Friday, 26 June 2009

Four Hours In Purgatory

Newport in South Wales may be nicer when the sun shines and perhaps if you only are on the way to the station. But today it’s raining and I have to wait for the 4 hour passport renewal service.

If only would-be terrorists were made to have to spend time in Newport they may get a glimpse of the terrors that Guantanamo Bay holds, particularly when the rain is pouring down in that soft but relentless fashion so much a feature of my homeland. Mercifully, the Passport Office itself was a cinch – the aged security guard took a cursory glance at my laptop bag before ushering me through the Hi-Tech scanning chamber which beeped but he didn’t even look up before prodding my bag and handing me back my phone. The queue on the other side looked daunting as the only receptionist was on the phone and studiously ignoring the increasing line of hopefuls for their 10am appointments. But, to my surprise, she finished her call and in a few seconds she had seen off the people ahead of me and smiled pleasantly when logging my name and issuing me a ticket much like you get at the cheese counter at Tescos.

On Floor 4, a virtually empty waiting area was served by no fewer than 10 counters and the digital signage announced that the number ahead of me had already been called. I had only time to sit down and check if I had brought my old passport when my number was called. As I had a previous application which had got snaffled by the bureaucracy, I expected a delay and a fight. I haughtily handed in my documents and began explain, when the nice young cap with a distinct Cardiff accent halted me and said all was explained on his screen on entering my reference number. I felt let down – I hadn’t travelled all that way not to have a good rant about the inefficiency of the system and the bias against business people travelling regularly. But I was thwarted and sent briskly to the cashier to just pay the difference between my postal application and the premium service (I hadn’t lost my money of the previous application) and I coughed up. I even left with a faint smile.

Money Saved To Spend

I had effectively saved £72 which was the original price of my renewal – a small victory on the exorbitant price of the rail ticket. I had foolishly believed that the train would be busy so to get some work done I had booked first class. Had I taken the web price I would have been £305 down for the return trip – after a short rant at First Great Western Customer Service operative who confirmed the price, I realised that by buying two singles I could reduce the price to a bargain £186. I still blamed the chap on the line for not knowing his pricing but felt stupid for complaining when I should have worked it out for myself.

The train had left bang on time and the carriage was empty. Imagine my surprise in finding that my £186 did not include even a motley sandwich, just a coffee, a Fruesli bar and a cup of ‘freshly squeezed’ orange juice which I was assured by the lady was different to the usual ‘crap’ they served. A bacon butty would have set me back another £4 so out of principle I went hungry – that showed them. I expected the whole day to be a disaster but even the British Rail official at Newport took a few minutes to direct me to the Passport Office with a smile and a joke. I was fast running out of things to complain about.

Newport, Sporting City

Then there was Newport. I followed the man’s directions and found the Passport Office and did my stuff. I now had 4 hours to kill. I had passed a Starbuck’s on the way and decided to adopt the American ethos of ‘safety in the brand’ and got the sing-song Welsh-accented version of the available menu – it sounded better than the Romanian, Polish or Czech you find in London and the coffee tasted the same too. I opened up my laptop hopefully and the first warning sign came when my 3G mobile Wifi modem could find zero signal. I tried walking to the front of the cafe but it was no good – 3G had missed Newport off its map, perhaps they knew something I didn’t. I made some calls and finished my coffee and went in search of two things – 1) an umbrella and 2) a hotel with a decent lounge for working in.

Commercial Street would look nice in the sun, I am sure. But the rivulets of rain seemed to highlight the trampled lumps of chewing gum that had set like concrete on the pavements, which seemed to lead like a Yellow Brick Road to McDonald’s where the splatter of gum discards indicated a meeting point of some intensity outside the front door. Travelling down the main shopping street revealed side roads that to the right led to steep hilled roads which seemed to cross into the past. There stood grey stoned chapels, terraced houses and the Salvation Army reminding me of my youth. To the left was the already run down Kingsway Shopping Centre, a game attempt in the past at a Mall which had most of its shops boarded up as a testament to yet another recession that always seems to hit Wales hardest.

A banner proclaimed that the Farmer’s Market was around the corner and came on the 2nd and 4th Fridays of the month. I found no more than 4 stalls, one selling nice smelling crepes, one some local meat and vegetables, one with bread and one a curious bottled concoction labelled Ogom’s which came from the ‘Dare Brewery’. That was it – the Farmers had clearly felt it wasn’t worth the effort; either that or they were with the rest of Wales on the Lions Tour.

