A family adventure recently took us to the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, which, we soon discovered, is backed by the lovely green space of Bute Park. Nestled within Cardiff’s city center, the park is a short walk from both the famous castle and the main shopping area. The iconic Animal Wall will delight you along your way! If you are exploring the area by car, parking is available quite close to the college entrance. It will be worth the time and effort; Bute Park offers over 138 acres of varied landscape and is a favorite of everyone from local families and the student population to tourists.
The park is an Arboretum due to its noteworthy tree collection of over 3,000 individually catalogued tree species. It is also recognized as the home of the greatest number of champion trees in any public park in the United Kingdom. (We admit we had to research what is actually meant by a champion tree. By definition it is the tallest or broadest example of a species. Be prepared, then, to see BIG trees!
Imaginative play opportunities abound for little ones exploring nature here. The Bute Family Tree trail, available for a small fee at any of the park’s three cafes, is intended to guide young families through a entertaining trail of discovery that has been created around fourteen trees of particular interest. As you follow the trail, be prepared for all sorts of surprises, which will delight children of all ages.
Bute Park is also home to a wonderful Education Centre, constructed from reclaimed bricks and featuring a grass roof. Here, school groups can enjoy activities that reflect the mission of the park and its commitment to the preservation of nature. The center is open to the public at certain times, with no set scheduling. New to the park’s amenities last summer, the Eyes of the Animal project, offers insight into the everyday life of woodland creatures such as a dragonfly, a frog, or an owl via a virtual reality experience.
Dogs are welcomed, with special provisions made for them regarding access to the Dock Feeder Canal. Two sets of dog steps are now in place, which not only add enjoyment to Fido’s day out but also bolster large erosion points along the canal banks. We found plenty of space in which to enjoy a game of fetch or frisbee in designated areas and you will be sure to encounter lots of other dog owners who come here to enjoy the open space with their pet. Some specific areas are not available to canine friends, because of ecologically sensitive plantings. Of course, there are also plenty of animals who make the park their home, including squirrels, otters, herons and numerous small bird species. During the month of October, watch salmon leaping at Blackweir, moving to their spawning grounds farther up the river.
The history of Bute Park goes back centuries due to its proximity to the river and the imposing castle that you cannot miss once you arrive in the center of Cardiff. From the 1100s, the land now encompassed in park grounds was used for a variety of agricultural purposes and even in the context of religious worship. The remains of a medieval friary can still be seen on the property. The Bute family inherited the castle in 1766 and over subsequent decades began to develop the gardens for their private pleasure, availing of local master gardener Andrew Pettigrew, and architect William Burges’ respective expertise in the process. A series of timber sculptures throughout Bute Park maintains the wood-carving theme and are created from tree trunks that originally grew on the property.
Andrew and his three sons were renowned as gardeners in the city and you can find a delightful memorial to Andrew Pettigrew at the entrance to the Secret Garden Cafe. Gardening enthusiasts will also be interested to investigate the nearby Sophia Gardens, which was actually the first of Cardiff’s parks to open for public enjoyment.
In 1947 the Fifth Marquess of Bute presented the castle and grounds as a gift to the people of Cardiff. The rest, as they say, is history. Today this land features several sports pitches, numerous nature trails and ample picnic areas if the notoriously changeable weather complies. The park’s central location makes it an excellent choice for various public events; we were lucky enough to find ourselves here (quite by accident) during last year’s celebrations for Roald Dahl’s centenary in 2016, complete with marching bands and a giant flying peach. The author was born in this city, so if you plan on taking some family reading material to the park, look no further than some of his children’s classics!
Bring your family, a ball, a book, your dog, your bicycle and, of course, your camera. Be prepared to enjoy some classical or original compositions emanating from the college campus while you stroll past, and be on the lookout! You never know what you might discover next.