More photos here
This trip evolved organically. Originally it was going to be Hereford and Worcester, to continue my cathedrals coverage, but the need for a train-change at Cardiff suggested a stay there, and a day out in Gloucester for its cathedral. And so Hereford and Worcester will have to wait, three cathedrals in one trip being guaranteed to cause ogee-overload.
A comfortable 13.45 train from Paddington was booked, seats and all, and the midday tubes to Paddington, via Elephant and Castle, were a doddle. Pret posh ploughman's baguettes bought, we trekked to carriage A, a quiet carriage, and were soon seated and scoffing. Time and stations passed (Reading...Swindon...Didcot) the refreshment trolley was patronised (coffee, fruitcake) and a noisy relater of 'hilarious' office gossip obviously didn't realise he was in a quiet carriage. But soon it was Cardiff Central, with bilingual signs, Cats Protection posters in Welsh, and all, and the Hilton was found with no trouble and only a little fussing at check-in.
After a bit of a settle in we went out for an evening stroll. The helpful chap on the hotel desk provided us with a map and advice on a good evening route around the nearby civic buildings, statues and gardens - Cathays Park - which turned out to be a spot-on treat of quiet (except for the seagulls) and impressive Edwardian architecture, which era saw Cardiff's prime. The Glamorgan volume of Pevsner's Buildings of Wales describes Cathays Park as 'the finest civic centre in the British Isles.' The Welsh National War Memorial of 1924-8 (see right) is also singled out for praise, for it's purity and beauty. Next we went through Bute Park, around the back of the castle, and along the river a bit before looping back into the more populous and grimy centre for a basic and reliable Pizza Express experience. Then back to our comfy rooms, which have a bath and a shower! The latter proved incomprehensible as to temperature increase, so I had a bath.
Monday 8th July
An impressive range of choices at breakfast. I began with a cocktail of granola, cornflakes, dried fruit and almond slices, followed by bread and a self-service scoop of honeycomb. Lastly a slice of fruit cake, as you do. Perffaith!
To the castle today, choosing the full wandering and guided package. We had three quarters of an hour before the 11.00 tour, so explored some battlements and tunnels used in WW2. The tour took us through some of the most jaw-droppingly gilded and detailed gothic revival interiors you could dream of. William Burges we have to thank, along with the vast wealth of various Lords Bute, who were nearly all called John. After the tour a lot of spectacular rooms can also be admired under one's own steam. All are full of detail and subtleties, and leave one well gothickly sated. After patronising the gift shop, which had a range of chocolate bars wrapped around with some of Burges's better wallpaper designs for the castle, we left to find sarnies and return to the castle gardens to eat them, on the grass, in the sunshine. Then back to the hotel for a cuppa and a siesta.
Jane needed a siesta extension, so I ventured out solo, to shop a bit and explore the famous arcades. These feature small and sometimes interesting shops, as you might imagine, and I found a comprehensive deli, lots of sci-fi shops and a source of Welsh cakes which does them in cinnamon flavour. The branch of HMV here was large and well-stocked - so much vinyl! - like you don't get in London anymore. In the Waterstone's I found the psychogeographic volume reviewed below, but not one guidebook. The city centre is fairly full of beggars and homeless gatherings and on our evening stroll this evening, around the peaceful government, college and court buildings north of our hotel again, we walked past a bus dispensing food to the homeless, who were easily outnumbered by the hoards of huge seagulls, all hanging attentively around the edge waiting for leftovers, presumably. Ourselves we went to Pieminister, not doing a really roaring trade tonight, but providing v. tasty veggie pies (mine with paneer, peas, spinach and mango) with mash, vegetarian gravy, and smoky baked beans.
Tuesday 9th July
This morning to the Cardiff Museum and Art Gallery. Aside from the usual Pre-Raphs and local landscapes there was a room with good Italians - Cima, Palma Vecchio, Allori, amongst some more obscure goodies. Elsewhere lots of Richard Wilson, some Sargent, a Whistler of Basilica San Marco and a fair number of other Venetian scenes, especially amongst the many Impressionists. Also Poussin, Claude, a couple of Turners...an impressive variety then, courtesy of local donors and aided by purchases in the 1970s and 80s. The highlight Thomas Jones view of Buildings in Naples was not on display, though, which was a pisser. So I consoled myself with taking it home on a postcard, a fridge-magnet and a mug.
We then bussed it down to the redeveloped Cardiff Bay docks area. Much in-your-face new architecture, some nice preserved old buildings (like the handsome red Pierhead building, with good tiles inside) and many eateries - the usual formula for dock redevelopments, in other words. We sandwich-lunched at the white clapboard Norwegian Church, where Roald Dahl was christened, don't you know, now a cafe and craft centre, and then walked on along the Barrage a bit, where things are still a bit rusty and weed-infested, with seagulls aplenty and plenty of their leavings. Then back to catch the bus back, pausing only to get a slice of Bakewell from a cafe in the Armadillo, to return to the hotel for a quite late siesta.
In the evening gloaming we followed a walk in Bute Park along the canal with pasta in Giovanni's, a local Italian recommended by one on the desk staff, which was indeed a good one.
