A Capital Day Out

In which The Author revisits some old haunts

Shanara the Dippy Bint (see entries passim) texted me last week out of the blue and asked me when I was planning my next trip to Cardiff. I told her that I wasn’t planning a trip at all – £7.00 for a return ticket represents a fair chunk out of my Giro. To make matters worse, thirty quid of this fortnight’s money has come and gone already on another rail ticket, this time to Manchester. (All will be revealed in a month’s time, don’t worry.) But she insisted that we had to meet up soon. For one thing, she’s expecting her second baby at the end of November. For another thing, I saw enough of Cardiff during the run-up to Xmas when I was working there, and I certainly don’t think I can face a day there for ‘fun.’ So we eventually agreed to meet for lunch yesterday. It was an interesting day out, to say the least.
I’d planned to catch the 10.21 train, but first of all I had to call into the Library and book my ticket to Manchester. Luckily, I’d stayed overnight in Rhian’s house, so I didn’t have far to go in the pissing rain at 9 a.m. I checked my Facebook and my emails, and found one email I’d been expecting. I replied to that, and then turned my attention to the Arriva Trains Wales website. Booking rail tickets online is quite a palaver anyway, and it didn’t help that the website kept crashing mid-transaction. By the time I’d sorted that out, had a quick chat with Steven the librarian, looked through the latest batch of withdrawn stock (see A Turn-Out For the Books) and taken some cash out in the Post Office, I’d missed the train.
I called into the Prince for a glass of Coke and got chatting to Alun P. and a couple of the other lads. I was updating Windows when the Piss-Artist Formerly Known As My Brother walked in. He chatted to Gabby by the bar, and I overheard part of the conversation. I’d forgotten it was Thursday. He was having a swift half before going to the Probation Office. I didn’t especially want to share a train carriage (or even a platform) with him, so I got a second Coke and stayed in the pub for a while longer.
I made my way towards the station and bumped into a friend who’s recently come out of hospital. We chatted for a minute, but I was conscious that I was cutting it fine to get to the station. As I approached the bottom of the slope leading to the platform, a smartly-dressed chap sprinted out of the station car park and up the slope ahead of me. I was halfway to the platform when the train pulled off – it’s happened to us all on occasion. A few moment later the other chap reappeared at the top of the ramp. At least I wasn’t the only one.
[A digression: A number of years ago, I was sitting with Shanara’s sister Naj, waiting for the train to leave Aberdare. My old friend Richard M. is the head of a primary school down the valley, and lives across the road from the station. Of course, when you’re a stone’s throw from somewhere you tend to take it for granted that you can get there in good time. Sooner or later, something is bound to trip you up at the last minute. That’s exactly what happened to Richard on this particular morning. I saw him sprinting from his front door and over to the station. I glanced at Naj and said, ‘I don’t think he’s going to make it.’ Sure enough, Richard appeared at the top of the slope just as the train powered up and pulled away. He didn’t see me, so I decided to wind him up later that day. When I got home, I sent him a quick email: Dear Mr M—, Who does the headteacher give a note to when he’s later for school?]
Missing the 1122 train was a real nuisance, though. The railway line between Aberdare and Abercynon is single track, except for a passing loop at Mountain Ash. Consequently, the timetable has gaps in it, allowing the freight services to run to and from Tower Colliery. We regulars call what should theoretically be the 1152 departure the ‘Ghost Train’, as the trains from Aberdare leave every half an hour, except when they don’t. I’ve been caught out by the Ghost Train many times, especially travelling to and from university. My Nigerian friend Jamila and I fell foul of it the day she came up so that we could work on an essay together. (The good thing was that she bought a load of clothes and odds and ends in Barnardo’s, so they made £28 out of our unexpected stopover.) I really couldn’t believe it had caught me out again. Neither could the other chap, who accompanied me back down the slope.
