Cardiff was only awarded the status of capital city as recently as 1955 making it one of Europe’s youngest capital cities. Despite its relative youth, the city has a rich and ancient past, spanning 6,000 years.
Excavations at the castle in the city centre revealed remains of a Roman fort dating to possibly 50AD. For nearly 900 years these Roman remains were hidden by the activity of the Normans. When William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, he quickly recognised the strategic importance of the fort in Cardiff.
A motte was built on the Roman site and the first keep, probably made of wood, was eventually replaced with a stone version, which remains in situ today. It is the finest Norman keep in Wales but by the 18th century the keep was a complete ruin.
For two centuries, various powerful families owned the castle, including the de Clares, the Despensers and the Beauchamps. In 1404, the Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr attacked Cardiff, destroying the town and severely damaging the castle.
Owen is often seen as a Welsh Robin Hood and Shakespeare has him as a character in Henry IV Part I. He is called Owen Glendower and is described as “a great magician. Damned Glendower.”
In typical Welsh style, Owen was attributed magical powers even to the extent that he could control the weather. In Holinshed’s Chronicles, which was a comprehensive history of Britain originally published in 1577 and often used by Shakespeare in his works, there is mention that during the reign of Henry IV, “About mid of August, the king, to chastise the presumptuous attempts of the Welshmen, went with a great power of men into Wales, to pursue the captain of the Welsh, rebel Owen Glendower, but in effect he lost his labour; for Owen conveyed himself out of the way, into his known lurking places, and (as was thought) through art magic, he caused such foul weather of winds, tempest, rain, snow, and hail to be raised, for the annoyance of the king’s army, that the like had not been heard of; in such sort, that the king was constrained to return home…” I can quite believe this ability to control the weather; it rarely
stopped raining for the five days of my visit.
In the late 18th century when the Bute family became owners, the castle had a major transformation. The 1st Marquess became Baron Cardiff of Cardiff Castle. He and his wife Charlotte hired architect Henry Holland and landscaper Capability Brown. It was the 3rd Marquess (once known as the richest baby in Wales) and his architect William Burges who implemented the Victorian alterations that transformed the castle into the unique and stunning place that can be seen today.
Running parallel to the castle is one of the most intriguing historical features in Cardiff – the animal wall. The wall encases Bute Park, and the animals are another of Burges’s commissions. Originally there were nine animals including two lions flanking the castle gates. The others were a lioness, a bear, a seal, a wolf, a pair of apes and a hyena. They had Victorian beaded glass eyes which can still be seen on several of the sculptures. Later in 1925, additional animals were added; pelican, anteater, raccoon, leopard, beaver, vulture and lynx.
The wall became a much-loved part of the local city. In 1932, the author Dorothy Howard Rowlands characterised the animals in a series of stories, published in the South Wales Echo.
Bute Park was landscaped by Capability Brown. For me this was one of the best places to walk around in autumn. The colour of the leaves ranges from copper through to vibrant red and were a delight to see. There are 21 different sculptures by various artists, often made from the bark of the dead trees in the park. One of my favourites is the otter and fish sculpture near Pettigrew Tea Rooms.
The tea rooms have had a “cake over” and it is a great place to stop and have afternoon tea and cakes. It is housed in the West Lodge building at the entrance to the park.
From Bute Park, boat trips go down the River Taff to Cardiff Bay. The river was for many years heavily polluted by the industry along the banks but today is a haven for wildlife. It now has many varieties of
fish, such as salmon, sea trout, barbel and brown trout, and an array of birds such as grey heron, dippers, buzzards, cormorants, grey wagtails and the most dazzling of any river bird, the kingfisher. You may be lucky to spot an otter too.
Cardiff Bay used to be called Tiger Bay. Wales’ oldest multi-ethnic community lived here and the bay had a reputation of being dangerous but exotic, hence its name. Sailors and dockworkers from more than 50 countries settled there: Somalis, Yeminis, Greek, Maltese, Lithuanian and Norwegian, all helped to make the area a melting pot of exotic food, music and culture.
I highly recommend reading The Fortune Men by Nadifa Mohamed for a snapshot of a unique era of life in Cardiff Bay.
One of Tiger Bay’s most famous residents is Dame Shirley Bassey. The Manic Street Preachers wrote a song about her – The Girl from Tiger Bay. In 2009 she gave a powerful and emotional rendition at the
Electric Proms. “There’s no denying who I am, forever young, I will stay the girl from Tiger Bay”.
Today the bay is a freshwater lake and the old docklands have been transformed into restaurants, bars, shops, and apartments. There are a few of the old buildings left, including Pierhead, once the centre of the exporting trade, and the charming whitewashed Norwegian church which was built for the Nordic sailors.
When the expansion of the coal industry was at its height, up to 90 Norwegian ships would be docked in the bay. The church was built as a meeting place for the crew on the ships. It is also the church where
another Cardiff resident author, Roald Dahl, was christened. Nearby is the monument for the ill-fated Scott of the Antarctic Expedition, which set sail in 1910 from the bay.
It is not here, however, that Cardiff’s culinary cornucopia can be enjoyed. It is back in the city centre in St Margaret’s Street, the Royal Arcade and surrounding area. This January, the Prosecco Festival will be held in Portland House, hailed as Fizz, Gin and Cocktails. A great way to start 2023.
If you plan on rustling up your own food, then Cardiff Market and the farmer’s markets in Riverside provide a wide range of foods from some of the best food producers in Wales. The Sunday market opposite the stadium sold traditional kimchi, Bulgarian pastries, scrumptious Portuguese custard tarts, and Bombay breakfasts, through to traditional Welsh cakes.
If you are looking for a no-frills, quiet drink, head for the Blue Bell at the top of St Margaret’s Street. I can’t vouch for the beer, but the glass of wine was a much needed pick me up after all my exploration
After a few days in the city, it is easy to see why the Welsh love to sing. They certainly have plenty to sing about in their vibrant capital – Cardiff City.
I leave with you with a quote from Jonah Lomu, for it just wouldn’t be right to not mention rugby. “I am very excited to be here in Wales and putting on the Cardiff Blues shirt.”
Lena Walton is a part time writer who is now working on her psychological thriller trilogy The Box Hill Murders. She can be reached on Facebook and by email: firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is taken from the Jan-Feb-March 2023 issue of the FOCUS magazine