diamond geezer

 Monday, March 20, 2017

Half a dozen things to do in Cardiff Bay

The centre of Cardiff lies a mile and a half from the coast and the former docks that made this coaltown rich. But the port's long decline has recently been turned around by some serious millennial investment, creating a new commercial, cultural and administrative hub on the waterfront. A major re-engineering project transformed the bay from mudflats to freshwater lake, and now it seems everybody's down here, from the Welsh government to Doctor Who.

Walking to Cardiff Bay is a bit of a schlepp through some mundane estates, but you can catch a bendy bus shuttle to the farthest extremity, or a waterbus to Mermaid Quay, or take the train. Every twelve minutes a one-car Sprinter shuttles south along a low embankment to deposit passengers at a lowly terminus alongside a derelict station (recently pencilled in as home to a new military museum). But all the good stuff lies a little further south, and my word there's a lot of it.
[Visit Cardiff Bay]

1) Visit the Wales Millennium Centre (Canolfan Mileniwm Cymru)

You'll no doubt recognise this building from its striking steel dome, with the upper windows spelling out two poetic lines in Welsh (Creu gwir fel gwdyr o ffwrnais awen) and English (In these stones horizons sing). The site had long been pencilled in for the Welsh National Opera, with construction delays almost leading to a shopping centre being built here instead, but phase 1 was eventually completed in 2004 and phase 2 in 2009. Having gawped at the facade for a while, yes, visitors are very welcome inside. A long desk of ticket vendors lines the foyer, which opens out at both ends into glittering lofty atria with hardwood trim. Don't expect to get higher than the toilets on the first floor unless you're here to see a performance, but instead the cafes and restaurant downstairs will happily take your cash, and are a popular place for the cultured to socialise. Apparently the Tourist Information Centre is down here somewhere too, but I totally overlooked it, and I'm normally drawn like a moth to these things.

2) Try to locate Torchwood HQ

When this Doctor Who spin-off began in 2006, we were asked to believe that its top secret headquarters lay beneath a huge oval basin leading down to the Cardiff Bay waterfront, now known as Roald Dahl Plass. Specifically there was an invisible lift leading down from the foot of the 20m-tall Water Tower, and a more mundane entrance through a door on a quayside jetty. A fountain still gushes down the tower, which dominates the lowered piazza alongside, and seems a bit of a waste of space unless an open-air concert or something is happening within. Meanwhile the doorway has been covered up by a makeshift shrine to Ianto Jones, a character who had the misfortune to be killed off by child-snorting aliens, and is now commemorated by a ragtag wall of fan art, laminated tributes, plastic flowers, ill-judged poetry and a guestbook in a plastic briefcase. Initially tolerated, now embraced by the leisure complex above, the shrine has lasted longer than the show.

3) Mourn the Coal Exchange (Gyfnewidfa Lo)

Once the hub of Cardiff's international trade, this magnificent 1880s building filled Mount Stewart Square and is reputedly the site of the world's first million pound business deal. The Coal Exchange closed in 1958 and the fabric of the building entered a slow decline, although there were always several plans for re-use, and from 2001 to 2013 the main oak-panelled hall was used as a music venue. The Welsh government investigated various options to fund the rescue of this crumbling structure, and eventually threw in their lot with a luxury hotel developer. Since last year they've been transforming the place into boutique bedrooms, a spa and wedding venue, and hope to include 'a small museum' too, with reopening supposedly scheduled for Spring 2017. This deadline looked wholly unattainable from what I saw of the poor state of the exterior and the workmen sat amid rubble out front, and there are fears that refurbishment of the most profitable parts of the interior has been prioritised over more widespread restoration and weatherproofing.

4) Tour the Welsh parliament (y Senedd)

As part of the regeneration of Cardiff Bay, the devolved Welsh government selected a waterfront site as the permanent home for the National Assembly. The Senedd is a dramatic glass-walled building topped off by a wood ceiling and steel roof, and was officially opened by the Queen on St David's Day 2006. What's more the public are welcomed within, at least once they've passed through a full security scan bolted onto the side. Free tours are offered three times a day, but generally have to be pre-booked, and I arrived in the lunchtime gap so had to explore alone. I got to see a large public foyer, with views down to some of the committee rooms on the private basement level, and rode the escalator up to the Oriel which sits on top of the main assembly chamber. Nobody was legislating, so all I saw was a few plush seats and keyboards beneath the slate plinth, plus a couple of armed police enjoying the splendid panorama across the bay. Up here is a cafe and a small exhibition, which seems scant reason to come inside, but the undulating ribbed roof is pretty amazing, rising up from the floor like a hallucinogenic mushroom.

