Cardiff, Wales, Monmouthshire and England

Monmouthshire in Cardiff

The authorities once thought this part of Cardiff was in England

Today’s Daily Telegraph includes a letter from a Cardiff reader Barrie Cooper complaining that BT insists on sending him a Newport phone directory because he lives in east Cardiff. This prompted schoolboy memories of a time when Cardiff’s eastern suburbs were technically part of England. Not that any of us accepted that for a moment…

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We love M&S Culverhouse Cross


M&S: a very special restaurant

We’ve loved Marks & Spencer’s Culverhouse Cross store in Cardiff for a long time. It has a huge range of goods, an excellent food hall and nice cafe almost all on one floor.

It now has the best restaurant of any high street store I’ve come across. We called in on our way to Mum and Dad’s in Penarth last weekend, and decided to have a late lunch there. It was great value – and the food was wonderful. (With at-table service.) Best of all was Owen’s dessert – with the kind of presentation you’d normally find only in a far more expensive restaurant.

We’ll definitely be back!

Cardiff’s Queen Street BHS to close

The original Cardiff BHS, 1970s

I felt nostalgic tonight when I read that Cardiff’s main BHS store in Queen Street is to close.

The store was once the site of the largest Woolworths store in Wales, before Woolies closed in around 1985. British Home Stores (BHS) relocated a few hundred yards from the store you can see in this wonderful photo.

The original Woolworths was a special place. It had a cafeteria on the upper mezzanine floor. Even in the 1970s it was selling loose biscuits behind a glass counter window. BHS was never quite as iconic, although it did briefly have an in-store Nationwide Building Society branch in the late 1980s.

The photo shows Queen Street before it became traffic-free in 1975. Judging by the gleaming K-reg Rover on the left I’d say it was taken in 1972 or 1973.

The details are fascinating. Every car is British. The Dutch clothing store C&A was still a household name (it left Britain in 2000). Top Rank Suite enjoyed the glam rock era.

The crane in the background was building Brunel House, which was meant to house British Railways’ Western Region headquarters. (Another botched reorganisation at the taxpayers’ expense…) The Venetian-looking building on the right once overlooked the Glamorgan canal, which entered a tunnel here. (It was filled in over 50 years ago.)

The sign for the hair removal clinic (above Stead & Simpson on the right) suggests we were already obsessed about appearances!

Remembering Cardiff’s Empire Pool

Remembering Wales Empire Pool

We took Owen swimming at Cardiff’s International Pool today. He loved it, and so did we. Going in, we spotted this plaque commemorating one of my favourite childhood haunts: the Wales Empire Pool, which was demolished to make way for the Millennium Stadium.

The Empire Pool was built for the 1958 Empire Games, hosted by Cardiff. As a child, I was in awe of the enormous pool, the impossibly high diving boards and the stark functionality of the building. Swimming a length was a major voyage.

The best memory was the day the drinks machine went haywire, spewing out free coffees. My Cardiff High School class rushed to take advantage!

I actually learned to swim in another long-gone Cardiff pool. Guildford Crescent was a Victorian pool – actually two pools – opened in the 1860s. By the 1970s it was in a bad way. But in the autumn term 1974 I spent part of every morning for four weeks there, and by the first Friday I could swim and went up to the next class. Less happily, the next step was learning to dive, but I never got beyond belly flops. Despite that. I’ll always remember Guildford Crescent fondly as the place I learned one of life’s most precious skills.

Maps: icon to icons

The maps we loved: the Vale of Glamorgan 1970s, mapped by Ordnance Survey

Last month, Apple came under fire for the poor quality of its new Apple Maps app for iPhone and iPad. The reaction showed how our idea of what a map is has utterly changed. A visitor from the 1970s would be baffled by the idea of a computer company producing a map – let alone the concept of having a map on a phone. They’d have thought it as crazy as a television making a cup of tea.

The map that opens this blog post is a section of the oldest map I possess. It’s the very first Ordnance Survey metric map of the Vale of Glamorgan and the Rhondda. (This 1:50,000 series replaced the much-loved 1 inch OS series.) It’s striking (for Wales) for its English-only place and geographical names: Cowbridge, for example, is unaccompanied by its Welsh name, Y Bont Faen, unlike on more recent OS maps. The map is titled The Rhondda, which is a curiously misleading description of a sheet that covers almost the whole of the Vale as well as many of the valleys of the Glamorgan uplands.

I was given this map as a birthday present in 1977. I used to have the earlier 1 inch OS map of Cardiff (a very different place 35 years ago), along with an even older map of Cirencester, showing the railway lines that closed in the 1960s. (I had fun comparing it with the 1990s equivalent.)

Paper maps have a special quality. In the dark, cold nights of January 1995, I plotted a cycle holiday from Ashton Keynes, near Cirencester, to the English Channel at Beer. It was a warming experience lying by the fire choosing villages and quiet coastal roads to explore the following summer – with a beer. Five months later, I took pride in the fact my friend Richard and I got lost just once in 325 miles when we followed that fireside-plotted trail.

But I mustn’t sound too wedded to the joy of the old over the new. I carried a dozen OS maps on that holiday. Twice we arrived at a promised (by the map) pub to find it didn’t exist. How we’d have loved the idea of carrying maps for the whole journey in our pockets. Along with B&B lists and reviews, weather reports, newspapers, music players and books… It would have seemed a miracle.

The BBC news website’s magazine (a great read, by the way) has a fascinating feature on the subject today. It’s a tad sceptical about the move to electronic maps:

“Digital maps may be shrinking our brains. Richard Dawkins has suggested that it may have been the drawing of maps, rather than the development of language, that boosted our brains over that critical hurdle that other apes failed to jump.”

That seems to overstate the case. But I do vividly remember drawing my own spidery maps of Lakeside and Cyncoed, Cardiff, soon after we moved home to Wales when I was seven in 1971. It was my way of making sense of my new hinterland. Most of the houses were less than 10 years old. Street names such as Farm Drive hinted at a more rural past (and there was a surviving farm house close to where Eastern Avenue now crosses Lake Road East).

Lakeside, Cardiff – by Google Maps. My version was more spidery

I’ll end on a cycling note. As I blogged in February, I love having digital maps on my handlebars, in the form of my Garmin Edge 800 GPS. But I’ll still treasure my printed maps. They’re part of my past – and my future.

Witnessing history: Team GB win London 2012 Olympics opener in Cardiff


Above: Cardiff gets the 2012 Olympics underway

I never thought I’d witness the start of an Olympic Games in my hometown, Cardiff. But that’s exactly what I saw today as Team GB’s women’s football team beat New Zealand 1-0 in the London 2012 opener at Cardiff’s Millennium stadium.

The atmosphere was special as Cardiff welcomed the world – something it’s used to doing as the home of Welsh rugby. It was lovely to experience a genuine enthusiasm for the Games from the many families in the stadium. And the Millennium team did a wonderful job, despite the mad rules imposed on them, such as not allowing us to take bottles of water in on a scorchingly hot day. (The Olympics Gestapo have a lot to answer for. Presumably they were also responsible for the appalling queues for drinks as half the bars weren’t open, which meant many missed the GB goal, as they were still queuing for half time drinks 15 minutes after the break.)

The game was a great advert for women’s football. The action was fast and furious. And it was magical to see the first score of the 2012 Games – for Great Britain.

We’re back tomorrow evening to see Brazil’s men taking on New Zealand.

Below: four year old Owen sleeps through the action.



Above: welcome to Cardiff