As Friars Walk shopping centre takes shape, Martin Wade looks at the place where Newport used to shop, drink and eat, but was levelled to ease congestion – the Old Green.

WITHIN a few weeks the long-awaited Friars Walk will open its doors to shoppers in Newport.

But 45 years ago, the last remnants of a once thriving shopping area were demolished to make way for another, slightly less-loved Newport landmark, the Old Green roundabout.

It is a place through which thousands pass every day, but few can linger.

Now it is difficult to place exactly where those shops were, so obliterated was this once vibrant heart of Newport. But for many Newportonians, memories of the sights, sounds and smells of this vibrant place remain strong.

For Newport author and photographer Jan Preece it was a bustling crossroads. "All important roads in Newport met there - from Kingsway, Shaftsbury Street, High Street and there was the buzz on the river too with paddle steamers and boats of all kinds coming and going."

It wasn't just an artery of the town with the roads running alongside the Usk. "It was the centre of Newport's shopping land" he says. “It was the place to go shopping - there were top quality shops, pubs, the roads and the river - an interchange of things.”

Another chronicler of Newport history is Jim Dyer. He too remembers the vibrancy. "Walking through there as a child it took forever because my mother seemed to know everyone."

Particular places stood out. Jays Furniture shop, which was formerly the Shaftsbury Cafe, stood sentinel-like on the bridge. From the air it looks like a stunted version of the old London Bridge, lined with houses and shops. Jim has a particular memory of Jay's. "They had a large mirror, and when we were kids after we'd come out of the Coliseum cinema, we'd do our Harry Worth impressions in front of it. You'd stand in front of the mirror with half of your body reflected and wave your arms up and down. We used to love it. The created the illusion you were jumping up and down."

Jan too recalls Jay's fondly. "It had this wonderful ornate balcony overlooking the river. As kids we would spend hours there feeding the seagulls as all manner of water life went by."

Mary Stock, a regular contributor to the Argus' Now and Then column remembers the store well, although to her the balcony was always "very precarious".

She recalls the "classy" shops of the Old Green. "The music shop (Boyd’s of Bond Street ) was very fine with a grand piano and a saxophone in the window.” Backing onto Jay’s on the bridge, the corner store had its art deco face against High Street. She adds” There was a very high class hairdressers with electric hoods where women would have their perms done too.” This was Willy Steiner’s, known as Newport’s very own ‘Teezie Weezie’.

But above all, she remembers the National Fur shop. It is hard to imagine such a place now, but then it was the last word in style. "It was managed by a very elegant lady called Iris Thomas who had been the carnival queen of Newport. It really was a most beautiful shop." She says it only ever had, like all modish places, just one item in the window.

But there was grit there too, she says: "There was also a quite seedy part on one side - Screwpacket Lane it was called, where the railway lines would go off to Pill and the high-class shops on the other.

Here, the canal still flowed past, down to where the University of South Wales campus stands now and the Steel Wave.

Jim Dyer recalls if not the seediness, but the rough and tumble of Old Green life: "There were so many great pubs there: The Kings Head Tap, although it escaped the bulldozers was part of the area. It served great Bass and was very popular. There was the Old Green Hotel, The Castle and the Screwpacket.

“On a rugby match day, people would flood over the bridge in their Newport scarves, and half-cut from the many town pubs, cheering and shouting. Later, roughly where Kingsway joins, the Football Argus seller would be shouting 'Eighth Argus, eighth Argus. Often it would be a vendor who had two false legs, but would put them on backwards as he sold the paper.”

Busy and vibrant as the Old Green was, so it was increasingly choked with traffic. As car ownership grew in the 1960s, so Newport's road network, built around the town's medieval street plan, could not cope.

Jan Preece worked at Wynne's the Newport firm who transported wide loads based in Shaftsbury Street. "It really took some doing to drive our convoys over the Old Green" he says.

Jim recalls: "I passed my driving test in 1965 and remember having to come that way. It was a very busy junction, traffic coming from all directions with a policeman on traffic duty at the centre of it all.”

The Argus told as early as 1964 when the George Street Bridge was opened that traffic congestion had “gained [Newport] the unenviable reputation of being one of the worst bottle-necks in South Wales”. It added: “For too long now motorists have been forced to thread their way snail-like over a bridge built in 1927 [town bridge].” By 1970, Newport was still gridlocked and the demolition of the shops and creation of the roundabout was seen as essential to keep the traffic moving.

Jim admits it was clear something had to be done, but it was a turning point in Newport's history. Now the area is a blank, it's kind of a dead end" he says sadly.

There is inevitably a quality of lament in these memories of this long-gone corner of Newport, from which people on foot are all but banished.

What makes its demise that bit more poignant is how thoroughly it has been obliterated. "Now it is virtually impossible to get a fix on what building was where," Jan Preece admits, adding "now it is a hole in the road. The area just looks damaged."

As Friars Walk takes shape only a few hundred yards away, it seems a million miles from the fur shops, the Bass pubs and the policemen on traffic duty. But perhaps it will become a very modern incarnation of what the Old Green was: a place where people came to shop, to eat and drink by Newport's river.