I was better looked after in the Pierhead, a terracotta beauty once containing the dockmaster's offices, now administrative assembly overspill and with a couple of heritage galleries to explore. As the sole vintage building prominent along the waterfront, it provides a highly photogenic contrast to the modern architectural cluster behind.

5) Experience the Doctor Who Experience (Doctor Who Experience)

When BBC Wales took on production of the revamped sci-fi series in 2005, it was inevitable that Cardiff would feature heavily in its filming. New drama studios have recently been built on the dockside at Roath Lock, a remote location which has yet to attract substantial office development, and BBC Cymru's long castellated building is also now home to Casualty and Pobol Y Cym. You won't get in there, but Doctor Who fans can flock to a separate warehouse-style building (past the Norwegian Church) opened in 2012 as a full-scale interactive experience plus museum. It's busy too. I was expecting maybe a couple of us but instead there were over twenty, including one gent dressed up as the Seventh Doctor and a blackclad accomplice who made an even more convincing Ace.

I'll attempt to keep my review of the half-hour drama spoiler free, but writer @JoeLidster has attempted to cater for all generations with a dash-through plot that tenuously links together a few old favourites. Twelfth Doctor Peter Capaldi pops up on screen throughout, conversing in agitated fashion with your Museum Guide, and sometimes drowning him or her out. There is a bit where you 'fly the Tardis', with the set perhaps more impressive than the effects, and yes, the monster you'd most expect to find on your travels appears with a demonic inrush of steam. Monster number 2 fits the scenario well but isn't as scary, and the location of the final denouement certainly made me smile.

Once out of the tunnels you're let loose - time and photography unrestricted - into a large collection of original props and costumes from the TV show. Various Tardises and consoles have been preserved, one of the latter with a Dymo 'Yearometer' label, along with K9 and a rather frail old Bessie. The upstairs collection is rather larger allowing you to meet variants on numerous monsters, some actual sonic screwdrivers and outfits worn by more humanoid members of the cast. Whilst the rebooted series gets most of the attention, including an entire gallery devoted to individual episodes from 2015, several totally classic aliens complete the line-up. I'm unconvinced the Belgian school party pouring through recognised much, but I was as excited to see my childhood's Giant Robot and Zygon as any Cyberman or Ood.

At the end is a shop, with numerous fan-raking merchandising opportunities, although you don't need to have gone round the museum to get in. The Target novelisation and magazine gallery is a nice extra touch, and I recognised a few classic covers from my childhood here. If you're not a fan (or chaperoning one) then I wouldn't bother stumping up for the full Experience, but if you are then the combination of drama and reverent heritage works rather well. And come soon, because it'll be closing permanently in July when the five-year lease on the building runs out! [£14 plus £1.60 booking fee in advance, or £16 on the door, which is barely worth the differential]

6) Cross the Cardiff Bay Barrage (Morglawdd Bae Caerdydd)

It's hard to flog a seafront housing development when the view for half the day is mudflats, so in the late 1980s a Welsh civil servant came up with the extraordinary idea of sealing off the tide so that Cardiff Bay became a permanent freshwater lake. What's more the government took him seriously and invested £120m in the project, and by 1999 a concrete barrage had been built with giant sluice gates to manage the flow of water. Environmental campaigners had been severely worried about the effect on habitats, but the resulting lake has greatly enhanced appeal for homo sapiens, most of whom would judge the aesthetic effect a storming success. As well as promoting watersports activities, and giving restaurant diners at Mermaid Quay something nice to look at over lunch, another success has been the creation of a footpath and cycleway across the dam linking to Penarth on the opposite headland.

I walked the lot, following the path round the extremities of the Port of Cardiff and up onto the bouldered embankment. This was the only time during my day out that the sun came out, to dazzling effect, looking back towards the aforementioned cultural cluster, or out across the Bristol Channel to the island of Flat Holm and the coast of North Somerset on the opposite shore. Partway along the barrage is a set of covered exhibition boards commemorating Captain Scott's voyage to the South Pole (he sailed from Cardiff), and I was passed along the way by an empty 'land train' which looked like it would have been more at home at a seaside resort. The sluice gates are towards the western end, followed by massive lock gates linked by bascule bridges, each with lights to control any passing traffic. I was duly wowed. Then rather than retracing my steps I walked on into Penarth, enjoyed some lofty views and caught the train back into Cardiff. You probably won't be able to fit all that in if you ever spend the day here.

My Cardiff gallery
There are 48 photos [slideshow]
(sorry, you're never going to want to scroll through 48 photos)

(this has been the 7000th post on diamond geezer)

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