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A-Z of Cardiff – E is for Ely …

Writer Katie Hamer is busily discovering parts of the city and revealing them through her We Are Cardiff series, the A-Z of what makes Cardiff special to her. She’ll be sharing the parts of the city she finds with you over the following weeks, so stay tuned! 

E is for Ely …

Hidden behind houses, and further concealed by a thicket of trees, you will find a treasure trove for archaeologists and historians alike. The magical place I’m referring to is the location of the hill fort, near the suburbs of Ely and Caerau. For the second year running, this site is being excavated by the CAER Heritage Project team, who are searching for evidence of its use during the Iron Age.

The existence of this hill fort is hardly a secret, as the naming of nearby Hillfort Close demonstrates. Even so, very little has been known about it, and there is almost no mention in history books.

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Archaeology students uncover evidence of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure

As I’ve always been fascinated by archaeology, I decided to make a visit, to see with my own eyes, what discoveries they are making. In this article, I’ll be telling you how I got on, but before I do so, I’ll also provide you with a few snippets of information on why this project is so significant within Wales.

The history of Ely is often overlooked, and it would be easy to assume that this suburb sprung into existence relatively recently. The great expansion of the area started after the First World War, when many houses were built to accommodate returning heroes. Although there is evidence of a Roman Villa in the area, what makes the hill fort so fascinating, is the hint that the occupation of the area extends back even further.

In fact, the hill fort at Ely and Caerau may well be to be one of Wales’s oldest settlements, and the largest of its kind. Its existence as an Iron Age hill fort would date it to approximately 600 BCE. Therefore, the newly found archaeological interest is not before time.

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Cardiff University student, Sarah, sifts through the soil for artefacts

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Liam, also an Archaeology student, digs for further evidence of the causewayed enclosure

For the second summer, the Caer Heritage team have planned a dig on site. As well setting up trenches, they have had temporary exhibits at St. Fagans, and Cardiff Bay. They have also gained UK wide recognition, by winning awards for their engagement with the public.

They extend an open invitation to the public to come and get involved in the dig. Last year, 1,000 volunteers got involved, and a similar number are expected this year. Visitors have included Welsh Assembly Members, such as Eluned Parrott, and it’s inspiring to see how many people have rallied behind this project. It has thrived on one of the suburb’s greatest strengths: community spirit.

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In another trench, Nick from Cardiff University, shows me evidence of the different layers which built up over time

Local schools have been encouraged to plan trips to help with the dig, sort through the ‘finds’ and also get stuck in with making clay pots. As a result of this project, these children may well know more about the history of the area than even their parents, or grandparents.

On the day of my visit, I found my way to the site fairly easily. I drove up to the fort, via a narrow uneven single-track lane, which winds through Caerau woods. I found a parking spot near to the abandoned St. Mary’s Church.

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The dig, with St. Mary’s Church in the background

On reaching the site, I initially felt daunted about introducing myself to the dig party. I quickly realised that there was no need to be, as they were all very welcoming and friendly.

As soon as I arrived, Lydia, an Archaeology student from Cardiff University, volunteered to show me around. She showed me the various trenches, and introduced me to a handful of people involved in the dig.

She explained to me that, although the fort is believed to be Iron Age, dating to around 600 BCE, there is also evidence of earlier Neolithic usage, and later Roman occupation. More recently, the land has been used as pasture for animals.

In one of the trenches, the dig members were particularly excited about the discovery of a Neolithic causewayed enclosure, marked out by a ditch. Causewayed enclosures date between 5,000 and 3,000 BCE. This one could well have functioned as a gathering place for performing rituals or burials.

They have also uncovered Neolithic flints from this trench. The soil in this area is heavy with clay, which allows for the preservation of flints, but isn’t so good for preserving organic material, such as bones, so they haven’t uncovered so many of these kinds of artefacts.

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A Neolithic flint

In another trench, they were uncovering the ramparts that would have been the ditches for the walls to the fort. They uncovered various layers, relating to different eras of history. Another of the archaeologists, Nick, explained the various different layers, and how the further down you dig, the further back in history you explore. Just after I visited, they successfully uncovered one of the most exciting finds so far: a green Iron Age rampart, which was concealed beneath several other layers of history, including a Roman midden deposit.

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A Roman pot, which would have been mass produced from a mold

After my tour of the trenches, I joined Vicky in their tented enclosure, and she showed me some of their most recent discoveries. She showed me examples of Roman pottery, and Neolithic flints. I was particularly fascinated to see a flint tool designed to make holes in leather, perhaps an early development of the sewing needle?


