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  • JULIE WHITE

The Visitor Centre today is ... Royal Mint Experience

The visitor centre for the UK's oldest company and maker of Britain's coins.

Who makes the coins in your pocket? Depending on where you live in the world, it is usually a mint, and in the UK this is The Royal Mint, considered one of the most respected and trusted mints in the world.


Maybe you don't have any coins in your pocket at all. The profound switch towards a cash-free society and electronic payment methods such as debit and credit cards, mobile payments, e-commerce, and digital wallets, has been evident for 15 years in the UK. The switch away from cash was exacerbated further by changing consumer behaviour during the pandemic. Analysis from Barclays Investment Bank predicts that the global transition from cash to digital payments will reach a tipping point in 2025, and they predict cash usage would decline to just 20 percent of all transactions by 2030. However, in the UK, cash remains especially vital for the elderly and those on low incomes or for those without access to a bank account, and is used by 15 million people to budget their finances on a daily basis.


There are over 70 government‑owned mints globally, as well as 40 privately‑owned mints, producing almost 800 different coin denominations. The world's oldest continuously running mint is the Monnaie de Paris in France, which was founded in AD 864 and is the world's eighth-oldest company.

A mint ensures the production of high-quality coins that are recognised and trusted by the public. Coins produced by the Royal Mint undergo rigorous quality control processes to ensure they are of a high standard, and this helps to maintain the integrity of the country's currency.

Coins can celebrate historic events and some national mints are privatized and are allowed to pursue commercial exploits such as minting uncirculated coins such as collector coins and medals. Coin collectors use them as gifts, souvenirs, or investments.


The Royal Mint Experience offers a fascinating day out in South Wales for visitors of all ages. It’s a wonderful chance for the public to see behind the scenes at the headquarters of the world’s leading export mint and enjoy over 1,000 years of coin-making history.


The brand history

The Royal Mint is a government-owned mint that produces coins for the United Kingdom. Its history dates back over 1,100 years to the reign of Alfred the Great, who established a mint in London in the late 9th century. It is considered the oldest company in the UK because it has continuously operated under the same name and function, with the same royal authority, since its establishment.

OLD IMAGE OF ROYAL MINT IN TOWER OF LONDON STRIKING COINS
Image: Conditions in the Mint as imagined by an illustrator of 1270, showing Mint administration, coin shearing and weighing, coin striking, and annealing in the fire.

In 886 AD the London Mint became a single institution. Its first ever coin was a silver penny of Alfred the Great, king since 878 AD, who had forced the occupying Danes (Vikings) out of London. In 1279 the Mint was moved to the Tower of London. In 1696, Sir Isaac Newton took up the post of Warden of the Mint, responsible for investigating cases of counterfeiting. During its time at the Tower of London, the Royal Mint produced some of the most famous coins in history, including the gold sovereign, first struck in 1489 during the reign of Henry VII.

FRONT FACADE OF ROYAL MINT LONDON IN 1830S
Image credit: Royal Mint at Tower Hill in 1830 by Thomas H. Shepherd, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 19th century, the Royal Mint moved to new premises on Tower Hill in London but was running out of space by the 20th century. After over twenty sites were considered, in 1967 the Mint moved to its current location in Llantrisant, South Wales, into two newly constructed large concrete-clad buildings. One building was for the treatment of blanks and the other for the striking of those blanks. It was opened by the late Queen Elizabeth II in December 1968.

The UK entered a deep recession in the early 1970s, causing the mint to suffer from low profits. To combat this, it was established as a trading fund on 1 April 1975 and had to become self-sufficient. This measure worked well for a while, and the mint became more profitable through heavy exports. In 2008, following the global financial crisis, the government at the time recommended that the mint sold as a private company. Rather than being fully privatised, the mint ceased to be an executive agency, and its assets were invested in a limited company, Royal Mint Ltd. The owner of the new company became The Royal Mint Trading Fund, which itself continued to be owned by HM Treasury. 95% of profits from the mint go towards paying an annual dividend of £4 million to HM Treasury, with 5% reinvested back into the mint.

Today, the Royal Mint is the sole body responsible for minting all legal tender coins in the United Kingdom. However, the Royal Mint also produces over 5 billion coins and blanks a year for more than 100 different countries, making them the largest export mint in the world. The Mint also produces commemorative coins and medals for collectors and made all 4,700 Victory Medals for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.


