A heart for the community

St Mary’s Church has, for many years, supported those who work with the homeless.  With the rapid rise in rough sleeping and their more visible presence in our community it’s time for us to take a more cohesive approach.  Last week, our Parochial Church Council adopted a Homeless Charter to strengthen and enrich our response to those who are homeless whilst also addressing the needs of the whole community.  Read on to find out more.

They were on my doorstep for an hour before I saw them on the CCTV monitor, settled in, head against the front door, feet against the school gate which only hours before the children had used to come to and from Mass. Trousers around the knee trying to find a vein.

She walked into Sunday Mass, sung when she shouldn’t have, watched others to know when to stand and sit, enjoyed the coffee and cake afterwards, the hospitality and welcome.  She settled in well, a resident of the Salvation Army hostel next door.

The Sunday before, another homeless woman, much younger, took up residence for twenty minutes and more in the toilet in the space where children were just gathering for their Liturgy of the Word.  It took a while to talk her out, the churchwarden chatting with her in the corridor for half of the Mass.

Bute Street is well travelled by many who are homeless, back and fore into Christina Street, or riddling their way through the maze of streets, across to the playing fields next to the Paddle Steamer Café, some with sleeping bag hoisted over their shoulder, moving fast, moving quickly, talking openly to others about “who’s down there” doing deals, oblivious or not caring about who overhears them.  One asks a child for money.

Some crouch in bushes or a quiet corner of a field, or on the under pass between Bute Street and the anodyne Lloyd George Avenue, or slip into the car park at St Mary’s, or behind the changing rooms of the football club, or shelter in the art work formed from the Industrial docks. 

The rise in rough sleeping and homelessness in Cardiff is created by many complex factors but knowing that each individual has their own story to tell with their own issues and challenges in life, how can we, as a community of faith, respond to them and to the needs of the wider community?

There are, for example, mixed messages about whether one should give money or food to individuals who beg, and each of us will have different opinions about what we should do.  For some residents, the last three years has felt like an onslaught as they witness drug deals and watch people jacking up close to their homes and on the paths to school, needles scattered here and there.   It  has become a common feature which can cause frustration and fear and anger too.   How does one hold together a compassion for those who are homeless with a concern for children and residents and an understanding for those who are caught up in the dirty business of drug dealing?

We recognise that each of them, in so many different ways, are vulnerable and victimised.  All are affected, and affect each other.  Being at the heart of the community with a heart for the community, we are concerned for all, regardless of who they are and are mindful of all the presenting concerns, and want to be able to respond in a  compassionate and cohesive way which is practical and realistic.  Recently the Parochial Church Council agreed to trial the adoption of a Homeless Charter which we will launch officially at our Mass on Homelessness Sunday on October 13th.

Charter Pic



Sometimes, churches and individuals may be uncertain about the best way to help someone who is homeless and who presents themselves with particular needs.  This invitation for churches to adopt a Homeless Friendly Charter will enable us to offer an informed and consistent response across the city, and allow our resources to be used more effectively for the good of the individuals involved.

The Pastoral and Leadership Team and other significant individuals of each church (as appropriate to the tradition and life of the church) will be expected to keep informed of issues affecting homeless people in Cardiff and the many services available to them.  We will enable this by sharing essential information and offering ‘Discovery sessions’ and up to date and seasonal information.

We hope this Charter will counter the negative and misleading narratives which are sometimes told about services which work with the homeless, and enable us to be an advocate for the homeless to the wider public, as we represent the story they have to tell.

It will also be a means through which we can put our faith into action, and to express our concern for the homeless in a tangible and effective way, recognising that many churches already do so much either through formal projects and partnerships or the charitable actions of individual members.

By exercising a common approach, the Charter aims to strengthen and enrich our responsibility towards one another – those that exist between the church congregation, homeless individuals, homeless services and the wider community.

We hope this charter will also, in time, grow outwards from our churches to be embraced by others so that whole communities can become Homeless Friendly Communities which are informed and welcoming and will respond in a way that helps to alleviate homelessness, and support individuals and those who work with them.

Perhaps those who adopt the Homeless Friendly Charter will be able to display a sign indicating that they are a Homeless Friendly Church.

We welcome people who are homeless and will treat you with dignity and respect. We offer friendship and accept you as you are.  We will talk with you and listen to you, and will try to understand your situation.  You are welcome to join us for worship but all people regardless of religion, race, gender, sexuality or disability are welcome here.  (We may serve as host to external organisations.  Please ask about the accessibility of these).

We will guide you to services which can help you with your specific needs.  If necessary and appropriate, we will liaise with them for you.  Our pastoral leaders and other individuals in our congregation commit to having an up to date knowledge of Homeless Services across our city and issues which may affect you so that you will receive a consistent, fair and honest response.   However, we recognise there are limitations to the help we can give.  Our community consists of all kinds of people some of whom have their own vulnerabilities but we seek to equip our whole congregation so that they will be understanding and supportive.

We aim to offer a safe environment for all.  All staff and members of our community of faith and all who visit and use our church premises (including those who are homeless) can expect to be treated with respect and to be safe from harm so that we can offer a welcoming and friendly environment, free from violence, aggression, bullying and fear.  We will report aggression, violence, anti-social  and criminal behaviour and damage to our property to the police.  Drugs are not to be used or dealt on our premises, neither is begging.  Each church works within its own Safeguarding Policies for children and vulnerable adults.

We will support you financially through donations to homeless charities and other projects in our city.  We are unable to give you money or pay for services directly.  Money will only ever be given (if available and appropriate to a particular church and at their discretion) directly to individuals in exceptional circumstances and after consulting and working with relevant agencies.  We value and will promote the work of those charities and organisations.

We have a concern for your physical, spiritual and emotional needs.  Each church has different resources available to them in terms of being able to provide food.  However, we recognise that some external projects which offer food also provide parallel services which can help you even further. We can guide you to these services and to the abundance of free food available across Cardiff but we will always attempt to help you at your point of need.

 We are unable to provide accommodation (except when this is made available by churches where formal projects exist). On occasions when people are rough sleeping on our premises, we will assess the risk to both you and others, and explore with you the possibilities available by liaising with various services and authorities.

 NOTE: This Charter acknowledges that there are many projects which specific church communities may already be offering to the homeless community and the many ways in which they presently support homeless services, and does not seek to conflict with them.

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6745587

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52422907)
Sikh Gurwara Chris Downer
Cardiff: gurdwara and Sikh centre in Tudor Street cc-by-sa/2.0 – © Chris Downergeograph.org.uk/p/4836850

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.

