Butetown Beauty

It sounds like a horse entered into the Architectural Handicap at Chepstow races. There are certainly many runners and riders that should be restored to their formative days of being stallions and mares of great repute, only to have been left in the knackers yard by indifferent owners.

Butetown is a significant area of Cardiff locally known as ‘down the docks’; the part that also enclosed the famous Tiger Bay. In the last post I outlined the precarious existence of the area’s true jewel in the crown, the Coal Exchange. But what is left of this great industrial powerhouse of the early 20th century deserves to be seen as a crown, with many trinkets of architectural beauty crying out for Welsh visionaries (with more than a little cash in the back pocket).

As a nation, Wales is once again at a cross-roads challenged to define what it is. ‘Pride’ is a word that we locals like to frequently purloin when describing what it is to be Welsh. We have an opportunity in Butetown to put our rhetoric into practice; but on the surface it looks like we have been talking not walking for many years!

In developer-speak we have Merchant Place, a prime development opportunity… Aka: bring on a high enough wind to blow down the rotting carcusses that blight the sensibilities of the financial Masters of the Universe. In reality we are talking about the Cory Buildings and Old Post Office

Corys Buildings [3]

Corys Buildings [2]

Old Post Office

On nearby West Bute Street a classic old bank has stood idle for 20 years…

Old Bank entrance

Old Bank on West Bute Street







And how more welcoming can a sight be to a weary traveller, than the eponymous Cardiff Bay Station (see previous blog post comparing this landmark to the understated presence of St Pancras Station in London)!

Tumbleweed junction [4]

Tumbleweed Junction 9

Cadogan House [2]


Meanwhile, nearby Cadogan House seems trapped in a bygone era when air conditioning was in its more experimental phase!

Until we speak again, spare a thought for all of those poor buildings under threat of being ‘listed’… a blessing or a curse… discuss.

Literally literary cat

Reading paper and books

Continuing the cultural theme, I thought I would take you along on my stroll from the recent appreciation of architecture and geography through to literature. I’m sure you can’t help but notice that I have a liking for reading… that’s the literature thing not the strange town in Berkshire thing!

Fortunately for me the ‘resident brain cell’ makes some efforts with the newspaper and books, because I sure as hell don’t get the luminous screen thing. Perhaps it’s the paws, but those keyboards were definitely not designed by a clever cat.

I don’t like to limit my reading just to the Observer newspaper and the workaholic’s limited range of interests. So if we’re looking at depth and diversity of subject matter I’m talking libraries, and specifically as I live in the centre of the fine city of Cardiff, I’m talking Central Library status. But wait, what have they done to the good old fashioned library? The blissful silence and respect for genteel surroundings seems to have given way to what I can only describe as ‘event reading’.

As I slink my way along The Hayes in the centre of town, past people mindlessly addicted to a vacuous social media mind mush, I’m arrested in my tracks as I approach the site of the grand old library… it seems bereft of its bookish bona fides. And I’m certain those workmen are not stocktaking the latest intake of literary wonders…

Old Library [1]

Old Library [2]

The grand old dame has succumbed to the city centre thirst for reading beer bottle labels and micro brewery advertisements, rather than the classics of world literature. So, where is a discerning cat going to get her knowledge fix? Well, look no further than the other end of an upgraded Hayes thoroughfare. I struggle to avoid drifting back into architectural critic mode (trying not to become a feline Prince Charles, or Charlie the Greek as he seems to be known to my resident comedian). But it does seem like those old Victorians had something of the splendour about their building aesthetic, as compared with the modern day Elizabethan minimalist trends for glass and a fake leather cladding…

Old Library [3]


<<< The old



Central Library [1]



The new >>>



Then again, who needs architectural splendour when you can throw in a huge hoop & spike combination to keep the punters in a state of confused wonder?

