The STAR sign removal, March 29th – Photo used courtesy of Roger Gilbert
I was doing one of my many daily visits to the Cardiff Now And Then Facebook page when I spotted Roger Gilbert’s photo of a once very familiar location, The STAR Leisure centre on Splott Road. The photo shows workmen removing the silver sign that for decades adorned the building, following its closure as a community focused leisure space.
For me the photo is a poignant illustration of the end of the building’s life as a leisure centre. Although I’ve not been to the STAR for a quarter century, I was instantly taken back to many events that happened there over the years and inspired to capture some of my memories of the place.
The closure has been on the cards for a while now, with the opening of the STAR Hub on the site of the old Splott Swimming Pool in September 2016. I’m not sure when the STAR actually closed as a leisure centre, but in the future it will be used as a health centre for a few years before being demolished to make way for housing.
The building itself is pretty unremarkable, built on the site of the former Splott Council School, it opened in 1981. Its utilitarian, unassuming presence smacked of 1980s civil building. It wouldn’t win any awards for its appearance, but I remember at the time there was a lot of fuss about its opening, people came to our primary school to tell us about it. Leisure centres (as we know them today) were still quite a new thing back then, and to have one open in the middle of Splott was quite an event.
In time we all knew it as ‘The STAR’ as opposed to The STAR Centre, and many of us were membership card carrying regulars. It would become an oft visited place for me throughout the 1980s, mostly for pleasurable events, but also for a large slab of pain (lots of weight training!) When it opened the centre had a large multi-use sports hall and a number of large functions rooms alongside the gym. The function rooms would see a lot of action over the years for us kids, and that’s where I’ll start.
From the mid 1980s one regular feature for us was the monthly STAR Disco. It was run by a number of local parents and would be a drink free pop-tastic night out for us fledgling teenagers. I say good, it was generally a night that saw us quieter ones sat huddled in the corner, not wanting to show ourselves up dancing and waiting for the cringe-worthy but gossip juicy slow dance section towards the end of the night.
To be honest, most of smooching time was spent huddled up with friends, jointly trying to build up the nerve, or giving encouragement to ask one of the girls to dance, but sadly by the time the bottle came the lights had gone up and the night was over. But that was fine, there was always the next one! Once in a while one of us would give it a go and ask for a dance and even rarer the answer would be yes. For one of us to succeed was a victory for us all and would mean lots of gossip for the coming weeks between discos.
If you want to picture the scene, espadrilles, Ocean Pacific tops, Farrar trousers, checked and elasticated bottom jeans and ‘Frankie Says’ tees were common sights on us all. I have one strong memory of struggling home past the Nora Street Brains Brewery wearing a pair of Miami Vice inspired espadrilles brought from Splott Market, that were so uncomfortable I didn’t think I’d make it as they kept flapping off my feet. I suspect I was wearing bright blue jeans with a tartan pattern on them at the time. Ah, the joys of 1980s fashion.
The exterior of the STAR Centre by Seth Wales.
It wasn’t all teenage kicks at the STAR Disco though, there would occasionally be trouble of some sort or the other. Tensions that had been building up between people during the school week would sometimes explode, and there were several fights both in and outside the event over the years.
Myself and a couple of friends had a terrifying close call one night. We were 15/16 at the time and not at the disco but sat outside. We’d been hanging around Splott doing not much as was the way, and found ourselves sat on the wall on the corner of the centre at the junction of Splott Road and Railway Street. We were sat minding our own business and chatting away when suddenly we were surrounded by about 10-15 lads our age.
They’d come up from the docks looking for someone who’d caused some offence, or something. They were all carrying large lengths of wood and had us surrounded. They started waving the wood in our faces and questioning us about this person (that we didn’t know) and their whereabouts. I’m sure we must have sounded terrified as we tried to explain we didn’t know, all the time expecting a serious beating to start at any moment.
Fortunately one of the kids at the back of the armed crowd was familiar, he sometimes went to our school and was in our year – he calmed everyone down and told them we were alright and probably didn’t know anything. Thankfully they moved on and left us unscathed. I don’t know if they found the person they were looking for, I hope not given the rage and intent coming off them, but we left with a sigh of relief and put a lot of distance between us and them. I don’t want to think how badly it could have turned out if that one kid had not stood up for us.
And staying on the theme of pain (other than the lack of smooch interest and potential beatings) there was the weights room. I used to do a lot of lifting as a teen, and generally it was at the STAR. The weights room was quite poky, there were no exterior windows and it had a smell all of its own. I got to know the room well over the years and at one point I even did a summer holiday course there where a bodybuilder gave us lessons and training. Sometimes it would be training with friends, sometimes training alone. It’s fair to say a lot of energy was misplaced in that room! I eventually got my own bench and weights so those visits fell away in time.
But for me, still my favourite thing about the STAR and most fondly remembered was the wrestling. In the mid 1980s British Wrestling was on the wane, but I was a fan and would always watch it when it was on TV. You can imagine my joy / surprise and excitement when I first saw the posters showing that there was a wrestling event happening at the STAR, and the main event was none other than Big Daddy vs Giant Haystacks!