A tenner to you, mate

2016-06-19 10.06.03

Friday.  8.20am.  The rhythmic shunting of the earth to explore the grounds for a new school building next door has been vibrating for half an hour now.  Bute Street is waking up – been woken up.  There is a trickle of two way traffic as workers walk to and fro, taking the half mile route from city centre to bay.  It is too early yet for the school run.

Near the shops at Loudoun Square, at one of the corners of Christina Street, a solitary homeless man leans on a garden wall.  His arm suspended in a sling, he looks, walks in a circle, leans again, waits.  There are no drug dealers yet.  It happens sometimes, when there is a momentary pause in proceedings on this side of Butetown.  Maybe they’ve sailed across to the ‘Paddle Steamer’ or loiter on the edge of Canal Park.  Maybe the drugs have dried up for a while, as they wait for a new delivery.

Throughout each day, there is often a steady stream of homeless people making their way to Butetown.  A ten minute watch – and you can count a dozen as they turn into Christina Street, make a deal, and then scurry away.  It’s suggested that some people are injecting up to 8 times a day – you can do the maths yourself, work out the cost, imagine where the money comes from, imagine where it goes, a tenner a time.

The guy with a sling moves on, looks further afield, stops me as I walk back from the shops, asks if he can buy a cigarette.

In recent days, there has been a Twitter search for the moral high ground.  There are mixed responses to tents dispersed across the city centre, half a dozen in Queen Street, others spread across the Hayes and High Street.  This is a polarised conversation.  Some say ‘Tear them down.’  Others prefer to express a more patient way, and then there are those who jump from one pole to another.  All have a point to make.  But complex issues are not solved by Trump-like twitter posts. (LINK: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/tory-councillor-branded-vile-calling-15730801

Two years ago when the streets gave way to the Championship League Final, there was the rumour, denied by police, that they had instructed homeless people, rough sleepers, to clear the city centre.  Other council officials I have spoken to accept that this was the case.

Watch what happens in the city centre around the tents and those who sit in doorways a hundred yards apart.  See coffee cups and fast food, sandwiches and money dropped into the hands of those who beg.  For some, it may be the tenth sandwich they’ve received that day.  Some people visit Cardiff armed with tents to distribute to rough sleepers, give them shelter, and inadvertently keep them on the street that much longer.

The gesture is well meaning, comes from a good heart and yet, quite often, the money invests in the industry of drugs, lines the pockets of some who make more money in a week than I see in a month.  And then there is the associated knife crime too.  A blade is never far away from a deal done on the street.

There are many services which reach out to the homeless – including hostels, emergency beds, support and advice services, drug services, and an abundance of food available at various times of the day and night at various points in the city.  What could they do with a tenner? (LINK: http://www.huggard.org.uk/free-food-available-to-the-homeless/)

“I’ve never known anyone beg their way off the street,” said Richard Edwards, CEO for Huggard, in a television news item.  The winter time raises the profile of homeless people, begs the public interest, gives homeless charities air time to get their point across.

It was recently announced that ‘FOR Cardiff’s’ Give Differently Campaign, a contactless payment point in the city, raised relatively little – in one year, £9,964 of which over half was a grant from Cardiff Council.  Many people support the homeless charities in lots of different ways, through donations and practical support but perhaps some folk, filled with compassion, prefer to give direct.  (LINK: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/contactless-payments-scheme-help-homeless-15713026)

In 2018, the Huggard worked with 1,274 people, 649 of whom had slept on the streets of Cardiff last year.  But as one person is helped off the street, another soon appears.  There is plenty of floor space on the streets of Cardiff.

As winter sets in, extra cold weather provision is  put in place.  More than ninety additional spaces are provided in addition to the 216 hostel places for single homeless people, 78 emergency beds, and 390 supported accommodation units that are available all year round.

Ian Ephraim, from the council’s city centre outreach team, said the average number of empty emergency bed spaces was currently 15 per night – from 88 available spaces.  He said there had not been a single night when the provision was full.  (LINK: https://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/explosion-drug-use-among-cardiffs-15726120)

It’s difficult to avoid stereotyping – and each person who has found themselves homeless has a different story to tell.  Their needs are complex, their lives often chaotic.  There are many reasons why some find it difficult to access services to help them off the streets, but the majority of homeless people in Cardiff have some drug related aspect to their lives.

“In the last couple of years,” says Richard Edwards of Huggard, “we have seen a huge explosion of drug users in the city with the homeless community.”

The news headlines capture phrases such as ‘Crisis Point’ – but even the definition of that phrase keeps changing, gets loaded with weightier consequences, as we discover afresh what ‘crisis point’ actually means.  Each turn in the statistics revisits a response that was considered some time ago and rejected.  This time, it’s safer places for people to take drugs, enhanced harm reduction centres, where people could inject drugs safely with medical supervision, keeping more people off the streets.  (LINK: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-46978120)

A few years ago, this was considered by Cardiff Council but it was decided that then was not the right time, and so it was put aside, waiting for the crisis point.  Time for a rethink?

There are, of course, consequences for all the individuals involved, and for others too – for businesses, visitors and investors, for local communities, like Butetown where the industry of drugs meets the demise of the poor, and children are brought up in an environment where it is now quite normal to see small cling film parcels passed from hand to hand, and notes exchanged in front of you, in full view, a game to be mimicked in the playground – Cowboys and Indians gives way to County Lines.

At Christmas, St Mary’s Church adopted two charities: Huggard and Tiger Bay Amateur Boxing Club – with the aim of trying to contribute in some small way to addressing two related issues which impact most profoundly on those who live in Butetown:  homelessness and drug dealing.  The Boxing Club works with young people from across the city to guide them away from drugs and dealing and into sports and fitness, teaches discipline and more healthy lifestyles, and provides some mentors too.  A recent report presented to Cabinet stated there was no correlation between cuts in youth services and a rise in drug dealing, but there is no indication of the evidence behind this observation.

The dealers, too, are not all Butetown born and bred.  They skirt across the bridge from east and west, across the bridge from Grangetown, Splott and other places around the city – for this is an easy place to sell, with a sitting clientele just a five minute walk away.  Last week, walking to the shops in Loudoun Square, a new kid on the block thinks he’s blown my cover, thinks I am undercover police.  Unfamiliar with my face, on three different occasions he calls out to me, ‘Alright, Officer . . .you’re a FED mate.” Think’s he is clever but simply betrays his own unease at the possibility of police who may move in again.

9.20am, an hour later, near the large decorative letters which spell out that this is Loudoun Square, our local councillor gathers with what appears to be other council officials.  They are as easily spotted as someone who is homeless.  Stereotypes abound.  He greets me, offers a handshake, tells me that CCTV cameras are due to be fitted around Christina Street within the next two weeks.

