RECENTLY, Cardiff Council officially approved a controversial development planned for the former site of Guildford Crescent, a street in the city centre.

Before its demolition, Guildford Crescent - a squat little row of brightly-painted nineteenth century buildings - had housed two family-run restaurants and the tiny, much-beloved Gwdihŵ ('Owl') bar and music venue.

The street was the subject of an impassioned but ultimately unsuccessful 2019 campaign to save it by local residents, activists and Welsh creative performers – one of a number planning battles fought and lost by communities in the capital over the past fifteen years. 

South Wales Argus: Gwdihw (Source: James Dunn)Gwdihw (Source: James Dunn)

In late 2018, when Gwdihŵ announced its impending closure, a number of Cardiff’s most iconic live music and entertainment venues had already closed their doors - turned variously into offices, restaurants, or simply demolished – and so the self-labelled “pint-sized music venue” became something of a focal point for opposition to the Guildford Crescent development.

READ MORE: Giant 30-storey apartment tower planned for Central Square in Cardiff

“It was thriving – an asset to the local music industry,” said Daniel Minty, who led the campaign.

Minty runs Minty’s Gig Guide to Cardiff, formerly a podcast and now Community Interest Company aiming to promote and support live music and culture across the city.

“Because I run the guide, I’d be there every week,” he said.

“It was always very proficient at booking shows: There was never a week or a day where something wasn't going on there - whether it be spoken word, house or trance nights, afrobeats, metal.

“It had a very sort of eclectic and heightened volume programme. It was impossible to avoid as a venue really, and it was always very full of ambiguity – you really didn’t know what you were going to get.”

The bar opened in 2008, in its time playing host to Welsh artists Catfish and the Bottlemen, Boy Azooga and Cate Le Bon (who thought up the venue’s name), as well as US band Titus Andronicus. 

It sat alongside the family-run Thai House restaurant, which had been at the location for decades - the first Thai restaurant in the UK to open outside London. The Portuguese restaurant next door, Madeira, had been in place for 20 years. 

South Wales Argus: Daniel Minty addresses the crowd at January 2019's march to save Guildford Crescent (Source: Daniel Minty)Daniel Minty addresses the crowd at January 2019's march to save Guildford Crescent (Source: Daniel Minty)

When word got out about the demolition plans, Minty had just finished looking into the history of Gwdihŵ for its tenth birthday celebrations.

“It opened during the 2008 recession, and I always thought that was a really bolshie move,” he said.

“I was interested in the street anyway, so I went to the Cathays Civic Library and tracked down the building records all the way back to around 1862.

“There were so many stories, but one record that stands out in my mind is that in 1909 a woman was running her own tailoring business there - I thought that was amazing, so many years before women even got the vote.

“I wanted to document that history, and that was before I found out about the council’s conservation paper.

“There’s a story - how did we get from trying to designate Guildford Crescent an area of cultural significance to demolishing it?”

READ MORE: Is Cardiff really a music city?

Cardiff Council did indeed explore granting the street conservation area status. In its June 2018 appraisal, the council commented that Guildford Crescent “reflects the last area of undesignated remaining historic townscape within the core city centre area.”

Despite this move, many who worked in the area saw the writing on the wall when the nearby Bridge Street Exchange building, a 26-storey student accommodation tower, began construction.

James Dunn, a Welsh standup comedian, former Gwdihŵ assistant manager and the host of the venue’s former Caterpillar Comedy Night, remembers: “There was a day where me and the manager were drinking out the front.

“We were looking at the tower going up, and one of us joked - ‘That'll be us next.’

“It was a joke, but then we kind of had that silent pause, like - Yeah, it probably is.”

South Wales Argus: James Dunn (Source: James Dunn)James Dunn (Source: James Dunn)

Just a couple of weeks following Gwdihŵ's 10th Birthday Bash event, the owners announced that they were being forced to close.

“I was working at Radio Wales at the time,” Minty said.

“I thought -  I can't sit down and do this, talk about live music in our city, when it's being as bashed around as it is. So I got involved.”

A petition was quickly set up to save the street, gathering just under 21,000 signatures, and local MP Jo Stevens, now Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, brought up Gwdihŵ in the House of Commons.

The campaign culminated in a thousands-strong protest in January 2019.

“I got caught up in it,” Dunn told The National.

“Initially, I just tried to accept that the place was going, but the march was insane. 

“There was this sense that, sh*t, maybe we could do it.

“Then I worked a shift the next day. We were locking up afterwards, and we just sort of turned to each other like - ‘Do you feel like it’s over now?’”

