Peter Finch takes us on his cycling literary tour of the ley lines of the capital
The event is advertised as Real Cardiff By Bike, a transformation of my alternative literary rambles into something you can experience on two wheels. We’re running it through Pol van Steelant’s Cardiff Cycle Tours as a feature of Cardiff’s now annual Cycling Festival. This two-week extravaganza in mid June features everything from fixing your bike to doing ballet on it. A literary tour with the author shouting out extracts from his works as he pedals seems entirely in keeping.
The Council, who are the ultimate organisers, like the idea of the public getting something out of the myriad mismatched, parked on, ignored and ill-maintained cycle lanes they’ve painted like a rash all over the city. Anyone who has used them will be familiar with white van man who never gives you any room and the woman with a fag driving a Merc coupé who always takes up the entire cycles-only advance stop line area at the head of the lights.
But I might be being unkind. The city at least does have a cycle policy and is putting money, albeit slowly, into making the place safer for those on two wheels. I can get from one end of Queen Street to the other now without being arrested and can ride the entire length of Cardiff’s eastern chain of parkland without encountering a single park-keeper’s whistle. Of course, this could be something to do with there actually being no park keepers anymore. Perhaps their replacements, the rarely-seen Park Rangers, don’t possess whistles.
My latest cycle tour starts outside that forever-boarded and be-scaffolded blue plaque structure, the Coal Exchange. There are more than twenty participants ranging from guys who experienced Cardiff back in the revolutionary sixties and want to reminisce, to students wanting to get a better understanding of how this, the nation’s capital, actually hangs together.
I tell story of the name for the district’s origins in the mouths of itinerant Portuguese mariners arriving up the tortuous Bristol Channel and declaring the experience akin to crossing a bay of tigers. We stare at Mount Stuart House, former home of the Welsh Academy, the organisation I headed for 13 years, and built on the site of Guest’s dawn of the industrial age glass works. I read Mewn/Mas, a Cardiff poetry chant that, in the style of many a Sunday supplement, lists those things rising in popularity together with those falling out of favour. Tom Jones makes it into both.
We cycle across to Canal Park, back round to the southern end of Jack Brooks’ 1984 landmark, the architect J. C. R. Bethel’s pagoda-like County Hall. The route takes us up alongside the re-routed dock feeder, weaving through Cardiff’s little Venice across the ghost of the West Dock, to stop at the edge of Newtown – the lost district of Cardiff that stood until the slum clearance of the 1960s. All that remains is a memorial garden and an engraved list of Irish family names. Little else.
After viewing Pierre Vivant’s Landmark 1992, better known as the Magic Roundabout, and staring up into the massively speed-humped walking suburb of Splott, we cycle back through the car park where The Vulcan once stood. I wave my hands at a piece of empty air and recall John Pikoulis doing the same in an empty border country field. He was delineating an imaginary signal box that makes an appearance in the novels of Raymond Williams. I’m describing a Victorian workingman’s watering hole. The Vulcan, quencher of a thousand steel workers’ thirsts, now waiting in piles of numbered bricks to be re-erected at St Fagan’s.
Churchill Way, under which the feeder still flows, is thick with traffic. We negotiate with care, avoiding pedestrians drifting like clouds and stopping for shoppers who never give way, not when they are out spending.
Eventually, after taking in the site of the burned-down Theatre Royal, the still visible sliver of the Feeder in Park Lane, Boulevard de Nantes and the site of the now lost medieval tunnel into Cardiff Castle, the Glamorgan Canal underpass with its still-extant tow path and the marks left on the walls by hundreds of years of tow ropes, we get there. The tour’s high spot. The psychic centre.
I mentioned that we’d be coming here back at the Coal Exchange and everyone’s ears pricked up. There’s certainly an air of expectation. I take a stand next to Council litter bin which, on cue, gets emptied by a high-vis vest wearing employee. He hovers for a moment, plastic bag of cans and burger packaging in his hand, absorbing the power. Can’t you feel it, I yell? The crowd, now swollen by several dozen attendees at today’s armed forces day celebrations inside the Park, nod enthusiastically.
Right here, I tell them, the Roman Road north met the one coming in from the east and the one heading on to the West. The sea lapped just south of us. The Law Courts just across the road exert a statutory glow. At night you can almost see it. The lines of power blinking between passing cars. There are at least three leys that cross here, storming in from medieval Gwent, the bowels of Glamorgan and the standing stones of the megalithic north. It gets so psychically hot here you can heal the sick. Hold your hands up. Sense the flow. I watch them. They are all doing it. Wonderful.
I tell them about the late Dave Reid the blind poet (and one-time Meic Stevens bass player) who would come here full of beer after a night out and lie on the floor thrashing his white stick. The police from their HQ just over the road would be summoned and never sure what best to do with a blind drunk blind man would take him home to his bed sit in Cathedral Road. Reid’s on-call white stick taxi. Free at the point of need.
Although on the one occasion our man after being dutifully returned to his quarters in Pontcanna made the mistake of reappearing in the street to recommence his drunken yelling. This time the police took more concerted action. They returned him to the psychic centre and put him in an overnight cell. £25 at the Magistrate’s the following morning. Fed hot tea. Given his stick back and bound over.
The crowd cheer. There are guys wearing Help for Heroes t-shirts, tattooed arms clutching plastic beer glasses, women wearing paper Battle of Waterloo hats and kids on silver scooters, bearing ice creams.
The tour glides on. Across the back of the Castle where the mills stood and the now lost River Tan once flowed. Down the side of the Millennium Stadium beside Brunel’s repositioned River Taff. A stop at the back of the Prince of Wales to hover among the throng of smoking-outside drinkers and to gaze up at the outline of the washed-away St Mary’s Church.
We finish outside the new library standing on top of my acrostic poem set into the city’s paving stones. This plays with the many ways our capital has had its name spelled down the centuries: Cardiff, Kairdiv, Caertav, Cerdif. Locals have already had a go at removing a number of the metal letters to show me just what they think of my work. I read the poem that celebrates the street people of Cardiff’s past, a text that currently sits of the Library’s window.
Beyond the cyclists the crowd has again swelled – shoppers, diners, drinkers, drifters. Here I am in full flow actually doing that thing I told a 1966 South Wales Echo reporter I one day would. What’s your ambition, he’d asked? I’m going to take poetry to the people, I’d told him. Although doing it on a heat-blistered day in the city centre from the saddle of a Brompton wasn’t quite how I’d then envisaged it.