Walk 89: Swansea City Walk: Does it deliver a knockout punch?

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 2 miles (3.22km)

Time to walk: Roughly 1 hour, but this is a city centre walk so visit some of the attractions, stop for a coffee & a bite to eat etc

Difficulty: Flat, easy walking & all on hard surfaces

Parking: Plenty of car parks & on-street parking round the city

Public toilets: Bars, cafes etc

Map of the route: We combined the formal city centre walk together with some additional Dylan Thomas & historical material

We stayed in Swansea whilst working there in April 2017. It’s a city we’d visited before but, at that time the marina area known as SA1 hadn’t been developed & there’s been considerable investment going on

Swansea is the second largest city in Wales after Cardiff. It’s thought to have developed as a Viking trading post & its English name may have come from Sveinn’s island, a bank at the mouth of the river Tawe, or an area of raised ground in the marshes. An alternative explanation is that the name derives from the Norse name ‘Sweyn’ & ‘ey’, which can mean inlet. This explanation supports the tradition that the city was founded by the Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard. Abertawe, its Welsh name, means ‘Mouth of the Tawe’

There’s been several settlers here including the Normans. The port initially traded in wine, hides, wool, cloth & later in coal. At the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, the combination of being a port, having local coal, & trading links with the West Country, Cornwall & Devon, meant that Swansea was the logical place to site copper smelting works. Following this, more coal mines were opened & smelters flourished. Over the next century works were built to process arsenic, zinc & tin & to create tinplate & pottery. The city expanded rapidly in the 18th & 19th centuries & was known as “Copperopolis”

Through the 20th century, heavy industries in the town declined, leaving the Lower Swansea Valley filled with derelict works & mounds of waste products from them. In the Second World War, its industrial importance made Swansea the target of German bombing & much of the town centre was destroyed during the Swansea Blitz on the 19th, 20th & 21st February 1941

In 1969, Swansea was granted city status to mark Prince Charles’s investiture as the Prince of Wales

There’s lots to explore so…

Lets Walk!

1. Today’s walk begins outside the the rather ugly building that is the Civic Centre. Look to the left to see Swansea Prison (we can assure you that things will get better!)

You can’t see it from the above picture but the building really does look like an old foreboding prison. HM Prison Swansea is a Category B/C men’s prison, colloquially known as ‘Cox’s farm’, after a former governor

It was built between 1845 & 1861 to replace former prison accommodation at Swansea Castle. Both male & female inmates were held here until 1922, at which point all females were transferred to Cardiff Prison. A total of 15 judicial executions took place at Swansea prison between 1858 & 1958. All of the condemned prisoners were hanged for murder

In 2002 a survey of prison numbers revealed that HMP Swansea was Wales’s most overcrowded jail, & one of the top five most densely populated in Britain. Statistics showed it was holding 145 more inmates than the 219 it should have been. Overcrowding has been an issue at the prison ever since

2. From the Civic Centre head towards the tall building that’s the Meridian Tower…

The Tower, Meridian Quay is the tallest building in Wales, standing at 351ft. The tower has 29 storeys, double the number of the previous tallest building in the city, the BT Tower. Most of them are residential apartments whilst the top three floors form the Grape & Olive restaurant run by the Cardiff brewery S. A. Brain & Co. Ltd

As well as a restaurant, there’s a seated bar area on the top floor where, for the really low cost of £9 for a pint & a glass of wine, you can sit & admire the incredible view over Swansea Bay & the city

We couldn’t believe that it was so reasonable a price to pay for a view like this

3. Suitably refreshed walk round the opposite side of the marina…

Swansea Marina sits behind the barrage at the mouth of the River Tawe. After many years of industrial decline the South Dock complex finally closed in 1969 leaving the area as an industrial wasteland. It was sold to the council for a nominal sum. Initially, a new relief road was proposed to take traffic away from the Oystermouth road. However, by 1975, a new planning strategy had been prepared which identified social & economic policy objectives with a new regeneration programme

It took a further 5 years for land acquisition, clearance & infrastructure installation before redevelopment could commence. New sea defence works were installed, the dock basin had to be cleared of debris & new moorings needed to be installed for the new marina. More efficient modern lock gates were fitted, along with a new swing bridge & the quay sides were paved to create the public walkway around the dockside we’re on now

