4 December 2009

WoS Around Britain: Newport, Wales

WoS's friends are idiots. By way of example, one acquaintance (who we won't name here for fear of embarrassing his unfortunate parents, Mr and Mrs Walker) decided a few weeks ago to smarten up his scruffy, well-worn passport in preparation for a trip to America, by putting it through the washing machine with only the pocket of some trousers for protection. The predictable results, and the ever-present threat of fundamentalist Islamic terrorism, necessitated said person (who, to further preserve his anonymity throughout this feature, we'll refer to only as 'John X') making not one but two trips - in person - to the Passport Office on consecutive days, in order that a replacement could be issued in time for the journey.

Fortunately said office is located in Newport in Wales, just the other side of the Severn Bridge and only a short 40-minute hop by direct train from Bath, where he happens to also live. The first trip passed with little incident, but as a demonstration of just how stupid WoS's friends are, on arriving back in Bath poor John X was carelessly and immediately struck down by a catastrophic dose of what for the sake of decorum we'll call ''digestive tract dysfunction', which it transpired would persist for several unpleasant days.

In the interests of public hygiene, then, WoS selflessly offered to make the return trip to Newport to collect the new passport in John X's place (something which is oddly permissible under the otherwise-strict regulations, despite WoS being a known subversive and potential terror threat), and seized the opportunity for adventure along the way.

(Viewers! Should you ever in fact wish to commit a terrorist atrocity in a British public building or institution*, WoS advises concealing your weapon or explosives inside a secret compartment in your shoes. On numerous occasions WoS has visited such places and been required to pass through a metal detector, placing all metal objects from its various pockets onto a tray for inspection. The detector then goes off anyway, as WoS is normally to be found in sturdy boots with steel toecaps, as protection against ragamuffins and vagabonds. On explaining this to the security guards - the bit about steel toecaps, that is, not the bit about ragamuffins and vagabonds - WoS has unfailingly been waved through. But anyway.)

After enduring a bumpy journey in a tiny and cramped two-carriage train, enlivened only by beating Gary Penn's high score at Orbital just as the train pulled up to the platform, WoS arrived in Newport. Successfully navigating the desolate landscape around the railway station and managing to locate the anonymous grey Passport Office building in a nondescript street, WoS secured the precious document and set off into town to find someone to sell it to.

The picture at the top of this page is an artist's impression of Newport's central shopping mall, the Kingsway Centre, as it was advertised during the planning stages of its £33m renovation before it opened in September 2008. The picture above this paragraph is what it actually looks like. (Click all images in this feature except the first one for larger versions.)

Most of the outside of the centre is clad in red boards advertising space available for rent. Indeed, almost ALL the space inside is available for rent. WoS estimates that 80% or more of the mall's retail space was boarded up and empty, a year after the grand reopening. Only two of the dozens of vacant units appeared as if they might ever have been occupied - a forlorn ex-Jessops, with posters in the windows noting that it had moved to Cardiff (16 miles away), and something encased in a large coffin of plywood panels, outside which two sinister-looking men in dark suits sat like silent predators, waiting to relieve people of their unwanted gold for cash at knockdown prices.

The few shops on offer to tempt the handful of customers milling listlessly around mostly comprised bargain outlets, eg a branch of discount chemist Savers and a two-storey Wilkinsons outlet, which must have accounted for at least two thirds of the mall's occupied square footage by itself. And although WoS traversed the Kingsway at least five times in various directions during the day, the "Library, Art Gallery and Museum" proudly boasted on the facade were either not there at all, or extremely well concealed. 

Eventually a woman evidently employed by the mall to maintain control of its public image on little-visited videogames-related websites approached WoS and forbade the taking of any more pictures, on the grounds that the mall was private property and official permission was required. So WoS popped into Wilkinsons for some Fruit-Tellas, then took its leave of the Kingsway Centre and wandered off to see if the rest of Newport could offer up any affirming indicators of the allegedly-imminent ending of the recession.

Having arrived at the mall plaza via a needlessly circuitous route, the next stop on WoS's tour itinerary took in an area that's actually directly between the Kingsway and the passport office, and adjacent to the bus station. There, things only got grimmer. Like much of the outer ring encircling the city centre, many of the buildings appeared to be of quite recent construction, built from pristine smooth-edged red bricks, but once again the considerable majority of them (bar an Iceland and a Poundstretcher) lay deserted and forlorn.

(The picture set above, incidentally, was taken between 2pm and 3pm on a sunny and mild Tuesday afternoon in October.) There were a few points of interest lurking amongst the economic wreckage - the fish and chip shop, for example, had much of its boarded-up frontage covered in anti-Welsh (pro-English) graffiti, as well as some of a more traditionally racist nature. And the newsagent, while formidably and forbiddingly armoured with metal shutters beneath its Mars branding, was actually open for business, conducted through one of its windows.

But the last picture in the set is the most tragic - when a city of 140,000 people can't even support a pound shop, no amount of proclamations from Westminster can disguise the truth. WoS found it deeply ironic, then, to find a murky tunnel leading from the bus-station area to the Kingsway plaza decorated by a long mosaic mural (which had apparently won some sort of environmental award in 1979) depicting a protesting mob demanding salaries for MPs.

The end of the mural (which annoyingly doesn't appear to feature a plaque or any other kind of explanation of which events it's portraying, although an alert WoS viewer expertly discovered it to have been the Newport Rising of 1839) shows the protesters apparently being massacred by government troops. If their ghosts are watching now, I hope they feel it was worth it.

Passing through the Kingsway mall again, WoS emerged on the other side in what was clearly Old Newport, but there was little there to lift the spirits either. The retail heart of the city is large, with a maze of substantial old streets and numerous little alleys and shopping arcades but it was in almost uniformly shabby condition, and almost as riddled with economic cancer, as the surrounding areas. The main artery, Commercial Street, was relatively bustling compared to other parts of the centre and had few boarded-up stores, but you only had to turn into one of its feeder streets to see the now-familiar signs of decay in full force.

(Again, the last shot of this set is the saddest. As the plaque above it proudly declares, The Carpenters Arms has stood resolutely in this location for over 600 years, through turmoil, strife, revolution and war, but has finally been driven to its death by the Bankers' Recession.)

WoS spent the next 90 minutes searching the shops for some little presents to bring back for friends, as WoS likes to do when having adventures. But the pickings were slim in a place that seemed to be teetering on the very edge of the Nail Salon Event Horizon. Apart from the usual women's fashion chains that clog 60% of the average High Street, there were few shops that actually sold products rather than services - every other business was a coffee shop or a tattoo parlour or a hairdresser or a mobile phone operator or some kind of agency.

Eventually in desperation WoS picked up a few trinkets in Poundland and some interesting snacks in a Polish shop (if anyone knows anywhere that sells Halls Vita-C lime sweets online, incidentally, speak up and be richly rewarded. Heavens, they're delicious), and headed back towards the train station, which entailed a final grim traverse of the Kingsway Centre from yet another direction no more uplifting than the others.

At various places in the centre, and indeed strewn liberally around the city, there are big, brightly-coloured billboards from an advertising campaign with the strapline "Feeling good about Newport". It's hard to know whether the presumably-expensive campaign is aimed at visitors or mainly at cheering up the residents, but the main hope being held out for the future appears to be that the city is hosting the Ryder Cup in 2010.

It's probably going to take a bit more than a three-day golf tournament to turn things round, for Newport and for the rest of us. Merry Chris, viewers!

* Please do not commit a terrorist atrocity.

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