Writer Katie Hamer is busily discovering parts of the city and revealing them through her We Are Cardiff series, the A-Z of what makes Cardiff special to her. She’ll be sharing the parts of the city she finds with you over the following weeks, so stay tuned!
A is for Arcades
I love these covered shopping streets, for providing shelter from the weather, and because I can browse without dodging traffic. Other cities have arcades too, but only Cardiff is “The City of Arcades”.
There’s a strong café culture here, even on a Monday morning. I’m greeted by cooking aromas. I feel tempted to stop at one of the outside tables, and sample some local cuisine. I have to remind myself that it’s just a couple of hours since I had breakfast. Oh, well!
Cardiff’s historic arcades are divided into the Castle Quarter, and the Morgan Quarter. I have a special fondness for the Morgan Quarter, so it’s this part of Cardiff that I decided to write about. I know this Quarter best because I worked at David Morgan, The Family Store, around which these arcades were centred. I worked there as a temp prior to its closure in 2005.
On Monday mornings long past, I would run down the Royal Arcade, to the staff entrance. I had to be on the shop floor five minutes before opening time. This was no tall order, as my department was on the top floor, and the staff’s changing rooms were in the basement. How I would panic if the train were delayed. Bad punctuality was frowned upon, even more than greeting a senior member of staff with their first name.
What David Morgan represented, was traditional values, and exceptional customer service. Along with everyone else who worked there, I felt a huge sadness on the day the store finally closed. Stepping out of the shop for the last time, I wondered what the future held for these special arcades. I still recall my department manager telling me that, within ten years, Cardiff would become indistinguishable from any other city in terms of shops.
Well, we are nearly ten years on, and I’m pleased to say that this isn’t the case. The oldest of the three arcades, the Royal Arcade actually predates David Morgan Ltd, so it is perhaps not so astonishing that it has survived the store’s closure. This particular arcade opened in 1858, 21 years before The Family Store was established.
Thankfully, when the David Morgan family dissolved the Cardiff Arcades Co in late 2004, new owners, Helical Bar, stepped in to save them. It’s wonderful to see how much investment the new owners have placed in them, and how they have preserved them for future generations. True, there are vacant shop units, but that’s the state of shopping centres everywhere, these days.
The Royal Arcade and the Morgan Arcade are very much at the heart of the Morgan Quarter, with their rows of shops linking St Mary Street with the Hayes. There’s a vibrant mix of boutiques, health food outlets, artists’ studios, furniture stores and bookshops. One of my favourite surprises is hidden in the middle of Morgan Arcade. This is where you can find Spillers Records, the world’s oldest record shop. It opened in 1894, but hasn’t always been where it is now. In fact, its existence predates that of its current location by five years.
I feel I should also mention the Wyndham Arcade, as it is more easily overlooked. These days, it’s more tagged on to the Café Quarter, and it has the ambience you’d expect from such a location. It’s quieter than the other two arcades, with a relaxed atmosphere that reminds me of the cobbled streets in the Algarve. This arcade is light and airy, and more inviting than I ever imagined it to be, from photos.
I have only scratched the surface of what is so special about these arcades. I could spend a whole day exploring them, and still have more things to come back and see. Have I convinced you? Why not come and explore them yourself – they’re worth a visit. Please share your opinions in the comments below.