The Coal Exchange Before Renovation – 2009

The Coal Exchange has long been an iconic building in Cardiff, and one I’d experienced in various ways over the years. Supposedly the location for the signing of the world’s first million pound cheque, the lavish main exchange hall is a wonderful space, and has hosted parties and concerts over the years. I went to a few different events here, most notably seeing Van Morrison in the early 2000s.

Back in the late 1980s / early 1990s I used to regularly visit the gym in the basement with my uncles (one of whom previously won the body building accolade Mr. Wales). I think it was called the Universal Gym back then, but my mind’s shaky on that. Under the main building and accessed around the corner from the main entrance, the gym covered a good area and had several training rooms. Much energy was spent in there shifting weights a few foot up and down, if only we could have harnessed it! To be fair, the basement’s gym rooms weren’t very impressive, looking like a large office space sans desks, but it was always good to be visiting Mount Stuart Square and the docks.




I used to admire the exterior of the Coal Exchange back then as that was all I knew of it bar the gym. At that time I hadn’t been fortunate enough to go in to the main building itself. It took a few more years before that happened, and once you get that first look inside, the main hall really takes your breath away with its carvings and dark beauty.

Despite the beauty of the interior, the roof of the hall always looked odd to me. I only recently learned that it was a fake roof put in place previously to protect the old glass roof that’s above it. Where white roof meets the brown wood was originally a second floor balcony, which gave the room a lot more height back in its day, as you can see in the picture here.

Back in 2009 I was busy co-producing a low budget horror film called Devil’s Bridge. The majority of the film was shot near Poppit Sands in Cardigan, and Old Mill in Carmarthenshire. We spent one day shooting in the Coal Exchange in Cardiff Bay, at which point it was still in its deteriorating stage prior to its current revival and rebirth as a fancy hotel. I had my camera with me so was able to take a few photos between scenes.

We had the building to ourselves and were able to have a wander around the main hall and some of the ancillary rooms. There was a maze of old offices, trashed furniture and broken plaster that we explored looking for the ideal location for the scenes we had planned. As it happened, the main Coal Exchange building turned out to not be the location we used, but I took a few shots of the main hall and its details whilst we were there.

Big view of the main hall in the Coal Exchange

Big view of the main hall in the Coal Exchange

View of the first floor balcony and fake roof in the Coal Exchange

View of the first floor balcony and fake roof in the Coal Exchange

View of the clock and glass windows in the Coal Exchange

View of the clock and glass windows in the Coal Exchange

The clock in the main hall of the Coal Exchange

The clock in the main hall of the Coal Exchange

We needed two locations for the scenes we needed for the film. The first was to double as an interrogation room in a small country police station. None of the derelict offices in the main Coal Exchange building were quite up to it, but luckily the ideal location turned up in a separate part of the building, which was once a branch of Barclays Bank.

As you can see from the photos below, the bank itself had long departed the building, but lots of the furniture and structure was still in place. In one corner was a partially wood-panelled room which was ideal to use for the interrogation scene, with the bars on the window and the official looking nature of the furniture. The rot was starting to set in to this grand banking hall, mould and green staining is noticable in many of the shots taken here.

Interior of Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Interior of Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Interior of Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Interior of Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Part of the bank that doubled as a police interrogation room

Part of the bank that doubled as a police interrogation room

The public entrance to Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

The public entrance to Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Interior of Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Interior of Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Interior of Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Interior of Barclays Bank area of the Coal Exchange

Going out from the bank there was a stairwell which led down to the basement. It was in a sorry state of repair, with rotting wallpaper and plasterwork, and mould covering the walls. Glimpses of the building’s lavish past could be seen in the details and finish of the area, even in its sorry state. The old wallpaper was particularly nice in its design, despite practically being held on by the mould and cobwebs!

I took a few photos in this area before wandering down to the second of our required locations. We had been looking for something that would double as a secluded police station back yard, but after a bit of searching we found the old bank vaults. This was even better as it allowed us to swap the back yard (which we thought would be easier to source) for one of the vaults, and have that double as an old Victorian cell block where the climactic scene of the film would take place.

View up the stairwell from the basement

View up the stairwell from the basement

Basement stairwell and wood panelling

Basement stairwell and wood panelling

Detail of rot on staircase down to the basement of the coal exchange bank

Detail of rot on staircase down to the basement of the coal exchange bank

A love heart of mould in the basement stairwell

A love heart of mould in the basement stairwell

Detail of the rotting wallpaper in the basement stairwell

Detail of the rotting wallpaper in the basement stairwell

Basement corridor in the Coal Exchange

Basement corridor in the Coal Exchange

Old fuseboxes and security grills in the Coal Exchange basement

Old fuseboxes and security grills in the Coal Exchange basement

There were a number of old vaults down there, and dark corridors long bereft of power and lighting. There was one that was perfect though, just the right size for the scene, and in good enough condition that we could quickly get in there, film the scene and be on our way. We’d had to run cabling down from upstairs for lighting and equipment to run on, but it was well worth the effort and provided a claustrophobic space to film the final scenes of the film.

One of the secure vaults under the Coal Exchange

One of the secure vaults under the Coal Exchange

Joseph Millson and David Schofield take a moment in one of the old bank vaults

Joseph Millson and David Schofield take a moment in one of the old bank vaults

One of the secure vaults under the Coal Exchange

One of the secure vaults under the Coal Exchange

We finished shooting after what had been a long day. I wish I’d taken a lot more photos, but the stress of sorting out a shoot like this and running around all day meant time didn’t allow for more. I’m not sure what’s happening to this bank area of the building now. Whilst some areas have now been renovated for the hotel, large wings of the building still stand rotting and on the verge of collapse. Hopefully this will change in the near future and the whole building can be brought up to scratch and saved.

Documentarian Nick Broomfield made a film about the Coal Exchange’s decline which screened last year called Going Going Gone. It’s worth seeking out as it takes a look behind the scenes prior to the renovations to turn it into the hotel. The documentary covers the history of the building, and the troubles its deterioration have caused. It’s often repeated on BBC Four, so keep an eye out for it. In the meantime, I’m trying to find an excuse to visit the Exchange now it’s a hotel, and see the work that has been done to the main hall and to keep the building alive and away from the threat of demolition.

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