Parks and Restoration

One of the best things about Cardiff is that right in the middle of the city, there is a well-designed and beautifully maintained green space, which is free for everyone to experience. I often take a detour through Bute Park when I’m walking into town, just to enjoy the peace, quiet, and fresh air. The other day, I noticed there were fences up around Blackfriars’ Priory and stopped there to read the information signs; it turns out this is the latest stage of a restoration project that has been going on for almost a decade.

The project began with a detailed report (pdf) on the history of the park, its current usage, and future plans for development. It is a comprehensive document, bringing together for the first time many items from the city and national archives and gives an interesting account of how the park came to be as it is today. The history section of the report features a number of maps – I’m going to show some of them here, along with a summary of the evolution of this fabulous resource we have, at the centre of a busy city.

The Romans built four forts on the site of Cardiff Castle, the latest in the 1st century CE. A Norman motte and bailey timber fort replaced it in 1081; it was reconstructed in stone during the 12th century. Around this time, a number of mills were built on the banks of the River Taff – they were used for iron making, corn, and fulling. The first recorded mention of these mills was between 1118 and 1147; they were still in operation in 1530.

In 1256, the Black (Dominican) Friars established a friary, founded by Richard de Clare, son of Henry I. It was sacked by Owain Glwyndwr in 1404.

Domestic quarters were added to the castle in the 15th century, and a Shire Hall added in the 16th century, seen here in John Speed’s 1610 map (Figure 10).

Speed 1610

The castle and mills fell into disrepair, passing through the hands of various family owners until the Bute family took over the estate in the mid-18th century. In 1730, the mill stream was widened, upgraded by Richard Watkins of Bassaleg, and in 1778 Capability Brown and Henry Holland began work on the castle. (Brown has a more substantial web presence than your average 18th century chap, with his own website and blog, amongst other resources.) Figure 11 shows that most of the area to the north of the castle was farm land around this time.

Blackfriars 1779

In 1796, the title of First Marquess of Bute was created. He ordered a new bridge over the Taff to replace the existing medieval structure, which had needed many repairs over the years. Some reports talked of huge blocks of ice drifting downstream in the spring thaws, which caused a significant amount of damage. See plate 1 for Turner’s view of the bridge.

Turner Bridge 1795

Around this time, the Glamorganshire canal was built, transforming the fortunes of the area. A feeder for the canal was constructed (visible on figures 11 and 16), running to the east of the castle. Some old postcards of the canal at the North Road lock can be found here and here. The canal bridge is still there, but it is now a pedestrian subway under North Road (see photo below).

North Road subway

The Taff was still untamed at this time; the course of the river would often change and the whole area was prone to flooding. Figure 16 gives an idea of how convoluted the river was, though it’s not clear how many of the changes in figure 18 are present.

West of castle, 1813

The mills began to fall into disuse again, mostly due to disputes over mill stream. There were disputes over the actual course of the river too – in 1822, the owner of western bank built jetties and planted trees, resulting in more erosion on the east bank (see figure 18). The Marquess lost 12-20 acres of land.

Jetties and banks 1820

Figure 17 shows the Glamorgan estate in 1824. Note how the main roads, to Cowbridge and “Merthyr Tidvil” are turnpikes – a toll gate is visible to the north of the castle. It’s also interesting that the area to the West of the river is labelled “Place Sturton Farm”, clearly the derivation of streets that can be seen in Pontcanna nowadays, such as Plasturton Gardens.

Glamorgan estate 1824
In 1829, there were proposals to adapt the mill stream and in 1836, Blackweir farm was purchased by the Marquess, partly to aid construction of dock feeder (figure 26), which took place in 1836-41. A footpath was added from the Taff to the moat, the northern moat was cleaned and lowered, and a well constructed. The bridge across the feeder became known as Lady Bute’s bridge (see photo below).

Lady Bute's Bridge

Dock feeder 1833

The first Cardiff dock opened in 1839 and in 1848, the 2nd Marquess died. His heir, the 3rd Marquess was only one year old, so trustees took care of the estate for the next 20 years. The River work was completed in 1851 and area now known as Bute Park became one complete site for the first time. See figure 19 for the Ordnance Survey of that year.

Ordnance Survey 1851

In 1855, the trustees bought Coopers Fields and closed Bute park to the public to give the family more privacy. To compensate for this, a plan was devised to open Sophia Gardens on the west bank of the river for public use. With the grounds closed, deer were kept in Bute Park between 1851 and 1870.

1859 saw the opening of the second Cardiff dock, and construction of a new bridge, which is still in use today. You can still see the foundations of the previous bridge at the edge of the park (see photo below).

Bute Park and bridge foundations

The 3rd Marquess gained his majority in 1868 and began to transform the castle with William Burges. Plate 10 shows the view over the new bridge in 1869.

W from clocktower 1869

In 1875, a Swiss bridge (by Burges) was constructed over the moat at the west of the castle (see plate 23). It was relocated west of the mews in 1927, then demolished in 1963. Few pictures of it remain beyond those in the report (in other words, I couldn’t find any on the internet).

Swiss Bridge 1879

Figure 27 shows the 1880 Ordnance Survey plan of the park, which apparently shows the deer fences, but I can’t make them out.

Ordnance Survey 1880

In 1887 Blackfriars’ was excavated by Kempson & Fowler. The animal wall was constructed a few years later; it had to be relocated in 1923 due to the widening of Duke St.

