Are We Playing Our Cardiff Right?

Day: 170

Towns / Cities Visited: 102

Countries Visited: 22

Steps Taken Today: 14,257

Steps Taken Around the World: 2,886,761

Today would be spent exploring a few of the attractions Cardiff has to offer, but instead of taking the car we were hopping on the bus to head into town. Not only was it significantly cheaper than parking, but it meant we didn’t have to deal with the stress of driving into Wales’ capital. First on the agenda was none other than Cardiff Castle, the huge castle complex sat smack bang in the middle of the city. Before long we were ducking in through the gates, grabbing out tickets and audio guides and being spat out into the huge green area which makes up the majority of the central area of the complex. The motte and bailey castle that sits at the other side of the space was originally built in the 11th century, on top of the ruins of a 3rd century Roman fort. Parts of the outer wall of the complex also sits on the foundations of the Roman walls which once surrounded the area. The motte and bailey was later rebuilt in stone in the 12th century into a shell keep. The castle has passed through many hands in its lifetime, but since the 18th century it has been the property of the Stuart family, the head of whom is the Marquess of Bute. This family, who became hugely wealthy on the coal industry, expanded and renovated the property extensively under their ownership from knocking down many of the medieval buildings, having the grounds landscaped by Capability Brown, and commissioning the manor house to be built and improved. After the 4th Marquess died in 1947, the castle was given to the city council, who now run it as a tourist attraction.

Now despite the castle and manor within the perimetre, we decided to start within the walls themselves. You see, the tunnels in these walls were not only used for protection back in medieval times. During the second world war, when Cardiff, like many UK cities, was under attack, the walls were used as an air raid shelter capable of housing 1800 people. Its amazing to think that walls built so long ago could still defend its city’s people against the most modern of warfare at the time. Walking through, there are empty bunk bed frames along parts of the walls, and the remains of an old canteen area which would have fed the terrified residents seeking shelter. Over the speakers plays snippets of old radio news announcements from the war, as well as the sounds of an air raid. The walls are also lined with many of the old posters from the war time encouraging everything from not speaking about war plans in case the enemy or spies overheard or intercepted; all the way to growing your own food to help ease the stress on rations; and even how to use a gas mask, and what to have ready in your house before you go to sleep in case of an attack. Its very confronting to think that this was just everyday life for many in this country during the war years.

Coming out from the tunnels, and quickly climbing the Roman style tower built to guard the back gate of the castle, the next stop was the moat bordered motte topped with its shell keep. Now, for those of you who don’t know, a shell keep is a kind of roofless circular stone wall built on top of a motte. The wall is simply there to protect the shops and houses that would have been built inside of it. Walking up the steep stone steps, we made it through the medieval gate and into the open centre. The space is quite small, and its hard to imagine how you would fit anything in here, let alone enough houses and shops to sustain even ten people. Still, despite its barren interior, it is almost hauntingly beautiful, with ivy slowly creeping its way along the stones, as though nature was claiming it back for its own purposes. Within the front wall there are still some rooms which can be reached, and which would have held the more notable residents in the time of its use.

With the shell keep done, we headed back down to ground level, past the gorgeous clock tower which sits in one of the corner towers, but which you have to pay for a separate tour to visit the interior of, and towards the manor. Originally the manor had been built in a Georgian style, but was later renovated and expanded into one of the finest examples of gothic revival architecture in the country, with medieval inspired interior. As we wandered through the rooms, they are everything you would expect a wealthy family to want; from plush furniture, to elaborately painted and gilded ceilings, to carved wood details, and an enviable library filled with leather bound collections of the most popular works of the era. With friezes on the walls, vaulted ceilings, and splashes of bright colours, you can tell they really went all out for the medieval theme. Of course, it wouldn’t be complete without a few pretentious looking portraits of some the Marquesses though would it.

Lastly, we quickly nipped down to the war display they house in the basement of the visitor centre, which has a huge amount of information on the Welsh regiments, and their contributions to the world wars, and the many battles before then, including the contributions of women during the war years. It was a good way to be bought back down to earth after the luxuries of the manor. From here we quickly bought a few pasties for lunch from a nearby bakery before hopping on the bus to head out to our next destination a little way out of town; Llandaff Cathedral.

