I haven’t seen my old university pal James Ellis since his graduation, about four years ago. We met in October 2009, when we were both doing Combined Studies at the University of Glamorgan. We were studying the same psychology modules, and we hit it off immediately. I think we could see each other as kindred spirits – outgoing and talkative, quite widely read, fairly polymathic, interested in a broad range of music, rather eccentric, and neither with ‘conventional’ sexual tastes.
When I had to crash out of my course halfway through my second year, it became apparent that I wouldn’t be able to graduate on schedule (if ever). Knowing how disappointed I was, James invited me to be his guest at his own graduation the following summer. We’ve since kept in touch via Facebook, and we’ve made tentative plans to meet up whenever I go to Cardiff, but he always seems to be busy with even more projects than I manage to juggle.
James writes regular reviews for a student newspaper called The Sprout, and has recently been involved with a number of offbeat theatrical productions in between trips to London for orchestral performances. I singularly failed to take advantage of London when I had the chance. James has made the most of living in Cardiff and thrown himself headlong into as many creative ventures as possible.
About a month ago he created an event on Facebook: an evening of music and drama in a small venue in (old) Cardiff Bay, to mark the 150th birthday of the French composer, writer, artist and general oddball Erik Satie. He sent me an invitation, and I ticked the ‘Interested’ box for the time being.
I confess that at the time I knew next to nothing about Satie. I knew one of his best-known piano pieces; I knew that Brian Eno had quoted his maxim about wanting ‘music that could mingle with the knives and forks at dinner’ in the sleeve notes to Discreet Music; I knew that he was regarded as a sort-of spiritual leader by the minimalists and the Ambient Music movement. And that was about it.
About a week later James shared the event again, adding that there were only limited seats left. I decided to take a chance and go down, regardless of what was in store. The tickets were £8.00 a throw. I thought it would be an intriguing change from an average Aberdare Tuesday night (on which nothing exciting happens if you’re lucky). I ordered my ticket, and then emailed my very good friend (and fellow proofreader) Rob H. to see if he’d be interested in coming down as well. How’s this for a small world? Rob and James already knew each other through attending various concerts in Cardiff. Rob ordered his ticket as well, and I emailed James to let him know we’d both be coming on the night.
That was on the Tuesday afternoon. In the evening I called into the Glosters for a pint, and Jason C. was there. After chatting about all sorts for a while, I mentioned the Erik Satie evening. Jason knew even less about Satie than I did, but he agreed with my assessment of an average Tuesday in the Valleys. He gave me the cash, and I went online and booked another ticket straight away. And then there were three …
Jason and I set off from Aberdare on the 1552 train yesterday. Sort of. A low-loader had dinged the bridge just south of Aberdare Station, and the road was closed while the police sorted the accident out. I was half-expecting the trains to be cancelled while Network Rail engineers inspected the structure, but in the event the train arrived about ten minutes late. There are ‘recovery times’ built into the timetable anyway, so we made it into Cardiff only marginally behind schedule. We changed trains, caught the shuttle service to Cardiff Bay, and went in search of the venue.
My A-Z of Cardiff is so old that it doesn’t even show the barrage, never mind the Roald Dahl Plass development, the Welsh Assembly, the Millennium Centre, or any of the tourist hotspots that have sprung up in this previously run-down and neglected part of town. (Even the station is still labelled as ‘Bute Road’.) It does show Mount Stuart Square, though. Rob and I had both looked it up online, and found that Sunflower and I was on one corner. Jason and I soon found it, but we were way too early for the start. We decided to walk as far as the barrage to kill time.
I must admit that I don’t know old Butetown very well. There are some marvellous Victorian buildings in the area – some in much better condition than others – and even though they don’t qualify for the Vanishing Valleys project, I’ll be photographing them in due course. Just look at the former offices of the Capital and Counties Bank.
