Our reporter Jenny Jones speaks to Cardiff resident Polly Thompson today, about her move from the city to London in the ’90s – and back again last year, and the new kind of living she’s found here.
I’m that common person, who grew up in Cardiff through the bleak and grey 80s and then couldn’t wait to leave. In fact I found out about We Are Cardiff when I read James’ piece ‘Cardiff – it’s where you’re between’ and couldn’t believe how similar our stories were, almost exact parallels. I came across it by accident, just lost in endless scrolling one night on the internet, maybe I saw a link to it on Twitter. James’ experience of wanting to escape ’80s Cardiff totally resonated with me.
I was living in London at the time I read it – a couple of years ago. I was jobless, living for cheap in an old people’s home near Tottenham that was up for sale (I was part of one of those guardian schemes that stop squatters moving in by letting legitimate tenants live there for peppercorn rent). It was a disgusting place, with damp on all the walls, plasterwork that crumbled to the touch and squelching carpet over soaked underlay in every room, including the kitchens and bathrooms. But it was cheap. Really cheap. And in London, cheap housing is not to be sniffed at.
I left Cardiff when I was 16. I couldn’t wait to leave. There’s a big age gap between me and my older brother and sister, so they were already long gone from home when I was growing up, flown the coop, abandoned me in the nest. My was already in his 60s when I was born so my only real memories of him feature his disappearance into dementia, which started almost the second I was born.
By the time I arrived on earth, my sister had married and moved to Caerphilly, with children of her own just a few years younger than me (I’m nearly 16 years younger than her). My brother had slipped away and was living in some off-grid community in north Wales. Neither were around to watch the end of dad’s life. They barely visited, and didn’t register in my young mind as siblings. I saw how hard it was for my mum, working part time, trying to bring me up, and care for my father who was getting more and more confused. He almost never knew who I was, and so we had a strange relationship – he was a dad but also a not-dad, just some crazy old man who lived in the house.
I hated school. I don’t know how it’s possible to enjoy or engage when your home life is so mad. I felt isolated all the time. We lived in a small two bed house in Roath. I think it was somewhere around Alfred Street, but I’ve never been able to find its exact location. All I remember are heavy velvet drapes and dark wooden panels that were so fashionable in houses for a while.
My dad died when I was ten and my mum when I was thirteen, and so I ended up moving in with my sister in her new-build-box-house. I remember being young as pointing the TV aerial towards Bristol so we could watch Channel 4 instead of S4C – I never learned to speak Welsh, and besides that I felt like being Welsh was a strait jacket I couldn’t escape. It didn’t feel cool, it felt parochial, not something to be proud of. I wanted desperately to move where things were happening, to somewhere so big I could get lost within it and forget about all the crap things I’d experienced as a child. I wanted adventure and neon and to stay up all night. And none of those things felt possible in Cardiff in the 1980s. I would have preferred New York, but London was a pretty good second on the list.
The second I was old enough to leave, I did. I had barely any money but my sister surprised me by paying for my coach ticket and then handing me an envelope with five hundred pounds in it. She’d been saving up for me since I’d started living there. I’d told her what my plan was when I moved in, and apparently she had believed me.
I won’t bore you with the details of what happened in London, but here’s the short version. I went to art college, made good friends. Had a few boyfriends and one girlfriend. Fell in love with one of the boyfriends. I mostly lived around south London, as that’s where was cheapest, around Peckham and Deptford. To say I lived thriftily is an understatement – but I was where I wanted to be, and that was the most important thing.
I learned to turn off my Cardiff accent. I very deliberately cut ties to home. I told people I was from the West Country if they asked. I never wanted to come back to Wales. Never.
Fast forward 20 years. I’m divorced now, and after a couple of years where I actually had money, I’m broke again after some terrible decisions – very bad timing in buying and selling our married flat, which ended up with both of us divorced, in negative equity, having to bear the debt of fifteen grand each, which I am still paying off (although I’m almost completely debt free). I was technically homeless for a bit, a couple of months sofa surfing with friends until I managed to get myself back on my feet (and it really was sofa surfing – no one I know in London has a spare room). I spend most of my time drawing and illustrating, which is what I love and prefer to do but it’s not a steady job and so I do days of supply teaching around it.
It was the day I visited the Haringey food bank that I realised the cost of living in London was breaking me. Most of my friends were happily married or “consciously coupling” with children, and had moved out into north west London. Some of them are struggling too – squashed together in one bedroom flats, carrying their prams up and down the stairs. But they’re together. There’s probably little that’s as depressing as getting divorced when you’re in your early 30s. It should be the decade you’re making babies and growing a family and having widening waistlines but it doesn’t matter because you’re all together and that’s what counts.