In spite of this global expansion, the Mint's circulating currency business is on a downward trend, and the most profitable part of the business is now the commemorative coin, medal and metal trade.


More than 1,000 employees, including two internal design teams, engineers and product developers, work at the Royal Mint facility and The Royal Mint Experience, which gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look into their roles has won several awards. They picked up the 2022 Travellers Choice Award by TripAdvisor ranking the visitor centre amongst the top 10% of attractions worldwide for customer experience. The Royal Mint Experience also won Best Guided Tour Award in the prestigious 2022 Group Leisure and Travel Awards, the only Welsh attraction on the shortlist, up against famous landmarks and attractions such as Kensington Palace, The London Dungeon, and the Royal Albert Hall.


The Visitor Centre design

From 1968 The Royal Mint in Llantrisant had been a highly secure, Ministry of Defence protected site, which was not usually open to the public.


In April 2014, the Royal Mint announced plans for a 1,806 square-metre, purpose-built interactive visitor centre, based at Llantrisant Business Park, on a mix of brownfield and greenfield land. To fund the development, a grant of £2.3 million was provided by the Welsh Government towards the initial build budget of £7.7 million. The brand aimed to welcome 130,000 visitors per year. The actual reported annual visitor numbers vary from 50,000 visitors to 200,000, though the brand's own website state that the figure is 50,000 in their press releases.


Initial designs appeared in the press in 2015 and featured an angular, wedge-shaped building with black and copper cladding.

Later that year there were new images in the press, showing a building with hexagonal metal-coloured cladding with several large, glass openings in the façade. This was more in line with the 2014 planning application for a large, steel-framed rectangular structure measuring 65 metres long by 27 metres wide and 6 metres high. A footbridge was to connect the visitor centre to the car park. The panels were a reference to the raw materials used in coin production and were a suggested backdrop for marketing campaigns for the brand.

Global construction specialists ISG were, by now, on site and the design was tweaked again. Rio Architects worked closely with the cladding specialists Richardson Roofing who installed the metal hexagon shingles over Kingspan composite wall cladding panels on the façade.

The museum installations and exhibits were designed by Mather and Co, the powerhouse design firm responsible for many award-winning visitor attractions, some of which I have had the pleasure of visiting, such as the R&A World Golf Museum in St Andrews, Scotland and the Silverstone Interactive Museum (guides coming soon - watch this space).


The experience included a tour with a view of the factory, an immersive museum and education centre, with more than 80,000 artefacts, and a press where visitors could strike their own souvenir coin. The exhibitions were designed in English and Welsh and every interactive screen had a Welsh language option. Most, but not all, of the guides are Welsh speakers. You can pre-book a Welsh tour so you are guaranteed a Welsh-speaking experience. The attraction was also designed with accessibility in mind and was suitable for pushchairs and wheelchairs.

'Delilah' a 214-ft daffodil-inspired wind turbine, previously based in the Netherlands, has provided the Royal Mint with renewable energy since 2018. Other sustainability initiatives include a new gold recovery and e-waste recycling plant at the Mint and a staff garden.


In May 2016, the attraction, renamed Royal Mint Experience, opened to the public.


Split into six zones, the galleries hold immersive and interactive experiences and the design team at Mather and Co have won awards for their brand storytelling.

The Mint also have an online archive available via Google Arts and Culture, plus an array of educational materials for all ages on topics such as decimalisation and crime and punishment via their web page, alongside information on past exhibitions that the visitor might have missed and free to join webinars.


Entrance

Visitors enter, past a friendly security guard and five foot tall Shaun the Sheep statue, which was part of an art trail the brand used in 2015 to raise money for the Wallace & Gromit Children’s Foundation, which supports UK children’s hospitals.

entrance at royal mint in wales

When we visited the UK was still in the midst of Covid regulations, but the sculptures had some fun accessories. The National Treasure Gromit sculpture in the entrance wears a visor, referencing the visors that the Mint manufactured during lockdown for the NHS. Their engineers manufactured over 2 million masks in 2020. It took just 48 hours to get them from concept to production and were a great support to the local hospitals. Gromit and Shaun the Sheep are from the popular Wallace and Gromit animations by Aardman Studios.