We found our way to Roald Dahl Plass, walked across the steps of the Senedd building, followed the footpath past the famous Norwegian Church, and hugged the edge of the bay as it curves around towards the barrage. We passed the new Doctor Who Experience, which is housed in something only marginally smaller than an aircraft hangar. It’s odd to think that the Cardiff docks, part of which is now home to BBC Wales’s production facilities, are still are a working port as well – albeit with a fraction of the shipping that passed through here in its heyday.
We walked on past the Captain Scott Expedition Exhibition (pardon? – Ed) and made our way towards the barrier. There were loads of people jogging and cycling on this stretch. Neither of us could see the point of doing that, when a decent stretch of the legs has much the same effect.
There are terrific views across the bay. I shared my first ever panorama of Cardiff Bay with you in ‘Flipping Pictures‘ a few years ago; the sun was out and the sky was blue. Yesterday the sky was grey, and the sun was playing hard to get behind a bank of ominous clouds. It was refreshingly blustery, but the rain was holding off. We pressed on regardless, and once again our comic timing let us down.
I’ve never seen the Cardiff Bay Barrage in action, so to speak. This amazing feat of civil engineering consists of a set of sea locks separating the relatively calm bay from the choppy waters of the Bristol Channel, just a few metres away. Every so often the road surface lifts on hinges to allow boats to come and go. There are traffic signals nearby, presumably adapted from a level crossing, which stop everything in its tracks when a vessel needs to pass through. We were still a few minutes away when I saw the masts of a yacht making their way slowly from the sea into the lagoon. By the time we reached the barrage itself, the road had returned to its normal position and the traffic was starting to move again.
We were halfway across the barrage when we spotted the yacht making its way into Penarth Marina, on the west side of the bay. The sea lock was still empty, though, and I was able to get a decent photo of the extraordinary sight.
At the western end of the barrage there’s the old Custom House, now converted into a couple of upmarket restaurants, and a shockingly derelict building beside it. We wondered why on earth it had been allowed to fall into disrepair, when a shrewd investor would have transformed it into apartments to die for. We had time to kill, and we wondered about having a pint in Penarth. The trouble is that neither of us really know our way around, and we didn’t want to be late for James’s show. We decided to retrace our steps and have a pint closer to the venue instead.
While we were passing the Millennium Centre on the way back, I spotted a familiar face. My friend Cerian does a lot of work with young musicians, and she was in town for a rehearsal with BBC Wales. Jason and I still had the best part of an hour to kill, so we found a pub called the Packet and decided to call in for a pint. It’s quite a large old-school pub on a corner, rather reminiscent of some of the East London pubs I remember from my first student days. The prices were reasonable (for Cardiff) and the lager wasn’t bad (for Cardiff), so I made a mental note of the place for future reference. We sat in the beer garden and had a chat before making our way to Sunflower and I.
It’s an odd place: rather a grand old building filled with tables and chairs, a couple of grand chandeliers, shelves lined with books and ornaments, and – in the middle of the room – a baby grand piano. By day it’s a flower shop and tea rooms; by night it becomes a venue for occasional live music. The young guy on the door (who we presumed was the owner) ticked our names off the guest list, and we made our way inside. To my surprise, Rob was already there, having gone directly from the station.
The venue was already fairly full, and James was bustling about putting last-minute preparations in place. I grabbed him for a couple of minutes and introduced him to the other guys – although he and Rob already knew each other vaguely, of course. We let him get on with things and found a space at the end of a long table and sat down to look at the programme for the evening. A few more people came in after us, including another of my friends, the versatile and gorgeous singer Cat Southall. How she and James know each other is a mystery, but he’s mixing with all sorts of creative people in Cardiff, so I suppose their paths were bound to cross at some point.
The performance of Medusa’s Trap started without fanfare or fuss. There wasn’t even a curtain for the cast to hide behind. Instead, they were performing in a small area in the middle of the room, with only a couple of armchairs as props. The main character, Baron Medusa (played by Tom Seymour), was ‘on stage’ pretty much the whole time, while the others came and went throughout. From overheard snatches of conversation during the interval, I gathered that they’re mostly involved with the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. I’ll namecheck them all, purely for journalistic accuracy: Polycarpe was played by Luke Hereford; Astolfo by Tom Roderick; Frisette by Gemini Anderson; Jonas by James himself; the prepared piano was played by Philip May.
