Whatever happened to planning?

The vision that led to the creation of Cardiff’s outstanding city centre more than 100 years ago has sadly gone missing in recent decades and an incoherent jumble has been created, Rhys David argues.

One of the joys of watching Michael Portillo’s Great Railway Journeys series on television – especially those focusing on the Continent and the US – is the sight of the magnificent railway stations he visits. National or provincial capital, big town or small, the arrival of the railway has usually been celebrated with an impressive building that could make a statement about the destination the visitor had arrived at.

In most cases the station main entrance leads out into a central square where civic pride could be further demonstrated with an open public space or small park, perhaps surrounded by dignified municipal or commercial properties. In Cardiff, too, the station was built to project pride in the growth of the new coal metropolis. Isambard Brunel even went to the trouble of moving the River Taff to get the right alignment for his railway through south Wales. The Great Western Railway put up a building in 1934 which has received perhaps the ultimate accolade – inclusion and three-star status in Simon Jenkins’ most recent buildings blockbuster, Britain’s One Hundred Best Railway Stations.

The work by architect Percy Culverhouse is described by Jenkins as clean and confident, and a rare example of proto-art deco. It captures, he claims, the moment when neo-Georgian was flirting with new decorative forms, its finest feature being the main concourse’s superb display of modulated art deco, its space lit by a superb sequence of hanging lights.

It dominated its location when constructed, the only other tall buildings in sight being Charles Bernard’s 1868 Royal Hotel in St. Mary Street and Henry Tanner’s General Post Office in Westgate Street. The new Cardiff General (now Cardiff Central) faced on to a square, originally the grid pattern working class streets of Temperance Town. This was bounded by Wood Street, the river and the rear of lower St. Mary Street. Following demolition of the properties, it was first an open space, and then the city’s bus station.

No longer. The area is named Central Square, but the description does not hold.  Into it have been crammed a series of concrete and glass monoliths that completely bully the station and fail to make the slightest nod to the history of the area and its original form. Government and commercial offices, lawyers, university departments, as well as the BBC’s Wales headquarters are being crammed into this area together with a token bus station for long-distance coaches.

Further development is planned on the other side of the station on the extensive Brains brewery and adjoining sites. The result: thousands of people, many of whom will want to be mobile during the day will arrive by car every weekday into an already heavily congested area, effectively accessible only along the bus-clogged Westgate Street and the Wood Street bridge over the Taff. It is little wonder the Royal Hotel has protested that existing high levels of atmospheric pollution can only increase.

The massing of the BBC building along Wood Street, whatever its modish green credentials, overwhelms its surroundings and joins several other uninspiring blocks completed or due for construction that look like they have been dropped in randomly from above. A corridor running through to the Principality Stadium tells you where priorities for the redevelopment lie – ensuring rapid access and egress to the stadium on rugby and pop concert days. Don’t be surprised if this processional way – and much of the rest of the Central Square environment becomes an unpleasant wind tunnel on winter days. The station frontage, too, is set to lose its clean, unobscured lines, buried under a steel and glass canopy for new retail – the obsession of Britain’s station owners. If money is to be spent on the station, how much more sensible and convenient it would be for passengers just to cover the exposed, elevated platforms against wind, rain and seagulls!

Cardiff’s planners have fallen in love with the idea that a landscape dotted with mini-skyscrapers equals prosperity so that it would seem anyone with a plan for a multi-storey building is shown the red carpet.  A towering stump has now emerged to overpower the former Pembroke Terrace Presbyterian Church of Wales in Churchill Way, catering for the latest developers’ fad – student accommodation. Another student block developer was sufficiently emboldened to put forward plans for a corner of Park Place previously occupied by solicitors, Blake Morgan, which would ruin the setting in which Cardiff’s most important ensemble of buildings – the City Hall, Museum, and Law Courts sits.

