It’s been a while since my last round-up of Cardiff’s disappearing pubs…
This distinguished 1874 house, all honeyed orange brick, gothic touches and decorative bargeboards, was only converted into licensed premises in 1999 but it’s already on a 4th reincarnation. Inncognito and Cardiff Arts Institute didn’t last long and then in 2014 Bacchus bit the dust. It was a typically clueless lurch in the direction of grooviness by Brains, forever latching onto ephemeral trends just as they go out of fashion. Now Jon Saunders, owner of Ten Mill Lane (address: 10, Mill Lane) is having a go. It has been reopened, revamped and rechristened ’29’. That’s right, the address is 29 Park Place. Ten Mill Lane has a ‘concept’ (“Quirky, relaxed surroundings where professionals, personalities and society folk alike can relax in sophisticated yet discreet (sic) surrounds (sic)”), and 29 has also been saddled with one of Jon’s concepts: “Your new home away from home”. Let me translate for those unconversant with marketing-speak: “Up its own arse”.
If you could get over the astronomical prices this was a genuinely urbane, funny, non-judgmental, intimate drop-in beneath Jolyon’s hotel (a rare surviving coal merchant’s town house built in 1845). For me it was the best new bar down the Bay, showing what’s possible when Cardiff does its own thing. So, of course, it closed in 2014. Cwtch Mawr, attached to Jolyon’s other hotel in Cathedral Road, is still going – but, if the scathing reviews on tripadvisor are anything to go by, not for long.
Rotting in the rain, swirling with fly-tipped garbage, this vital community amenity in deprived Caerau stands pointlessly empty, having been closed by Wolverhampton brewer Marston’s in 2014. Initially, when built on the brand-new council estate in 1959, it had been called the Anthonys after famed horse racing brothers Ivor (1883-1959), Owen (1886-1941) and Jack (1890-1954) from Llandyfaelog in Carmarthenshire. Ely racecourse (1855-1939), scene of many of their triumphs as jockeys and trainers, lay a little to the east and was still fresh in the memory. Now Caerau’s 15,000 people must make do with just one pub, the Highfields. And it’s a Brains. Uh-oh.
Landlords came and went, Brains refurbished, Hang Fire Smokehouse introduced US-style barbecue food, but nothing seemed to halt the decline of the dear old ‘Can’, with its skittle alley, camaraderie and beery, laughing nights. Built in 1890, sold to property developers in 2015, it has joined the shocking and ever-lengthening list of departed Adamsdown pubs: the Eagle (Davis Street), the White Lion (Nora Street), the Prince of Wales (Adam Street), the Wheatsheaf (Adam Street), the Sandon (Sandon Street), the Great Eastern (Metal Street), the Moira (Moira Place), the Tredegar (Clifton Street), the Locomotive (Broadway), the New Dock Tavern (Broadway), the Rhymney/Rumpoles (Moira Terrace), the Bertram (Broadway) and the Vulcan (Adam Street). Only the Clifton and the Royal Oak are left.
THE DUKE OF CLARENCE
The ‘Canton Mile’, for so long Cardiff’s ultimate pub crawl with successive pubs coming thick and fast one after the other, has more or less evaporated in the blink of an eyelid. At its peak, there were 23 pubs along Cowbridge Road East and its offshoots; today there are just 10. That’s not a pub crawl; that’s taking the dog for a walk! The latest loss is the Duke of Clarence, named with classic creepy Cardiff fawning after minor royal the Duke of Clarence & Avondale (1864-1892) who had cut the ribbon opening the swing bridge linking Butetown and Grangetown in 1890. Unceremoniously shut by Brains in 2015, it had been a Canton fixture since 1896, riding out all the ups and downs of Cardiff’s rollercoaster fortunes to become an intrinsic watering hole remarkable for its unremarkableness. But it could not resist the “market forces” that now rule every aspect of life in the UK. By the way, is there any sentient being willing to defend, say, the “housing market”? OK, no takers, well how about the “labour market”? No? What about the “energy market” then? I could go on…but suffice to say I’m going to apply a few “market forces” of my own to SA Brain Ltd. As they’ve decided to put the balance sheet before any other considerations, abandon the Cardiffians who made them, the people who should be their reason for existing, and instead liquidate their assets by flogging off all pubs that aren’t cash-cows in order to get into the fast-buck coffee chain and gastro-bar rackets, I’ve decided to reciprocate and abandon them. Brains Bitter has been my favourite tipple for 40 years, but I will never buy another pint of what they now call, with excruciating pretension, “craft beer”. It’s their loss.