The yacht marina opened in 1982 providing berths for 385 boats. It was not until 1992 that the Swansea barrage was completed, transforming the River Tawe into a long lake. Additional berths were constructed behind the barrage, just outside the marina proper, providing berthing for an additional 200 boats. A lock was incorporated into the barrage design to allow the passage of boats between the River Tawe system & the sea

4. Continue along the quayside…

There’s a small selection of shops & restaurants along here including an inviting looking Moroccan & Lebanese one which gets some decent reviews

5. Moored on the right are a couple of interesting looking boats which form part of the collection of Swansea Museum

The Lightship is Light Vessel 91. Lightships are known by a number rather than a name because they move round different locations. No.91 was built in 1937 for Trinity House Light House Service by Phillips & Son Ltd of Dartmouth

She began working life close to the Humber Station off the east coast, but spent her last six years close to Swansea marking the Helwick Sandbank off the Mumbles

Like all Light Ships, No.91 could not get around on her own & had to be towed everywhere. Her own electricity generators were reserved for operating the light & the foghorn

6. Next door is the Canning Tug Boat…

The Canning was built in 1954 by Cochrane & Sons of Selby & worked out of Liverpool until 1966 when she moved to the Bristol Channel, operating out of Swansea

7. Both vessels are moored outside the National Waterfront Museum. Costing £33.5m, the museum deals with Wales’ history of industrial revolution & innovation by combining significant historical artifacts with modern technologies, such as interactive touch screens & multimedia presentation systems

The collections on display include maritime, transport, technology & retail artefacts. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit, but from their website it does look pretty impressive

8. Ahead of us now is a rather lovely little area that’s worth spending some time in…Dylan Thomas Square

The Square is used for markets & entertainment events. Let’s have a look round. Outside the Pump House is a statue of Dylan Thomas himself. Obviously people sit on his knee!

Dylan Marlais Thomas was a Welsh poet & writer whose works include the poems “Do not go gentle into that good night” & “And death shall have no dominion”. He is probably best known for the ‘play for voices’ Under Milk Wood. He became widely popular in his lifetime & remained so after his premature death at the age of 39 in New York City. By then he had acquired a reputation, which he encouraged, as a “roistering, drunken & doomed poet”

Thomas was born in Swansea, Wales, in 1914 & came to be appreciated as a popular poet though he found earning a living as a writer difficult. He began augmenting his income with reading tours & radio broadcasts. His radio recordings for the BBC during the late 1940s brought him to the public’s attention, & he was frequently used by the BBC as a populist voice of the literary scene

Thomas first travelled to the United States in the 1950s. His readings there brought him a level of fame, while his erratic behaviour & drinking worsened. His time in America cemented his legend, however, & he went on to record such works as “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”. During his fourth trip to New York in 1953, Thomas became gravely ill & fell into a coma, from which he never recovered & he died on 9 November 1953. His body was returned to Wales where he was buried at the village churchyard in Laugharne on 25 November 1953

Though Thomas wrote exclusively in the English language, he has been acknowledged as one of the most important Welsh poets of the 20th century. He is noted for his original, rhythmic & ingenious use of words & imagery. His position as one of the great modern poets has been much discussed & he remains popular today

9. Dylan enjoyed a drink & some good grub &, having partaken of both, we can recommend the Pump House…

Another Brains pub, the Pump House was built around 1870 by Thomas Howard as a Hydraulic Pumping House to provide power to the bridges & machines of Bristol Harbour. It was replaced by the current Hydraulic engine house in the 1880s

We are pleased to report that the good Rev James was present at the establishment & was in fine fettle!

