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Penarth Pier.jpg
Penarth Pier at the Esplanade, Penarth
Grid reference: ST185715
Location: 51°25’48"N, 3°10’12"W
Population: 20,396
Post town: Penarth
Postcode: CF64
Dialling code: 029
Local Government
Council: Vale of Glamorgan
Cardiff South & Penarth

Penarth is a seaside resort town in Glamorgan five miles south-west of Cardiff city centre. It stands on the north shore of the Severn Estuary at the southern end of Cardiff Bay. Penarth is the wealthiest seaside resort in Glamorgan and the largest town in the southern bulge of Glamorgan after Barry.

During the Victorian era Penarth was a highly popular holiday destination, promoted nationally as "The Garden by the Sea"[1] and was packed by visitors from the Midlands and the West Country as well as day trippers from the South Wales valleys, mostly arriving by train. Penarth Pier was built in 1894 in response to the tourist trade.

Today the town, with its traditional seafront, continues to be a regular summer holiday destination but the numbers have been much lower since the 1960s and the arrival of cheap overseas package holidays. Today, Penarth's high street (Windsor Road) is the focal point and commercial area of the town. Most employers in Penarth are local services but the town is also home to some larger companies, some of which operate globally.

Penarth is now predominantly a dormitory town for Cardiff commuters. The town’s population was recorded as 20,396 in the United Kingdom Census 2001.[2]

The town retains extensive surviving Victorian and Edwardian architecture in many traditional parts of the town, and house prices are usually significantly higher than similar properties in nearby Cardiff.


Penarth is a Welsh placename. It appears to be from pen arth, meaning "Bear's Head", and this was the accepted translation for several hundred years and is reflected in the town’s achievement of arms which depicts bears. Recent scholars however have suggested that the name is shortened from an original “Pen-y-garth”, where garth means cliff, hence 'Head of the cliff' or 'Clifftops'.[3] and the Welsh-English dictionary published by Gomer Press has penardd as meaning just 'promontory'.

The town civic arms are based on draft made by the town's architect in 1875 from a detailed brief prepared by the Town Board.[4] It features a bear's head above a shield supported by two further bears standing. The shield contains a Welsh 'Draig Goch}}' and a sailing vessel recognising Penarth's long association with sea commerce.


Early history

The Penarth area has a history of human inhabitation dating back at least 5000 years. In 1956 several Neolithic stone axe heads were found in the town. A large hoard of Roman rings and coins were also discovered at nearby Sully.[5] mpp From the 12th century until 1543 the lands of Penarth were owned by the canons of St Augustine, Bristol. The Norman church of St Augustine (on the headland) dates from this period. After the dissolution of the monasteries the ownership transferred to the dean and chapter of Bristol Cathedral.[5]

The manor lands were leased to the Earls of Plymouth of St Fagans Castle. In 1853 the family bought the manor outright.[5] The oldest building in the area is a Tudor mansion, owned by the Herbert family, on the hillside at Cogan Pill,[5] now a chain restaurant.

Pirates were prevalent on the coast near Penarth and, in the 1570s, a Special Commission was set up to investigate and suppress it. Leading family members in Penarth were believed to be implicated.[5] Penarth's mediæval walled Sheriff's Pound, an early form of multi-purpose gaol, remained in use until the late 18th century as a place to retain stray sheep, cattle and pigs or to imprison thieves, rustlers and vagabonds. It was located roughly where the car park now stands at the rear of the NatWest Bank in Plymouth Road.

In 1803 Penarth is recorded as having between 800 - 900 acres of land under cultivation as several farms. In the 1801 census there were just 72 people living in the Manor. Even as late as 1851 Penarth was little more than a small rural farming and fishing village since mediæval times with just 24 houses and 105 residents being one of five parishes contained within the hundred of Dinas Powys, with a combined population of just over 300. Before the pier and dock were built there was a tiny fleet of local sail-powered fishing vessels based on the main town beach that tied up on the seafront quayside.

The Plymouth estate office retained control over the planning, building and development of the new town, offering 99-year leases and remaining the ground landlord. All householders in Penarth were tenants of the Plymouth Estates and paying an annual grount rent. The situation would not change until the Leasehold Reform Act 1967 that gave householders the choice of purchasing their freehold or negotiating 999 year extensions on their short leases.

The earliest homes built in the town were streets of terraced houses with busy corner shops and public houses on almost every corner, following the contours of the headland and in the rapidly expanding Cogan area near the docks. Local grey limestone, quarried from what is now Cwrt-y-vil playing fields, gave a particular character to the surviving older buildings of the town. To the south of the town centre, imposing detached villa residences along the cliff tops looked across the Channel to the Somerset coast and the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm. The villas were built by wealthy shipping and dock owners from Cardiff who were moving out of the industrialised city for a more genteel and sophisticated lifestyle.

Victorian developments

The contract for the building of Penarth Dock was placed in 1859 and the dock was opened six years later, constructed by a workforce of around 1,200 mostly Irish navvies under the direction of chief engineer Harrison Hayter and implementing the design of renowned architect Sir John Hawkshaw . At the Welsh coal trade's zenith in 1913 ships carried 4,660,648 tons of coal in a single year out of Penarth docks. In 1886 Brunel's , converted to service as a coal trader, left Penarth Dock on what would become its final voyage. A disastrous fire during the voyage all but destroyed the vessel and she foundered on the Falkland Islands, where she remained until salvaged and returned to Bristol Docks for restoration in the 1970s.

The town of Penarth owes its development to the massive expansion of the Glamorgan coalfield in the 19th century. Its proximity to Cardiff, which was the natural outlet for the industrial valleys of Glamorgan, and its natural waterfront meant that Penarth was ideally situated to contribute in meeting the world’s demand for Welsh coal through the construction of the docks.

One feature of Penarth Dock was the tunnel underpass that connected Penarth dock to Ferry Road Grangetown under the River Ely,[6] completed in 1899. In later years it proved not quite wide enough for motor vehicles, though ot long remained a route used by commuting pedestrians and cyclists as a short cut to work in Cardiff until the autumn of 1965 when it was closed and the ends bricked up, after a series of violent muggings, repeated vandalism and the cost of maintenance becoming uneconomical.

The development of the town continued to be rapid and Penarth soon became self-sufficient and a thriving shopping centre. Most of the town's fine architectural features owe their origin to the landowners of that time and their vision brought the town its many grand buildings and parks which make Penarth what it is today., Penarth earned its reputation as "The Garden by the Sea" because of its beautiful parks and open spaces thus laid out. Penarth's town library was opened in 1905, thanks to a donation by the Carnegie Trust.[7]

The railway connection to the valleys in 1878 brought day trippers; according to correspondence held in the Glamorgan Record Office the Plymouth Estates Office sought to actively discourage the "rabble from the hills" who came by train to spend brief hours of leisure at the seaside from ruining the ambience of the town. The Earl of Plymouth's land agent actively disapproved of commercialisations such as fairground rides or donkeys on the beach and disapproved of "those persons who swim in the sea either without a bathing costume, or without sufficient modesty to change into one hidden from public view."

Quality hotels sprang up, the biggest and grandest of the hotels being the Esplanade Hotel on the seafront (1887), The Marine Hotel at the dock mouth, The Royal Hotel at the top of Arcot Street, The Washington Hotel and The Glendale and Lansdowne hotels, while lesser hotels and guesthouses throve. All have now closed with the exception of the Glendale and the town's bed and breakfast establishments.

At one time Penarth had two grand and decorative cinemas. The first was the Windsor Kinema on Windsor Road, originally converted from a 19th-century Territorial Army drill hall and the even grander Washington Cinema (1936) with a classical 'Art Deco' frontage, which closed as a cinema in 1970. Penarth's other distinctive art deco structure was the new General Post Office that was built in Albert Road in 1936 and closed in the 1980s.

Penarth Pier

Penarth Pier entrance today
Penarth Pier railings detail

In 1856 the Cardiff Steam and Navigation Company started a regular ferry service between Cardiff and Penarth, until 1903. Boats were loaded and unloaded at Penarth using a landing stage on wheels which was hauled up the beach.[8]

In the 1880s a pier was begun but went no further. The town's current pier was begun in 1894 and opened in 1895, at 750 feet long. In 1907, a small wooden "Concert Party" theatre was built at the seaward end. In 1929, the pier was bought by Penarth Borough Council, who added a new pier-head berthing pontoon, and in 1930 the current art deco pavilion was added. In 1931 a fire started in the seaward-end theatre, which after a sea and land based rescue, saved all 800 people on board at that time. The pier was rebuilt, strengthened with additional concrete columns, but without the wooden theatre.

In 1947 the 7,130 ton steamship the SS Port Royal Park collided with the pier causing severe damage that was not repaired for several years.[9] In August 1966 a 600-ton pleasure steamer, Bristol Queen, hit the pier causing an estimated £25,000 damage.[10]

In March 2011 planning permission was granted for a £3.9 million revamp of the pier, intended for completion by September 2013, funded by taxpayers' money.

Wartime Penarth

With its busy commercial docks and the proximity to Cardiff Docks and steelworks, Penarth became a target for German bombing from 1941 untl the war's end. One night in 1942, All Saints' Church was hit by a stick of incendiary bombs and was totally gutted by fire leaving only the outer walls standing. St Paul's Methodist Church overlooking the docks was totally destroyed by bombs, and dozens of ordinary homes.

In the "Dig For Victory" campaign the town’s parks, recreation grounds, open spaces and front gardens of houses were dug up and planted with vegetables. The seafront and pier were packed daily with people trying to improve their diet by landing fresh fish.[11] There was a non profit 'British Restaurant' at the top end of the Windsor Arcade, where families made homeless by the bombing could buy a three course meal for ninepence.

The Glamorganshire Golf Club in Lower Penarth was the site of an experimental rocket battery. At Lavernock Point was built Lavernock Fort, with heavy naval guns, anti aircraft and searchlight batteries. Ofshore on Flat Holm was a Royal Artillery station, wose four 4.5 inch guns, two 1.6 inches (40.0 mm) Bofors guns and radar formed part of the Fixed Defences, Severn scheme to protected Atlantic shipping.

In October 1943 a United States Navy Base was established at Penarth Docks (now Penarth Marina), from which many of the troops which took part in the D Day invasion set out for the Normandy beaches. In 1944 Penarth dock and the dock beach as far as the Penarth Headland was full of invasion barges that departed for the D-Day landings. British Commando units trained on the Penarth cliffs in preparation for scaling the Normandy cliff faces. Several of the invasion barges were not used and lay rotting on the dock beach well into the 1950s used as playthings by local children.

After the War

The Penarth Marina development

The coal trade from Penarth docks eventually petered out and the docks closed in 1936, only reopening for commercial and military use during Second World War. From the 1950s and up until 1965 Royal Navy took over the basin to mothballed dozens of redundant destroyers and frigates until they were sold to foreign nations or broken up. By 1967, the docks lay unused and derelict. The largest basin, No 2 dock at the Cogan end, is now completely filled in, grassed over and surrounded by roadways.

In 1987 the new Penarth Marina village opened on the disused docks site. The No 1 dock and outer basin were re-excavated or dredged out to provide some 350 yacht berths, surrounded by extensive modern waterside homes and several marine engineering yards. The original dock office and Excise House is now in use as a popular restaurant, with only the Grade II listed Marine Hotel remaining derelict and boarded up awaiting suitable redevelopment plans.

The town today

Penarth is one of the most affluent areas in Glamorgan and property prices continue to remain high. Marine Parade or 'Millionaires' row', with its grand, substantial Victorian houses or modern designer villas with views across the Bristol Channel, is considered to be the finest street in Penarth, although several larger properties are now split as apartments or adapted as residential care homes.

Houses in Penarth vary from imposing three storey red brick Victorian houses found on both Plymouth and Westbourne Roads to compact stone terraces in Cogan and upper Penarth. Many of the Plymouth Road, Westbourne Road, Victoria Road and Archer Road houses, originally large family homes with servants' quarters on the top floors, have now been adapted for multi-occupancy as flats and apartments. Penarth Marina in direct contrast features trendy modern townhouses, apartments and designer penthouses.[12]

In March 2008 several scenes for the Doctor Who episode "The Stolen Earth" were filmed in and around Penarth streets. A lot of the Sarah Jane Adventures episodes were filmed in Penarth.[13]


Penarth lies five miles south-west of Cardiff by road and has a road infrastructure that has been much improved in recent years, together with a traditional rail link. The Cardiff Bay Barrage between Penarth Head and Grangetown was completed in 1999 and came into operation shortly afterwards. The impounding of the River Taff and River Ely has created a 500-acre freshwater lake in Cardiff Bay.

Penarth Head is looks out over the Severn Estuary or the Bristol Channel; there is no division between the two though the geographers’ convention of an imaginary line between Lavernock Point two miles southwest of Penarth and Sand Point, Somerset would put the town on the Estuary. Because of the extreme tidal range there are very strong currents or rips close inshore, with speeds that exceed 7 knots for several hours at each tide and on occasions the spring tide in a high wind can overspill the esplanade wall and flood the roadway.


Strata formation - Cliffs near Penarth

The cliffs on which Penarth stands have a distinctive strata rock formation that is world known and referred to as the “Penarth Group” or “Penarth coeval strata” wherever it appears in Britain. The Penarth cliffs are made of interspersed layers of limestone and alabaster, both of which are dry and crumbly rocks. The Penarth cliffs contain the largest known outcrop of naturally occurring Pink Alabaster anywhere in the world but, although decorative and highly prized by local gardeners to crown their rockeries, it is considered to be much inferior to the harder and hand-carvable whiter alabasters found elsewhere.

The cliff has retreated dozens of yards even in living memory, and the area around Penarth Head remaining most at threat; several structures once on the clifftop have already been smashed on the beach below. A reinforced concrete and iron staircase that once led from Penarth Head to the beach, built by the war department just before the First World War was destroyed by advancing erosion in the early 1950s.


St Augustine's, the parish church, on the headland site of a much earlier church probably dating from 1240. The original church was demolished in 1865 and the new much larger church built in 1866 at a cost of £10,000, financed by the Countess of Plymouth.[14] It was designed by the famous Victorian architect William Butterfield and it is described as one of his best polychromatic churches. The interior uses a mixture of coloured bricks and stone in yellow, pink, red, black and white.[14] Because the distinctive tower of the old church it had appeared on navigational charts. At the request of the Admiralty a similar saddle-back tower was kept in the new design. The new tower was 90 feet high, much larger than the old church.[14] St Augustine's is a Grade I listed building.[15] The churchyard cross is mediæval and dates from the original church, but is much weathered and most of the detailed decoration has vanished.

St Peter's, also known as Old Cogan Church, one of the earliest ecclesiastical buildings surviving in the Vale of Glamorgan and the Diocese of Llandaff. There is a reference to it in 1180 so it was probably constructed just before that of thin lias limestone slabs, a local stone, in a herringbone pattern more typical of earlier Saxon times."[16]

St Augustine's Church

Church in Penarth include:

  • Church in Wales:
    • St Augustine's
    • St Peter's (Old Cogan Church)
    • All Saints, built in 1892
  • Baptist:
    • Tabernacle Baptist Chapel
  • Independent & other evangelical:
  • Methodist:
    • Trinity Methodist Church
    • Albert Road Methodist Church
  • United Reformed Church: on Elfed Avenue
  • Roman Catholic: St Joseph's

Sights of the town

The Italian Gardens
Cosmeston Lake view

The beach front promenade remains a popular draw for visitors and tourists with its Victorian Italian Garden that displays many unusual palm trees and exotic plants.

Penarth Pier is a summer staging point for the various pleasure steamers, that ply their trade from time to time in the Bristol Channel and the pier is used as a popular winter sea fishing venue.

Cosmeston Lakes Country Park, developed in 1970. It has a lake with a wide range of water fowl and acres of pleasant walks in woodlands and on the heath.

Cosmeston Mediæval Village is a reconstruction of a historical village, described as the best of its kind in Britain.[17] It holds historical re-enactments during the summer weekends and on bank holidays.

Turner House Art Gallery at the top of Plymouth Road is the current exhibition space for Ffotogallery[18] the photography development agency for Wales. The gallery was opened in 1888 by local resident, James Pyke Thompson, originally to house his personal art collection.

Washington Buildings is a small art gallery in a tastefully converted 1930s art deco cinema.

Alexandra Gardens is the town's main Victorian Park, opened in 1902, with colourful flowerbeds, leafy glades, an ornamental fishpond, ornate bandstand and the town's Cenotaph memorial to the fallen of two world wars. The park leads from the town down to the seafront, almost connecting up with the Windsor Gardens park that runs above and parallel to the esplanade.

The Paget Rooms hosts dances, occasional pop concerts and plays by local dramatic societies.

Penarth Yacht Club

Penarth Yacht Club was built in 1883

The seafront remains uncommercialised with none of the amusement arcades that befoul other holiday resort frontages.

The town's swimming pool and baths built in the late 19th century was closed in the 1980s and, after a short reincarnation as a bar and bistro, has recently been tastefully converted into luxury flats while retaining its Victorian exterior.

The clifftop walks to the bays of Lavernock, St Mary's Well and Swanbridge with their beaches and the historic hut where Marconi first transmitted radio messages over open sea remain popular with residents and visitors alike. The old trackbed of the railway that once connected Penarth to Cadoxton and Barry Island and was closed by the Beeching Axe is now a rural greenway and cycle track from the Archer Road rail bridge as far as the Fort Road bridge in Lavernock. The remaining main section of the Lavernock Fort gun battery has been listed as an Ancient Monument.

The Lavernock Point Nature Reserve is managed by the Wildlife Trust of South & West Wales.


Penarth Holiday Festival runs for two weeks in July, as it has since 1966. It features special events and celebrations all over the town. These have included pop concerts, yacht regattas and power boat races, donkey derbies, parades, fairs and fetes in the parks, tea dances, stage shows, art exhibitions and spectacular firework displays.

Sports and recreation

  • Cricket: Penarth Cricket Club, founded in 1851
  • Rugby: Penarth RFC, based at The Athletic Ground, Lavernock Road, Penarth and once a renowned side. Penarth RFC used to host the world-famous Barbarians Football Club each Easter Good Friday, until 1986. This fixture was the start of the "Baa-Baas" annual tour from the team’s spiritual home of Penarth, which also encompassed playing Cardiff on the Saturday, Swansea on Easter Monday and Newport on the Tuesday.
  • Football: Cogan Coronation AFC, known locally as the 'Coro', founded in 1960
  • Golf: Glamorganshire Golf Club, in Lower Penarth, is considered to be one of the finest golf courses in Wales. The course was established in 1890.
  • Tennis:
    • Windsor Lawn Tennis Club
    • Penarth Lawn Tennis Club
  • Boxing: Penarth Amateur Boxing Club
  • Bowls: Penarth Bowls Club
  • Hockey: Penarth Men’s Hockey Club (established 1911) and Penarth Ladies’ Hockey Club (established 1896)

Cogan Leisure Centre is a modern leisure centre sports venue that provides the town with a full range of sporting facilities including a leisure pool and extensive playing fields. The new Cardiff Sports Village is just under two miles from the town centre.

Cardiff Morris perform traditional dances and feature several members from the town. They are the prime performers of Morris dances from the Nantgarw tradition. They meet and rehearse weekly throughout the year, alternating between The Anchor in Taffs Well and the Windsor Arms public house in Penarth. In recent years the group have performed in locations across the UK. Of particular interest are their renditions of genuine Welsh morris dance as collected by Margaretta Thomas in the village of Nantgarw in Taff Vale, the key dance being Y Gaseg Eira (The Snow Mare).[19]


Outside links

("Wikimedia Commons" has material
about Penarth)


  1. Owen, David (22 September 2002). "The Garden by the Sea". BBC Wales. Retrieved 3 March 2012. 
  2. Davies, John; Jenkins, Nigel; Menna, Baines et al., eds (2008). The Welsh Academy Encyclopaedia of Wales. Cardiff: University of Wales Press. p. 660. ISBN 978-0-7083-1953-6. 
  3. "Penarth". Retrieved 30 December 2012. 
  4. "Civic Insignia". Retrieved 30 December 2012. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 Williams,, S. (1975). South Glamorgan: A County History. Stewart Williams. pp. 116–138. 
  6. Penarth Times I remember that... Letter published 12 May 2011
  7. Civic Trust of Wales Penarth Town Trails from the Penarth Society
  8. Carradice, P., 'Penarth Pier: The Centenary Story 1894-1994' BARON (1994)
  9. LOOKING BACK: "I remember that...". Penarth Times online. Letter published 22 May 2008. LOOKING BACK:. Retrieved 30 December 2012. 
  10. "Time Traveller: August 17". South Wales Echo. 17 August 2010. Retrieved 19 October 2011. 
  11. Food alternatives
  12. Penarth Marina website
  13. Penarth Times 21 September 2006 accessed 12 November 2010
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 Tilney, C. 'The History of the Parish of Penarth With Lavernock' revised edition 1988
  15. "St Augustine's Parish Church, Church Place, Penarth". British Listed Buildings. Retrieved 18 April 2013. 
  16. accessed 29 November 2009
  17. Cosmeston Mediæval Village
  18. Ffotogallery
  19. Cardiff Morris Men