Caught by the River

Wandering the River Taff: Got Brains?

Helia Phoenix | 15th March 2017

In the second instalment of her new column, Helia Phoenix talks zombies, killer swans, and Welsh cwrw on the Taff

On my first visit back to Cardiff as an adult, back in 1999, one of the first things I remember is ominous lettering on a railway bridge, somewhere around the city centre, asking an ambiguous question that brought visions of the undead feasting on innocent Cardiffians: GOT BRAINS?

Today I wandered into town trying to find the bridge where I saw that sign. It’s the day after Storm Doris blew its way through Cardiff, emptying recycling down streets, blowing bins over and swiping hats from heads. I haven’t been well for a couple of weeks, but decided to use the opportunity to walk into town, and try and get some fresh air.

It’s the end of half term. Town is crazy. I can’t move at the same pace as the streams of people around me, so sit on a bench to breath-catch before descending into full scale panic mode. Earphones in, music on, I select Underworld’s last album Barbara Barbara, We Face A Shining Future. I recommend you put it on and listen as we escape town and stroll down the “Brains” section of the Taff.

Picture via Brains Brewery on Instagram

(Track 1 – “I Exhale”)

Back in 1999, I was convinced the “brains” sign was zombie-related, so it was with some disappointment I discovered that “Brains” is cwrw (Welsh for beer) shorthand for SA Brain – Wales’ largest brewery. Back in 1882 the company occupied a small premises on the now-pedestrianised Working Street, but the Welsh (and multiple nationalities who lived here, working on the docks) were obviously super thirsty from all that Industrial Revolution-ising. Brains expanded rapidly, growing into and out of various locations until ‘99, when they ended up on their current site (which previously housed Hancock’s Brewery). In the image above, you can see the iconic chimney and the main brewing house on the Taff, with the neighbourhood of Grangetown behind.

South of Cardiff Central Train Station, the site occupies eight acres along the banks of the River Taff. Regular Joes and Joannas aren’t allowed in the brewery – there’s nothing exciting like the brewery tours of Guinness or Heineken (strange, when you consider the number of stag and hen do-s that come to the city), although apparently there are rooms you can book out for meetings. The only publicly accessible part of the brewery comes totally for free, but only on early mornings and when the wind is in the right direction: open your mouth at such times, and you’ll be rewarded with a mouthful of hoppy malty goodness, blown directly from the brewery itself.

The year that Brains moved here – the year I saw that sign – was a big one for me. During that first trip as an adult back to my birthplace of Cardiff, I fell in love with the city: friendly, pint sized, full of parks and pubs and clubs and good times and decorated with giant painted signs about zombies. Shortly after, I abandoned the chaos of London and moved to Wales.

(Track 2 – “If Rah”)
(Track 3 – “Low Burn”)

If you walk west from the city centre along Wood Street, you’ll pass the front of Cardiff’s Brunel-designed train station, and past the old bus station. The area is now an enormous building site with a Herculean industrial metamorphosis taking place: from bus station and wasteland to the future BBC Wales HQ.

In the early 2000s, the bus station stank of piss and was full of vagrants, dealers, addicts, and street rat kids, screaming at each other, baying as you walked past, demanding spare change or offering drugs. As I stepped off a coach from London once, one of them threw up all over someone’s suitcase. I got out of there, quicksmart. It wasn’t a place to hang around.

On my walks these days I try and hurry past it, even now. The scale of redevelopment here is overwhelming. Cranes tower overhead. Construction teams shout. I try and focus on my feet, and how they’re carrying me out of here.

Photo via DJ Leekee on Instagram

(Track 4 – “Santiago Cuatro”)
(Track 5 – “Motorhome”)

Once I get past the construction zone and over the river, the first left is Taff’s Mead Embankment, a stretch of path buzzing with cyclists and people walking to work or town, as well as hikers heading either north or south along the Taff Trail.

Fifty-odd metres down the path brings me directly opposite the brewery. Brains might have meeting rooms for hire but apparently they don’t allow birds in, so the local avian population have started their own bird business centre over here.

They look cute, sure – but you try weaving your way through a crowd of massive hissing killer swans and divebombing gulls while they’re trying to peck the sandwiches from your gloved hands. The bird selection here is notable: you’ll find ducks, pigeons, and gulls of all kinds: common, black-headed, great black-backed, glaucous, kittiwakes. You’ll even see normally timid breeds of waders out and about here, taking part in the various conferences, discussing important bird business.

(Track 6 – “Ova Nova”)

Just before Christmas, Brains announced they were moving from their city centre space, pending securing a new location. Thus ends a long period of ‘will they, won’t they’ speculation – Cardiff Council have been what an old boss would describe as “itching at the bit” to nab the land that the Brains Brewery currently occupies: prime, city central real estate.

This morning I read for the first time about proposals for the new site: possible extension to Cardiff’s woefully small main train station, new offices, hotels, apartments, something ominously described as a “leisure zone” (?), along with the hub for the south Wales metro system. The “Central Quay” is likely to be one of the biggest regeneration projects in the UK when it starts (supposedly to at the end of 2017).

(Track 7 – “Nylon Strung”)

Further down the river, away from the brewery, away from town, I keep searching for that Brains sign. The sign I remember has either been painted over, or I have remembered the wording wrong. Either way, I can’t find what I’m looking for.

I have spent much of the past seven years telling people about what a fantastic place Cardiff is. Trying to expose some of its alternative culture and the joys of living here. It’s days like today I wish I hadn’t. Part of me wants the city to stay exactly the same: a place that’s just mine, that won’t change, or shift, or become things I don’t understand. I wish it was a secret that I had kept, all to myself.

The birds don’t seem to care much one way or another. I move towards a pair of swans, energetically pecking away at something on the path, which on closer inspection looks (and smells) like Friday night at Glastonbury.

The birds remind me that everything is temporary. Vomit on the streets, Brains, the city, my experience of it, my presence in it. The city doesn’t belong to me any more than I belong to it. Which is to say, both absolutely, and not at all.

NB: The swans swiped at me shortly after this photo was taken, reminding me that while they might look cute, they don’t mess when it comes to any food stuffs on the floor here, including the puke (which they had obviously called dibs on).


Helia Phoenix has written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and Kruger Magazine, and now runs the We Are Cardiff project. The previous instalment of her column can be found here. You could also take a peek at her website or follow her on Twitter, if you felt like it.