The Waterguard is probably the least likely looking Samuel Smith’s pub in Britain. The Tadcaster brewery owns around 200 public houses, most in the north of England but with a few scattered along the M4 corridor and a couple in Scotland. Samuel Smith’s sticks hard to old fashioned values, with their own cooper, open slate fermenting vessels and horse-drawn drays still being used at the Old Brewery. This appetite for the old fashioned also extends to their pubs, many of which have a distinct Victorian feel to them.
Their houses range from fantastic gin palaces in the heart of London to seedy, back alley boozers in Leeds. Regardless of location and grandeur, or lack of, they always have a brown quality, ‘like the inside of an old teapot’, to quote from Withnail & I. The impressive, castle-fronted Waterguard with its Yorkshire rose flag flying high from the turrets seems no different when you first step in past the imposing oak door and into the brown front room.
This room, and the one immediately to the right, formed the offices of the Surveyor and the Chief Preventive Officer of the Cardiff Waterguard. Along with the sturdy leather benches and irongrated fireplaces, you could almost expect to see Her Majesty’s Preventive Officers greeting you gruffly as they pour loose leaf tea into chipped china teacups.
These rooms and the castle fronting once formed part of the original Waterguard castle in Cardiff Bay, originally built at Roath Dock in 1853. From here, the Preventive Men of Customs & Excise would head out onto the docks and search incoming vessels for contraband. In 1993, during the redevelopment of the Bay, the entire building was loaded onto the back of a lorry and moved 140 metres to its present location.
In 2001 the building became a Sam Smith’s pub; however, the cosy offices of the Waterguard wouldn’t have made a very sizeable pub by themselves and so a much larger extension was built on the back of the castle. This is where the iconic brown Victoriana suddenly vanishes as you step out of the front chamber and into a vast room that’s bright and airy, with steel columns supporting the high-ceiling and a huge glass back wall overlooking the BBC television studios across the docks.
The back also overlooks a good sized patch of grass, shaded by a few trees and surrounded by the water’s edge. To the left there’s an impressive lightship and to the right there’s a kid’s play area. The Waterguard doesn’t own this patch of land and often pins up notices asking you not take drinks out beyond the edge of their narrow beer garden. All the same, when the sun is shining, the kids are restless and other folk fancy a refreshing beer, the entire area is quickly annexed by Waterguard customers. It almost has the picturesque ideal Orwell wrote of in his essay Moon Under Water.
After a long and well-fought Great British Beer Festival, I once came to this ‘beer garden’ and nursed my shattered body back to health with sunlight, a copy of Beer Magazine and a bottle of Taddy Porter. Although I was still in the heart of the city, the Bay, and especially this pocket, has the quality of seeming like a much quieter coastal town at times.
The drinks are another aspect of Sam Smith’s quirkiness. Everything they sell is solely their own, brewed at the Old Brewery in Tadcaster. Anything else they can’t produce, such as spirits and soft drinks, is produced specifically for them, and sold under branding you won’t see elsewhere. There’s not a guest ale on sight in a Smith’s pub.
The range varies from pub to pub but generally they try to cover all the bases in terms of cask and keg, while the bottles are less predictable. The Waterguard has Double 4 Lager, Alpine Lager, the Wheat Beer, Best Bitter and Stout amongst its line up, but no mild.
Sam Smith’s pubs have earned their reputation and a core of dedicated customers through two things: consistency and value. They almost all look like ‘old man pubs’ (yet with individual character to separate them from the JD Wetherspoon chain-look), selling the same range of drinks in what is typically excellent condition – I’ve never had a bad pint in a Sam Smith’s pub - and all at knock-down prices.
In the north, you can buy a round of three pints for a fiver and still have change for your piggy bank. The Waterguard isn’t in the north, though. Whether due to transport costs, high rates for being a modern building in Cardiff Bay, or slapping on a tourist premium, the Waterguard more-or-less prices like a normal pub, though many of the bottles cost around a fiver.
There’s something about the ambience of a Sam Smith’s pub that cries ‘neutral ground’. Here you can find all walks of life – there’s no debate over whether it’s a hipster hangout or a boozer “just for locals” (and-heaven-help-you-if-you’re-not-a-local-and-you-walk-in-there!); in a Sam Smith’s pub you’ll find the old soaks drinking side-by-side with office workers, students and young parents.
The Waterguard draws less of a diverse demographic due to its far-flung location, but you’ll still see a couple of regulars alongside media types from the BBC studios and workers from the Welsh Assembly, with tourists passing through.
They sell food but I’ve never eaten there, and there’s a darts board but I’ve never used it. The Bay is an excellent place to walk a dog, particularly along the Barrage, but in spite of this the Bay pubs don’t seem to tolerate dogs. The Waterguard did allow us to bring in Sam, a Labrador we were dog-sitting one time, providing he stayed confined to the front section (yes, the part that is essentially an antique, rather than the easily wiped-down glass-and-chrome part).
The staff personally didn’t mind about the dog and came over on flimsy pretences of wiping tables and neatening chairs so they could stroke and play with him – it was a better response than the cold shoulder another Bay pub gave us ten minutes earlier. (Note: I recently discovered a sign stating they’re dog friendly, so maybe this now applies throughout the pub.)
The staff have always been decent at the Waterguard; a touch more relaxed and friendly than their counterparts over at the other pubs in the Bay. This is perhaps down to the volume of trade – the Waterguard ticks over at a steady pace, except in summer when the beer garden draws in the masses, while the other pubs have more footfall and a seemingly higher staff turnover.
It’s an uncommon pub in an uncommon part of Cardiff; one that is often overlooked compared to noisier neighbours elsewhere in the Bay or the City Centre, but perhaps benefits because of this.