Trail of the unexpected: Discover Dame Shirley Bassey's former haunts in Cardiff

Shirley Bassey may be one of Cardiff's best known citizens, but while the city adores her, there has never been much sign on her side that the loveaffair is requited.

This is amusingly demonstrated in a clip from the mid-Sixties of the future dame on Cardiff's main station, after a concert. Miss Bassey is asked if she will be returning to to the city fairly soon. The look of horror on her face is priceless. "Not fairly soon, I shouldn't imagine," she says, before fleeing to the safety of the London train.

These days, Dame Shirley doesn't even stay in Cardiff after performing there. None of the city'shotels quite comes up to scratch, apparently. Instead she prefers the Celtic Manor in Newport – a little piece of Marbella transplanted in the Welsh Valleys, which has just played host to the Ryder Cup. So exploring Shirley Bassey's Cardiff is necessarily a trip into the city's past.

There's no better place to start than the recently restored Central Station, not least because anyone from Miss Bassey's generation can get here for a song this autumn, thanks to the "Club 55" promotion by First Group and Arriva Trains Wales for those born in 1955 or earlier.

In 1957, in the first flush of success, Shirley's manager arranged for a special train to bring her here, where she was met by a mob of excitable kids from Tiger Bay's multi-racial Rainbow Club. The main, northern entrance leads out to the spruced up centre, where pedestrians have reclaimed the city from the motor car. But if you leave the station by the shabbier southern entrance it's only a short walk to Bute Street, the main artery of the old Tiger Bay, on which Dame Shirley was born. She entered the world above a dubious establishment called the Canadian Café at number 182, a nightspot catering to off-duty sailors.

Sadly, the old Tiger Bay was pulled down in the Sixties, and replaced by a drab housing estate known as Butetown. Carry on another half mile, though, and regeneration is everywhere. This is the heart of the old Docks, now rebranded as "Cardiff Bay". There is plenty to see here, including the Millennium Centre opera house and the Richard Rogers-designed Senedd – the Welsh Assembly's debating chamber.

But in among all the new build, there are still some traces of the old Docks. On James Street there is a pub called Mischief's Café Bar. For many years this was known as The Ship and Pilot, and it was where Dame Shirley had her first regular booking, as a gawky 15 year old. Among the drinkers who saw her were Dylan Thomas and cricket commentator John Arlott.

Before you leave Cardiff Bay, visit the Butetown History and Arts Centre, which keeps memories of the district alive – partly with 150 life histories told by residents. Ask nicely and they may show you their collection of photos of Miss Bassey in her youth.

Despite the "Girl from Tiger Bay" tag, Shirley did not actually grow up there. When she was two, her family moved to Splott, the implausibly named suburb a mile to the east. Twenty years ago you could have strolled from the Docks to Splott through a fascinating landscape of industrial decay. These days it is all ring roads and industrial parks, so you will need to drive or bus it.

Portmanmoor Road, where the Basseys lived, is on the western edge of Splott. In their time it was right next to a giant steel works. Now the steel works has gone along with the houses and pubs, such as the Lord Wimbourne and the Bomb and Dagger, where Shirley first sang.

You can capture something of the spirit of the old Splott, though, if you visit the recently rebuilt New Fleurs Social Club. Continue west for a quarter of a mile and you'll find Moorland Primary School, Shirley's alma mater.

Keep heading north into Clifton Street, and you discover the closest Cardiff comes to an alternative community. If you were a struggling musician, this is probably where you would live. Pause at the Hungry Planet wholefood store or The Canteen for the city's best vegetarian food.

Heading back towards the town centre and you will pass the Vulcan, one of the city's oldest pubs, recently saved from demolition. Pop in for a pint of Brains bitter and you'll see the kind of sawdust-on-the-floor place where the young Shirley used to stand on a table and sing for coppers. Regulars range from old Splott fellers, who'll tell you how they once courted the young Shirl, to James Dean Bradfield of the Manic Street Preachers.

Back in the centre, you walk past the anonymous hulk of the Cardiff International Arena, where Dame Shirley's last few home-town shows have been held.

Best to keep on going, past the new St David's shopping mall and through the lovely Victorian shopping arcades, to St Mary Street and the time-warped Louis Restaurant which has been serving up old-school Italian/British food for decades. Upstairs used to be the Louis Ballroom, where Shirley became the star of the Saturday night talent nights.

Finally, a brief trot along the city's historical shopping centre, Queen Street, leads us to the New Theatre, an Edwardian variety palace in brick and Bath Stone. Here Shirley at 17 made her first professional appearances in a revue called Hot From Harlem.

Within a year she was taken up by a London manager and hightailed it out of town– understandable, perhaps, given the harshness of her childhood.

Modern Cardiff is a somewhat more welcoming place ... so you might decide to stay a little longer. When you do leave, there is a surreal railway experience awaiting: your train could well be leaving from Platform 0, added as an afterthought when 1-7 inclusive proved insufficient. Zero to hero, indeed.

'Miss Shirley Bassey' by John L Williams is published by Quercus (£16.99)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Scunthorpe goalkeeper Sam Slocombe (left) is congratulated by winning penalty taker Miguel Llera (right)
football
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
News
i100
Travel
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Adam Gemili interview: 'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    'No abs Adam' plans to muscle in on Usain Bolt's turf

    After a year touched by tragedy, Adam Gemili wants to become the sixth Briton to run a sub-10sec 100m
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum