Over 120 years of Roath Park: Changed but still the same

Roath Park has been enjoyed by generation after generation. Although its undergone many changes over the years, much of its iconic features remain the same today. Not only is it the same recognisable park as it was over 100 years ago, it also has taken the same space in Cardiffians hearts. 

The Promenade in the 1930s, and today 2022

The park was officially opened to the public 128 years ago by the Earl of Dumfries on July 20th 1896, his 13th birthday. The Earl was the son of the Marquis of Bute who resided in Cardiff Castle, and the opening was followed by a public procession and aquatic sports. The lake was formed by the construction of a dam, which we now know as the promenade. In much more recent times the dam has been surveyed by engineers ahead of work this year to upgrade the dam. Cardiff Council said the risk of the city being hit by extreme floods or heavy storms is growing due to climate change, and therefore the dam spillway needs to be able to cope with these predicted events. 

Spectators of a baseball match at the Rec in 1953 (credit: Cardiff Yesterday / Teddy Peterson)

The flower gardens were developed and opened later that year, followed by the diversion of Roath Brook to create the flat grassed space that we now know as Roath Recreational Grounds, or ‘the Rec’. When the sun is shining you’re certain to find the Rec full of BBQ smoke, friends laughing and playing, if you’re lucky a juggler or two, and sport matches ranging from rugby, football, and cricket. But could you imagine 6000 people gathered there to watch a baseball match? 

The bathing stage 2022, and c.1920

Believe it or not, bathing in Roath Park lake was an extremely popular activity for locals, so popular in fact that thousands of people flocked to the lake for a swim. After the park was opened The Western Mail published a letter from a resident who described a “splendid swim” at 6 in the morning, with up to 50 other people also in for a dip. After the bathing stage was completed in 1900 the number of swimmers in the lake went from over 10,000 in its opening year to over 48,000 in 1906, and in the summer of 1907 it was estimated that there were 570 bathers per day! But the bathing stage did not initially provide places for people to change, and this became rather controversial when the Parks Committee in 1901 recorded that “Roath park bathers are offending the susceptibilities of early morning cyclists” and that “very often 2000 men and boys bathed in the lake on a summers morning”. 

Bathing in the lake was only permitted for boys and men until 1911, when mixed bathing was introduced. Unfortunately, swimming in the lake began to be interrupted by a “repetition of insect nuisance” and samples taken from 1951 to 1955 were deemed unsafe for swimming by the Medical Officer of Health. From this point on bathing in the lake was permanently banned, with the exception of the Taff Swim, and the last swimming event to take place in the lake, the National Police Lifesaving Championships in the 1970s. 

We see similar interruption today with the lake being closed temporarily such as in 2018, when the presence of toxic blue-green algae forced the lake to shut for boating, and this year when restrictions were put in place due to an outbreak of avian flu. 

The Lighthouse pictured in 1917, and 2022

Arguably the most iconic landmark of the park is the Scott Memorial Lighthouse, a feature that holds huge sentimental value for those who enjoy visiting the park. More so for resident Andy Temple, who after losing his wife and mother in 2019 decided to offer the council a donation to repaint the lighthouse as a tribute to them both. Speaking to WalesOnline Mr Temple said “Over the years Rose and I spent many an hour walking our dogs around the lake, in all weathers, and on the many occasions when my Mum came to visit us, she always enjoyed visiting the park, and always admired the lighthouse – even at 97 she would manage a full lap of the lake.” The lighthouse was subsequently given a fresh lick of paint in the autumn of 2020. 

The Lighthouse (also known as the Clock Tower and the Scott Memorial) was built in 1914 and 1915, in memory of the late Captain R. F. Scott’s expedition to the South Pole. Much of the expedition was funded through donations from Wales, and after leaving London, Scotts ship the Terra Nova called in at the Bute Docks for a final round of fund-raising and to refuel. The Terra Nova then set sail from Cardiff, on June 15th 1910, for the Antarctic. On top of the Lighthouse you’ll find the model ship wind dial which is an exact replica of the Discovery, Scott’s ship for his earlier Antarctic expedition.

Lake Rd East side c.1910s, and 2022

In a nearly unbelievable anecdote, the Glamorgan archives reported that in August 1922, Mrs D Allen climbed the ladders within the Lighthouse and emerged from the balcony. She then “astonished onlookers by diving from the balcony into the lake below, and as photographs in the local press confirm, lived to tell the tale”. It should be noted that Mrs Allen was a diving specialist, secretary of the ladies Roath swimming club, and the depth of the water was much deeper in comparison to nowadays. Despite this, the dive was quite a feat and would’ve been a spectacular sight to see. 

I spent the morning with Cardiff local Moya, looking through her postcard collection of Roath, and talking about her connection to the park. Moya, has lived within walking distance of Roath Park for the majority of her life after moving to Cardiff when she was 4 years old in 1958. She went on to become an estate agent in the Roath area and after 27 years happily retired.

“Funnily enough I was at the park the other day with my grandson, and I told him I could remember swimming here as a child, and he couldn’t believe it”. 

Recalling her earliest memories of the park through photographs she said “it was feeding the ducks and swans, in my Sunday best!” and she remembers that “a child fell into the water so my mother had to give up her blanket to warm him up”.

“Every time we have visitors it’s ‘right we’re going over the rose gardens and then around the lake‘. My mother loved Roath Park, and so did my father, he used to walk around it twice a day for most of his life.”

On whether she thinks the park has changed much over the years she said “to be honest I don’t think it has changed, the existing play area has had upgrades, but on the other side of the lake there used to be a huge slide.” We laughed when we realised as children we had both rolled down the same grassy bank years apart, “me and my friends used to do rolly-pollys down there all the time!”.

“Many of the postcards are taken by photographer Ernest Bush, and often you can see him in his own photographs” Below are a selection of Moya’s postcards showing the parks vivid past. Look out for Ernest Bush posing in a rowing boat.

Moya, photographed at her home in Roath

If you’re interested in reading more about the curious history of Roath Park and heaps more, visit Roath Historical Society and Cardiff Parks.

By Jaz Davies

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