The plug-ugly Crest Hotel (later Posthouse, currently Holiday Inn) was built on the northern flank of the Arms Park in 1971. The dreadful development eradicated a leafy public arboretum which, along with Bute Park on the other side of Castle Street, had formed a beautiful green western gateway to Cardiff – and also breached the terms of the 1922 sale of the land to Cardiff Athletic Club, which expressly stipulated that the entire Arms Park was to be set aside for recreational use in perpetuity. This process of cashing in on the prime real estate, which began in 1967 with the relocation of the cricket ground to Sophia Gardens, hasn’t ceased since. Cod-Irish bar Callaghans was added to the hotel in 1973 and for four decades the big boisterous boozer was an integral part of the the city centre experience, particularly on rugby international days and live music nights. That all came to an abrupt halt in 2017 and, while Holiday Inn (part of the vast InterContinental Hotels chain) wait for the right economic climate to impose some monstrous expansion of their operation on the city, the bar now only opens for much more profitable private functions.
Milgi milgi milgi milgi,
Rhowch fwy o fwyd i’r milgi,
Milgi milgi milgi milgi,
Rhowch fwy o fwyd i’r milgi.
Milgi was somewhere for Cardiff’s encouraging numbers of nice neo-hippies to relax, away from the vulgar hard-sell of the bottom-line corporate operations; a true independent full of quirky charm. Oh, there was such innocent fun to be had in the yurt out the back! So, of course, it shut in 2019 and is now a ‘Ramen shop’ (i.e. Japanese cultural appropriation via soggy noodles).
Y MOCHYN DU
Once this was a lodge of Plas Turton, a 16th century manor house held by the episcopal estate of Llandaf Cathedral that had been demolished when Cathedral Road was laid out in the 1850s. The cute, single-storey stone building was spared and incorporated into Sophia Gardens when it opened as Cardiff’s first public park in 1858, being converted into a tea-shop and toilet adjacent to a delightful, kidney-shaped, tree-girdled boating lake. What has happened to Sophia Gardens since the Bute dynasty handed over ownership to the Council in 1947 has been extensively covered in past blogs, suffice to say here that the 16 hectares (40 acres) of exquisite parkland where generations of Cardiffians would rendezvous, promenade and picnic on summer weekends has, by increments, been steadily reduced to a derisory four hectares (10 acres) of accessible ground as chunk after chunk of the supposedly protected public amenity and precious green space has disappeared under an avalanche of concrete. The old lodge fell into disuse before becoming an independent pub, the Poacher’s Lodge, in 1994 and then was modernised and renamed Y Mochyn Du (The Black Pig) in 2002. A regular winner of CAMRA’s Cardiff Pub of the Year award, it evolved into a convivial, bilingual, urbane hang-out for grown-ups. But, following lockdown, it has not re-opened. Instead it has been taken over by London-based wannabe chain Brewhouse & Kitchen and converted into one of their eponymous ‘craft beer’ hell-holes. You can tell a place is a dud when a figurative name is spurned in an inverted-snob attempt to suggest no-nonsense artisanal authenticity – you can also be sure that the sham radicalism means all they’re really after is a place at the capitalist pigs’ trough.
THE NEW PENN
Circle Way West
The Llanedeyrn estate, completed in 1968, was the high point for public housing in Cardiff. City planners, supervised by Cardiff’s first planning officer Ewart Parkinson (1926-2015), had a field day indulging all the then-fashionable trends of zoning, green wedges, traffic management and futuristic architecture. But, as someone or other once said, nothing dates faster than the future – and pretty soon the principles of public provision and communal solidarity that underpinned Llanedeyrn were blown to smithereens by Thatcherism with its emphasis on selfish individualism, cut-throat competition and private ownership. Today it is essentially an urban slum rotting into the countryside upon which it was so abruptly imposed, an other-worldly outpost where aimless roads wind past brutalist concrete buildings, a car-dependent, rubbish-strewn, forbidding jigsaw of dead-ends, spurned and scorned by the arbitrary ‘market forces’ that have no interest in poor people. The New Penn, one of two brand-new purpose-built pubs opened on the estate in 1970, gradually deteriorated into an unwelcoming and depressing dump without a viable customer-base before it became another pandemic casualty in 2020. The Retreat, Llanedeyrn’s other pub, has so far survived – but it’s a Brains so it’s days are surely numbered.
