Jane Stuart – Writer

Writing about real life Up North: football, ale, food and mental health – with a good dash of humour.

A Football Tourist’s Guide To Cardiff – Part One

The day before Lee and I were due to set off to Cardiff, I received several concerned messages from friends.

Storms were afoot, with a red alert advising people not to travel between the worst forecast times of 0700-1200: exactly the times we had planned to travel. Trains were cancelled. South Wales was set to be one of the worst hit areas by Storm Eunice, with schools and businesses closed – including the Cardiff City Stadium.

Of course I was in the pub on Thursday night and travelling overnight seemed a bit dramatic. I therefore decided to stick to the original plan. News is often over-dramatised fearmongering these days and I hoped that would be the case in this instance.

Southbound

We set off at 0710, calling in at Asda for fuel before joining the M55.

Of course we needed entertainment for such a long journey. My search for ‘Wales’ on Apple Music was less than helpful, interpreting this as ‘waves’. However it did throw up a ‘Wales In Union’ album, which threw up a great game to keep us amused for much of the journey.

My tummy was soon rumbling so we called in at Sandbach Services for breakfast. We were greeted by a very friendly and helpful man at Costa Coffee, who was such a good salesman that I ended up having two courses.

Sausage and caramelised onion toastie: my current Costa fave.
Naughty but nice. After all, this could be my last meal if the weather drama was to be believed.

We cleared the M6 and M5 with no issues. The M50 was a bit blowy though, with leaves and litter flying through the air. Either side of us were flooded fields.

On the last leg of the journey, I banged on Shaky, who we learned (from Wiki) is a Cardiff City fan.

I had my nose pointed firmly at my phone for most of the journey (is my travel sickness cured? I must try reading a book next time). But every so often, Lee alerted me to something exciting out the window.

‘LOOK AT ALL THE SHEEP!’

We didn’t go over the Prince of Wales Bridge that we’d enjoyed on our recent trip to Swansea, but we did go through a cool tunnel.

We arrived safely in Cardiff just ahead of midday. What had all the fuss been about?

Ghost Town

We parked in the NCP in Cardiff City Centre and look what I spied across the road.

The Millennium Stadium!

This had been Blackpool’s home from home at the turn of the century, when Wembley Stadium was being rebuilt. We’d won here three times in four years: the playoffs in 2001 and the Trophy in 2002 and 2004. At one point, we had scored more goals at the Millennium Stadium than Wales.

I desperately needed a wee, so darted in the direction of pubs civilisation.

But Cardiff was like a ghost town. No-one was about and all the pubs and shops were shut.

Imagine Blackpool prom on a blustery day and that was what the weather was like here. One of the flagpoles outside Cardiff Castle blew over before my eyes.

Shortly afterwards, I heard glass shattering close by.

I was becoming increasingly desperate for that wee. I spied a shopping arcade. Surely we’d find something open in there, with protection from the weather?

Coffee Barker

And here was our oasis. An alluring cafe, rustic yet hipster.

We bagged a table in the window opposite the counter. I threw down my bag, hat and coat and darted down to the toilets.

Ooh a colander toilet roll holder. Definitely hipster.

I wasn’t hungry after my two-course breakfast so I relaxed back in my comfy chair with a pot of Earl Grey.

The variety in flavours of Earl Grey is quite remarkable. This was like none I’ve tasted before. More floral.

Lee was eating here (as he hadn’t eaten at the services).

Served open. Not sure what the green stuff is.

There were three staff behind the counter and not a dissimilar number of customers. In an attempt to look busy, one of them began rearranging the crisp display. I swear he was doing this for a full fifteen minutes RIGHT next to where we were sitting. Dear reader, I struggle with loud white background noise (boiling kettles, the hum of conversation, etc.) – especially when I’m trying to have a conversation with someone. And this incessant crisp shuffling was becoming increasingly infuriating.

He even started building a tower display of crisps that stretched so high that customers couldn’t possibly reach the crisps. Lee queried this.

‘Oh haha they’re just for display.’

Oh can’t you display something QUIETER like flowers or something?

