Continuing from Pubocalypses 1-5, an ongoing record of Cardiff’s ever-shrinking social sphere…
BASE + BARLEY
Opened in March 2016, shut by the November: you had to move fast to catch Base + Barley, the first bar with a Queen Street address since the Taff Vale closed in 1980. It was one of those indeterminate places you see a lot of these days, hamstrung by preposterously elevated mission statements and unsure whether to be restaurant, cocktail bar, pub or cafe so ending up as none. Shifting ‘sourdough pizza and craft beer’ on bottom-of-the-barrel Queen Street, where the ‘footfall’ moves listlessly in and out of chains, coffee shops, pound stores, coffee shops, takeaways and coffee shops, was always going to be a big ask.
There’s been a pub on the Castle Street/Womanby Street corner since the Globe was established in 1731 on what was then Angel Street, making this the joint 2nd most senior surviving pub site in the city centre. Across two centuries it evolved into a much-loved, genial hostelry for young and old, each succeeding generation binding it tighter into Cardiff’s quintessence. Here the fundamentals of Cardiff-ness were concocted: the accent, the conviviality, the piss-taking, the quick thinking, the passive-aggression, the self-mockery, the sangfroid, the verbosity, the tendency to make long-winded lists. When Cardiff boomed in the coal era the Globe did too, getting a fancy rebuild in 1907 featuring pediments and bow windows after widened Castle Street had eradicated Angel Street in 1878. And when Cardiff slumped after WW1 the Globe followed suit, sliding into decadent drunken dissipation until Brains, who had acquired the pub in 1959, renamed it Four Bars in the 1980s and tried it as a jazz and poetry venue – an enjoyably chaotic failed experiment. The brewer’s rebranding department were at it again in the 1990s, coming up with cod-Irish theme bar Dempsey’s, but the pub kept on trucking regardless, a friendly, earthy refuge from status-signalling and social apartheid and one of Cardiff’s best live music venues. As the 21st century unfolded, warning signs began flashing. Brains were ruthlessly annihilating any pub that didn’t prioritise the easy pickings to be had from the company’s preferred demographic of crushingly conventional short-break tourists and event-fodder day-trippers, while Dempsey’s itself had ditched its qualities of edgy energy and spontaneous interaction to become just one more anonymous, unappealing watering hole. Its sorry state was exemplified in 2015 when the pub’s staff chose to pander to the demands of a few honking Home Counties hooray-henry’s who happened to swing by, screening a dead-rubber England rugby international rather than a vital Welsh football international despite the objections of local regulars. Any Cardiffian worth their salt resolved never to set foot in the pub again: Brains were willing to bin a 300-year-old narrative and Cardiff wilfully dumped Dempsey’s in retaliation. So nobody objected (especially since the evicted live jazz nights, Dempsey’s last redeeming feature, managed to relocate to the Flute & Tankard in Windsor Place) when it was summarily closed for good in 2017 to be replaced by something called Elevens Bar & Grill, a joint venture courtesy of Brains and a Mr G Bale of Madrid, opening just in time for the Champions League final. Well, he’s got to do something with the multi-millions of loose change burning a hole in the bottom of his Domenico Vacca alligator manbag – if only to keep his accountants, fund managers and tax advisers happy – and this who-needs-it essay in pastel colours is an enterprise that can be sketchily portrayed as “putting something back”. Our Gareth says it has long been his ambition to open a bar in his home town because “there is not a specific venue where you can go and watch sport, where people can come to see big events aired with nice food and drink and a family atmosphere.” He must have spent too long in the sun – because that’s a precise description (except for the word “nice”) of virtually every bar in the city centre. At least the egotistical name is appropriate. Eleven is not only his shirt number, it’s also the number of the commandment he obliviously breaks: thou shalt not get found out.
