The important historical sites of Cardiff that you never knew existed

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Over a century ago, in 1905, crowds gathered as King Edward VII granted Cardiff city status. But this was far from the start of the city’s history.

From Roman Villas to Iron Age Forts, there are dozens of important historical sites across the capital which can still be found in our modern city.

While there are just ruins or reminders left of most, if you know where to look, remnants of Cardiff’s incredible history can be seen everywhere.

Until the 19th century, before the coal industry exploded, Cardiff was a small country town with a population of less than 2,000 people, despite having existed as a settlement since Roman times.

Its streets were unlit and unpaved, and pigs roamed freely in what was essentially a rural scene. In fact, the lands beyond Queen Street to the north and east, St Mary Street to the south and the castle and river to the west, was largely open country.

Now, it is a capital city with a population of more than 330,000.

Here are just some of the important historical sites in Cardiff you might not know about:

A Roman Villa on Ely Playing fields

While it now looks like nothing more than a patch of slightly overgrown grass, as far back as the 2nd Century, Trelai Park in Ely was the home of a Roman Villa.

The villa extensively excavated in 1922 by Sir Mortimer Wheeler who who was then Director of the National Museum of Wales. Wheeler found that the initial construction took place in the first half of the 2nd century and that following various changes to the layout, occupation of the villa ceased at around 325 AD.

As part of the excavation, iron working were found as well as a human skeleton in an east-west position, possibly a Christian burial.

Small finds from the excavations include coins, horseshoes, a lead strainer, bronze and bone pins, large quantities of iron slag, bone counters, Samian ware and pottery.

Now, there are no remains of the villa itself but the site in which it was built on remains an unmown area in the park.



All that remains is an unmoved patch of grass

Mooring point for a World War II barrage balloon

You’d be forgiven for passing this concrete block near Fitzalan High School and having no idea of it’s significance.

The cube of concrete is at the centre of an overgrown roundabout but unbelievably, it likely played a huge part in protecting the city during the second world war.

The concrete block is thought to have been a mooring point for a barrage balloon, one of a number of balloons protecting Cardiff from enemy aircraft in the Second World War.

South Wales’ largest Iron Age hill fort

People driving on the A4232 from the Cardiff City Stadium as it snakes past Ely may not know that just beyond the trees in south Wales’ largest hill fort.

Set beneath the ruins of St Mary’s Church (which fell into disrepair in the 1960s) it was excavated by Channel 4’s Time Team in 2012.

The team spent three days working at the site with presenter Tony Robinson saying they had found a “whole spaghetti bolognese” of ditches, circles, roundhouses and enclosures at the site.

He said investigators had found a 3,000-year-old “saddlequern” tool and pieces of an Iron Age pot which they were able to put back together and almost reconstitute.



Ruins of St Mary’s Church

Cardiff’s second castle

Not many people know Cardiff has a second castle.

Known as Morgraig Castle it is over 600 years old and yet was only rediscovered at the turn of the 20th century. It is near the Travellers Rest pub on the way to Caerphilly Mountain

It was built in the 13th century, but there is some debate as to who actually built the castle, either Gilbert de Clare or the Lord of Senghennydd.

The castle appears to have never been occupied or completed. It is now a scheduled monument and a Grade II listed building.

The real reason behind ‘death junction’

This well known junction of Albany Road, City Road, Crwys Road, Richmond Road and Mackintosh Place is known as Death Junction – but not for the reason most people think.

The reason for its ominous name is because in 1679 two Catholic priests, Philip Evans and John Lloyd, were hung drawn and quartered for treason for “executing their priesthood”.



The plaque to both men on the junction

It is alleged that several men were beaten and whipped for refusing to give evidence against the two priests. In over the next century the area would become a regular point of hangings.

Today, Richmond Road runs through the centre of where these fields used to be where those executed at ‘death junction’ were buried.

There remains plaques to the two men on the branch of NatWest at the junction.You can read more about Wales’ grim history here.



The junction of Crwys Road and Albany Road
Mysterious bullet holes on city bridge

These holes on Lansdowne Road railway bridge are believed to be the result of being strafed by a low flying aircraft in World War Two.

They can still clearly be seen today.



The bullet holes


The approach to the bridge
The battle of St Fagans

There is nothing there to mark the spot today but hundreds men died in what is now just a quiet field on the edge of the city.

The Battle of St Fagans was the last big battle of the long-running English Civil War, the fight between parliamentarians and forces loyal to the king.

The Battle saw some 11,000 men engaging in brutal hand-to-hand combat. Hundreds of men were killed and legend has it that the river Ely ran red with their blood.

Many of those who fought and died had been on the same side just months earlier.



The two armies met at St Fagans
The two armies met at St Fagans

On May 8, 1648 they met at this site, which is between St Fagans Museum and the A4232 link road. By the time the battle was done, between 300 and 700 people were dead.

You can read more about the battle here.

