PENARTH is an elegant seaside town with Victorian pier, art deco pavilion, charming esplanade and modern marina. It sits nestled between Wales’s capital city, Cardiff, and the seaside resort of Barry Island and was named one of the top 10 places to live in the United Kingdom by The Sunday Times.
Often referred to as ‘The Garden by the Sea’, Penarth has some pleasant parks, linking the coast to the traditional town centre with its Victorian arcade, independent shops and cafés.
Just minutes away is Cardiff Bay which can be traversed by water taxi from the picturesque Penarth Marina, or accessed on foot or a bike ride across the bay barrage, which is part of the Wales Coast Path.
Penarth esplanade, where you can eat and drink outside with views across the Severn estuary to the islands of Flat Holm and Steep Holm and the rolling coast of Devon and Somerset beyond, is a popular weekend destination for visitors.
There are lots of places to eat and drink in Penarth – from tea shops to lively bars and restaurants – and things to do for all ages and tastes.
Head to Alexandra Park near Penarth town centre for a gentle stroll, or just to while away the hours under a tree with a book on a sunny day. There you will find topiary hedges, a hidden pond with fish and even a small aviary as the park wends its way down to the seafront.
No visit to Penarth would be complete without a walk along the pier and esplanade. Buy an ice cream, watch people fishing or stroll along the pebbly beach.
The restored pier building runs a range of activities and even has its own small cinema.
Head to the cliff tops for the Wales Coast Path , which runs through Penarth, and you can stroll through the woods to Lavernock Point, where, in 1897, Guglielmo Marconi, assisted by Cardiff-based Post Office engineer George Kemp, transmitted and received the first wireless signals over open sea between Lavernock and Flat Holm island.
The very first message transmitted in morse code was “are you ready”. This was immediately followed by “can you hear me” to which the reply was “yes loud and clear”. The morse recording slip for the first message is on display in the National Museum of Wales.
The small stone hut that Marconi used to contain his experimental radio telegraph equipment still stands on the cliff edge at the end of the lane near Lower Cosmeston farmhouse.
Cosmeston Lakes Country Park and Medieval Village on the outskirts of Penarth is a popular place to go for walks, picnics, or simply to feed the native swans. There are footpaths through the acres of woods and fields and alongside the lakes created from flooded quarries. There is a large children’s playground, a café and areas to host your own barbecue or picnic.
During the development of Cosmeston Lakes Country Park in 1978, excavations uncovered the remains of a community over 600 years old, and so began a unique archaeological project to restore the village of Cosmeston.
The reconstructed living history medieval village near Lavernock is a re-creation of 14th-Century peasant life in Wales in the late Middle Ages. The Vale of Glamorgan Council and Cardiff University of History and Archaeology have held digs to discover more about the archaeology of this unique site.
Penarth is home to a clutch of brasseries, gastro pubs and steakhouses overlooking the yachts at Penarth Marina, while French, Indian, Turkish Mediterranean, Spanish and Italian restaurants populate the town centre proper.
The multi-national flavour of the town’s compact shopping area is further enhanced by the likes of Fauvette Cheese Bar, with its mini chutney jars, locally-produced cheese and cheese boards made from Welsh slate, just yards from Brød Danish bakery and coffee shop, its windows bulging with mouthwatering displays of Danish pastries, cakes and hand-crafted loaves.
On the pub and bar front, meanwhile, there are cosy real ale spots, traditional inns and modern bars perfect for lively evenings out or nightcaps after dinner. Popular with the lunchtime brigade are The Railway, Bear’s Head and, high on a hill overlooking Cardiff Bay, The Pilot, with a stylish, contemporary seafaring ambiance and a reputation for good food and great Sunday roasts.
The characterful Olde Sweet Shoppe at the entrance to Penarth pier and the Umpa Lumpa Sweet Shop in the town’s Windsor Arcade offer great appeal for visiting families, as do a range of excellent gift shops, including Not Socks Again, Hamptons and Barnums toy emporium.
Sweet and savoury are combined at the award-winning creperie and coffee shop, The Crepe Escape, located in Glebe Street, which has developed into a local version of Cardiff’s ‘Chippy Lane’ (Caroline Street), with its busy chip shops, Chinese and Indian takeaways and a traditional kebab and pizza place all within a minute’s walk of each other.
Visitors arriving in Penarth by train also find themselves spoiled for choice in another small eating and drinking hub around Station Approach.
Paramount and Mo’s Indian restaurants are right next door to each other, while across the road is Foxy’s Deli and café which includes roadside seating and is popular for breakfasts, lunch and afternoon tea. Nearby is the elegant family-run gin palace Gin 64, described by The Sunday Times as “the trendy new kid on the block” after its arrival on the scene in 2018.
Just a few doors along, a licenced premises at the other end of the timescale is the Grade II-listed Paget Rooms, which has acted as a town hall, theatre, dance hall, music and concert venue and cinema in its long and varied history.
With a capacity of up to 450 people, the venue is well used for wedding receptions, large parties, conferences, workshops and concerts as well as craft fairs and charity events.
The Captain’s Wife, on the seafront just down the road in Sully, has a country pub vibe with beams, slate floors and roaring fires in winter. It’s popular with families, walkers and cyclists who can sit in the beer garden during summer and look out to Sully Island.
