5 free things to do in Cardiff

There are plenty of places to spend your money in Cardiff but on a recent visit we discovered the city attractions you can enjoy for free. Read on to find out more.

1. Bute Park

Bute Park is located between the River Taff and Cardiff Castle. Walking up to the entrance we passed the Animal Wall which consists of a variety of animal sculptures such as lions, a hyena and a sea lion.

We didn’t visit on the nicest of days. The rain was just stopping when we arrived so our first port of call was the cafe. Unlike a group of Japanese visitors we resisted the lure of afternoon tea (at 10am) although it was rather tempting.

Bute Park, Cardiff
Bute Park, Cardiff

The park covers an impressive 130 acres and includes an arboretum collection, fitness and play trails and a riverside path. It’s famous for its champion trees, which are the tallest or broadest specimens of their type. As ours was a springtime visit the leaves weren’t out but this meant we saw some great tree shapes (photo above).

I was also impressed by the amount of bird life so close to the city centre. We watched a jay up close for ages and also saw a tree creeper, nuthatch and lots of robins and coal tits.

2. St Fagans National History Museum

St Fagans is the most visited heritage attraction in Wales. Its 50+ historical buildings have been moved from around the country and re-erected at the open air museum. The buildings cover a wide time frame and range from farmhouses through to urinals and workshops.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

It’s best to visit on a dry day as the buildings are spread out across 100 acres of parkland. Whilst you can shelter in the buildings there’s a fair amount of walking between them.

Some of my highlights were the coloured paintings at St Teilo’s church (picture above), the 1940s prefab and watching the blacksmith in the smithy. I also enjoyed the Ironworkers cottages, which were similar to those we visited at Blaenavon Ironworks last year.

St Fagans National History Museum
St Fagans National History Museum

We spent most of our planned time looking around the buildings and hadn’t left much time spare to look at St Fagans Castle. This was a mistake as it meant we had to rush round the rooms and didn’t get much of a chance to enjoy the castle or its grounds. Plan to spend a whole day here if you want to see everything the site has to offer.

3. Cardiff Story

Cardiff Story is a small museum providing visitors with an insight into the history of the city. It takes you on Cardiff’s journey from a small market town to a world port through to the modern capital it has now become.

It’s a good place to start your exploration of Cardiff, allow a couple of hours to see it in detail. We only popped in for a short visit but lingered over a dolls house exhibit and a ‘build your own’ model city which I think was probably aimed at younger children rather than us!

4. Cardiff Bay

It’s easy to spend an afternoon wandering around Cardiff Bay. The area was once a thriving dockyard but fell derelict as the coal industry declined. The building of the barrage and subsequent regeneration of the area has resulted in Europe’s largest waterfront development.

Some of the original buildings remain, such as the Pierhead, where we watched a short film illustrating the growth and decline of the docks. The Norwegian Church is another survivor. Formerly a place of worship for the Norwegian community in Cardiff (Roald Dahl was baptised in it) it’s now a cafe and arts centre.

'People like us', Mermaid Quay, Cardiff
‘People like us’, Mermaid Quay, Cardiff

There are new buildings too, most notably the Senned, the National Assembly for Wales, and the Wales Millenium Centre. Both buildings are impressive from the outside although we didn’t go in.

The Mermaid Quay area is a ‘leisure district’ and primarily home to shops and restaurants. It’s a nice enough place to wander but I found it a little soulless. If you’re a Torchwood fan however you might enjoy Ianto’s shrine, a board full of notes left following the fictional death of the character. It was a bit lost on me though as I’ve never see Torchwood.

5. Cardiff Barrage walk

The controversial construction of the Cardiff Barrage created the 500 acre freshwater Cardiff Bay and has contributed (some would say, at great cost) to the regeneration of the local area.

Whilst there was strong opposition to the original project the resulting trail along the barrage is popular with walkers, cyclists and kids on scooters and is an excellent choice for a city walk.

Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage
Walking out along Cardiff Bay Barrage

Walking from Mermaid Quay, we were waylaid by a Tardis (courtesy of the Doctor Who Experience), playgrounds and a skate park en route to the barrage locks. These control the flow of water into the bay and it’s fun to watch the bridges opening up to let yachts and sailing boats through. We also enjoyed watching the cormorants diving for fish in the fast flowing waters of the fish pass.

Cardiff barrage locks
Cardiff barrage locks

The yellow rings in the photo above are part of an art installation ‘Three ellipses for three locks’. The full set of aligned concentric circles can only be seen from one spot; they highlight the different parts that go into making the barrage work.

We had planned to take the water bus back into the city centre from Penarth but timed it wrong so ended up walking both ways. If you’re visiting late on a Sunday afternoon check sailing times in advance!

More info:

  • Bute Park is open daily from 7.30am until 30 mins before sunset.
  • St Fagans is open daily from 10am-5pm. It’s 4 miles from the city centre so you’ll either need to drive (parking charge applies) or take the bus from outside Cardiff Central station. A return adult fare is £3, children £1.70.
  • The Cardiff Story is open 10am-4pm from Monday to Saturday (closed Sundays).
  • The Pierhead building is open daily from 10.30am-6pm; the Norwegian Church is also open daily from 11am-4pm.
  • The barrage embankment is open daily; further details are available on the Cardiff Harbour website.
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Exploring the Roman history of Caerleon, Newport

KI sometimes think that the places we enjoy most are those that are completely unexpected and unplanned. That’s exactly how I felt when we stopped off in the town of Caerleon, South Wales.

Caerleon was home to a Roman legionary fortress and settlement, Isca Augusta, one of just three permanent fortresses in Britain. It’s a fantastic place to visit if your children are studying the Romans as in addition to a Roman Legion museum there’s an amphitheatre, baths and barracks to explore. Amazingly they’re all free to visit!

National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

We started with a visit to the Roman Legion museum. This small museum is located inside what remains of the fortress and contains many items found in the area around Caerleon. The various displays are dedicated to different aspects of Roman life and death, including how they ate, lived and worked.

National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

My favourite exhibit was that of the gemstones found in the drains of the Roman baths. Most originally belonged in rings; it’s thought they were lost by legionary soldiers whilst bathing.

Inside National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
Inside National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon

For younger children there’s a chance to dress up as a Roman soldier and see what life would have been like inside a barracks room. The museum has a small but well stocked shop, both my kids found something to spend their money on.

Outside there’s a Roman garden but we visited at the wrong time of year to appreciate it.

The Roman Baths

The Roman baths, just down the road from the museum, were used by the soldiers for relaxation and socialising. They originally consisted of cold, warm and hot pools, heated changing rooms and an outdoor pool (now covered, see the photo below).

We followed the raised boardwalk around the edge of the baths and were treated to projected images and sound which make it seem like the pool contains water and Roman swimmers. It’s cleverly done and is similar to the visual effects we enjoyed at another CADW location, Blaenavon ironworks.

Caerleon Roman baths
Caerleon Roman baths

Look carefully when you walk around the large pool and you’ll be able to see the imprint of a dog’s paw in one of the clay tiles. It’s amazing to think it’s almost 2000 years old.

Caerleon amphitheatre

The amphitheatre was built around AD90 and could seat up to 6000 spectators. Although it is the best preserved amphitheatre in Britain you’ll still need to use your imagination; my favourite kind of attraction. Official excavations first started over 100 years ago with the removal of 30,000 tons of soil from the site. Informal excavations had taken place beforehand as evidenced by the use of ‘Roman’ stone in some local buildings!

Exploring the amphitheatre at Caerleon
Exploring the amphitheatre at Caerleon

The amphitheatre is covered in grass and we were free to wander at will. Back in the Roman times it would have had an upper seating tier made from wood and a sandy arena floor. The soldiers used it for parades, training and deadly gladiator battles. It’s rather hard to envisage this nowadays but it must have been an incredible spectacle.

