Friday, 17 July 2020

Cardiff history - the Boom Years

What was it about Cardiff during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that saw it become a thriving city? The population exploded from just 1,870 residents in 1801 to 164,33 by 1901, with industry, transport, shopping and leisure all growing with it.

Take a walk and explore this period of Cardiff’s history, from the industries that brought the wealth through to the people who lived, worked and played in the city. We will look at the architectural achievements as well as some of the quirky stories of those who called Cardiff their home.

Click on the icons in the map to reveal more about Cardiff history.

Much of the information in the map was compiled by members of Cardiff U3A.  My thanks to them.


Opened in 1850 and now a Grade II listed building. Originally called just Cardiff Station it was renamed Cardiff General in 1924, and then Cardiff Central in 1973. In the early 1840s the South Wales Railway was trying to find a suitable site for a railway station, but the area that is now Cardiff Central railway station was prone to flooding. It was Isambard Kingdom Brunel who came up with solution to divert the River Taff to the west, creating a larger and safer site for the station.

Cardiff Central Station

The water tower

A Grade II listed building, previously used to supply water to locomotives on the Great Western Railway. At 15 m (50 ft) in height, it was completed in 1932 was painted in 'chocolate brown and stone', the livery colours of the Great Western Railway. It has undergone a few changes in colour over the years.

Cardiff Central Station water tower


Don't forget to take a look at the mosaics by Rob Turner (2003) not far to the east of the Central Square entrance which depict the range of different people who have worked at Cardiff Centre Station and used its services over the course of the past century.
Cardiff Central Station Mosaic


Back in the 1800s and early 1900s the space now we know as Central Square used to be covered by densely packed houses called Temperance Town. It has recently been discovered that this was the birthplace of George Auger, the Cardiff Giant who later joined the Barnum and Bailey Circus in America and was billed as the 'Cardiff Giant, the tallest man on earth'.

Read more about his fascinating story here:Captain George Auger, the Cardiff Giant, tallest man on Earth and the Jimi Hendrix connection.


Saint Mary's church is no more. The church was badly damaged when the River Taff flooded in 1607 with bones and coffins from its graveyard being washed out to sea. Accounts state a mini tsunami swept up the Bristol Channel! St.Mary’s was finally abandoned in 1701. The church gave its name to nearby St Mary's Street. A new St Mary's church was later built on Bute Street, south of the railway station. The current Prince of Wales pub now stands on this church’s original site. On the side of the pub on Gt. Western lane entrance is an unusual outline of the original Saint Mary’s church.

The outline of the original St Mary's church n the side of the Prince of Wales pub

A 1610 map of Cardiff with St Mary's church at the bottom right.


Originally built as the Theatre Royal in 1878 and later renamed the Playhouse Theatre. It then became the Prince of Wales theatre then a cinema and converted to a Wetherspoon's pub in 1999. The 19th century was an age of live theatre, there being a huge demand as the Industrial Revolution took hold. Architecturally speaking it is a quirky building: one side having Gothic revivalism fronting onto Wood Street and the other main entrance fronting onto St Mary Street, is a Classical style, as a Greek temple which was added later in 1927. By then the theatre had a capacity of almost 2000. The pub still retains many features of the original theatre and programmes and other memorabilia from the theatre days are on display. You may prefer to look at the features on their website.  Stars which played the theatre included Richard Burton, Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

Prince of Wales theatre as it used to look inside (pic credit: People's Collection Wales)

Take a look above the entrance on St Mary Street and you will see a statue. She is Hebe, daughter of Zeus in Greek mythology. She possessed the ability to restore youth. Hebe married Heracles and was cupbearer to the gods, serving them ambrosia. Here she is depicted gazing at the cup of immortality as she raises it with her left hand.

Statue of Hebe above the Queen's Street entrance to Prince of Wales


The historic Pierhead Clock mechanism is the main feature of a street artwork in a glass tower in St Mary Street.

