Cardiff Series: The interesting history of Roath Park in Cardiff

Cardiff is my hometown, and I feel very passionately about its landmarks, history and culture. If you live or are from Cardiff, you would have driven past or visited Roath Park at some point. It is surrounded by huge Victorian houses and has always been an affluent part of the city, even if there are a few ‘dodgy’ streets nearby. Most people can say they have walked or jogged around the lake, or fed the birds – or in my case, chased by the birds. There have also been wedding proposals. It’s somewhere where you can watch your children or grandchildren play. You can hire a boat and float around the lake. Plus, the lighthouse, a memorial to the ill-fated Captain Scott, is one of the most Instagrammable locations in Cardiff.

Roath Park Lighthouse

How was Roath Park created?

The park, gardens and lake in Roath Park are recognised as one of the most beautiful late Victorian parks in Britain. The industrial revolution made Cardiff one of the most important docks in the world, and its rapid expansion led to the increase of demand for open spaces. The Roath Park Committee was set up by the Cardiff Corporation to find a suitable site to meet this need in 1882.

The 3rd Marquis of Bute purchased 103 acres of land that had a brook running through marshland. The Marquis gifted it to the town in 1887 to use as a park, but there were conditions attached. One of which required other local landowners to donate small parcels of land for free. Lord Tredegar contributed 5 acres of land, and three others Clark, Morgan and Jackson, gave 13 acres between them.


Another condition was that Cardiff Corporation was required to provide the infrastructure to support the building of houses to take advantage of the pleasant surroundings of the new park. In July 1889 work began. Construction started with road-making at the southern end that was to become the Roath Park Pleasure Garden and Recreation Ground. Followed by the diversion of Roath Brook to create the flat grassed space.

By January 1891, fencing had been erected around the southern portion of the park, and levelling of the ground had begun. Work proceeded rapidly during this year, and more than 100 men were employed daily. By the end of 1892 the roads had been laid out, trees and shrubs planted, and the north end of the lake and the five islands had been created. The lake was filled with water in December 1893.

By 1894, the Pleasure Gardens were finished. Parts of the Botanic Garden were also complete, with planting being carried out on a scientific and educational basis. Many of the plants were donated from Kew Gardens. In May of 1894, four internal bridges were under construction. By 1888 it was proposed to call the new park Lady Bute Park, but the name Roath Park was agreed and was officially opened on 20th June 1894 by the Earl of Dumfries, the son of the Marquis of Bute, on his 13th birthday. The Wild Garden at the north end of the lake was not opened until 1896.

Roath Park during World War One

During the first World War during 1914-18, the Recreation Ground was used for allotments growing vegetables and remained until 1920. During the war, the park was a regular venue for events organised for war purposes. In June 1915 the council agreed that a concert could be held in Roath Park to raise money for the troops. In August of the same year, a carnival was organised by the British Red Cross Society, and in 1917 a fete was held in aid of the Disabled Soldiers and Sailors of Cardiff.

Roath Park

Captain Scott’s Lighthouse

One of the most iconic images of Roath Park, and of Cardiff, is of the lighthouse. It was built in 1915 as a memorial to Captain Robert Scott’s tragic Antarctic expedition. It has a clock tower, and a scale model of his boat, The Terra Nova, on the top. Captain Scott had set sail from Cardiff in 1910, hoping to be the first person to reach the geographic South Pole. The expedition got to the pole in January 1912, but all died on the voyage home.

Does it have a 007 Bond Lair? An article published by ILovesTheDiff showed that the lighthouse is also deceptively spacious. According to the article, it boasts a four-bedroom luxury home equipped with a spa, gym and a private beach… hmmm? A brilliant April Fools prank!

Roath Park during World War Two

Between 1939 and 1945 there were extensive Air Raid Precautions in Roath Park. Wardens were placed on the boating stage, in the Wild Gardens and on the bowls pavilion in the Pleasure Gardens. As it was during the first World War, Roath Park became a venue for war-related events such as a Civil Defence Gala which was held on 1st August 1942.

Taken on an evening stroll around Roath Park Lake – blue skies and blue waters

The big freeze

In 1963 a cold spell gripped the nation, and it lasted several months. It was so severe that Roath Park Lake froze. Visitors flocked to the new ‘ice rink’, and both adults and children walked in on the frozen water.

The Big Freeze – walking on water when Roath Park Lake was frozen solid

Some other interesting points about Roath Park

  • It is a Grade I listed historic park
  • It has been awarded a Green Flag, which means you know you’re visiting an exceptional place with the highest standards.
  • Lynn Davies, the Olympic gold medal long jump winner in the Tokyo 1964 games moved to Cardiff in 1961 from Ogmore in Bridgend. Before that, he had a promising career as a footballer and even had a trial with Cardiff City.
  • When the park opened, you could swim in the lake, but only men and boys between 6am-9am daily.
  • The landscape gardener was William Wallace Pettigrew. His father was the gardener at Cardiff Castle, where he apprenticed at age 16. Cardiffians should be thankful to the Pettigrew family who are responsible for the green spaces in the city, including St Fagans, Sophia Gardens and Bute Park.
  • The Taff Swim was held at Roath Park Lake from 1931 to 1961. It was branded as ‘the greatest swimming event of the year’.
  • Water-skiing competitions were held on the lake. In the 1960s it became the venue for the annual Welsh Open Water Ski Championships.
  • The Welsh Open Canoe Regatta was held on the lake on the 14th and 15th September 1979
  • There are 16 Champion trees in the park (The largest and tallest trees in Britain and Ireland)
  • It is rumoured that Jimi Hendrix once woke up on an island in Roath Park Lake after a gig in 1967

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