The Ianto Shrine: The Cardiff landmark that commemorates a man who never was

Never forget. Image: Ed Jefferson.

Impromptu shrines to culturally important dead people are not unheard of. More than 15 years after the death of Princess Diana, I stumbled across a small collection of messages and flowers tied to the fences of Kensington Palace. The David Bowie mural in Brixton has been flooded with tributes since his sad departure last January. And a shrine to Marc Bolan, on the site of his fatal car accident in Barnes, has become a permanent memorial.

Much rarer are shrines to people who never actually existed in the first place, but they do exist. In Cardiff Bay, for instance, on an otherwise unremarkable bit of wood-panelled wall, are dozens upon dozens of tributes to a man who never was.

What fictional character could possibly merit this treatment? Surely one of vast impact, from stories that left culture changed forever?

It’s Ianto Jones.

From Doctor Who’s dubious “adult” spin-off Torchwood.

No, not that one from Torchwood. Or that one. The other one, who didn’t really even have any character traits apart from “being slightly sarcastic”.

Click to expand, if you must.

I came across it entirely by chance a few years ago and was mesmerised. There are photos, drawings, flowers, poems, essays. There are messages from all over the world – in just the ones I took pictures of, I can see mentions of Spain, Finland, Russia. Someone’s sewn a tiny version of Ianto’s suit; someone else has hung up a tie.

The results of a poll from Poll Pigeon Dot Com have been laminated: 55 per cent of respondents say they won’t watch the next series unless Ianto is resurrected. There’s a “Keep Calm And Save Torchwood” card. There’s Ianto as the Terminator saying, “I’ll be back!”. There’s a confusing reference to Paul McCartney’s alter-ego Percy Thrillington. All human life is here.

 

So how did a character who most people probably never knew existed in the first place earn this tribute? Thanks to the magic of the internet, it’s not hard to find obsessive fans of almost anything these days (there’s even Thomas The Tank Engine fan fiction where the trains turn into people and... kiss). But this stuff rarely spills over into the real world.

The one other recent example involved a far more famous character: Sherlock Holmes. When the Benedict Cumberbatch version of Sherlock fell to his death off the roof of Barts Hospital in London, a nearby telephone box became the site of tributes (you can still see some “SHERLOCK LIVES” graffiti on the phone box and the wall next to it).

This occurred even though it was made clear he hadn’t actually died within the episode where it happened – which suggests that at least some of the people behind this stuff are doing it with tongue very much in cheek.

But there’s something else going on with the Ianto shrine – something made clear by the number of “tributes” which rail against Torchwood’s creator, Russell T Davies. Though Ianto Jones may not have been a very good character, he did represent something important to many people: he was involved in a same-sex relationship with the series’ lead character, Captain Jack. That’s something that remains relatively rare in genre television, and, rightly or wrongly, there were people who felt that his death was something of a slap in the face.

The usual things that happen when people get angry about television happened. There were e-petitions. There was a “Save Ianto Jones” website. There was a campaign to send bags of coffee to the BBC (Ianto was often seen making coffee, you see) – albeit one which Davies claims that only nine people actually bothered to take part in. And then, perhaps most interestingly, in a part of Cardiff Bay used as a location on the show, some fans decided to leave tributes. And so Ianto’s Shrine was born.


The character “died” in 2009, but the Shrine’s still there. The owners of the wall it’s attached to appear to have taken it in good spirit, and at some point mounted an explanatory plaque to ensure bemused passers-by understand that the man who died fighting aliens wasn’t actually real.

The shrine has even got its own page on TripAdvisor, though not all the reviews are positive. “My daughter wanted to go here,” notes a visitor from East Hartford, Connecticut, “an absolute waste of time”. Others acknowledge that, while it may have had its moment, it is getting a bit “faded and jaded”, and that it’s time for it to go. These people are wrong.

I hope Ianto’s Shrine persists – not as a memorial to a TV character, but as a memorial to how brilliantly ludicrous people can be when they put their minds to it. Whether it’s the work of nine people or 90,000 people sort of doesn’t matter – either way, the point here is the hours put into the creation of something so essentially futile. This small, silly, human-scale stuff is as much of what makes places places as the grand-projets, garden bridges and gleaming towers. Ianto’s Shrine is a Cardiff landmark.

 

Click to expand. Honestly, it's worth it. 

May the Ianto Wall stand long after everyone has forgotten that there even was anything called Torchwood – has forgotten that there was even a thing called television. Thousands, even millions of years from now, when the sun sets on whatever remains of the human race, they should remember that there was an Ianto Jones, even if they have absolutely no idea what that means. Because it would be quite funny if they did.

It’s got three and a half stars on TripAdvisor, and is apparently the 67th best thing in Cardiff.

All photographs courtesy of Ed Jefferson, who you can also find on Twitter.

Or you can like CityMetric on Facebook if you like.

 
 
 
 

Here are my five favourite London council estates

The Dunboyne Road estate. Image: Steve Cadman/Wikimedia Commons.

The author is a Labour member of the London Assembly. In the name of impartiality, CityMetric would like to extend the invitation to write similar columns to representatives of other political parties.

From successful post-war efforts to move families out of slums and into modern homes, to today’s efforts to construct a new generation of social housing, there’s much to be celebrated in London’s precious council housing stock.

This year we celebrate the centenary of the Addison Act, which established a national building programme with government funding for the first time. So here – in no particular order – are my top five London estates:

1. Dunboyne Road

In 1965, the newly established London Borough of Camden was bold and radical when it came to public housing. Their architect’s department boasted 98 staff, led by Sydney Cook. The Grade II listed Dunboyne Road (pictured above) was Britain’s first high-density, low-rise estate. Designed in the late 1960s and completed in 1977, it was the first major work by architect Neave Brown.

