they’re into the superbikes), make a lot of noise for three hours watching four riders going round and round sideways, eat in Harvester, crash out in a Holiday Inn and go home barely aware that they’ve just been somewhere called Cardiff, capital of Wales. Vroom, Vroom.

Penarth Rd Stadium

  Penarth Road Stadium, 1951
Pictures: RCAHMW