As we arrived and neared the cathedral, we were surprised to find it located in a valley as oppose to on top of a hill or on a prominent point in town. There was something endearing about it though, being tucked away, back from the street, and hidden, for the most part, behind lush green foliage. Passing through the jumble of headstones we walked on in to see if the inside rivaled the outside for gothic beauty. Now, we have become accustomed to seeing stunning, centuries old interiors, but as we stepped in we were surprised to be faced with a somewhat modern look tucked within this classical aging exterior. You see, the cathedral sustained a large amount of damage amidst the Civil war in the 18th century and was largely rebuilt then. Also, during the same bombings which led the locals of Cardiff into hiding in the castle walls in 1941, this cathedral was severely damaged by a mine which destroyed much of the building. The exterior was rebuilt as best as it could be to match the former style, although you can see differences in the colour of the stone work, where different materials have been used, however they renovated the interior in a more modern style.

As you enter, the thing that strikes you the most is the massive stone arc in the centre, topped with a rather modern figure of Jesus. Despite the clean, white washed walls, and newer features, it doesn’t entirely lack historic charm, and you can still find old style stained glass windows, and a number of aging tombs dotted around. Just off to the side of the nave there is also a small chapel dedicated to the local soldiers who fell during many of the wars fought around the world. Along the walls also hang many regimental flags left to fade away in the hands of time. It was a solemn place to stand for a moment and remember those who gave their lives to protect their fellow countrymen. Our visit was made even more haunting by the fact that the church’s organist was practicing on one of the two huge organs that sit on either side of the choir.

From here we had one last sight to try and fit in before we headed home; Insole Court. As we walked through the beautiful gardens which surround it, we found ourselves standing outside the imposing gothic mansion built in 1855 by the wealthy businessman James Harvey Insole, for himself and his family. The mansion only opened to visitors in 2017 and as such they are still working on the restorations. Due to this, entry is free, but there are a number of local volunteers who are happy to show you around the bottom floor. Our guide, a highly cheerful and knowledgeable Welshman, took some time to walk us through the rooms. Many of them aren’t furnished yet, but the gorgeous painted ceilings and chandeliers already give a feel of how luxurious this home must have been. The staircase even has its original banisters, which were discovered hidden in a cupboard under the stairs during the renovations; where they are believed to have been put for safekeeping when the house was used as the Air Raid HQ during world war two.

The reading room is the most impressive, with its spectacular painted frieze around the walls, and the built in bookshelf chock full of old books along the back wall. There are even comfy couches for visitors to perch on should they desire to just bask in the beauty of the gardens through the bay window. The dining rooms, with its sixteen seat table is equally as gorgeous and its easy to see why they are trying to renovate this place not only as a tourist attraction but for functions. Our guide, who is also not one for following all the rules, even took us out to the old kitchen, with its original cast iron stove, despite the fact that they use the room mostly for storage at the moment; he just really wanted to show it off.

We were about to bid farewell to the house when they told us that they had just opened a new sensory experience upstairs which teaches the history of the Insole family, and for a moderate fee we were welcome to try it. Considering how great our volunteer guide had been, and the fact that we would have given them a donation anyway, we decided to give it a go. Heading upstairs with a young volunteer we were put into a room set up with a trunk, some flyers, and a few bits and bobs. On the walls was written the names of the people who would be playing out the scene. You see this room, and all the rooms to follow, are set up in a style to retell the story of the rise and fall of the family over the years. Voices played over the speaker depict the scenes which were turning points in the progression of the story. Starting with James Harvey Insole telling his wife, that he was going to take their savings and start his own coal company with his partner Biddle; from whom he would later become estranged from, as Insole grew the business and Biddle squandered their profits. The voice that leads you between the memories is that of James’ granddaughter Violet.

The next room is set up as Insole’s office, where we hear the conversation in which he is told that there had been an explosion in one of his coal mines after a lack of ventilation led to a build up of gases. It was the first mining accident in Wales to kill over 100 people, all men and boys, some of whom were as young as 12 years old. You here him arguing with his mine manager who insists that he told him about the problem, and Insole tries to comfort himself by blaming his manager and saying that his manager had said fixing it wasn’t an urgent matter. This incident nearly killed Insole’s business and reputation.