As marketing expert Roger Pride has recently pointed out, by contrast the few fine old buildings Cardiff possesses lie neglected and he rightly calls for more imaginative uses for architectural gems, particularly around St. Mary Street and not yet more bars and restaurants. He lamented the loss of Cory Hall opposite Queen Street Station and the neo-classical fire station in Westgate Street (now the site of a hideous car park). He could have mentioned others that have gone, including the old Taff Vale Railway’s Queen Street Station itself, Ebenezer Welsh Congregational chapel, (swallowed by Marks & Spencer) and the vast Wood Street Congregational Church (where Southgate House stands).

Other historic buildings have languished for decades in a state of decrepitude, bridesmaids at the redevelopment wedding but never the bride: the GPO building in James Street and the adjoining Cory’s Building, or the buddleia-bestrewn Bute Street (Cardiff Bay) Station, believed to have been the work of Brunel. The GPO in Westgate Street, too, lies empty, and House of Fraser’s James Howell store awaits an uncertain fate. In case it does not continue in something like its present use, have the city’s planners even thought about an action plan to try to find an appropriate use for this iconic building or will developers determine what happens to it?

The student block bubble could, too, be about to burst, as declining student numbers suggest. Some developers have been trying to escape the conditions under which planning permission was granted, seeking temporary dispensations to let the apartments to non-students until demand catches up. This brings with it the danger that Cardiff – and many other university cities – will be left with unsuitable buildings that because they were meant for students have been built to much lower standards than is required for normal domestic occupation. If too many are built, or student numbers fall, they will need to be adapted for other uses or will remain empty.

It must be said, of course, that Cardiff is a succes d’estime.  The chefs Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich, writing in the Financial Times this summer, seem to have been blown away by their first visit, loving the Castle Arcade, the animal wall at Cardiff Castle, and the buzzing atmosphere. Indeed, Cardiff has established itself as a visitor destination, able, like historic Bath, Bruges and Bologna to support Hop-On Hop-Off buses around its attractions. Visitors, drawn to a weekend break or to attend a sports fixture, opera or a pop concert, seem impressed. As a city it punches above its weight.

One cannot help thinking, however, that not a huge amount of thought has gone into how the city’s constituent parts should be organised, what concentrations of activity should be allowed where, and what is appropriate in which place, leaving it with what the visitor stepping out of that art deco concourse at Cardiff Central might now regard as a bit of a (congested) mess. Nearly 20 years ago the distinguished architectural critic, Deyan Sudjic described the Cardiff Bay redevelopment as a sad example of a city that, given a choice between the second rate and the excellent, had no hesitation in grabbing the former with both hands. Plus ça change.

 

Rhys David is an author and economic commentator. This article also appeared on the website http://www.WalesBusiness.org

August 22nd, 2018

 

A Walk on the Wild Side – in Wales

Glyndwr’s Way

Rhys David finds solitude and interesting signs of a new vitality on a trek through the middle of Wales

“Of all the beautiful sights in the world, I am not sure if there is anything more lovely than the Welsh hills. It is as if the character of the nation – its under-rated strength and vitality – is contained and channelled in those meadows and rolling slopes.” (The Times June 6th 2016). These comments by Matthew Syed, sports writer and diarist, earlier this month (June) had a particular resonance for those like myself walking those very hills when the article appeared in the best weather window in months.

There is something magical and even reassuring about being a short distance from a sizeable settlement, such as Shrewsbury and the neighbouring West Midlands, and yet in countryside so remote the number of people to be seen during the day can be counted in single figures, with possibly even fewer cars. Instead, one’s constant companions almost everywhere on the horizon and sometimes much closer in this part of the world are sheep in their thousands.

This is the evocatively-named Glyndwr’s Way, a 135-mile long wishbone shaped trail from Knighton to Machynlleth, with a return leg back to Welshpool, the 80 mile first section of which my party of two men and three women covered. Opened in 2000 Glyndwr’s Way purports to follow the route taken by the legendary Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr. Supported at one stage by French forces who marched to within eight miles of Worcester, Glyndwr inflicted several crushing defeats on his English opponents in the early 15th century – notably at the Battle of Pilleth near Knighton in 1402 – before mysteriously disappearing without trace in 1413 but not from Welsh people’s memory.