Central Library [2]

On entry a whole new world of wonder opens up, completely distracting from the so-called main purpose for which the building stands…

Inside library [1]

Inside library [4]

Inside library [2]Inside library [5]













It seems there was a glut of glass and steel at the time of construction, so they have not been spared on the inside either. I find myself within a strangely illuminated cathedral for books, that in reality is more a cathedral of space (no, not the ‘outer’ kind). Further distractions are provided by the views out into the aforementioned Hayes, leaving less reasons for stocking the covered paper things after all. Just set up a floor full of the luminous flat screen things, and for good measure litter them around each of the other floors as well.Inside library [6]Hayes from Library





What with local Council information and other advice centres, and even live musical interludes, it seems like the whole idea of the library as a place where a down and out could come to read the newspaper and stay warm all day has seen its own day.

Until we speak again it looks like I will just have to take the lead from the ‘indoor scribbler’ and write my own books! Whatever happened to reading for relaxation? In line with the concept of ‘proof of life’ please send all your answers on the back of a library book dust jacket.

Older and bolder

For any cats around the world stowing away on boats, determined that Cardiff is their desired destination (and why not I say!), you will know when you have arrived. The magnificent Pierhead Building will be there to greet you. For all of the modern development of the former world famous docks into the Cardiff Bay ‘leisure and government administration zone’, the eye can’t help but be drawn in by the older building.

Across Bay [4]It was designed by a Welsh Englishman named William Frame (1848-1906), because nothing in Wales is that straightforward. But there is no doubt about the 100% Welsh materials making up the French-originated design… Ruabon in North Wales was apparently known as ‘Terracottapolis‘ for the Etruria marl clay that forms the base of the distinctive terra cotta materials. It was paid for by a Scotsman, John Crichton-Stuart (3rd Marquess of Bute); so all that were needed were Irish and Italian builders or visitors for the locally revered ‘Six-Nations Rugby’ to be represented in the one building! It took 3 years in construction, opened in 1897, and cost a mere £30,000… which would realistically only pay for the furniture for us cats to sharpen our claws on in today’s prices.

Cardiff Bay sweep 5As I stroll around the Bay area I can do nothing but purr contentedly at the framing of this building from different angles. The Gothic revivalist architecture contrasts with the modern buildings surrounding it, with its strong lines and attention to detail marking it out against the sweeping and blander images of some of its modern neighbours.

Pierhead Building [1]

Close inspection lets you know the original purpose of this Grade 1 listed Victorian gem, established as the home of the Bute Docks Company. It also sat at the gateway for seamen from the world over who settled in Tiger Bay to make it the first multicultural community in the UK. Early in the 20th century it transferred to accommodate the Cardiff Railway Company, and later on to offices of the Great Western Railway.

Bute Dock Company sign

As the docks declined and closed, this proud building that had in its days administered the Port of Cardiff and the railways necessary for transporting much of the freight, lost its way, a bit like a stray cat, and fell into the same disuse as most of the surrounding industrial waste land. As the 20th century entered its final couple of decades it recaptured its original splendour within the new commercial vision for the docklands redevelopment.

Pierhead BuildingIt is now a part of the neighbouring Welsh Assembly buildings, complete with its own smaller version of ‘Big Ben’, but too small to provide the Assembly with its debating chamber… now accommodated in the wooden stingray beached next door. At least this architectural treasure is spared the need to accommodate political hot air, unlike the original ‘Big Ben’ of London framing the Palace of Westminster.

Pierhead Building [2]The detail on all parts of the building is exquisite, and just like many iconic buildings you can spend a great deal of time actually reading the building itself, as a bold statement of its designers and its place in time. Even the well preserved gargoyles are enough to remind any self-respecting cat of the dangers posed by a pack of ugly dogs! Now the building houses a visitor attraction with a 5-minute visual montage of the history of the surrounding area every 20 minutes in the Main Hall, as well as space for other Welsh history exhibitions, events and conferences.

Pierhead Building [3]


For this cat it is very reassuring that at least some remnants of the once great industrial heritage of this area are preserved, even if it also manages to show up the relatively poor standard of architectural fare that passes as modern progress and development. The Victorian age may now form a diminishing legacy of the older stock in our built environment, but it still shows how bold they were in some of their grand statements.

Who says an ordinary cat can’t have interests beyond sleeping and eating? Cardiff may not be overly blessed with world class examples of architecture, but it has a number of gems of all ages. Until we speak again I will continue to promote the Juno Architectural Appreciation Society of Cardiff.