I’ve thought about writing a We Are Cardiff story since I set up the site back in 2010, but could never decide on an angle. What to write about? What to focus on? Cardiff has been so many things to me, been the backdrop to so many events and decisions and happenings and versions and re-versions of myself. How can I pick one, two, a dozen from the swirling pool? And yet that’s what I expected from other people – and everyone else who has written for the site so far has managed rather splendidly. So perhaps it’s high time I stopped whining and did the same.
What is the measure of a place? How can you distil that essence into a single piece of writing? Memories, tissue thin, layers of a skin laid over and over the streets and alleys and roads and the same cracks in the pavement you avoid, day after day, year after year. From a new-born to a toddler through to university student to working stiff. Cardiff has been a lot of things to me. It’s where I was born. My earliest memories are dark and fuzzy – my tiny hands, pulling at the thick velvet curtains in my room on Pen y Wain Road. Running a stick along the railings in Roath’s flower gardens. Carrying water in my hands from the fountains outside City Hall to a puddle nearby where some ill-navigating frogs had abandoned their spawn. I was worried the tadpoles would die in there without the extra liquid.
Cardiff housed me during my student years. It was the comforting bubble that enclosed me as I stayed up too late, spent too much time in pubs and clubs and at house parties. It was the wall I banged my head against, trying to work out ‘what I wanted to do when I grew up’. It gave me answers. (Sort of.)
And surely this is the measure of a city – a place that can transform and mutate and mould itself around you, no matter what stage of life you are at. Nearly all my university friends have moved away, and I’m asked on a regular basis how I can stay in the same city I’ve been in for so long. I try and explain, but I never seem to nail the answer. It’s not the same city it was when I was a student, or even when I was in my mid or late twenties. There are enough opportunities and diversity and change here to accommodate you, no matter what stage of life you’re at. It’s a different place now. It looks after me differently. I’ve found different things in it, and it’s brought out different things in me.
One of my favourite things about the city is how connected everyone is. New people you meet have random connections with people that you already know. They are someone’s ex-housemate, friends with someone’s brother, or they worked in Fopp together years ago. Although there’s a lot on here, the offerings pale in comparison to a larger city – our neighbouring Bristol, or a little further afield to London. But because our scene is smaller, it’s friendlier. You see the same faces over and over again, whether you’re at a metal gig, a film festival, a circus performance, a street fair, a club night, or an organic food market. And I like that. I heard someone describe Cardiff as Britain’s biggest village, and it’s that neighbourly, close feeling that I love about it.
Cardiff’s an amazing place to come back to. Of course, I get frustrated with it and I get tired of it and sometimes the smallness annoys me and my favourite bands don’t gig here and I want to leave it and move somewhere more romantic or exciting like San Francisco or the moon, of course. But when I get back here, I’m always filled with that intense sensation of how nice it is to be back. To return home.
I thought I’d finish with a list of my favourite things to do in the city. Who knows how long it’ll be possible to do any of these for. But if you get the chance, you should.
– Visit all of Cardiff’s parks. We have some amazing and diverse open public spaces (Cardiff Council – list of parks). I still haven’t been to them all. Roath Park is obviously lovely, but there are some undiscovered treasures just a little way out of the centre. Try Cefn Onn, or the Wenalt.
– Wander around the indoor market. Get a cup of tea and bacon sandwich (or vegetarian equivalent) from the greasy spoon upstairs, watch the people bustling around below.
– Fossil hunt. Wait for low tide then walk from the Custom House in Penarth around to the pier, looking for fossils. Once at the pier, consume ice cream.
– Car booting. In the summer, visit Sully car boot sale (Sundays only).
– More car booting. All year round – visit Splott market on a Saturday. Fruit, veg, baked goods, car booters. All of humanity are here.
– Run. Do a 10k run to raise money for charity. There are a few races that take place throughout the year, most of them either taking in the lovely scenery around Cardiff Bay or Bute Park. (My favourite running route is the 10k Cardiff Bay trail, by the way).
– Music. Buy records from Catapult and Spillers, ask the music junkies working in both places for recommendations. Ask about local bands and artists. Ask about what gigs are on. Buy music. Buy tickets for gigs.
– Get cultured. Go to the museum and art gallery. Entry is free! My favourite room is the room in the museum with all the crystals and minerals and rock formations. Beautiful.
Helia Phoenix set up We Are Cardiff in 2010. In 2012 the site won Best Blog at the Wales Blog Awards, and in 2013 she produced a documentary based on the site called We Are Cardiff: Portrait of a City, premiering at Chapter Arts Centre on 7 July 2013. She’s written a biography about Lady Gaga and entertains notions of writing a novel one day. In her spare time she enjoys travelling, listening to music, and long walks in the rain. Twitter @phoenixlily tumblr an antisocial experiment web heliaphoenix.com instagram @_phoenixlily_. She currently lives in Butetown.
Helia was photographed in Hamadryad Park, underneath the A4232 by Simon Ayre