I took deep breaths and chanted to myself ‘this will be good for the blog’ and took more deep breaths and tried to subdue the urge to scream ‘ENOUGH ALREADY WITH THE FUCKING CRISPS’ and shove a packet in his mouth. Eventually I found myself smiling (through gritted teeth). It was pretty funny how much of a job he was making out of this.

Look how neat they are.

A group of girls came in and, as they waited to be served, one of them picked up a bag of crisps, thought better of it, then put it back on the shelf. Noooooooo!

We left immediately before The Rustler returned.


I was excited to spot Krusty The Clown in the same arcade.

He lured us into the fancy dress shop, where we passed five minutes marvelling at the outfits.

Chance & Counters

This board game cafe was top of my To Do list for Cardiff. We’d been booked into their Birmingham branch ahead of our match there earlier in the season. That visit had been scuppered by the weather but I didn’t want to miss out, so here we were today, determined not to let the weather beat us again.

We pressed the entry buzzer and ascended the stairs.

Here we were greeted by another very friendly man, who explained how it all worked. We were advised it would be table service for drinks and we’d be seated over there in the window. We’d pay for a set time at that table, during which time we could play any of the games on the shelves. If we wanted to stay beyond that time, we could pay to stay longer at the table.

But first things first: the beer board.

I was dismayed to see no dark beers.

‘Oh you won’t find many of those down here. The locals tend to prefer their lighter beers. We have got this in the fridge though…’

Woo!

I knew I ought to sample the local beers but there’d be plenty of time for all that. I never could resist a Bristol Beer Factory Milk Stout.

We had no idea where to start when faced with all these board games.

We were happy to go with recommendations, which were Santorini (pictured above), which was described as chess meets Lego. And this one:

Lee won at Santorini and I won at Patchwork.

This was really good fun and so civilised. I wish we had one of these in Blackpool. I suppose there are board games in some of the pubs (I had a great night playing Cards Against Humanity in Brew Room with strangers once). But I felt like a proper geek in here – surrounded by others like me – and it was kind of special.

We’d have loved to have stayed longer but we knew there was shuffleboard in town and we needed to play that as it’s our favourite. However, we were distracted en route by this alluring place…

Kongs

Well I suppose this was technically a GAMING crawl…but why the bias against fancy dress?

This was a HUGE open cellar bar with an island bar in the middle. I was pleasantly surprised to see an extensive craft beer menu.

I didn’t feel like another drink here but I was intrigued by this one I spotted in the fridge.

I’d never heard of Queer Brewing. That said, I did spot an ‘All Beer Is Gay Beer’ sign in The City Arms on my pub crawl round Manchester last night, which I forgot to photograph for you.

But back to the games! We started off with a game of table tennis (there were two tables), which Lee won. This was surprisingly energetic, probably owing to us running after stray ping pong balls.

Next we headed to the pinball.

This game was annoying, as it was all too easy for the ball to disappear out of play down the outside of the flippers. Needless to say Lee won at this too…

There were other arcade games here too but time was now against us – we’d have to come back into town later this weekend for shuffleboard – so we headed back to the car.

Lee was outraged at the £19 car park charge for four hours and chuntered about this for the rest of the weekend. I made a mental note to find a different car park for next time.

Premier Inn Cardiff East

We opted for this Premier Inn a little way down the Newport Road because it was cheaper (we were staying for two nights) and had free parking. And all Premier Inns are the same, right?

Wrong. This was like a Premier Inn Lite. It was a tiny hotel with tiny rooms. The bathroom was so tiny I had to sit side-saddle on the loo. And the shower rivalled that in Swansea for compactness. Was tiny bathrooms a South Wales thing? I hadn’t noticed that the natives were particularly tiny. Anyhow it would have to do.

I quickly changed before lounging on the bed scrolling through Twitter for ages while I waited for Lee to get ready. We were going to the opera tonight. Lee had never been before and wanted us to dress up for the occasion. I was anxious about heading out without my thermals but how cold could it be…?

The Grange Pub

My Cardiff pub research flagged this place as the most exciting pub for food. It’s a little way out to the West. I was hoping it would have a car park. It didn’t but we were fortunate to find a parking space directly outside. Result!

