blue plaque

111. The Castle at the End of the Street

Sometimes, I stop to read the blue plaques, the historical markers that pop up throughout Cardiff. The blue plaque on the corner of Northgate House perturbed me. It told of the wall that once enclosed the medieval town of Cardiff, and that I was standing where once existed the North Gate. It told much more that I would have to piece together later with internet research. When I had first read this blue plaque long ago, the words I particularly noted were, “The last of the wall stands close to this place.” I had spun around and there was no such wall obvious. But wait, there was inexplicable stonework across the wide street, Kingsway, close to the towering wall of Cardiff Castle. A mound of earth climbs against the back of that short piece of wall and serves as one of the city’s many flowerbeds. There was more to it.

It was my turn to serve as quizmeister at the weekly Zoom get-together with friends. Since the pandemic has temporarily closed the pub where we battled every Quiz Night, our team has been playing amongst ourselves. Two weeks ago, I began researching via the internet for clever questions to pose to my fellow Cardiffians. The plan was to present them with photographs from around City Centre and see if they could identify the object’s significance and location. It was while searching the internet that I discovered the flowerbed by the castle was not the last of the wall referred to by the North Gate blue plaque.

Returning to the North Gate blue plaque, going down an unnamed alley between Northgate House (student housing) and 2 Kingsway (office building), there was the wall referenced by the plaque. It is behind Northgate House and is not visible when standing in front of the plaque.

This piece of wall is nearly ten feet high and twenty feet long. If you stand far enough away and to the side to see both this wall behind Northgate House and the flowerbed wall near the castle, you can tell they line up and were possibly once joined. Photographing the wall, I presented the image to the quizzers. One guessed correctly as to what it might be, but none of them could tell me where it was.

The quiz is over for this week. Someone else is quizmeister this coming Wednesday. However, my curiosity had been piqued. I learned from my research that the wall enclosing Cardiff was just over a mile and a quarter in circumference. It was as much as eight feet thick in places and ten feet high. I decided to trace the path of the ancient wall. A mile and a quarter was a comfortable stroll and maybe I would find the other four gates or, at least, their blue plaques.

To support my exploration, I printed several old maps found on the internet, primarily a copy of cartographer John Speed’s 1610 map of Cardiff. Off I went the very next Sunday, exploring.

It was a typical Cardiff afternoon, overcast and threatening to rain. I returned to that piece of the north wall and, from there, would begin my clockwise circumnavigation of the old town of Cardiff. On the wall was an empty escutcheon from which had been stolen a blue plaque. It probably announced this wall being part of the North Gate, which had been destroyed in 1781.

I left the misshapen alley at its east end and turned right on The Friary. Here the wall turned south. Here, too, was the Glamorganshire Canal entombed beneath The Friary. The 25-mile-long canal brought iron down from Merthyr Tydfil to the docks of Cardiff. It had followed the North Road along Bute Park, then shifted to skirt the east wall, serving as a moat as it bypassed the town. Built in 1792, the last barge to travel it was as recent as 1942.

For one block, I gave way to imagining drifting into town, no bumps, no ruts, a still feeling with buildings floating past. The block ended at Queen Street and here was another blue plaque.
 east gate

This was Cardiff’s East Gate, unexpectedly close to the North Gate. The East Gate was also destroyed in 1781. The blue plaque tells the reader that, "In the 18th century with the building of the Glamorganshire Canal, Crockherbtown Lock stood by the site of the Old Gate." What it doesn’t reveal is that the lock lowered the canal boats to pass through a tunnel under what is now Queen Street. The tunnel burrowed 115 yards. Being too narrow for a towpath, the horses were led through the city to greet the boats where they came out. To move the boats beneath the streets, the boatmen pulled themselves along by a chain fixed to the tunnel’s wall. I wondered if the underground canal was represented by the lower level of the Queen’s Arcade.

The Queen’s Arcade is closed to shoppers because of the pandemic. I could not trace either the city’s wall or canal beyond this point and so decided to be like the horses and pick it up further south.