THE FULL MOON/THE MOON
Paying homage to legendary Cardiff dive the New Moon (demolished along with all of New Street in 1981) meant the Moons had a lot to live up to when they opened in 2011 – especially in their history-saturated adjacent sites on Womanby Street, Cardiff’s live music lifeforce and last outpost of subculture, counterculture, rebellion and creativity. Both became integral ingredients in Womanby Street’s gumbo of pulsating urban urgency, but both have been swept away in 2017 by the twisted logic of market forces. Encouraged by the council’s drooling subservience to the dictats of big business and crass and superfluous ‘Castle Quarter’ pigeon-holing, the money men are moving in and Womanby is waning before our very eyes. The Moons have gone, Dempsey’s has gone (see above), Fuel Rock Bar is threatened by ‘noise’ complaints, Wetherspoon want to build a big hotel, and a seven-storey commercial block is proposed next to Clwb Ifor Bach. In this frightening post-enlightenment age of philistinism, what remains of Cardiff’s precious cultural dynamic is under threat as never before. Encouragingly, there is a fightback: the Full Moon is trying to crowdfund a resurrection of the music bar (see www.facebook.com/creativerepublicofcardiff) and a Save Womanby Street campaign is up and running (see www.facebook.com/save-womanby-street). Already there’s been a demo outside City Hall and more action is planned. Considering the cold, bureaucratic indifference of the Labour council’s statements about Womanby Street, the immediate priority must be to unseat as many of these reactionary stooges as possible in the upcoming local elections. Whatever happens, people who seriously care about Cardiff should be aware that it might ultimately have to come down to the barricades.
Barrack Lane/Womanby Street
Attempts to coax conservative Cardiff to accept even the most innocuous and superficial expressions of nonconformity usually come unstuck, as the nice people running this chirpy real ale independent soon discovered. It opened in 2014 in thoroughly off-putting Barrack Lane, a shard of ground surplus to the St David’s development where an unforgiving apartment block was squeezed in along what is not much wider than a back alley. Owned by Linc Cymru, one of many Welsh Housing Associations that have strayed far from their founding purposes into the realms of commercial property wheeler-dealing, Barrack Lane is lumbered with the tragi-comic subtitle ‘Residential and Retail Quarter’. If this is a quarter, a wheely bin would constitute an arrondissement in Cardiff! Retail consists of nine, normally vacant, pavement level units with all the charm of a row of lock-up garages, and it was in one of these that Gravity Station operated until locked out by Linc Cymru in 2016 because of some rent arrears. Salvation seemed possible when those nice people at the Full Moon (see above) accommodated the bearded beer-buffs in vacant space upstairs – but that too was snatched away by the remorseless transformation of Womanby Street into a tame corporate dystopia fit only for Daily Mail readers flatulating into their Marks & Spencer smart-casual winceyette slacks.
The Terra Nova closed in late 2015, holed by the iceberg of its own delusional posturing a mere 12 years after it was built as the banal centrepiece (Hey! It looks just like the prow of a ship!) of Mermaid Quay, an intrinsically fraudulent plethora of sham nautical references where the sea never comes. Brains’ assurances of sophisticated elegance had amounted to nothing more than boring people struggling with their defrosted tapas in a grubby barn while wondering where the smell of sewage was coming from. After a £1.25million revamp it reopened in 2016 with a new name: the Dock. From one perspective this is belated but welcome acknowledgment that the Bay is man-made not maritime and that Cardiff has more than enough Captain Scott tributes. However, given that the Dock was launched to precisely the same fanfares of hopelessly overcooked and cluelessly behind-the-curve marketing-speak that greeted Terra Nova, it’s safe to assume it will be just as atrocious.
Cowbridge Road East
A Cardiff magnum opus, the last stop before town on the Canton Mile, the Westgate dated back to 1868. Ideally positioned as a rendezvous point, it was given a complete neo-Georgian rebuild in 1933 by Percy Thomas (1883-1969), including plaques celebrating Cardiff’s main pubs of the time inlaid around the interior. There wasn’t a better boozer to watch the rugby if you didn’t have tickets, within earshot of the tumult in the stadium just across the river. But even though it was still integral to the social nexus of Cardiff and was usually very busy, the Westgate was closed down and sold off by Brains in 2016 and a highly optimistic residential development is mooted for the listed building. Not a single pub now exists in the entire Riverside ward of this capital city. Council leader Phil Bale calls Cardiff ‘A Great Place to Live, Work and Play’. I reckon ‘A 3rd-rate Place: Survive, Shirk and Stay In’ is more like it. PS: If you’re reading this Your Eminence, GET RID OF THE COMB-OVER!