READ MORE: Cardiff council hands over keys to Old Library and Norwegian Church

Sometime later, a group of activists calling themselves 'The Guildford Peasants' even went on to briefly occupy the Gwdihŵ building, but after a temporary pause to plans, the demolition went ahead. 

In the Crescent’s place will stand a thirty-storey 'luxury' apartment block. The tower will include "bookable private dining areas" and a “stunning roof-top landscaped terrace on the 27th floor”, according to its developers, English construction giant Galliford Try. 

South Wales Argus: The design for Guildford Crescent, which recently received approval from Cardiff Council (Source: Galliford Try)The design for Guildford Crescent, which recently received approval from Cardiff Council (Source: Galliford Try)

A “build to rent” project, all of the tower’s flats will be owned and rented out by a single institutional property investor, and will not be available for purchase by individual residents. 

The facades of the old street still stand, held up by scaffolding - the result of a last-minute compromise by the council, which agreed with developers that the old fronts would be preserved and used for commercial lets on the tower’s ground floor - but in a final blow to campaigners, the old Gwdihŵ frontage will not be included.

South Wales Argus: (Source: GallifordTry)(Source: GallifordTry)

In a familiar rhythm for Cardiff planning, a request by the council for just under £5million towards affordable housing and community infrastructure was downgraded to just £500,000 for “improvements to the public realm”, after developers GallifordTry said that the original obligation would make the project “unviable”.

READ MORE: Rebecca Wilks on the 'uninspiring' redevelopment of Cardiff

For some, the street’s demolition represented more than the loss of a treasured live music venue. For the staff of Thai House, it meant redundancy, as the business struggled to find a new location.

For Dunn, it meant losing both a job and a “home” in the city.

Originally from Newport, he took over running the venue’s comedy nights from fellow comic Jordan Brookes - now an Edinburgh Comedy Award winner - in 2015. He started work there shortly after, having been made redundant from his teaching job.

“It was kind of a happy accident really. It was going to be a five month thing, but it turned into four years,” he told The National.

“It was just home. The people, the environment - it was a beautiful thing.

“It sounds weird, but for a while whenever I was in the city centre I’d go and walk past - it was like visiting an old friend.

“I saw it get knocked down bit by bit.

“As time has gone on, I’ve started to think - if it’s going to be a landlord's haven, then I’m glad my home’s not going to be a part of that.

“But then again, I think back to that march, and all the people who showed up to save it, and I think - f**k me, they couldn’t even give us the facades of the whole street.”

South Wales Argus: (Source: James Dunn)(Source: James Dunn)

Jordan Brookes added: “It’s devastating to see what’s happened to Cardiff over just a few years.

“[Gwdihŵ] was always so enthusiastic and keen to provide a platform for new and established performers to both develop and showcase their work. 

“Places like that are a vital part of the grassroots culture of the city. Taking them away makes it harder for it to flourish. 

“No one remembers a great culturally enriching night they had in some generic beige apartment block.”

Welsh novelist, Llwyd Owen, who held a number of book-launches at Gwdihŵ and DJ'ed at the venue, agreed: “The hole left by Guildford Crescent - both physically and culturally - is massive. 

“Once again, unique buildings of character and history are torn down to make space for soulless developments that add nothing to the city centre.”

Despite the clear grief felt by local artists, cultural venues in the city continue to face threats.

South Wales Argus: Porters, Cardiff (Source: Google Streetview)Porters, Cardiff (Source: Google Streetview)

Porter’s, a popular pub and music venue that also houses a mini theatre space, is seeking a new location as its landlord, The Draycott Group, pushes ahead with plans to demolish the site and replace it with a 35-storey build-to-rent apartment tower. 

On Porter’s, Minty said: “We need an agreement in place that Porter’s can remain there.

“It will add so much to the business they want to bring in. 

“You’ve got a landmark place that serves the community - people love Porter’s, it’s stood the test of time already.

“Why chuck it away?

“We need to be not only saving these places but making them a beacon - they should be treated like the landmarks they are.”

He also believes campaigners should be more proactive, seeking to address threats before they get as far as planning applications.

“It’s like, thank you for being so passionate, and so caring, but - guys, we’ve got our shovels in our hands here.

“If we’re not prepared to do the groundwork, this will continue to happen.”

Minty admires the approach of Porter’s owner Dan Porter, who has reached out for help relocating from the council ahead of its lease expiring.

Dunn, however, fears these efforts may be in vain.

“It sounds strange to say this, because there are seemingly so many empty spaces - but there’s a lack of space for a bar,” he said.

“We looked into it with Gwdihŵ - there are issues with rent, with licensing, and so on.

“When you replace these smaller, more manageable buildings with these grand hotel and retail designs - you’re not necessarily going to fill them.”

  • This article originally appeared on our sister site The National.