Cardiff, Wales; January 24, 2020
Cardiff, Wales; January 24, 2020
My friend Liz and I didn’t have much time in Cardiff, so we knew we could only do a couple things. I wanted to see the castle and the Doctor Who exhibit. We saw the castle, but we had laughably bad luck with the exhibit. At least we saw a lot of Cardiff on our way to the Tardis that wouldn’t let us in.
We walked from downtown, with its pedestrian-only streets, covered arcades, and huge department stores, along the main road to the harbor. The waterfront underwent a transformation in the last 15 years, following the same pattern as so many formerly working-class neighborhoods, going from underfunded zone to respectable tourist destination with the backing of a lot of government and private money. I didn’t find it to be all that interesting a space, except for a few structures: the Millennium Centre, the towers of Roald Dahl Plass (which I know from Torchwood), and the small Norwegian church that Dahl attended as a child.
The Millennium Centre houses the Welsh Opera, and the words on the front reflect this; the English words are “In these stones horizons sing,” and the Welsh words, “Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen,” translate to “Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration.” Roald Dahl Plass itself wasn’t terrible interesting–it’s a large, empty oval, with nothing of the imagination of the man it’s named for, which is disappointing. But there are enough things around there–the Welsh government building, a carousel, the shops of Mermaid Quay–to keep you occupied.
We actually hadn’t intended to go all the way to the waterfront. Our guidebook said the Doctor Who exhibit was in a shopping center a little bit inland, but when we went in there, we found nothing but shops and a few between-meals restaurants. We wandered around for awhile, almost as if we’d hear that wheezing brakes sound and the Tardis would reveal itself to us. Since this was reality and not a BBC program, this did not happen, and we asked some waiters on a cigarette break where it was. They explained that the exhibit hadn’t been in this location in years, and we’d have to walk along the waterfront to just about as far as it goes. So we found all these sights along the way, and then finally we saw the big “Doctor Who Experience” sign looming in the distance, hurrah!
Oh but it wasn’t going to happen, as it turned out. I was not going to battle a Dalek and zip across space and time with a wacky Time Lord. We arrived at a little after 4pm, to find that only the gift shop was open. Apparently tours are only 10am til 3pm, and you have to reserve them ahead of time. Okay, can we reserve for tomorrow morning, before we leave town? No, tomorrow is Tuesday, the only day the exhibit is closed. I mean, if ever there were signs that something was not meant to be, these were those signs.
By that point, we’d walked miles and I was more than ready to take the bus back to the hostel. We waited for 20 minutes, optimistically believing the screen giving us updates on when the next bus would arrive–5 minutes, 2 minutes, arriving–until it became clear it was a system of lies. It was almost as bad as waiting for a Chicago bus. Though maybe not as cold.
Back at the hostel, we consoled ourselves on our ill-fated journey with a local Brains beer, and we marveled at the fact that we hadn’t even thought to check the internet to confirm what our guidebook (only a few years old) was saying. We concluded that actually it hadn’t been so bad. We hadn’t spent any money (tickets are £15, or about $25), and we’d seen a lot of Cardiff along the way. A budget traveler’s happy mistake!
I was already inclined to like Cardiff Castle when Liz and I walked across the large courtyard; the guy handing out the audio guides was incredibly cute and taught us how to say “thank you” in Welsh (a phrase which has nearly double the amount of vowels found in most Welsh words). But then we found falcons, and centuries-old graffiti, and a group of schoolchildren dressed in paper crowns, and we really liked it.
The castle was built by Norman invaders, on the site of an old Roman fort. So it was never a site owned by the native Celts. Cardiff Castle was part of the Marcher territory, a strip of land that acted as sort of a buffer between England and Wales from the 12th to the early 16th centuries. Marcher lords had almost total autonomy, though they were tasked by the English king with keeping the border secure for England, and they used a lot of Welsh laws in administering justice. A fascinating in-between kind of place, the kind of place where each motte-and-bailey castle matters immensely.
Once England firmly and finally took hold of Wales, the Marcher lords lost their far-reaching powers, and the castles lost their importance as defensive bastions. In the 18th and 19th centuries, the Marquesses of Bute changed the castle grounds to be more of a residence and less of a fortress. They employed the marvelously named Capability Brown to make the changes, which mostly involved knocking a lot of stuff down and updating the main range (main house) to be fashionable for 1776.
The Arab Room in the main range was easily my favorite (the name, I know). The geometric shapes and deep colors were mesmerizing. It even had a crystal in the stained-glass window, the better to refract light even more. The dining hall was impressive, as was the long library and its massive fireplace. Apparently one of the family was fond of monkeys, and they can be found as little flourishes throughout the house; one is the bell-pull next to a fireplace in a corner room.
In a little hut next to the main house, falcons and an owl fluttered and swiveled on their perches. Outside the hut, peacocks stalked the grass, secure in the knowledge that they owned this place. A group of about 30 schoolchildren dressed in paper crowns and too-long tunics giggled on the green, and some of them got close to the peacocks before shrieking and running away again. From fortress to children’s playground in just under 1000 years.
I didn’t actually frolic with any live animals while I was in Cardiff, but I did pretend to be eaten by a lion, which is nearly the same thing.
The Animal Wall was originally built in front of Cardiff Castle in 1890, at the behest of the Marquess of Bute. He decided he wanted some animals atop a low stone wall to welcome people to his castle, as you do.
More animals were added in 1931, and a popular local cartoon brought all the animals to life in the 1930s, so that Cardiff children grew up knowing of the animals’ nighttime adventures in the city. The wall was moved when the road in front of the castle widened, and now the animals guard the entrance to Bute Park.