10. To the left of the Pump House is the Dylan Thomas Theatre. The theatre officially opened under its present name in 1983, but was home to the Swansea Little Theatre from 1979. The Swansea Little Theatre is an amateur drama group & was the first Little Theatre in Wales. The theatre group began performances from 1924 & was based at various different locations during its early years

In the early 1930s Dylan Thomas became a member of the troupe after first reviewing plays by the Little Theatre for South Wales Evening Post. In 1932 he appeared with the group for a production of Noel Coward’s “Hay Fever”, taking the role of Simon. A local critic wrote that Thomas’ was “an artist with an explosive temper & untidy habits”. Thomas appeared in plays with the theatre for the next two or three years. The group maintained its link with Thomas’ family when his daughter, Aeronwy Thomas-Ellis, became President of the Theatre

In 1979 Swansea City Council offered the Swansea Little Theatre the property we see today which was a derelict former showroom & garage, in an area which had been ear marked for development, as a permanent home. On 29 September 1983 Sir Harry Secombe officially opened the Theatre renaming it the Dylan Thomas Theatre

11. Just across from the Theatre’s the former lovely little St Nicholas Seaman’s Church. Today it’s the Mission Gallery, which hosts contemporary art, painting, installation, photography & craft

Formerly St Nicholas Church for seamen, Mission Gallery was designed by Benjamin Bucknall & built in 1886. It became an art gallery in 1977

12. Walk round the Pump House & cross the footbridge over the lock gate…

On the other side there’s someone waiting to meet you…it’s Captain Cat

Captain Cat is the blind old sea captain from Dylan Thomas’ most famous work ‘Under Milk Wood’. ‘Under Milk Wood’ is a 1954 radio drama, commissioned by the BBC & later adapted for the stage. A film version, directed by Andrew Sinclair, was released in 1972

An omniscient narrator invites the audience to listen to the dreams & innermost thoughts of the inhabitants of the fictional small Welsh fishing village Llareggub (“bugger all” backwards). They include Mrs. Ogmore-Pritchard, relentlessly nagging her two dead husbands; Captain Cat, reliving his seafaring times; the two Mrs. Dai Breads; Organ Morgan, obsessed with his music; & Polly Garter, pining for her dead lover. Later, the town awakens &, aware now of how their feelings affect whatever they do, we watch them go about their daily business

13. Cross back over the bridge & continue by the marina side past the houses on the left of the picture below…

…to the corner of the water

If you fancy visiting another art gallery the Attic Gallery is straight ahead on the right. It’s Wales’ longest established private art gallery highlighting the work of contemporary artists working in Wales

14. Walk left towards Sainsburys…

Across to the right’s the magnificent Swansea Sail Bridge which leads to a new development known as SA1. The bridge spans the River Tawe, connecting the city centre with SA1

Wales in recent times has suffered from bracken fires started by youngsters on motorbikes. The hillside opposite was ablaze…

15. At the end on the left’s The Dylan Thomas Centre. Formerly the city’s Guildhall, which was built in 1825, the Dylan Thomas Centre was restored & refurbished to host the UK Year of Literature & Writing in 1995. It was opened in 1995 by US ex President Jimmy Carter & has a permanent exhibition on the life & work of Dylan Thomas, a bookshop & a cafe

The Centre houses the permanent ‘Love the Words’ exhibition, based on the largest collection of memorabilia of its kind in the world. It was launched on 27 October 2014, Dylan Thomas’ 100th birthday, & was one of the major events of the centenary celebrations & designed to appeal to the Dylan expert & interested visitor alike. The interactive exhibition explores Dylan’s life & work through a variety of media & includes letters, books, worksheets & photographs

16. Walk alongside the centre up Somerset Place…

On the left’s Morgans Hotel which describes itself as Swansea’s only boutique hotel. It’s the only Welsh Tourist Board five star rated hotel in Swansea, although it’s only rated as four star by international standards

Originally completed in 1903 for the Swansea Harbour Trust, the main hotel building was designed by architect Edwin Seward who submitted the winning design out of 100 entries. The original character of the building is still preserved. Previous names for the building have included “The Swansea Harbour Trust Office”, The British Transport Docks Board Office” & ” The Associated British Ports Office”, reflecting the names of the building’s occupiers

Somerset Place is also a colourful place

17. At the dual carriageway look left to see Swansea Museum which is the oldest museum in Wales. Completed in 1841 the building was commissioned by the Royal Institution of South Wales, a group of art & science enthusiasts. It was designed to house the RISW’s array of collections as well as to provide research & learning facilities