Today’s route is just a convenient fiction for although Wales’s Braveheart controlled the area for long periods there is more to connect him with the various towns – notably Machynlleth, which he made his capital and seat of his Parliament in 1404 – than with the trail that bears his name. The linking of various UK national trails to historical figures has been a shrewd marketing initiative, however, and one that can probably claim some credit for the growing popularity of long distance walks. Our group walked another such route – St. Cuthbert’s Way from Melrose in the Scottish Borders to Holy Island off Northumberland last year and there are plenty more to choose from, including Wales’s other eponymous trail, Offa’s Dyke. After all, who wants to walk just from A -B, struggling to follow footpaths through remote fields, even for one’s health’s sake, when you can retrace the (supposed) steps of a hero along a scrupulously waymarked route, pointing you in the right direction at every unclear fork or open vista.

But it is not just walkers who have cause to rejoice at the spread of new national trails. Walkers have brought trade and led to facilities being put in place along the routes in towns, villages and other smaller settlements where there was previously not a lot on offer to the outsider (or even the insiders sometimes). Abbey Cwm Hir, one of our stops, is about as remote as it gets yet now boasts a splendid B&B, and walkers are a new potential market for the owners of a quirky country house, Abbey Cwm Hir Hall, built for London lawyer, Thomas Wilson on the site of a Tudor house in in 1833 and purchased four years later by Francis Phillips, a Lancashire landowner and businessman.

Renowned as a roadbuilder (on which subject he published) Phillips is assured of a minor place in history for catching Spencer Percival, the only British Prime Minister ever to be assassinated, as he fell to his knees dying from shotgun wounds in the House of Commons in 1812.  The hall’s latest owners have opened it to the public for viewing the series of quirkily eclectic collections they have put together. The nearby ruins of Wales’s biggest abbey, are getting more visitors, too, and educating new generations in Welsh history. Wales’s last native Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, is reputedly buried here – minus his head which stayed in London where it had been on grisly display following his defeat at Cilmeri in Breconshire in 1282. There are signs of new business in other points along the route. Restaurants have sprung up to serve a growing market in Knighton; a pub has re-opened in another tiny place, Llangunllo; the community shop and café at Llanbadarn Fynydd is getting a few more customers; and there is more business, too, for the teashops, restaurants and mini-markets in Llanidloes and Machynlleth.

Knighton, in particular – once one of the biggest sheep markets in Britain – has gained a new lease of life. It benefits from being not just the starting point for the Glyndwr Way, accessible from the Swansea or Shrewsbury directions on the very scenic Heart of Wales railway line, but from its position near the centre of the much older Offa’s Dyke path. It hosts the visitor centre for this trail. Traditionally very much a border town of divided loyalties, its main street now vies to be the most patriotic in Wales, bedecked with the flag of Glyndwr (four lions passant guardant, red and gold quartered and counter-changed). Having besieged the town’s castle in 1402 and then destroyed it and much of the town, Glyndwr would no doubt now have been giving a wry smile of satisfaction.

These and other developments form part of a more general welcoming feel throughout the area, or so it seemed from our admittedly brief observations. At Velindre, our first stop, the owner of the holiday accommodation we stayed in drove us several miles to the nearest pub serving food and picked us up later. Our host at the Lion Hotel in Llanbister, (who proudly claimed his family had farmed the area for 1,000 years and had the records to prove it!) picked us up from several miles away on the route at the end of one day and took us back the next morning. (His was the nearest accommodation.) At remote, remote Cwm Biga Farm, near the Clywedog reservoir and now self-catering accommodation, the owner had taken over an historic Welsh mixed farm, owned successively by the Welsh prince Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn, the monks of nearby Abbey Cwm Hir, and (after the dissolution) Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Chancellor of Oxford University, he passed it on his death in 1588 to University College, which held it until 1920. After a short period in private ownership it was requisitioned by the Forestry Commission in 1939 on the outbreak of World War Two and its 1,300 acres largely planted with conifers. Having semi-retired the new owner like many in the area now has a portfolio career, providing financial, environmental and IT advice to local businesses and groups as well as cooking for guests if required