The city’s Medieval walls


The largest remaining section of Cardiff’s medieval wall

Cardiff’s town walls enclosed much of the present day city centre, measuring over two kilometers in length and up to three metre high. But there is little left today.

The largest part remaining is around the back of Hop Bunker near the castle and is accessible to the public.

Mass graves were found in the city just 60 years ago

When Capital Tower, Cardiff’s first high-rise building, was built in 1967 (when it was actually known as Pearl Assurance House) the builders arrived wearing white contagion suits and carrying oxygen. This is because, as Peter Finch details in his book Real Cardiff: The Flourishing City, “the JCBs had uncovered mass grave pits from the time of Black Death”.

He added: “The plague could still be there, waiting its chance, still alive in the ancient bones. But there was nothing to fear. Cardiff’s damp had seen the evil off.”

Capital Tower was built on the site of a former medieval friary, which, after the reformation, was turned into a mansion. In turn, that was abandoned by 1730, though the ruins were visible until the 1960s.

A gift from across the globe


Trees of Whitchurch Common

If you walk past Whitchurch Common you will see a line of trees along Merthyr Road.

During the Second World War the 2nd Evacuation Unit of the American Army occupied the Common.

After the war a tree avenue was planted there with money the Americans donated. Other wartime features were an Air Raid Warden’s post, an air raid shelter and a static water tank for fire protection.

Cardiff’s very own bullring


Aneurin Bevan statue on Queen Street

Every one knows this statue. For most, it is entry to one of Cardiff’s busiest shopping streets. What people don’t know is that in the 18th century, this area was the city’s bullring.

In 1773 a spectator was actually gored to death in that area while watching the bull baiting.

Blood sport was common and Cardiff had a cock pit where birds fitted with spurs would fight to the death surrounded by a ring of spectators. Almost more difficult to believe, and just as barbaric, was the existence of a bull ring which stood at the site where St John Street meets Duke Street (where you cross the road between the castle and Queen Street).

Here, a bull tethered to a post was set upon by mastiffs. At the beginning of the 18th century, there are records of the town council voting to meet the expenses of the so-called sport, so it had official blessing. Bull-baiting was not outlawed until 1835.

People were burned at the stake on St Mary Street

St Mary Street still sees its fair share of drunkenness and violence, but it was a brutal place in the medieval era. Prof Rees describes the city as a place where “drunkenness and evil-living were common” and “poverty dogged the path of many to the point of destitution”.



St Mary’s Street today

For a minor theft, Ann Harris in the 18th century was whipped on her bare back through the street. But in 1555, a man called Rawlins White was burned at the stake near the market (though it may have happened at nearby St John Street, near the church), for refusing to renounce his protestant faith.

Dressed in his wedding clothes, he is said to have helped the executioner lay the straw around him and told him to tie the chains tightly, “for it may be that the flesh might strain mightily”. You can read more about Rawlins White here.

Cardiff City centre slums


The entrance to Jones Court as it is now



Inside Jones Court in Cardiff

You’ll probably have been there for a drink or two, but Womanby Street has one of the last visible examples of what was politely called “housing courts” – we would describe them as slums.

Jones Court was a place where the waves of migrant workers who were coming to Cardiff at that time lived.

Bute built them in the 1830s for his dockworkers but the houses had just two rooms, no water supply or drainage and were poorly ventilated – so they were perfect breeding grounds for diseases like cholera and typhus.

In a cholera outbreak in 1849, 396 Cardiffians died. That sparked a major inspection into public health. That found a horrific reality, including 54 people living in four rooms, 500 people in 27 houses sharing four toilets and no water supply.

In the 1840s a quarter of children in Cardiff died before their first birthday.

People are buried beneath some of the busiest streets

In the paving stones on the alleyway next to St John’s Church you may have noticed several metal numbers.

The numbers refer to burial vaults underneath the ground.

The path that runs from the back entrance of Cardiff Market to Working Street was built right through the church graveyard so people could access the market easily, gaining the nickname ‘Dead Man’s Alley’.

It is uncertain whether the bodies remained in place or if they were moved to another part of the churchyard. But when the path was laid the positions of the vaults were marked by brass numbers.

The city’s roman walls


Cardiff Castle Roman walls

The Romans arrived in what is now south-east Wales soon after their invasion in 43AD.

By around 51AD, the local tribe (the Silures), who had put up quite a resistance, had been defeated. The Roman fort at Cardiff was strategically placed – easy access to the sea – and there were four forts built on the site over time.

One fort was built in the 4th century and had stone walls which you can still see this stone wall as part of the Castle wall.

The hidden tunnels underneath the city


There are loads of them. A medieval tunnel built by monks runs underneath the city centre and Bute Park, another runs from the BT building on Park Street to Cardiff Castle, built in the late 1970s by the then British Post Office to carry cables.

A tunnel was found in the basement of the Angel Hotel on Castle Street, which was thought to lead to Cardiff Castle and may date back to the 13th century. There are also tunnels under St David’s Centre, the Ely River and Culverhouse Cross.



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