Under threat of closure, the Swansea City Council saved the building & its collections in 1996. Swansea Museum now provides free access to six galleries with a variety of exhibits from an ancient mummy’s tomb to temporary exhibitions on current issues & modern interests

18. Walk straight over the dual carriageway & up famous Wind Street…

Dating back to medieval times, Wind Street was the town’s main thoroughfare & during the 17th century it housed some of the wealthiest businesses in the area. It was once a haunt of the poet Dylan Thomas & location of the covered alleyway ‘Salubrious Passage’. It became a backwater in the second half of the 20th century when the commercial centre of Swansea shifted. Today it boasts the highest concentration of listed buildings in Swansea

During the Second World War, the pubs of Wind Street saw the visit of a young star to be. A group of American GIs stationed in Swansea entered the Adelphi pub. An Australian soldier also stationed in Swansea saw this & proceeded to taunt the young GI, who was drinking milk, that he was not strong enough to drink alcohol. Unfortunately for him he had picked on the young Rocky Marciano who went on to become one of the world’s greatest heavyweight boxers. Rocky floored him with one punch

Following redevelopment at the beginning of the 21st century, it’s now known for its pubs, bars, clubs & restaurants

The street developed a reputation for drunkenness & bad behaviour, leading to the local council introducing a curb on new pub & club licences in the city centre. In December 2010 Wind Street had the second highest number of reported crimes in the whole of England & Wales

It’s still not the most pleasant place with many of the doorways being occupied by beggars & drunks

19. Time to move on…at the top of Wind Street enter Castle Square. On the right’s the remnants of Swansea CastleHenry de Beaumont was granted the Lordship of Gower in 1106 & he began to solidify the control of the Normans in the area. A timber castle existed in Swansea in 1116, when it was recorded as being attacked by Welsh forces

The castle was besieged in 1192 by Rhys ap Gruffydd, Prince of Deheubarth, but despite 10 weeks of starvation the castle was saved. After various other unsuccessful attacks the castle fell in 1217, but was restored to the English in 1220 as part of the settlement between Llywelyn ap Iorwerth & Henry III

It was rebuilt in stone, probably between 1221 & 1284. The only visible remains today are two sides of the rectangular South East corner of the “new castle”‘s outer bailey. The south face, which ends in a tall garderobe tower, is capped with an elegant series of arcades which are similar to structures at the Bishop of Saint David’s palaces at Lamphey & St David’s

20. Walk across the road to the square…

Look for the Leaf Boat. The sculpture is half leaf / half boat resting on shaped stone. The glaze on the glass is golden. The sculpture stands in & is surrounded by water which subsequently cascades down steps. The sculpture was designed & made by Amber Hiscott & David Pearl

The sculpture is inspired by Dylan Thomas’s poem ‘Rain Cuts The Place We Tread’ which relates the tale of Thomas playing in Cwmdonkin Park as a child, picking up leaves & pushing their stalks through the middle to sail them in puddles. The sculptor was interested in trying to reflect the spirit of the place, not just the square but the community as well

Rain cuts the place we tread,
A sparkling fountain for us
With no fountain boy but me
To balance on my palms
The water from a street of clouds.
We sail a boat upon the path,
Paddle with leaves
Down an ecstatic line of light,
Watching, not too aware
To make our senses take too much,
The unrolled waves
So starred with gravel,
The living vessels of the garden
Drifting in easy time;
And, as we watch, the rainbow’s foot
Stamps on the ground
A legendary horse with hoof and feather,
Impatient to be off.
He goes across the sky,
But, when he’s out of sight,
The mark his flying tail has left
Branckes a million shades,
A gay parabola
Above a boat of leaves and weeds.
We try to steer;
The stream’s fantastically hard,
Too stiff to churn with leaves,
A sedge of broken stalks and shells.
This is a drain of iron plants,
For when we touch a glower with our oar
We strike but do not stir it.
Our boat is made to rise
By waves which grow again
Their own melodious height,
Into the rainbow’s shy embrace.
We shiver uncomplainingly,
And taste upon out lips, this minute,
The emerald kiss,
And breath on breath of indigo

21. Walk down the steps of the feature into the square. Unfortunately some idiots had put purple dye into the water

Walk to the left side to arrive at St Mary’s Church. Considered the Civic Church of Swansea, there’s been a church on this site since around 1328. One Sunday morning, in 1739, the roof of the nave collapsed into the church, but fortunately this was before the waiting congregation had entered the building. The whole structure was rebuilt apart from the tower.