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A Neolithic tool for making holes in leather

I told Vicky of my own early forages into the field of archaeology. I recalled finding an old piece of very dense glass, shaped like a bowl, which was possibly the base of a large bottle. When I mentioned that it was covered in a thick crust of rainbow patterns, I could see her eyes widening with interest. Very enthusiastically, she informed me that rainbow patterns form when glass decays, and that what I had found could well be Roman glass. If true, this ties in nicely with the history of where I grew up; I lived on top of a Chiltern Hill, rumoured to have been a Roman lookout post.

The project is collaboration between Cardiff University, Action for Caerau and Ely, local residents and schools. If you’d like to visit, the site is open to the public until Friday 25 July. For further information, go to: the Facebook page or the website.

I’d like to thank everyone from the Cardiff University team, who showed me such a warm welcome, especially Lydia, Sarah, Liam, Nick, and Vicky.



Thanks Katie! Look forward to your next instalment of the Cardiff A-Z….

A-Z of Cardiff – D is for Daleks …

Writer Katie Hamer is busily discovering parts of the city and revealing them through her We Are Cardiff series, the A-Z of what makes Cardiff special to her. She’ll be sharing the parts of the city she finds with you over the following weeks, so stay tuned! 

D is for Daleks

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I had real difficulty deciding on what my ‘D’ could be.

Then I remembered a conversation I had with an American friend. She said that my previous articles had opened her eyes to a whole new Cardiff. Before, she’d only known the city from the Doctor Who television series. Eureka! I had a light bulb moment from talking to her. I’d found the answer to my quest – D is for Daleks!

With this new idea in mind, I decided to investigate the Doctor Who Experience. I booked a time-slot online, which is very easy to do, printed out my e-tickets, and planned my train journey there.

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The venue is in a prime location in Cardiff Bay, very near to the Norwegian Church and Welsh Assembly buildings. On arrival, you’re invited on an interactive journey, hosted by eleventh Doctor, Matt Smith. It’s suitable for children, and adults of all ages, and holds you captive for half an hour. There’s set time slots for this guided part. After that, you’re free to explore the exhibits in the main museum for as long as you want.

This visit brought a lot of memories back. I started watching Doctor Who when I was very little. I always watched with my older brother, with whom I had many squabbles over what channel to watch, even though there were only three back then. However, when Doctor Who showed, we’d be glued to the box. We still had our difference of opinion on the show though, especially about who was our favourite doctor. 

My brother was a huge fan of Tom Baker, whereas Peter Davison was my favourite. Tom, with his booming voice and non-smiling appearance lent to the show an incredibly powerful theatrical presence. I can see the appeal now, but was very spooked by watching him at the time. Even so, when my brother, also called Tom, received a Tom Baker Doctor Who action figure for his sixth birthday, I couldn’t deny being a little envious.

Peter Davison had a completely different take on the role, playing a much more bright and breezy character. I warmed to him, with his comparative vulnerability, and indecisiveness in the face of danger. For me, there was every bit as much drama and tension in the episodes in which he starred. Inexplicably, he dressed as an Edwardian cricketer. I wonder if the BBC can explain that one?

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It’s very much to the show’s credit, that they haven’t turned succeeding Doctors into clones. Each Doctor has been an established talent, who has added something unique to the role. I can’t fault their selection. My only suggestion to the production team is that, perhaps they could introduce a female doctor, with a male sidekick? Now that would be interesting!

Like many children growing up on Doctor Who, I have very clear memories of hiding behind the settee during scary parts. I remember being terrified of the Daleks, with their role call of “Exterminate, exterminate!” They could move scarily swiftly, proving to be extremely deadly enemies for the Doctor and his accomplices. They had one Achilles’ heel, however; their inability to climb stairs.

I had to see the Daleks for myself. Would they be less scary, menacing in real life, than I remembered as a child? Would they appear smaller in size, as I had grown?

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I have to admit, upon seeing them in the exhibition that they still have a sinister place in my imagination. Their presence is very intimidating. What I hadn’t realised, but which amazed me, was how each new generation of Daleks evolved from the previous one. The Daleks changed, alongside the Doctor. Long may they continue their reign of terror!

The Doctor Who Experience also organise walking tours of the Bay. These tours take in a 1.5mile route, exploring many important filming locations, and last about an hour. The Experience website states “Walking Tours are being held every Friday/Saturday/Sunday from Saturday 14 June – Sunday 20 July [with] further dates to be announced”. The tours were fully booked up when I attended; they tend to book quickly. However, I may return yet to take in these sights. Watch this space!

Find further information about the Doctor Who Experience

Who was your favourite Doctor? What most scared you? Feel free to share your own reminiscences in the comments below. Thanks for reading.

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A-Z of Cardiff – C is for Cardiff Castle …

Writer Katie Hamer is busily discovering parts of the city and revealing them through her We Are Cardiff series, the A-Z of what makes Cardiff special to her. She’ll be sharing the parts of the city she finds with you over the following weeks, so stay tuned! 