Roman barracks

Close by you can find the remains of the Roman barracks, home to the 5,500 soldiers. There are a couple of interpretation boards around the site. These explain what the foundation walls and marks on the ground are. It’s possible to make out the soldiers quarters and some large circular ovens but it would be great to see some further interpretation of the site.

We really enjoyed Caerleon. If you’re driving through South Wales on the M4 make an effort to stop off; it’s only a few minutes drive from Newport junction and it’s definitely worth it.

More info

  • The National Roman Legion Museum is free to enter and open daily (although only 2-5pm on Sunday). The museum runs lots of family events throughout the year, current ones include archery, mosaic making and the chance to meet a Roman soldier.
  • The Roman fortress and baths  and amphitheatre are also free to enter. Both are open daily except for a short period over Christmas.
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Family walks near Abergavenny, Monmouthshire

Abergavenny_walks

We stayed near Abergavenny in the Brecon Beacons late last year and spent several days exploring the local hills. There are three focal points for walkers heading out of town; Sugar Loaf, Blorenge and Skirrid Fawr. All make excellent half day (or longer) walks and are generally suitable for families used to walking.

I’ve added links at the bottom to the walking routes we followed.

Sugar Loaf mountain

You’d never normally think of Wales as a wine producing country so it was rather surprising when we drove past Sugar Loaf vineyard on our way to the start of this walk. Just a pity it was closed, I’d love to know how they manage to grow grapes in the Welsh climate.

Starting out on Sugar Loaf
Starting out on Sugar Loaf

Our plan for the day was to walk up the west ridge of Sugar Loaf; a slightly less trodden option on this popular hill. The first mile or so was an easy walk along a broad track fringed with bracken. A short steep downhill section followed which is always a little disconcerting when you’re trying to reach a summit. We crossed a stream and then our route took us uphill again.

Into the mist
Into the mist

At this point we walked into some typically Welsh weather. I’m sure the views on a fine day are fantastic but what can I say? We saw mist, bracken and sheep. At the summit we clambered over some rocks to the trig point. Of course we still took the obligatory ‘top of the mountain’ photo but we could have been on just about any hill.

Lunch - in the Sugar Loaf car park
Lunch – in the Sugar Loaf car park

I’d originally hoped to eat lunch near the summit but the weather wasn’t conducive to a picnic. Instead we hot footed it back down the hill and found a convenient spot in the car park. We ate our sandwiches in relative comfort and enjoyed the view!

Blorenge

Blorenge is within the Blaenavon Industrial Landscape World Heritage area; you can still see the remains of a tramway which linked a a quarry on the mountain with the ironworks down in Blaenavon.

This was an easy walk because we cheated and parked in the Keeper’s Pond car park near the summit. If you’re looking for a more challenging walk you can take the steep path up from Abergavenny but this is only for fit families with older children.

Towards the summit of Blorenge
Towards the summit of Blorenge

From the car park, we headed towards the radio masts and another car park. Here there’s a memorial to Foxhunter, a horse that won gold at the 1952 Olympics, but we somehow managed to miss it. Fortunately we found the path to the summit. It’s a very gentle walk, with minimal ascent, although the ground was pretty boggy either side of the path. The summit view consisted of (you’ve guessed it) mist, but this lifted as we walked down and around the hill.

Heading off of Blorenge summit
Heading off of Blorenge summit

Below the mist we were treated to some glorious views over Abergavenny and Skirrid (the hill on the right in the photo below).  We headed downhill slightly and then followed a circular route around the escarpment which eventually led us back to Keeper’s Pond. This second part of the walk, after we’d escaped the mist and radio masts, was so much more scenic and definitely worth extending the walk for.

View from Blorenge
View from Blorenge

Skirrid Fawr

The standalone hill of Skirrid Fawr (Ysgyryd Fawr) is on land owned by the National Trust. There are many myths and legends attached to it; evidently a landslide on the north of the mountain occurred when it was struck by lightning at exactly the same time that Christ was crucified.