Its concrete construction and geometric layout are eye-catchingly modernist, but the 71 flats and maisonettes fit neatly into their surroundings; a reimagining of the classic London street for the 1960s. Each has a private terrace and own entrance onto the central pedestrian walkway and communal gardens, with stepped levels and dual-aspect windows creating light throughout.

Neave Brown himself lived on the estate in the final years of his life remarking, “Who am I to say, but it’s beautiful”.

2. Lilington Gardens

Located just off Vauxhall Bridge Road, the fourteen blocks at Lilington Gardens were built between 1964 and 1972. Between three and eight storeys each, it was again a rejection of the tower blocks which dominated the era, showing that mid-rise housing could provide both beauty and density.

Image: Ewan Munro/Wikimedia Commons.

At a time when Westminster could be proud of the quality of its housing, John Darbourne and Geoffrey Darke won a competition to design the new estate. The result was something special, eschewing modernist forms for something more rugged and layered. The layout allows for secluded green spaces, while the red brick cladding echoes the neighbouring Victorian church of St James the Less. Like all good estates, it included a pub – the Grade II*-listed Pimlico Tram (now The Cask). It was included not as an afterthought, but an integral part of the estate’s design.

3. Ossulston Estate

By the early 1950s, the London County Council’s architect’s department was the biggest in the world, building housing on a huge scale in addition to showp iece projects such as the Southbank Centre.

Though their suburban estates – Downham in Bromley, and Becontree in Barking and Dagenham – were pioneering examples of low-rise of modernity in metroland, these efforts did not always suit the needs of poor city dwellers who weren’t able to move further out. The Ossulton Estate, however, built between 1927 and 1931 on the site of a Somerstown slum and located between Euston and St Pancras stations, did exactly that.

Image: Stephen McKay/Wikimedia Commons.

Chief architect George Topham Forrest’s work was inspired by visits to ‘Red’ Vienna and Ossulston bears distinct similarities to Karl Marx-Hof, which was constructed at the same time. While the roofs and windows have traditional elements, the overall aesthetic is a modernist classic. Like many estates in post-war years, it suffered from neglect and a lack of investment, but following a £6m improvement programme by Camden Council in 2004, the Ossulston is now back to its brilliant best.

4. Alton Estate

Roehampton’s Alton Estate, completed in 1959, was designed by a team led by Rosemary Stjernstedt – the first woman to serve as a senior public sector architect in Britain.

The two parts of the estate – East and West – are the crown jewels of British post-war council housing. Alton West was Le Corbusier in Albion: six ultra-modernist blocks modelled on the Unité d’habitation in Marseille, set among the landscape inherited from the Georgian Mount Clare house. Alton East was a softer, Scandinavian-inspired design of the “new Brutalists” in the LCC.

Image: Stevekeiretsu/Wikimedia Commons.

Rising above the trees to the north east of Richmond Park, the Alton Estate stands testament to the visionary idealism of post-war council housebuilding. On its completion, visitors flocked from across the globe, with American critic G.E. Kidder Smith calling it “probably the finest low-cost housing development in the world”.

Sadly, Alton West however is now at risk from ‘regeneration’ proposals which would see 288 existing homes lost. While council estates should not be fetishised, with investment, improvement and expansion encouraged, any change must be done sensitively and with residents’ backing. I hope that Wandsworth Council and Redrow will follow the mayor’s Good Practice for Estate Regeneration and hold a ballot before plans go ahead, and that if they do, they build on Rosemary Stjernstedt’s legacy.

5. King’s Crescent

When it comes to regeneration Hackney Council have taken an altogether different approach to Wandsworth.

Located on Green Lanes opposite the magnificent Clissold Park, King’s Crescent’s route to a successful and well-supported regeneration project hasn’t always been an easy one. The early 1970s estate was blighted by poor construction, navigability issues and an ill-fated partial demolition in 2000 which turned much of the landscape into hoardings and rubble. But thanks to a step-change in resident engagement and a transformation programme funded by Hackney Council, by 2023 it will be host to 765 new and refurbished homes.

Image: David Holt/Wikimedia Commons.

In the era of government-imposed cuts to local authority budgets, councils have to be pragmatic about funding choices and the new King’s Crescent does include homes for private sale. This is understandably a source of some consternation, but it’s also the source of funding which has made the regeneration possible. Hackney has ensured that more than 50 per cent of the new homes are genuinely affordable, with 97 brand new council homes for social rent.

The new developments have greatly enhanced the area, using both new build and renovation to stitch the estate better into its Victorian surroundings. Existing homes have been retrofitted with balconies, while disused garage space has been repurposed for modern flats. Hackney have clearly thought carefully about character and open spaces, as well as ceiling heights, windows and internal storage.

It is an exceptional project – one of a growing number of new schemes now being spearheaded by ambitious councils across the capital. In 2018-19, the Mayor of London funded the start of 1,916 new council homes – the highest figure since 1984-85.


…what about the Barbican?

On the fiftieth anniversary of its opening, it would be remiss not the mention the Barbican. It’s a brutalist masterpiece and a fantastic feat of post-war planning and design. The location and design are clearly outstanding, but it’s the bright and modern interiors which are truly to die for.

So why is it not on the list? Although it was built by the City of London Corporation, not one of the flats was ever available at a social rent. The properties were built to let at market rents to workers in the City, who later found themselves in the fortunate position of being able to snap them up under the Right to Buy – still the fate of far too many of London’s vital social homes.

Tom Copley is a Labour member of the London Assembly.