We got chatting, and it turned out that he had to be in Cardiff by 1.00 at the latest. We knew that we had a few minutes’ grace to try and board at Mountain Ash, four miles down the line, where a short interval of recovery time is built into the timetable. There’s also an off-street car park near the pub in Newtown, so he wouldn’t have to pay Rhondda Cynon Taf CBC’s exorbitant £11.60 charge to park for the afternoon.
‘I’ll give you a lift if you like,’ he suggested. ‘You navigate when we get to Mount, and I’ll drive.’ We had a plan.
We jumped into his car and headed for Mountain Ash. Luckily for us the traffic wasn’t too busy and there was plenty of room to park off-street. We were able to make it to the platform with about thirty seconds to spare. I texted Shanara to let her know I was finally on my way and had a chat with my new travelling companion. As we talked, it turned out that I’d met his wife while we were walking the dogs in the Country Park one afternoon. It really is a small world.
I got to Cardiff at about 12.20 and headed for our intended rendezvous outside Poundstretcher, near St John’s Church. I noticed that several shops in Queen Street had relocated and/or closed, including Peacocks. I assume that their branch was once of the casualties when the company collapsed a few months ago. There were some really kinky shoes in the window of Eccentrix, and I was tempted to take a photo of them to show Helen R. However, it was still hammering down and I didn’t want to risk ruining a second camera.
Shanara had already told me that Old Orleans had closed and reopened as a Harvester. In fact, apart from The Works and Poundstretcher, the entire street seems to have turned into places to eat and drink. I had a browse in The Works while I was waiting for her to arrive. There were a few books which caught my eye, but I expect the Aberdare branch has them in stock as well. I’ll take a chance.
After about half an hour, Shanara appeared beside the church. It was good to know that even though she’s now a mother, and living in Cardiff, some things about her haven’t changed at all. I caught a radio item about this year’s Nobel Laureates for Physics earlier in the week. Apparently their work has paved the way for a new generation of ‘Quantum Clocks’. If one of these devices had started ticking at the moment of the Big Bang, it would have lost about five seconds by now. Even so, it wouldn’t make any difference to the Dippy Bint – she’d still manage to turn up late.
My honorary nephew Isma’il was wide awake in his pushchair. It was only the third time I’ve seen him – the first time, he was very young and asleep in his pram. The second time was when the three of us met up in Aberdare Park a few months ago. He’s really grown in that time, and he’s a handsome little bugger with a huge beaming smile for everyone he meets. He’s full of life as well, but surprisingly quiet, with none of the shouting and squealing which some children engage in. Shanara still looks great, of course, even though she’s heavily pregnant. We looked into a couple of the cafes on Church Street, but we’d have had a job getting the pushchair into any of them.
We decided to have food in House of Fraser instead, as the first-floor cafeteria has a children’s play area. We went in by The Hayes entrance and tried to find a lift. I always find department stores really confusing anyway, but Howell’s (as Cardiffians always call it) is the most labyrinthine shop in the city. That title used to be held by David Morgan’s, half a minute’s walk away, but since it closed, Howell’s is the undoubted champion. Shanara worked there for a while when she was younger, so I relied on her to negotiate the numerous clothing concessions on our way upstairs.
The cafeteria is very nice, and it wasn’t too full, so we didn’t have to try and get through crowds of people with Isma’il’s pushchair. That was another good reason for meeting midweek – it would have been very different on a Saturday afternoon. We both opted for fishcakes and chips, with a piece of cake each for dessert, walnut for me and apple for her. The fishcakes were great, with chopped chillies to add a bit of a kick, but the chips were the standard-issue frozen ones that everywhere seems to serve these days. They seem to observe the same Wetherspoon portion control policy of ‘twelve chips per person’ as well, which was a bit disappointing after the fishcakes. The cakes were fantastic, though, and Isma’il thoroughly enjoyed his share of the meal. There was a young woman sitting a couple of tables away with her daughter, who was probably about eighteen months old. The children hit it off immediately, and played together for ages in the Wendy House while Shanara and I caught up with the gossip.
