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CPS Homes guide to living in Cardiff Bay

The Tiger that lost its stripes

Cardiff Bay has brought a whole new dimension to our enjoyment of the city

With fuzzy heads, we soaked up sunshine at a quayside café the morning after Wales’ Friday-night Six Nations triumph over France. As French conversation and laughter wafted on the breeze, it felt as though we were abroad.

View of Cardiff Bay and Millennium Centre “When the sun is out and the nights are long, there is no better place to be than sitting in the Bay with a cool breeze off the sea,” says Dr Rhys Jones, Cardiff University lecturer, BBC presenter and Bay resident. “It’s got a fantastic variety of restaurants, bars and some interesting niche shops. It reminds me of Lisbon, actually.”

These days, homes populate former wasteland and there are spaces for leisure where once was great commerce, industry and toil. It’s almost impossible to imagine the vast smoky docks, as rough and ready as the Bristol Channel’s currents – said to be reminiscent of raging tigers and the reason for the fierce, romantic name ‘Tiger Bay’.

“James Street, the one-time hub of dock life, pulsed with vitality,” wrote famed Tiger Bay poet Harry ‘Shipmate’ Cooke. “Tall buildings full of clacking typewriters, clerks, shipbrokers, agents and things maritime. At street level, shops of every degree, elbowing each other for attention.”

These days James Street is a shadow of its former self, and the evocative Tiger Bay all but extinct. But the splendour of the Nineteenth-Century façades still display the wealth and power that rose here thanks to the export of coal.

“Take a walk around Loudoun and Mount Stuart Squares and you soon get a grasp of the history,” says resident Martin M. Jones. “Historic photos in the Waterguard, Bute Street Post Office and events such as 2013’s De Gabay production all help to educate us newcomers of the area’s rich history.”


In the years after the Industrial Revolution, vast quantities of coal and iron ore were brought to the port from the Valleys by canal and steam locomotives. By the turn of the Twentieth Century, Cardiff’s docks saw more traffic than New York, exporting more coal than any port in the world. The peak, in 1913, saw nearly 11 million tonnes of Wales’ black stuff shipped to meet the world’s demand for fuel. By 1920, there were 122 shipping companies based here.

As we exported raw materials, so we imported people. One of the oldest multi-cultural communities in Britain, people of 45 different nationalities could once be found in the tightly-packed homes and boarding-houses of Butetown and Tiger Bay.

But the rise of oil and cheap German coal meant that things were on the slide long before the depression of the 1930s. A post-war slump in coal demand meant that by 1964, coal export had ceased, and the demolition of the old housing began in earnest. Today, only Roath and Queen Alexandra docks are still in use, handling 2.1 million tonnes annually.


Cardiff Bay Development Corporation was established in 1987 to oversee the redevelopment of some 2,700 acres of derelict land. In 2000, the creation of the 500-acre freshwater lagoon at the mouths of the Taff and Ely rivers was vital for Cardiff Bay’s successful rebirth. The £220m, 1.1km Barrage that joins Queen Alexandra Dock with Penarth Head comprises five sluice gates, a fish pass and three locks, and is a fascinating feat of engineering. The result: no more tidal mudflats.

“We were all worried about the installation of the barrage and the effect on local wildlife,” says expert Dr Rhys Jones. “Of course, Cardiff was created by reclaiming saltmarsh, so it’s nothing new for the area. These days, I regularly see foxes, rabbits and a variety of interesting birds, including long-tailed tits and even waxwings. Cardiff Bay Wetlands Reserve is a freshwater marshland and I’ve seen some fantastic birdlife there.”


You don’t have to be eagle-eyed to notice Cardiff Bay’s industrial past in the public art and the rusting remnants littering the cityscape. “The Cardiff Bay Development Corporation must have wanted the history of the Bay to show through; there are anchors, mooring bollards, coal scoops, and a big old crane left around the place,” says Alex Martin, who commutes from Danescourt by bike to work at County Hall.

Cardiff Bay view from above Iconic buildings help to put Cardiff Bay on the map. “I’ve recently taken up photography,” adds Alex, “and the history of the Bay is one of the things I like to show. I like to walk past the Wales Millennium Centre, the Senedd, Pierhead Building and Norwegian Church to take photos on sunny days.”

