A little known fact about Cardiff is that it has the biggest concentration of Victorian, Edwardian, and modern-day indoor shopping arcades in Britain. These corridors wind through the centre of the Welsh capital, crammed with boutique shops, family-run cafes, independent bookstores, gelato bars, and hidden tea houses.
I grew up in Cardiff and spent many Saturday afternoons in its arcades, flipping through vinyl at Spillers Records and gorging on Reuben sandwiches at the New York-style deli. I got my ears pierced at Rebel Rebel, a smoking paraphernalia shop that, somewhat inexplicably, also offers body piercings. But today, when I return to Cardiff for a visit, I can’t help but notice how quiet its formerly bustling arcades are.
It wasn’t always like this. Royal Arcade was the first indoor shopping street to open in the city in 1858 after the clearing of a slum house. A further seven arcades followed and still stand proud in the city centre, attracting shoppers for over a century and housing more than 100 independent businesses. But since the opening and subsequent extension of the St. David’s shopping centre in 2009—and the surge in online shopping—footfall to the arcades has declined. On top of that, only 10 percent of the 90,000 people who walk along Cardiff’s High Street each week cut through the Castle Quarter arcades.
“We get a lot of people coming through and ask if we’re still open, but we’ve been here for the last 40 years!” laments Rhian Jenkins, manager of Garlands Eatery and Coffee House, a cafe in Duke Street Arcade. “We stick to what we know and our customers love that we still serve traditional Welsh fare like Glamorgan sausages, faggots and peas, and rarebit.”
She continues: “When we first opened, you’d struggle to get through on the weekends because it was so busy. Today is a different story, people find what they need close to the train station on the south side of town, so there’s no need to come up this far to this part of Cardiff.”
Earlier this June, not-for-profit business group FOR Cardiff announced plans to revive the city’s arcades with a £75,000 advertising campaign, rebranding the Welsh capital as the “City of Arcades.”
“As part of the vibrant project area, we will invest in marketing and events to better promote the city,” FOR Cardiff’s marketing and communications manager Carolyn Brownell tells me over email. “We want to remind locals and show tourists the beauty, history, and fantastic stuff that the arcades have to offer.”
Heeding this advice, I decide to rediscover Cardiff’s arcades for myself, starting with the meandering path that takes me into the High Street Arcade. Here, I find Mumbai street food cafe 3B’s Cafe, where owner Sakshi Adkar greets me with dosas and chickpea curry.
“We’ve only been opened since October 2016. As lovely as it has been here in the arcades, the footfall is killing me already,” she says as we sit down to eat. “We’re only moving round the corner into a unit that’s closer to the front, but if a business isn’t visible and people don’t know where you are, then it can’t run.”
Adkar continues: “I hope FOR Cardiff does something to the arcades to help liven them up because there’s a huge amount of struggle for family-run businesses like me that are bringing in new, experimental food.”
She’s not the only one bringing something new to the arcades. Neuropharmacologist Carly Karran opened Science Cream, a liquid nitrogen ice cream parlour, a street over in Castle Arcade four years ago.
“Ice cream is all about footfall and location. It’s a seasonal product so it’s hard to pay rent 12 months of the year, especially when people aren’t coming in the winter,” a lab coat-wearing Karran shouts over the whirring of ice cream mixers, which billow out impressive clouds of vapour as we talk.
“There’s a strong community spirit everywhere you turn,” she adds. “Everyone helps each other out, takes each other’s post and lend ingredients. You won’t get that in a soulless shopping centre.”
It’s this community spirit that has beckoned new businesses to the arcades. Fabulous Welshcakes, an entire shop dedicated to the traditional griddle-cooked cakes, opened on the corner of Castle Arcade last year. I can smell their enticing buttery scent from outside.
“We’ve only been opened in this site since last year, but we have another shop in Cardiff Bay,” store assistant Katie Jantura tells me as she serves a customer. “We love being here, it’s got so much character and everyone is supportive of each other because we’re all in the same boat.”
No longer able to resist, I order a bag full of Welsh cakes and eat one as I head back inside the arcade, up the stairs, and onto the balcony to meet another new kid on the block. Simon Wright opened Cardiff’s first natural wine bar, Wright’s Wines, in Castle Arcade earlier this year.
“We’ve built up a following thanks to our Carmarthen site and this is something quite new for Cardiff. We sell non-traditional wines that aren’t aggressive commercial wines,” he tells me. “It’s a bit like joining a cult, once you’re in, you don’t go back to regular wine. The arcades are what makes Cardiff distinct. Without them, it’ll look just like every other shopping centre.”
I end my arcade tour with one last pitstop down memory lane at Spillers Records in Morgan Arcade on the other side of town, close to the new St. David’s shopping centre and its shiny facade.
Although admittedly less shiny, the record shop’s owner, Ashley Todd, reminds me how important the arcades are.
“It’s that old adage of ‘use or lose it,’ I find myself referring to quite often,” she says, among the boxes of records. “Now that we’re being reminded about how special these old parts of Cardiff are, we need to instil it in new generations. Otherwise, we’ll not realise what we had unless it’s gone.”