Caerphilly, Castles and Cheese

Caerphilly Castle

When I arrived in the UK last spring, I realized I had one major flaw in my trip: I hadn’t planned to visit any castles.  Cardiff has a castle in the center of town and my hotel was right across the street from it.  However, I visited this castle on my last trip and remembered much of it: the Roman wall in the basement, the ornate room in the clock tower, the nursery painted with scenes from fairy tales, and the view from the keep.  Looking for a new castle to visit, my guidebook recommended Caerphilly.

Caerphilly is a twenty minute train ride north of the center of Cardiff.  It is a small town and features a castle begun in 1268.  In addition, the guidebook noted that the town is noted for Caerphilly Cheese, a mild relative of cheddar cheese.  As I love cheese, especially cheddar, Caerphilly was an appealing destination to satiate my interest in castles and cheese.

So one morning, I went down to the Central Cardiff station, purchased an open, round-trip ticket to Caerphilly for just a few pounds and enjoyed the short train ride through the Welsh country-side.  Cardiff is very flat, but Caerphilly and the surrounding area are quite hilly.  The castle wasn’t visible from the train station, so I started walking in what seemed the most promising direction: downhill on the main commercial street.  After a short walk, the road made a bend and the shops stopped on one side, leaving a wide view over a green park to the castle and the valley and hills beyond.

Views from the Castle's Keep Views from the Castle's Keep

Views from the Castle's Keep

A Welshman once told me that the only real castles are those in ruins.  Ones like Cardiff Castle that have been fixed-up, renovated, or refurbished in any way are not real.  I thought that he would have approved of Caerphilly Castle.

When I finished exploring every corner of the castle, I returned to the town looking for cheese and lunch.  There were no signs of Caerphilly Cheese anywhere.  There were lots of tourist-y areas and signs directing the way to tourist-like attractions, but none mentioned cheese.  Wikipedia claims that there is a cheese sculpture somewhere in town, but I didn’t see it.  I ended up choosing a quaint little diner (of the early 20th century style, not the 1950s/60s style we think of in the US) as the place to eat my lunch in the hopes that perhaps they used Caerphilly Cheese on their sandwiches, but they did not.

Feeling let down in my hunt for cheese, I returned to Cardiff shortly after my lunch.  Caerphilly’s castle was well worth the trip, but I was beginning to believe that Caerphilly Cheese was a myth.

….

Seven months later, my family and I were visiting New York City for Christmas.  On our last day, we made the requisite visit to Zabar’s.  I had been particularly looking forward to this stop on our trip as the last time I was in Zabar’s I was a kid who knew that there was something special about the shop, but didn’t understand why as I thought the height of culinary perfection was Kraft Mac’N’Cheese.

The first thing that caught my eye on entering Zabar’s was the cheese display.  I quickly went over and scanned the names of all the various cheeses, looking for the exotic one that I was going to take home to try.  Most had names that sounded familiar.  On my second look through, my heart stopped.  There on the shelf right in front of me was Caerphilly Cheese!!

I was shocked.  I had gone to Caerphilly to get their cheese and been disappointed.  Now, months later on the other side of the ocean, in a small store in NYC, I’d found it.  Needless to say, I purchased a brick.  It was a nice cheese, almost like a cross between a mozzarella and a mild cheddar: smooth, almost creamy, with a slight hint of the cheddar kick.

Roald Dahl, Norwegians, Doctor Who, and a Church

I watch the new Doctor Who series and the spin-off show Torchwood.  The Doctor Who episodes set in modern Cardiff are centered on Cardiff Bay and Torchwood is based in Cardiff Bay.  In the long shots of the area, I was most intrigued by the building pictured above.  I believed it must have been some sort of church.  When I was preparing to visit Cardiff, I was excited by the paragraph in my guidebook which referred to a repurposed church on Cardiff Bay.  I assumed that the building that intrigued me in Doctor Who and Torchwood must be the former Norwegian church now adapted to a rental facility.

On arriving at the site, I had a feeling that something was off.  It wasn’t until I stepped inside that I figured out what it was.  It turned out that this building never held a church.  I suppose that the lack of stain glass, the small widows, and the cannons outside should have been a clue, but with the peaked roof (not visible in the above photo), the gargoyles, and the central tower I didn’t know what else it could be besides a church.  The building is called the Pierhead and it guarded the port, or at least kept track of the traffic coming and going in the port.  It is open to visitors now as a museum of the port.  I learned a lot about the history of Cardiff from a short, entertaining film, such as the name came from Welsh for “Fort on the River Taff.”  The color and decoration of the interior also intrigued me.

