We start our journey at Cardiff Central.
The River Taff once flowed through this very spot. When the last glacial period ended 6,000 years ago, Cardiff was at the edge of a vast ice sheet to the north. Its glaciers ground South Wales down into amphitheatre shaped valleys – known as ‘cwms’ in Welsh – before the ice and its meltwater poured converged and emptied into the Severn Estuary.
So the mouth of the Taff is where the glaciers, rivers, valleys, and eventually roads would lead. This is an inevitable place to build a human settlement, especially in the industrial era, when new technologies meant the rich resources of the South Wales Valleys had to be sent on ships around the world to meet an unquenchable global demand.
It is the year 1840 and Isambard Kingdom Brunel – the man Jeremy Clarkson considers the greatest Briton of all time, and who will be popping up a few times in this journey – was building the Great Western Railway. He was trying to connect industrial Britain to the world, and particularly the Americas, with the very greatest feats of industrial engineering of the times – railways and ships.
A station in Cardiff would serve the people of this growing town, and more importantly to the powerbrokers, it would support the immense industrial activity that was unfolding at the time, upstream in the valleys of South Wales (more on that later).
However, the most suitable site for a railway station was prone to flooding by the River Taff. Brunel’s solution, in typically grandiose and unflinching style, was to divert the river to the west, creating the larger and safer site where the station now stands.
An original wooden station was opened in 1850, and rebuilt in finer masonry in 1934 by the Great Western Railway’s chief architect, Percy Culverhouse. It’s hard not to notice the huge relief lettering of Great Western Railways emblazoned across the Portland stone façade of the main building – as a Grade II listed building, the importance of GWR’s history here will never be forgotten, although its worth noting that this was a company that was nationalised in 1947, and the station is now operated by Transport for Wales.
The main station concourse and booking hall is a superb example of art deco architecture. Be sure to look upwards at the large, stylised octagonal lights that hang far from the panelled ceiling (these are actually replicas of the originals installed in 1999 with funding from the Railway Heritage Trust).
Cardiff Central was built at a time when rail use was surging globally, and you will find similar architectural styles in stations in the Americas, such as Washington Union Station, Cincinnati, or Santa Fe, and to the east such as in Ankara, Jakarta or Phnom Penh.
Jump aboard your train, and we’ll chat again once we’re rolling.