What can I say? It’s a one-act play with bizarre dialogue, a slightly surreal situation, a handful of musical intervals, and a dancing monkey (played by James himself). By the halfway point I could see why the Surrealists and Absurdists would have looked on Satie as a kind of godfather. I can’t say I entirely understood it, but it was certainly well done and extremely French (in a nice way). The only problem we had (from our perspective behind the stage, so to speak) was that Mr Seymour was rather soft-spoken, and we often found it difficult to catch his lines. Still, it was just an appetiser for the main course.
During the interval Dr Caroline Potter of Kingston University gave a brief talk about Satie’s life, work and legacy. She’s written a book about him, which has just been published. (How on earth James had managed to invite her to speak remains a mystery. His networking skills put mine to shame, to be honest.)
The second part of the evening was a recital of some of Satie’s music, starting with probably his best-known pieces, Gymnopédie 1 and 2. I was in very slightly more familiar territory here. Mr May played most of the music during this second part, but James played a couple of his own brief minimalist (and quite experimental) compositions. A young girl named Lynne Phillips joined Mr May for a couple of fearsome-sounding piano duets, and the rest of the company either sang or played as well. Between costume changes, changing sides on the piano, singing with a pet rat on one’s head (seriously!) and almost trashing the piano, it was a pretty weird concert all told.
At the end of the performance we had a slice of birthday cake, sang ‘Happy Birthday’, had a very brief chat with James while he was helping to clear up, and made our way back to the station in time for the last train home.
On last night’s evidence there’s no doubt that we’re producing some fine talent here in Wales, and it was great to see some of them performing in an intimate – albeit unusual – setting. Weeping Tudor Productions are planning more Satie festivities over the next few months, and I’m hoping to support them if I can fit them in around my other commitments. I’m so proud to see one of my good friends doing something which he’s clearly passionate about, and it’s good to know that my other pals are willing to support something a bit out of the ordinary as well. Watch this space (or check out Weeping Tudor on Facebook for more details of their calendar) …
(By the way, did I mention that the tall, slim, attractive and red-haired Ms Anderson could very easily be my next ex-girlfriend if she plays her cards wrong?)
I can’t remember the last time I actually walked around Ebbw Vale. It was long before the Vanishing Valleys project was hatched, that’s for sure. I’ve been through it on numerous occasions, usually on the X4 bus, but it’s been many years since I disembarked and went for a wander.
Saturday’s expedition had a dual purpose, though. I really need to start documenting the eastern valleys in some semblance of order; and I had an Anthony Nolan collection box to swap out.
Rebecca C., former goth barbint of this parish, is now a goth barbint at a pub called the Bridge, a few minutes’ walk from the centre of Ebbw Vale. Her boyfriend’s family are from the town, so she’s been based there for a couple of years. The guv’nor kindly agreed to host one of our collection boxes a while ago, and Rebecca’s been keeping an eye on it for me. But it’s one of the old-school boxes, and since the charity relaunched its brand last year, I’ve been meaning to take a trip over to Ebbw Vale and change it for one of the new ones. But between Autumn rugby, Xmas, New Year, named Atlantic storm systems (we’re up to K already), the Six Nations, Easter, and election campaigning, the time has never really arisen.
Consequently, when I saw cloudless blue sky first thing on Saturday morning, I decided that the time was right to make the journey. I didn’t even send Rebecca a message to say I was on my way over – I thought it would make a nice surprise when I strolled in during her shift behind the bar.
I jumped on the bus to Merthyr, had a quick stroll around the shopping centre between connections, and was on my way to Ebbw Vale just before 11.00. On the way we passed through Tredegar, which is another blank space on my map. I noticed a few buildings and interesting pieces of public art which I’ll be recording on a return visit. I was in Ebbw Vale just after 11.00, and decided to take the camera for a walk before making my way to the pub. As usual, I’d forgotten to put new batteries in, so before I started I had to hunt down some replacements.
