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The Parks of Cardiff

 

The refusal of the Bute family to allow any development on the open land north of the castle is the reason why the people of Cardiff now enjoy a beautiful parkland in the heart of the city. In the first half of the nineteenth century, every citizen was free to walk around the walls, the keep, and the ramparts of the Castle Green. Indeed, from 1842 until 1847, Lord Bute even hired a band to entertain the crowd on Sunday afternoons. Shortly before his death, the Second Marquess decided to limit the public use of the Green, though until 1868 people continued to be admitted on Sunday afternoons.

To compensate for these restrictions, the Marchioness and the Bute trustees turned their land on the west bank of the Taff into a public park. When Sophia Gardens was opened in 1857 the Cardiff and Merthyr Guardian described it as "an ornamental walk and pleasure ground of exquisite taste in design, which for its extent and magnificence will be unparalleled by anything of the sort in Wales'. An attractive walk, which led past interesting views, including the new Cathedral Road to Llandaff, was laid out at a cost of £1,500. The Marchioness, who died in 1859, only once visited the gardens bearing her name, but on that occasion she gave instructions to erect a handsome fountain in the ornamental lake at the northern end of the park.

The land from Cardiff Bridge to the former quay was known as the Great Park. In 1837 a spectacular fireworks display was held there to celebrate the eighteenth birthday of Princess Victoria, and during the Crimean War the field was used as a parade ground. When the course of the Taff was changed in 1850, the Cardiff Arms Park, as it was now called, covered a larger area. During the nineteenth century the Corporation discussed the feasibility of using the site for a cattle market, the University, or a new town hall. Such discussions were academic as Bute insisted the Arms Park should be retained for recreational use only, and from 1848 it became the home of the Cardiff Cricket Club.

Under the Public Health Act, local Boards of Health were given the authority to create parks as public walks or pleasure grounds. The argument, that poorer districts such as Newtown were in the greatest need of a park, was rejected as far too costly. Instead, the Council cast covetous eyes on Cathays Park as a site for its pleasure ground but the Bute trustees gave this proposal short shrift. As one of them, Mr. Wortley, commented, "If we take that from Lord Bute, there will be no place for him to take a gallop in'.

The matter rested for some years until the Cardiff Improvement Act of 1875 re-asserted the right to provide pleasure grounds. The common lands at Leckwith, Canton and Ely were designated as open spaces, but it was to the east of Cardiff, in Roath and Splott, that a public park was most sorely needed. A temporary recreation ground alongside Cathays Cemetery was used as a short term expedient, but in 1887 this land was needed to extend the cemetery. Roath Castle at Plasnewydd was considered as a possible alternative but the asking price proved to be too expensive.

Eventually the Corporation began to negotiate for a site in Roath, which some members criticised as "a malarial bog', too far away from the town. Fortunately, the voices of gloom were ignored and Bute generously offered the bulk of the land as a gift, "provided Lord Tredegar and other owners of land embraced in the scheme' would do likewise. Their agreement was forthcoming and in 1887 the Council entered into the possession of 121 acres of land, 103 of them from the Bute Estate, which became the site of Roath Park.

The Ratepayers' Association continued to echo a sour note. They argued,"it was a question of spending £50,000 on bog land, and improving the land for the sake of some landowners', a clear jibe at Bute's intention to develop the district around the park. Initially, only £30,000 was allocated towards the development costs but, in view of the swampy nature of the land, the construction of the lake alone cost that amount. A further £30,000 was required to design the botanical and pleasure gardens, together with the recreation ground.

The opening ceremony was fixed for 20 June 1894. All roads leading to Roath Park were festooned with bunting, and shopkeepers closed for the afternoon. Escorted by the Gloucester Yeomanry, the Marquess and his son, the Earl of Dumfries, drove past cheering crowds to the recreation ground. On being presented with a scroll and a gold key, the young Earl declared the park open and afterwards he drove with his father along the newly-built carriageways around the park.

Soon trams were travelling to Roath Park from every district of Cardiff. A greenhouse for exotic indoor plants was added and concerts were held in the pleasure gardens. Boats could be hired at 6dan hour to circle the lake and its artificially constructed islands, inhabited by a variety of water fowl. After nearly a hundred years, the lake is still the chief attraction of the park.

The lighthouse was built by public subscription in 1915 to commemorate the voyage of Captain Scott to the South Pole. The Terra Nova sailed from Cardiff on 15 June 1910, leeks tied to its mast and the Red Dragon of Wales fluttering in the breeze. Thousands of spectators became so enthusiastic that some toppled into the water. Three years later the vessel returned to Cardiff in sombre mood, as the city remembered the gallant adventurers who had perished in the Antarctic.

The Corporation continued its policy of creating lovely parks for all to enjoy. To honour the Queen's Diamond Jubilee, a part of Ely Common was allocated to develop Victoria Park. Opened to the public on 16 June 1897, the park was beautifully landscaped with flower beds, a playground, a bandstand and a lake. In 1905 a bowling green, the first in a Cardiff park, was added to its amenities. Victoria Park will always be remembered as the home of "Billy the Seal' who was brought to Cardiff in 1912 in one of Neale and West's trawlers. Numerous tales were told about "Billy', a female despite her name, and she remained a favourite at the park until her death in 1939.

A fine open space was preserved when the South Wales Daily News led a campaign opposing plans to build on Llandaff Fields. Assisted by a gift of £5,000 from Charles and Herbert Thompson, the Council purchased the land from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1898. Herbert Thompson requested, "that the fields will be kept as fields, and that no attempt will be made to transform them into a park. Lavish expenditure would probably do little or nothing to improve the natural beauty they at present possess'.

Charles Thompson also presented to the public a playing field and gardens alongside his home at Penhill. Until 1924 he managed the park himself and in 1895 he took steps to enlarge the gardens and professionally landscape them, thus making Thompson's Park one of Cardiff's prettiest open spaces.

In 1893 the local marl pits at Grangetown had a notorious reputation. Crowds of up to 2,000 gathered on the Sabbath, fortified with barrels of beer, in an attempt to evade the Sunday Closing laws. The organisers claimed that the "Hotel de Marl' was a legitimate drinking club, a claim that was upheld for a time but eventually rescinded by the magistrates. Soon after 1900, Lord Windsor was persuaded to part with the marl pits which were converted into the Marl Recreation Ground.

Apart from Roath Park, Bute supplied the land for several other parks in Cardiff, among them Clare Gardens, Plasturton Gardens and Howard Gardens. Lord Tredegar made a gift of the former village green in Roath, on which Waterloo Gardens was designed, and in 1901 Splott Park was constructed on a further 18 acres of land he had donated to the Council. So the foundations were laid for a beautiful city in the twentieth century, for which the credit must go to a far-sighted Council and the generosity of philanthropic landowners.