Atlantic Wharf is what remains of the 1855 Bute East Dock. It was the first part of Cardiff Bay to be redeveloped in the late 1980s, when all connection to the actual Atlantic was severed leaving a stagnant enclosed body of water. On the west side was built housing, already showing its age, and in 1992 Brains splashed out £3 million converting two warehouses, linked by an iron and glass shed, to make a brand new pub. From the outset the Wharf perfectly encapsulated the failings of the entire Bay project: overpriced yet shoddy, no sense of place, no community, no feeling of metropolitan energy. Nevertheless, the huge, interesting building with its generous outdoor area was beginning to overcome the budget-hotel air and cohere as a genuine amenity for the sociable among the disparate mix of nomads who find themselves washed up in Atlantic Wharf. We shall never know how it might have panned out because, after a mere 24 years of life, the Wharf was unilaterally closed in 2016 as Brains pulled the plug and sold the land to developers JR Smart. Smart’s lapdog Labour council nodded it all through and within a few weeks the pub was razed to the ground, remnant original warehouses included, and in its place are rising 177 flats (37 “affordable”) crammed into five tower blocks that make no concessions whatsoever to aesthetics – the JR Smart house-style currently exuding all over Cardiff. The buy-to-let/buy-to-leave-empty brigade from England who will doubtless snap up these shoe-boxes with their spare equity won’t have to live in them so need not concern themselves with the grim rustbelt vista of the Celsa steelworks, the rank odour of the toxic algal blooms on the water or the ceaseless roar of the Central Link dual carriageway, while all those rocketing ground rents and ‘maintenance’ bills can just be passed on to the tenants – it’s money for old rope! The demolition of the Wharf shows that the Cardiff Bay experiment has entered a new phase in which any lingering notion that it was about creating identifiable, enduring neighbourhoods has been finally abandoned. It was only ever PR guff anyway. Atomised transience is now taken for granted as the Bay’s permanent condition, the better to clear the way for a last brazen frenzy of short-term, speculative profiteering before the bubble explodes. How very Brexit.
♦The Corporation in Canton, a gargantuan 1889 touchstone of working class west Cardiff, has been abandoned by Greene King (too downmarket) and put up for sale. The council own the freehold, which is both surprising and alarming (the council also own the freehold of Llanrumney Hall, and it has stood rotting for over a year while they search in vain for one of Cardiff’s many fabled entrepreneurs to stump up some money).
♦After going into administration, Luminar Leisure reinvented itself as the Deltic Group in 2015 and promptly rebranded their UK-wide stable of clubs and pubs. In Cardiff this has meant ‘bar & grill’ Mordaith in Park Place becoming Steinbeck & Shaw and the Oceana nightclub complex stretching round the corner into Greyfriars Road labouring under the ridiculous moniker PRYZM. Rest assured, this superficial airbrushing has made no difference – both remain the habitat of those poor souls who learnt everything they know about reality from The Only Way Is Essex.
♦Pentre Gwilym House in Thornhill Road has been shunted from one egregious pub chain to another and is now a Miller & Carter Steakhouse, identical to the other two in Cardiff (Hemingway Road and The Hayes) and for that matter the other 57 in the UK. And so disappears yet another Welsh name in the capital of Wales.
♦The trend for pubs to mutate from drinking places where you can sometimes get a snack to eating places where you can sometimes get a drink continues all over Cardiff. Among the recent victims are the Conway, the Discovery and the Kings Arms (Pentyrch).
♦I’ll end with some good news. Firstly, the North Star in North Road, which closed in 2016 after flopping as a student honey-pot, has been rescued by the excellent Jon Bassett, refurbished and re-opened as the College Tavern, and secondly changed ownership of the Bluebell in St Mellons means the howler I’ve moaned about for years on this blog has been corrected and the pub is the Blue Bell once more. Who says bloggers have no influence? Answer: I do.