             

When I left the Pierhead, I looked around the bay and quickly spotted the actual church described in the guidebook.  Norwegian sailors who passed through the port built this church (pictured below).  Roald Dahl was baptized here.  Now the building is used as a rental facility.  The sanctuary is the rental hall, when I was there it was being set up for a wedding reception on the following day; the choir loft level is now an art gallery; and the space below the choir loft, which I imagine would have been the entryway/gathering space, is now a coffee shop with some delicious pastries.  Unique features of this building included the model of a Norwegian sailing ship hanging from the center of the ceiling in the main room and a stain glass window that featured fish.  Unfortunately my camera temporary malfunctioned while I was visiting this building and as a result I do not have any shots of the interior.

Newport Road, Cardiff

The mile walk from the city center to the Inkspot along Newport Road revealed more church buildings of interest for adaptive reuse and the history of the city.  (Newport Road is so named as it was the main road from Cardiff northeast to Newport before the highway came along.)

The first building of interest that I came across was just off Newport Road.  My observations indicated that this building was a former church probably adapted to a new use similar to the Wallich Centre (see post on Cathedral Road, Cardiff) but with a strong religious component.  A sign on the building read “UCKG Help Centre,” which suggested that it provided help to those in need.  My ideas for the possible targeted audience included the homeless, depressed/suicidal, or low-income.  I identified the Centre’s religious focus from a sandwich board in front of the entrance advertising holy/healing oil.

I was correct in my supposition that the building’s original use was a church (after I discovered I mistakenly identified two other buildings as former churches I began to doubt my guess with this building).  It was built as a Unitarian Church in the 1880s.  However, I was mistaken in the new use.  It turns out that UCKG stands for the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God and therefore the building is still being used as a church, just not its original denomination.

The second building appeared permanently closed when I passed.  This one clearly used to be a church.  The building appeared to be secure and in good condition, which is beneficial for any potential reuse.  This building was built as the Church of St James the Great in the 1890s and closed in 2006.  A newspaper article from 2008 announces the redevelopment of the church’s spire into a seven story flat (flat=apartment, please excuse my British vocab and spellings, i.e. centre, while I discuss British places).  The rest of the structure would be converted into 11 other one- and two-bedroom flats.  However there was no indication when I was passing that this has occurred or was in the process of occurring.  There is no further mention of this redevelopment online, suggested it either fell through or is being held up.

I passed one more church building on Newport Road, one still used for religious worship, before reaching the Inkspot.  This building interested me as it was a larger church complex than any of the others I passed, was a block away from the Inkspot, and part of the complex blocked off for construction work of some unknown sort.

Passing four church buildings, three of which were no longer housing their original uses, intrigued me.  Coming from Pittsburgh, my immediate assumption was that Cardiff must have experienced a significant population loss.  After all it used to be a major port—exporting more coal than probably any other port in the world.  The port closed some time ago and Cardiff stopped exporting coal.  I imagined this change resulted in the loss of many jobs and therefore a significant population loss followed.  Yet, the population statistics for Cardiff over the last 200 years destroyed this theory.  The population dipped slightly from 1971 to 1981, but by 1991 Cardiff had more residents than ever (see Cardiff Timeline for population statistics).  The port closing may have influenced the dip in population, but population loss cannot be the cause of the religious buildings I observed adapted to new uses or closed in Cardiff.

I cannot verify my second theory for the reason these buildings lost their original uses.  This theory is a change in the religious views of the population.  This can go two ways.  The first idea is that people are becoming less religious (this is how the Dutch explain their large number of churches adapted to new uses).  I found a few articles that identify a similar trend in all of Britain (Number of Christians falls, Muslims pass on faith at higher rates than Christians).  The second idea is that while the overall population is growing, people are still moving out and those that are moving in are of a different demographic and/or religion and therefore do not want the same religious institutions as those that came before them.  Both of these are mostly speculation as there aren’t detailed statistics on religious beliefs and practices in Cardiff, Wales, or Britian.