It began life in the Pierhead Building in Cardiff Bay in 1897 but was sold to a collector in America in the 1970s before returning to Wales in 2004.

Pierhead clock mechanism on St Mary Street

The Pierhead clock that stood in Cardiff docks for nearly 80 years was unveiled on Tuesday November 8th, 2011, after being restored to its former glory by world renowned clockmakers, Smith of Derby. A special parade was held to mark the unveiling of the Pierhead Clock, which returned to Cardiff after an absence of nearly 40 years, including a Royal British Legion marching band.

The turret clock mechanism, which weighs approximately 1,000lb (454kg) and had to be wound manually once a week for the clock to keep time, is almost identical to the one which powers Big Ben in London.

The clock had been auctioned off by British Rail in 1973 and then sold on to an American collector, Alan Heldman, three years later. In 2004 he decided that the mechanism should be returned from Alabama to Cardiff.

The artist Marianne Forrest created the housing for the clock mechanism. It also houses three replica monkeys, which will strike hourly chimes, which have local historical significance. The monkeys were designed by the Marquess of Bute for one of the rooms of Cardiff Castle as a rebuttal of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

The monkeys in the Pierhead clock mechanism

The clock stands in the spot where, in the late 18th Century, ships would have operated before Cardiff Docks were built and before the River Taff was diverted.

Unfortunately it seems the restored clock no longer works and the information boards have been removed.

Former information board at Pierhead Clock mechanism, Queen's Street


Many Cardiffians who were born and bred here will never have noticed the black lion perched on the roof of the Sandingham Hotel.

Black Lion, Sandringham Hotel, Queen Street

A quick glance upwards as you journey through St. Mary Street shows a real mix of architectural styles. The top storeys and skylines are adorned with Victorian, Classical, Gothic and even Renaissance features. There is even a lion in repose if you look hard enough.

So why is it up there. For the simple reason that the Sandringham Hotel used to be called Ye Old Black Lion when it first opened in the 1880s. It is thought that it was named the Black Lion as the family that owned it had a black lion in their heraldic coat of arms.

Sandringham Hotel, Queen Street, Cardiff


Cast your eyes on this example of 'Streaky Bacon Architecture', just off St Mary Street in Wharton Street

The industrial revolution led to a variety of machines powered by steam. From about 1850 onwards this technology was used to manufacture of bricks. Being pressed by machines, rather than by hand, meant that bricks were of a more regular size and could be laid more quickly. Furthermore, different clays were used to make them, and in a variety of colours. The Victorians threw them up into their external walls in a flurry of what was called constructional polychromy. The latter is a term meaning the use of a number of differently coloured bricks and stone. Check out the different coloured patterns used above the Borough Chambers, Wharton St., opposite the James Howells store. A “streaky bacon style” can be see between the windows where alternative bands of cream and red brick decorate the facade.

Borough Chambers, Wharton Street, Cardiff

Sunday, 29 September 2019

A-Z of Railway Stations: F is for Ferryside

Another trip on a train with a difference.  This was to be the first request stop on the challenge of visiting stations starting with all the letters of the alphabet.  I'm always somehow fascinated by the trains on this route.  They start off in the large city of Manchester, come down through the Wales/England border region visiting small stations, enter South Wales for the much larger population centres of Newport, Cardiff and Swansea and then soon get to stations so small they are request stops.

Ferryside request stop
Ferryside Request Stop - what a lovely station

Up early and walked the dog then down to Cardiff Central and all aboard.  Well, not all, I was picking up my friend at Swansea who also fancied a day's walk.   The plan was not just to visit Ferryside, nice though it is but to go from there down to Kidwelly and catch a train back from there.