We know this won’t solve the problem, will just push dealers elsewhere, somewhere, anywhere, but it will give some people a release from the constant crack cocaine and heroin exchanges done on their doorstep, in their face.

Back home, the drilling in the playing field continues –waiting for a new St Mary’s School to find a home, as Cardiff continues to grow up and out.  Here, the pavement is well walked by tourists who seek the Bay beyond, by parents and children skipping their way to school, by city workers who walk between the water’s edge and the concrete, steel and glass of the city centre.  And there are those, too, who have left behind their tents and hostel beds, carry their complex lives and their tenner notes, dip into Christina Street where someone waits now with a bag of white.  “That’s a tenner to you, mate.”



175 Logo

On Friday December 14th, we celebrated the 175th Anniversary of the opening of the Church of St Mary the Virgin with a Solemn Mass, followed by fireworks, mulled wine and mince pies and which begins for us a whole year of celebrations.  Here is the homily preached by Fr Dean Atkins during the Mass.

Last year, when Cardiff hosted the Championship League Final, I was chatting to a policeman at the top of Bute Street. He was a cheerful, engaging officer who related to the public really well, and he was stationed at one of the road blocks near St Mary’s. The city was colourful, vibrant, bursting at the seams with football fans who gathered from the city centre to the Bay.

From the top of Bute Street, the police were guiding people to the Bay through Lloyd George Avenue though some seemed to prefer the alternative route along Bute Street. It was to one of these people that the police officer shouted, “Don’t go down there, love. It’s not very nice.” I smiled at him, and laughed a little. “Thanks for that,” I said, “that’s where I live.”

Those of us who live or work here, or are from here, tell a slightly different story!

In a biography of a former Vicar of St Mary’s, affectionately known as Fr Jones of Cardiff (and written in 1907) one of his curates who arrived in the parish in 1873, wrote this:
“There have been many changes since those days. It is to be hoped that Bute Street is improved. There were then parts of it along which it must have been a trial for a decent woman to pass.”

Yes, perhaps – in the industrialised late nineteenth century, there were some “no go” areas, and certainly parts of Tiger Bay it could have been be described as “not very nice.”
Today, we gather to celebrate the 175th anniversary of the opening of the new St Mary’s Church built in response to a rapidly growing population, as people were sucked up from the sea.

The former Priory Church of St Mary’s, whose spot is marked by a stone outline in the side of a pub of all places – in front of central station – was damaged by the swell of the river Taff in 1607 and bashed by the battles of the English Civil War. In fact, it had been prone to flooding for some time, made worse when chantry funds to maintain the walls and weirs were confiscated by the state. Diverting funds from one service area at the expense of another is nothing new!
It’s from one of the poems written to raise funds for the new building, one written by William Wordsworth – “When Severn’s sweeping flood had overthrown St Mary’s Church”, that we take our Anniversary theme:

Let the new Church be worthy of its aim,
That in its beauty Cardiff may rejoice!


William Wordsworth
Sir William Wordsworth, who wrote one of the poems sold to raise funds for the building of the new St Mary’s

In light of the flood filled history, maybe it’s ironic that the Scripture readings this evening are full of images of a river washing through the Temple, flowing from the sanctuary – not destroying or harming, but bringing peace and fruitfulness and healing. A tsunami of love.

There are always breaking points – we are fragile beings who don’t always get it right. Sometimes, there are scars upon the landscape of our lives which never go away and remind us of that we are only a scratch away from pain. There is today, as in every day, a need for much healing in the lives of many people, ourselves included, and in so many communities, and in our country too.

This community has faced many challenges and changes throughout the few hundred years that it first began to be created, built on the back of South Wales miners, fuelled by coal and steel, and by those who travelled from far off lands to make this place their home. Living with difference, accepting one another, and rejoicing in the colour of each other’s lives isn’t something strange to this community, and we must never lose it. In fact, we must boast of it, and share it with others, and never allow walls to be built that will keep us apart, or keep us secluded from others. And any walls that have begun to be built must be gently dismantled. It’s one reason why we are involved in the Community Sponsorship of Syrian Refugees, working with our friends at Tabernacl and at the South Wales Islamic Centre. We are no strangers to strangers.

Far from Butetown being ‘not very nice’ – it has much to offer, and so much to bring to the world at large.

One lunch time at St Mary’s School, as the hall began slowly to fill with children, I was greeted by one young boy, probably about five years of age, who looked at me, and greeted me with a pointed finger, “You’re a Christian,” he said. “Yes, I am,” I replied. “That must mean that you are Muslim.” “Yes, I am,” he exclaimed, and then he went on. “Christians and Muslims love God!”

And for a moment I wanted to pick him up and place him on the world stage for all the world to see. He had a strong identity of who he was. He knew who or what I was. He knew that we were different. But he was also able to express what we had in common. I am grateful to the school, and the parish and for the wider community, for providing an environment in which this can happen. In a world, in a country, that is often so divided, we must listen to the voice of the little ones. We must listen to that boy.

For the last 175 years, St Mary’s Church has been a home to the Christian community in this place. In 1872, when Fr Jones came to this parish, he taught and lived the catholic faith. He brought many changes, some of which were resisted – but he persisted – not with an iron rod, but with a loving pastoral heart. His first sermon, when he climbed into what was then a large three decker pulpit at the centre of the chancel, took the biblical text ‘God is Love.’ And love flowed.

When he died, just a few years after his retirement, he was mourned by the whole of Cardiff. The streets from here to Cathays Cemetery were lined with people. He had laboured well, he had loved well.

2016-06-25 12.16.36
Fr Griffith Arthur Jones SSC, who became the Vicar of St Mary’s in 1872

I was conscious, when I came here, that I was the same age as Fr Jones when he arrived at St Mary’s. Life is very different for us today, although much the same. We are beginning to discover afresh what it means to be catholic within what is now the Church in Wales, and that comes with struggles, as I did for our forebears.

In recent years, Butetown has felt the impact – perhaps more than any other community in Cardiff – of the sad and dirty business of drug dealing and drug use, and the chaos and fear that can so easily divide and disturb a community, and the devastating affect it can have on the lives of individuals. We have witnessed a surge in homelessness, a rise in rough sleepers, and been touched by the complex and often chaotic lives of such people – and so our Christmas charities this year are supporting the Huggard Centre – and Tiger Bay Boxing Club which aims to offer young people a different way.

In the time of Fr Jones, catholic hearted priests across the country were ministering in so called ‘slum areas’ where many people lived in squalid conditions. In London, one such priest campaigning for better sanitation, was told to stop interfering in secular matters. He replied, ‘I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation’.
Another ‘slum priest’ (Father Dolling) transformed the poorest area of Portsmouth. He created a gym to promote physical fitness and dancing, but his ‘Communicants Dancing Guild’ disgusted a local evangelical vicar.  “Who can separate the secular from the religious?” asked the priest.  “Certainly the Master did not try to do so.”