Impossible to ignore, the gleaming, shell-like Wales Millennium Centre will have been open ten years this November. “The WMC is now the most visited indoor tourist attraction in Wales, and no picture of Cardiff’s skyline is complete without the silhouette of the famous ‘armadillo’,” says Christian Torkington, founder and director of Guy Christian hair salon.

“Being so close to the capital’s most iconic businesses and buildings bring lots of footfall,” says Christian, who recently chose the Bay to open his second branch. “I love the architecture and vibe of the Bay – there’s so many creative people mingling around, it’s a real hub of activity. It also gives Cardiff a very cosmopolitan feel that would be hard to achieve without its existence.”


The economic boom of the early millennium saw the meteoric rise of apartment complexes and a buy-to-let free-for-all. Award-winning planning consultant Adrian Jones slated Cardiff Bay as the “worst example of waterside regeneration in Britain”, but those who live and work in the Bay are never so damning. Parking issues aside, people love it.

Karime Hassan, a prison officer and part-time rugby player, has fond memories of Cardiff Bay before Cardiff Bay. “The old feeling of the docks was special, and there are still some pockets of it,” says Karime, who spent a lot of his childhood at relatives’ homes here. “As a child, I used to love the Butetown Carnival even more than weddings – it was the highlight of the community’s year.”

These days Karime lives around the corner from where he attended St Cuthbert’s Primary School in its original Pomeroy Street location. “I still feel that the benefits of the Cardiff Bay development outweigh the bad,” he says. “Old Tiger Bay has a rich history, and after a lot of recent change it does seem to be settling down.”

There are more changes on their way, in the form of BBC’s Roath Lock studios, media developments in Porth Teigr, and the £250 million Cardiff Pointe waterfront project in the International Sports Village.

After the doldrums of the recession, plans for Cardiff Pointe’s 798 new homes are a welcome sign of a re-found confidence. Included in the scheme is a 3000-seat ice arena and a real-snow indoor ski slope. “As a keen skier and ice hockey fan, I can’t say that it doesn’t excite me to know that those new facilities will be on my doorstep,” says local resident Joe Bonney, who works at a marketing company in Mount Stuart Square and has lived in Cardiff for nine years.

“Living in the Bay is great, it’s like you’re in your own bubble: good shops, plenty of nice restaurants, and it’s a beautiful place to walk around. It’s got everything the city centre has, but with a nicer backdrop – and soon, an indoor ski slope!”

Did you know?

  • The world’s first £1 million cheque was signed in the once-mighty Coal Exchange, which in 1886 had more than 1,500 cigar-smoking, be-hatted members.
  • “One of the things I love about the Bay is the extensive outside gym, free to all users. The parks join up so that park gym apparatus can form part of a circuit. You can jog around and stop off at a rowing machine, elliptical runner or bench press as the go. How many areas of Cardiff can say that?!” – Dr Rhys Jones
  • In 1910, Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition embarked from Cardiff aboard the SS Terra Nova (though Scott was not aboard). Cardiff raised £2,500 for the expedition, more than any other city.
  • Cardiff Bay is modelled on Baltimore’s successful Inner Harbour redevelopment scheme. Planners and councillors visited many times, and in 1994 they took along the BBC Welsh National Orchestra... perhaps in case they ran out of conversation?
  • These days, St Cuthbert’s Primary School is located on Letton Road, named after Tommy Letton, or ‘Uncle Tom’. Born in 1901, Tommy ‘The Fish’, as he was also known, was one of the Docks’ famous characters – he spent more than 40 years selling fish from a barrow. How many streets have been named after fishmongers? But then, how many fishmongers have been instrumental in creating a park, as Tommy did? Hamadryad Park was named after the HMS Hamadryad, the old ship-hospital for seamen.
  • The area south of Clarence Road, between the Taff and the old Glamorganshire Canal, was once called ‘Rat Island’. Delightful.

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CPS Homes last edited this page on 12/03/2015. All details listed were correct at the time of publishing. Reviewed every six months.