Looking over to Llansteffan

First thing to remember, ask the conductor to stop the train at Ferryside.  Paul Merton visited Ferryside when making his TV programme about request stops.  I can see why.  It's a lovely little place, right on the side of the estuary.  So close in fact that you would worry about storm surges and alike but today was tranquil.  What a quaint station Ferryside is with its signal box and old fashioned signal. 
St Ishmael church

We walked down the coast to St Ishmael, some of it walking on the beach, some of it along the lanes.  Just the occasional train going past on the nearby line.  We pottered around the church in St Ishmael that has been a place of worship for over 100 years.
The bell on Pengay Farm - wonder if it is an old ship's bell

Another kilometre past St Ishmael and it was time to start heading inland, initially up the valley and them a steep walk through woods and ending up at Pengay Farm.  One reason for choosing this route was to visit some trig points - yes, strange hobbies some of us have, but they always seem to have a good view, well not always. 

Time for a bit of trig point bagging

By the time we reached the village of Llansaint I was looking forward maybe to a beer but a local told us we were out of luck and the pub not open on a Monday.  He told us a lot more actually, about local shipwrecks and all sorts of things and where to go to get a good view south over Gwendraeth estuary and look over towards the Gower peninsular.  He wasn't wrong.

Gwendraeth Estuary and Gower

The afternoon walk took us not straight down into Kidwelly, that would have been far too straightforward, but NE for a couple of miles over to another trig point and then south after that into Kidwelly.      

Kidwelly Castle - some of Monty Python and the Holy Grail was filmed here.

We had a look at Kidwelly Castle.  It's a wonder that anything remains of the place after so many people tried to attack it over the years - must have been well built. We read a bit about Gwenllian and he death at the Battle of Kidwelly.  It all went on around here.

Rumsey House - sceen of some very strange going ons just over 100 years ago

Talking things happening, another place I was keen to see was Rumsey House, the former home of Mable Greenwood.  You probably won't have heard of her unless you have been to one of my talks.  Poor Mable was poisoned with arsenic. Her husband, the local solicitor, amazingly was found not-guilty of killing her despite the evidence against him appearing strong, including the fact that he married his lover just a few months after his wife's death. 

Kidwelly station is a fair step away from the town and as every teashop in town appeared to be shut, I guess because it was a Monday or after 3.30 or both, we wandered down and had a look at the estuary and the remains of the first canal built in Wales. 
Evening sun setting over Kidwelly

Kidwelly, also being a request stop, meant we got in more practice of stopping a train with the mere bend of the elbow.  Made you feel quite powerful.

Monday, 26 August 2019

A-Z of Railway Stations: E is for Ebbw Vale

A town still somewhat struggling to recover following the closure of the steel works there 40 years ago. The 'Circuit of Wales' race track on top of a mountain never came into being which I can't help think was a good thing. Cyber security company Thales have recently announced jobs going there which sounds good. Lots of European money invested but the population still has a significant pro-Brexit majority. The small museum in the old steel works headquarters is well worth a visit.

Ebbw Vale Town ralway station
The train that I caught to Ebbw Vale, still in Arriva Train Wales colours.

Ebbw Vale Town station
Ebbw Vale Town station
It takes an hour from Cardiff Central to get to Ebbw Vale Town by train. The line heads towards Newport and then swings off north just before Newport. and heads up the valley through places like Rogerstone and Risca.

Up until 2015 the line used to stop at what is now Ebbw Vale Parkway but the new station of Ebbw Vale Town was constructed at a cost of £11.5 million. You don't get a lot for your money judging by looking at the station buildings but I guess it is all to do with laying the like and signalling etc.

Ebbw Vale Works Museum

The Ebbw Vale Works Museum is based in the General Offices, the former HQ for the Steelworks, and what a grand building it is. The museum, staffed by former employees it seemed, full of enthusiasm to tell me all about the former steel works. Entrance is free but donations always welcome. The building, with its fine clock tower, also houses various other offices and a small cafe.
Ebbw Vale steel works sheet roller
Behind the old steelworks HQ is sheet roller.  Imagine the noise this beast used to make when it was running. 

