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A world behind the shop fronts; Cardiff is famous for its arcades, but not everyone sees them exactly like Jennie Savage. The artist spoke to Claire Rees about how her passion for the city's forgotten shopping history prompted her to write a book.

DID you know the history of Cardiff's shopping arcades are thought to be rooted in medieval times? Or that in the mid 1800s they were a hive of activity where shoppers wandered late into the night? Jennie Savage didn't either. The 34-year-old artist, who lived in Cardiff for 15 years, was lucky enough to spend three years "doing some of my favourite things" as she researched a project on the city's unique Victorian and Edwardian history.

Her project, based around the arcades off St Mary Street, and the Hayes, used information from local architects and historians, as well as from shoppers and businesses, to create a factual study of the history behind some of our favourite parts of town.

The project, including a book, Depending On Time, is aimed at encouraging people to see a side of Cardiff often ignored, and Jennie, who describes her work as somewhere between "public spaces, town planning, constructed landscapes and the human story", has also produced a walking soundtrack available on headphones at the new Cardiff Library.

"The whole project took about three years, and the book probably about six months," said Jennie, who transcribed interviews she conducted with more than 100 people, on 90 hours of audio tape.

"I've got lots left - I've barely scratched the surface and I'm no expert, but this is my view of the city."

Cardiff University graduate Jennie, who now lives in London, describes herself as a "things obsessive" who once created a complicated filing system for everything in her home down to cutlery.

In the book she says: "In some ways, the Victorian shopping arcades could be described as the St David's 2 Centre of the late 1800s and that, like the new development, they sought to make a statement about Cardiff on a national stage: demonstrating the city's modernity, its nowness.

"I've always been fascinated by Victorian architecture and what really made me want to do the project was the building of St David's 2. "It's really saying something about the history of shopping."

Work on the St David's 2 shopping development began in 2006, when Jennie started the project, but she says the book's aim wasn't to make a comment on the result of the centre's arrival next to her favourite arcades, which date back to the mid 1850s.

"The book is really about looking at this moment of change, rather than the outcomes," said Jennie.

"It's about what happens between that time of change."

And she refuses to be drawn on whether she approves of St David's 2, which part-funded the project, but revealed: "There's something about the scale of St David's 2 that's inhuman.

"There's one quote in the book where the chief architect described it as a 'cathedral of commerce' - if you think about what cathedrals do to people - they're about making you feel so small under such a large being."

Jennie visited Paris to research the project but concluded that, when it came to Cardiff's shopping centres, there was nothing like it.

"I love how you can walk down any of the arcades and find a multitude of interests and hobbies that you can dip in and out of," she said.

"That's what makes Cardiff individual as a city.

"People talk about clone towns in Britain but you can still find so many independent shops here and what's special now is how the arcades are not full of Starbucks shops.

"It's something Cardiff should celebrate."

Cardiff is known as the city of arcades because it has the highest concentration of Victorian and Edwardian shopping arcades in the UK.

Although they date back to the 1850s, the actual pathways St Mary's Street's arcades stand on were streets that are thought to stretch back to medieval times.

"While other cities may have ar-cades, I see Cardiff as a Mecca city," said Jennie.

"The arcades exist as this dense warren of walking spaces that let you navigate a great deal of the city."

But with the arrival of John Lewis and St David's 2 and the pressure on independent retailers - how does Jennie see the future of Cardiff's precious arcades? "The arcades have to exist there because they're listed," she said.

"But as independent retailers can no longer afford to keep up with higher business rates and rent, we'll see shops being knocked through and bigger chains going in there."

The project also unveiled some tourist gems the average shopper or worker may miss on their daily walk.

"People concentrate on getting from A to B so it was trying to look at the city through an investigative way," said Jennie.

"Just by looking up, you discover things you've never seen.

"One thing I found that was so amazing was the hidden 'cities' above and below the arcades.

"You see this passage of arcades but if you look up, which a lot of people don't when they're going about day to day, there are often two floors up and one underground.

"Like Royal Arcade and Morgan Arcade - they connect above - I saw the old rooms belonging to David Morgan, which has now gone.

"And there's this tiny warren of corridors and passages and you can look out across the city and see how the Victorian city looked.

"If you go up to the top floor of the new library, you see a similar view."

Now away from the city, Jennie remains passionate that Cardiff should cherish its uniqueness.

"The thing which really struck me was every single person with a shop in one of the arcades is an expert on what they are doing," she said.

"Whether it's shoes or antiques - they know everything there is to know about it.

"It's a great resource to have in any city that you don't get from larger shops.

"Many of the people I interviewed described the arcades as warm, and they felt a sense of belonging.

"It's a way of life, and such a creative way of life, and it will disappear if it's not supported." For more information, go to www.arcadesproject.org The book is available from www.safle.com MINUTES FROM A PAST LIFE IN CARDIFF'S ARCADES ...

High Street Arcade was officially opened on June 16, 1886 - and Mr Maggo was appointed caretaker at pounds 2.51 per week - initial shop rent was pounds 500 per year for the first five years. In December the arcade inspector was given pounds 3 to buy a new overcoat for his role - minutes show he didn't request a new one for another two years - as his work had improved, the company let him have one - again, as long as it didn't exceed pounds 3. Smoking on the street was not the done thing in those days, so arcade tenants placed small cigarette boxes outside their shops.

On March 8, 1870, a Mr Clifton requested compensation after falling through a coal chute in Royal Arcade. Shops in the arcade in those days used to stay open until seven or eight at night, and in March 1870 it was discussed whether a policeman should be employed in the arcade to monitor the huge number of shoppers. From research of minutes by Dr Andrew Cochrane, for Depending on Time, by Jennie Savage.

CAPTION(S):

Artist Jennie Savage has written a book Depending On Time on Cardiff's Hayes area and the city centre's arcades and their changing faces. Above right, some of the personalities that inhabit the city's
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Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Oct 14, 2009
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