Trail of the unexpected: Discover Dame Shirley Bassey's former haunts in Cardiff
Saturday 09 October 2010
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)
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