It’s been a time of big changes in their family. Her parents have moved to Cardiff, and are living a few streets away from Shanara and her husband, so they see their grandson regularly. Naj has decided that teaching wasn’t really her scene, so she’s followed her other sister Tasnin’s path into the finance industry. They’re both living in London now, which explains why I haven’t seen Tas for ages. Meanwhile, Shanara is still working on her amazing scheme to conquer the world of fashion, make-up and hair design. She’s asked me if I’ll provide extra tuition in English and maths for the boys when they’re a bit older, as English isn’t technically her first language, nor her husband’s. That sounds like fun.
By now it was hammering down again, so we moved on from Howell’s to Waterstone’s, literally across the street. I hadn’t been in there for about eighteen months, and the only person I recognised downstairs was Vicky. We headed for the children’s books and had a good browse around, while Isma’il charmed a middle-aged couple who were doing some early Xmas shopping. I picked up a packet of Doctor Who stickers, which I wanted to use to customise my Netbook. Shanara found a kaleidoscopic lens which would be fun to adapt for a camera.
We headed upstairs to see if Jeff was around, but the only person I knew was Clare. Mind you, the shop wasn’t exactly overrun with staff. I’m still not sure whether the personnel changes which led to my departure (and everyone else’s) were properly thought through, to be honest. At 4.30 on a Thursday afternoon, Clare was on the phone and the only other bookseller around was dealing with a special order. I’d forgotten how much I missed having spare cash to spend. I spotted two books by Stuart Maconie which I didn’t even know about, the new one by Prof. Brian Cox, a couple of crossword books, the Torchwood novelisation by John and Carol Barrowman, and several others which I fancied straight away. As things stand at the moment, I’ll have to wait for them to turn up in Barbara’s or the British Heart Foundation shop.
It didn’t occur to me until we’d left the shop that Shanara and I might have accidentally started a rumour. I managed to do that a few years ago with my loopy cousin Ceri, who’s a couple of years younger than me. She and I used to meet for drinks quite regularly, but none of the gang in the Conway knew that we were related. Ceri’s sister had recently had a baby, and Ceri and I had called in (independently) to see the new addition to our family. Ceri had to take her phone to Argos, as it had developed a fault, so I suggested taking Maisie out for a breath of fresh air. Argos in Aberdare is right opposite the Conway, and a couple of the afternoon regulars spotted me with Ceri and a pram as we were leaving. That started a good rumour!
When we were both working in Cardiff, Shanara used to call in most evenings to wait for me to finish work, so that we could go for a quick drink before catching the train. Several people in Aberdare thought we were an item (see East and West) and I’m pretty sure that some of the gang in work probably came to the same conclusion. I can’t help wondering what on Earth Vicky and Clare must have made of our sudden appearance in the shop with a baby in tow …
Isma’il had dozed off when we were in Waterstone’s, and we took advantage of the few minutes’ respite from his mischief. We headed for Royal Arcade, and I wasn’t surprised to find that it had changed almost beyond recognition. Spillers (which bills itself as ‘the World’s Oldest Record Shop’) has relocated, and there’s a shoe shop there now. Wally’s Delicatessen has expanded into the adjacent premises. Cameraland is still there, but where there used be a nice toy shop there’s now a weird place selling liqueurs, specialised vinegars, whisky, brandy and other strange concoctions. Shanara was trying to persuade me to taste some of the exotica on display (so that she could have a sneaky sip as well), but I’ve never been one for spirits or liqueurs. The assistant seemed a bit spaced-out, so maybe he samples the merchandise when nobody’s looking.
I didn’t take the bait and we went for a quick look in Ian Allan, on the other side of the arcade. Once again my lack of spending money became apparent as soon as I got to the bookshelves.