wallace dog sculpture in coins in royal mint wales entrance

Next, we find one of three coin-covered 1968 Mini cars, originally used to promote The Beatles' hit Penny Lane, covered in 4,000 coins, some of which are extremely rare and originate from the late 1800s.

mini car covered in penny coins for penny lane by Beatles

Your tour starts with a few security checks before the introductory video, in a room filled with coin-making equipment, where our guide explained the different stages of the minting process.

tour guide at royal mint experience  wales

The Tour

Your tour guide then escorts you through to the behind-the-scenes factory viewing gallery. This is a 24/7 operation and guests walk along glass walled corridors to see some of the Royal Mint staff at work, making and checking the coins. Security is, understandably, really high in the mint and guests cannot take any photos or videos in the production area.

The noise is terrific, metal falling into buckets and crates and clattering through stamping and milling machines. The Mint remember makes coins for lots of countries and the clients on our visit turned out to be Egypt and Kenya.

Some of their production in 2023 is making the new currency for the UK featuring our new King Charles III. Each press can strike around 400 coins a minute, producing around 20,000 coins an hour, which are then checked and counted before being packed into cases to be transported to banks and sorting offices across the country. There are approximately 27 billion coins bearing the portrait of our late Queen currently in circulation in the UK. They will remain legal tender, being replaced over time as they become damaged or worn, as per the late Queen and new King's wishes, to keep production as sustainable as possible.


We head back to the main building and we all get the chance to strike our own coins. These can be purchased at check-in for £7.50 per coin, and are limited to one coin strike per person.

The coin you strike varies depending on the time of year and associated events. I struck a 50p coin, a coin which since decimalisation in 1971 in the UK has seen more than 70 variations minted, including several rare designs. I like the fact that the coin's presentation card includes information on the designers.

The Museum

The guided tour portion of the experience ends and guests now have access to the large self-guided galleries. The curated artefacts are impressively displayed in themed zones, which guests can access at their leisure, following a short film.


From Kings and Queens to blanks and banks

You start with information about the origins of the Mint, via interactive wall panels and projections. The on-screen actors provide the storytelling which really adds to the experience. The exhibit highlights the historic timeline from Anglo-Saxon moneyers, striking coins by hand, through the years at the Tower of London, to the modern Royal Mint we are in today.

In this section of the gallery is the oldest coin, the Alfred the Great silver penny, which although impossible to date due to a lack of written records, is thought to be from around 886 AD and has a LVNDONIDA, the Latin word for London, monogrammed on the reverse. There are other coins and metal seals on show too, such as the commemorative medal struck for the visit to the Royal Mint of Elizabeth I in 1561. And there is an early Royal Mint seal, that was used to authorise warrants granting exemptions to Royal Mint labourers from being pressed into service in the navy, dating from around 1709, that was found in a pawnbrokers shop.

It's not just metal objects on show, there are written records too such as a visitor's book record of the Royal visit in 1937 of a young Princess Elizabeth, who visited the Tower Hill site in London with her mother and sister. The Queen returned again in 1966, and again in December 1968 when she opened the new Decimal facility at Llantrisant.

Prince Charles, as he was then, visited in 2017 and you can watch a video of his visit online where he gets to go onto the shop floor. It is his mint now, after all, now he's King. You can see his sense of humour though in the video, when he unveils a commemorative plaque hidden by coins, not all of which cooperate in the process.


Decimalisation

There is a whole section on decimalisation in the UK, which took place on 15 February 1971. Britain had used the same currency since Anglo Saxon times, 12 pennies to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound. Through a series of public information campaigns, the new decimal currency of 1/2p, 1p, 2p, 5p, 10p, and 50p was slowly introduced in 1968 and both currencies circulated side by side until everyone got used to the 'new money' as it was called.

In the early 1960s, Christopher Ironside was an aspiring coin designer, secretly tasked by the Mint to design the new coinage. However, in 1966 the Chancellor of the Exchequer decided to open the design up to a public competition. Undeterred, Ironside reimagined the design and submitted them and his designs still feature on the reverse of many of our coins today. His designs are showcased in the exhibition gallery.

It must have been terribly confusing for the public during the changeover and there are several items in the exhibition that highlight how much of a campaign there was to keep the public informed of the changes.

