At the beginning of the 19th century the population of Cardiff was less than 2,000, but the lush green valleys to the north were about to change – and so was this small town at the mouth of the River Severn.
The reason for this dramatic change was all down to the increase in demand for coal which was needed to power the Industrial Revolution – and which the valleys of South Wales had plenty of.
The Glamorgan Canal, and then the Taff Valley Railway, enabled the Black Diamonds to be transported down the valleys to the coast where places like Newport, Barry, Penarth and Cardiff all vied for the lucrative export trade.
While everyone else was working down the coal mines, there was one man that was sitting on a gold mine, – namely the 2nd Marquis of Bute. He realised early on that there was going to be money made in the iron and coal industries of South Wales, and in 1839 he built the first of Cardiff’s docks at West Bute to handle the trade.
As the docks expanded, so did the appeal to come and work here: Butetown, as the area became known, attracted immigrant workers and seafarers from all corners of the globe, and it wasn’t long before the area became known for all the wrong reasons. Although several theories have been bandied about, it’s not really known for sure why the docks and Butetown became known as Tiger Bay – but the name stuck, and just like its feline counterpart, began to earn itself a fearsome reputation. If you wanted somewhere to go and get drunk, have a fight, or meet a prostitute – or all three – Tiger Bay was the place to come.
Coal exports reached their peak in 1913 when almost 11 million tons were exported out of Cardiff Docks, but as the demand for fossil fuels declined after the end of WWII, so did the fortunes of Tiger Bay.
By the 1960s coal was no longer king, and the once thriving community descended into an area of desolation. Ships stopped coming, and without ships there was no need for people, and without people there was no need for houses: Streets were demolished, the canal and railway sidings abandoned and the docks left empty. The Bute Dock Basin (which was the entrance to the West Bute Dock), was filled in during the 1970s and the end of the 1984/85 miner’s strike saw the last underground pit in South Wales close. Tiger Bay had taken its last breath.
Every cloud has a silver lining as they say, and for Cardiff Docks it came in the form of a massive redevelopment plan that went by the rather uninspiring name of Cardiff Bay. Perhaps the powers that be wanted it to sound sterile in comparison.
The community that once thrived here was gone, but so was the sooty air that turned everything black. By the time it was replaced by the planners’ new vision for the 21st century there wasn’t a speck of coal dust to be seen anywhere.
One of the first things to change was the bay itself. To make it more visually attractive a barrage was built across the mouth of the bay between the docks and Penarth, which keeps the water inside the barrage at a constant level. It may look better, but it doesn’t appear to have done much for the local wading birds that use the tidal mudflats for their food – or should I say, used to.
As for the docks, a couple still function on a small scale, but the old West Bute Dock (which could handle up to 300 ships at a time) has been covered over, and the former Dock Basin is now the Roald Dahl Plass, a public open space with illuminated pillars and a 21m high metallic water fountain.
The Plass is dominated by the Millennium Centre, a modern cultural landmark, with a theatre hosting a diverse collection of performing arts from opera, comedy, ballet, musicals and contemporary dance. Although I haven’t been in to see a performance, it’s still worth talking about the building itself.
Jonathan Adams, a local man from Caerleon, was the architect, using a combination of Welsh slate, glass, wood and metal.
The copper oxide steel cladding on the front of the building is inscribed with two lines of verse from the poet, Gwyneth Lewis. Welsh industrial history was her inspiration for the words in Welsh, but she points out that the English words – “These stones horizons sing” are not a literal translation. Welsh is one of those languages where there’s not always a corresponding English equivalent meaning, so I sort of understand where she’s coming from.
In 1997 Wales voted in favour of devolution from the British parliament, and although not the same as independence, it did at least allow legislation to be passed without the need to consult Westminster.
The new National Assembly, or Senedd, needed somewhere to hold their parliament, and the site chosen was in Cardiff Bay next to the Millennium Centre.
The building was designed by the renowned architect, Sir Richard Rogers, who, during his career, has been responsible for some exciting buildings, but in my opinion, this definitely isn’t one of them. Externally, I find it completely underwhelming, and if it wasn’t for the undulating red cedar ceiling and funnel-shaped ‘Oriel’ to look at when you get inside, it would hardly be worth the effort to go through the security checks to get in.
When the Assembly met here for the first time in 2006, I wonder if they debated why it came in at six times over budget at a cost of £70m, and five years behind schedule.
In stark contrast is the adjacent Pierhead Building which was built for the Bute Dock Company in 1897. This Grade I listed terracotta red-brick building was constructed in an ornate Gothic style and has a clock tower which some people refer to as the Welsh ‘Big Ben’. This maybe a bit of an exaggeration, but it was definitely built to look important whichever way you look at it.
The building was re-opened in 2010 as a visitor and educational centre for the Welsh National Assembly, but as it’s freely accessible to anyone, it’s worth popping in to see what it’s like inside: There’s an interesting film that shows what life was like around here in days gone by, and on the upper floor is the Dock Manager’s office which overlooked the docks below.
One of the exhibits in his office is the binnacle from Captain Scott’s ‘Terra Nova’, which left this very port for the famously ill-fated expedition to Antarctica in 1910, and if you look closely you can see the Scott Antarctic Memorial down on the quayside.
Better still, it’s worth taking a walk along the quayside to the memorial because nearby is the Norwegian Church.
The church was originally built at West Bute Dock in 1868 as a Seaman’s Mission for the sailors who arrived here from Norway. They brought Scandinavian timber to South Wales for use as pit props, and returned back home with Welsh coal.
The church/mission provided a home from home for the Norwegian seafarers, and some 70,000 used it annually.
Among those who worshipped here were Harald and Sophie Dahl, the parents of the famous novelist, Roald. They had come over from Norway and settled in nearby Llandaff, where their son was born in 1916. Now you know why the former West Bute Dock Basin is called Roald Dahl Plass.
These are just a few of the things that are worth taking a look at in the new Cardiff Bay, and it’s very different to the old Tiger Bay. I’m sure there are people who would prefer the old days when it had a community spirit, but at least the air and the River Taff are much cleaner now, and the redevelopment has provided jobs once again.
On the other hand the pit villages of the Rhondda and other valleys have had little or no investment since the closure of the mines, and if anywhere deserves to have some of the money that has found its way into the Senedd, then surely these communities do – after all they were the ones who made it in the first place.