Uncover South Wales’ history

From the humble beginnings to Glamorgan’s place at the heart of the industrial revolution, there are compelling history lessons to take in wherever you go in South Wales. Much of its past involved building mighty fortresses, which is pretty handy when it comes to planning a great day out all these centuries on. 

Cardiff

Norman Keep, Cardiff Castle

Norman Keep, Cardiff

Cardiff is partly named after its castle, and although it might be hard to believe in the buzzing capital these days, the city was a much smaller market town during medieval times. Cardiff Castle dates back to the Norman invasion of Glamorgan during the 11th century, but you can still see reminders of the first use of the site by the Romans, who set up a fort there around 1,000 years beforehand. They picked it because of the three rivers Cardiff lies at the centre of, but over in Glamorgan builders had a less straightforward time of things. 

Castles built on shifting sands

Ogmore Castle is located near the village of Ogmore-by-Sea, south of the town of Bridgend in Glamorgan, South Wales. It is situated on the south bank of the River Ewenny and the east bank of the River Ogmore. Cowbridge is nearby.

Ogmore Castle, Glamorgan Heritage Coast by Paula J James

The sand dominating the seaside terrain made it difficult to secure foundations – Candleston Castle, for example, was almost submerged as nature took its course, although the 14th century manor house was narrowly high enough, thankfully, for you to still peep around it today.

It stands near the equally captivating Ogmore Castle, from the early 12th century, along the Glamorgan Heritage Coast, a glorious 14-mile stretch which has been compared to a desert thanks to its awe-inspiring natural dunes. 

A day at the museum

Victorian blacksmith at work in St Fagans. The blacksmith's workshop is one of the attractions at the Welsh history museum in St Fagans near Cardiff.

Victorian blacksmith at work at St Fagans, Cardiff by Nikonsnapper

Being surrounded by animals, cliffs, rocks and sea might not make you think of steam and industry, but from the 18th century onwards this was as important an industrial region as any. Rewarding the vision of the Marquess of Bute, the minerals of the valleys – particularly coal and iron – saw Cardiff become a vital port, reaching its peak a few years after World War I. Spend some time at the city’s brilliant St Fagans National History Museum, where you’ll find living history among the open-air set-up of dozens of rebuilt buildings. Potteries, blacksmith forges, churches and gardens are all here.

Having opened in 1927, the striking home of National Museum Cardiff is also an alluring place. One of its galleries, Origins, takes Stone Age Welshmen as its starting point on a journey to the Middle Ages encountering plenty of glittering archaeological wonders along the way. Try the Evolution of Wales display if you feel like going even further back – we’re talking meteorites, mammoth fossils and the Big Bang – or experience tales from the mining community in a more recent part of the country’s history. 

South Wales mining attractions

Big Pit National Coal Museum, ex-miner giving an underground tour.

Big Pit: National Coal Museum, South Wales Valleys by Sun Peng

Rhondda Heritage Park stands on the site of the former Lewis Merthyr colliery, which was once one of more than 50 collieries in the surrounding valleys, only closing during the 1980s. Taking a cage underground, you’ll be looked after by the people who wore hard hats for real. The tour guides are all former miners, so you can be sure they’ll have a few good stories to tell.

Another great mining attraction not to be missed is Big Pit, the National Coal Mining Museum. Located in the World Heritage Site of Bleanavon this former working mine opened as a musuem in 1980. Led by former miners you can discover what the mine was like as you descend 100 metres underground into it’s dark depths.

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