Coleg Gwent Ebbw Vale
Coleg Gwent, another building with easy access to the train station

Gwent Archives, Ebbw Vale
Gwent Archives building in Ebbw Vale

Anyone with ancestors in Gwent will find the modern archives building a very useful resource, and easy to get too as it is next to the station.

former Ebbw Vale steelworks
The fine clock tower on the headquarters building of the former Ebbw Vale steelworks

Just part of the collection of artifacts in the Steel Works museum, each with its own story to tell no doubt, if it could. 

Ebbw Vale cable car
 There is a small cable car present that takes you up from the level of the station and college up to the level of the town. When I was there it was pretty busy with students from the college using it.  unfortunately is does seem to get vandalized on a regular basis and is frequently out of operation.

Once I was up in the town of Ebbw Vale I had a wander up and down the main street.  There were a few modern sculptures that interested me as did the  old Ebbw Vale Literary and Scientific Institute, now preserved and used for arts and entertainment purposes it seems.

Ebbw Vale Literary and Scientific Institute

In 2014 a derelict piece of land was transformed into an attractive public open space featuring a four metre high dragon.I must admit I liked the dragon. There is a geocache nearby too in case you are wondering.

The 36 foot tall stinless steel clock.  
If you look the clock up on Google you find local residents complaining that it is a waste of space and could be used for market stalls. whats worse if that the stainless steel balls at the bottom of the clock get hot in the sunshine and people are worried they may get burnt. Yes, I'm not joking. Or is it I wonder the local newspaper just looking for a story. Who knows.

After returning to the lower level of the railway station using the cable car again, I decided I fancied a walk so followed the track down the valley to Ebbw Vale Parkway station doing some geocaching on the way to keep myself occupied. I never did find the cache on the wooden footbridge even though I spent n age clambering all over it and underneath it. Ever so often I think of that cache and let out a sigh. I must go back one day.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

A-Z of Railway Stations: D is for Dinas Rhondda

A day out, not so much to visit a town, but to walk up a hill. Dinas Rhondda is as the name suggests, in the Rhondda valley, between the more sizable town of Porth and Tonypandy, yes the town where Churchill sent the troops in during a miners' strike.  It is one of the stops on the way to Treherbert.

My Pacer for the day

It was a cold and frosty January day but the forecast was good and it did indeed stay dry all day, though the temperature never seemed to get above freezing.  One of those days when its best to keep moving.    After exiting the comfort (I use that word loosely) of my Pacer train, taking a few pics, I explored a bit of Dinas, picking up a geocache in the process.  One thing I wasn't expecting to stumble across in the town were pigs.   As I was stood just on the other side of the wall when I spotted them I had quite a freight. My dog looked a bit surprised too I must say. Their black colourings blended in very well with the colour of  field (that's another loosely used word).

A bit like a moth, this pig blends into its background very well. 

Time to head for the hills.  I'm still getting used to the fact that in South Wales you can quickly escape the noise and clutter of the town and soon be on the hills and hardly notice the towns below in the valley.  I thought I had done that today.  After a half hours walk the path was flattening out and the views beginning to appear.  The last thing I expected to see up here was ....... a town.  Trebanog seems to break the rules.  Its not nestling down in the valley for some reason but perched high up on a hillside.  Its as if someone in the planning department who didn't understand contour lines looked at a map and decided to build a village just here.  I can imagine it gets a bit nippy up here in winter when the wind is blowing.  Fortunately for me today all was calm. 

Trebanog - seems a strange place to build a town

The geocache I had come to find is aptly called Edge of theWorld.  I'd like to say it was a simple straightforward find but I'd be lying.  It took a fair old time to work out from the description given where I should be.  The undergrowth in January should be well short but the tufty reeds could hide a lot.  I read and reread the logs previous finders had left.  It seemed I was in the right place but just couldn't lay my hands on it.  I didn't want to give up.  It was a long way to walk back up here another time in the future.  Eventually I got it.  Phew. 