Instead I was edging closer to 40 and worried about making rent, I was worried about being able to eat, what was I doing with my life. I was swinging in the other direction from almost everyone I knew – I was single, working jobs I hated to pay for £800 a month for a room in a communal house full of twenty somethings, with a shared bathroom that was always covered in other people’s hair, and a kitchen I’d stopped storing my food in as people openly helped themselves to whatever they wanted.
I was drinking a lot, alone. One of those days I was in the kitchen bitching about the rent – which had just been hiked by £50 a month for each of us – when my Australian housemate told me a couple of them were thinking of moving out and joining a guardianship scheme, where you get moved into empty properties to stop squatters and pay next to nothing. Did I fancy joining them?
I did, and so I did, and for the next year the worries about money eased up a little. But it’s a very unstable existence. You can be moved on from the place you’re staying whenever the landlord sells it (or decides to remove you). The places are often in a state, they may have been empty already for years, and it takes a lot to renovate a place that’s like this.
I was lucky – one of my housemates was a set designer, and very handy at building and repairing things. But I had just moved into my fourth place in 18 months when it hit me – I couldn’t keep living like this. I was exhausted, I was worried about money all the time. I was still drinking, all the time. It is a sobering (no pun intended) realisation to be a female that’s nearly 40, divorced, single, and living a life that is miserably itinerate.
I had come across James’ piece about Cardiff shortly after moving into the Tottenham residential home. It was a strange, squat building – seventeen rooms set across this weird sprawling building that only had one floor. I ended up living there for nearly eight months, during which time I started seeing a counsellor through a scheme that was training students for a nearby university, which made it a lot cheaper. And I tried to make a plan for myself.
During that time I started talking to my sister again on a more regular basis. I’m not sure why. We fell out of touch after I moved to London because I just wanted to eradicate the past from existence – it was easier to have no contact than try and renegotiate all the things that had happened every time I spoke to her. I think she understood. My sister sent me money every year after I left her house, up until I was 25 – always at Christmas, always £50. She stopped sending money the year I got married, which I told her about in a letter … after the ceremony had happened. I didn’t invite her to the wedding, which I feel guilty about to this day. She still sent me a card every Christmas, even then. I never sent her anything. I am objectively a terrible, terrible sister.
Anyway, during that time, I started thinking about moving out of London. From the second I arrived there I had never wanted to leave. But over the course of 24 years, things can change, right? I wasn’t the same person I had been when I arrived there. Sensing I was perhaps open to options, my sister suggested I come back to Cardiff to visit her for a weekend, for us maybe to spend some time together and for me to get some distance from London. I hadn’t been back for years – not since the late ’90s.
There was some big football thing on that weekend, she said, so it might be a bit busy in town, but she was looking forward to seeing me and showing me around. She booked my train tickets and emailed them to me (I’ll never really ever be able to pay her back for everything she’s ever given me, in terms of opportunity and opening doors for me).
I apprehensively boarded the train. It was the start of June, and I arrived in Cardiff to witness the hundreds of thousands of people creating a hot, crazy carnival in the city for the Champions League Final.
I think it’s fair to say that Cardiff astonished me. I’m sure the weather helped that weekend – scorching hot sunshine and blue skies – but it was more the scale of everything. That enormous stadium right in the heart of the city centre. The huge St David’s 2 shopping centre. All those high rises that seem to be exploding out of the earth all around. The Wales Millennium Centre. The BAY – and the barrage. It was a million miles away from the Cardiff I remembered – all squat buildings and bad weather and aerials pointed towards Bristol and verruca socks at the Empire Pool.
There is something tangible in memory that is beyond anything you can explain to someone about a place, however hard you try to. It’s a feeling, it’s colours, it’s a weight. Cardiff was grey and brown in my memories, and heavy, like a wool jumper soaked in cold rain. This Cardiff was somewhere entirely new, with bars and clubs and people with dyed hair, all dressed up, and a circus, and opera, and galleries. It was like the Cardiff I remembered was an entirely different place. While we walked around the stadium I struggled to remember how it had looked before with Empire pool there, even though I used to go swimming in it nearly every week.
On the Saturday of my visiting weekend we went down into the Bay, where I marvelled at the Millennium Centre, the Senedd. I don’t really remember going into Cardiff Bay as a child – it wasn’t the sort of place you’d go for a day out, like it is now. My only memory is driving through it once when I was really young … and my mum locking the car doors.
And now there were thousands of people – families, tourists, everybody – wandering around, eating ice creams. There was music blaring. We bought pints from some outdoor bar and walked around, people watching, place watching. I have never really been into sports, but Champions League was a really impressive event.
