This effort from the Crafty Devil microbrewery didn’t even last four years, as I predicted with uncanny accuracy in Pubocalypse 7. Guess what? There’s no place for small independents offering high-falutin’ mission statements, craft ale posturings and steep prices in a conservative, corporate, clone town like Cardiff – where only cheap’n’nasty bottom of the barrel chains and gaudy, instagram-ready cocktail bars appeal to the city centre’s cripplingly mainstream footfall (clueless morons from the disembowelled backwoods and drunks sniffing out zipless fucks). It didn’t augur well when the original name – Beelzebub’s – soon had to be drastically simplified to Bub’s when the four-syllable word proved too much of a devilishly difficult mouthful for potential punters. Early in 2022 the landlords didn’t renew the lease and a branch of the gruesome Fat Hippo burger outfit moved in. Crafty Devil’s ever optimistic owner Chris Rowlands must be a glutton for punishment: his next venture is a ‘cafe-bar’ in Working Street called Scaredy Cats featuring “coffee, cocktails, craft beer, cakes and board games”. Hmm. Somebody really ought to tell him about the cost of living crisis.
This delightful listed building has been tossed around between various ‘hospitality industry’ chancers for a good decade (see Pubocalypse 7), and it always flops. STOP IT!! The latest miserable attempt opened in April 2022 and closed in July. Its Bristol-based backers talked big about creating a live music venue, but were thwarted by two technical hitches: 1) The lack of planning permission and 2) The ‘music’ being provided by barely competent student amateurs strumming two chords and squawking in front of their mates.
FLY BY NIGHT
Opened in late 2018 by the same people who
inflicted blessed Cardiff with 10 Mill Lane and boasting a – brace yourself – “creative mixologist”, this cocktail bar had a life span of three years. The cocky name it was lumbered with broke a golden rule: don’t tempt providence.
This Brains pub in out-of-sight, out-of-mind Trowbridge was just about the only community facility in the shabby, lacklustre outer suburb. Plonked on the edge of the coastal marshland of Gwynllŵg in the mid-1960s, Trowbridge should never have been built in the first place. It covered richly fertile farmland with tarmac and concrete, annihilated the area’s deeply-rooted rural way of life, slaughtered the rich biodiversity and sublime natural world of the watery landscape, and started the ball rolling for the subsequent destruction of the entire Gwynllŵg Levels from the River Rhymni to the River Usk. Yes, it was yet another inept, short-sighted blunder by Cardiff’s perennially dreadful Council – and a particularly serious one at that, given the vital part the naturally absorbent sponge of the Levels could be playing in the prevention of the flooding of both Cardiff and Newport as sea-levels rise alarmingly, as well as the general importance of wetlands in combatting both wildfires and droughts. As the estate grew, two Brains pubs were added in the 1970s, the Hendre (closed 2013, see Pubocalypse 3) and the Newbridge. Back then, before the poison of bottom-line turbo-capitalism and rampaging ‘market forces’ corrupted everything and everybody, Brains took its responsibilities for the maintenance of Cardiff’s social glue and communal spirit seriously and wasn’t merely a cash cow to be periodically milked for maximum monetary gain. To a large degree the thriving, busy Newbridge, with its rough-and-ready cordiality, darts, skittles and pool teams, bingo nights and handy bookies attached, was just about the only manifestation of community and a sense of place in amenity-free Trowbridge. But last month, without consultation or warning, Brains gave the landlords three weeks to get out and summarily closed the last pub in Trowbridge. Explanation: working-class people aren’t profitable enough; the land is worth more sold off to some parasitic developer to generate another windfall of lovely MONEY for the super-rich Brains family to count in their mansions.
Paper Mill Road
Opened in July 2021, closed in June 2022; one of the shortest lifespans of a drinking establishment in the entire history of Cardiff. Why so ephemeral? Perhaps because opening a wine bar in a disused shed in the arse end of Canton close to a ghetto of unaffordable ‘executive’ housing for snooty English settlers and retirees was always going to be a big ask.