That's a nice way to look

I headed further along the path I had walked up and realised that if I was lucky I could descend off the hill a different way and end up in Porth and catch the train home from there.  The plan worked reasonably well except that the track, once it became steel also became very icy.  A pair of skis would have come in handy.  Luckily I stayed upright the whole way down though it was touch and go at times.  I've never seen a dog loose his footing but my poor collie dog Shadow was also sliding all over the place. 

Half way - up that is not down

The path down bought us almost into the middle of Porth.  There was just one geocache left to find and with the help of my decoy-dog it wasn't too tricky.  Another nice warm Pacer, still in Arrive Trains Wales livery, brought us back to Cardiff. 

Help me Rhondda, help help me Rhondda.

Saturday, 6 July 2019

A-Z of Railway Stations: C is for Chepstow

My 700 Series Crosscountry train leaving for Birmingham

What a hidden gem Chepstow turned out to be.  If I had been here before in my days as a delivery driver then I had forgotten about it.  Its easy to get to from Cardiff Central station, no change of train needed.  And what's more it's a picturesque ride along the Severn estuary too.  In no time at all I was arriving at Chepstow station, one of those stations where it looks like time has stood still.  There's an old covered footbridge, a small brick ticket office and even a little cafe.  I almost didn't want to leave the station.
Old footbridge at Chepstow station.  

I forced myself to head towards the town.  Be warned this isn't the most charming entry into a town you'll get.  Yes, over the years the M4 and other main roads have taken some traffic away from Chepstow but there is still a fair amount of traffic wanting to drive around it and you have to get over or under those roads before you get to the heart of Chepstow. 

Workshop Gallery Chepstow.  I have been looking for a comany that happens to make blue plaques. 

I was here not only to explore the town, absorb the atmosphere, learn about the history of the place but also to do an extended geocache, on a route that would start and end in the town centre but also take me down to the river and castle.  The pedestrian route from the town to the river I found also a bit confusing but then again I was looking for clues on my trail so wasn't following the most direct route but it did show me some of the hidden away places in the narrow windy backstreets that can still maintain a small independent shop or two.

Chepstow quayside - much quieter here now than it was 100 years ago

Having meandered through the narrow roads and lanes I was suddenly at the quayside and I think this was my favourite part of the town.  It was not holiday season and it was relatively early and I seemed to have the place to myself.  It's almost as if I had discovered the river, the charming pubs, the bandstand, the beautiful Bigsweir iron bridge over the River Wye. This is the quay which back in Victorian times would have been busy with people making the trip back and fro to Bristol.  Back further in time it was the place where some of the Newport Chartists were deported to Tasmania, probably never to see the green green grass of home ever again.

The last the Newport Chartists saw of Wales

I had been on the other side of the River Wye last year when walking the first section of the Offa's Dyke path - and not walked another section since.  One day. But that walk took me high up on the cliffs where I overlooked the river and the town and barely got an idea what was here below.  As I turned the corner and started to head back up the hill towards the town I found the museum housed in an old Georgian townhouse, the Norman castle commissioned by William the Conqueror, nice green open spaces, all of which I left mainly unexplored as there was so much else to see.

Bigsweir bridge over the River Wye in Cheppstow

Around a few more corners and across a car park I was in the bustling town centre.  The quayside may have been quiet but the town centre was alive.  People purposely going about their business and the Georgian and Victorian architecture of the buildings and shops looking good.

Chepstow Castle, one of the oldest surviving castles

As I headed back down towards the river, having not gathered all the clues to solve puzzle I was working on, there was the town hall, the naked sculpture of the boatman, representing Chepstow's past. I didn't want to stare but I was trying to find the clues I needed. 

The boatman sculpture in Chepstow.  Must get chilly in the Winter months. 

One more circuit of the town and I managed to find most but not all the information I was after.  It can e surprising what you spot second time around, looking behind you when you didn't the first time around.  I battled the main road again and even had time back at the station for a cup of tea before my train back to Cardiff arrived.

The colourful Georgian houses of Chepstow
Chepstow bandstand
Cherio Chepstow - must come back one day.