When the actual match was on we walked back through town to my sister’s house. She lives in Canton now, she has done for years – on a small side street off Cowbridge Road. It’s very old school – she knows her neighbours – everyone knows everyone on that street. Next door to her is a young family, who she sometimes babysits for in exchange for them looking after her dog. She said she had told them all about me, that I was coming to stay, and that we hadn’t seen each other in nearly 20 years. At first I found it a bit alarming, even intrusive that she would share information like that with total strangers – they’re just neighbours. My sister laughed at me when I said that to her. “I’ve spent more time with them than I ever have with you!”.
It wasn’t that that made me decide to move back, although it was a part of it. We got on better than I imagined we would. We’re quite similar, although I never would have been able to see it or admit it when I was 16. While at her house that night, we put on some Hitchcock films, ate popcorn and I idly checked rental prices in Cardiff. Just to check. If you’ve ever compared rental prices in London to Cardiff, you’ll probably be able to imagine what comes next.
I found a nice room in a shared house in Adamsdown, really near the city centre, sharing with three other girls – two Spanish girls studying postgrads at Cardiff uni and one girl from Porth who was a hairdresser. My sister persuaded me to send them a message – might as well go and have a look while you’re here, right? So I wrote some long rambling message to them on Gumtree about my situation in London, and how I probably wasn’t going to move in but would like to have a look … Sofia messaged me back and told me to come over anyway. I took the bus over there, and from the second I stepped into the house, something clicked. We had a glass of wine, and I ended up staying for dinner.
But I couldn’t do it … it seemed too drastic, too big a step. I went back to London, but within two months the management agency were in touch. The place had been sold, and was going to be knocked down so flats could be built there. We had to move. Again.
I packed up my meagre belongings – the ones that weren’t already in storage from the divorce – hired a van, and moved to Cardiff.
Unfortunately the room in Adamsdown was taken so I ended up in my sister’s spare room until Christmas, when Sofia messaged me and told me their new room mate was moving out – she was Greek and had decided eventually that Brexit would make it impossible for her to stay, and was going back to Greece. I moved into her room on New Year’s Day, and I’ve been in that house since. It feels like a whole new life, like it did when I first moved to London.
I didn’t think it would be possible to move somewhere, aged 40, and make new friends, and feel at home. It doesn’t feel like moving ‘back home’ in the sense that Cardiff never felt like home to me before. But I was so desperate to escape when I was 16, that coloured my view of everything. It’s also possible that Cardiff was fine back then. I just couldn’t see it.
Much of what remains from my childhood in Cardiff are photos my sister has now, that seem weirdly over-saturated technicolour compared with my memories. There are hardly any photos of my brother and sister, but my sister doesn’t care. She’s the archivist for our weird disintegrated family now, our historian, and she’s taken good care of these memories for me, when I probably would have burned them if I’d known they existed.
I’m glad they still exist. Me, aged about four, in some bizarre red woollen jumper that has ‘cute’ repeatedly emblazoned across it (either to reinforce the message or set the record straight in case you saw me and thought I looked hideous), lying on a blanket in the flower gardens in Roath. This would be around 1980-something, the early 80s though, maybe ’82 or ’83. My dad has a ridiculous tash and I can’t even really describe what mum is wearing, she looks like a cross between Joan Collins and someone ready to dance around the Maypole. Other photos are from the fountains outside City Hall, me in a white dress covered in grass stains and mud, carrying water from the fountains over to some flowers I saw scorched and dying in a nearby flower bed. It is the sort of hopeless endeavour I’m attracted to that probably explains most of my relationships and the major choices I’ve made in my life.
Apart from now. This move feels a bit different. I hope I’ve approached it in a slightly less manic way. And I like Cardiff. It feels busy and buzzing. I’m impressed with Cardiff’s creative scene. There are so many co-working spaces and meet-ups and exhibitions and things going on, it’s been a very quick process to find out what’s going on and meet other illustrators, something that felt hard and intimidating in London (and often included an hour Tube ride to the other side of the city). It’s hard to describe the difference – in London there’s so much more going on, you do feel part of this huge machine – but then it can feel inaccessible, because you don’t know the right people, or that all the fun is happening somewhere else.
It’s still such early days of being back in Cardiff, I’m not sure what the future holds or whether I’ll stay here permanently. And I’m not saying there’s nothing wrong with living here – already I can see problems with inner city traffic, parking, public transport – especially compared to London.
But I’ve managed to pick up work here and it’s easier to walk or cycle to work in Cardiff then it was in London. Well it’s closer distances, although the roads could do with actual cycle lanes. And less potholes. But for the moment, I’ll take those.
Polly Thompson is an illustrator and teacher who lives in Adamsdown. Polly’s story was told to Jenny Jones. Her name was changed for this article, at her request.