Why did priests like these – and Fr Jones of Cardiff – begin to connect Jesus with drains and dancing?

The answer lay in the Incarnation – the belief that God in Christ has got involved and continues to be involved in the grittiness of human living, something which we celebrate soon at Christmas.

Jesus has shown us that every area of life is the place where we find the divine, that God is present even in the places considered not very nice, especially in the places that are not very nice, places which can and do shine with the beauty and glory of the God who loves us.

And so we will and do, we must, have a concern for what’s happening in the streets, in the lives of those who could be treated better, who could be given a better share, a fairer share. For those who trapped in poverty or trapped by crime, those who feel the pinch, and the sting of injustice and inequality, those for whom their life span is expected to be shorter just because they were born in Butetown.

For the priests of the past it may have been drains. For us it may be drugs. Tomorrow, something else.

But there is always dancing!

A building such as this, of course, takes much time and money and work to keep it in good stead, and cracks sometimes appear which let the water in. Strong, sturdy walls, may very well be built to keep out the rain and flood waters but the walls must never be so firm as to keep back the water which flows from within, from the sanctuary, the waters, the river, which flows from God and brings healing. A Tsunami of love.

And so we continue to worship here, and minister from here, and look to the future with confidence and hope. We give thanks to God for all the blessings which he has lavished upon us. We accept the responsibility to help strengthen community life, to work together with others, to bring the beauty of God’s love to a broken world, and to recognise the beauty of God in our own wounds.

And above all to do this, and all this, in a spirit of joy. To be a joyful community, and for our joy to be infectious, like a great wave washing through the lives of others, and taking the city of Cardiff – and the world – by storm.




We’ll help you be there


It’s the cover version of “It Must be Love” by Madness that forms the soundtrack of one of BT’s most recent advertising campaigns.  “I never thought I’d feel this way, the way I feel about you,” goes the singing of Suggs.  “As soon as I wake up every night, every day, I know that it’s you I need to take the blues away.”  Ahh, and now I’m back in the 80s!

And so, aware of BT’s commitment “every night, every day” and sure that they wouldn’t want to make me or anyone blue, I made a simple request.  Many will be aware of the impact that drug dealing and drug use is having upon the community of Butetown.

It is a complex situation requiring a complex, multi-agency approach.  Some things take time.  However, within this complex network of answers and solutions actually lie some very small and achievable goals.

In Butetown you will find four public payphones, one in Alice Street, two at Loudon Square, and the other on Christina Street (just 160 metres away, two minutes’ walk).  Two of the phone boxes in particular are well known to be associated with drug dealing and drug use.

Aware that I was not the first to take up the challenge, on 31st August 2018 I rang BT to ask about the process to request the removal of a public payphone. I was told that the payphone in question wasn’t scheduled to be removed, but I was given an email address, and so began two weeks of email exchanges with BT.

The outcome was set from the outset: “We will not remove this phonebox.”  It’s worth remembering that a large amount of income is not necessarily made from calls made but from using the payphones for advertising.  An example of this problem can be found in the London Borough of Westminster in this online article: https://www.westminster.gov.uk/westminster-war-whack-mole-phone-boxes – where it is stated “The council (i.e Westminster) believes that these proposals offer very little benefit to the public, particularly as many of the proposed telephone boxes don’t even offer wi-fi or internet connectivity.  Despite claims these phone boxes are targeted at low income families, the minimum charge for a call in some kiosks is £1 cash or £2 via payment card.  The council feels the prime purpose of the installations is to provide large advertisements in the street.

On this particular occasion, the taxi firm Ola were the advertisers.  They promise to ‘Take you places”

“Every Moment of Every Day, we’ll help you be there” is the strapline of BT’s advertising campaign.  Surely, it must be love? Read on then – for this is a love story like no other.

31/08/2018 14:52


I am writing to request the removal of a public telephone box at Christina Street (Bute Street) Cardiff (telephone number 02920464128)

There is an extremely high level of drug dealing and drug use in the area and it is the observation of many residents that this phone is used primarily if not exclusively by people engaged in such activity. The phone box is in close proximity to an area where known individuals deal in drugs throughout the day and night. It has created a very disturbing and often dangerous situation for
many residents particularly children.

In the last month I alone have reported over 27 drug related incidents and this is replicated across Butetown. We are trying to address the situation with practical solutions and we believe that one such solution is the removal of the telephone box to which I refer.

I look forward to hearing from you and am happy to provide further information and details which could strengthen this application.


From BT

Thank you for your email.

I have reviewed this & there are no plans for the removal of this payphone as it generates a fair amount of revenue through phone usage & advertisement.
Please report all anti social behaviour to your local police.


DH / Team Member, Ventures Voice Services



Dear Mr H

Thanks you for your email although, as you may imagine, I am disappointed by its content.

All anti-social behaviour is consistently reported to the police. Some of this behaviour and crime is related to the phone box in question. I am sure that the phone box generates, as you say, a fair amount of income through advertising although I wonder what these advertisers would think if they knew that their advertisements were keeping a phone box in place which encourages anti social and illegal activities. Our issue is not that a fair amount of income is generated either through advertising and calls – but who is actually using this phone box and for what purpose. I had hoped that BT would have been willing to explore in more dept the moral implications of keeping or removing the phone box and would have given more consideration to a request for its removal.

I knew that there were no plans to remove the phone box as the operator with whom I spoke on my initial call confirmed this. Perhaps you could reconsider your decision as a means of safeguarding members of the local community, particularly children and other vulnerable people. I am happy to provide more evidence of the problems in this community and how removing the phone box would be a socially responsible action.

I am copying in our local councillor and police officer (with whom I have already spoken about the matter) and I look forward to hearing from you in due course.


From BT

Thank you for your email but unfortunately this payphone will not be removed as D. said before it a highly used phone and is a prime advertising site

If we can help in anyway with the antisocial behaviour we will

If the police are involved please can you get them to email us and we can discuss what we can do to help

Thank you

L J /Team Member, Voice Services



Dear L,

Again, I am copying in the local police and the local councillor to this email again.

I do not doubt that it is, as you say, a highly used payphone. Our concern is regarding these users. Also there are other payphones just a few hundred yards away.

I must admit to being very disappointed with your unwillingness to engage with us on this matter. Your offer of helping with anti social behaviour is much appreciated although I believe the only way to do this is to remove the phone.