THE PENTWYN ARMS
Cardiff’s race to the hills picked up pace in the 1980s with the owner-occupied Pentwyn estate north of Llanedeyrn. Many of the Llanedeyrn mistakes were repeated – and a few new blunders were added just for Pentwyn, like an odious private hospital, a razor-wire encircled golf course, a string of stack-em-high chain hotels along Eastern Avenue and an obscene ‘park & ride’ facility on the River Rhymni’s watermeadows. The Murrayfield, erected near the shopping precinct in 1983, tried to inject a little community cohesion – but that proved an impossible task among privatised people weighed down by mortgages and consumerist cravings. A name change to the Grand Slam didn’t work and then a further change to the Pentwyn Arms in 2010, presumably to inform locals it existed, felt like a last throw of the dice – and so it proved. It shut in 2016 (an event that passed me by) and became a Morrisons ‘My Local’ shop. That lasted a year before the supermarket quit and the crumbling building has been empty ever since.
THE RADYR COURT
In the 1970s the Plymouth estate sold land north of Llandaf to private developers and 1,200 houses were built on the fertile, undulating fields of Radyr Court Farm. Cardiff thus acquired a new outer suburb, called Danescourt. This was essentially a nonsense word, welding together the names of the area’s two biggest houses: Radyr Court, a 15th century manor built by the Mathew family when they ruled the roost in the district, converted into a farmhouse in the 18th century by successors the Earls of Plymouth; and Danesbrook, a nondescript early 20th century pile lumbered with an ahistorical and determinedly non-Welsh name by its English owners (the Danes never came anywhere near here when they were going on their 9th century pillages). The artificiality of the name is reflected in the shoddiness and stylistic confusion of the Danescourt estate itself, but at least the rambling ex-farmhouse of Radyr Court was allowed to remain and was converted into a pub in 1979 – the extant medieval dungeons making ideal beer cellars. Lively at weekends and featuring its own Indian restaurant upstairs, the pub frequently changed hands, always seemed to be battling snotty objections to its very presence and was finally undone by the pandemic.
THE ROATH PARK
Brains Brewery has been busy divesting itself of its pubs for some time (see Pubocalypse 1-9 for starters) and then the pandemic provided a convenient excuse for the company to effectively self-liquidate. In 2020 the entire Brains estate was leased out to Wolverhampton-based Marstons, which at the same time was being swallowed up by Danish multinational Carlsberg. Thus Wales’ largest brewer was reduced to just another ‘heritage’ brand-name on the pumps. Simultaneously those pubs not deemed profitable enough for Marstons were sold off, the better to cash in on the the easy money profits of the pumped-up property ‘market’ in the grip of another of its regular boom/bust bubbles. The eclectic, civilised, welcoming Roath Park, a chunky Victorian gem with an unusual roof-top viewing platform, built on the City Road/Kincraig Street corner in 1886, was summarily shut and flogged off to a property developer with a huge portfolio of houses in Cathays and Roath converted into lucrative ‘multiple occupation’ student lets. A planning application to demolish the pub and construct a contemptuously inappropriate seven-storey block of ‘starter flats’ duly followed and was only rejected after a determined local campaign, but as night follows day a new application for demolition has been lodged, this time with no specific plan apart from whatever ‘mixed commercial and residential’ speculation will get over the planning hurdle. The bar is set low by a compliant Council completely wedded to the principles of unsustainable ‘growth’, so one can expect to see the Roath Park bite the dust in due course in the continuing assault on City Road’s coherence, scale and architectural integrity and the continuing elimination of Cardiffians from Cardiff.
Called Bar 38 when built in 2000, it soon went belly up so Brains refurbished it in ‘New England’ style, whatever that might be, and gave it the maritime moniker mandatory around Cardiff Bay’s artificial freshwater lake. The off-the-peg yo-ho-ho simulation came to epitomise all that is wrong with the tawdry, tasteless, desperately aspirational, dumb unbridled consumerism of Mermaid Quay (slogan: “Eat, Drink, Relax; Shop, Pamper, Live”). The scathing reviews on Tripadvisor mounted up over the years until eventually in 2021 Brains closed the dirty dump and sold it off to private equity buy-out specialists Graphite Capital, based in London. It is currently being revamped by grotesquely ambitious Cheshire-based chain The New World Trading Company (mission statement extract: “We’re explorers, innovators, experts and pioneers”), to be relaunched as The Club House, one of their many cringeworthy brands. The Club House tag-line (“Step inside, leave the humdrum behind”) can be taken with a large pinch of salt.
