Saturday, 5 December 2015

Central Square redevelopment - the long view

It's taken me a while to get around to it, but at last I've uploaded the photos I've been taking over the past six months of redevelopment work in Central Square, the area in front of Cardiff Central railway station. You can find them here. The area used to house the city's main bus and coach station, and the east side will, in a few years from now, eventually house the next generation bus and coach terminal, once Marland House and the car park occupying that site have been demolished, and built over. This site is interesting from a historical perspective.

With a somewhat longer memory than contemporary planners and developers, I recall from my time as Vicar of the City Centre Parish Church, that this is the site which, prior to its present unprepossessing edifices dating back to the 1960s, was the crowded site of older buildings, business and residential, dating back to the early nineteenth century. These were on the ancient water-front of the Taff, later re-routed in the heyday of Victorian expansion. They took over land which from the eleventh to the eighteenth century was the churchyard of the original St Mary's Priory, planted by the Benedictine Monks of Tewkesbury, right on the edge of the river where trade ships from around the Severn Estuary and further afield unloaded their wares. 

St Mary's Priory, on the present site of the Prince of Wales pub on the corner of St Mary Street and Wood Street, was reduced to ruins due to flooding, and a new church at the north end of Bute Street was built to replace it in the 1850s. As the riverside area was so prone to flooding, the course of the Taff through the coastal flood plain was straightened and acquired embankments to reduce the risk, much as we see it today. I wonder who benefited from this cemetery land-grab, which led to the Victorian reconfiguration of the ancient port of Cardiff into the familiar layout of today's townscape.

In a couple of years it'll all look different again. I understand the new BBC Wales headquarters is to be built on the old bus station site, now being cleared. A new office block nears completion next to the site on the west side, where once stood a brutalist 1960's County Council building, and prior to that St Dyfrig's Parish Church, next to the road bridge across the river into Tudor Street. 

St Dyfrig's was a Parish with a small dense urban footprint - a fine costly building, someone's vanity project maybe? The site was compulsorily purchased for redevelopment in the name of social progress, and few contested this. Again I wonder, who benefited? There are few left alive now who worshipped there in its last days. It was still standing when I was a youth. I know its last Vicar Bruce Davies, who was University Chaplain. I recall how each year it hosted an outdoor nativity scene behind the church railings segregating the building from the street. When we instituted the same kind of arrangement at St John's City Parish Church, thanks to the City Council a dozen years ago, St Dyfrig's was in my mind, with good reason.

These days, Tabernacle Baptist Church on the Hayes hosts a live re-telling of the Nativity Story several times daily for visitors to the city centre. It's a massive voluntary enterprise, driven by Christian vision and good-will, reaching far beyond the simple figurines behind church railings, accessible to passers by and vandals alike. The St David centre commercial redevelopment has made possible a regular throughput of hundreds of thousands of shoppers to the city centre. I wonder how many will be touched in some way by this energetic contemporary witness, very much a response to the challenges of our very secularised day and age?

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