We started planning our trip (my first) to Europe over a year before we queued up at the departure gate. Two things remained constant over the year between the decision to go and actually making the flight. The trip was always primarily about visiting Linh’s family and reconnecting with the friends she left behind when she moved to Australia (that is relocated temporarily to Australia, never to return, as some people might be quick to remind me). The other non-negotiable element of the trip was Cardiff.
I am a fan of Doctor who – I’d hesitate to call myself a ‘Whovian’, but I do have a replica sonic screwdriver, and I’d hold my own in any discussion about the pros and cons of various Doctors. Knowing this fact will give some people a clear insight to the reason that the Welsh capital found its way onto the non-negotiable section of our European itinerary. For those not initiated into the world of BBC’s centuries-old time lord and his little blue box, Cardiff features heavily in the lore of the show and, equally importantly is the site of the Doctor Who Experience. For a Doctor Who fan, this is reason enough to travel across the globe, but for others (read reluctant spouses or families) you’ll be comforted to know that Cardiff offers plenty of enjoyment for the less obsessed traveller as well!
We spent one afternoon, one evening and one morning in Cardiff, which was just enough time to see what I came to see, and to explore a little. We arrived by train from Bristol, having flown in from Amsterdam earlier in the day and decided that Bristol weather was not conducive to even a brief tour (although I fully intend to return to explore that area of Great Britain before long). The weather persisted into Wales and as we disembarked from Brunel’s Great Western Railway and we were accompanied by misty rain as we searched for our accommodation. Eventually we found our hotel and decided to brave the, now fully-developed, rainstorm for the short walk into the city centre.
Having escaped the elements, I received the first jolt of recognition that Cardiff might be something more than a handful of locations for a locally-filmed sci-fi serial. We sought shelter with most of the population of Wales (or so it seemed) in St David’s Dewi Sant, one of the city’s main shopping hubs which takes a prime position in the centre of the city adjoining an open pedestrian concourse. We lunched with the crowds as we planned the afternoon, deciding to explore Cardiff Castle before our afternoon check in time.
As we emerged onto the charming mall, we were met with sunshine. The rain had cleared and we were privy to what I can only assume is a rarity for a Welsh winter. The afternoon remained clear and warm with temperatures holding at an unseasonable 12-15 degrees as we wandered the streets. Cardiff Castle took about an hour to explore, although if you were to follow the provided audio guide, the tour would have taken considerably longer. On this occasion we were content to explore and enjoy the nearly empty castle grounds – it was bizarre how few people were visiting so close to Christmas (December 21), although the weather earlier in the day was likely a factor.
After exploring the castle, made our way to Cardiff Bay to inspect the fare on offer at the waterfront open space surrounding the striking, and iconic Millennium Centre – the city’s performing arts hub and the setting for many Doctor Who episodes. Our trip back to our room was hampered by the reluctance of local taxi drivers to help out with a ride that would accommodate our party of five (they insisted we take two cabs, an offer we politely declined). Instead, we took the local bus, where we found – not for the first time – that the local bus drivers were both helpful, and friendly – in fact the three bus journeys I made in Cardiff were some of the more informative and welcoming moments of our time in the city.
Early the next morning we made our way back to Cardiff Bay, where I parted company with Linh and the family for my date with The Doctor (I had been unable to convince any of them to join me in investigating the Doctor Who Experience). I’d left myself about 45 minutes to spare before my booking, and when I arrived, the doors were still closed so I took a stroll around the bay towards the Barrage that protects the Cardiff Bay area from the North Sea and chatted to locals engaged in their morning constitutionals. After a quick glance over the barrage (where I swear I recognised Black Wolf Bay) I trotted back to join the tour.
Any Doctor Who fan should make their way to this exhibit. The experience starts with an interactive episode where the Doctor (Capaldi when I visited) provides remote support to guests as they solve the challenge in the museum. This section culminates in an authentic reproduction of 76 Trotter’s Lane.
QUIET ON SET: The Silence positioned on a set from ‘Day of the Moon‘.
Following the interactive episode, guests are ushered into the static part of the experience where countless authentic relics from the show’s 52 years are displayed. I breezed through this part in about an hour, but only thanks to my uncanny ability to navigate museums at ridiculously high speeds. A true Doctor Who aficionado could spend countless hours basking in half a century of kitsch BBC set design and character development. Even in my lowly role as casual fan, I was convinced to purchase the merchandise package which included my own Tardis key.
After a little under two hours entrenched in the BBC’s Doctor vault, I emerged into the glare of the overcast morning and made my way back to Linh so we could continue on our whistle-stop tour of western Britain. Our next stop would be Oxford, which was charming, but no spot in the UK has so far engaged me as Cardiff. If I ever find myself living in Great Britain, it’s a fair bet that I’ll be bound for the Welsh capital.