A seaside city's heady brew
Cardiff has changed, but for Jeremy Bowen it still smells of home
Saturday 28 June 1997
I like being in a town or city where things are still made, and not just sold. And after all, you sense a place as much with your nose as with your eyes. My working life as a foreign correspondent keeps my nostrils busy; there are the spice bazaars in Baghdad, the dung-fires of India, the rottenness of rain on charred wood in Sarajevo, drains everywhere, the sweat and fear the new refugees carry with them when they have lost everything else. That smells like work. Cardiff smells like home.
The Old Brewery's odour does not necessarily provoke the desire for a pint (though every visitor to Cardiff should sample a glass or two of SA or Dark, Brain's legendary contributions to human happiness). Instead, it makes me think of childhood, long before I was old enough to penetrate the mysterious and smoky interiors of licensed premises, of drizzly Saturdays in the late Sixties, watching Cardiff City from the boys' enclosure at Ninian Park and visiting my grandparents in Splott to drink tea out of the 1953 Coronation mug in front of their coal fire.
The brewery used to have a rival. When the wind came in off the Bristol Channel the pong from the steelworks was everywhere. I used to like it - but not as much as Brain's hops. It went years ago when they closed East Moors Works, where my grandfather spent much of his working life. In that area and down at the docks there is now a bold new development, bringing jobs and money back to a place that had precious little of either.
My grandparents, who always knew a significant event when they saw one, took me to watch the old Tiger Bay being knocked down in the Sixties. They would have liked the revitalisation of such a big and historic part of our capital city. I think it is a great idea, as well.
But it is not without controversy. The developers decided that the only way to do it was to spend millions on a barrage that will flood the tidal basin around the Pier Head. The mudflats down there teem with wildlife, there are bits of old jetties, and it doesn't take much imagination to visualise the ships that used to load up when Cardiff was the greatest coal-exporting port in the world. The mariners who took Welsh coal around the world a century ago knew that you can't mess with the wind and the tides. The plan is to swamp the past with a freshwater lake that will, they say, bring back real prosperity. I hope it does.
My Wales has distinct boundaries. It runs from Cardiff in the east to Pembrokeshire in the west. It goes inland to Brecon, through the Beacons National Park, and home via Merthyr Tydfil, where we used to stop for tea with my Auntie Marian and Uncle John. Near their house was the Whitey, a craggy old tip from the time when the iron industry made Merthyr a boom town. Until the Twenties, they told us, it used to glow at night when hot slag from the mighty furnace of Dowlais was dumped on it. Forty years on, I half expected the Whitey to melt the soles of my shoes.
What about north Wales? Well, it has wonderful castles and mountains and lakes, I know. But an invisible line divides the north and south of our country. Many South Walians, like me, do not cross it much.
I tend to stop once I get to the Brecon Beacons, the mountains that mark the edge of South Wales. Pen-y-fan is the biggest. There is a path to the summit that won't tax a child. But beware. The Beacons can change their mood very quickly. Sometimes you see red-faced soldiers - usually members of the SAS - running up and over the mountains with improbable loads on their backs. They know better than most that when the fog rolls in the Beacons can defeat the strongest and most daring of men and women.
From mountains to sea, and the beaches and cliffs of Pembrokeshire. There's little that can beat a salty summer day here. Try walking the cliff path from St David's to Sova, swim at Whitesand Bay and camp at Mrs Howellston's farm above Little Haven. The farm has hardly changed in 30 years, except that the showers are better. And it has stunning views over St Bride's Bay.
Like me, you can travel the world, drive through the deserts of Arabia and the plains of Afghanistan. Fight your way through the steamy heat of the Far East. Eat a biryani in Bombay and drink gin and tonic at Victoria Falls. But don't forget Wales. Because once our small, green country has entered your soul, you will always come back.
Jeremy Bowen is the BBC's Jerusalem correspondent. This story that first appeared in `A View of Wales'.
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