The walk up Skirrid Fawr
The walk up Skirrid Fawr

This was my favourite hill walk of the week. We took the main track up through the woods and then skirted around the hillside on a rather muddy track until we reached the northern end of the hill. This was followed by a rather steep, albeit relatively short, climb up the hill using footholds in the path.

Scarlet waxcaps, Skirrid Fawr
Scarlet waxcaps, Skirrid Fawr

On the way up we passed some amazing fungi. I’ve subsequently found out that the picture above is of a scarlet waxcap. Despite its bright red colour it’s not poisonous but I’d still never consider eating it!

On the summit of Skirrid Fawr
On the summit of Skirrid Fawr

We arrived almost directly on the summit and were treated to fabulous views of Sugar Loaf and Blorenge. No mist, the strong wind had blown it all away.

The route back to the car park was along a broad grassy ridge which descended back down to the woodland. This was obviously the popular track as we passed several families and dog walkers coming up this route. If you don’t mind the short steep climb I’d personally recommend the hill using the route we took.

More info:

  • We followed the AA Sweet Walking on Sugar Loaf walk.  The route is 4.5 miles with 1,150 ft of ascent. We own the AA book of walks, but you can also download the route here.
  • We also followed the AA Bird’s-eye view of Abergavenny walk whilst on Blorenge. The walk is 3 miles long with an ascent of 530ft. We walked it in reverse; details of the original walk here.
  • Our walk to the summit of Skirrid Fawr was 4 miles long and took a couple of hours. We followed the route suggested on the National Trust website. Navigation was straightforward; be aware there’s a short but steep ascent up a grassy hill which was pretty muddy and slippy. Those with younger children might like to take the more gradual route and go up and down the main path.

These walks were suitable for our family; please do ensure you are appropriately equipped and prepared before heading out onto the hills.

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Discovering Blaenavon’s industrial heritage

There aren’t many places where you can head underground into a coal mine, walk around the remains of a blast furnace or see how workers lived in the 1800s. You can do all of these, and more, when you explore the industrial heritage of Blaenavon in South Wales. And even better, every attraction we visited was free!

Blaenavon The town of Blaenavon was once a major iron, steel and coal producer. The subsequent closure of the ironworks and coal mine led to mass unemployment and a declining population. Fortunes were reversed when the industrial landscape of Blaenavon attained World Heritage Site status in 2000; visitor numbers have doubled since inscription and continue to grow. We spent a day dodging the rain showers and taking in the sights of the area.

Blaenavon World Heritage Centre

Our first point of call was the Heritage Centre. This houses a small exhibition dedicated to the history of the area and provides information about the industries which once dominated the landscape. A timeline runs around the walls of the room with key events and interesting snippets.

The kids weren’t so keen on reading the wallboards but they enjoyed using the interactive touch screens to find out more about how the families lived. My daughter spent ages creating a shopping list based on the typical income of a mining family whilst my son learnt about the jobs children used to do in the mines.

The cafe provided a good excuse to linger a while longer in the dry before heading out to the ironworks.

Blaenavon ironworks

Dating from the early years of the industrial revolution Blaenavon ironworks was once one of the biggest producers of iron in the world, and it accounted for the growth of the town in the 1800s. The iron was used, amongst other things, for making canon balls to use in the Napoleonic war.

I’ve seen the ironworks site described as a preserved ruin and I’d agree wholeheartedly with this. You can still see the Water Balance Tower (a water driven lift), calcining kilns and the remains of the blast furnace and there are audio points around the site to help you visualise what it must have once looked and sounded like.

Blaenavon ironworks
Blaenavon ironworks

This was the first Cadw site (Welsh government service which conserves historic environment) we visited on our holidays. In addition to the free access I was really impressed by the visual installations at both this site and the others we visited. At Blaenavon the walls in the blast furnace were illuminated with scenes and sounds from the ironworks, and at one point molten iron is seemingly poured and lights up the floor.

