The wonderful heritage of the Cardiff Arms Park | Carolyn Hitt

As fields of dreams go, Cardiff Arms Park takes some beating.

A piece of ground skirted by the Taff where sport has been played for more than 170 years, it occupies a special place in the history of the city and in the collective imagination of Wales itself.

Though it has flirted with cricket, greyhounds and staged an Empire Games, it is, of course, synonymous with rugby – in club, national and regional incarnations. And as the latter side drops its Blues suffix and rebrands itself back to simply Cardiff Rugby ahead of this week’s United Rugby Championship kick-off, a new book underlines why heritage defines the blue and blacks.

Cardiff Arms Park – An Illustrated Architectural and Social History has been authored by a team of writers who share this passionate pride in the past and evoke it in meticulous detail through 400 pages of prose and pictures.

Historians Gwyn Prescott and Andrew Hignell combine with current and former members of the CF10 Arms Park Rugby Trust, David Allen, Simon Baker and Sally Carter to pen this handsome limited-edition volume which will raise funds for the Cardiff Rugby Community Foundation.

It’s far more than a sports history. While there are the expected tales of classic matches and sepia squad photos of young men – and indeed women, don’t miss the story of the first ever women’s rugby match in 1917 – it is the “architectural and social history” dimension that sets this book apart from more conventional sporting narratives.

And not just in terms of recalling the fascinating history of what has developed on the site over two centuries but what might have been. There is a chapter examining the years building up to the construction of the Millennium Stadium in 1999 which feels like Welsh rugby’s Sliding Doors moment.

The book covers this period forensically – from the politics to the design minutia – as a site that had served Welsh sport since the middle of the 19th century attempted to adapt to the 21st.

With its lack of hospitality provision and limited commercial concourse appeal, the old concrete cathedral of the National Stadium was increasingly unfit for purpose in the professional era.

There were also significant health and safety concerns about a design that could still allow fans to cram in by various illegal means. All this with the 1999 Rugby World Cup on the horizon. But it surely did have one thing going for it – location, location, location.

That didn’t stop the WRU resurrecting what the book describes as “the old chestnut of Island Farm”, ie., moving the spiritual home of Welsh rugby to a patch of land off the A48 once occupied by a prisoner of war camp.

Thankfully that plan was dismissed, as were later designs that involved a revamp of the existing stadium rather than a new build.

An ambitious concept named the Euro Stadium which would have ejected Cardiff RFC to a smaller new stadium in Cardiff Bay – a proposal that was vehemently opposed by the city centre club – also didn’t get off the ground.

All these years later it’s intriguing to see these designs and imagine how different the heart of Cardiff might have been with what resembled something more akin to a rugby Disneyland on the banks of the Taff.

The plans included an egg-shaped hotel on the northern side of the ground and a Seattle Space Needle-type observation tower on the south. If this doesn’t sound too much of an oxymoron, the architecture looked “futuristic 1960s”. Given the city planners’ current obsession with featureless high-rise student flat blocks, however, it would have been fun to retain a more stylish skyscraper in the form of that observation tower.

© Western Mail
© Western Mail
© Western Mail

More than 20 years on, I’d also forgotten quite how crassly the competition for Millennium Commission funding was played out between arts and sport. Wales had two landmark projects bidding in the shape of the stadium and a new waterfront opera house.

But the Commission had made it clear that, with the exception of London, no other UK city would succeed in an application for more than one landmark project.

As the book recalls, both London-based and Welsh media seized on this with glee, portraying it as a straight fight between the elite (opera) and the people (rugby) – “a struggle for the soul of the nation”.

Notwithstanding the fact that Wales had always been a country that could accommodate hymns AND arias – miners who sang in male voice choirs were as familiar with the repertoire of Verdi as any black-tied opera buff – there was a certain irony at play.

After all, rugby had its own crachach. In the land of the blazerati, there was more chance of getting a ticket to La Traviata than Wales v England.

As the book outlines: “The contest conveniently ignored the history of Welsh National Opera, by now one of the leading companies in Britain, but which very much had its origins as a community project, and the fact that in some respects, rugby was the more elitist of the two.

“As one writer to the South Wales Echo noted, though they were able to simply go to the box office and buy a ticket for the opera in Cardiff, all international rugby tickets were distributed to member clubs and debenture holders with none going on sale to the public. Others thought that both schemes were of dubious value. ‘Wales, so long the land of song and rugby, could become the land of white elephants.’”

Cartoonist Gren had a field-day with the furore – as the artwork reproduced in the book illustrates. The opera house bid, meanwhile, did itself no favours by allowing the fabulous “crystal necklace” design by Zaha Hadid to be smashed by its detractors. This was Welsh arts’ Sliding Doors moment – Cardiff Bay missed its chance to have the global architectural kudos of Sydney Harbour.

In the end, neither bid made it past the first round, with the Millennium Commission also rejecting a proposal for a national botanic garden near Carmarthen for good measure. But the WRU and its architects were ultimately successful when they doubled-down on plans for two stadia, keeping Cardiff rugby on its historic site, and put forward the design for what would become the Millennium Stadium.

© Western Mail

The book prints The Sun headline that heralded the decision with relish: “Rugby fans beat toffs in Lottery cash fight”. The rest is history. Wales did get a house for opera. And a National Botanic Garden. But the call to Arms would always be loudest. Even before it was finished, the stadium felt historic, earning its place in Welsh folklore through being eulogised by the rugby bard.

In the words of Max Boyce: “They say it’s got a sliding roof, that slowly moves away. They’ll slide it back when Wales attack so God can watch us play.”

On their field of dreams next door this Friday, Cardiff Rugby look to the future with a name they have reclaimed from their past. And as this book reveals, what a past that is.

From that day in October 1876 when John, Third Marquess of Bute, granted an acre of meadowland beside the Taff to Welsh sport, it is a site that continues to tell a rich tale of architectural and social history.

Cardiff Arms Park: An Illustrated Architectural and Social History (£24.99) can be purchased through the Cardiff Rugby Foundation website

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