Cardiff is a capital because Wales needed one.
It was born out of the rails and docks, out of a countryside that got eaten up by the coal industry. Roath, Cathays, Canton, all colonies for a port that rose, boomed and died. It’s a city that wants to play catch-up to London, Manchester, Leeds. Desperate to scrape its industrial vestiges, just like Sheffield, it only spares the mansions and colleges – palaces the elite designed for itself. What was once the symbol of ruthless industrialisation, Tiger Bay, now wouldn’t be out of place in Oslo or Stockholm.
Just like other cities are built on rivers, Cardiff is built on railways. Miles of tracks cut the city in slices, which are then stitched together with walkways. All the rails converge toward the central station, an area still waiting for its promise of regeneration. Squeezed between the Bay and the residential areas sits Butetown, an undefined no-man’s-land of railways and motorways, merely acting as a passage to the waterfront, roads roaring and pavements empty.
The two cities – north and south – are too far to interact, and they prefer to keep each other at a distance. Much is said of Cardiff’s traditional “communities”, and yet the city’s most important buildings – the Parliament, the Millennium Centre – sit on the waterfront, cuddled by the buildings for the new upper class.
Cardiff is the piece of Britain Wales got stuck with. A city willing to recycle itself, and yet inevitably caught in its industrial past. The dirt and litter remind how it’s far from a perfect example of urbanisation, and how poverty still seeps through the cracks of the shops on Queen Street.
Like the rest of the country, Wales is ambitious, growing and ultimately, uncertain of what it want to be.