I always used to make sure that I had the up-to-date edition of S.K. Baker’s Rail Atlas of Great Britain and Ireland as soon as it was published. I’ve got Editions 6 to 10 at home, with my old journeys marked in coloured ink and the journeys I made during the currency of that edition in different colours. Back in the day, Dillons used to see publishers’ reps – not just from the multinational companies, but men and women whose livelihoods depended on selling the output from smaller niche publishers. I knew that Nigel Passmore, the Ian Allan rep, would always tell me when Mr Baker updated his Atlas. Even if Nigel forgot to mention it, or we missed each other for some reason, Jeff would tell me instead. I was always up to date with the latest developments as a result.
The tenth Edition was published in 2004, before the Vale of Glamorgan line reopened to passenger traffic. For that reason, I still haven’t highlighted the journey I made with Catherine when the trains first started running via Cardiff International Airport. I’ve been waiting to upgrade to the edition showing the ‘proposed’ line as reality.
It turned out that I haven’t just missed it by a couple of years – I’d missed the eleventh Edition entirely when it came out in 2007. The twelfth Edition came out in 2010, with full details of the Olympics works among other revisions. There isn’t even a copy of the eleventh Edition listed on Amazon. Let that serve as an example of what happens when a central buying department thinks it knows better than a team of booksellers with over eighty years’ combined buying experience. Still, I’ll have a couple of quid to spare in a few weeks’ time, so I might buy the twelfth Edition and take it to Manchester with me. It can be an early Xmas present to myself …
Shanara was looking at the model trains while I was browsing the books. My own N Gauge layout is still in the planning stage, the rolling stock mothballed. I told her that it’s even more realistic than ever these days, with absolutely zero investment planned in the foreseeable future.
Even though we hadn’t long eaten, the Hollow-Legged Bangladeshi Eating Machine was peckish again, so we headed towards the restaurant at the end of the arcade. I used to call in there fairly regularly when I was working, when it was called Swallows. It’s changed its name now, and by the time we got there it was closed. Even so, it reminded me of another rep-related story.
Lisa McCluskey, the gorgeous and lovely rep from Oxford University Press, had turned up late for an appointment one day, having been snarled up in traffic on the M4. I was just about to go for lunch when she dashed into the shop and offered to do the order over lunch. It was the nearest place I could think of at short notice. We had a good chat, a laugh, and a very reasonable meal in Swallows. OUP were picking up the tab, of course (I told you there was such a thing as a free lunch, didn’t I?) so Lisa duly submitted the receipt along with her expenses claim. On her next visit to Cardiff, she told me that her manager had queried the amount she’d spent. He didn’t think it was possible for two people to eat out that cheaply, and was worried that Lisa had been padding her expenses claim.
Undaunted, we made our way back along the arcade, encountering some Scottish fans in town for tonight’s FIFA World Cup Qualifier. Shanara, ever alert for a new food source, had noticed that Wally’s had opened a Viennese-style coffee shop. One of the assistants helped me to carry Isma’il’s pushchair upstairs, while Shanara brought our stuff up behind us. We were too late in the day for cake, but we ordered hot drinks anyway. While we were waiting for them to arrive, Isma’il woke up again and Shanara put him on her lap so that he could look out of the window. That was asking for trouble. The waiter brought her pot of tea to our table, and she’d only just poured herself a large cup when Isma’il knocked it over. The other waitress seemed unfazed, and said she’d clear up when we’d gone. Fair play to her, not many people would be so understanding.
I told Shanara a story I’d heard on the Radio 4 news, about a coffee shop in Berlin which has banned pushchairs from the premises. I’d thought at the time that it sounded like a commendable idea, but now that I was in that situation myself I saw the debate in a different light. It’s not always easy to find places where small children are welcome, even in the big cities.
We headed across The Hayes into the new shopping centre. When it was first proposed it was known as St David’s 2. Now that it’s up and running, it’s called Grand Arcade. I’m not one for US-style shopping malls anyway, and I wondered at the time whether it would really take off. The place is full of high-end retailers which must surely be cross-subsidised by their branches in London and other affluent areas. Cardiff may be a capital city, but a fair proportion of its catchment area is fairly deprived, both economically and socially. I can’t imagine many people in my position wanting to spend £120 on a shirt, no matter how prestigious the label may be.