To get there, I walked around the sealed shopping center. At the old library, a grand building of carved stones that rises from the center of The Hayes, there is the first entrance to the Saint David’s Shopping Centre. Also closed because of the lockdown, yet I knew from an earlier experience, that just a few yards inside, inlaid into the tile floor, they had marked where the town’s wall once stood. It was discovering those markings soon after arriving to Cardiff that I first learned of the wall’s existence.

I bypassed the Saint David’s Shopping Centre (11th largest, 3rd busiest in the UK) and came to the bottom of The Hayes. This is where the new library sits, a glass box with sloping roof on which grass grows. Mill Lane begins here and proceeds at the same angle as did the wall and later the canal. In fact, Mill Lane was a portion of the canal. Mill Lane ends in Saint Mary Street.

There it was, across Saint Mary Street, another blue plaque attached to the Great Western Hotel, now a Wetherspoon pub. The building is a beautiful stone edifice, built in 1875, that bends around the corner. The blue plaque, in correlation with Speed’s map, revealed that I had found the South Gate, the third gate. Except for its title, the blue plaque was no longer legible. The South Gate was destroyed in 1802.

From here, I turned north on Saint Mary Street, named for the Saint Mary Church that once stood nearby. The River Taff also once flowed near the church. Too near. In 1607, the church was devastated by flood waters rising out of the Bristol Channel. The damage undermined the foundations of the church and it had to be abandoned. In its place is the Prince of Wales pub, formerly a theater.

The Prince of Wales is one block west of Saint Mary Street. Westgate Street starts from the Prince. I walked north on Westgate Street because, before the River Taff was moved, Westgate Street was the river. Cardiff didn’t need a west wall, it was guarded by the River Taff.

The river had been diverted in 1853. At the corner of Westgate Street and Quay Street there is another blue plaque to be found. The very name, “Quay” Street gives away its origins. Here were docks that supported very large ships of the time. I stood awhile at the end of Quay Street envisioning the asphalt of Westgate a flowing river. I put three-mast ships on it. I became the sailor stepping off the gangplank and gazing down Quay Street, which becomes Church Street a block later, and you can see the tower of Saint John the Baptist Church, as you could then, greeting new arrivals.


The blue plaque said I was standing at Blounts Gate, the fourth gate. The gate was destroyed in 1786. The plaque informed me, “Evidence of Roman habitation [75AD] was uncovered in 1974.” It also informed me, “A stone quay was built c1263 & the line of the wall is marked on the ground floor of the Westgate Street Car Park.” I searched, but there was no way into the NCP car park. All its doors and gates were locked.

I continued north until I reached the castle at the end of the street. The West Gate was destroyed in 1781. However, adjacent to the castle is a replica of the West Gate that John Crichton-Stuart, 4th Marquess of Bute, had built in 1921 on the original foundations.

Bute's replica

It is not to be confused with the West Lodge Gate, where you will find the charming Pettigrew Tea Rooms. You cannot reach the West Gate from Castle Street. West Street is a dead end blocked by a wrought iron gate. The area is used by the staff for parking. You can see through the grating to the West Gate at the far end. But you can also enter Bute Park through the West Lodge Gate and work your way over to the outside of the West Gate and there will be a blue plaque, the fifth and last gate of my exploration.

west gate

I concluded the circumnavigation of medieval Cardiff, passing behind Cardiff Castle to the remaining piece of wall where I began. The first town wall was made of wood in 1111. I am not sure when the wall was converted to stone. The first stone wall was destroyed when Owain Glyndŵr, the last Welsh Prince of Wales, sacked Cardiff in 1404. It was rebuilt. I spent a fine afternoon trying to model that earlier place in my mind.

My flat is smack in the middle of that medieval town. Born over 3,000 miles away and 70 years ago in the Bronx, New York City, never was I expecting to find myself living where there would be a castle at the end of the street.

Mr Bentzman will continue to report here regularly about the events and concerns of his life. If you've any comments or suggestions,
he would be pleased to hear from you. 

You can find his several books at Enshrined Inside Me, his second collection of essays, is now available to purchase.