As a freedom of information request, please can you indicate exactly what you mean by it being a “highly used” phone. How many calls are made in a month, and what revenue do you make from these calls?

On the BT website we are told that “being responsible means doing all the things you’d expect from an ethical business… we never forget to listen to each other and to experts outside our business, either. We think it’s these fresh perspectives that help us learn, grow and prepare for the future.” The BT Way states “acting with integrity has never been more important. We need to do things the right way, every time, without fail. We strengthen BT’s reputation every time we stick to our ethics code. This means we sometimes face touch decisions. We might have to reject new business if it compromised our principles..”

The Ethics code also states that whenever you do business you do your very best to make sure it doesn’t injure or cause damage to anyone. “We have the legal obligation to protect the health and safety of anyone who might be affected by our business.”

I look forward to hearing from you and engaging with you further on this matter.

From BT

We are willing to help with this matter as removal is not an option for this payphone , if the police email us direct about the ASB we will do all we can to resolve

We can’t discuss the amount of calls that are made all I can say is it is used a lot during the month


LJ / Team Member, Voice Services



Thanks for your quick response.

I don’t understand why removing the phone is not an option particularly in regard to BT’s Code of Ethics. Perhaps you (or someone else within BT) can respond with this context in mind and explain if your decision has been made within the parameters of the code.

The request for information about the calls was a Freedom of Information Act (2000) request to which you are legally bound. If you cannot respond to this then perhaps you can give a reason before I seek the information via the Information Commissioner’s Office.

Kind regards,


From BT

Due to our licencing agreement with Ofcom we have to supply a payphone service to the public and are unable to put this kiosk forward for removal

The information about calls is something we are not obliged to give out because we are a PLC company

There is nothing further I can do for you unless you can get the police involved and I can discuss helping them with the ASB

Many thanks

LJ /Team Member, Voice Services


Thank you for your reply. I understand that you may want to end correspondence with me. However, can you tell me a little more about your licensing agreement with Ofcom regarding BT having to supply public phones to the public? There are two public payphones just a few hundred yards away at Loudoun Square.

Receiving clarification about your obligations under Ofcom will be very helpful particularly since the initial reason given by BT for not considering it’s removal was the revenue generated from calls and advertising. If this is an Ofcom matter as you suggest I can involve them in this request.

I’d also welcome some comment on my reference in a previous email to BTs self published code of ethics in regard to this issue.

I very much look forward to hearing from you and appreciate your attention to this matter.



Further to this email sent yesterday, and to offer some clarification, it appears that OFCOM rules come into play “when BT want to remove the one and only call box from a site.  By site we mean a 400 metre walking distance surrounding a call box.  This means that if there are two phone boxes within 400 metres walk of each other BT can take one away without following our rules.” (Removing Public Call Boxes, a guide to the rules, OFCOM)

Just to clarify that there are two additional phone boxes on the same street – a distance of 160 metres / 2 minutes walk away at Loudoun Square.

Many thanks,


From BT

 L’s told me about your concerns regarding the phone box in Bute Street/Christina Street and I told L I’d reply to you.

I’m really sorry to read about the criminal behaviour taking place in or near the boxes. I fully understand the concerns this causes local residents and your Twitter feed gives evidence of a problem that regrettably isn’t unique to Butetown. Please accept my thanks for continuing to report criminal behaviour to the local policing team. As your Twitter feed states, the issue of the trade in illegal drugs is a “complex problem” with “no immediate solutions”.

Please see below my response to the areas of concern you’ve raised.

Ofcom obligation

Ofcom obliges us to maintain a nationwide public telephone network. We’re realistic. We don’t expect to make our public network significantly profitable but we do need to make it viable if we’re to continue with the service.

We have around 35 000 public telephones. Non-profitable ones are in the majority and will become increasingly so. It’s therefore important that we keep as many profitable public telephones as we can. Without the revenue generated by such boxes we’d struggle to maintain non-profitable ones.

The 400 metre rule is in place to protect little used public telephones in isolated areas where local communities feel there is still a need for them.

BT’s ethical code

We’re regularly asked  to remove boxes because of anti-social and criminal behaviour. We refuse such requests for the following reasons:

Removing a box doesn’t address the root cause of criminal and anti-social activities.  If we did remove boxes for these reasons, then there’s a strong likelihood the problem will shift to another public telephone.

Local policing teams are best qualified to deal with the root cause of such problems.

There are a number of enforcement options open to councils and policing teams that can exclude individuals from public spaces.

It’s wrong to remove a public service because of the behaviour of a minority. It sends out a message that the criminals have won.

We’ve no way of telling whether calls made from public telephones are illegal. Policing teams can however request call records through the appropriate channels.

How we can help

We do modify public telephones to deter illegal use of them. This box is already without a door and this should help with the identification of offenders. My records don’t show whether there is still shelving inside the box. If there is, please can you let me know and I’ll arrange for it to be removed.

We can also block incoming calls to public telephones. But this request (because of the implications for the emergency services) has to come from the local policing team. Do you have a direct contact within the local policing team? If not, I’ll find one.

I’m not guaranteeing the success of the above two suggestions. But they have helped in the past with similar issues.

I trust the above addresses the issues you’ve raised. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you need any further information.

Kind regards




Dear P

Thank you for a more in-depth response. It is far more helpful than simply receiving a curt “we will not remove this phonebox” and provides a far more engaging platform upon which the community can talk with large businesses and organisations. It allows communities a voice, and there is always the possibility that this voice will be heard. So thank you for this.

First, you asked a few questions which are easy to answer. Yes we are in touch with the local police officer who will be emailing you soon if he hasn’t already done so.  And, yes, the pay phone does have a shelf.

Please be assured that this will be my last direct communication with BT in this matter. The results of our correspondence will be delivered to the local Citizens Cymru Action Group which is meeting in a few weeks. They will be discussing and planning which actions to take forward as we address the issue of drugs in Butetown and our correspondence will be able to inform those discussions.

However, I just wanted to share one or two observations:

Since BT is unwilling to share the actual amount of calls and the revenue generated by them, we can only assume that this is because few phone calls are generally made from there.

Since there are several phone boxes just two mins walk away, and since it has already been stated that revenue is generated by advertising, it is our observation that the pay phone does not serve the local community. Rather, it is a means through which BT can generate revenue by commercial advertising – perhaps to fund phone boxes elsewhere.

We understand that BT has to make a profit or at least make some its services viable (rather than generating large amounts of income from them, particularly in regard to the obligations placed upon you by OFCOM). However, we are very much in the position of caring for individuals, building a strong and safe community, strengthening community cohesion, and protecting and nurturing the welfare of children and young people. In other words, we put people before profits, and so I suppose it is understandable that we will disagree on this matter.

