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Real Cardiff: The Flourishing City by Peter Finch – review

Writer Ben Newman gets stuck into Peter Finch’s fourth instalment in the Real Cardiff series.

How well do you know Cardiff, really? For a city of only roughly 350,000 people, nestled between valleys and the sea, there is a surprising amount of history, tales, fables, and important spots that remain hidden to the majority of us. Thankfully, Peter Finch’s Real Cardiff The Flourishing City has been published and is, to date, one of the most readable yet comprehensive histories of Cardiff.

By splitting the book into five main parts – Central, East, North, West, and South – Finch interprets how the city’s linguistic, cultural, artistic, and economical heritage is preserved and built upon today, whilst contextualising how all these factors contribute to Cardiff’s booming trade. No matter which part of the ‘diff you live in, there will be some coverage of it in it here, and may make you approach your morning commute or next trip to the shops a little differently.

The book opens with a short discussion about Cardiff’s role as a boom city, before descending into an overview of the city’s history. Finch then muses on the cultural melding, or lack thereof, between Cardiff and the northern valleys, and how economic and population pressures may push Cardiffians out into the valleys. It is an interesting discussion to be had where Cardiff’s influence and parameters end, with Finch stating that “Cardiff finishes at the roundabout just south of Castell Coch.” This book attempts to discuss more than just Cardiff itself, but the degree of its wider influence in the fabric of south Wales.

Furthering on that, the author discusses how the city is changing architecturally, with our beloved skyline being threatened by all sorts of wider economic advancements. The book opens by providing a full framework of what has happened and what is to come, threading in loose descriptions of a multitude of factors. Whilst Finch does not go into impressive depth in this book, he does display an amazing breadth of knowledge; this book is not necessarily for those inclined to the nitty-gritty, but more for those who want a full understanding of what it means to be Cardiff.

Finch, already famous for being a wonderful writer, employs a direct and simple writing style, with the kind of preference for understatement you see from any old man telling a story. Even if he shies away from hyperbole, he still manages to capture the contradictory and idiosyncratic nature of Cardiff. His writing is underpinned by an implicit understanding of what makes us Cardiffians tick, allowing his writing to gravitate towards highlights that would naturally interest locals.

Without wanting to spoil too much, the book traverses through geographical spots throughout each part of Cardiff, focusing on those bits that appear relatively different or important. In a way, it is as if Finch is taking you on a tour – albeit a politicised one – throughout spots in Cardiff. He starts off with easy parts such as Queen Street, before slowly making his way through the nooks and crannies of central Cardiff, ending in the quieter streets of Tredegarville. This occurs throughout each section, beginning at a central hub, and slowly meandering out to the peripheries. Each street reveals something different and hidden away. To give them away here would ruin the experience, but the important point Finch takes away from each idiosyncrasy is that Cardiff deserves to be treasured. Underpinning his textual tour is an argument that we, like the rest of Wales, need a plan. Issues such as traffic concerns, architectural issues, and Cardiff’s disconnect from Welsh culture are all discussed, leading to a book that not only entrenches itself in the city, but in the city’s concerns, troubles, and future.

Real Cardiff is, at heart, a book for the people of Cardiff, half-love-letter, half-history.


You can buy Real Cardiff: The Flourishing City from Seren Books

Author Peter Finch has a number of events throughout the rest of 2018/9 where you can join him on walks through the city, or hear him talk. Make sure to check Peter Finch’s Twitter for more details, but we recommend:

Saturday 8th September, 2018
Banging Out The Poems at The Park Hotel
Cardiff Book Festival. 3.15 pm at Cornerstone, Charles Street
A brief literary history of one of Cardiff’s major landmarks. Peter Finch, author of the new Real Cardiff The Flourishing City, tracks some of the creative outrages perpetrated in the name of literature at this 150-year old institution. We’ll also hear a little about how, in an age of windpower, the world’s greatest coal port has boomed again. Cardiff – as much a destination now as it is a place to live.

Tuesday 23rd September, 2018
Real Cardiff The Flourishing City
Rhiwbina Library. 7.30 pm.

