World Facts Index > United Kingdom > Swansea

Wales' second largest city is renowned for the good humour of its people and for its nightlife, the best in the principality. Its most famous son, the poet Dylan Thomas, called it the "lovely-ugly' town. Swansea's long history of heavy industry coupled with the post-war rebuilding of the bombed out centre did not bequeath a beautiful city. But new developments have provided a face lift, most notably the marina and surrounding Maritime Quarter on the derelict western docks. Swansea is also blessed with beautiful parks and gardens, a six mile long sandy beach and, on its doorstep, one of the most stunning coastal areas in Britain, the Gower Peninsula.

The Centre
The city centre lies to the west of the River Tawe (Abertawe, meaning the Tawe estuary, is Swansea's Welsh name). On one side, the shopping and entertainment complex, Parc Tawe, occupies the former strand and includes Plantasia, a giant glasshouse full of tropical plants and wildlife. To the south, abutting the sea, is the Maritime Quarter where handsome 19th century buildings house the Dylan Thomas Centre, the Swansea Museum and the Maritime and Industrial Museum. New galleries, bars and restaurants are bringing the quaysides to life making this a very pleasant area to take a stroll. As for kids, they will be delighted with the superb Leisure Centre that lies between the South Dock and Oystermouth Road.

Running parallel to the strand, from the train station just north of the centre down to the Maritime Quarter, is the High Street, becoming Castle Street then Wind Street (pronounced "Wined"). The Castle Street stretch is overlooked by the ruins of Swansea's 14th century castle. Opposite, the newly built Castle Square with its fountains and waterfall provides a focal point for the city, hosting live music and entertainment on summer days. Castle Street and Wind Street contain several attractive older buildings, now mostly lively pubs, cafes and bars.

Castle Square leads to Princess Way and the main shopping area, bounded by The Kingsway to the north, with its high density of nightclubs, and Oystermouth Road, the main coastal route, to the south. Small independent shops abound in the streets and arcades off Singleton Street and Oxford Street. High street chains line Oxford Street and fill the glassy covered shopping precinct, the Quadrant Centre. Just north of the Quadrant is Swansea market, the largest covered market in Wales with stalls selling laverbread (a local delicacy made from seaweed), locally caught seafood and fish, Welsh cakes and Welsh cheeses. The bus station is just east of the Quadrant.

On Singleton Street the impressively refurbished Grand Theatre offers a dynamic and popular repetoire. A short way west, shopping gives way to spectator sport with the home of Swansea City Football Club. Viewed from the sea, the Vetch Field floodlights vie for prominence with the white tower of the 1930s Guildhall located near the seafront at the end of St Helen's Road. Its fabulous Brangwyn Hall is used for conferences and musical performances.

Uplands, Sketty and Blackpill
West of the city centre is the pleasant residential district of Uplands with its own concentration of restaurants and shops. Dylan Thomas fans, who will find many celebrations of their hero throughout the city, can pass his birthplace on Cwmdonkin Drive and head up to Cwmdonkin Park where a memorial stone is inscribed with a verse.

Further west is Sketty, home to the university and to the glorious botanical gardens in Singleton Park. Within the university campus is the Taliesin Arts Centre, a venue for dance, theatre and film which also houses the Ceri Richards Art Gallery and Egypt Centre.

At Blackpill, south of Sketty, there are the Clyne Gardens and Clyne Castle to explore along with their surrounding expanse of park and woodland.

The promentory of Mumbles Head brings the great sweep of Swansea Bay to a gracious full stop, six miles west of the Tawe estuary. Mumbles village is a highly desirable location, its neighbours Langland and Newton even more so. It's a very pretty area with numerous shops, cafes and reasonably-priced hotels plus the "Mumbles Mile" of pubs along the main road. A seaside pier offers ice creams and traditional entertainment. Beside the picture postcard Oystermouth Castle, Newton Road, the main shopping street and home to some first rate restaurants, leads across the headland to the attractive and often crowded bays of Langland and Caswell.

The Gower
Officially designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, the Gower offers wild and windswept beaches from the popular, crescent-shaped Three Cliffs Bay at Pennard to the dramatic shores of Oxwich and Rhossili. Other areas of unspoilt coast are to be found in the North Gower and there's good walking to be had inland. But it's the tiny bays, accessible only by foot, like Brandy Cove, just across the cliffs from Caswell, and Pwll-Du, near Bishopston, which are the real joys of this gorgeous peninsula.