The Sovereign

The Sovereign on display was first released in 1489 by King Henry VII and was the largest gold coin of its day. The sovereign entered British currency and became the most widely used coin in the world in the 19th Century. The Sovereign remains a popular coin for collectors and The Memorial Sovereign was the first to feature King Charles III’s official coinage portrait, which was created by British sculptor Martin Jennings.

The Sovereign was the equivalent of a week's wages in the 1890s, and to use this for smaller purchases was impractical. Gold Changers were produced and installed in secure locations in hotels or clubs to allow the sovereigns to be broken down into smaller denominations. The one on show in the museum has such an interesting design.

Around the world in 80 coins

The next section of the museum showcases worldwide coinage the Mint produces and there are some great examples from far-flung places and those closer to home.

You can find out more about each coin and country via the touch screens.


From blank to bank

The museum has a section on the complex craftsmanship that goes into creating the design for each coin, from sketching, modelling, die making and striking.

Most coin designs are submitted as part of a public or artist competition. Each design is judged by the Royal Mint Advisory Committee, an independent panel that has even included the likes of poet and writer Sir John Betjemen and His Royal Highness, the late Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh. The head of state is the last person to sign off the design. Prince Philip was a dedicated member from the beginning of the late Queen's reign until 1999 when he retired as President. He was directly involved in the designs for all currency initially brought in for the Queen's reign, and for coins for decimalisation, through to medals and commemorative coins for the UK and Commonwealth. His knowledge of the Commonwealth, its people, nature, and customs, alongside his expert knowledge of military uniforms and decorations, made him a highly valued asset to the committee.

Designers use various mediums to make large scale models for new coins, such as wax, clay, plaster or digital models. These are then reduced in size so punches can be created by the engravers. There are several interactive displays showing the punch and die making process.

The meaning of coins

There is a whole section of the gallery dedicated to the roles and traditions of our coins.

We don't just use them as currency, but we hide them in Christmas puddings, bury in time capsules and throw them into wishing wells. Guests can learn why we say things like 'Spend a Penny' when we go to the bathroom, or why we use piggy banks, all through a series of fun exhibits.

royal mint exhibits with wishing well
royal mint exhibits with wishing well

The other side of The Royal Mint

The Royal Mint, as I've said, makes more than coins and there is a large gallery showcasing the medals, seals and other treasures that the brand creates.

Every soldier that has fought in a battle, since The Battle of Waterloo in 1815, receives a medal from the British military.

Benedetto Pistrucci's Waterloo commemorative medal, designed for the four Allied leaders in the War against Napoleon, took 30 years to create but were never produced. His designs are a testament to the engraver's skill.

There are walls of other medals the Royal Mint has produced.

You can also see the designs for Royal Great Seals, the Monarch's personal stamp..

And there are medals for athletes too, from the 2012 London Olympics. These medals were the biggest and heaviest Summer Games medals ever made.


Current exhibitions

The Mint have opened a new exhibition ‘Crowned: the making of a King’, on 6th May 2023.


The Café

The café seats 60 and opens at 9.30 am and sells breakfast items and hot and cold drinks. Bear in mind we visited during Covid restrictions so tables were very far apart. Thankfully now, they pack a few more people in.

Their lunch service is from noon until 2 pm, but they have hot and cold snacks and cakes available all day, most of which are made on the premises. There is also an outdoor seating area.

Afternoon tea is also available, in two sittings each day at 12 pm and 2 pm. This must be booked 48 hours in advance for standard afternoon teas and 72 hours in advance for a Vegan option.


The Retail Space

There is an on-site gift shop selling souvenirs ranging from postcards, bags, pens, mugs, piggy banks, and expensive coins.

There are collectors coins for every occasion and a range of merchandise to carry them home in.


Worth a mention

The Mint offer a Borrow a Box resource for reminiscence therapy, something that is very close to my heart. The boxes are freely available for all care homes in the UK to loan. A visit to the Mint would also be a terrific activity to aid memory.


The Royal Mint Museum also holds a vast numismatic library of some 15,000 volumes, which is being made available to all online.


The Mint also run Autism friendly tours that can be booked online.

Check out their website too for online activities from storytelling to games, especially their Mintlings series.


