Having just purchased an incredibly good milkshake from a local shop (custard milkshake, if you must know), and having just missed out on a free brand new picture frame that was sitting presumptuously outside, I thought it would be best to make public this rather simple work I put together last year on the history of our great town.
(Please, worthy and most kind reader, accept it for what it is; a work I wrote for personal enjoyment and interest, and had not planned at the time to put on this blog, even after enjoying an exceptional milkshake.) I pray you read and enjoy; its form is that of a rhetoric spoken by a guide as he travels around the town – there is some very interesting history I missed since I did not want to go too deeply and bore people, which I may make several blog posts about another time.
Until next time, fair reader.
The Gentle Rambler: or a Short History of Aberystwyth
Presented in Prose, as Conversed and Explained by a Guide
Part 1: the Harbour Bridge looking toward the Town
Countryman: Excuse me, Sir, I come by this place that I might perhaps explore this town that I have heard so much about, and perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me the way about it, since you look like you know the place?
Gentle Rambler: Why, for sure Sir, I know this place well, and I could indeed tell you the way about that you might explore it, but it so happens I am somewhat of a guide myself.
C: A guide? And you would show me about this place?
GR: It is true, sir, though I have less time than I would like, perhaps you would allow me to show you some of this place and its history as far as I understand it, and then you might yourself get some more enjoyment from your own exploration.
C: That would be very kind of you, sir, but why so eager to help a stranger, may I ask?
GR: This town was made and surely only survived by being welcoming to all, and I hope that with that spirit I might welcome you and introduce you to this great place.
C: And how do you mean that then, my guide?
GR: Unlike many Welsh Medieval towns founded by Englishmen, Aberystwyth survived through allowing anyone to live here, meaning that the Normans who founded the current town became citizens of Wales rather than rulers of it. However, allow me to begin from the very start of settlements in this place; there have been many different peoples living around this place throughout time, and I think that to know this town you should surely know how it and its predecessors came to be made.
C: For sure, then do go on.
GR: Back during the rise of man, in the stone ages and days when we were a nomadic species, this place was commonly a hunting and camping ground for those people. The sea that you see today was much further out, in fact before twelve thousand years ago it was no more than a mere channel, and beyond thirteen thousand years ago it would have been possible to cross to Ireland with little effort. So, since the beginning of man’s ‘modern’ exploration of this place, the area around here has been a rich and plentiful place.
C: Indeed, I can imagine so, but surely there was no settlement then, so that is no beginning to this town.
GR: Too true, and it was not until long after the stone ages had finished that any lasting structure came to be built near here, it stood on that hill you see behind us, Dinas Maelor, when in the Bronze Age a burial mound for a great warlord was raised on the hill’s southern slope. And, though it was no settlement itself, it attracted people to it so that they could remember their ancestors who had ruled this place.
C: And they lived here?
GR: I cannot say, there is no evidence to say where they lived, but some two and a half thousand years ago a hill fort was built on the side of the hill visible from this bridge; the people that lived there defended themselves by way of a stone bank, likely topped with a palisade, surrounded then by a ditch. The gateway faced the sea, and allowed people to make their way from the beach to the fort.
C: But why not make it so that the entrance faced the land? Surely that’s where the majority of visitors and newcomers came from?
GR: Quite the opposite, the fort was built by raiders from Ireland who terrorised the local people before beginning their own settlement on the hill.
C: You mentioned early that this town only survived by welcoming everyone, so how did they welcome people if they destroyed and stole lands?
GR: Ah, and that is why that fort did not survive; like almost all hill forts it was abandoned within decades. I cannot say if it was war that brought it down, or drought, or some other reason, but they soon returned to try again and built a second fort about a hundred years after the first on the south side of the slope, which you cannot see from here. This one was built to be more defensive and had terracing as well as strengthened gateways with high banks and walls to keep out intruders. The northern gate of that fort was attacked some two thousand three hundred years ago and burnt, before the entire of the fort was overwhelmed, after which it was abandoned again. For a short while it was used to try and hold against the romans about two thousand years ago, but after that this place was fairly uninhabited for about five hundred years.
C: And what came next?
GR: Well, Saint Padarn visited here from Brittany in the sixth century and founded a small monastery at Llanbadarn Fawr, and here a village had grown by the time that anything began to be built on the site of our town here, which is why early references to this place call it Llanbadarn, and not Aberystwyth. But I have held you far longer than I would like on introducing our town, may I now give you that tour of our town that I offered.