Other attractions in this pleasant seaside town include Glamorganshire Golf Club and Turner House art gallery, while history lovers may wish to visit Grade 1-listed St Augustine’s Church, Penarth’s fine hilltop Victorian church, or trace the town’s heritage trail to see other noteworthy buildings.
In days gone by, the Washington Cinema was built opposite the town’s library in 1936 with a classical art deco frontage. It closed as a cinema in 1971 and, after several years as a bingo hall, it was converted into a coffee house and art gallery, whilst retaining its original frontage.
In 1856, the Cardiff Steam and Navigation Company started a regular ferry service between Cardiff and Penarth, but it wasn’t until 1895 that a permanent pier was constructed on the seafront. It has not been without its setbacks over the years, however, with a fire causing considerable damage in the 1930s and ships twice colliding with the structure in 1947 and 1966.
Penarth has been linked to west Somerset and north Devon seaside resorts such as Minehead, Ilfracombe and Lundy Island by the paddle steamer Waverley and MV Balmoral, which have sailed from Penarth pier for over 60 years, continuing a steamer tradition that started when the pier was built.
The traditional summer daily service to Weston-super-Mare ceased in 1994 when Weston’s Birnbeck Pier was damaged in a storm, declared unsafe and closed to visitors.
Since the 1980s, Penarth seafront has seen many Victorian hotels, houses and the swimming pool demolished in favour of modern apartment blocks. The theatre and bars on the town’s pier were allowed to fall into neglect and disrepair, although the pier itself remains open to the public.
The surviving element of the original Victorian 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.
Further along the esplanade can be found the historic Penarth Yacht Club, built in 1883, next to the RNLI lifeboat station and slipway. An amusement arcade formerly resided below a 1960s-built concrete multi-storey car park, which was demolished in 2001.
By the late 1960s, Penarth Docks, after barely a hundred years of commercial operations, lay unused and derelict. In 1987, the new Penarth Marina development 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 was converted into the Custom House restaurant, with only the Grade II-listed Marine Hotel remaining derelict and boarded up, awaiting suitable redevelopment plans. Penarth Marina was one of the key catalysts to the similar later redevelopment of the Cardiff Bay area.
Penarth is well-served for schools, including St Cyres Comprehensive and Stanwell Secondary, while Westbourne is an independent, co-educational boarding and day school with a reputation for excellence in education for 2-18 year-olds.
The town is home to many sporting clubs and venues, including Penarth Athletic Club (rugby, hockey, cricket), Old Penarthians RFC, Penarth Lawn Tennis Club, Windsor Lawn Tennis Club, Penarth Bowling Club, Windsor Bowling Club, an amateur boxing club and three football teams.
Glamorganshire Golf Club is located in Lower Penarth and was established in 1890. In 1898, the club was the testing ground of Dr Frank Stableford’s revolutionary new Stableford golf scoring system still used all over the world today.
The town had a long association with the invitational rugby union tourists the Barbarians, who would use the former Esplanade Hotel as their base – or ‘spiritual home’ – during annual Easter tours involving games against Penarth, Cardiff, Swansea and Newport… and a round of golf at the Glamorganshire club.
Penarth traditionally played the Baa-Baas, renowned for their free-flowing play, every Good Friday, when locals would flock to the Recreation Field on Lavernock Road to catch sight of star players drawn from England, Wales, Scotland, Ireland and France. The fixture ended in 1986.
The first match took place in 1901, and over the next 75 encounters, Penarth won 11 times, drew four and lost 60 to their star-studded opponents.
The once-renowned Penarth Rugby Football Club formerly played Wales’s and the West Country’s premier clubs until the creation of the Welsh League system in the early 1990s.
Penarth is often used as a film location for several BBC television series, including episodes of Doctor Who, Torchwood, The Sarah Jane Adventures, Gavin & Stacey and Casualty.
Penarth has been twinned with Saint-Pol-de-Leon, Brittany, France, for over 50 years.
Those who have either been born, or lived in, or associated with Penarth have included politicians such as Plaid Cymru founder Saunders Lewis, James Childs Gould MP, Alun Michael MP and John Smith MP, three recipients of the Victoria Cross including Dambusters leader Guy Gibson, and sports stars Colin Jackson, Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and Louis Rees-Zammit.
Penarth is also associated with West End performer Adam Bailey, novelist Eric Linklater, actors Colin McCormack and Ronan Vibert, actress Erin Richards, musician Sharmelly Rey, composer Joseph Parry, the French Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley, the singer-songwriter Jem, chart star Shakin’ Stevens, drum’n’bass producer Lincoln Barrety aka High Contrast and singer-songwriter Martin Joseph.
WHERE TO STAY
There are a number of places to stay in Penarth, but among the most luxurious is Holm House. The hotel, which has a restaurant and spa, is based in a large 1920s mansion. Popular as a wedding venue, it has sea-view rooms and a mini suite.
The Glendale Hotel is a family-run affair with 15 rooms just off the town centre. It is cosy but stylish and home to the popular Villa Napoli restaurant.
Manor House Hotel and Restaurant on Sully Road, just outside Penarth, is a short walk from Cosmeston country park. While it is modern, this has a country hotel feel with its gardens and traditional restaurant.
The Cefn Mably pub on Lavernock Road also serves as a value-for money place to stay.
(sources include visitthevale.com, Media Wales, Expedia, Wikipedia, Penarth RFC)
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