Cardiff and South Wales

Lecture 16—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

Head south to the capital city of Cardiff, where impressive civic buildings and the National Museum of Wales await you. The architecture of this city is magnificent, and offers much to see, from the polychromatic fantasy rooms of Cardiff Castle to the dome over the National Museum. Then turn to the South Wales towns of Tredegar and Swansea, home of Dylan Thomas.

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Visiting the Town of Cardiff—Cardiff Castle

The first thing to see in Cardiff is Cardiff Castle, right in the city center. The first castle on the site was built soon after the Norman Conquest, on an artificial hill, a fine example of the classic motte-and-bailey design. It still stands, in the midst of the castle grounds, and you can climb two, steep staircases, one up the castle mound and a second up the tower itself.

The owner was John Crichton-Stuart, the Third Marquis of Bute. His tastes were scholarly rather than commercial, and with his architect friend William Burges, he proceeded to transform Cardiff Castle into one of the most elaborate and ornate creations of the Victorian neo-Gothic revival.

One room, the Arab Room, has a gilded ceiling of dazzling complexity, with layer after layer of ornamentation. The ceilings of the office and the dining room are similarly intricate, with every inch heavily decorated, red and gold dominating.

Throughout the formal parts of the house, every inch is decorated, with beautiful wall paintings, tiles, and patterns. There’s just one room, the drawing room, in which the 18th-century interior has been preserved. It’s decorous and decent, but will never set your heart racing, or bring a smile to your lips, like the gothic rooms.

Near the castle stands a set of three impressive civic buildings from the end of the 19th century. The first is the law courts, the second is City Hall, and the third is the National Museum of Wales. They were designed to project the pride and dignity of Cardiff.

The National Museum Cardiff

The National Museum of Cardiff
The National Museum Cardiff is a museum and art gallery in Cardiff, Wales, founded in 1905.

The National Museum Cardiff, another stupendous domed building, is next door. It, too, features great open staircases, massive central display spaces, and a radiant sense of its own importance. Among the paintings on the upper level are a collection of important Impressionists, including Van Goghs, Monets, and Renoirs, whose collective effect is to make Cardiff one of the centers for the study of French art in Britain.

There is much to enjoy at the museum, including a thorough geological history of the area, a robotic stuffed mammoth, and high-quality dinosaur skeletons.

Civic Buildings of Cardiff

The Civic Buildings of Cardiff
The Senedd, home of the National Assembly of Wales

Cardiff’s civic buildings, backed by spacious parks, are close to the city’s main shopping area, much of which has been improved by the exclusion of traffic. A mile away, down the aptly named Bute Street, and passing through an ugly 1960s-era development named Butetown, you’ll come to the harbor, where urban renewal is in full flower. It was the business center of the dockyards, now converted into a visitor center, far more elaborate than its utilitarian function might suggest, with pinnacles, turrets, oriel windows, and a fine clock tower.

Beside it stands the new Welsh Assembly building. Devolution of power from London to the Welsh and Scottish capitals came in legislation of the 1990s, and was the impetus for its creation. The architect was Richard Rogers, and it was opened by the Queen in 2006. You approach it up a series of slate steps and pass under its great canopy. On sunny days, the steps are just right for sitting to watch the passing scene.

On the plaza before the assembly building is an artful monument to merchant seamen from the area who died in wartime shipwrecks.

In the same complex, part of the area’s re-development, is a major performing-arts building, the Wales Millennium Centre, from the beginning of this century. The materials are all Welsh, including many different colors of slate. A metallic façade is the most striking element of the design, bearing a line of poetry in both Welsh and English: “In these stones, horizons sing.”

In front of the Millennium Center is a large open area, the Roald Dahl Plass. Dahl is the author of many wonderful children’s books, such as The Big Friendly Giant and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Visiting Swansea

Moving west from Cardiff, you soon arrive in Swansea, which houses the old Guildhall, one of the most distinguished civic buildings in the city, centrally located and dating from the 1820s. The Center was opened in 1995 by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who admired Thomas’s poetry.

Another house, the Dylan Thomas Boathouse at Laugharne, another 40 miles west, is also now a museum. Dylan Thomas was a schoolteacher’s son, but he quit school early to become a journalist. Always an avid reader, he began writing excellent poetry—much of his best work was done in his teens. The adjacent writing shed, where he worked, has been left deliberately messy. All around the table are screwed-up pieces of writing paper, a shorthand way of suggesting the anguished writer’s struggle to get the words exactly right.

Southern and Central Wales

Southern and Central Wales, no less than North Wales, is wonderful countryside. On the country’s southwestern tip, for example, the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park was created in the 1950s. The park is made up of four sections designed to preserve an area of special geological interest. In fact, the geological term “Cambrian” comes from this area, where pioneering 19th-century geologists found rich fossil beds, sometimes including evidence of the soft tissue, as well as the skeletons, of extinct creatures.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path, suggested in the early 1950s and officially opened in 1970, covers 186 miles of coastal cliffs and inlets. Nearly all its sections are lovely, and nearly all are challenging hikes, because they require frequent descents off the clifftops to cross little river valleys as they flow down to the sea.

The Pembrokeshire Coast Path in South Wales
The Pembrokeshire Coast Path is a designated National Trail in Pembrokeshire, southwest Wales. It was established in 1970, and is 186 miles (299 km) long.

Stonehenge is 150 miles from here, and there’s long been controversy over how stones weighing four tons could have been quarried and then moved so far. One possibility is that, during the ice-age, they were carried by the ice sheet and deposited much closer to the henge site, such that they should be classified as “glacial erratics.” As always with Stonehenge, we’re not quite sure. In any case, no definite quarry site has been identified.

The Preseli Hills are themselves rich in Neolithic remains. Two of them appear to be burial chambers, in both of them a large rock was carefully lifted onto three or four stone uprights. Not far away is Castell Henllys, an Iron-Age site, on which a set of prehistoric round houses were built, where archaeologist try to farm according to the original dwellers’ methods.


Interactive Map of All South Wales Locations Mentioned in This Lecture

Suggested Online Reading About Wales

The Senedd – National Assembly Building
Design Build – Wales Millennium Centre
The Last Rock Star Poet


Images Courtesy of: 
Cardiff Castle, By Million Moments [GFDL ( or CC BY 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
National Museum, By Ham II [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons
The Senedd, By User: (WT-shared) Cardiff at wts wikivoyage [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
The Wales Millennium Centre, By grahamwell / Graham profile at Flickr website (Flickr original image) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Dylan Thomas Boathouse, By Peter Broster (Dylan Thomas Boathouse) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
Pembrokeshire Coast Path, By GerritR [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], from Wikimedia Commons