Standing Around at the Station

No city stands still.  But if you stand still long enough in Cardiff you will see how religions have shaped and been shaped by the landscape.  Here we explore a small yet significant corner of Cardiff.

Buses flow down Westgate Street, dock nose to back at stops along the way.  People come, go, dodge traffic, wait for the green light.  One man hurries towards Central Station, brushes past me, looks confused, takes a detour around the boards which block the usual route to get away as the ground beyond, the site of a former car park, waits, has waited, for a new transport hub to keep Cardiff moving.

On Rugby International Day, Westgate Street is awash with colour as rugby fans with painted faces overflow, spill out from pubs, gripping plastic pint glasses, the pavement soaked with beer, to raise the roof of the Principality Stadium, fill the space with hymns they do not sing elsewhere.

rugby wales online
Where the water flowed: Westgate Street on International Day (Copyright WalesOnline)

One third in Wales have no religion. That’s how the headlines went after the last census in 2011.   Within the Stadium you can seat all the adults who attend church each Sunday in the Anglican Church in Wales three times over.  And yet, there is a resistant flow of faith through Cardiff which has washed through generations, and continues still.  Two thirds of Wales have some religion.

At one time, water flowed here before the Taff was rerouted by Brunel in the 1840s to make dry land for a new Railway Station which opened a few years later.  The river had often licked the graveyard and spilled into the sometime Priory Church of St Mary’s Priory which stood where the Prince of Wales pub now stands, a subtle sandstone shape sliced into its Wetherspoon side.

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Then came the great flood of 1607 when the water did its worst.  There had been prior warnings and earlier floods but the money meant for the upkeep of the weirs and walls, the bridges and quays had already been diverted elsewhere.  Moving money from one service area to another is not a modern phenomenon as governments prioritise, stretch the budget, try to make the money work which is done these days under increasing public scrutiny.  Investment comes and goes, keeps Cardiff moving.

And so to that Norman Lord who crosses the border into Wales, emerging hot on the heels of Harold’s demise in 1066, takes residence in the castle, rebuilds the walls around him.  By the beginning of the twelfth century, Robert Fitzhamon has built the Priory Church of St Mary. The Normans made their presence felt in stone.  Here, the Priory is peopled with Benedictine monks from Tewkesbury Abbey, although by 1221 they are withdrawn, leaving just a Prior.  Soon, Simon, the last known Prior, is recalled to Tewkesbury leaving the care of the parish to a Vicar, the church having become the Parish Church of Cardiff some time before.

Forty miles away to the west, Fitzhamon slices his border with one of his own twelve knights, his brother Richard de Grenville, who gives rise to Neath Abbey in 1129, reputedly designed by an architect called Lalys, a Muslim hand and mind put to work, cultures exchanged, technology shared.  Whether he was a convert or a conscript is left only to our imagination.

Fly to North Wales and one can see the hand of a Muslim convert in some of the churches of Anglesey, with Muslim inspired patterns in windows and tiles in churches fashioned from the pocket of Lord Stanley of Alderley who took to Islam in 1862.  Centuries later, a single coin from Offa’s reign in the second half of the eighth century with Muslim Arabic inscriptions will come to light in Rome – casting further light on an earlier interaction with people across the seas, religions rubbing shoulders.  The minting of the coin has many possible reasons, some more fanciful than the other.

The Remains of Neath Abbey designed by a Muslim architect called Lalys.  Photograph by John Armagh – Own work, Public Domain,

The Crusades have coloured our concept of how Islam and Christianity first engaged with one another through the centuries, and can cause us to forget that friendships are more fierce than religious difference and political gain.  Global Politics, then and now, interfere sometimes, whilst children side by side in schools across the city here, at home, learn what it means to be different and what it means to be much the same.

One lunch time, at St Mary’s Primary School back in Butetown between the City Centre and the Bay, I was greeted by one of the children who pointed at me and exclaimed, “You’re Christian.’ That’s all I need, I thought, a confrontational six year old.   ‘Yes, I am,’ I replied, ‘that must mean that you’re Muslim.’  ‘Yes, he shouted.  He paused, and then he carried on, as excited as before, ‘Christians and Muslims love God!’  Ah, there he was, the voice of wisdom, wanting to make known what he knew of the world.  He knew who he was, and had a strong sense of identity.  He knew who or what I was, and that we were different but he could also express what we had in common.  For a moment, just one moment, I wanted to pick him up and place him on the global stage, for all the world to hear.

Now, the only known concrete remains of the Norman Priory Church is a well weathered stone corbel head fixed into the wall at the new St Mary’s Church at the top of Bute Street, adjacent to the school.  The rest was washed away or plundered, left to falter, fall.  Throughout Wales are far more illustrious reminders in stone of what the Normans did for us.  1066 is etched in the memory of these lands.

The flow of the Taff before it was rerouted by Brunel in the nineteenth century

It’s in 1066 that the new King William brings with him Jewish workers and financiers from across the waters to help build a nation, their labour and the linings of their pockets put to work in the castles of Wales.  Two hundred years later, in 1290, they are expelled by the King coined Edward Longshanks.  Out of pocket, and now out of the country, they return 400 years later with the inglorious Cromwell.  A new chapter will soon emerge in nineteenth Industrial growth, economic migration, and communities fleeing Russian pogroms, a foretaste of even worse to come.

Each year, on Holocaust Memorial Day, there is a civic gathering somewhere in the city, the city aware of an ever increasing need to remember the past and take caution from the present as genocide tries to rip the world apart.  Far Right Extremism is only a whisper or a word away.