I called into Boots, which claims to have a ‘photo’ department on the window, but there was no evidence of it in store. I crossed the road and looked in Lloyds pharmacy, and also drew a blank. There’s a shop called Home Bargains, so I had a quick look in there as well. Call me cynical, but six AA batteries for 99p probably wouldn’t have lasted until I got to the top of the high street. My friend Donna J. suggested Argos, and I was heading in that direction when I spotted an old-fashioned hardware shop, just like the place in Open All Hours (or the legendary ‘Fork Handles’ sketch). I called in, and the owner sold me eight Duracell Plus batteries for £3.99. That was more like it!
I crossed the road, headed down a side street, took a little lane which led to a footbridge, and crossed over the main north-south road before emerging in Station Approach, where the Bridge is situated. I’ve yet to look at my Pre-Grouping Rail Atlas of Great Britain, but whatever station it was (presumably Pont-y-Gof) is long gone. The old buildings are still there, mind you, converted into a couple of nice cottages. The pub is a bit further along, in its own grounds, a decent penalty kick from the rugby ground.
I strolled in and was met by a pleasant lad in his twenties, dressed all in black, with fairly long hair and a non-hipster beard. I could see straight away why Rebecca and her pals had made it their second home. It hosts live music and (proper) rock nights, and has a small recording studio attached, too. At least they don’t have to worry about disturbing the neighbours.
I bought a pint, did the crossword, and then explained the purpose of my visit. He told me Rebecca wasn’t working until the evening (which kinda suits her, I suppose – early starts aren’t usually her strong suit), but we swapped out the boxes and I wrote her a note, which I left at the bar. I half-watched the football while I drank my pint, and then decided to make the most of the weather. I headed back towards the bridge which gives the pub its name, thinking it was a good place to start. Before I’d even got there, I found this quaint old chapel just off the road.
I can’t tell you anything about the history of this bridge, but it’s an impressive feat of engineering.
The inscription on the keystone of the small arch reads 1859, but the keystone of the big arch bears the date 1813. That’s only two years after the famous iron bridge in Trecynon/Robertstown was erected. I’m guessing that it would have carried a railway line, but presumably started off as a tramroad. On my next visit, I’m going to take a map and investigate it in more detail.
I retraced my steps into town, pausing to take a couple of photos of empty shops, and a rather gorgeous chapel sandwiched between them. On the way over, waiting for the bus to leave, I overheard an old guy say to his mate, ‘Duw, Merthyr’s a dump, innit?’ I decided to tweet that comment, and my immediate reaction: ‘You should have stayed on as far as Ebbw Vale, mate!’ I thought Aberdare was run-down, but Ebbw Vale makes it look like a thriving metropolis.
I couldn’t get over the size of the Catholic church at the northern end of town. I suppose large numbers of Irishmen would have come over to work in the steelworks and the coal industry, as they did across the Valleys, but even so, this is a massive building. It’s a shame that it sits cheek by jowl with a pig-ugly multi-storey car park, but you can’t have everything.
The workmen’s hall is tucked away behind the library, and I only found it by accident. (The library itself was closed for a refit, although there’s a temporary set-up somewhere.) Like most of these fine buildings, it’s now a bingo hall. It didn’t seem to be the home of rock bands, as I’d read in the papers. I made my way back down and decided to explore the shops for a short while.
It turned out to be a very short while. Half of them were closed, even though it was a Saturday afternoon, and the main street was almost deserted. Even though the high street seems to be struggling, there’s some fine Victorian architecture – but (as with most towns in South Wales) you have to look up to appreciate it.
The Midland Bank, in particular, seems to have had an eye for distinctive and unusual buildings. Look at this odd little gem, on an island just in front of the ‘shopping mall’ (which is where I’d have found Argos, if Arkwright hadn’t got the drop on them). Between the bank and the Conservative Club, there’s some eye-catching public art, too.