Wednesday 10th July
Today by bus to St Fagans Museum of Welsh History a huge great historical theme-park thingy, just outside Cardiff. Over 40 buildings from various times in Wales's history have been rebuilt in the vast park of St Fagans Castle. There are streets, solitary mills, a church, a chapel, farmhouses, etc. and the well-kept gardens around the Castle itself, which is more of a 16th-century country house. The staff in the red polo shirts loiter in most buildings and proved chatty and knowledgeable. All making for a thoroughly recommended visit, all the more for it being surprisingly free. And last month it won the Art Fund Museum of the Year award.
Lunch was Welsh Rarebit, before we got the bus back into town and, passing the shop, I bought me three just-off-the-griddle Welsh cakes for taking with afternoon tea. Their flavours were classic, cranberry and coconut and white chocolate and none of them were over-sweet, not even that last one.
In the evening we explored more of the seemingly neverending Bute Park, even finding The Secret Garden, but not how to get in, which is only right I suppose. Having been tempted by posters in town we decided to give Burger King's new halloumi burger a try, being big halloumi fans. But they'd sold out, so we made do with bean burgers, which are not bad, for chain veggie burgers. (It was later revealed that the halloumi is fried in the same fat as chicken and fish, so is not vegetarian and we had a lucky escape from halloumi tasting of fat and fish.) On our way back we discovered a Venetian palazzo disguised as a candy supermarket.
Thursday 11th July
This morning I made my way solo to Gloucester, on a train heading for Nottingham. Jane was staying in Cardiff to go see the more modern art in the gallery, and later get a massage in the hotel. Arriving in Gloucester around 11.00, I headed straight for the Cathedral, only to find it closed until 2.00 for a service for the nearby school. The helpful volunteer turning us away provided advice on places I might head for, so after a ruined bit of abbey I headed to the church of St Mary de Crypt where I got into conversation with another helpful and friendly volunteer who revealed more of Gloucester's hidden gems, whilst bemoaning how little access there is to most of them, but that I should come back for the September history festival, when lots are. I then took me to the redeveloped Victorian docks, which were prettier than most. I lunched on a veggie Cornish pasty with elderflower cordial in a shiny shopping arcade. Walking back through the docks I heard a scream and got to witness a seagull attacking a group of diners outside a Nando's and dragging away a chunk of chicken. A bit later, in Waterstone's cafe, ordering a cranberry Chelsea bun and an Americano, I was telling the barista about this and she said she'd learned that if a seagull comes for your food, you just let them take it. Scary.
The Cathedral was open a bit after half-one so I got in, got greeted by my first friend from this morning and began some extended wandering, around one of my now new favourite cathedrals. The Romanesque nave, the stained-glassed-in cloister, the tomb effigies, the nooks and the crannies all impressed. And I also had a nice long chat about cathedral visiting, effigies and life in general with a female rev.
I caught the 3.25 train back to Cardiff, stocked up on apple and cinnamon Welsh Cakes to take home, and got back to the hotel around 5.00, to find Jane still away being massaged.
Later, having no time for an evening stroll, we made straight for Pieminister for a repeat of Monday night's repast. By the time we left the restaurant the flocks of scavenging seagulls and packs of begging street people were out in force, providing more unfortunately abiding memories of Cardiff's city centre.
Friday 12th July
Our 10.26 train gave us time for a leisurely last breakfast and an unhurried check-out. I liked my room for it being big and quiet and having simple light switches, USB charging ports and no excess of cushions. Also the kettle, the big bathroom and the view.
The Castle, St Fagans, the art gallery, Bute Park and my day in Gloucester will hopefully make for more lasting memories, and encouragement to return, than Cardiff's somewhat sordid city centre experience. Let's hope that by then...but as I type this the country looks set for a buffoon prime minister every bit as greedy and self-serving as Trump, so the omens aren't good. (The need to return was strengthened by my discovering, weeks later, a secret cathedral, Llandaff, just north of where we were staying. Not sure why this only became known to me afterwards, maybe it's down to all my cathedral books being devoted to English cathedrals, and so not covering Wales.)
Excitement before boarding our train was provided by uncertainty as to whether coach A was going to be at the front of the train or the back. We guessed front, but were wrong, which also meant that our front-facing seats weren't. M&S sandwiches bought at Paddington were eaten at actual lunchtime in our own home, with out own glad-to-see-us cat.
Peter Finch Real Cardiff: The Flourishing City Seren 2018
The author is Cardiff's own resident psychogeographer and this is his forth book, following Real Cardiff, Real Cardiff Two and Real Cardiff Three. He's also a poet and the publisher of these books. This one purports to report on Cardiff's new boom in the last decade and to revisit and revise past visits. Psychogeography is a bit of a Bovril endeavour, and I can take it in small doses, but then again I do go for edgeland dilapidation. The tendency of the genre to place the personal and mundane so far above the interesting and factual - style over content - makes it more fun for the aficionado than the dabbler, I think, and I admit to have only dipped in so far. But I no doubt will do so when I visit Cardiff and again and find new places to wonder about.
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