“Back to my roots” – Dan

dan-alsobrook-web

Cardiff born and Cardiff bred? Not quite in my case. I was actually born in Leicester; a bit of a mongrel really. Dad was born in Shotton, Flintshire, although his mother was a Welsh speaker from Gorseinon and his father a Mancunian raised in Hawarden.

Mum’s father was an RAF officer from Sussex, shot down and killed over Norway in 1941 before he’d even met his infant daughter. Mum’s mother (our Gran) was a dedoubtable lady of Scottish stock and temperament, one of nine children. After the war she married a Trinidadian civil engineer, and they moved to Sale in Manchester.

My parents met whilst teaching together at Eccles Grammar School in Cheshire, and after their marriage in Sale their careers took them to Northampton and then to Loughborough. In 1972, Leicester General Hospital was the nearest maternity unit, and so that’s where I came into the world. Within a few months we had moved to Newport in South Wales, and then two years later we alighted in Whitchurch, a relatively affluent suburb of Cardiff. By then I’d acquired a sister, and my parents decided it was time to stay put for a bit. And there we stayed for 20 years.

Our house was a Edwardian semi just north of the railway which divides the mean streets of Llandaff North from the leafy boulevards of Whitchurch. Our childhood was blissfully happy and we had a close-knit group of friends from the surrounding streets who all went to the same primary school, Eglwys Newydd, next to the brook in Glan-y-Nant Terrace. At the time, Eglwys Newydd had English and Welsh streams; I went into the Welsh stream in spite of neither of my parents being able to speak the language. Nevertheless, I flourished academically, despite being painfully shy and small compared to my peers.

A fork in the road came in 1983, when a choice had to be made about my secondary education. Would I go to Whitchurch High School, the enormous English comprehensive across the brook, or would I follow several of my closest friends to Glantaf, the (then) relatively new Welsh-medium secondary school across the tracks in Llandaff? My best friend Howard, neither of whose parents spoke Welsh either, had already decided that he wanted to go to Glantaf, so it was natural that I wanted to go there too. But Mum and Dad were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to support my studies if I was learning through the medium of a language they didn’t speak, so I went to Whitchurch.

I often wonder how things would have turned out if I’d gone to Glantaf. It was then, and is now, a very good school with some impressive alumni from the world of the arts and sport.

In any case, the choice was made and I went to Whitchurch High School. My experience in my early teens at that school broadly reflected a lot of people’s experience of the 1980s in South Wales: a feeling of confidence and ambition being crushed by the people in charge. In the early 80s, Whitchurch had grown to be the largest secondary school in Wales, with over 1000 pupils. It was divided over two sites in the village, with kids from places as diverse as Rhiwbina and Mynachdy on the roll. I felt swamped.

There was the added complication of my mother being an English teacher at the school. Luckily for me, she was well-respected by the majority of pupils so I didn’t suffer from any of the usual “teacher’s kid” treatment from my schoolmates. On occasion I did suspect I was being made an example of by some teachers, notably when I was given a week’s detention by the head of year for uttering the word “Smarties” during a Science lesson.

My time in Lower School was pretty miserable. But things took a turn for the better when I moved to Upper School in my fifteenth year. We were the first kids to take the new GCSE exam, the replacement for the O-Level. I’d narrowed my career choices down to two options: journalism or medicine. Instead of leaping in one direction, I took a compromise and chose a mixture of arts and science subjects. Partly, I suspect, due to the fact that neither of my parents had any background in science. I did fairly well at both (although I was a disaster at Drama due to my horrific shyness), and when A-level decision time came, I plumped for sciences, as I felt medicine was my chosen path. Probably one of the biggest mistakes I ever made; not that I knew it at the time.