In conclusion

Visiting a mint isn't the top of most people's travel itineraries. Granted, it is a bit niche. But when you take into account how the products produced at the Royal Mint are intrinsically part of our everyday lives, in one shape or another, then you might get much more out of this visit than you banked on.


The exhibition space is really accessible and self-guided and packed with interesting historical facts and information on design and engineering. It was delivered in bite-size chunks which never overwhelmed and are complimented by the vast array of assets you can get access to online before or after your visit. There really is something for everyone, from the casual observer to the coin history buff. The benefit of putting an archive and additional educational material online, is that the physical museum does not feel overpowering. This is a brand that is adapting to change and is exploring new ways to connect with the consumer, and I have personally learned so much, and I am not a coin collector.


Compared to the US Mint in Philadelphia, which I have just visited, the Royal Mint Experience is superb. Make it part of your trip to Cardiff or South Wales.


How long was the visit?

We were there for just over 2 and a half hours, a little over the 2 hours the brand recommend.


How much are tickets?

We paid for our own tickets and this was not part of any advertising.


It is always worth checking with the venue as prices can vary through the year.

Adults: £13.50 - £17.11

Children 5-15yrs: £10.35 - £12.84

Under 5s: free


They offer carer tickets too and tickets booked at least 24 hours in advance online can often receive a 10% discount.


The Mint also offer a VIP tour experience costing £99 per person which includes a private tour from a guide and refreshments.


Opening times

It's always worth checking with the venue for their current opening times, as they can vary.

We visited in July when the experience was open 9:15am till 4:15pm.


 

Where we stayed:

We were on a 3-week road trip through Herefordshire, Gloucestershire and on to Somerset. We visited the Royal Mint Experience from a small town in Herefordshire, which is part of the Black and White village trail.


The black and white villages of Herefordshire are well worth a drive through. Leominster is the largest town and while some are much smaller villages, they are very pretty and Instagram-worthy. Unfortunately, we cannot recommend our accommodation this time. You can't win them all!


Getting here:

The Royal Mint Experience is easy to find. If you come by car then it is four miles from Junction 34 of the M4 and only 20 minutes from Wales’ capital city, Cardiff. They have a free car park with space for 160 cars and five coaches. There are also parking spaces for the disabled. It is also 45 minutes by car from Swansea and two hours 45 minutes from London.

By train, the closest train station is Pontyclun, four miles away with frequent train connections to Cardiff Central. You'll need a taxi from Pontyclun to complete your journey.

The Royal Mint Experience Heol-Y-Sarn, Ynysmaerdy Pontyclun, Rhondda Cynon Taff, CF72 8YT


What else is there to see close by:

Foodies are well catered for in the Vale of Glamorgan and in Herefordshire.

We stayed an hour and a half north by car and found an excellent farm shop that rivalled the food hall in Harrods. Oakchurch Farm Shop is really large and had an amazing ice cream vendor outside in the car park.


Llanerch Vineyard is less than 20 minutes by car. Home to Wales's oldest and largest commercial vineyard, it has a lovely onsite hotel and restaurant and offers vineyard tours. We wrote a guide on it for you in April 2023.


Glyndwr Vineyard is another of Wales's lovely vineyards and is only 25 minutes by car from the Royal Mint. They also offer tours and accommodation.


Monmouthshire’s biggest town, Abergavenny, has been on the foodie map since 1999, when two local farmers created the Abergavenny Food Festival. It is only an hour from the Royal Mint.


Cardiff, the capital city of Wales, is only half an hour away from the Royal Mint and a vibrant hub of activity. No trip to Cardiff would be complete without visiting Cardiff Castle and Cardiff Bay.


If you love walking then The Wales Coast Path winds its way along nearly 50 miles of coastline providing an outdoor escape from city life, terrific views, hidden beaches and dune-backed coves.


Castell Coch is 20 minutes by car from the Royal Mint and is a fairytale castle with highly decorated interiors and rich furnishings from the High Victorian era.



Visited: July 2021

Photographs: ©Julie White unless noted otherwise


Disclaimer - The views and opinions expressed are solely my own. I paid for the tours in full and any comments reflect my personal experiences on that day. Please visit and garner your own thoughts and feel free to research the brand and the visitor centre in question.



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