And so, here, the secret, silent signs of the Abrahamic Faiths which make their marks in Cardiff, if only in subtle reference and gentle reminders, unknown, unseen by those perhaps who flow along the way where the Taff once was.  There is more to come.  There are stories to be told.

Across the road is Southgate House, a sign that here we stand outside the Medieval town walls as Cardiff, through the years, bulged in all directions, spilling out to the sea in the south and kissing the edge of the valleys to the north in a move of industrial proportions.  The valleys of South Wales will be transformed by an influx of people who make the dark and dangerous journey underground to pull the coal to daylight and send it the world.  Cardiff will suck up ships from the sea, and sailors will make this town their home and bring a new perspective to what we know as Wales.

The thirteen storey tower block overshadows the old Post Office which was built in the last decade of the nineteenth century and, next to that, further along Westgate Street, the old County Court Offices which turns its sulky back on the new HMRC building rising steadily in steel and glass as it tickles and flirts with the southern backside of the Stadium.  The building is now owned by the WRU but it’s been empty for years and, for some short time,  occupied illegally by an Anti-Capitalist group, banners and all.

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Southgate House, which stands on the site of Wood Street Congregational Church

Here, too, we stand on the edge of once-upon-a-time Temperance Town, with the largest congregational church in Wales which stood where Southgate House now stands.  Colonel Wood’s desire for an alcohol free community has long disappeared.  Wood Street Congregational Church began with unfortunate scandal, though, as fraud interfered with faith.   William Watkiss was the minister who cast his eye upon the building which, since its beginnings, had become both a music hall and a circus, where the like of Charles Blondin took to the high wires, horses leaped, men juggled, women rode horses, and the crowds were entertained.  He thought it would make an ideal building for his growing congregation.

From the wings walks Mr Ashton, a prominent member of his existing congregation.  He helps to purchase the building by proffering funds from local business men and other locals who lent their life time savings.  But in a twist of drama, when payment is due, Ashton simply leaves the stage, disappears, never to be seen again.  He leaves behind £3 and a carpet bag containing an old grey coat – his wallet heavy with £600 cash (equivalent to about £50,000) and about the same amount in goods, all on credit.

Wood Street Congregational Church

His disappearance makes it to the stage, played out in drama in a play called ‘Ashton’s Little Game’ and performed to a full house at the Theatre Royal, Cardiff’s first of many theatres, opened in 1827 in Crockerbtown – now Queen Street.  Fortunately, another church community, together with donations from generous individuals, saves Wood Street Congregational for Watkiss with an opening service on 28 September 1868.

In a world where entertainment is found in the palm of your hand, which connects us to the world –  and disconnects us too – the history and soul of Industrial Cardiff, and what we have made of it, cannot be understood without drama and music played out in the halls and theatres, the stones and names of which are scattered across the city.  ‘God bless this house. May it be the nurse, the feeder and the moulder of the Soul of Cardiff,’ said Mr Herbert Beerbohm Tree, the grandfather of Oliver Reed, and a leading actor and theatre manager of his day – after the opening performance of the New Theatre in December 1906, one of the few theatres remaining in Cardiff.  But this is the story of what faith has made of Cardiff, and what Cardiff makes of faith.

At the crossing of the rerouted Taff, the short lived church of St Dyfrig stood, built in 1888 but pulled down half a decade later to give way to one of many re-imaginings of this part of town.  The area had become poor – too poor to attract investment to the Great Western Railway who had opened a new station in 1930,  and so the houses were emptied, people moved elsewhere. This is a common story.  Communities are sometimes left to rot so that the only solution is to up-root, redevelop, bring in the money, make the money work – for some, at least.

St Dyfrig’s Church, Cardiff – on its closure its patronage was transferred to the church of St Samson’s in Grangetown

Now it is being re-imagined again.  The new BBC Wales Studios stands squat and bold surrounded by a splatter of office buildings to create a new Central Square.   The Prince of Wales pub was once a Theatre before bowing out to the silver screen and many other uses since, from Laser play pounds to adult films and bargain basement shops.  Many historic buildings across Cardiff have disappeared, whilst others take new inhabitants, find new uses, fulfils new needs.  The bulldozers have moved in again, and post war buildings have succumbed to the growth of the city as they pull down St David’s House – the saint’s name sticks to several buildings, sacred and secular, across the city.  There is no standing around at the Station.

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Demolition of St David’s House, Wood Street – February 2019

Further West, just across the Taff in Riverside on Tudor Street, is the first purpose built Sikh Gurdwara in Wales which has stood since 1989, twenty years ago.  Push a little deeper into Grangetown, just around the corner, and the Hindu Community move across the road from its home in the former Jewish Torah House of Merches Place since 1982 to take up residence in a former Irish Club, its three towers raised above three altars within, and which opened more recently in 1993.  The building it vacated is now a home to a Pentecostal Christian congregation.

The Swaminarayan Temple in Grangetown (Photograph by AroundTheGlobe at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Sikh Gurwara Chris Downer
Cardiff: gurdwara and Sikh centre in Tudor Street cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris

Cardiff shifts and moves, and Faith Communities within the built environment wax and wane.  Some buildings are short lived, others find different uses, a new purpose.  Theatres becomes churches, churches become bars.  Others are torn down, fall down or are rebuilt on the same site or elsewhere to follow a faith community around the city.  And others jump from one religion to the other.  The built environment changes, moves on.  There is no standing around.

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