At the same time, my social life had started to re-establish itself, mostly outside of school, through my membership of County Wind Bands and Orchestras. I’d eschewed the sexy french horn in favour of the deeply creepy oboe, but luckily it seemed the oboe section were the outsiders of the orchestra: the kids who were too cool for school. We formed an alliance with like-minded viola and clarinet players and other “edgy” types. Some of them had super record collections. I went from Ultravox to the Cure within 12 months. Girls from Howell’s School, Glantaf and St Cyres danced with me to to “Lovecats” and “This Charming Man” at summer camp. We went on coach trips to Manchester and London listening to The Pixies and The House of Love on our personal stereos. School was all about work, and this was play, with my exotic new friends from Glantaf, Howell’s, Stanmore and St Cyres. The music we played in the orchestras and wind bands was incidental: we were in it for the alternative social scene, which revolved around the legendary and dingy Square Club on Westgate Street.

As a result of this separation of work and play, and also due to some subtle nagging from my mother, I managed to avoid cocking up my A-levels and gained a place at Cambridge to read Natural Sciences. The story of the intervening years between then and my return to Wales over a decade later is for another time and place (check my 30 Day Song Challenge for some highlights), but eventually I ended up in London, in my late 20s, having accomplished not that much.

Luckily for me, London Welsh RFC was the place to be for the young Welshman about town, so I headed there. In 1998 I’d discovered Gwladrugby.com, an Welsh rugby fans’ website created by a chap called Rhys, a Welsh exile in London. The site soon became a focus for rugby-related social gatherings in London and a number of us went on trips to watch Wales play in exotic locations such as Edinburgh, Paris, Rome, Nottingham and Bedford. Wales’s victory over England at Wembley in 1999 was a particular highlight during the period.

Whilst in London, Gwladrugby.com also provided me with the opportunity of meeting my wife. We spent several carefree years in London before something began to tug us back to Wales. I’d like to say it was hiraeth, but in fact it was a job I’d managed to secure, at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff. And so, in 2003, we moved back to Whitchurch, to the street next to the one I’d grown up in from 1974 to 1990.

So finally I get to the point of this story: why I love Cardiff, and Whitchurch in particular.

Cardiff has had a terrible reputation over the years. According to many, our city centre is infested with binge drinkers and football hooligans. Hen and stag parties stalk St. Mary’s Street, rendering it a no-go zone for respectable folk looking for an enjoyable night out in one of Europe’s newest capital cities. This may be true. I’m not that fond of Cardiff city centre on a Friday or Saturday night, but that could be because I’m getting old.

On the other hand, Cardiff has been lauded as “better than London” by many of my London friends who’ve travelled here to watch sporting events at the Millennium Stadium, due to the proximity and density of pubs and restaurants in the city centre. Far better than the suburban wastelands of Twickenham and Wembley, for sure. And cheaper too, for the most part.

For me, the return trip to Cardiff for rugby internationals took a turn for the better after the completion of the Millennium Stadium and the Rugby World Cup in 1999. True, the Welsh rugby team’s fortunes had already been on an upward curve for a few months that year, with victories over England and South Africa, but since we started playing at the new stadium, it feels a lot more like a fortress than the old one and I really think it gives us an edge over visiting teams. Two Grand Slams in the last decade would tend to support this theory. Sadly the fortress effect doesn’t always work, but we’re a small nation punching well above our weight, so we can’t win all of the time.

I left Cardiff in 1990 and didn’t return for 13 years. During that time, another massive project was completed in the city. The Cardiff Bay Barrage was constructed and with it came the redevelopment of the waterfront around the old Bute Docks. In the early 90s the barrage and the wider redevelopment of the Bay were very contentious and many people questioned the long-term value of the project. Twenty years later those objections have been largely forgotten and Cardiff Bay has been transformed into an impressive waterside destination. I’ve worked in the area on and off for a few years since I moved back to Cardiff and I really like the Bay as a place to go, whether it’s for food, drink, a show or a film.

The Bay still feels a bit disconnected from the city centre. It’s partly a transport problem, but the regeneration has been concentrated around the waterfront and has left the relatively deprived areas of Butetown and Riverside which sit between the Bay and town untouched.

Until the mid noughties, the development of the Bay left the city centre looking tired and unappealing. People in search of a quiet night out would stay in the suburban peace of places like Pontcanna and Roath. But in 2010 the balance was restored with the opening of the new St. David’s 2 shopping centre, complete with a John Lewis department store and celebrity chef-branded restaurants like Jamie’s and Carluccio’s.