I followed the main street south, and found this lovely Victorian frontage stretching for the whole length of a block. Apart from the probation office, a Polish supermarket and a hair salon, the entire place was empty. There isn’t even a charity shop or a tanning studio to relieve the boredom. Nice buildings, shame about the neglect.
Just at the end of this block I found possibly the best street name in South Wales – and I’m including the wonderful ones in Splott and Adamsdown (Cardiff). I bet this gave the Welsh-speaking locals a headache when it was first adopted.
A little further along, the mystery of the music venue was solved. This is Ebbw Vale Institute.
By day it’s a very civilised little cafe bar, by night it’s a cinema and theatre. It also has spaces for arts groups, clubs and meetings. In the next few weeks they’re hosting a David Bowie tribute act, a Motorhead tribute band, a jazz night, a couple of films, and there’s a big rock festival lined up for the autumn. Not for the first time, I saw a potential business model for the Coliseum in Trecynon (if only we could prise it from the cold, dead hand of RCTCBC, of course).
I logged into Facebook and posted my whereabouts. My old friend Neil R. replied within moments, a bit disappointed that I hadn’t told him I was heading in that direction. I explained that it was a spur-of-the-moment thing, and promised to give him plenty of warning next time I’m planning to be in that neck of the woods.
I’d seen the spire of a church in the distance, so I decided to head in that direction. On the way I passed a former chapel which is now the scout hall, and some more interesting but lifeless buildings. I found another place which looked like a chapel, but it turned out to be the home of the male voice choir. Then I came to the church.
Actually, I took several steps back before getting the camera out. There’s a flight of stone steps which leads up a steep hill, and it gave me a great vantage point for these next couple of shots. I’ve already shown you some photos of St Elvan’s Church in Aberdare, which is known as ‘the cathedral of the Valleys’; I really wasn’t prepared for this tremendous red sandstone beauty, though.
You can’t get a decent view of St Elvan’s from ground level, because it’s on a little raised area surrounded by buildings on three sides. As with St Elvan’s, the only way to really appreciate this masterpiece is from above. Luckily for me, the view from the hillside is perfect.
When I was halfway up the hill, I spotted another distinctive chapel outline, so I took a small detour to record that as well. This is (or rather, was) Mount Zion Primitive Methodist chapel, apparently. No windows, only half a roof – yes, that seems fairly primitive to me.
I returned to street level, and was a little disappointed (but not really surprised) to find the church gates locked. I took a few photos of the exterior, but they don’t do it justice by a long way. It’s a wide-angle lens job.
I followed the main road down to the A4054, approaching the site of the former steelworks. The new hospital here is enormous, and must have taken a great deal of the workload from Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr. I wondered about crossing the valley and exploring a bit further, but without a map I was flying blind. I decided to leave it for another day and made my way back towards the town centre.
I wonder how many people walk or drive past this old boundary marker every day, and never even notice it. I’m guessing that L stands for Local, but the BD remains a mystery. I’ll have to ask Geoff E. if he can shed any light on it.
I came across some interesting copper plaques built into a retaining wall. This is the Armoury Hill Project, and illustrates some of the fossils which have been found in the Coal Measures. Blaenau Gwent seems to be a little haven of public art like this, and I think it’s fantastic to see the entire community coming behind it – there’s no hint of graffiti or other vandalism on any of the pieces.
I’m sorry I can’t go into any more detail about the buildings I’ve shown you here, but Gwent is pretty much virgin territory as far as my project is concerned. Over time, though, I’ll be spending a bit more time exploring the eastern valleys. There’s a regular train service to Ebbw Vale now (although exactly where the railway station is remains a mystery), and I’ve got a convivial watering hole in which to spend a couple of hours as well. While the whole area (like the rest of the Valleys) may be struggling to reinvent itself after the departure of heavy industry, it’s a green and pleasant land with some hidden architectural treasures. What’s not to like?
Being a Non-Linear Account of the Life and Opinions of The Author, Cross-referenced and Illustrated, with Occasional Hesitations, Repetitions and Deviations.