Inside Blaenavon ironworks
Inside Blaenavon ironworks

Probably the most famous part is the row of workers’ cottages which were featured in the Coal House reality series on BBC Wales. There was quite a lot of restoration work happening to the exterior of these cottages during our visit (hence no photos) but they were still open for visitors. Inside they are furnished as they would have looked at various points over the previous 200 years.

Inside the store, Blaenavon ironworks
Inside the store, Blaenavon ironworks

The houses all had narrow staircases, small rooms and a shared row of outside toilets. One had a piano which my daughter played until she got embarrassed when some other visitors arrived. The 1950s house bore a strong resemblance to that of my grandparents home; some of the furnishings looked very familiar! In addition to the houses there was also a recreation of the company shop which looked like a fun place for younger children to play in.

Big Pit National Coal museum

Big Pit was a working coal mine which closed in 1980. Nowadays it’s a major tourist attraction which offers visitors the option to go on a 300ft journey down into the mine. I visited the mine back in 1983 when it first opened and it made such an impact on me that in the intervening 30 years (gosh I feel old) it’s a place I’ve always wanted to return to.

Big Pit National Coal museum, Blaenavon
Big Pit National Coal museum, Blaenavon

It was pretty busy on the day of our visit so we joined the queue in the waiting room in readiness for our underground trip. It moved pretty fast, and despite initial impressions we only had to wait 20 minutes or so before it was our turn.

Before you head down, you’re given a helmet, lamp and battery pack to wear. We had to hand in ‘contraband’ as Big Pit is still classified as a coal mine. This included cigarettes and other items containing batteries, such as phones, watches and cameras. At this point my daughter discovered a random battery in her pocket which was hastily passed to me.

Big Pit
Big Pit

We were soon packed into the rattling lift which took us down into the mine. The underground tour lasts about 50 minutes and as the guides are ex-miners they have plenty of stories to tell. Our guide had strong feelings about the closure of the mines and it wasn’t difficult to tell his political allegiance!

One of the highlights was turning our lamps off to experience complete darkness. Although this was fun it was sobering to learn that young children would have to work in complete darkness if their candle blew out.

Ready to go down the mine, Big Pit
Ready to go down the mine, Big Pit

When I visited in 1983 there were still two retired pit ponies living at the mine. These are long gone now but you’ll be able to see the stables underground in the mine where the ponies once worked. Our guide told us how the ponies were entitled to two weeks holiday above ground each year. They loved it and were understandably difficult to catch when it was time for them to return underground.

Big Pit machinery
Big Pit machinery

In addition to the mine tour there are some attractions above ground. Set in the hillside, rather like Teletubbyland, we found the Mining Galleries, an exhibition of modern mining machinery. This is much more interesting than it initially sounds! After watching a short film, you walk through three display areas which are illuminated and have realistic sounds.

Lastly we visited the Pithead Baths where the miners (in recent years) would wash after their day in the pit. Nowadays these house exhibitions about mining life; the parts I enjoyed most were the real life stories of miners who had previously worked at Big Pit.

As a jaded forty-something no visit could ever live up to the excitement of my childhood experience but I do hope my children remember their day out as fondly as I remembered mine. If you’re in the area make sure you pay the town a visit!

More info:

  • The Blaenavon World Heritage Centre is open daily except Mondays. Entrance is free. We parked about 5 minutes away down the hill; this is also free.
  • Blaenavon Ironworks is open daily from April-November but is only open Friday-Saturday during the winter months so check the Cadw website before you go. Admission is free, but to get the most out of the site you’ll probably want to buy a guide book.
  • The Big Pit National Coal Museum is another free attraction although there is a £3 charge for car parking. It is open daily, with the last underground tour taking place at 3.30pm. Children need to be 1 metre tall to go underground and able to carry their own safety equipment which weighs about 5 kilos. The underground tour is accessible to wheelchair users but should be arranged in advance of your visit.
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