THE ROMPNEY CASTLE
The story of the Rompney Castle goes back to 19th century rural Rumney when Pear Tree Farm started a side-line as an inn – a common practice for many farms in the area at that time. Then in 1880 the Pear Tree was purchased by American Wirt Sikes (1836-1883), the US Consul in Cardiff since 1876, with a view to making it his home. Sikes was an amateur archaeologist and writer who was fascinated by Welsh folklore. He made many changes to the property, turning it into a country hotel, giving it a new name by reviving an obsolete Anglo-Norman version of the original Welsh Rhymni, and adding a turreted, half-timbered, mock-baronial hall which became one of the Rompney Castle’s public bars, before dying suddenly aged only 46. Sikes’ family sold the pub as a going concern and it eventually passed into the hands of Brains when Rumney was absorbed into Cardiff in 1938, with further Tudorbethan timbering being added to the ancient stone walls to complete its striking appearance. For decades the big, boisterous boozer was a vital cog of Rumney life, featuring plenty of motor-mouth Cardiffians and a bookies in the car park, until Brains ditched its commitment to the fabric of Cardiff society and became just another bean-counting profiteer. Under cover of the pandemic lockdown the pub was shut for good and sold off to a property developer (for mountains of MONEY) who outrageously intends to demolish the historic building and replace it with a contemptuously ugly block of 26 flats that there is zero demand for in Rumney. Since Cardiff Council’s policy is to ignore Welsh law on sustainability and future wellbeing and give the go-ahead for all demolition and new construction, the most carbon-intensive activity of all, and since greedy private-sector opportunists and anti-social philistines now decide everything that happens in Cardiff, and since Cadw is a feeble, toothless, understaffed protector of Welsh ‘heritage’ that flees from confrontation, it’s inevitable that the bulldozers will move in when the economic outlook improves enough for a quick killing to be made. The only glimmer of hope for the ‘Romp’ is that the UK is facing the highest inflation and deepest recession since records began, the chickens are at last coming home to roost and the final decline and fall of this rotten empire cannot be far away. I’ll drink to that.
Out on the St Mellons estate, Cardiff’s eastward 1980s march to the boundaries of Newport, distractions from the daily grind of making ends meet have always been few and far between. So the Willows, the only pub for a population of 20,000, was a fundamental component of the estate as soon as Brains opened it in 1984. As ever, the development was a category error: the exquisite sea-level fenlands south of ‘old’ St Mellons were smothered with high-density, fiddly little roads going nowhere and packed with low-grade housing of grudging dimensions, paper-thin walls, cheap brickwork and plug-ugly aesthetics. Here Cardiff’s ‘problem’ families were dumped, cut off from the rest of the city and set the near impossible task of welding a community into being out of nothing with no resources. Against the odds, despite the atomisation, ignorance and hyper-individualism fostered by four decades of brutal corporate capitalism, there have been tentative signs that a real place might one day cohere on these much-abused acres, but the unilateral announcement by Brains last month that the Willows is to close forthwith (not enough MONEY in it) is a body blow. The willows of old Gwynllŵg would be weeping, were there any left.
