The Flora Hotel opened in 1884 to serve the railway community of Cathays Yard that had grown up around the locomotive depot of the 1840 Taff Vale Railway. This was part of the Bute Estate, at the time backing onto the open fields of Crwys Farm, and so the streets here were allocated Bute-related names. Flora Street and its pub memorialised Flora Hastings (1806-1839), sister of Sophia Hastings (1809-1859), the wife of the 2nd Marquis of Bute (1793-1848) after whom Sophia Gardens had been named. For more than a century the Flora was one of Cardiff’s great street-corner locals, a Brains house open to all where the interpersonal cement which welded the disparate elements of the city was mixed to its satisfyingly caustic/matey, intimate/guarded consistency. Then came the mass ‘studentification’ of Cathays. Just 25 years ago Cardiff University had 5,000 undergraduates; today there are 30,000 – half of whom live in Cathays. Hand in hand with this extraordinarily rapid change, which has resulted in Cathays now being 75% students, went the mass anglicisation of Cathays whereby 70% of the population are not Cardiffians. This process, a multi-pronged juggernaut of class-cleansing, age-cleansing, social-cleansing, cultural-cleansing and ethnic-cleansing, was imposed without any debate let alone democratic endorsement. It came via that usual fountainhead of insanity: Westminster. They call it market forces. The Flora was swept away. Brains resisted the temptation to surrender it to students like nearly all the other Cathays pubs; always a little uncertain when it comes to the cut and thrust of contemporary dog-eat-dog capitalism, the brewer tried to appease both ‘town’ and ‘gown’ and ended up pleasing neither. It’s being converted into buy-to-let flats.
A compulsory call on the ‘Canton Mile’ pub-crawl since 1882, the Foresters evolved into the ultimate Cardiff City citadel. Known locally as ‘the mad house’, it had a fearsome reputation – but after a few pints of fizzy gut-rot its real nature as a harmless drop-in clinic for blokes in mid-life crisis revisiting their naughty youth would become apparent. Run into the ground by Punch Taverns until it wasn’t worth saving, it’s now a pizza parlour. From the Ayatollah to Mozzarella…you couldn’t make it up!
Canton’s main drag has lost so many pubs it was a boost when the Smith & Jones chain bucked the trend and opened a brand new pub in the old Franklin’s bakery on Cowbridge Road East in 2005. Disregarding the sterile kit-pub clutter and the tokenistic namechecking of Cantonian William Goscombe John (1860-1952), Wales’ most celebrated sculptor, it quickly became an essential halt on Canton Mile peregrinations. But, alas, Smith & Jones went bust in 2013 and with them went the Goscombe. Its mere eight years of existence make it the shortest-lived Canton pub ever.
Built in 1895 as a speculative railway hotel backing onto the Rhymney Railway’s 1864 marshalling yards, the Gower in its 20th century heyday was a vital force in the culture of Cardiff, the gathering ground of poets, musicians, radicals, bar-stool philosophers and countercultural outriders. What happened to them all? They moved on, they grew up, they sold out, they knuckled under, they were crushed, they domesticated or they died. Cardiff doesn’t generate such non-conformist creativity any more, as its human capital is relentlessly cheapened, diminished and stunted in the all-controlling corporate Cyber-State, so the loss of one of the last outposts of unorthodoxy is grievously symbolic. The rambling orange-red brick Brains fortress, simultaneously huge yet hidden on its Gwennyth Street bend, boasts an intact billiards room, stained glass, a skittle alley and extravagant bar fittings, making it a pub of historic importance architecturally. It should be listed, but isn’t and won’t be – so demolition for more student shoe-boxes is quite possible now that Brains has declared the Gower “no longer commercially viable.” This is tantamount to saying that ordinary low-income Cardiffians are no longer commercially viable. Brains should be very very careful: loyalty is a two-way street.
This hard-as-nails 1889 Grangetown bulwark, where nobody bothered you so long as you didn’t walk in wearing an England or a Swansea City shirt, seemed impregnable. But even the Neville couldn’t withstand the merciless anarchy of the UK’s economic model and, after falling into the hands of a pub buy-out company, it too bit the dust and has already been converted into flats with a ‘One Stop’ convenience store below. In the shop you can buy lager for less than 20% of the price the Neville had to charge. So the Neville’s stimulating, spontaneous, unpredictable, real-time interactions have been replaced by privatised people stocking up with cans, going home, getting pissed and staring at a screen alone – with only their masturbation regimes and multitude of faceless social media ‘friends’ for company.
THE ROATH COTTAGE
Brains are having a purge. The Roath Cottage, a delightful little gem in Plasnewydd Road dating back to 1888 and entirely unspoilt by narrow ghettoisation or lame marketing themes, was unceremoniously shut down in 2013. In other cities easy-going, amenable, unpretentious back-street locals like this are hanging on; in Cardiff they are almost extinct. Now converted into four flats (do the math), the Roath Cottage was consigned to the dustbin of history without so much as a whimper of protest – simply because there are hardly any Cardiffians left in this thoroughly transient, here-today-gone-tomorrow part of Roath to even notice its passing. Two points: Cardiff’s cottage count is now down to three (St Mary Street, Splott and Lisvane); and compare and contrast the 1o0+ food outlets in nearby City Road alone with the fewer than 190 pubs there are in all of Cardiff. It seems that more and more people, having lost culinary skills, eat out; while, having lost social skills, more and more drink in.
Oh no, not the Splotlands…oh please Mr Brain, leave it be…boarded up with steel shutters, rotting slowly in the acrid autumn air…my prayers will go unanswered and Adamsdown will be down to its last three pubs (the Canadian, the Clifton and the Royal Oak – and they’re all on life support). Cardiff minus the Splotland’s rank-and-file authenticity is another devastating loss, as well as another damning rebuttal of the boomtown bullshit peddled by the Council and its echoing lapdogs, here a mere 800 metres from the city centre’s immaculate marble malls. There is a sense of Cardiff crossing some kind of watershed with this closure. The Splotlands was the last example of a minor Cardiff spelling controversy: one ‘t’ or double ‘t’ – that was the question. And, more significantly, the Splotlands was the very last example of the word ‘Splott’ in any variant being used north of the mainline railway: when the pub was built in 1883 the entire area from Newport Road to the coast was called Splott. Splott’s shrinking – and so is sociability. Soldier on.
THE WHITE HART
In its salad days James Street was the centre of dock life, pulsating with energy from ‘windy corner’, the Bute Street junction where sailors would gather to be signed on for their next voyage, to the swing-bridge over the Glamorganshire Canal, where James Street became Clarence Road. Here, hard by the Canal towpath, the White Hart was built in 1855. In 1896 it was completely rebuilt on the adjacent plot with polychrome brick-work, port-hole windows, decorative pediments and a Flemish-style gable. Through all the years, more by accident than design, it went on to outlive every other pub in Butetown. The bruised, world-weary, working-class refuge, a short walk from the vapid lower-middle-class consumerism of Mermaid Quay, was the last husk of unvarnished Tiger Bay and, before Brains closed it down and boarded it up this year, the 12th-oldest pub in all of inner-city Cardiff. Send no flowers – Cardiff didn’t bother to hold a funeral.