C is for Cardiff Castle

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I’ve always noticed a special atmosphere outside the castle, most noticeably at Christmas and on St. David’s Day. It’s very picturesque when decked out with twinkling fairy lights or crowned with daffodils. Also, in the summer you can see the tourists arriving by the coach load, pausing at the gates to take a group photo, before entering. The festive feel of this walled castle projects a vibrancy into the city. I often wondered if I were missing out on something by not making a visit, as I would rush by on my daily commute.

I finally decided to make a visit to Cardiff Castle last Monday, and was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw. As soon as I entered the castle grounds on my visit, I felt welcome. They have someone to meet and greet, who also informs you of the time of the next guided tour. I decided to join a tour, which takes you through a selection of Victorian apartments normally locked to the public.

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Entry into the castle isn’t cheap, but once paid for, you can stay there the whole day. If you live or work in the city, you do have the option to sign up for a Golden Key ticket, which allows you free entry for three years. For those who don’t, there’s also the option to buy a twelve-month season ticket.

Cardiff Castle has existed in one form or other, since the first century AD. There’s evidence of the Roman influence in the stonework of the castle walls. Apparently, the Roman fort would have originally been of wooden construction, but this was replaced by the twelve-sided Norman Keep which can still be seen today.

(below: two pictures of the Norman keep, from the stocks)

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Perhaps the most radical changes to Cardiff Castle were due to the Bute dynasty. The second Marques of Bute had much influence on turning Cardiff into the city it eventually became. In 1839, he built a dock, now known as Bute West Dock. His influence led to Cardiff becoming an international importer of iron and coal, and also led to a huge expansion of the population throughout the nineteenth century.

It was his son, the third Marques of Bute, who collaborated with artist and architect William Burges, to dream up much of the romantic Gothic revival style that characterises the Castle Apartments. The first part of the new castle to be built was the magnificent clock tower, intended to be bachelor quarters for the young Marques.

(below: photos of the ceiling and fireplace from the Winter Smoking Room inside the Clock Tower)

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There is a running theme, of the passing of time, within the Clock Tower. For instance there are stained glass windows designed to depict various days of the week, and astrological signs painted on the ceiling of the Winter Smoking Room, one of the featured rooms.

Burges also played upon the passage of the sun within his design schemes. In the roof garden of the West Tower, he created an optical illusion with the statue of the Virgin and Child. A Mona Lisa smile plays upon the Virgin’s face as the sun moves from east to west, and its rays soften.

(below: the Virgin and Child from the roof garden in the West Tower

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Time has not stood still in Cardiff Castle, since the Victorian era. Within the castle walls are also the air raid shelters, which would have been deployed during the Second World War. These were big enough to hide approximately 1,800 people.

(below: the air raid shelters…)

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The expanse of these tunnels takes you right round to the back of the castle, near to the Keep. Some parts are still fortified with blackout windows. Within the tunnels, the wailing of air raid sirens, and the crackle of a gramophone record playing Vera Lynn transport you to another era, as do the advertising slogans of that decorate the walls.

(below – three photos of the air raid shelters, complete with public information posters)

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Even today, parts of the castle are in use. As the expert who led the tour of the Castle Apartments informed me, the Banqueting Hall is available to be booked up for functions and weddings. It’s still the place for royalty, and celebrities alike, to dine in style.

(below: the ceiling in the Arab Room)

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I could tell you so much more about the castle, but I’d urge you to explore, and discover for yourselves.

Visit the Cardiff Castle website
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A-Z of Cardiff – B is for Bute Park …

Writer Katie Hamer is busily discovering parts of the city and revealing them through her We Are Cardiff series, the A-Z of what makes Cardiff special to her. She’ll be sharing the parts of the city she finds with you over the following weeks, so stay tuned! 

Bute Park by Katie Hamer

B is for Bute Park

I know Bute Park from attending fundraising events. I’ve gone there for Cancer Research’s Race for Life, and also British Heart Foundation’s Santa Run. On these occasions, the park really comes alive. It buzzes with energy, and a riot of colour, as you’re caught up in a tidal wave of enthusiastic runners.

I thought I knew the park from these visits. Yet my explorations for this article uncovered aspects about it that surprised me. I realised how much I had yet to discover.

As a matter of fact, Bute Park is constantly evolving. Some of its greatest surprises didn’t even exist a couple of years ago, let alone in 2010, when I first took part in Race for Life.

I couldn’t help but be fascinated by the Sculpture Trail. The sculptures on this trail are carved from the remains of felled trees, or from surviving tree stumps. They sprung into existence in 2012, as a result of the Bute Park Restoration Project.

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As I searched for images of these sculptures online, I felt more and more inspired. They made me think of interplay between nature and man-made objects, something that was a constant source of fascination for me during my years of studying art.

