Where the streets have two names

Similar to how the kinds of statues we choose to erect says a huge amount about us, our street signs don’t just tell us where you’re to – they can reveal where we’re at as a society or as a city.

A Cardiff Council consultation on its street naming policy came to an end on Monday, which is why I’ve been thinking about it. Well, that and the fact I took a photo of Dame Shirley Bassey Way (Fford Y Fonesig Shirley Bassey), at Heath Hospital that I posted to Instagram last week. Someone called etchells3 commented, “Shame it’s not a more splendid road. Hardly reflects her glamour, talent or achievements.”

Ffordd Y Fonesig Shirley Bassey at University Hospital Wales includes an attractive ramp. The Welsh spelling was incorrect at the time of unveiling, but Dame Shirley didn’t notice.

He’s got a point, especially as this section of the road is a less than romantic concrete ramp. However, presumably this isn’t a public street being on the UHW campus – Dame Shirley’s patronage of the Noah’s Ark Children’s Hospital charity is well known – and so Cardiff can still do her proud in the future. Personally, I think a grand avenue in Splott would be perfect since that’s where she grew up.

Anyway, the point is, street names are important. A few years ago I had the pleasure of negotiating a couple of development names with Mr Bill Quick, who was at the time the city’s main man when it came to all things ‘Street Reference’. I’ve always been fascinated by who gets to name places that will become places that mean so much to people’s lives.

In the years since, on many of my delivery runs to drop I Loves The ‘Diff goodies to local customers, I have cursed the seemingly illogical and sometimes downright perverse numbering sequences in new developments.

In addition to way finding and allowing mail to be delivered (or not), and aiding emergency services, the Council’s policy document reminds us “street naming is also a key element of place-making”.

The only person to ever mention this marketing-sounding term ‘place making’ to me was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a developer (hello Peter!). But in a city where so many new homes will be built in a short space of time, how we make these brand new places into communities and places of their own, and to feel a part of the city’s fabric too, is a challenge that the Council is right to be taking seriously.

The policy document itself seems as comprehensive as it is innocuous. It explains its commitment to observing the Well-being of Future Generations Act and Welsh Language Standards. The Council “works towards parity” between Welsh and English, and to this end, “annual monitoring of street names will be carried out”. I like the idea of sending people out to check on street signs in case any street names have been naughty enough to switch side.

The document also states that the historical precedent for bilingual street names in the city centre and Cardiff Bay will continue. I’m not sure I noticed that this was specifically a town/Bay thing before.

Speaking of town, since Taff Street died with the creation of the car park on Adam Street during the construction of St David’s 2, I think we need a new one. (Garth Street was also ‘stopped up’ at the same time but I’m not as fussed about that one.) Perhaps the Brains site redevelopment might consider including a Taff Street?

A Garth Street and Taff Street sign near the Vulcan pub photographed in September 2006 – all long vanished

Unlocking meaning

The Council’s online questionnaire asked what effect this language parity might have on the Welsh language, and how positive effects could be increased and negative effects mitigated.

Living in a city with many Welsh street names is normal – it’s only when you’re on the phone to someone in a call centre in England or overseas that you remember that these oh-so-familiar and lovely names are unusual in the grand scheme of things.

It’s lovely having these Welsh street names around us, in addition to the historically pertinent English ones, I reckon.

But I think that just having Welsh street names will have very little positive impact on the Welsh language unless we unlock the language for those people who don’t come into contact with it daily. By this I mean that the reasons behind a street name have to be somehow conveyed.

As an Erasmus student, I was fortunate enough to live in Italy for an academic year, and unlucky enough to be sent somewhere very boring. I lived on a street called Via Alberico da Rosciate – a name seared into my memory despite the many intervening years. And yet that name, of a prominent figure in Bergamo from the 14th century(!), was just a mouthful of exotic vowels and consonants for me. It held no meaning.

What I’m trying to say is that people just accept a name without thinking about it –even if it’s in a language they know and use. It becomes a part of the (street) furniture, a part of the everyday, and we don’t think about why it’s called that.

Regardless of whether a street name is in Welsh or English, how many people think about the provenance of the name? But when they do, perhaps signs or technology can offer more.

Perhaps an explicit explanation (written on a plaque or on the sign itself) is necessary sometimes to add a bit of local flavor and remind us of who trod these streets or lived here before us. Perhaps given the technology available today, street signs could have QR codes for curious locals and tourists to scan in order to bring up a website explaining more about the name and the locality. There could be an app, even.

One of the city’s more colourful street signs. Its counterpart opposite features no hyphens in Rhyd-y-Penau, by the way, and some never bother with the spaces – almost Germanic in the way we ram it together to create Rhydypenau

What’s in a name?

Many street names’ follow themes – on Lake Road West there are cul-de-sacs named after the Lake District lakes, and across Roath Park Lake in Lakeside they name check the great North American lakes. It makes our beloved oversized weed-strewn pond seem a bit ridiculous by the association.

There are much better examples of street naming in the city. St Cuthbert’s Primary School in the Bay is located on Letton Road, named after Tommy Letton, or ‘Uncle Tom’. Born in 1901, Tommy ‘The Fish’, as he was also known, was one of the Docks’ famous characters – he spent more than 40 years selling fish from a barrow. How many streets have been named after fishmongers?

Street naming is a useful way to remember a vanished past and this is Cardiff Council’s view too – “preference will be given to naming schemes with an historical and local context”.

It’s great, for example, that legendary boxer “Peerless” Jim Driscoll is remembered with a Grangetown street, even if he did come from the long-gone Newtown off Tyndall Street, often call Little Ireland.

In Pontprennau on cul-de-sacs that were fields not much more than 20 years ago, there are Irish places – an obvious historical nod to the huge influx of Irish into Cardiff during the 19th century. By the way, the name Pontprennau itself is Welsh, of course, for ‘Bridge of Trees’, as in wooden footbridges across the Nant Pontprennau, the stream which flows through the district’s many pockets of parkland and play areas.

There are plans for 6,500 new homes in the vicinity of Pontprennau alone by 2026. There are going to be a lot of new street names needed as this city grows. It’s important that they reflect where we’ve been as well as where we want to go.

A version of this appeared in the South Wales Echo on Wednesday 13 March 2019. Visit http://www.ilovesthediff.com to see original ways to celebrate Cardiff

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