The Point of My Tale

As I went in search of a hotel, I noted that the level of eateries in Commercial Street were pretty poor, the pavements pretty filthy, the whole place wreaked of better times and a drainage problem, I noticed a massive banner proclaiming ‘Newport, Host City of the 2010 Ryder Cup’. As a proud Welshman, I am so excited my country has the chance to host one of the biggest and best world sporting events and show off one of our most impressive golf courses at the imposing Celtic Manor Resort which overlooks the M4 like a majestic castle defending the city of Newport.

Then my mind turned to the many hopeful European and American supporters flooding the streets of Newport in search of quality eating places and nice pubs. Boy, will they be disappointed. First they will have to pick a careful path around the gum trails and second they will have to dodge the mournful swathes of Passport-appliers who will be looking for hot spots for their laptops and a place to while away the wait. But they will mostly be disappointed by a pretty grim town with very poor facilities to entertain people.

It’s a real shame. Newport is full of nice people, welcoming and funny people – very excited about the arrival of foreign sports fans. Gone are the days of the proud football and rugby clubs – Newport has been absorbed into the Gwent Dragons franchise in rugby and is a shadow of the force of a rugby club that produced the amazing talents of Keith Jarrett, Jeff Squire and Robert Ackerman amongst others. It has latterly become an outpost of former South African test players.

But Newport has Celtic Manor – the manifestation of one of Wales’ richest and most ambitious businessmen, Terry Matthews. His last major venture was Newbridge Networks which he has sold to pile his money and influence behind Celtic Manor. Some influence, because he has landed the Ryder Cup, captained by one of its immortal players, Colin Montgomerie for Europe in 2010. Matthews is some businessman. The story goes that he and his business partner started a company called Mitel which, like a Nokia, morphed from being ‘Mike and Terry’s Lawnmowers’ into a mighty Telecoms company bought by BT. Mike Roberts, went on to found Corel software and there are streets named after him in its headquarter town of Ottawa. I briefly met him as he worked in a large open office some years ago and a more unassuming, quiet yet focused man you would not find anywhere in contrast to Matthews’ visionary outwardness.

Come on Newport

The Ryder Cup is just 15 months away and by then Newport will be the focus of the golfing world. The likes of Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia and Padraig Harrington will be gracing the fields of Wales and we have to put on a good show. Newport has but a short while to clean itself up and welcome the media and fans from all over the world.

All these fans are going to want to be wowed and impressed by the heritage, history and culture of Wales. They will want to eat, use their phones and download their mails on the Blackberries. They would love to be met not just by smiling faces but clean streets and places to shop. There is a serious chance they will be very disappointed and leave with the wrong impression about a country that loves its sport.

Cardiff did an amazing job of building a showcase sports stadium that hosted the football cup finals, rock concerts, as well as being the home base of the 2005 and 2008 Six Nations Grand Slam Champions. One of the great delights of the Millennium Stadium is its proximity to the railway station, the town centre for shops, bars and restaurants, plenty of low cost B&B’s up Cathedral Road, a great Norman Castle and a wonderful park on the banks of the River Taff (yes that’s where the name comes from).

Newport is central to Wales’ industrial past and present – the massive Llanwern steelworks is a mere shell of its former smoke-belching bulk while the famous transporter bridge at the docks was built in 1905 and still dominates the landscape. To boot, the whole area is surrounded by fantastic countryside, wonderful beaches and some of the best golf courses in Britain (Royal Porthcawl, Southerndown and St Pierre). It’s around an hour’s drive to the beautiful Gower peninsula and its fantastic beaches close the village of Mumbles (home of the Douglas-Zeta-Jones’) with its fabulous pubs and restaurants to the West and to the North-West are the imposing Brecon Beacons (and the world famous Jazz festival). Newport is not far to the picturesque and famous towns of Ross and Hay-on- Wye (who’s internationally famous book festival was attended by Bishop Tutu this year amongst others) – and the drive up the Wye Valley from Chepstow to Monmouth is one Britain’s most beautiful drives while the Wye and Usk are two of the best fishing rivers, I am told, on the island. And never forget the walks along Offa’s Dyke, the last great defence against the ravaging Welsh marauders into Olde Englande and the Marcher territories whose Lords were instrumental in putting the only Welsh family (The Tudors) on the throne of England that produced arguably two of our most famous monarchs, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and spawned the Golden Age of Discovery as well as defeating the most publicised attempted invasion of Britain ever (The Spanish Armada).

Come on, guys – don’t let us down. We have so much to offer.

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