Under these circumstances, we believe that it isn’t wrong to remove a phone box because of the behaviour of a minority, particularly if the phone box doesn’t actually serve the community it is purported to serve. As far as claiming that the criminals have won if the phonebox is removed – rather we believe that the criminals are tolerated and therefore allowed to thrive.

We recognise, as you have also said, that the issues are complex and there is no easy solution. However, there are lots of small actions which can gradually contribute to a longer term and more effective widespread solution, and it is our opinion that removing the phone box would be one of these small steps. We know that it certainly doesn’t solve the root problem of drug dealing and use but it would displace one destructive effect of it.

I still make reference to the 400m rule of OFCOM which I think provides a useful framework when considering the regularity and need of phoneboxes in a particular community or even in the same street.

Once again, thank you so much for taking the time to respond to me in full.


From BT

Thank you for your reply.

Call volumes and revenue from public payphones are labelled as “commercially sensitive information” (my apologies for the business jargon) and we usually only share call volumes when we need to consult with a local authority on a proposal to remove a public telephone.

I looked at the call records yesterday and it would be fair to say that the payphone gets used more often than most public telephones. As mentioned it’s not possible for me to say how many of these calls are crime-related.

An engineer will remove the shelf this week or early next and when I hear from the local policing team, I’ll stop incoming calls as from the next working day.

Let’s see if these measures have an impact along with any other actions that are taken following the Action Group’s meeting. Please also pass on my contact details to the group.

Shall we review the situation mid-November? Or sooner if you prefer.

And if there’s anything we can do in the meantime, please let me know.

Kindest regards


“Every Moment of Every Day, we’ll help you be there”

Dumbfounded Afresh

st marys_3

She was fascinated by the ladybird which she held in her hand.  At the time, ladybirds were in plentiful supply having set up home in one of the bushes in the gardens at St Mary’s Church.   Having been mesmerised by it herself, she was intent on showing others, sharing this tiny bug, plucked from the leaves, and who was quite oblivious to the sense of wonder it was instilling in a human being.

This was the first of our Urban Buzz days, as we began to give up part of our grounds to nature, and the girl one of a few young children who came to discover nature on our doorstep.

Finding wonder in the small things is so natural to children, and yet is sometimes lost on us, too busy as we are to see what’s around us and beneath us, on the ground and in the ground.

I love the poem, Fulbright Scholars where Ted Hughes explored the possibility of when he first met his wife “Was it then I bought a peach? That’s as I remember. / From a stall near Charing Cross Station. / It was the first peach I had ever tasted. / I could hardly believe how delicious. / At twenty five I was dumbfounded afresh / by my ignorance of the simplest things.” (Birthday Letters, 1998)

There is much movement on the ground across Cardiff  as land is prepared for more buildings.  Steel and glass giants, unsubscribed blocks of student accommodation, hotels, restaurants and shops.  It is fascinating to watch, to see buildings rise, storey by storey, crafted by the cleverness of human ingenuity, built by the leathered hands of labourers – a collection of construction workers, architects, planning officers, technicians and surveyors on the scene.  The built environment is constantly changing around us, tries to tell us who we are.

On the other hand, Cardiff also has over 330 gardens and parks, and is home to one of the largest urban parks in Wales, Bute Park by name, which skirts the River Taff and kisses the castle walls.  Across the choppy channel is Flat Holme, a nature reserve, and the further southern tip of Cardiff and of our parish.

And yet, even with these bursts of green, bees, butterflies and other pollinators are in crisis, partly due to the widespread loss of their homes and food.  We rely on them to pollinate our crops and feed our wildlife, to sustain the rich bio-diversity of the natural world.

Urban Buzz (a collaboration of the RSPB and Bug Life) is working with local people to offer a clear, simple and effective solution to this crisis by creating new habitats for pollinators, providing vital food, nesting places and shelter for them.  Each habitat will form a network of hotspots to help bees and pollinators move about our city. Without this help, they will continue to decline and may even go extinct.

The long stretch along the south of St Mary’s Church will be given up to just this project.  Much work has already been done with three visits from GoodGym who zapped the gardens, cleared vegetation, hacked and pulled tree roots from the ground, picked litter and weeded paths.  A few parishioners too have done much the same during the Discover Nature day back in July with another working day planned for Saturday 6th October, the back of the work being broken a year ago by Christine and Jim from Loudoun Square.  We are awaiting news, too, of a grant application so that the existing fence can be removed, and a new fence erected, taking back half of the vicarage garden where a wild flower meadow will merge into a woodland glade.


In a few weeks, children from St Mary’s School next door will flood the gardens, find out what flies and crawls and creeps around them, and begin to plant and seed the ground.

As well as giving nature a home, the project will provide a means through which individuals and groups can engage with nature, improve physical and mental health and well-being, provide opportunities for new skills to be learned and shared and, hopefully, make the community stronger by providing a project where people can work together, engaging too with socially excluded groups of people.

It is our hope that the Urban Buzz project, our Wild Side, will merge naturally into the rest of our garden space, which will be a place to gather and grow.  St Mary’s Church is currently exploring various options for our buildings and grounds, employing our own architect to measure and design different ways in which our building can be developed and improved.  It will help us relate more to the local community and the city centre which pushes its weight around us, and aims to address some of the pressing local needs, of which there are many.

St Francis is a famous saint, well famed for his love of creation.  In a beautiful book about him, written by Sister Frances Teresa OSC, we read “Francis saw the footprints of God everywhere.  From everything that is made, he learnt more about the way God, who made us all, intends us to live together in our shared world.  So he learnt from creation the inner meaning of his call to be a brother.”

At the heart of our mission and ministry at St Mary’s is this desire to work together – with those of other faiths or none, so that we may learn how to live together in our shared world, and maybe be dumbfounded afresh by our ignorance of the simplest things.

If you would like to find out more about the Urban Buzz project, or have ideas about how you can get involved with shaping our outdoor space then please get in touch.  Contact details can be found at our website www.stmaryscf10.co.uk

Not such a Nice Deal

“Don’t go down there, love.  It’s not very nice.”

I had chatted to him for a little while, a cheerful, engaging police officer stationed at one of the road blocks near St Mary’s as the city of Cardiff welcomed the Championship League final in 2017.  The city was colourful, vibrant, bursting at the seams with football fans who gathered from the city centre to the bay where various fan zones had been created.  From the top of Bute Street, the police were guiding people to the bay through Lloyd George Avenue though some seemed to prefer the alternative route along Bute Street.  It was to one of these people that the police officer unwittingly and innocently suggested that she shouldn’t go into Butetown.  After all, surely, “it’s not very nice.”  I smiled at him, and laughed a little “Thanks for that,” I said, “that’s where I live.”