Thursday 18th October, 2018
Arts Society Central Cardiff Walk
Psychogeography and the Real City

Friday 9th February, 2019
The Cardiff Mash Up
Mezzanine: The Seren Cornerstone Poetry Festival, Charles Street, Cardiff, 2019
The polymath poet, editor, essayist and psychogeographer presents his newest work on the city.
12.00 noon.





Cardiff Book Festival / Gŵyl Lyfrau Caerdydd

Seems like 2016 is the inaugural year for many things here in our fair Cardiff. We had our first theatre fringe, and now there’s a crowdfunder open for our first Book Festival!

Loads of cities have Book Festivals, right? So why doesn’t Cardiff have one? Here at We Are Cardiff, we’re very partial to a good yarn – so much so, we published our first book for the We Are Cardiff Press late last year (it’s called The 42b and is a collection of short stories about an unconventional bus route through a dystopian Cardiff), and we’re currently scheming on our second one.

Anyway, back to the book festie … here’s all the official blurb …

Cardiff Book Festival Gŵyl Lyfrau Caerdydd is backed by award-winning writers and leading figures in Welsh public life.

Here’s the background:


This year, the aim is to host a three-day festival aimed at promoting reading, writing and debate to the Welsh capital for the first time this autumn (28-30th October 2016).

It comes in the year the city celebrates the centenary of its most famous literary son, Roald Dahl.

The ambition is to continue to grow every year adding more events and putting the Cardiff Book Festival on the literary map.

Events will include artists like Ifor ap Glyn, the national poet of Wales, award-winning writers including Rachel Trezise and Jonathan Edwards and the investigative journalist, Martin Williams.

Festival organisers are aiming to raise £5,000 via Indiegogo but the more they can raise the more events they can organise at the festival.

As well as helping the festival get off the ground, they’re offering supporters a range of experiences including signed books, a Roald Dahl walking tour with one of our favourite Cardiff writers, Peter Finch, masterclasses with award-winning authors including Rachel Trezise and workshops with publishers and agents on how budding writers can get into print.

They’re promising a diverse and inclusive programme featuring talks and debates from high profile figures on topics ranging from poetry to politics, crime writing to children’s events, fiction to feminism and the Welsh language to walking tours.

Get involved! 

There are a whole bunch of great rewards offered on the Cardiff Book Festival Indiegogo page. (In case you were wondering, we’ve already booked ourselves on the Peter Finch walking tour – they’re good fun and always very interesting).

peter finch



The Cardiff Waterways Map project

Writer Ellie Philpotts attended the launch of the Cardiff Waterways Project, headed up by ArtShell.



Cardiff is a watery city. As well as the surrounding Bay and beachside areas such as Barry Island and Penarth, residents will be accustomed to the River Taff winding throughout, plus the fact that it rains. A lot. But did you know just how much the city is built on waterways?

Forty volunteers, headed by Johana Hartwig, founder of Art Shell, have been busy working on The Cardiff Waterways Map project. The year-long venture has researched our city’s changing waterscape – from its humble origins to industrial boom, while also thinking about the role it has today and will no doubt have in the future. Local artwork; website development; tours of the waterways by poet and Cardiff literary king Peter Finch and museum visits were all part and parcel of the scheme, which was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund and has just reached its conclusion.

I went along to the grand finale, where the new beta website for The Cardiff Waterways Project was also revealed.

Johana, whose organisation Art Shell is based in Grangetown, said one of the incentives for the project was the fact that ‘many of the waterways are hidden or filled in.’ The roots of the city are not always acknowledged or even known about, despite the fact that industry has developed from them. Art Shell helps to facilitate art in alternative spaces and engages in artistic research.

Held in Cardiff Story Museum in the Hayes, the day exhibited historic waterways postcards, displays and snippets of info, the focal point of which had to be the Glamorganshire Canal model, made by The Boat Studio and commissioned by Art Shell. The Boat Studio run an innovative scheme in which a functional narrow boat hosts arts residences and performances.

As well as learning about the waterways themselves, I found out a lot about Peter Finch’s role in bringing Cardiff’s past to life. His vast range of creative work centres on his native city, and spans to The Real Cardiff Trilogy, depicting how the capital has evolved over the years.

