Vanished Wales: 7 times Wales inspired the World but are now forgotten

Wales has long punched above its weight as a nation, but some of our greatest achievements have been forgotten.

Wales has long punched above its weight as a nation: in culture, sport, science and industry.

There are countless moments in Welsh history when we led the world, when our innovations proved pioneering.

Many of those have since faded in memory.

With the help of ITV’s Vanished Wales, we look at seven Welsh places that inspired the world.


The Penllergare Estate pioneered astronomy and provided a number of world firsts. Credit: John Dilwyn Llewelyn - Penllegare Trust

Located in the Swansea Valley, the Penllergare Estate boasts a rich and remarkable history.

It was originally conceived in the early 19th century by John Dillwyn Llewelyn, a pioneering photographer, scientist and avid astronomer. In the 1850s, he constructed an observatory on his huge estate.

The observatory, that still stands, was equipped with state-of-the-art telescopes to explore the mysteries of the night sky.

Llewelyn's astronomical interest was carried forward by his daughter, Thereza, often referred to as the world's first female astronomer.

Thereza's groundbreaking work included lunar photography that significantly contributed to our astronomical understanding.

It was also Thereza who helped to take one of the world's first ever photographs of the moon.

The Victorian estate once boasted an opulent mansion, the family home of the Dillwyn Llewellyn family. It was demolished in 1961. The site is now managed by the Penllergare Trust, and is made up of 100 hectares of mixed woodland, two lakes, and seven miles of walks.

The Mumbles Railway

Swansea Bay was home to the first passenger railway in the world.

More than two centuries ago Wales became home to the world’s first ever passenger railway

The Mumbles Railway ran for over 150 years, following an act of parliament in 1804. 

Its carriages were first drawn by horses before its famous bright red trains trundled their way from the city centre to Mumbles Pier.

In the 1920s, the line was electrified and it quickly became an intrinsic part of Swansea life.

Tony Cottle rode the railway, and told ITV’s Vanished Wales: “I went to school on it and it was just a wonderful train. It used to rock and roll. 

“It would run seven days a week, on bank holidays and even when it snowed. It was so much part of the community and was very well-used. 

“It would pass St Helen's Ground and in the summer, when the cricket was on, it used to slow down so passengers could see the result.”

After serving Swansea for 156 years, the Mumbles Railway was shut down in January 1960 amid huge public outcry. The tracks and the trains were dismantled. It was the end of the line.

Rhyl's Hovercraft

Thousands flocked to Rhyl's seafront to see a marvel of engineering.

In the summer of 1962, the world’s media gathered on the golden sands of Rhyl.

The Denbighshire town found itself at the heart of a pioneering experiment that would change sea travel forever. The future had arrived in North Wales.

It was the world’s first ever passenger hovercraft service. During those summer months, the trailblazing craft made regular crossings between Rhyl and Wallasey.

Warwick Jacobs, a hovercraft expert, believes the technology was years ahead of its time: “In the early sixties, man wasn’t even on the moon. We were still travelling on steam trains. 

“Hovercraft technology was cutting edge and it captured the public’s imagination. It was new, different and British.”

Almost 4,000 people made the crossing during the summer of 1962, but the experiment would come to a sudden end.

On the afternoon of 14th September 1962, the craft’s engines failed halfway through the 17 mile journey.

Despite efforts to moor the craft in Rhyl, rough seas caused it to crash into the town's promenade wall. 

The Dunlop Semtex rubber factory

The inspiration for the Sydney Opera House had Welsh beginnings.

Tucked away in the corner of a retail park in Brynmawr stands a building whose influence spanned the world.

Wander through the Blaenau Gwent town and you may spot a distinctive two-storey building with an unusual curved roof.

It’s an old boiler house and all that remains of the long lost Dunlop Semtex factory. 

The factory was built in the 1940s, and its revolutionary design inspired awe more than 10,000 miles away.

The structural engineer on the project went on to work on the Sydney Opera House, one of the most iconic buildings in the world.

Its famous roof ‘shells’ echo the domes at Brynmawr.

Despite being a listed building, the factory was eventually torn down in 2001.

The Sunderland Flying Boats

The Sunderland Flying Boats were crucial during the Second World War

If you lived in Pembroke Dock during the Second World War, you would have heard the deafening roar of engines in the sky. 

The town’s dockyards and waterways were crammed with aircraft. 

During the 1940s, Pembroke Dock was the world’s largest base for flying boats, and the jewel in the crown was the Sunderland.

It was a massive aircraft that could take off and land on water and it played a vital role during wartime.

The RAF’s Sunderland planes would patrol the Atlantic, protecting merchant vessels.

Great Britain’s war effort depended on the the munitions, fuel, food and troops they defended. 

Capitol Theatre

Upon its completion, Cardiff's Capitol Theatre was the largest purpose-built cinema in Europe

Cardiff’s Capitol Theatre was a cinema and concert venue that boasted a 3,158 seat auditorium. 

At the time of its construction, it was the largest purpose-built cinema in Europe, and also included a ballroom, three restaurants, a bar and a banqueting hall.

Construction of the theatre took 3 years before it opened on Christmas Eve, 1921.

Over the years the theatre hosted some of the world’s greatest artists, including Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin and Elton John.

It also hosted a monumental occasion in British musical history when the Beatles' last live UK tour concluded with two performances at the theatre on in December 1965.

The cinema closed for business in January 1978, and has since been replaced by the Capitol Shopping Centre. 

Crumlin Viaduct

Crumlin Viaduct solved a transport problem that still afflicts the South Wales Valleys today - how to travel east to west?

The town of Crumlin in Caerphilly County was long dominated by one of the most remarkable structures in Wales.

Opened in 1857, the Crumlin Viaduct was a technological marvel, spanning deep valleys and steep hills. 

It allowed trains to cross valleys, connected communities and was the tallest viaduct in Britain.

The size and scale of the superstructure even got the attention of Hollywood. 

In 1966 Oscar winning director Stanley Donen used the bridge for an action sequence in his spy movie, Arabesque, starring Sophia Loren and Gregory Peck.

Despite an impassioned campaign to save it, the Viaduct was completely demolished in 1967.

Watch Vanished Wales on ITV Cymru Wales at 7pm on Friday, January 12, and catch up on ITVX afterwards.