C: For sure, carry on as you will.
GR: Gladly, I shall. Then look towards our town and imagine looking upon the very first time a man called this place home. It was borne out of battle and war; there had been three previous castles around this place and Aberystwyth Castle was a final attempt to put some control over this part of Wales. There were two other castles built for the same means, and they were built quickly, but Aberystwyth was raided even while under construction and the whole place put to the torch. But, we are not at the castle yet, so let me tell you of the parts that we see now.
The town had a great stone wall that, when finished, had foundations a meter and a half deep, and nearly three meters thick. I had for some time believed it had been entirely destroyed by building and theft by the mid 1700s, but I now know that there were parts of it still standing in 1846, which were being taken down at the time to use to build houses with. This wall surrounded the town through South Road, Mill Street, Chalybeate Street, Baker Street, and all the way down to Pier Street, each end meeting the castle. The placement of the gates isn’t entirely clear, there was certainly a gate at the bottom of Darkgate and Eastgate Street, and I suppose there was probably one past this bridge. So imagine now that we look towards a town where a church spire and castle towers are all that stand higher than a tall stone wall, broken only by a gate ahead of us.
C: I see, and how changed it is!
GR: For sure, the years have quite altered it, but that was over seven hundred years ago!
C: Does much of that old town remain?
GR: We shall see; it certainly seems to be a well too frequently used phrase amongst historians that the nineteenth century began with a different town here to that which it ended with. It is true that the castle is the only recognisably ‘ancient’ building around, and indeed it is my opinion that there is hardly a façade in the town that predates 1780, but I know a good few buildings that date back at least in part to a much more medieval Aberystwyth, and I shall gladly introduce you to those tinges of history as we take our walk about.
C: And I shall gladly hear it.
GR: Well then, let us enter; we cross now over a bridge that is over two hundred years old, although a bridge has likely stood on this site since medieval times, this current bridge was opened in 1800 after the old bridge was washed away in 1796. The river runs, as you see it, much as it did when the town was first founded in 1277, and there was probably originally a shallow area around this bridge for boats to be beached on before there was a proper harbour.
And now as we come across it we enter into the town itself; this part, just outside of where the medieval town walls once stood, was called Under the Town, and consists mainly of early nineteenth century and later houses, built out of stone quarried from the remains of the old walls. Don’t be fooled though, even though we may be at the very edge of the town we are still in a part that has been quite busy with history, even if just in more recent years.
Just to our left we have Rummers Wine Bar, or so it is called as I write this, which was built in 1860 as a corn warehouse, to store stock that was coming in off of ships docking in the nearby harbour. Before this there was a small collection of buildings here called Bridge End Place, where in 1818 the first theatre in Aberystwyth was built. I hear rumours in the pages of history books that there was also at some time a chapel, or religious meeting place on that site, but when that was built or how it appeared I cannot be so sure.
To our right runs Mill Street, so called because in 1740 a water mill called Our Lady’s Mill was built there after the old mill in pier street was demolished, I have had some trouble saying exactly where it stood, but for sure it was on the right side of the road when you look that way from this spot, and probably stood not so far from the bridge, perhaps only a few houses down. There are too many suggestions of what the first building was to be built outside of the town walls, and, to put forth my own view, I would say that that mill was probably one of the very first permanent structures to be built beyond the old limits of the town.
If we went down Mill Street there is a forlorn stretch of ground on the left side of that road that deserves a mention, it is now hidden behind fences, opposite the long red brick wall, and until 2008 contained one of the oldest Calvinistic Methodist chapels in Wales, a truly monumental structure that was only the latest in a line of chapels built on the site. It was finished in 1880 and could hold 1010 people if it was full, unfortunately on July 4th 2008 it caught fire and was gutted before it could be brought under control, the building was later cruely demolished on the 11th.
C: A shame, for sure, but all towns move on and change, sometimes beautiful things are lost; we cannot keep them all.
GR: For sure, for sure, now, if you will walk with me, we shall head some way straight up Bridge Street towards the first right junction with Powel Street, and I will tell you a little more. By going down this road we enter the Old Town, as it was known, that is to say – the area of the town surrounded by the old town wall, which probably had a grand stone gatehouse leading into the town just about at the junction to South Road, to our left.
C: Then lead on, please, and I will hear you.