One of his publications is Cardiff as a Watery Place, a smaller compilation commissioned for the waterways project by Art Shell, with chapters on ‘lost rivers of Cardiff’, ‘The Glamorgan Canal’, and ‘The Bridge over the Canna’, among others. He’s recently begun working on the fourth addition to the series, so it seems if you want to find out more about Cardiff’s history, Peter is the trusty fountain of knowledge (see Peter Finch’s website for more details). He’s also a long time friend of We Are Cardiff – you can read his entry about Cardiff on the site here: Cardiff, city of new height).

The team’s dedication and the ultimate showcase proved to me that if there’s one thing to be said about the people of Cardiff, it’s that they have pride in their heritage and culture, as well as a genuine passion for where we live.

Want to find out more? Check out www.ambermottram.com/the-boat-studio; www.peterfinch.co.uk or www.artshell.org – or pop by the Cardiff Story Museum because it’s definitely one of the places to be to immerse yourself in some good Welsh history.

Ellie Philpotts


Thanks Ellie! See you again …

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The roots of rock … Peter Finch goes from Cardiff to Mississippi and back

The lovely Peter Finch has written a book called (you’ve guessed it) The roots of rock – from Cardiff to Mississipi and back. And to celebrate, there’s a launch party!

roots of rock

Peter’s book draws on a life long love of music and the need to trace its roots … he explains the book way more eloquently than I could ever dream of, so I’ll just let him tell you what it’s about:

“I want to find out where the material I listened to as a young man and which became the backdrop to my life came from. I want to discover where it lived. How it was. How it is. How it got there. I want to find out on the ground how the blues, hillbilly, old time dance music, bluegrass, Hank Williams country and western, rockabilly,  Nashville slick and straight ahead Rocket 88 rock and roll came about. What were the components of these musics? How did they cross the Atlantic? What parts came from England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales?”

“Most importantly I want to discover how the magic all this became made the transition back to rain drenched Wales. How did it flow across the Bay of Tigers to manifest itself in the bright blue drape jackets of Valley’s born Teddy Boys?  How did it appear amid the banjos plucked in folk clubs in pub back rooms on the Welsh Capital’s Broadway and Charles Street?”

How did it rock in the dance halls of Sophia Gardens, Cowbridge Road and Death Junction? And, in particular, how did it inform the taste of more than one Welsh generation? Mike Harries, Man, the Sons of Adam, Amen Corner, The Sun Also Rises, Edward H, Meic Stevens, the Manic Street Preachers, Cate Le Bon, Richard James, Georgia Ruth, Gruff Rhys,  Trampolene, Baby Queens, Climbing Trees, and Euros Childs.

The book starts in south Wales, in the place I come from. The Cardiff delta.  The flood plain made by the three city rivers – the Ely, the Taff, the Rumney – aided ably by the Roath Brook, the Nant, and that long lost waterway, the Tan. Cardiff is not the centre of the music universe by any means but it has had its moments.  Bill Haley came here in 1957 and played the Cardiff Capitol. Lynyrd Skynyrd did the same thing in 1975. John Lee Hooker was here in 1964 at a surf club on the Wentloog flatlands. Jerry Lee played  Sophia Gardens in 1962. Dion wandered to the Capitol in 1964. Chuck Berry duck walked there a year later. Johnny Cash visited in 1966. Elvis never. How and why? I want to know.

So there you go! I can’t wait to read it.

See you at the party?

Butetown Arts and History Centre
4 Dock Chambers, Cardiff CF10 5AG
Monday 7 December, 19.00

The Roots Of Rock From Cardiff To Mississippi And Back  by Peter Finch will be published by Seren Books on 7 December, 2015. There’ll be a paperback at £9.99 and a e-book at the same price. You can order your copy from Seren Books.


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Peter Finch’s Cardiff Waterways Walk, 25 April 2015

For those of you who enjoy their Cardiff local history, walking, and hanging around with authors, check out this event! On Saturday 25 April 2015, author Peter Finch will be leading a casual stroll around Cardiff’s waterways, talking about their history. And tickets are just a fiver! Sounds good, yes?

Peter wrote a We Are Cardiff story for us some time ago. This is it:



This tour goes through some of Cardiff’s historical wet spots in the company of the author of the Real Cardiff books. A walk that will take in canals, dock feeders, lost tunnels, secret passages, tidal swamps, defences against seaborne Viking raiders, rivers that move and are moved, and the long lost swimming baths of Cardiff. Visit the city’s psychic centre. See where the martyr Rawlins White was imprisoned. Walk buried watercourses. Take in a few art works and hear the occasional poem performed. Finish with a cup of tea with an optional trip down the river by water taxi.