We entered into a quiet room where a lad and dad were playing darts at the far end. I headed straight to the bar to survey the pump clips.

There was no sign of service, so we squeezed past the darts players and headed into the back room. This room was where it was all happening and also where the barman was. However, worryingly, I couldn’t see anyone eating – nor was there any sign of a menu.

‘Are you serving food?’

‘Yes we are.’

‘Yippee!’

I ordered a half of each of the English Ale (not great) and the parrot/monkey beer (much better).

I contemplated the menu but not for long. As usual, the word ‘curry’ leapt out at me and I couldn’t see anything else on the board.

And bloody lush it was too. Quite possibly the best pub curry I’ve ever had. I couldn’t put my finger on what the unusual flavour was but it was delicious and had the perfect level of heat (edible but a hot mouth after eating).

This celebration of the local dogs really tickled me.

The pub busied up as teatime approached and by the time we left, most tables were occupied. There were a few pubdogs in attendance too.

Don Giovanni – Welsh National OperaWales Millennium Centre

What an absolute beauty this theatre is! When I spotted it during my research for this weekend, I knew we had to visit. I immediately checked the listings and was delighted to find tickets available on the front row for the opera. Whilst having my suspicions as to why the front row seats were left vacant (I know they’re not the best seats at Symphony Hall in Birmingham because you’re cricking your neck looking up at the stage), I booked us in there anyway. What was the worst that could happen?

We parked up in the Q-Park car park next to the theatre but we exited at the wrong side, meaning a long walk round on what was a bitterly cold night.

Everyone was masked up in the theatre, something I hadn’t been prepared for. I’d seen that COVID passes had been abolished today and had assumed all other COVID rules had followed suit. But not in the theatre, apparently.

I explored the foyer in search of sweets (which you’ll recall I failed to find at the theatre in London).

I had to stop and ask for directions and was sent to the little cafe, where I was delighted to find these.

‘Could I have a couple of bottles of water as well, please?’

‘We don’t have any bottles but there’s still and sparkling water in cans over there. You can’t take them into the theatre but I can pour them into a glass for you.’

WATER IN A CAN?! No thank you! I knew I would want a drink during the show – I always like to have a drink at hand to avoid a dehydration migraine – but I didn’t trust water from a can. So I went without.

Having thought about this subsequently, my reaction was ridiculous. Of course phasing out plastic water bottles is a good thing. And I drink beer from cans now. Still…

I rounded up Lee, who’d been interviewing the staff for the accompanying Football Tourist Guide video (see Lee Charles TV on YouTube) and we headed up the stairs (which confused us, as we were in the front row of the stalls) and into the theatre.

Stunning on the inside too.

Oh these seats were great! The orchestra were right there in front of us on the lower tier.

The stage was directly ahead so we’d have no problem seeing that.

It was only when the curtain rose and opera began that I identified the front row issue. The subtitles (or whatever they’re called at the opera) were right up at the top of the stage at the front, which meant I had a cricked neck from reading them by half time. Still, there wasn’t too much to read (there was a lot of repetition) so it could have been worse.

I wanted to enjoy the opera. I had been before, to watch Hungarian opera ‘Bluebeard’s Castle’ at Symphony Hall in Birmingham, but hadn’t been blown away. Would this be better?

Dear reader, I loved it from start to finish. It was so well-written and well-structured, with such interesting characters. I became so engrossed in the story that the opera medium was almost by-the-by. That said, the emotion came across so effectively in the passionate vocals and the repetition worked well by way of reinforcement.

Would I go to the opera again? Yes, for sure. Ballet can get in the sea (dance baffles me), but opera I can understand and appreciate.

We took the more direct route back to the car before heading back to our hotel.

And that concludes Day One (and Part One) of this Football Tourist’s Guide To Cardiff.

Coming up in Part Two:

– Cardiff Castle

– Blue Bell

– Boom: Battle Bar Cardiff

– Cardiff City v Blackpool

– Riverside Cantonese Restaurant

– Tiny Rebel

– Queens Vaults

– Head Of Steam

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