St Mary Street
On the ground floor of the Sandringham Hotel was Café Jazz, since 1989 the city’s main jazz and blues venue as well as an excellent bar. It had begun life in 1792 as the Black Lion, a much-loved haunt of sea captains, canal boatmen and yeoman farmers. On its centenary in 1892, new owners gave it a major rebuild, transforming the humble Black Lion into a tall, elegant edifice with a four-storey hotel above the ground floor pub, all topped by a splendid stone statue of a black lion high up on the roof. At the peak of the coal boom in 1903, with Cardiff developing airs and graces, the Black Lion name was dropped in favour of the more genteel Sandringham, but the pub remained an integral part of Cardiff’s adult-orientated social scene throughout the 20th century. The hotel was bought by the Dutton family in 1989 and when Four Bars (later Dempsey’s, now Eleven) in Castle Street dropped its jazz and blues gigs the Sandringham stepped in to save Cardiff’s ever-threatened live music scene. Café Jazz was a brilliant component of Cardiff culture for 30 years but now the music has stopped and Sully’s greasy spoon café has moved in, relocating from Quay Street. Cardiff’s barrel-scraping plunge into decultured, lowest-common-denominator crudity is gathering momentum. Meanwhile the joint-4th oldest pub in the city centre is no more. The venerable Black Lion has died, not with a roar but with a whimper.
Richmond Road in Roath got its first pub since being laid out in 1880 when the private equity Barracuda Group opened this trading format pitched at students in a redundant video shop in 2008 (back in the 1960s the upper floor of the building had been the Kennard Rooms dancehall). After the enterprise went into administration in 2013, Stonegate moved in for the kill to pick over the corpse and soon ditched the ‘Varsity’ concept, this particular branch closing in 2017. That’s the good news; now for the bad news. In 2019, ‘street food’ purveyor Sticky Fingers moved in, relocating from the Brewery Quarter to flog a fiddly, culturally commandeered pick’n’mix of pan-global nibbles to people who can’t cook. When the pandemic hit, the owner unsuccessfully took legal action against the Welsh Government for daring to stray from the policies of Boris Johnson’s wonderful Westminster administration by putting public health and the precautionary principle above the ‘freedom’ to do business. Students in Cardiff with an iota of political awareness might want to think twice before visiting this thoroughly tarnished place.
■Following a takeover by Greene King (one of the four big chains, along with M&B, Stonegate and Wetherspoon, that dominate the UK ‘hospitality industry’) the Heron Marsh, Cardiff’s most easterly pub, is now the Melrose Inn for some unfathomable reason.
■Also in St Mellons, new owners have tarted up the Blue Bell and taken it down the well-worn ‘gastropub’ path while renaming it the Church Inn with complete disregard for the rich history of the 16th century staging post that happens to be nowhere near the church.
■As one Blue Bell is silenced, another rings out once more. The Goat Major on High Street, having been saved from the Brains axe when bought by Croeso Pubs, a local company that re-opened the Philharmonic in 2018, has been returned to the original Blue Bell name it possessed from its foundation in 1813 until 1995 when Brains renamed it, with typical conservatism, in deference to the Royal Regiment of Wales and its bearded mascot. A number of keyboard warriors kicked up a fuss on ‘social media’ accusing Croeso of “destroying Cardiff’s history”, until they were put right – a classic example of the internet generation’s total ignorance of anything that was, in the depressing phrase trotted out routinely on TV quiz shows, ‘before my time’.
■Browns in The Friary was a predictable flop so Stonegate have turned it into yet another Slug & Lettuce, the third in Cardiff.
■Gassy Jacks in Salisbury Road, another Stonegate operation, has become plain Gassy’s – a change that, despite the apostrophe, is unlikely to make much difference to the infantile effort.
■Wow Bar’s shift from Churchill Way to the old Buffalo Bar site in Windsor Place didn’t survive lockdown. Following hard on the high heels of the closure of Minsky’s in Cathedral Walk, this amounted to a body-stocking blow to Cardiff’s platoons of drag queens. But not to worry, a new ‘cabaret bar’ called Main Stage has been established in Windsor Place to fill the gaping hole, so to speak.
Pictures: BigCardiff; Star Pubs; The Cardiffian; Cooke & Arkwright; Google; WalesOnline