“Where’s the local identity?” you may ask. Most of these newcomers are chains; this could be any city in the UK. There are still plenty of Cardiff originals, such as the Cameo Club and Bully’s restaurant in Pontcanna, along with relative newcomers like The Potted Pig and Oscar’s. The big question is whether Cardiff can sustain places of this quality itself, through local residents, without having to rely upon big events to draw in the punters from elsewhere. That depends on the affluence of the city increasing. At the moment I don’t think it’s quite there.

When it comes to the arts scene, Cardiff is definitely there. As a boy in the late 1970s I went to see Star Wars at Chapter Arts Centre in Canton. More than 30 years later the place is still going strong; a recent refurbishment having injected new life and light into the building. Whether you’re going to see a film, show or just hang out in the bar with the great and the good of the Cardiff media and arts scene, Chapter is a wonderful destination.

Fairly recently I’ve also discovered a couple of groovy smaller venues: The Gate and the Globe in Roath, and Gwdihŵ in Guildford Crescent. Last year I was lucky enough to see one of my childhood heroes, David Gedge, play at the Globe with his band The Wedding Present.

I also saw the eternal loony Julian Cope play the Globe in October, and a toweringly beautiful and fierce set by the Throwing Muses, one of my favourite bands from the golden age of Indie Rock, at the Gate just a couple of weeks ago. The Gate is a former chapel just off City Road in Roath. An intimate venue with a friendly little bar; it’s a great place to get close to the performers, as I did when Neil Hannon played there last October.

Then there’s the WMC. As I said, I worked there before, during and after its opening in November 2004. One of the most ambitious building projects ever conceived in Wales, it very nearly didn’t happen. Several times. But through the hard work of a dedicated, passionate team of people, we got it open on time. It’s now part of the dramatic skyline of Cardiff Bay, and an institution that is respected and admired across South Wales and beyond. I love going back to the building and it evokes some powerful, proud memories for me. The centrepiece of the is the staggeringly beautiful Donald Gordon lyric theatre; probably the best place to see and hear live performance I’ve ever been in. Although I’m probably a bit biased.

Before it became the glittering, albeit slightly tarnished capital city it is today, Cardiff was little more than a collection of villages: Llandaf, Radyr, Llanishen, Llanederyn, Rhymney, Rhiwbina, Tongwynlais and the rest. And to a great extent it still is. Certainly my village, Whitchurch, retains a character of its own: a high street, the common, a village pub or two, small primary schools and some well-kept local shops. My favourite shop in Whitchurch is Martin Player’s butcher opposite the library on Park Road. Shops like this bring you closer to the producers of the products you’re buying, and you can see the care taken to preserve this closeness.

For the past five years or so our lives in Whitchurch have revolved largely around activities with our children. We’ve been incredibly lucky to have access to exceptional Welsh-medium nursery and primary education in the village; it makes such a difference when these facilities are on your doorstep. And with kids come a new social circle. We have a jolly and sizeable Mums and Dads’ club who enjoy nothing better than lounging on each others’ patios in the sun, sipping wine while the kids chase each other around the garden.

Finally, there’s the allotment. Earlier this year our 30 month wait was rewarded with an allotment plot in Llandaff North, just around the corner from our house. The first harvests have been pretty fruitful; some spuds, beetroot and runner beans. It’s early days, but over the years I’m sure we’ll get the hang of growing our own and the crops will become more bountiful each time. Gardening is great exercise and being outdoors makes me feel particularly happy, even when it rains (which it does a lot in Cardiff). Coming back to my roots in Whitchurch has been a joyful experience and I can’t imagine life being any other way.

Dan Allsobrook is an IT consultant who lives and works in Cardiff. In his spare time he’s one of the editors of Gwladrugby.com, an irreverent, amateurish yet surprisingly popular Welsh rugby fans’ website, and is responsible for @gwladrugby on twitter. He writes about politics, music, food and many other things on his own blog, Eggnewydd and has been known to tweet as @eggynewydd too. He is married to Eleri and they have two young sons, Geraint and Rhodri. Dan currently lives in Whitchurch.

Dan was photographed near his allotment by Adam Chard

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