The next room is designed to show the time in which the manor was being extended and refurnished, after the company had recovered and was faring well. The conversation is between Insole and his wife, as she has reservations and anxieties about running such a large household and holding grand parties for the wealthy, as she has never cared for or run a home that extensive before, while he assures her she will do fine. Just beside this is a small room with a few children’s toys which plays out the scene of the three young Insole children watching the wealthy guests arrive in their carriages for a party. The guests even included the Marquess of Bute, who was also in the coal business, and his wife. Insole had longed to become wealthy enough to join the aristocracy much like the marquess but he never would.

The next room has two armchairs and is the setting for a scene between James’ sons Walter and Fred, who were part of the running of the business at this point, as they discussed how to move the company forward and the project to build the Barry Railway and Docks, which they became closely involved with, and which allowed them to transport their coal to the new docks and run their own shipping from there, allowing greater volumes to be moved and sold. The last room is set right before the sale of the manor in 1932 and shows the end of the family’s heyday. The conversation is between Fred’s wife Jessy, and their son Eric. James and Fred Insole had since passed away, and post World War One saw the navy ships change from coal to oil, and thus coal usage declined greatly, along with the Insole fortune. Fred and Jessy’s son Claud had been killed in the war and their daughter Violet had also died that year, unmarried, much to her mothers disappointment. Violet had, however, worked hard on growing, and breeding irises, many of which still grow in the gardens today. With no money to keep up the property is was forcibly acquired by the council. It was a rather sad ending, with Jessy still struggling to come to terms with the loss of her son and daughter and not wanting to bid farewell to her home.

By the time the presentation was finished we left with a much greater appreciation for this somewhat run down old manor. It was a rather painless trip back to our accommodation, and another quiet night in. As I pondered our education for the day, it was hard to get past how much the World Wars affected the people of Cardiff; the stories of loss seem to touch every stone in the city. From the thousands who cowered within the walls of the castle, to a widowed mother who lost her son, the stories, each and every one, are individual and yet communal. Coming from a country who sent a large number of soldiers to fight in Europe, but who sustained very little damage on our own shores, its hard to fathom the fear the innocent folk here must have endured ceaselessly. We shared their deep feeling of loss, as our men also fell and never came home, but we did not have to deal with our grief under enemy fire, or in the rubble of our shattered churches and buildings.

Every time I hear these tales I am further bolstered in my hatred of war. The pointless bloodshed of innocent lives dictated by men hundreds of miles from the front line, moving pawns on a pretend battlefield and forgetting that the numbers on paper have faces attached to them; and families and friends who’s lives are irreversibly damaged by their loss. Politicians and Generals sacrificing life for land and power, while brainwashing and manipulating men and women into believing its because they are under threat, or because its what their god commands. Those men who fell, and continue to fall, on the battlefields did so because they believed that they were protecting their country and their families, and as such they fell as heroes. They ran towards danger so that we didn’t have to. The men who are the reason for them being there in the first place however, are anything but heroes. Leaders who chose declaring war over civilised diplomacy, who forced peaceful nations into positions of defence, who chose battle cries over compromise, and who put innocent lives in the crossfire of their ambitions, are to blame for every one of those shattered families, and scarred minds.

The greed and hunger for power which dwells within the human condition will always be the downfall of our species. Unless we find a way to extract it from our hearts, unless we choose community over competition, unless we finally learn its not Us vs. Them, but rather Us and Them vs. the future, it will continue to fuel the fire that will lead to our extinction. We have our hand of cards in this game of survival, but we’re not playing them right. The problem is that we’ve gone all in on a game we aren’t smart enough to win, and bet the world and everyone on it in the process. We’re so concerned whether the player next to us is cheating, that we forget to ask ourselves if we even know the rules. Choose your next play carefully, for it decides all of our fates.

On my dream trip to travel the world, taste its foods, see its wonders, and meet all the strange and beautiful people who reside here.