Best known to the wider world for its hospital, Heath is beloved of many a Cardiffian for its central location and large park, and represents a ‘Higher Level’ of Cardiff living.
There’s something homely about Heath: safe, central, orderly, and unpretentious. Its twelve-and-a-half thousand residents love it, but it isn’t celebrated in the same way Cardiff’s inner-city or suburban village communities are. Heath is part of Cardiff’s furniture – it’s kind of ‘just there’. The hospital and its daily battles for survival and miracle working aside, residential Heath might be even seen as boring – mostly semi-detached three-bedroom homes and tree-lined streets. However, Heath’s past features battles and horse racing, ancient fairs, and spilt blood.
As its name suggests, Heath (in Welsh: Y Mynydd Bychan) was originally common land, designated in two parts – Little Heath, covering much of Roath and Cathays and the Great Heath, where Heath is today, stretching north to Llanishen and Rhiwbina.
A year of note in its history came in 1646 when Heath was the site of a battle in the English Civil War; 250 Royalist troops are said to have perished at the pointy end of a Parliamentary invasion to capture Cardiff Castle.
In the mid-18th century it was the site of a two-mile racecourse. It ran along where Heath Park Avenue is now. Hard to imagine today, right?
Enclosure legislation at the start of the 19th century gave the Cardiff Corporation the right to sell off much of this common land to raise funds, and brought about the creation of three farms: Allensbank, Heath and Ton-yr-Ywen. Meanwhile, horseracing lasted till 1848 when Wyndham Lewis bought a chunk of land and began Heath’s urban development, starting with Allensbank Road and Whitchurch Road.
Housing rapidly consumed the Heath in the following decades, with the exception of the Lewis mansion (originally Heathfield House, later Heath House) and its grounds, which was bought by the council in 1938 for the park we know and love today. Though used in part as playing fields, part of it, including Heath House, was requisitioned for the war effort so plans for the park didn’t come to fruition until 1950.
During the Second World War, part of the park became a military camp. The first troops billeted there had been evacuated from Dunkirk. Americans and Cypriots later stayed here before the Normandy landings. An anti-aircraft gun was stationed on a train at nearby Heath Halt. After the war, the camp became Cardiff’s first teacher training centre.
Some fifty-three acres of what was Heath Wood met the axe in the building of University Hospital Wales, or ‘The Heath’, which opened in 1971. Later, Cardiff Council also chose to build offices in the park – despite the fact that in 1952 the playing fields became a King George’s Field, which means the area was meant to be protected in perpetuity for outdoor enjoyment. (Something to do with missing paperwork, apparently.) Thanks to a campaign by King George V Drive resident Councillor Ron Page the dedication was fortunately renewed in 2010.
In 1980, the long since dilapidated and partly fire-gutted Heath House was put out of its mismanaged misery. It was located pretty much where the car park near to the Miniature Railway and Tramway, which arrived in the 81-acre park in the late 1980s along with an eighteen-hole pitch-and-putt golf course also now offering rugby and football golf. A 3G floodlit pitch, fitness equipment, a new play park, and smart, resurfaced tennis courts are among recent additions. An archery group called the Castle Bowmen are among the many sporting clubs that use the park.
“I hated being away from Cardiff – we managed to move back in 2011, and it completely felt like I was coming home,” says Sarah Pritchard, a local primary school teacher who grew up on Heathwood and St Isan Roads.
The move, some 18 years after she left as a young adult was partly in order for her children to go to Ton Yr Ywen. “It’s a good school. I went there as child and loved it,” she says. “Heath has so much to offer. So many new and exciting things here yet still the same in so many ways. You can lay on the field at Heath Park and feel in the middle of nowhere – wonderful.”
Someone to whom the park is also very special is Kirsty Clark. In fact, Kirsty loves the park so much she even had her wedding reception there. Her dad was groundsman from 1975 to 2003. As such, it meant Kirsty grew up in the park’s only accommodation, “a quaint bungalow” in the middle of the park.
“It’s great to live in the city, yet be able to lose yourself in the park,” says Kirsty, a restaurant manager. “I have great childhood memories from Heath Park. I was always making lots of friends and having adventures, such as tree climbing (and getting stuck). I’d leave the house just after breakfast and return at dusk. It felt safe. Everyone knew everyone and looked out for each other.”
(Heath Park’s groundsman from 1975-2003, Neil Jones, was a member of 60s pop band Amen Corner, famous for hits such as Bend Me Shape Me. Speaking of famous residents, Rob Lee, inventor of Fireman Sam, used to live on the drive on King George V Drive. His daughter still does.)
When you consider Wales’ best medical care is but a stone’s throw away, the great transport links (not one or even two railway stations, but three – including the miniature one!), and all that greenery and recreational potential, it’s hardly surprising that Heath remains so popular.
With Whitchurch Road’s shops and bubbling food scene (Cocorico, Got Beef, Mint And Mustard et al), and Birchgrove’s new-ish bar and deli, attracting customers who’d previously overlooked the area, there’s more going on here than you might think. Heath Park is one of Cardiff’s green lungs, and Heath itself is very much at its beating heart.
A version of this article first appeared in CPS Homes’ magazine, Cwtch. All rights reserved. Copyright © I Loves The ‘Diff