The brief existence of Wales' forgotten Wild West theme park

Once upon a time a cowboy-inspired theme park opened in south Wales with great fanfare and a £1m price tag. Now only a few remember its existence since it closed just a few weeks later in 1987.

Named Western World, the park was built on the site of the former Fernhill colliery in Blaenrhondda, supposedly modelled after Dolly Parton's Dollywood resort in Tennessee. The purpose-built Wild West town, nestled at the foot of Rhigos mountain, boasted plans for south Wales' largest saloon bar and 12 guest chalets.

The park featured wooden shacks, each representing a slice of American life, from the Wells Fargo banking company to Doc Thompson's Painless Tooth Pulling, a federal courthouse, a funeral home, and a gunsmiths.

READ MORE: Only a wall remains of what was one of Cardiff's busiest suburbs

READ MORE: The forgotten 80s bar found frozen-in-time above an old department store

Blaenrhondda resident Philip Gronow captured the park's official launch in a series of photographs. "It was such a long time ago," Phillip reminisced, speaking in 2018.

"I remember they used to re-enact gun fights and I think they did carriage rides and there was a gift shop. I don't have a close up photo of the club they built - but it was huge. They used to have Country and Western music there every weekend."

Phillip's photos depict attendees dressed in cowboy hats, checkered shirts, and boots, as well as some dressed as Native Americans, all making their way to the Blaenrhondda site during the launch. Children were seen clad in frilled Western-style jackets, with some carrying Confederate States of America flags, and others dressed as Old West lawmen. For the latest Rhondda news, sign up to our newsletter here

Rows of buses can be seen lined up on the gravel at Western World -Credit:Philip Gronow
Rows of buses can be seen lined up on the gravel at Western World -Credit:Philip Gronow
-Credit:Philip Gronow
-Credit:Philip Gronow

Buses were stationed in rows on the gravel track while horses and vintage cars transported visitors along the narrow road leading to the site. Visitors could also enjoy horse-drawn cart rides within the park. Classic American vehicles such as a Pontiac Firebird, Chevvy and Cadillac were spotted driving to and parked at Western World for its grand unveiling.

The project received financial backing from seven enthusiastic fans of country and western culture based in Birmingham, with the costs running to £1 million. Brian Hughes, the brains behind the endeavour, famously declared at the time: "They said it couldn't be done, but we are proving them all wrong."

Mr Hughes was optimistic that by the end of summer, the allure of the recreated Old West would have attracted over 100,000 visitors. He even announced that almost 1,000 bookings had been made before the site's completion. Unfortunately, Western World did not become the roaring success anticipated by its developers, instead quickly morphing into a ghost town.

Looking at the Western World site from above - from the edge of the Rhigos Mountain Road -Credit:Philip Gronow
Looking at the Western World site from above - from the edge of the Rhigos Mountain Road -Credit:Philip Gronow
The deserted site of Western World at Blaenrhondda after news the developers closed the site down -Credit:South Wales Echo
The deserted site of Western World at Blaenrhondda after news the developers closed the site down -Credit:South Wales Echo
-Credit:Philip Gronow
-Credit:Philip Gronow

No more than a month after its grand opening, the park shut its doors, allegedly due to financial difficulties. By August that same year, the last of the cowboys had left the Rhondda Western World site. Some workers were left in limbo after they sold their homes and quit their jobs to relocate their families to south Wales, only to find themselves without a clear future.

The local Blaenrhondda Action Group stepped in, providing food and assistance. Ceri Thomas, a member of the action group, expressed community support at the time: "We want them to stay. They've become part of the village."

The Fernhill Colliery site, which has seen numerous failed ventures, is steeped in history. Established by Ebenezer Lewis of the Ferndale Colliery Company between 1869 and 1871, it sits at the Rhondda Valley's head, once bustling with miners from Caroline Street following its rich coal seams.

A horse-drawn cart at the Western World theme park -Credit:Philip Gronow
A horse-drawn cart at the Western World theme park -Credit:Philip Gronow
Iconic cars at the site's opening -Credit:Philip Gronow
Iconic cars at the site's opening -Credit:Philip Gronow
One of the wooden cowboy establishments at Western World - Painless tooth pulling (ouch) -Credit:Philip Gronow
One of the wooden cowboy establishments at Western World - Painless tooth pulling (ouch) -Credit:Philip Gronow

Post the demise of Western World in 1987, various developers have pitched unsuccessful plans for the site. Local entrepreneur Pearce Quinn had ambitions to transform the area in the 1990s, even considering rehiring some of the displaced workers to launch a new theme park filled with a variety of attractions.

"I want somewhere people can go for four or five hours and have a really good day out," he shared with the Echo, at the time. "At the moment you're just in and out in a flash." Subsequently, from 1997 to 2000, Fernhill Mining Company moved in for a coal reclamation scheme.

Former miner Keith Barnes at the Fernhill Colliery, Blaenrhondda
Former miner Keith Barnes at the Fernhill Colliery, Blaenrhondda

Things seemed to move forward when Cofton Developers purchased the tip in 2005 and announced ambitious plans for 800 houses, a neighbourhood centre, hotel, and leisure and commercial facilities. Yet, the land remained untouched for another 10 years. It was eventually included in the Rhondda Cynon Taff Local Development Plan which marked out eight plots intended for a mix of residential, retail and recreational development.

In 2023 WalesOnline reported that the site was in the hands of the Batten family. Since purchasing the land at auction in 2017, father Andy and his sons Gavin and Lee have been diligent in giving it a new lease on life. By 2021, they had launched four charming and snuggly glamping pods that have seen tremendous success, with all weekends fully booked after opening.

Smiling despite the troubles as a new owner tries to restart the ill-fated project situated at the former Fernhill Colliery - 14th August 1987 -Credit:South Wales Echo
Smiling despite the troubles as a new owner tries to restart the ill-fated project situated at the former Fernhill Colliery - 14th August 1987 -Credit:South Wales Echo
Now the Fernhill Colliery site in Blaenrhondda is a glamping site . Owners of the site L-R: Gavin Batten, Lee Batten and Andy Batten. -Credit:Rob Browne
Now the Fernhill Colliery site in Blaenrhondda is a glamping site . Owners of the site L-R: Gavin Batten, Lee Batten and Andy Batten. -Credit:Rob Browne

Reflecting on the journey in 2023, Gavin remarked how much things had changed since they first bought the site: "The area where the pods are situated would have been the stables for the colliery. The land was derelict when we got it with nothing on the ground other than the foundations in the ground where the old shed used to be. It covered the whole area where the pods are now."

Gavin said the family were looking to extend the business with more pods, yurts and an outdoor spa. He said: "We have got plans with the council for another eight glamping pods. We are going to make one with disabled access. We had a few people asking for a space for families because at present they are all for couples, so we are looking at adding four yurts to cater for four families.

"There is an old lake which has become a stream over the years and we also want to brick that stream in to create a lake where we could have a communal wood-fired sauna, a communal hot tub and a cold plunge tub or ice bath."