Further afield
North of the city, beautiful valleys lead up to the sparsely populated hill walking country of the Brecon Beacons; the town of Brecon with its famous jazz festival is only an hour's drive away. To the west, the county of Carmarthenshire with its castles, salmon rivers, attractive market towns and quiet villages, plus the newly opened National Botanic Gardens, is equally accessible.

History of Swansea

Swansea's name first appears as 'Sweynesse' in a 12th century charter. It may derive from a 10th century Viking king called Sweyne. Though there are prehistoric remains on the Gower and in the Lliw Valley and a Roman fort on the Loughor river, the Vikings were the first to settle on the banks of the Tawe estuary.

It was the Normans who created Swansea as a fortified settlement. Recognising the advantages of its natural harbour, they built a castle by the mouth of the Tawe and later, a watchtower at Oystermouth. The harbour was developed, town walls were built and the rights to markets and fairs granted by royal charter.

The city's Welsh name, Abertawe, is not recorded until the 13th century when Llewellyn ap Gruffydd took Swansea castle in his campaign to become the sole and legitimate Prince of Wales. Oystermouth Castle was strengthened but half a century later, between 1400 and 1410, the town fell to Owain Glyndwr, the "Last Prince of Wales", whose battle was for Welsh independence.

But it was manufacturing rather than any strategic importance in affairs of state that lead to Swansea's prominence and prosperity. Metal extraction, begun in Roman times, gave rise in Tudor times to the first tinplating and copper industries.

In the 18th century the huge reserves of coal in the Swansea area, much of it in shallow seams, began to be exploited. The black gold powered smelting works of iron, copper, tin and zinc. By the 19th century Swansea was Britain's prime centre for copper and tinplate. Its port was as busy as Liverpool or Glasgow, neighbouring villages like Pontardulais and Gorseinon expanded into towns and the Lower Swansea Valley became one continuous build-up of smoke-belching, clattering, filthy furnaces and factories.

Yet, extraordinarily, Swansea was at the same time a fashionable summer and winter resort. From the 1800s through to the mid-19th century genteel folk promenaded, watched regattas and cricket matches, went to the theatre and made sure they were seen at every important event in the social calendar. A sea front walkway and respectable bathing facilities were erected and the world's first passenger train opened between Swansea and Mumbles in 1807.

Rich local industrialists built themselves grand houses to the west of the city. They patronised the arts and in return were commemorated by civic statues, like John Henry Vivian whose family bequeathed the initial collection of the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery and whose statue was the first to be erected at public expense in 1857.

In the early 18th century, the writer Walter Savage Landor wrote from Italy: "The Gulf of Salerno is much finer than Naples, but give me Swansea for scenery and climate... I would pass the remainder of my days between that place and the Mumbles".

After the construction of the South Dock in the 1850's, however, Swansea's two separate worlds could no longer co-exist. A writer in 1859 commented, "Swansea was once rather a fashionable watering place, but its glory has long since disappeared". Industry and its maritime arm triumphed, going from strength to strength until it reached its peak in the early years of the 20th century.

The metal industry collapsed soon after the First World War bringing with it a demise in port activity. But at the outbreak of the Second World War, Swansea was a still a major industrial town. The fact that millions of tons of foodstuffs, raw materials, goods, weapons and troops passed through the city did not skip the attention of the German High Command and the Luftwaffe. The old town centre with its mix of buildings from medieval to Victorian times was devastated. Swansea suffered forty-four attacks between 1940 and 1943, the most notorious being the "three night's blitz" from 19th to 21st February 1941. The industries, the main reason for the attack, escaped unscathed.

As with so many bomb damaged British cities, the rebuilding in the 50s and 60s left a lot to be desired. But Swansea also had to contend with the slow but inevitable decline of its heavy industries. The 1980s saw the closure of the last coal mine and the last tinplate works in Swansea County. The Lower Swansea Valley was by then a gigantic wasteland, scarred and contaminated.

Over the last two decades an enormous amount has been achieved. In the Enterprise Park today, with its trees, artificial lake and green spaces leading down to the Tawe, it is impossible to imagine the former desolate landscape of waste tips and abandoned works. Eight thousand people now work in clean industries within the Park. The creation of the marina on the old South Dock has been another triumph, reorienting the city back to seaside leisure and enjoyment.

Swansea still has some very deprived estates and attendant social problems. Unemployment is higher than the Welsh average. But new businesses continue to move in, tourism plays an important part in the town's economy and there's a strong sense that this is a city on the upturn.


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