Two and half hours level walking, nothing strenuous.

Tickets: £5 on Eventbrite


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“Cardiff, city of new height. Capital of Wales. Darling of the valleys. Principal shopping magnet for all of western Britain – opened a year too late” – Peter


I’m in the lozenge-shaped city again. It’s the one I come from. Where I was born and where I still live. Water south, hills north. A city of rhomboid sprawl. Where else would I be? I’m standing on the B4487 in bright early-morning sunlight. Traffic low. Birds in inner-city twitter. This was the Via Julia Maritima once, the paved Roman route west. A thousand years on it was the stage coach route to London. Full of ruts and mud. Then it was the hard-topped A48, when A roads meant something. Newport Road when I was a kid. Still is. The Africans are walking down it now. The endless displaced. Heading up beyond Roath Court for the Refugee Council at Phoenix House. Fewer now that the recession has hit. Polski Sklep having a hard time. The Czech shop already closed.

We always wondered why in this place there was so much new housing. Apartments rising like corn right across the boom city. Concrete mixers. Deliveries of brick. Tower cranes like locusts. Men in hard hats in every bar. What drew them to this capital? What were we doing that made them come? Nothing, it turns out. Investors are blind. Invest where walls rise and your money will climb in step. No need to sell what you’ve built. Let the vacant towers glitter. Let their apartments stand empty, value accumulating as prices soar. Manage a let if a visitor asks. Sell one to an executive needing a town centre toehold. Rooms with a water view for singles. Wasp territory. Audi in the undercroft. Wine in the rack. Families not needed. No toy cupboards. No gardens. No schools.

Now that boom has bust these investments stand barren. For Sale. To Let. To Let. Those not yet completed stay so. A city half-finished. For now.

Yet the centre flourishes. Come here on a match-day to see it at its peak. Street theatre, music, men on tightropes playing violins, Roma bands with clarinet and double bass, student duos with bright guitars, the Red Choir – some of them sitting now – still ushering in freedom outside the covered market, Chinese selling me my name bent in wire, Ninjah in bling and Sgt Pepper Jacket beating rhythm on the street furniture. The Big Issue seller with his dog in costume. The Coptic Christians. The Gaza protestors. The shaved heads of the Hari Krishnas weaving through the crowd. More vibrant life on Queen Street than at any previous time in its history.

St David’s 2 – the comprehensive redevelopment of those parts of the centre unscathed by previous interventions – hit the concrete mixers in 2004. Not only were the broken wrecks beyond Hills Street and all final centre traces of Victorian Cardiff wiped but much of Cardiff’s seventies restructuring along Bridge Street and the Hayes went too. Twenty-five years was as long as Iceland and the new library lasted. St David’s, because he is our patron saint and a Welsh symbol the world will recognise. Cardiff, city of new height. Capital of Wales. Darling of the valleys. Principal shopping magnet for all of western Britain. And in terms of the boom, opened a year too late. Vacant lots waiting for the fall to bottom. The recession has taken the gilt. I went through yesterday. Brave faces. Glass and just that little bit of echo. Promise not yet completely fulfilled.

Back on Newport Road it is as if the fifties are still with us. Victorian three-storey housing still in need of a repaint. Bed and breakfast vacancies. Hopeful signs saying that Construction Workers are Welcome. En-suite at no extra charge. Chip shop at the end of Broadway selling Clarks pies. Someone removing their front wall so that they can park their car in their front garden. Couple of kids on skateboards. Nigerian with an iPod. Man on a bike, no helmet. Cardiff as it was, still is.

That’s why I live here. Because Cardiff is. This piece is adapted, cut, spliced and mashed from Real Cardiff Three (Seren Books) – part of my on-going obsession with the city in which I was born. Check http://www.peterfinch.co.uk/cardiff.htm for more.

Peter Finch is a poet and psychogeographer who lives in east Cardiff. His latest collection of poetry, Zen Cymru, was published by Seren this year. He runs Academi, the Literature Development Agency for Wales.

Peter was photographed in Cardiff Bay by Adam Chard