We emerged at the other side of the complex, near Cineworld and what used to be the Cardiff International Arena before it changed its name. Shanara wanted to pick up a cinema brochure, and then suggested going to the bar on the top floor. The last time I was on that level it was a lovely clear evening, and the view across the city was spectacular. Unfortunately it wasn’t like that yesterday. It was quite the reverse, in fact – grey, rainy and misty. Isma’il decided to explore the carpet while we had a glass of Coke and a packet of crisps.
The whole bar seemed a bit odd when we looked around, but neither of us had noticed at first. There were posters on the walls about sperm and egg donation, and brochures lying around giving details of parenting options for lesbians. There were a few small photographer’s lamps on tripods near the window, and a trestle table by the door where two guys were setting up a display.
I had a closer look at another poster. It was background information on the Iris Prize Festival. I’d never heard of it before, but as the room filled up with camp men and butch women, the significance of the name dawned on me. Iris was the Greek goddess of the Rainbow. Shanara and I had inadvertently taken Isma’il to gatecrash a Gay and Lesbian Film Awards Event. It could only happen to us …
Shanara left at about quarter past six to get Isma’il ready for bed, and I wondered whether to go straight for the train or have a pint beforehand. I headed back to The Hayes, and the first thing I noticed was that the Kings had closed. Rhian and Kim had mentioned it previously, but it must have slipped my mind. Formerly known as the Kings Cross, it used to be one of Cardiff’s handful of gay pubs, and had a decent atmosphere and a reasonable happy hour. Now it’s called the Corner House and seems to be another food-based pub – just what the city centre needs (not!)
It occurred to me to have a glance in the window of Rebel Rebel, more or less next to The Kings, but their old premises is being turned into yet another bar of some description. Meanwhile, Rick and Tim have relocated into Wyndham Arcade, in the premises formerly occupied by Comic Guru. The rest of the arcade has changed radically as well. Servini’s and the Bear Shop are still there, but there was a small team of guys working inside what used to be the Christian Bookshop. I’ve already told you that Kiwi’s has relocated to St Mary Street (see Death Warrants), but I didn’t notice what was in their old premises.
Back on St Mary Street, I decided to have a look in Kitty Flynn’s for old times’ sake. Five years ago, I’d have parked myself in a corner and stayed there until the last train. Last night I had a quick look around and walked back out again. The place seemed full of idiots, with no sign of any of the old regulars propping up the bar. It’s a shame how a really decent pub has been allowed to go downhill in such a short time. Still, it’s fared better than the Vulcan on Adam Street, which closed earlier this year after its three-year stay of execution ran out. Apparently the plan is for the building to be rebuilt, brick by brick, at the Museum of Welsh Life in St Fagans. As long as the Brains Brewery dray still calls there, I’ll be happy with that development.
Further along the main street, the Philharmonic was closed. It looked as though someone is in the process of refurbishing it (or maybe stripping it out altogether). A couple of doors away, Walkabout was full of youngsters and Scottish fans. The Great Western was packed. I decided to stick to Plan A and headed for the station.
Thursday evenings in Cardiff haven’t changed in one regard – the train departures were shot to hell last night, as they were nearly every Thursday back a few years ago. Last night’s disruption was caused by a combination of flooding, a signal failure, and ‘displacement of staff caused by earlier delays.’ The 1841 Aberdare service eventually left at 1858, so I made it back to the Prince of Wales just after 8.00 p.m.
After yesterday’s little excursion, I’m seriously reconsidering my return journey from Manchester. On paper, at least, I could catch the 1800 train to Cardiff and have nearly an hour to kill before getting the last train to Aberdare. Five years ago that would have been ideal. I’d have had a swift pint in Kitty’s and not thought twice about it. Now, I wonder whether I’d be better off getting an earlier train and heading back to Aberdare in time for last orders in the Prince. I really don’t know whether I can face the prospect of Cardiff city centre on a Saturday night any more. Isn’t it strange how unfamiliarity can sometimes breed contempt?