Cathedral Road, Cardiff

As I mentioned in the post “Inkspot” (June 2, 2012), it felt like I had more success with repurposed churches in Cardiff than London, despite having done extensive research on the adaptive reuse of churches in London.  Perhaps this is in part because it is far more exciting and rewarding to come upon a repurposed church than to go where you already know you will find one.  My first day in Cardiff I discovered two adapted religious buildings within a few blocks of each other—thrilling!

The first of these buildings, formerly the Cardiff New Synagogue now office space.  (I am also interested in the adaptive reuse of synagogues as there are some similar issues when repurposing synagogues or churches, but I am less familiar with the architecture and interior design of synagogues and they seem less common adapted church buildings.)  The façade of this former synagogue appeared to be unaltered, however in the back there was a modern office building extension.  I could not tell from my observations whether or not part of the original building was demolished to make way for the extension.  The original building seemed a bit short, which made me think that part of it might have been demolished.  However, some of the townhouses nearby had similar additions in the back as they were now used for businesses or apartment complexes.  The depth of these buildings matched those that did not have additions and that of the original structure of the synagogue, suggesting that the synagogue may have been intact.  I found the YouTube video on the building’s website interesting as it is easy to tell which rooms are in the original building and which in the addition.

The second building was a former Presbyterian Church of Wales, now The Wallich Centre.  Their motto is “homeless people first” which gave a clear indication of their purpose, although the website suggests that this building may not be used directly for the homeless as it is identified as the administrative centre as well as a venue for hire for meetings, conferences, etc. which I don’t imagine would be used by the homeless.  There appeared to be little or no alteration to the exterior of this building, except for the glass doors inside the covered entrance.  Only a small sign (blocked by the van in the picture) indicated that this building no longer functioned as a religious institution.

Inkspot

Last month, I spent a few days each in Cardiff (the capital of Wales) and London.  Before going, I had done some research on the adaptive reuse of church buildings in London, but none on Cardiff.  Despite this, I almost had more success with exploring repurposed churches on the ground in Cardiff than London.

The pamphlet in my hotel room in Cardiff, highlighting things to do in the city, contained an add for the Inkspot–a crafts store housed in a former church.  This was an amazing find as not only am I into the adaptive reuse of church buildings, but I am also a craft-person. Additionally, none of the repurposed churches I have come across in Pittsburgh have a use like this.  Most in Pittsburgh are adapted to housing, restaurants/bars, and community centers.  So this building presented a new option of how church space can be used.

As a crafts store, it was a bit disappointing.  The items for sale were the same as what I would find in any crafts store in the US.  Perhaps I should have expected that, as how different can paint or pencils be from country to country?  I however was hoping for an experience more like going to the grocery store in the UK vs. the US.  Both sell food, but the options are slightly different.  First the fruit is more naturally sized, unlike our bananas and apples on steroids.  In the bakery department, I found personal-sized baguettes, brioche, and crumpets.  Yogurt flavors were different–such as strawberries and clotted cream.  Among the juices I found Apple & Beetroot and Grape & Elderberry flavors.  I thought the crafts store would be like that, similar products, but just enough different that I would be able to find somethings I wouldn’t find in a crafts store in the US.

As a repurposed church, the Inkspot was fascinating.  The owner was in while I was visiting so I was able to add some facts to my observations.  The building was built in 1868.  When the 100 year lease came up in 1968, the landlord refused to grant the church a renewal.  The building is located on Newport Road, which at least at one time was the main road between Cardiff and Newport (another potentially important city in Wales), near two intersections.  It is prime real estate and in the 60’s there was talk of the road being widened, which would have required the demolition of the church.  For whatever reason, this plan did not go through and in 1995 the owner and his family purchased the building to move their crafts store into it.  Upon purchasing, they were advised to tear down the building and start from scratch, but they took the risk of spending the money to repair the damage from decades of being empty.

They modified the building slightly, by making the sanctuary two stories.  The first floor had paper crafts, kids crafts, yarn, etc, while the second floor was dedicated to painting supplies with an art gallery in the back above where the altar used to be.  The downstairs felt a little claustrophobic, but the upstairs still felt huge and airy.  I could not decide from just walking around and observing the building if the two-story design was original or added during the repurposing.  It must have been huge inside when it was a church.  In addition to the crafts supplies for sale and the art gallery, there was space for artists studios in what I assume must have been office space previously.

I did not feel comfortable taking pictures inside where the sale items were, but I did take the picture below of the staircase.  The white walls and green carpeting were used throughout the store.