Located to the immediate west of Cardiff, the Vale of Glamorgan is sometimes overlooked by visitors. However, it is home to pretty villages, a stunning coastline and endless lush countryside. In addition to its striking landscape, a number of historic sites attest to the area’s multifaceted history.
The Vale is home to a range of historic sites that span a broad timespan. Its oldest notable site, St Lythans Burial Chamber, dates from the Iron Age. For those with an interest in the area’s medieval history, check out Cosmeston Medieval Village, a recreated 14th-century village that is immersive, educational and interactive in equal measure.
A more recent reminder of the area’s industrial heritage can be found in Dyffryn House and Garden, which was owned by wealthy coal merchant John Cory and is now a popular attraction. Also make sure to check out the art deco Penarth Pier Pavilion, which dates to the 20th century and is home to a rotating line-up of exhibitions and events.
Here’s our pick of 10 of the best historic sites in the Vale of Glamorgan.
1. Cosmeston Medieval Village
Cosmeston Medieval Village is a recreated 14th century Welsh village in the Vale of Glamorgan, that offers visitors the chance to immerse themselves in Wales’ medieval past. The village of Cosmeston was first established in the early 12th century, and grew up around a fortified manor house built by the De Costentin family. The De Costentins were a Norman family among the first to invade Wales after William the Conqueror‘s invasion of England in 1066, and named the village Costentinstune, which over time became Cosmeston. The village would have consisted of a number of stone round houses or crofts each with a thatched roof, and would have accommodated 50 to 100 villagers.
Based on excavated finds from the 1970s at this location, Cosmeston Medieval Village brings to life the world of medieval Wales with recreated buildings and period re-enactors. Specifically set in 1350, the village takes visitors back in time to the Hundred Years’ War and the reign of King Edward III, and has been described as the best recreated medieval site in Britain.
2. St Lythans Burial Chamber
Standing in the centre of a field on the outskirts of Cardiff, this Neolithic tomb was originally covered by an earthen mound that would have been some 27m in length. Today, only traces of the mound remain, leaving the stones exposed to the elements. The largest stone is the capstone, supported by three upright stones. Excavations dating from 2012 have demonstrated that the burial chamber was originally buried within a large cairn of stones some 30m long and 12m wide.
The chamber itself has never been excavated, meaning who was buried there any why is unclear. In spite of its Neolithic origins, the site’s name may derive from the Arthurian legend of Culhwch and Olwen, which is found in two 14th-century texts.
3. Penarth Pier Pavilion
Penarth Pier Pavilion is located on Penarth Pier, a Victorian-era pier in the town of Penarth. The pier itself was opened in 1898 and was an immediate hit, since visitors could also enjoy trips on pleasure steamers which launched from the pavilion. It has been damaged various times by vessels colliding with it and fire.
The pavilion itself was opened in 1930. The art deco building was traditionally used as a venue for seaside entertainment, a concert hall, cinema and dance hall. From the 1960s, it was rented out to commercial tenant customers who used it as a restaurant and snooker club, and later gymnastics club. In 2008, the charity Penarth Arts & Crafts Ltd was founded to restore the pavilion, and it is now under restoration to function as a cinema, cafe, observatory and multi-purpose community complex.
4. Fonmon Castle
Situated close to the village of Fonmon, Fonmon Castle has its origins rooted in the 12th century, and is regarded as an architectural rarity, since it was remodelled in the 18th century but not Gothicised. The castle is believed to have remained under the ownership of just two families throughout its history from Norman times: the St Johns, and then from 1656 by the descendants of Colonel Philip Jones. In the 19th century, the estate went into a period of decline, and little work was done to it from then on.
In 2020, after the castle was sold to a local businessman, several initiatives such as a history-themed attraction called ‘Step Through Time’, re-wilding and a dinosaur park have been created to drum up interest.
5. Aberfan Memorial Garden
The Aberfan disaster remains one of the worst mining disasters ever seen in Britain, claiming the lives of 144 people, including 116 primary school-age students. In October 1966, a huge pile of mining waste in southeast Wales was turned to slurry by heavy rainfall. It raced down the hill, devastating the nearby town of Aberfan. A tribunal found the National Coal Board (NCB) to be responsible for the tragedy, and yet no one was prosecuted and the NCB faced no consequences. The Aberfan disaster was dubbed by one journalist as ‘the mistake that cost a village its children’ and has since been brought to the forefront of public consciousness again by the hit Netflix series The Crown. The tragedy proved to be something of a watershed moment in public perceptions of health and safety and in the accountability and competency of major organisations.
The Aberfan Memorial Garden stands on the site of the former Pantglas Junior School and commemorates those who were lost in the disaster. A poignant tribute, it draws thousands of visitors from across the world who pay their respects to the devastating tragedy every year.
6. St. Donat's Castle
The oldest continuously inhabited castle in Wales, St. Donat’s Castle is a medieval castle that is positioned on cliffs overlooking the Bristol Channel. The site has been occupied since the Iron Age, though the present castle’s origins date from the 12th century. The Stradling family held the castle for four hundred years, until the death of Sir Thomas Stradling in a duel in 1738. In the 18th century, the castle’s condition declined and by the early 19th century, parts were uninhabitable.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, there were several restorations. The most marked of these were in 1925 by William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper tycoon. His expansion was extensive, elaborate and highly controversial. However, Hearst rarely visited the castle, and in 1937, it was put up for sale. In 1960, it was purchased and donated to the trustees of Atlantic College. Today, it is home to some 350 international students, and is Grade-I listed.
7. South Wales Aviation Museum
Opened in 2019 and located within the footprint of the former RAF St Athan, South Wales Aviation Museum (SWAM) has been created to preserve South Wales’ rich aviation history, and hopes to inspire the next generation of aviators and engineers. A non-for profit organisation, it is entirely self-funded and relies upon volunteers.
Visitors are encouraged to interact with the aircraft and exhibits, such as cockpits and the many aircraft spanning a range of time periods on display. There are also exhibition rooms, a gift shop and café.
8. Old Beaupre Castle
In spite of its name and medieval origins, Old Beaupre Castle is more a manor house than a castle. The older part was constructed in around 1300, while a major renovation in the 16th century by the Bassett family led to the existence of some of its most impressive features. These include the three-storeyed gatehouse which is decorated with columns inspired by the architecture of ancient Greece, and the family’s heraldic carved crest. Indeed, designed to display the Bassett’s wealth, it would have once been a grand property.
Today, the Grade-I listed building is under the care of Cadw. It can be visited all year round, and is free to enter and walk around.
9. Dyffryn House and Gardens
Though the Dyffryn Estate dates back to 640 AD, the house itself was remodelled on a previous house, and was built from 1893 by coal industrialist John Cory. Later, a stunning garden was built to complement the house from 1894-1909. A house of many eclectic styles, it has been used as a police training centre and later, a conference centre. In 2007, the Vale of Glamorgan Council assigned funds to repair and maintain Dyffryn House’s walls and roof. It has been extensively restored, and was opened to the public in 2013.
Today, a few of the rooms have been furnished in a traditional style – however, unusually, all of the objects are permitted to be touched and used. The beautiful gardens are also a visitor attraction, and are open all year round.
10. Barry War Museum
Situated within a historic railway station on Barry Island, the Barry War Museum is run by the Barry at War Group, all of whom are volunteers who aim to research, preserve and promote the wartime history of the area.
Today, the museum features a World War One trench which simulates life on the Western Front, a genuine World War Two Anderson shelter, a 1940s-style kitchen as well as many other displays and artefacts.