At the end of October I was in Cardiff for a few hours. It was a dull, cloudy day, but I didn't want to merely spend the time looking at shops. So I decided to park Fiona at one end of Queen Street, the main shopping street, and walk through to the famous Castle, which I hadn't been inside since 1963, when I was still a child of eleven. Indeed, that was the last time I'd looked closely at the city centre! I had of course driven past Cardiff many a time on the M4, and on occasion through parts of the city, most notably during my March 2013 visit to Cardiff Bay. But I'd gone nowhere near Queen Street. My goodness, it had changed from the staid old-fashioned street I remembered.
But first the parking. I found a spot, bought three hours on the meter, and was about to walk away when this notice caught my eye:
Headed CYNNIG TRAFFIG DROS DRO, it clearly had something to do with parking or traffic management, but it was entirely in Welsh. Cardiff is the capital of Wales, and no doubt the epicentre of Welshness and Welsh pride, but even so, visitors to it need an English translation to ensure that they don't infringe any local regulations. It seemed a bit off not to provide one. In fact, it was exasperating. I was Welsh myself, but I didn't know more than a few words, and the notice might be telling me not to park. The lack of a translation felt underhand. I looked carefully at the notice for clues. The only one that stood out was the word MARATHON in the sub-heading, which suggested that the main body of text was all about which streets would be closed on the day of that event. Since the street clearly wasn't shut off to normal traffic that day, I thought I was probably all right. But I had no real peace of mind about this until I returned later on. (I'd been caught out by parking regulations too many times before not to be paranoid about where I might park!)
Anyway, skirting part of the University, I ducked under the railway bridge and entered Queen Street. Well, the street (and the shopping centres off it) together formed a most impressive retail experience. It reminded me of London. It was much bigger and better than, say, Brighton. It was very hard to keep to my plan, and hold a straight course to the Castle. There were several street performers around. One of them was a giant metallic alien (a being from the planet Malevolor?), which an Islamic lady in a pink scarf was keen to photograph in mid-gesture. She got her shot. I got mine.
Aliens and Islamic persons were not prevalent when I was last here! Nor was the background buzz. The place was packed with families, and young people of student age. It's a funny thing, but the shopping streets of big towns and cities (at least the successful ones) seem to me much busier than they were when I was young. Perhaps that's because 'going into town' for a slice of café life, has become much more part of everyone's routine. And the shopping is in any case more attractive. And there are many more people around now with money in their pockets, or at least credit to make use of. On Queen Street, it's very hard to believe in unemployment, and food banks, and a hand-to-mouth existence on benefits.
Nearing the Castle, I saw a knot of people with cameras and phones out, facing something on the Castle Wall. Children - adults too - were posing with arms and hands just so, so that the shot would be set up to show them 'holding' something. My goodness. There was a giant rugby ball embedded in the Wall, as if kicked there from the Millennium Stadium not far distant. All to do with the Rugby World Cup (which had hitherto completely passed me by).
It was cleverly done. Frozen in the moment of impact! I learned later that I'd been very lucky to see this. It was taken down soon afterwards.
Into the castle then. Once through the gateway, I was directed to a modern visitor complex, and I joined the queue to pay. How much? Well, it was cheaper than the £13.20 I'd have paid five months earlier to get into Edinburgh Castle - which I'd thought way too much. It was 'only' £10.50 for Cardiff Castle. These are the prices for persons entitled to an age concession, by the way. The ordinary prices for adults were £16.50 for Edinburgh and £12.00 for Cardiff - proving that Scotland charges more for its heritage assets! On the other hand, being senior saves you as much as £3.30 in Edinburgh, but only £1.50 in Cardiff - proving that Scotland gives its older folk a better deal. Nevertheless, I cherished my £1.50, and did not cavil one bit. I love getting any kind of age concession.
I was first exhorted to see what the visitor complex had to offer, which included food and toilets, but also a section of the original Roman Fort, and a museum devoted to the Welsh Regiments. Why not? The museum was actually very well-presented, and even a lot of fun. It was full of life-sized model soldiers with pretty lifelike faces:
There was a mounted dragoon too:
These were meant to represent real soldiers who fought and quite possibly died. The mounted man was for instance killed at Waterloo. There were displays all around that told the service histories of Welsh fighting men, mostly doing very heroic deeds, complete with their medals and other personal effects.
Near the dragoon, some girls were posing for photos, all dressed up.
There were hats, caps and tunics to try on from various armies. I couldn't resist. Here I am, as a stern, implacable Russian Air Force officer:
And here as an incredibly haughty Russian Army general:
Next, I put on a German Army tin hat. It was very heavy.
Dare I say Very interesting...but stupid! (I'm referring to a recurring gag in Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In from the late 1960s) Perhaps the cap of a British Tommy in the trenches of the Somme would suit me better? Yes, it gave me an over the top look, don't you think?
Or the the kind of hat worn in the Aussie Army? Why, tie me kangaroo down, sport!
Well, that all used up an hour. I thought I'd better see more of the Castle. Basically, there was a Wall with a raised walkway that you could walk along, enclosing a high Norman Keep surrounded by a moat, a Gothic Revival mansion with a big hall and other mediaeval-style rooms, and lots of grassy space, complete with a siege machine. This was a big Castle! I walked the Wall first.
The first big thing to see on the walkway was a huge sculpture of a face, meant to represent The Abandoned Soldier - any person who fought, but whose valour had been overlooked or ignored.
At length I came to an exhibition, created within the Wall, showing how it was used as an air-raid shelter during World War Two. It was dark in there. The dim electric lighting was very evocative. There were lots of wartime posters.
There were lots of posters about eating food that could be grown at home:
I particularly liked the recruitment posters. They made the work of an Air Raid Warden look fit for heroes:
And the work of a Land Girl was made out to be downright glamorous!
It's those natty jodhpurs, of course, plus the Hollywood hairstyle! No wonder that farmer is being civil. I believe that in fact the women wore (as you'd expect) plain ordinary baggy trousers and had no time (or energy left) to bother much with their hair. Hmm...I now recall a very dark film about Land Girls (not the 1998 film called The Land Girls) in which they all end up getting very nearly killed by moronic local men who fear their feminine wiles, and try to burn them to death in a barn. (A pity: I can't remember the name of this film)
Emerging from the exhibition, my next destination was the mansion, a lavish creation of the third Marquess of Bute, aided by the architect William Burges. The pair restored Castell Goch (Welsh for 'Red Castle') up in the hills north of Cardiff in much the same elaborate style. And the decoration is indeed elaborate, and sumptuous, and rich, with many allusions to mediaeval chivalry and the the mystique of lord and lady. Here's just a sample:
I doubt if real mediaeval castles could have capped this. The third Marquess must have spent a fortune. I had just enough time left to climb up to the Keep. It left me puffing for breath, I can tell you, but one certainly had a commanding view:
I couldn't stay longer - to my horror, I discovered that had only half an hour left before my parking ticket ran out! I just made it.
I could have seen a lot more. For instance there was a guided tour of the mansion, for which you paid extra, but it let you into rooms that the ordinary visitor didn't get a glimpse of. Even as it was, I thought I'd had my money's worth. Definitely worth a visit.