There are other signs of a new entrepreneurialism. Public road transport was never plentiful in this area and has now largely disappeared but a small network of taxi companies will ferry people about – and just as importantly take walkers’ luggage from one night’s stay to the next. This was a service we used. (We did meet more hardy walkers, such as Elvira, a Swiss living in the south east who was walking the full 135 miles stretch in nine days with what looked like a 30-40lbs backpack.) The same minibus taxis take children to school helping people to stay in the area, as does another relatively new service, the Post Office Travelling Shop. We came across the familiar red livery in Llangunllo, a van equipped inside to sell stationery, greetings cards and other similar items, as well as offering bank cash withdrawals and, of course, selling stamps and taking parcels. The van travels around to different small communities, parking for an hour or so in each on set days each week, providing services which in some cases, such as simple banking, will have never been seen in the village or settlement before.

Other services are not so available. Mobile phone coverage is patchy, though the extent differs from provider to provider, depending on the area. I did receive one call on the roof of Wales between Llanidloes and Machynlleth where there was not a settlement in sight. “Hi, I’m ‘Alex’”, an Indian voice announced, “and I’m calling you from Windows Technical Department about your computer”. The scammer, to paraphrase Stanley Baldwin’s famous comment in 1932 will always get through, I suppose.

It barely does justice to mid Wales to say the scenery is breath-taking and the weather on our walk was ideal – 20-25 degrees with a slight breeze. After you have ascended from the valley towns at the start of each day most of the walk is at between 1,000 – 1,500 feet over rich green hills just asking to be climbed over, or around at a lower contour level, if you are lucky. The odd farm or other building has to be passed through and there are short stretches of stone track or even road but overwhelmingly the terrain is grass or narrow trackway.

The sights, too, were magnificent and accompanied by a constant chorus of birds, with cuckoos particularly prominent throughout the area. Kites have, of course, remained native to this region even when they had been driven out elsewhere and are relatively common alongside buzzards, and plenty of other smaller birds – curlew, dipper, skylark, meadow pipit, wheatear and redstart to name a few.

There are occasional small rocky gashes in the hills where stone has been taken, probably to build the nearby farmhouse, but the main sign of former industrial activity is at the huge Clywedog dam, near the walls of which is an old lead processing works, one of several dating back to the 19th century in this area. In the tributaries that run into this giant reservoir with its 235-ft high concrete buttress, river trout dart about, their presence one of the reasons for the re-establishment of the osprey in the area. A pair can be viewed from a hide alongside the 11 billion-gallon reservoir where Natural Resources Wales have set up a special telescope to enable visitors to see the female on the nest and her partner nearby.

How tough is the walk? The ground everywhere apart from a few very small, somewhat boggy patches, is good and firm, and clear of obstruction. There are some steep climbs but most of the inclines are relatively gentle, if rather frequent. Weather is, however, all-important. Over much of the area there is relatively little cover once up in the hills. The walk can, of course, be taken in stages – one long walk for the fittest, and section by section, if this is more appropriate.

The growth of interest in this type of get-away-from-it-all holidays has led to the emergence of a number of companies that will make all the necessary bookings. We used The Walking Company, based in Monmouth, which took our proposed itinerary and booked the various hotels and B&Bs, and the taxi luggage transport, as well as providing a comprehensive guidance kit consisting of the excellent Harvey map and Cicerone booklet, and other valuable advice and information.

There is perhaps one other invaluable companion on such a trip, George Borrow, the nineteenth century East Anglian author of Lavengro and The Romany Rye was devoted to Wales and in 1854 tramped over most of Wales with his wife and daughter, wondering at the scenery, talking to local people, and learning about the country’s myths and history, all faithfully recorded in his masterly tome, Wild Wales.

www.thewalkingholidaycompany.co.uk/

  www.harveysmaps.co.uk    www.cicerone.co.uk

 

Rhys David is the author of Tell Mum Not to Worry. A Welsh Soldier’s World War One in the Near East. ISBN 978-0-9930982-0-8