I’m walking through Roath, the classic worker’s town. Its meshed terraces spread east from the industrial city. Roath originally stretched the whole way from the Crockerton East Gate to the Rumney River. Rath. Raz. The name has a hard, pre-British sound. There’s a theory, which I like enormously, that the city should never have been called Cardiff in the first place. Its original name was Roath.
Ptolemy, the early Egyptian mathematician and geographer who compiled the first world maps from the gossip of itinerant mariners, has a place called Rathostathibios, scratched in on the papyrus, next to the Taff more or less where Cardiff Castle came to stand. Say that word a few times. Rathostathibios.
You can make it sound like Roath. Like Taff. Râth-Tâv. Y Rhâth. Roth. Rov Roath. Roath on the Taff taking in everything from the Ely to the Rumney. When the country came to be divided into parishes Cardiff, by then already a burgh, became the name for the western half and Roath for the east. The division was matter of administrative convenience, no more than that. The Cardiff half, with its Castle, its quay and its navigable river grew in importance. Roath, with its hillfort-sited church, mill and manor house, remained a village. Until the nineteenth century, that is, when Bute’s industrial expansion filled the fields between the two places with tenements and streets. Roath, capital of Wales. Could well have been.
Where Roath begins and ends today is a matter for dispute. Parts of its southern extremity have been taken over by Adamsdown, Splott, Atlantic Wharf, Tremorfa, and Pengam Green. To the north Cathays, Penylan, Waterloo, and Plasnewydd all encroach. I’ve always lived in Roath. When I was a child we seemed to move every couple of years as part of some financial management scheme of my father’s. He theorised that if you bought and sold judiciously you could make enough spare to get by on.
Not that his schemes ever appeared to actually generate much cash. We went from Kimberly Road to Waterloo Gardens to Ty Draw Place to Westville Road. Always Cardiff east which my mother insisted that I either call Penylan or Roath Park, depending on which house we happened to be in at the time. It was the same for our brief sojourn in Canton. When we were there I had to put Victoria Park down as the district. In later life she actually did move to Penylan although her letters then labelled the place as Lakeside. God knows what would have happened if she’d made it to Lisvane. She probably wouldn’t have regarded that as Cardiff at all.
The main highway east is Newport Road. This lorry-choked artery passes through the site of the Roath Court manor house’s gatehouse, past Cardiff’s best old style Brains pub, The Royal Oak, with its second floor boxing gym, its rock music backroom and its heavy-booted regulars, and out onto what was once the causeway. The flatland between here and the eastern rise of Rumney Hill was (and still is if you peer between the tarmac) bogland.
These are the great eastern salt marshes which, before the building of the seawall, were regularly inundated at high tide. Here was an almost East Anglian landscape of reed, fishing henge, and drainage gully. Salmon. Shrimp. Crab. Grass. Bladder-wrack. Today it’s shopping mall territory. Supermarkets, Drive-in Burger Bars, bathroom warehouses, office supplies, curtains, pots with butterflies painted on their sides, fitted kitchens, basket-weave dining suites, emulsion paint, wooden garden ornaments, drill bits that cost £1 a dozen but snap as soon as you put them anywhere near a wall. Newport Road blazes out along the line of the ancient Portway, the Roman Road that ran from Isca to Nidum, Caerleon to Neath. It’s been here a while, this route.
To the south the streets of Splott and Tremorfa are hampered by a dense corrugation of speed humps that slow even the Kawasakis that leap across them. Road deaths in poorer districts were long thought to be the fault of addled youth spinning sparks out of the road surface in their side-skirted, sewer-piped Peugeots and speaker-stuffed Novas. Research has shown that they are more a product of the amount time people here actually spend on the streets and the number they need to cross in order to get where they are going. Still, nothing quite like seeing a gleaming boy racer fingering his earring as he boomboxes along at a five mph crawl. On the causeway – the A4161 – it’s a different matter. Six lanes of solid diesel doing fifty make the proposition of walking to get anywhere terminally daunting. America has landed among the carpet superstores. You don’t like this Berber twist? Drive next door to see theirs.
Roath peters out at the Rumney where the Lleici outfalls and the once coracle-fished waters swirl dirtily into the Severn. This is the border. Indifferently the land rises. Roath behind it. Capital of Wales. Roath – the town that floats.
Adapted from Real Cardiff Two by Peter Finch and published by Seren Books. More on Real Cardiff can be found at Peter Finch’s website.
What do you think about the history of Roath? Where do you think Roath ends and begins? Leave your comments below