I decided I had to discover them for myself. So I set myself the mission of visiting the park in order to find, and photograph, as many of these sculptures as possible.

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I found fifteen. There are twenty in total. Finding them became an adventure, especially as, at this time of year, they are largely hidden by tree canopy. Without warning, they suddenly emerge into view.

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One of the highlights of my visit had to be the discovery of a giant picture frame. You can view it from many perspectives. I thought about how I’d love to go back in order to take pictures of it with the changing seasons. Even in the few hours of my explorations, I became aware of a magical shift in light and perspective, as captured within its ornate carvings. I wish there were more sculptures like this one.



Following the sculpture trail without a map, or a guide felt like an adventure. I felt a sense of achievement every time I uncovered a new one. They are all unique and quirky, fun for adults and children alike.

If there were one thing that would have made my day more enjoyable, it would have been getting to know more about the background of each of these wonderful sculptures. Apparently, Bute Park regularly have guided tours of their Sculpture Trail, in which they unveil some of their secrets. The forthcoming dates are yet to be announced, on their website. I’m hoping the next one will be at a time when I can attend.

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As planned, I took photos of each of the sculptures I found, and it’s my great pleasure to be sharing them with you. I hope you enjoy my gallery.

Have you been on Bute Park’s sculpture trail yet? If so, what is your favourite? Feel free to comment. I’d love to hear your stories about the park.

Find out more about the Sculpture Trail in Bute Park

A-Z of Cardiff – A is for Arcades…

Writer Katie Hamer is busily discovering parts of the city and revealing them through her We Are Cardiff series, the A-Z of what makes Cardiff special to her. She’ll be sharing the parts of the city she finds with you over the following weeks, so stay tuned! 

The Hayes

A is for Arcades

I love these covered shopping streets, for providing shelter from the weather, and because I can browse without dodging traffic. Other cities have arcades too, but only Cardiff is “The City of Arcades”.

There’s a strong café culture here, even on a Monday morning. I’m greeted by cooking aromas. I feel tempted to stop at one of the outside tables, and sample some local cuisine. I have to remind myself that it’s just a couple of hours since I had breakfast. Oh, well!

Cardiff’s historic arcades are divided into the Castle Quarter, and the Morgan Quarter. I have a special fondness for the Morgan Quarter, so it’s this part of Cardiff that I decided to write about. I know this Quarter best because I worked at David Morgan, The Family Store, around which these arcades were centred. I worked there as a temp prior to its closure in 2005.

On Monday mornings long past, I would run down the Royal Arcade, to the staff entrance. I had to be on the shop floor five minutes before opening time. This was no tall order, as my department was on the top floor, and the staff’s changing rooms were in the basement. How I would panic if the train were delayed. Bad punctuality was frowned upon, even more than greeting a senior member of staff with their first name.

What David Morgan represented, was traditional values, and exceptional customer service. Along with everyone else who worked there, I felt a huge sadness on the day the store finally closed. Stepping out of the shop for the last time, I wondered what the future held for these special arcades. I still recall my department manager telling me that, within ten years, Cardiff would become indistinguishable from any other city in terms of shops.

Well, we are nearly ten years on, and I’m pleased to say that this isn’t the case. The oldest of the three arcades, the Royal Arcade actually predates David Morgan Ltd, so it is perhaps not so astonishing that it has survived the store’s closure. This particular arcade opened in 1858, 21 years before The Family Store was established.

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Thankfully, when the David Morgan family dissolved the Cardiff Arcades Co in late 2004, new owners, Helical Bar, stepped in to save them. It’s wonderful to see how much investment the new owners have placed in them, and how they have preserved them for future generations. True, there are vacant shop units, but that’s the state of shopping centres everywhere, these days.

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The Royal Arcade and the Morgan Arcade are very much at the heart of the Morgan Quarter, with their rows of shops linking St Mary Street with the Hayes. There’s a vibrant mix of boutiques, health food outlets, artists’ studios, furniture stores and bookshops. One of my favourite surprises is hidden in the middle of Morgan Arcade. This is where you can find Spillers Records, the world’s oldest record shop. It opened in 1894, but hasn’t always been where it is now. In fact, its existence predates that of its current location by five years.

I feel I should also mention the Wyndham Arcade, as it is more easily overlooked. These days, it’s more tagged on to the Café Quarter, and it has the ambience you’d expect from such a location. It’s quieter than the other two arcades, with a relaxed atmosphere that reminds me of the cobbled streets in the Algarve. This arcade is light and airy, and more inviting than I ever imagined it to be, from photos.

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I have only scratched the surface of what is so special about these arcades. I could spend a whole day exploring them, and still have more things to come back and see. Have I convinced you? Why not come and explore them yourself – they’re worth a visit. Please share your opinions in the comments below.

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