Butetown, of course, like any community has a reputation – some good, some bad, some based on the past, some fair, some not so fair at all, and a far cry from the reality. 

Once upon a time, as part of a thriving docksland, Butetown welcomed an array of people who were surrounded by heavy industry, and everything else that grows from people coming and going, from comfortable entrepreneurs chasing profits to the hard graft and gritty lives of working class people.  A mix of cultures and nationalities bubbling away to create a rather unique place.  As Industry began to fall away, the community changed.  All communities change.  Butetown is no different.

In a biography of a former Vicar of St Mary’s, affectionately known as Fr Jones of Cardiff (1907) one of his curates who arrived in the parish in 1873, wrote “There have been many changes since those days.  It is to be hoped that Bute Street is improved.  There were then parts of it along which it must have been a trial for a decent woman to pass.”  Yes, perhaps – being what it was in the late nineteenth century, there were some “no go” areas, and perhaps parts of it could have been be described, to say the least, as “not very nice.”

And yet a community is as much a product of outside pressures and forces as it is of itself.

Bute Street today still receives a steady flow of visitors and tourists who use it as the route from city centre to bay, with its over-priced restaurants and copper domed home of the Millennium Centre and the slated steps of the Senedd.  In the distance is the now much smaller working docks of Cardiff, often overlooked, and here in its place, the only vessels which push out are pleasure trips around the watery edges of the city.

In recent years – about two years ago, in fact – the community changed again.  It’s not only tourists who pass along Bute Street but an almost constant stream of people, many from the homeless community, who come into the belly of the estate to make a quick deal.  Heroin and crack cocaine are readily available on Bute Street.  You don’t have to veer off the main thoroughfare to see it – it happens along the tourist trail, under your nose – or over your nose if you happen to be a child growing up in Butetown.

It’s not just those who stand on the street to deal either, with their intricate bobbing and weaving and slipping away from police patrols when they come. Cars come and go, park up, move on and return, pull into a street where they meet their customers, some of whom are invited into the passenger seat whilst others stand at the open window.  It happens day and night.  There is little sense of discretion, there appears no need to be cautious.  Baseball bats and crowbars are hidden in bushes, behind garden walls, and knives are handled too.

In recent years, there has been a rise in rough sleepers, a rise in homelessness, an increase in clientele for those who deal in drugs – for both the disposable street sellers and drug runners, but also those above them, who make a more lucrative living from the misery of others.

We are assured by the police and others that much is being done – and there are several operations in place – but the process is, of course, slow, and resources are limited.  Some residents have already left, others are leaving.  The danger for us is that what we experience now, and what we have experienced for the last two years, will become or has become the norm – a familiar site for young and old, the landscape for growing up into the world, the place a child calls home.

The local community may seem lost, and there sometimes appears to be little communications between those in power who can make a difference and those whose lives are impacted by this rise in drug use.  A local Neighbourhood Watch scheme patrols the streets each evening, tries to engage with young people who are dipping their toes into drug dealing, engages with their families – but it is tough.  A local boxing club has been established by a local young man, trying to show and give young people a different way, a better way to live and move on, move away from drugs.  Next week, through Citizens Cymru, whose Action Centre is at Loudoun Square, representatives from a number of local organisations will meet to explore how our community can be organised to address the problems.

It can take a while to make a difference.  Seventeen months ago, we made a request to Cardiff Council to cut back the bushes at the top of Bute Street, 60 yards from a primary school.  The bushes are a place populated by drug users who hide within the foliage, a hand’s reach from the street.  Only now have we been promised that the work will begin, and this has possibly only been escalated by the proposed new Shipping Container Housing Development on the land opposite, a project of the Local Authority and being delivered through Cadwyn Housing Association.

Trying to engage with British Telecom to remove a problem public pay phone associated with drug dealing has been a struggle.  Countless emails returned to them, asking for clear answers rather than a dodged response.  But  always, from the very outset, a very clear decision that “this phone-box will not be removed.”  Profits are put before people, before the safety and needs of the local community they purport to serve in the first place.

Drugs are sold here for many reasons.  We are, of course, so close to the city centre, and a few minutes’ walk away are three homeless hostels and other homeless services.  The city centre grows up and out and around us, giving up the secret places of the city centre, awash with security cameras, and pushing people into Butetown where surveillance is more scant.

Drug dealing is, of course, a lucrative industry, but always at a cost.  In Butetown 1 Ward, the area of which I write, over 33% of people have no qualifications.  36.4% of adults with no dependant children are not in employment, which is almost double that of the whole of the Butetown Ward.  7.6% of adults with dependant children are not in employment.  All we can do is ask questions.  Yes, we are told, much is being done by police and politicians, by Health Services and others, but some of us seek signs of how local people are involved in these outlooks and plans.  The young, too, are easily influenced, easily bought and lured, and easily discarded too.  But Butetown isn’t solely a product of the local pressures or of itself alone.  Gangs from Liverpool and Manchester and other major cities make their way here and other areas of Cardiff, make use of the so called County Lines.

There are sporadic police raids on homes as officers make a dramatic entry into homes, carving up the front door, warrant in hand.  We are assured there are covert investigations.  We are also told that there are few reports or information coming from the people of Butetown itself, a result of fear perhaps?  And yet, a Freedom of Information request to South Wales Police asking how many 101 or 999 calls had been made in Butetown  for the period September 2016 to August 2017 threw up the statistics that there had been 698 calls made for Anti-social behaviour and 259 drug related calls.

I know from my own experience that some 101 operators actually register a ‘drugs related’ call as Anti-social behaviour – simply because there is no “proof” that drugs were involved, they say.  And so the 259 calls regarding drugs can surely mean more – but to use their given statistics that still means about 5 a week during that particular period.  This year, in August, 2018, 28 calls were made from St Mary’s Church alone – and so far this month to September 21st 2018 we have picked up the phone on 32 occasions – so far over 10 calls a week.

I love to see the city of Cardiff pushing above its weight, hosting international and national events that pull in punters from far and wide, who spend their money, invest in the city, experience what Cardiff has to offer.  In August, just a few yards from Butetown, the National Eisteddfod basked in the sun, awash with people – and police too.  During the first day of preparations, as road closures began, it took half an hour to drive the half mile stretch through Bute Street.  After a few complaints were made, the road system was sorted.  On that day, the open top tourist bus too had been diverted along Bute Street slowly making its 30 minute journey, offering tourists a new kind of Croeso and a new view of Cardiff down below them on the street where deals are quickly made.

