Founded in the 12th century when the Normans conquered the area, Swansea quickly became a flourishing town. Medieval Swansea was best known for its leather and wool, and by the mid-17th century had grown to a population of around 2,000.
Later, Swansea was known for its copper smelting, and in the mid-19th century it was known for its vast metalworking industry. By the early 20th century, Swansea had a population approaching 150,000, and in spite of periods of huge industrial demand during the First and Second World Wars, Swansea’s coal diving industry had disappeared by the end of the 20th century.
Swansea’s history is reflected in its wealth of historic sites, with the more ancient, such as Swansea Castle, contrasting with more recent additions such as Dylan Thomas’ Birthplace and the epic Hafod-Morfa Copperworks.
Here’s our pick of 8 of the best historic sites in Swansea.
1. Sweyne’s Howes, Rhossili Downs
Just outside the village of Rhossili and located on the eastern scarp of Rhossili Downs are two former portal burial chambers (known as ‘dolmens’). They stand around 100m apart and are known as ‘Sweyne’s Howes’, or ‘Sweyne’s How’, with the place name ‘Howes’ or ‘How’ referring to burial mounds. Sweyne himself was a Scandinavian warlord who lived and died in the area in the 11th century, though the megalithic monuments pre-date him by around 3,000 years.
Today, the chambers are in poor condition; however, when combined with the many scenic walks that Rhossili Downs offer, they make for an essential historic visit.
2. Swansea Castle
The remains of Swansea Castle stand proudly in the city centre, and though there is relatively little to be seen today, it would have once stood as a large and strategic fortress. It once stood on a clifftop overlooking where the River Tawe used to flow, controlling the harbour and the important east-west trading route along southern Wales.
A castle has existed on the site since at least the early 12th century, but the remains which stand today date from the 13th and 14th centuries. It is reported that Dylan Thomas worked as a young reporter at now-demolished newspaper offices on the castle site.
3. Dylan Thomas Birthplace
5 Cwmdonkin Drive in the Uplands suburb of Swansea is the house where the famed Welsh poet Dylan Thomas was born in 1914 and lived with his family until he reached the age of 23, in 1937. It is also where he created 2/3rds of his published works, and played a formative part in shaping his literary style.
Today, the house has been restored to its original condition that it would have been in 1914, and is open to the public on select days. The house is also available for hire as a bed and breakfast or for self-catering days.
4. Pennard Castle
Perched on the edge of the valley of the Pennard Pill, Pennard Castle enjoys a sweeping view out towards Three Cliffs Bay. It was probably built in the early 12th century by Henry de Beaumont, first earl of Warwick. Little of the original castle remains. It was rebuilt in the 13th or early 14th centuries using local limestone and reddish sandstone, probably by local family the de Braoses.
However, by the end of the 14th century, sand encroachment had led to its abandonment, and over the following centuries, the castle fell deeper into ruin, becoming the subject of many paintings and sketches. Today, all that remains is a curtain wall and part of the gatehouse.
5. Hafod-Morfa Copperworks
In 1808-9, the Cornish entrepreneur John Vivian built the Hafod Copperworks which were fed by both the Swansea Canal and the River Tawe. On the other side of a high wall was rival firm, the Morfa works, which were opened in 1835. The complex went on to become the largest of its kind in Europe. In 1924, both sites were combined to create the Hafod-Morfa Copperworks, which went on to become the largest complex of their kind in Europe. At one time, the copper industry employed 2/3rds of the 15,000 people who lived in Swansea. The site was closed in 1980 when the site was abandoned.
Though no longer in operation, the works have been reconstructed and are open every day of the year, free of charge. Audio trails allow you to explore the key industrial and natural heritage features at the site, while picnic areas allow visitors to sit amongst the buildings.
6. Oystermouth Castle
Overlooking Swansea Bay on the east side of the gower Peninsula near the village of Mumbles, Oystermouth Castle is a Norman stone castle that was founded in around 1106 following Wales’ capture by the Normans. By 1331, the Lords of Gower were living elsewhere and the castle declined in importance, and in the Middle Ages, it gradually fell into ruin. In 1927, it was given to Swansea Corporation by the Duke of Beaufort, and further crumbled in the time after.
In 2009, it underwent £1m of restoration, and today is a picturesque ruin which is a popular attraction. Highlights include 14th century traceried windows as well as remains of an ornate 700-year-old painting in the chapel.
7. Swansea Museum
The oldest museum in Wales, Swansea Museum was founded by the Royal Institution of South Wales (RISW), a group of science and art enthusiasts, and was opened in 1841. The museum is situated in a Grade-2* listed building that was built in the neo-classical style, and was completed in the same year that the museum opened. The building was designed to provide research and learning facilities from the RISW.
The Museum operates four sites: the Landore Collections Centre, the Marina, the Tramshed on the Dylan Thomas Square and the Museum itself, and holds exhibits ranging from an ancient mummy’s tomb to displays on current issues and modern interests.
8. Oxwich Castle
Oxwich Castle is a Grade I listed castle that stands proudly on a wooded headland overlooking Oxwich Bay on the Gower Peninsula. It is a castle only in name, since it is actually a grand Tudor fortified manor house built in courtyard style. It is thought that there might have been some fortifications on the site some time before 1306; however, before the present Tudor building, nothing remains of any earlier works. The existing buildings were mainly created in the 16th century and consisted of a courtyard, hall, gateway, south range and six-storey south-east tower. There are also the remains of a large stone dovecote. Additions were made over the following years, but parts of the buildings collapsed in the 18th century.
Parts of the South Range were rebuilt following its collapse, and the castle was used as a farmhouse into the 20th century. In 1949, the castle was given to the state, and is now a scenic ruin in the care of Cadw.