Grangetown once had 13 pubs. Following Brains’ final padlocking of the Grange just before Christmas 2015 there is now just one, the Cornwall. Let me write the eulogy; gone, in chronological order of closure, are: the London Style (Lucknow Street), the Forge (Oakley Street), the Penarth Dock (Thomas Street), the Royal Princess (Hewell Street), the Lord Windsor (Holmesdale Street), the Bird in Hand (Bromsgrove Street), the Plymouth (Clive Street), the Red House (Ferry Road), the Inn on the River (Taff Embankment), the Baroness (Penarth Road), the Neville (Clare Road), and now the Grange. Dating from 1861, it was a mainstay of raw, unreconstructed Cardiffness. We’re not wanted any more.
The Insole, opened in 1889 in newly-built Harvey Street, was named (like the street) after one of the archetypal coal barons of south Wales: James Harvey Insole (1821-1901). Insole made a fortune out of Cymmer colliery in Porth, sunk in 1847 with his Worcester timber merchant father George Insole (1790-1851), a single pit that was so profitable it allowed him to live a life of unimaginable luxury. In 1856, as his lavish mansion in Llandaf was rising from fields off Fairwater Road, Cymmer suffered the worst disaster in Welsh mining history up to that point when 114 out of the 160 men and boys working underground died in a massive explosion caused by the complete absence of safety measures and wholesale breaches of even the feeble laws that existed at the time. Nobody was held responsible and Insole & Sons didn’t pay a penny in compensation – not to worry, this meant Insole could double the size and add more status-symbol neo-gothic flourishes to his new residence (sold to the council in 1932, Insole Court is now a community centre). Yes, he was a complete and utter bastard; so it was somehow appropriate that the pub inevitably acquired the nickname ‘the arsehole’ – Cardiffians being unable to resist a rude pun. Across a century plus it journeyed down what has become a well-worn track for Brains pubs: vital local amenity; taken-for-granted social hub; rundown belter for rakes and libertines; avoid-at-all-costs shit-hole; and finally, a broken husk without a customer. It shut in 2014. The red-brick, triple-gabled building was Harvey Street’s last survivor (the terraced housing was demolished in 1970 for a car park and the residual stub renamed Harvey Place) but has now been given a Glamorgan Street address after a loving restoration and renovation into HQ offices for a provider of residential care to vulnerable adults with mental health issues. Hang on a minute, isn’t that what the Insole used to do?
THE OLD LIBRARY
The intricately detailed 1882 Free Library (extended 1896) by Edwin Seward (1853-1924) has gone through many incarnations since it closed in 1988. Since the embarrassing demise of the short-lived Centre for the Visual Arts in 2000 – which we are all supposed to have forgotten – part of it was made into, what else, a themed bar. First it was Frog, then Que Pasa and then the Old Library. I harboured faint hopes that the Old Library might have the stamina to get through more than a couple of years, given that it was run by the owners of indestructible Metros nightclub in Bakers Row; but it was not to be, Cardiff’s city centre bars seeming to have obsolescence built into their every over-egged mission statement. After a short hiatus, next up is something by the name of Locke & Remedy. It’s a routine gastropub chain operation from Marston’s not-so-cunningly disguised as a freewheeling independent for the discerning, ethical hipster. When I read that they “hand craft our burger patties using only the best minced chuck, brisket and dry aged flank,” for a moment I thought they were running a brothel!
Bad News: Another Cardiff pub has closed! Good News: It’s an O’Neills! Bad News: The bigger one in St Mary Street is still trading! Good News: Owners Mitchells & Butlers have issued a profits warning and sacked their Chief Executive! More Good News: The 9th oldest city centre pub has been rescued by cuddly Nicholson’s (‘pubs of distinction since 1873’) and renamed the Old Market Tavern, a sensitive homage to its original 1840 name! Bad News: Nicholson’s is just another Mitchells & Butlers brand!