THE WOLF’S CASTLE
Wolf’s Castle Avenue
The post-War council estate at north Llanisien has proved to be one of Cardiff’s more viable communities, helped considerably by the big, leisurely Wolf’s Castle pub, a 1958 Brains conversion of encircled Llanisien Fawr Farm. The pub thrived with its lovely beer garden and its pool, darts and skittles teams. It was popular across the generations, ticked over modestly, and was a centre for a host of special interest groups and societies; an authentic social ‘hub’ if ever there was one. So, of course, it had to go. You see, there’s more MONEY in flogging off the land and, by the way, there’s no such thing as society any more: the Tories have made sure of that. It’s a disaster for Llanisien. Cheers Brains. Mind you, for years some of us have been warning what would happen if unrestrained ‘market forces’ are allowed to run riot – and we weren’t crying wolf…
By now, the underlying theme of this particular Pubocalypse will have become apparent to readers: SA Brain & Company Ltd, and its betrayal of Cardiff. When Brains handed over the running of its 156 pubs to Wolverhampton-based Marston’s plc (now CMBC – Carlsberg Marston’s Brewing Company) in February 2021 the writing was on the wall for Cardiff’s pub tradition. After the least lucrative were quickly shut down during the pandemic, Brains sold the freehold and leasehold of nearly 100 pubs to London investment firm Song Capital and now they’re not pubs anymore – they’re a property portfolio to be asset stripped and equity released for maximum profit. This process is well under way (see above) and Cardiffians must now brace themselves for the imminent loss of many famous Cardiff pubs. Immediately vulnerable, not just to closure but to demolition, are those pubs leased out to Marston’s, like the Butcher’s Arms, the Canton, the Flora, the Golden Cross, the Kings Arms, the Packet, the Railway, the Romilly, the Royal Oak and the Three Horseshoes. But nothing is safe, as shown by the recent sale of Brains’ very own flagship pub, the Yard, to Scandinavian chain Rekom (for an inkling of what lies in store for the Yard, check out Rekom’s ghastly Heidi’s Bierbar in Mill Lane). The Yard is the spiritual home of Brains, the very heart of the Old Brewery (initially built as William’s Malthouse in 1713) where the company was based from 1882 to 1999 before relocating to the vacated Hancocks Brewery in Crawshay Street. The Old Brewery was redeveloped as the ‘Brewery Quarter’ and in 2003 the landmark Cardiff pub at its entrance, the Albert, was renamed the Yard. The Albert had been established as far back as 1872 and was a bit like a pint of SA: warm, tasty and invigorating, especially when pulsating with hwyl on match days. With its brewer on site, it was a genuine brewery ‘tap’. Millions were spent on the modernisation, featuring an impressive combination of the old girders, pipes and brickwork with the new stainless steel and wood, and a gorgeous pint of Dark drawn from eye-level handpumps. Mind you, compared to the Albert it felt anonymous, antiseptic, artificial and anodyne – a post-modern pub for people who don’t really like pubs at all – but nevertheless it was as good as pubs get in 21st century Cardiff. Now Brains’ flagship has been sunk, and the essence of Cardiff-ness for 140 years is on the brink of extinction.
■Not so very long ago the night-time city centre was for grown-ups. Of course it was based on having a good time, but Cardiff’s revellers, drinkers, cruisers and socialisers of yore possessed a worldly-wise knowingness, a lightly-worn sophistication, a sense of sharp humour and an air of wisdom, relaxation and restraint. Now late capitalism, in its ceaseless hunt for unearned easy pickings, has ditched the adult demographic in favour of fleecing the young – the most gullible consumers of all, lacking the experience, the discernment and the critical faculties to know any better. The trend is for puerile ‘games bars’, which means overgrown children with the attention span of a gnat don’t have to struggle with boring stuff like conversation and interaction and instead can pay through the nose for gimmicky, rip-off drinks and naff organised ‘fun’ at venues such as Arcade Vaults (High Street Arcade), Boom Battle Bar (Brewery Quarter), Chance & Counters (High Street), Escape Reality (St John Street), Escape Rooms (St Mary Street), Exitus (Queen Street), Flight Club (St Mary Street), Kongs (St Mary Street) and Par 59 (St Mary Street). Incidentally, the latter – a ‘golf bar’ – is the latest Gareth Bale business scheme in his home town. It seems Cymru’s soccer hero has a clear post-footie retirement plan: to make his incalculable multi-million fortune even larger. How inspiring!
■ Cocktail bars come and go with dizzy frequency in Cardiff, and I have neither the inclination nor the intention to properly keep tabs on these transient operations (see Pubocalypse 8). Recent new entrants include The Cocktail Club (St Mary Street), Gin & Bake (Mermaid Quay), Old Havana (High Street), Tonight Josephine (Caroline Street) and Vermut (Guildhall Place). When people have to choose between starving to death or freezing to death later this year, one can expect most of the paper parasols and plastic swizzle sticks to end up blowing in the wind.
Pictures: WhatPub; Tripadvisor; Wales Online; Instagram; John Lord/Creative Commons; WhatPub; inapub; Eddie Reed/Creative Commons