You could have knocked me over with a feather. Wrestling was something that only happened on the TV, and Big Daddy was the biggest name in the game. The thought of him wrestling arch enemy Giant Haystacks just up the road from me was mind-blowing. Tickets were bought in advance and me and my mate went to watch the bouts. It was fabulous, the atmosphere was electric and the anticipation palpable. Forget that steroid fuelled, pumped-up America wrestling that’s all the rage now, we knew nothing of that stuff. For us at the time it was portly men slamming each other silly around a ring.
And of those large men, Big Daddy and Giant Haystacks were the best known and their rivalry was legendary. Big Daddy was the epitome of sporting royalty, being everyone’s favourite wrestler. Take a look at this video of one of their match-ups (sadly not the one I saw!) to get an idea of the proceedings.
Every bout he took part in was attended by hordes of fans and Daddy always lavished lots of attention and hand shakes to the rows of adoring children as he made his way to the ring. It was like a trip to Lourdes for many, with the sick and unwell lined up and waiting for the wrestler’s healing touch.
Ok, maybe that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but at times it was how it felt, such was Big Daddy’s popularity and the effect he has as he passed by. That night at the STAR was no different! There was the usual kerfuffle as Big Daddy marched up to the ring, handshakes, back-slaps, chants of ‘Easy! Easy! Easy!’ and boos at the site of the lumbering Giant Haystacks, a real Pantomime villain!
There were a load of other great bouts on that night as well, many familiar wrestling faces for those of us who regularly watched the World Of Sport Wrestling on a Saturday. The hall was packed and the other wrestlers given their dues by the eager crowd, but we were all there for the finale and it didn’t disappoint!
It was a tag-team match, but I can’t recall who the respective partners were other than the fact they were both considerably smaller than their partners, like a third of the size! I suspect the reason it was a tag-team match was to extend the length of it, so the two smaller fitter men could entertain a bit and give the two behemoths a breather in between their body slams. This was towards the end of their popularity and age and weight were not doing either of them favours. But we didn’t care, a Big Daddy v Giant Haystack match-up was about brute power slowly delivered.
The match had its usual ebbs and flows, with Haystacks doing his villainous stuff to elicit more boos and screams from the audience, there were moments when it looked like he had the upper hand and miraculous comebacks. In the end, the denouement came with Big Daddy’s signature move, the Big Splash. It wasn’t graceful, there wasn’t much splash in Daddy those days, but it did the trick and won them the match. Everyone erupted with glee and then headed off home happy. It really was a special night for me, no matter what you think about the staged artifice of wrestling I was young and I loved every moment of it!
There were other wrestling events following that which we also went to see, but none as memorable. The old style of UK wrestling was well into decline by the end of the 1980s, and this was evident in the smaller crowds at the STAR for those subsequent matches. I wish I’d got a poster or taken photos so I could give dues to the other wrestlers that fought for our entertainment, but I was young and it didn’t even cross my mind.
I’ll leave the wrestling with one final memory I have from one of the nights we went to. It may sound puerile and juvenile, but that’s probably because it was. There were less people in attendance for this night, so my friend and I managed to get seats in the front row. I don’t know what we were thinking, but he flicked a polo mint on to the stage, where it stuck to the sweaty wrestlers chest causing the pair of us much hilarity. The wrestler didn’t notice and it stayed there for the rest of the bout. The pair of us were cracking-up, waiting for him to notice or flick it off. Thankfully nobody had seen us do it as I’m sure they’d have thrown us out. It was a bit silly really, but it always makes me smile. Another great night at the STAR!
There were other things I did at the STAR over the years besides the weights, the disco and the wrestling. Several parties were attended up in the top function rooms – can’t recall what they were for though, weddings or birthdays maybe? I think there may have been some pub hockey in the sports hall too, and other moments of sportiness over the years alongside other things I’ve forgotten. But then life went on and changed, I moved away from that area in 1992 by which time my visits to sporting activities were declining thanks to an avid interest in Rock n’ Roll, alcohol and cigarettes.
But the STAR continued to serve the community well over the years since my time there, with refurbishments and the addition of a library. From what I’ve heard though, despite the positives that these sort of places have for a community, they often run at a loss. You could argue that there are potentially other unseen financial positives in the whole with people improving their health as much as to keep them out of hospital in the future, or children being given something to do beyond loitering and vandalism. All these things have cost savings, but the bean counters in government don’t tend to think like that.
The area hasn’t been completely left without a focus though, the STAR Hub in Splott Park has many of the facilities that the STAR once had, but sadly, there’s now no longer a large sports hall in the new facility, much to the annoyance of many locals. Other complaints about the new facility have been made, but we won’t go into that, that’s not my remit. I’m just glad there is at least something in that area still to be a part of the fabric of people’s lives like the old STAR was for mine.
The old STAR will be serving the public a bit longer as a health centre, which is good, but it really seems a shame for it to be knocked down given its relatively young age and prominent location. I’m sure there’s some beneficial communal use that could have been for the community even with the opening of the Hub. But there we go, cutting costs, cutting services, cost over value. That’s seems to be the way of most things to do with city life these days.
So that leaves me one thing to say, and that’s a hat’s off from me. Thanks STAR for some great memories!
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