Bute Park is Cardiff’s biggest park, amounting to some 59 hectares (146 acres) is also one of the largest urban parks in Wales comprising a broad mix of historic landscape, sports fields, arboretum and river corridor. Today it represents a largely Victorian heritage, as the southern part of the Park consists of land originally set out as the private gardens of Cardiff Castle and designed by the Third Marquis of Bute’s Head Gardener, Andrew Pettigrew, between 1873 and 1901. In 1947 this portion was given to the people of Cardiff by the Fifth Marquis of Bute – along with Cardiff Castle and Sophia Gardens. The Victorian garden layout still largely exists but since 1947 it was extensively planted with trees to create the Bute Park arboretum. It also includes the walled garden, built between 1906 and 1913 and which was used for fruit and vegetable production for the Bute estate.
The West Lodge which provides the southern entrance to the Park was completed in 1863, originally it consisted of a living room, kitchen and scullery on the ground floor and three bedrooms above. The famous Animal Wall, which forms the southern boundary of the Park, was based on an original drawings by William Burges, the Third Marquis of Bute’s architect, who was responsible for the re-modelling of the Castle. Originally located in front of the Castle and completed with nine animals, painted in rich colours it was moved to its present site in 1924 and extended by the Fourth Marquis to include a further six animals (a beaver, vulture, leopard, a pair of raccoons, a pelican and an anteater) completed in 1930.
The northern part of the Park, which was formerly land owned by the Bute estate and consisted of Blackweir Farm, was purchased by the City Council after it acquired the southern part of the Park. Now used as sports pitches, some of the original field pattern is still preserved in the layout of the pitches.
The history of what is now Bute Park can be documented as far back as mediaeval times. The course of the River Taff has changed dramatically since then and in those times ran nearer to the Feeder Canal than it does today and then on down to what is now Westgate Street . The current course of the River, known as the ‘New Cut’ was created in the 19th century. However, what is now the Dock Feeder Canal, constructed between 1836 and 1841, follows the course of an older waterway, the Mill Leat, built in 12th century and fed by the Taff, providing a home for mills and industries along its course near the Castle and the City’s West Gate. A replica of the West Gate built in 1921 stands approximately where it was originally, in line with the mediaeval bridge which crossed the Taff upstream of the modern bridge. It is hard to imagine, as we stand in the peaceful surroundings of the Park as it is today what a busy, noisy and smelly place it would have been in the Middle Ages, with tanneries, and corn and iron mills working on this site.
The course of the Mill Leat was altered between 1836 and 1841 and now runs along the North wall of the Castle to the Docks to supply the docks with water. The remainder, along the West wall of the Castle, was left as an ornamental pond, but was eventually drained, remains of the old mills can be seen. As part of the Restoration Project it re-flooded this, though there have been some problems with low water and algae, but the damsel flies, dragon flies and pond skaters love this area.
Between the Castle and the River at the Southern end of the Park, lies the remains of the Blackfriars Friary on land belonging to the Archdiocese of Cardiff and leased to the Council. The Friary was established in 1256 and sacked by Owain Glyndwr in 1404 (the neighbouring Greyfriars was spared), to be finally demolished in the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538; materials from the Priory were used in the construction of the Blackweir Farmhouse. The Friary was excavated in 1887 by the third Marquis and a line of bricks outlining the site can be seen today. As part of the Restoration Project it is intended to restore the remaining elements and provide interpretation facilities.