The National Eisteddfod, the Championship League and so many other major sporting and cultural events – well, these come and go.  Meanwhile, the very real and dangerous problem of drug dealing and drug use in Butetown remains.  And there is no sign that it is ready to go away.








Under the Same Sun

When Butetown was being built up, as it hoisted itself up on steel, flexed its muscles on the back of coal, and dipped its toes into the sea, it took pride in a population formed from over fifty foreign nations.  This was certainly the case by the time Archduke Ferdinand took the bullet, blasting us into World War One.

The cutting of the Suez Canal, completed in 1869, had connected the lip of the Red Sea in a Mediterranean kiss across Egypt’s heart, cutting the journey time between Britain and Asia, and bringing Somalian sailors to the coal-quick port of Cardiff.  Some came, some went.  Some never went home, feeling, as it happened, quite at home in Cardiff, settling in between the Greeks and the Arabs, the Chinese and French, the Yemense and Irish and dozens more besides.  In a sea port, significant throughout the world, with imports and exports, pubs a foot apart, cultures were crammed together, rubbed shoulders, held hands.

Religions worked it out between themselves, laying foundations in the soil and in society.  The first Mosque in Wales first peeped its head onto Peel Street, a make-shift mosque made from a trio of houses.  Bombed during the next World War, a new Mosque took shape in 1947 only to be replaced in 1988 by the Mosque of today.  Across the way in a now non-existent East Terrace, the Jewish shopkeepers and pawnbrokers of Bute Street brought the first synagogue to Cardiff in 1858, having outgrown the rented rooms of Trinity Street.

There were Welsh speaking chapels and Huguenot churches churned out by French exiles, and the beautiful byzantine Greek Orthodox Church, breathing in the air since 1906, boasting the name of Nicholas, the patron saint of sailors.  At the head of West Bute Dock was St Paul’s Roman Catholic Church, crowded by Irish immigrants, slowly squeezing out the Welsh speaking Anglican Church of All Saints all the way across the bridge to Adamsdown.  It was, for a while, a daughter church of St Mary’s whose own memory had been resurrected in 1843, and which stands, twin towered, at the top lip of Bute Street.

Race relations weren’t always rosy.  In the sailors strike of 1911, Chinese laundries and lodging houses were set ablaze, and some white people felt their living threatened by ‘blackleg’ labourers who stepped across the picket line.  There are always cracks.

Life was different then, of course, and much the same.  Different times, but the same stubborn human nature, naturally inclined to difference, yet inquisitive, open minded, fascinating, frightening. It’s not the same Butetown that some people speak of today, that some seem to remember.  But what kind of community worth its weight stands still, stands back?

The “immigration question” juggled about today, and which has become Referendum rife, wasn’t so much a question then, it seems, but a statement of fact, an answer to the need, a natural response to the way things were, the way things were going, the way things needed to be in order for a community to grow, for a town to become a city, for a city to become the capital of a country which is surrounded by sea on three sides, and shares a border which hasn’t itself always experienced a happy coming and going.  The UK, for a while, appears to be divided. There is nothing new under the sun.  Not whilst we all live under the same sun.

The Bells of St Mary’s

Some years ago, my late morning sleep was somewhat spent as I woke to a constant, distant, thud, thud, thud.  It happened every few seconds, and it echoed round the place where I live, puncturing the day, every day, and I had no idea where the sound came from or what it was.  I blamed it on the industrial units nearby, known for the bang and clatter of metal, though not as mentally taunting as this particular din.

Frustrated by the din, I contacted the council who couldn’t help and then, disappointed by their lack of success, I walked the beat to find the beat, seeking out the sound.  It simply turned out to be a building site on Dumballs Road where piles were being driven into the ground for the foundations of Cardiff and Vale College, digging, driving deep down so that the city can grow up and out.  As soon as I knew what made the sound my frustration was allayed, and lay simply with the fact that the contractors hadn’t prepared us (me?) for the noise.  The sounds have now returned again, each day from eight ’til four, as the further foundations of Dumballs Road and Tyndall Street and the site of Central Station are prepared for more growing up and growing out.

Some years ago, my predecessor priest and friend, Fr Graham, had received a phone call from the council.  Someone had complained about the Sunday morning bells, beckoning the faithful to Mass in one of his other churches across the River Taff in Grangetown.  Did it need to be as long, as loud, as lingeringly early?  The priest put up his case, that the bells had rung each Sunday for as long as the church had been there.  Thirty three rings, each year of the Lord’s earthly life.  The conversation came to an end.  The bells still ring. I remember my Great Aunty Pat, now long dead, had made the same complaint of the church near to her home in the Rhondda. That was before her illness, her elderliness, had taken her to hospital.  One day, I received a call that she was close to death.  By the time I arrived, she had died, and so all I could do was stand by her bedside and offer the prayers for her journey home, whispering words over her, hoping that they helped, knowing that the words, in life, would have made no sense to her.  Perhaps.

Some years ago, one of the towers at St Mary’s was equipped with digital bells.  The tower took some clearing out.  Decades (a century?) of pigeon poop, a foot, two foot, three foot high.  The bells, a gift in memory of Fr Jordan a previous parish priest, couldn’t have been installed under a better custodian than Fr Graham for whom the bells gave great delight. In addition to the horde of hymn tunes which could hit the high notes, each day at 12noon and 6pm the Angelus rings out, three sets of three chimes, followed by a nine.  The bells accompany the praying of a litany of love which remembers the Incarnation.  They puncture time, they measure time, to remember the moment when God the timeless One took flesh and blood from Mary, saving us from where we are with all the matter and the mess we make.

Sometimes, depending on the weather and the wind, the sound of St Mary’s bells can be heard across Lloyd George Avenue, and deep down into the heart of Loudoun Square and perhaps, on a good day, at the edge of the city centre, where the Hayes spreads out.  The other day, as I walked home from the local shop, carrying a pint or two of milk up the length of Lloyd George Avenue, I found myself reciting the Angelus, even before I consciously realised the mid-day bells had stirred me into prayer.  For some, the Angelus ring may be a distantly irritating sound, sub-consciously heard, brushed to the back of the mind, misunderstood.  But someone, somewhere, is praying the Angelus, whispering words that may or may not make sense to those who happen to hear, remembering the time when the matter and the mess we make is met by the Incarnate God.

And so the city digs down in order to grow up and out, puncturing the day with its rhythmic sounds heard between the city and the bay.  Between the beats of metal battling with rock and soil, the Angelus still rings out on Bute Street, puncturing the air, each day at noon and dusk.  Perhaps, as the city grows up and out, the pile-driving offers another litany of its own, secular, seeking something better, bigger, brighter, not knowing that the earth into which it drives has already felt the touch of the divine, and feels it still.