The 3rd Marquess died in 1900 and his son, the 4th Marquess, died in 1947. The 5th Marquess gifted the castle grounds to the people of Cardiff. The arboretum was started the same year, and in 1950, the council proposed a zoo in Bute park. Perhaps this was to compensate for the recent closure of a zoo in Victoria Park.

In 1978 the Gorsedd stones were erected for the National Eisteddfod, in 2000 the footbridge to Sophia gardens was installed, and in 2004 the current round of development began, with postal and face-to-face surveys, electronic counters, research, etc., feeding into a 258-page report. It’s interesting that, in the surveys, Bute Park was named the least favourite of all the parks in Cardiff, with anti-social behaviour, drink and drug use, and crime being the main reasons.

So, hats off to Cardiff Council for making so many improvements to the park and for turning it into a place that people want to visit again. Let’s hope it can stay that way for many years to come.

[Yes, the title is a reference to Parks and Recreation. If you haven’t seen it yet, take a look!]


Canvassing in Cardiff

It’s election time again; up and down the country, hundreds of volunteers will be pounding the streets, knocking on doors and trying to persuade reluctant voters into the polling booths. A successful campaign requires a lot of planning though, and, of course, a map. This old map of Cardiff seems to be just such a map; the electoral wards are shown, and a previous owner (as well as helpfully writing ‘CARDIFF’ on the cover just to make sure) has added lots of interesting annotations.


It’s not immediately clear what the wards “shown thus” are for, but they are most likely to be local council wards. They equate roughly to the current Electoral Districts, give or take a few boundary changes, as seen in these screen shots from the Ordnance Survey election maps site.

Cardiff wards 1Cardiff electoral districts 1

Cardiff wards 2Cardiff electoral districts 2

Most of the annotations are likely to be house numbers, probably of known supporters or party workers, or maybe a boundary to show how far each volunteer should go along certain streets.

Address labelsAddress labels

The map is also interesting because it is shows a pre-war street layout. Large parts of Cardiff were bombed during WWII and all over town there are gaps or new builds between the terraced houses. Here though, all the streets are intact, and the original layout is still visible. Maps produced by Geographia often have a date code in the bottom left corner – I can just make out the letters E.BL. Substituting the digits 1234567890 for the letters CUMBERLAND, gives 5.47 or May 1947.

Publication date

So, although it was published just after the war, a pre-war survey must have been used. Images 1 and 5 on this BBC News page show the damage at Blackstone St and Craddock St. The terraces were never rebuilt and a block of flats stands there today.

Riverside detail 

The other notable development since this map was produced is the redevelopment of the bay. Here we can see the old streets of Tiger Bay – birthplace of Welsh legend Shirley Bassey – and Cardiff docks: mile upon mile of railway sidings, bringing coal from the South Wales coalfield, to be loaded onto ships and transported across the world.

Tiger Bay

Cardiff detail

Bing map
[Apologies – Bing maps are more up to date than Google, but don’t embed properly in WordPress blogs. Click the image for an interactive version.]
As you can see, the coal tips have made way for a marina, lots of fancy apartments, Cardiff Whitewater, the Pont-Y-Werin footbridge, the International Swimming Centre, etc. etc. I’m intrigued by the old foot tunnel under the Ely though. I wonder if it’s still there…
My boss told me his neighbour used to walk through the tunnel, but it’s now blocked off. The Wikipedia Penarth page has this paragraph on the tunnel:
One feature of Penarth Dock was the tunnel underpass that connected Penarth dock to Ferry Road Grangetown under the River Ely (Welsh: Afon Elai).[8] Not quite wide enough for motor vehicles it was used by commuting pedestrians and cyclists as a short cut to work in Cardiff. The circular tunnel was about half a mile long with an entrance foyer at each end. Lined with cream and green coloured ceramic tiles the route was lit originally by gaslight and later by electricity. Completed in 1899, from parts cast by T Gregory Engineering Works, Taffs Well, the tunnel remained in use until the autumn of 1965 when it was closed and the ends bricked up, after a series of violent muggings, repeated vandalism and the cost of maintenance becoming uneconomical. The tunnel entrance at the Penarth end was located near the lock gates between the outer basin and the number one dock. This historic short cut route was ‘almost’ replicated and replaced in June 2008 with the opening of a pedestrian and cycle route across the new Cardiff Bay Barrage.
This article tells us a little more, including the toll: “1d for pedestrians, 2d for bicycles and 4d for prams.”

Crazy Cardiff Curtain Cartography

Nobody enjoys going to hospital, but the Cardiff NHS Trust has found a way to make the experience even less pleasant.

Cardiff map

All the bedside curtains in the hospital have this lovely map of local landmarks printed on them – I’m not sure where to start with how wrong it all is. The colour scheme is not very easy on the eye, and because only three shades are in use, Castell Coch (Red Castle) has ended up being sky blue.

Even though the map has been greatly simplified, many of the landmarks shown are in the wrong places, for example:

  • Castell Coch is the wrong side of the River Taff
  • Whitchurch Hospital and Llandaff Cathedral are roughly in the right place, but is that a golf course next to them? Whitchurch Golf club is north of the hospital and nowhere near the river
  • The University (Heath) Hospital of Wales is actually south of Whitchurch Hospital
  • Rookwood Hospital appears to be south of the cathedral, when it should be slightly to the west
  • The City Hall and National Museum of Wales seem to be over in Splott somewhere
  • Llandough Hospital is to the north of the Cardiff City ground
  • Barry Hospital is closer to Dinas Powys
  • And probably worst of all, the Wales Millennium Centre is way to the east, when it should be in the centre, just behind the pierhead building

Here they all are, in their correct positions. Ok, I’m happy now.