Merthyr Tydfil, also spelled Merthyr Tudful, is an industrial town and country borough in the south of Wales. It is named after the 5th-century Welsh Christian Princess, Tydfil the Martyr, who was killed there for her beliefs. In the mid-1700s, Merthyr Tydfil was just a small Welsh farming village in the upper Taff Valley, but by the 1820s had boomed into an industrial heartland that produced 40% of Britain’s iron exports. It maintained its position as the world’s foremost ‘Iron and Steel Town’ until the 1850s, when manufacturing evolved and demanded purer iron ore than Merthyr Tydfil was able to produce.
Old historic sites such as St Tydfil’s Old Parish Church, which is located on a site thought to have had a church for 1,500 years, attest to the town’s distant past, while the town’s more recent heritage as a former industrial heavyweight is explored through sites such as Cefn Coed Viaduct and the grand Cyfarthfa Castle.
Here’s our selection of 5 of the best historic sites that Merthyr Tydfil has to offer.
1. Cyfarthfa Castle
Commissioned and built between 1824-5, Cyfarthfa Castle was constructed for ‘The Ironmaster’ William Crawshay II, who was once one of the most influential men in the country. The grand, castellated mansion overlooked his ironworks, and took its name, Cyfarthfa, from the Welsh word for ‘place of barking’, because many hunting dogs were frequently heard in the town. The mistress of the house was philanthropist Rose Mary Crawshay from 184 until her husband died in 1889. After she died in 1907, the castle was sold to the local council who opened the ground floor as a museum, which is still in operation. The rest of the building then became a secondary school.
Today, the castle is home to the popular Museum and Art Gallery which houses an impressive painting collection alongside a yearly programme of walks, talks, workshops and exhibitions as well as a tea room. A particular highlight is the display of the world’s first steam whistle.
2. Cefn Coed Viaduct
Cefn Coed Viaduct is the third largest in Wales and is now a Grade II listed building. Built in 1848 to carry the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway across the River Dee, the viaduct cost an equivalent of £2.1 million to build and had its route altered into Merthyr so as to avoid property owned by ‘Ironmaster’ Robert Thompson Crawshay.
Built in 1848 to carry the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway across the River Dee, the viaduct consists of 15 arches, is 770ft long and 115ft high. It was originally intended to be built entirely of limestone, but a stonemason strike meant that the company bought 800,000 bricks instead and had bricklayers complete the arches. The last trains travelled over the viaduct in the mid-1960s and it fell into disrepair in the time since. Today, it is part of the Taff Trail, route 8 of the National Cycleway and is a popular walking spot for locals and tourists alike.
3. Joseph Parry's Cottage
Situated directly west of the River Taff in north-western Merthyr Tydfil, Number 4 Chapel Row was the birthplace of Dr Joseph Parry, one of Wales’ best known composers and musicians who composed a range of hymns and operas. The cottage itself has historical links to the former Cyfarthfa Ironworks, which was a major source of local employment in the 19th century.
The cottage was saved from demolition in the 70s and restored between 1976 and 1977. Today, the cottage both documents Joseph Parry’s life, with items such as photographs, documents and an organ on display, and also documents the living conditions of 19th century Merthyr Tydfil industrial workers.
4. Morlais Castle
Located above the Taff Gorge near the town of Merthyr Tydfil, Morlais Castle is a 13th-century castle that is now almost entirely ruined, save one internal room. The castle was first started by Gilbert de Clare, 3rd Earl of Gloucester on land claimed by Humphrey de Bohun, 3rd Earl of Hereford. In 1290, war broke out between the Earls and they were secretly admonished and fined by King Edward I of England. The castle was later captured in 1294.
It’s thought that the castle was never fully completed, partly because the location was too remote and exposed to work as a residence. An engraving dating to 1741 demonstrates that fragments of the walls were still standing high then. Today, the castle is a popular attraction for walkers and history enthusiasts alike.
5. St Tydfil's Old Parish Church
Situated at the lower end of the high street in Merthyr Tydfil, St Tydfil’s is the Old Parish Church of the town. It was built on the site of where Tydfil is said to have been martyred, and it is thought that a church in some form has stood on the same spot for nearly 1500 years. The current church was not built until 1894 as a replacement for a previous church that was built in 1808.
In 1968, the church was closed when St. David’s Church nearby became the new parish church. it was then used as a chapel of rest and special services until reopening formally in 2014. It is now used for weddings and is also an attraction for anyone interested in the history of the town.