The church underwent complete renovation between 1879 & 1882 by Vicar Dr Morgan. In 1896 it was flattened & rebuilt again under the designs of Arthur Blomfield, though some parts of the old church survived the redevelopment. In Feb 1941 it was extensively damaged by bombing during the Blitz & wasn’t rebuilt until the 1950s

A disgruntled rival of Blomfield’s, angry at the commissioning of Blomfield’s designs over his own, erected a red brick building to house the brewery offices, on which he placed a carving of Satan, facing the church. The local man is reputed to have prophesied “When your church is destroyed & burnt to the ground my devil will remain laughing”

22. Continue straight ahead into the Shopping Centre…

…& once inside turn immediately right into Swansea’s historic Indoor Market which is the largest in Wales. The current market building is the fourth market to be built at the site in 200 years

The site has been used as a market since the Middle Ages & the previous one had existed since 1894 & was destroyed during bombing raids during World War II

During the rest of the 1940s and 1950s, the market was held outdoors & the replacement one opened in 1961. It’s a fabulous place, full of great stalls selling superb welsh produce including cockles & lava bread

23. Come out of the indoor market by the door on the left & turn right…

…& then right again into Oxford Street

24. We’re looking for another place associated with Dylan Thomas, so turn left into Portland Street to arrive at the Kardomah Cafe

The original Kardomah in Castle Street had a vibrant history & a reputation as a meeting place. The Kardomah Gang, The Kardomah Boys, or Kardomah Group was a group of bohemian friends, artists, musicians, poets & writers who, in the 1930s, frequented the Kardomah Cafe. Regulars included poets Charles Fisher, Dylan Thomas, John Prichard & Vernon Watkins, composer & linguist Daniel Jones, artists Alfred Janes & Mervyn Levy, Mabley Owen & Tom Warner. The cafe, opposite the offices of the Evening Post newspaper where Thomas & Fisher worked, was where the group drank coffee & discussed many subjects including Einstein, Epstein, Greta Garbo, Stravinsky, death, religion & Picasso

In February 1941, Swansea was heavily bombed by the Luftwaffe in a ‘Three Nights Blitz’. Castle Street was just one of the many streets in Swansea that suffered badly & the ‘Kardomah Café’ was destroyed. After the bombing, Dylan Thomas came back to visit Swansea & he later wrote about the devastation in his radio play entitled “Return Journey to Swansea”. In the play, he describes the cafe as being “Razed to the snow”

The Kardomah Cafe reopened after the war in its new location here in Portland Street, a short walk from where the original stood

25. Retrace your steps round past the entrance of the indoor market & then turn right into Nelson Street

The building on the right has some interesting figurines…

26. Further down Nelson Street becomes Singleton Street & on the left’s Swansea Grand Theatre

The theatre opened in 1897 & was erected on the site of the former ‘Drill Hall’. It was opened by Madame Adelina Patti, a locally resident operatic diva

In 1968, the theatre was threatened with closure but, following a campaign led by its manager & artistic director John Chilvers, it was saved. The Swansea Corporation leased the building in May 1969 & bought it outright in 1979. The theatre was then refurbished & updated between 1983 & 1987 at a cost of £6.5m. A further £1m was spent on an Arts Wing which was opened by Catherine Zeta Jones in 1999

27. Turn left into West Way & once again ahead is the Meridian Tower which is where we started our walk

So that’s our look at the centre of Swansea. Like many other port cities, investment is being ploughed into regenerating the waterfronts & Swansea’s is extremely attractive

However, as with the others, there are still areas that need to be urgently addressed which in Swansea’s case is Wind Street. It’s not just the bar culture, which brings with it its own issues, but the general feel of the place that doesn’t make it a pleasant area to walk in, especially after dark

Don’t let it put you off though as Swansea, the Bay, the Mumbles & the Gower with its beaches is a fantastic area to visit & we can’t wait to return so…

Go Walk!