Pica Pica didn’t last long, trying to shift tapas and cocktails in a cellar for five years before closure in 2014. It was the sort of place where you needed a stiff drink before you went in. In 2015 high-end Spanish restaurant Bar 44 opened up a third branch here, expanding from its Cowbridge base via Penarth. Our party of eight enjoyed sherry straight from the barrel while we waited for the slow-cooked octopus…
THE POETS CORNER
Pubs are soft targets for property developers. They can use loopholes in the unregulated pimps’ charter that passes for planning law in the UK to change the use of a pub or demolish it completely with no reference to the community it serves or to the local planning authorities. So it was with the ‘Poets’, sold off to developers in 2015 by Greene King with no advanced warning given to customers and thus no opportunity to organise alternative plans to save the pub, even though the alluring warren spread over various levels and half-levels was packed most nights with a healthy kaleidoscope of customers – from old troopers who thought nothing of downing 15 pints of Guinness in an evening through to quizzical students learning how to do similar. Established in 1893 as the Ruperra, it was renamed Poets Corner in 1905, a reference to the group of streets named after English poets to the rear (Byron, Milton, Shakespeare, Shelley, Hardy, Cowper, Wordsworth, Southey). I will gloss over its brief, ill-advised phase as the Tut’n’Shive in the 1990s. It was a name that sounded like a spoonerism but wasn’t – as I discovered to my cost in here one dark and stormy night. Ahh…those were the days…
♦Brains have given the Kitty Flynn on St Mary Street a complete overhaul and renamed it the Cambrian Tap. The 8th oldest pub in the city centre had started life as the Cambrian Hotel in 1830. The trad boozer has been reinvented as a ‘craft beer pub’, whatever that means, and pitched at nice, affluent, metrosexual, ale connoisseurs, into civilised discourse, artisan pork pies, manly banter and smart-casual leisure wear (ie: figments of someone’s fevered imagination in the branding department).
♦In 2014 Greene King changed Wharton Street’s Copa into the Glassworks. I won’t slag it off (my partner’s a regular and I can’t take any more beatings), I’ll just draw attention to the modish cod-authenticity in the no-mucking new name (the lovely Grade II listed building, a symbiosis of pediments, parapets and stone dressings, was originally the City Glassworks when built in 1900).
♦The Star in St Mellons has been renamed the Poacher’s Arms by Admiral Taverns, presumably aiming anachronistically for agrarian authenticity. This means three St Mellons pubs have had a name change in the last few years – the others being the White Hart which became the Coach House (makes such a difference) and the Blue Bell which became the Bluebell (but that was probably just ignorance or illiteracy).
♦I should really stop moaning. After Stonegate took over the Varsity on Greyfriars Road in 2015 they gave it a lick of paint, updated the generic pub menu and renamed it the Three Rivers – a clear nicking of the title of a blog I wrote in 2011 (see http://tinyurl.com/hkxwoss). I’m absurdly flattered and insulted all at once.
♦Millennium Plaza on Wood Street has changed hands yet again, a variety of hedge funds having failed to make a killing out of the hideous “entertainment complex” since it opened in 1999. For the record, Sub29, Jumpin’ Jacks and the Millennium Music Hall can now be buried in the cyber landfill. The rebranded ‘Stadium Plaza’ contains THREE new drinking establishments: Bierkeller, Shooters and Around the World (with those names no explanations are needed).
♦Ending on a bright note, the old Promised Land on Windsor Place has been acquired by Andrew Melbourne of the Rummer Tavern and re-opened as the Flute & Tankard, and two pubs mentioned in Pubocalypse 4 have risen from the dead. As someone correctly commented after that post, the Flora is still operating, having seemingly weathered a storm. Meanwhile Brains have bought the Goscombe and re-opened it as the Plum Tree. It’s a carbon-copy of their Pear Tree in Roath (gentrified, poncey, pricey), so obviously this is a Brains sub-brand in the making. What next, I wonder, peach, pineapple, papaya or pomegranate?
For much more on Cardiff’s pubs get Unofficial Cardiff Part 1: Pubs & Clubs, available as an ebook (see tab above).