When I was last in Cardiff a little over two years ago, I was a college student taking a weekend trip from my study abroad program. This blog was just a few months old, with only one mildly successful post and a handful of followers. I did the normal tourist’s route around the city, stopped by the Doctor Who Experience, and was out of Cardiff before I knew it.
When I went back to Cardiff at the beginning of August, things had certainly changed. This time, I was able to stay for a full week, giving me more time to explore Cardiff and the surrounding cities. This blog’s community has grown astronomically, and even when I was on my own I had everyone here to share my adventures with me.
Oh, and this time, Rachel Talalay, the director of the series finale, had invited me out to visit her.
Obviously, this was one of the most incredible weeks of my life.
I had been promised chilly rain during most of my week in Cardiff, but thanks to some strange magic, it was gorgeous and sunny nearly every day. In my downtime, I found myself wandering around Cardiff Bay a lot. I currently live in a hellish swamp on the East Coast, so even though I was over 5,000 miles away and on a different continent, the sunshine, seagulls, and saltwater reminded me a lot of my hometown in California.
But while Cardiff certainly made me feel homesick, I couldn’t pretend I was at home on the beach for long. Mostly because I kept wandering into episodes of Doctor Who where I never expected to find them. I would stroll into a random Starbucks, look at the diner to my right, and ask myself, “Haven’t I seen that in an episode before?”
And the answer is yes, I certainly have.
That’s Eddie’s Diner, which was used as the American diner in “The Impossible Astronaut.” They’ve modified a doorway in the back of the restaurant to look like the TARDIS, so when you open the Elvis door it looks like the TARDIS is still parked out back!
No joke, when my mother asked to see pictures of Cardiff Bay, I told her she’d get a better view if she just watched “Boom Town.” Almost every inch of Cardiff Bay has been used as a filming location at some point.
We’re most familiar with the Millennium Centre and the Roald Dahl Plass, which are two of the most iconic Cardiff landmarks used in Doctor Who.
On this trip, the Roald Dahl Plass had been turned into a carnival fairground. Not so great for reenacting silly scenes for photos, but on the whole, it was definitely a lot more fun.
And of course, there were the castles.
Lots and lots of castles.
Seriously, they’re overrun by castles.
They’re all remarkably gorgeous, and they have all been used as filming locations for Doctor Who.
I spent a good three days just exploring all the different castles. Cardiff Castle is right in the heart of the city and the easiest to visit if you’ve only got a few days in Cardiff. You’ll need to catch a train from the city center to get to Caerphilly Castle, but it’s right near the train station, enormous, and totally worth your time.
That last castle pictured above is Castell Coch, a Norman castle that was destroyed and then rebuilt by the Bute family in the 19th Century. It’s gorgeous, but it’s a mile and a half from the nearest train station, so be prepared for a bit of a hike to get there (If you’ve got a car, it’s only about a 20 min drive from Cardiff).
Does the entrance to Castell Coch seem familiar to you? Because the exterior bridge and entrance were used in “Nightmare in Silver.”
The interior courtyard was also used in “The Vampires of Venice,” but I unfortunately couldn’t get a great picture of it due to construction. But it pretty much looks exactly like it does in this screenshot, except without the creepy lighting or fish-vampires.
And the exterior walls and interior rooms were used for the German UNIT base in “Journey’s End.”
But by far my favorite castle to visit was Caerphilly Castle.
Caerphilly is exactly the type of castle that Americans who have never seen a real castle in their lives imagine all castles look like (I say this as an American who was really impressed by the Cinderella castle at Disneyland as a toddler). The archways and towers, the moats and bridges, the massive halls and crumbling walls – it was all my childhood Tamora Pierce/Disney princess fantasies come to life. I spent the entire afternoon wandering wherever visitors were allowed, and testing a few locked doors along the way.
I knew that plenty of Doctor Who episodes had been filmed here, but I was constantly surprised when I walked into a perfectly innocent seeming room, only to realize that I recognized it from yet another episode.
The most surreal moment happened when I walked into the main dining hall. I swore I recognized it from somewhere, but I couldn’t quite place it. While I wandered through the hall taking photos, Rachel Talalay and I exchanged a few emails about my tourism adventures. She mentioned offhand that the amazing shot of Peter Capaldi posted on the official Doctor Who Instagram was taken in that hall. I stepped around to the other side of the room, and finally recognized it. It’s a little bit less impressive without the sun setting dramatically though the windows while Peter Capaldi stares down a camera, but I did my best:
And then, of course, I had to stop by the Doctor Who Experience. They completely re-did the Experience after Capaldi became the Doctor, so it was well worth another visit.
If you haven’t been, the first part of the Experience is an interactive adventure, and the second part is an exhibit of Classic and New sets, props, and costumes. The interactive adventure is much better than the old one they had when Matt Smith was the Doctor. The story is much more engaging and cohesive now, and there are interactive activities for both older and younger fans to enjoy. I also loved all the references and homages to Classic Who sprinkled throughout the adventure. And the transition between the adventure and the exhibit was absolutely beautiful – you exit the junkyard from the very first episode of Doctor Who and walk right into the first Doctor’s TARDIS.
There are lots of other neat things you can see at the exhibit, including the Ninth and Tenth Doctor’s TARDIS, which you can walk onto for photographs. But whoever’s set up the exhibit has an odd sense of humor. In the line-up of all of Clara’s outfits, someone decided to include the flipping Dalek.
But as incredible as seeing all the castles and filming locations was, nothing could top my visit to Roath Lock Studios, where Doctor Who is filmed. And I am so incredibly grateful that even though Rachel was ridiculously busy while I was in Cardiff, she took the time to meet up with me and show me around.
It sounds like I’m stating the incredibly obvious, but you would not believe how hard everyone works to pull off an episode of Doctor Who. I think it’s something that we all sort of rationally understand – we know that it must be very difficult to create a TV show and that everyone, from the writers to the crew to the actors, all have to work very hard to pull everything together into a 45 minute episode. But I promise, however hard you think they’re working to create this TV show that we love, they’re working even harder. And it was wonderful to see even a tiny piece of it come together.
Even though I loved wandering through all the castles and filming locations, nothing could top the moment that Rachel took me to see the TARDIS set. And guys, I promise, it’s just as magical as it is in the show. It’s completely enclosed, so stepping in through the main doors actually feels like stepping into the TARDIS itself.
When Rachel left me alone at the console, I had to take a moment to collect myself and take it all in. When I was very, very young, I didn’t quite understand how sets worked. I knew that the movies I was watching weren’t real, but for some reason I thought the sets were real. So somewhere in the world, I imagined that someone had built a full-size, functioning Millennium Falcon just to film Star Wars.
Standing on the TARDIS set brought back a moment of that childish glee. It wasn’t real and I knew it, but for a moment I just wanted to giggle, flip the lever, and play the TARDIS dematerialization sound on my phone so I could pretend I was off on another adventure with the Doctor. When you step on the TARDIS set, for a very brief moment you step into another dimension where traveling through time and space in an old police box is possible.
And then Rachel has to go back to work and it’s time to go back to the real world.
I can’t share photos of my TARDIS visit right now, but I promise, there’s a really awesome picture coming your way as soon as the new series premieres on September 19th.
I’ll leave you guys with one more thing from my visit to Cardiff. Rachel sent out a tweet earlier this summer that really resonated with me:
So to thank her for taking me to see the actual real-life TARDIS, I commissioned elinj (who designed my blog’s logo) to illustrate this tweet, with the characters Rachel has directed helping her kick through the glass ceiling.
I had an amazing time hanging out with Rachel in Cardiff, and all I want to do right now is go back.