One of the oldest Welsh market towns receiving its charter in 1246, Brecon now serves as an administrative centre for the surrounding Brecon Beacons (National Park). Most of the town dates from the 18th and 19th centuries, but important remnants of its earlier history can be seen in the ruined Norman castle, and in St John’s Church, previously the church of a Benedictine abbey, and since 1923 a cathedral. Brecon has two museums; the Brecknock Museum concentrates on local history and folklore, while the Regimental Museum of the South Wales Borderers deals with military history and contains items relating to the Battle of Bemis Heights (Saratoga) in 1777. Brecon was the birthplace of Dr Thomas Coke in 1747, who was the founder of the American Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1784 he went to Baltimore, Maryland as Superintendent of the Methodist Societies in America. There he was associated with John Wesley in the ordination of ministers. The Methodist Chapel in the centre of Brecon is particularly beautiful. Also among Brecon’ s famous residents was Sarah Siddons the 18th-century actress whose birthplace, now the Siddons Arms, is in the centre of the town. Three miles west is Gaer, a ruined fortress where, in the 1st century, the Romans built the largest of their Welsh auxiliary forts.
Bonfires once flared on the summits of the Beacons to alert people to important happenings in the days of less easy communications. This 500square-mile area of Wild, hilly country is a National Park. The highest of the red sandstone peaks are Cribin (2608ft), Corn-Du (2863ft) and Pen-y-Fan (2907ft).
This grey stone market town in the sheep-rearing countryside of the Teme valley has clung tenaciously to its hillside for at least 1000 years. The first settlers were Saxons, followed in the 11th century by the Welsh and then the Normans. A wooden Norman castle stood on the mound which is still called Bryn y Castell, and a hilltop on the other side of the town retains traces of a 12th-century stone stronghold. The old Welsh name for Knighton was Trefyclawdd, ‘the town of the dyke’, for Offa’s Dyke (built by an 8th-century King of Mercia to keep Welsh predators out of his domain) runs through it. The Central Wales Railway line still operates, and the station is a charming example of Victorian Gothic, for Sir Richard Green-Price, who first released the land to the railway company, insisted on personally approving all their structures.
Booklovers come to this small market town set high above one of Britain’s most enchanting rivers, the Wye, to visit the largest secondhand bookshop in the world. The town, at the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park, is also the ancestral home of the American writer William Dean Howells. At one time Hay-on-Wye was a centre of the flannel industry, and the oldest part of the town with its narrow, Winding streets and little shops is particularly attractive. The 19th century church of St Mary includes sections dating from the 13th century; the ruins of the Norman castle can also be seen. Outside the town there are beautiful walks and ‘ passes through the Black Mountains, including the 1778ft Gospel Pass which leads to the ruins of Llanthony Priory.
At the heart of the little town of Llanidloes is its unique Market House, a half-timbered building standing on pillars, the open space beneath once having been used for traders’ stalls. The upper storey now houses a museum, but over the centuries it has been a meeting house for Quakers, a chapel for Wesleyan Baptists, a public library, a working men’s institute and a court house.
The waters of Llandrindod Wells first became famous in the reign of Charles II, and by the 1850’s it was the largest and most popular of the Welsh spas, with some 80,000 visitors a year. The original hamlet quickly expanded to provide all the attractions of a fashionable watering place; parks and gardens were laid out, surrounded by wide streets lined with extravagant hotels, ballrooms, eating-houses and gaming rooms. Today the town, its broad streets and 19th-century architecture substantially unchanged, is the administrative capital of the newly formed county of Powys and is developing as a conference centre; it is also popular as an inland resort, offering an excellent base for touring as well as facilities for golf, bowls, angling and boating. Visitors can glimpse the glories of Llandrindod’s fashionable era in the Victorian Spa Gallery of the War Memorial Gardens Museum, which also contains the Paterson Doll Collection and an exhibition of finds from Castell Collen, a Roman camp to the north.
A modest and quietly elegant Welsh town gracing the Dyfi valley, Machynlleth dates from the Iron Age. It was originally three villages which shared a common market cross, replaced in 1873 by a clock tower to mark the coming of age of Lord Castlereagh. In 1404, having liberated his fellow countrymen from the thrall of Henry IV, Owen Glendower declare Machynlleth the capital of Wales. His Parliament House, to which extensions have been made over the years is now the Owen Glendower Institute. There is also the pioneering Centre for Alternative Technology, a working demonstration of ways of living by using only a minimum of the earth’s dwindling resources.
Elizabethan, Jacobean and Georgian houses characterise the streets of this handsome small town, formerly the county capital of Montgomeryshire. The town’s name comes from its firstNorman overlord, Roger de Montgomery. The castle he built was rebuilt in the reign of Henry III but is now a ruin. A curiosity in the churchyard is the grave of John Davies, hanged in 1821 for highway robbery. He died protesting his innocence and swore that no grass would grow on his grave for 100 years: there is reported still to be a bald patch. The church itself has interesting monuments to the Herbert family who owned the castle. The 17th-century cleric and poet George Herbert was a member of t
Newtown is the second largest town in Powys. It used to be an important flannel and tweed manufacturing centre; nowadays, much of its wealth is accounted for by its role as market place to the surrounding, sheep farming and agricultural community. Edward I granted it a charter largely because he saw it as a good point from which to control a ford across the Severn. In those days, it was known as Llanfair until, in the 16th century, it was referred to as Nova Villa. This, perhaps, was harping too much on any Roman origins it may have had, and it soon became translated into Newtown. Robert Owen the reformer and father of the Co-operative Movement was born and died here andcommemorated in the Robert Owen Memorial Museum.
This small market town in the valley of the Afon Llynfi lies inside the Brecon Beacons National Park, with the Black Mountains to the east. Talgarth has a fortified tower, dating from the 11th to 13th centuries, now a shop. The church, too, has a striking 14th-century tower. One and a half miles south west, at Trefecca House, Howell Harris founded ‘The Connection’, a religious and trading community, commemorated in the college museum there. Llangorse Lake, 5 miles to the south, is 4 miles around, and the second biggest natural lake in Wales. It attracts water sportsmen, and also birdlife such as crested grebes and coots, and many species of duck. One island in the lake has the only evidence in Wales of prehistoric lake dwellings.
In the Brecon Beacons National Park, the Village stands on the site of the Park’s biggest motte and bailey castle. From Trecastle you can explore the Black Mountain, at 2630ft the second highest in South Wales (except for the Beacons themselves), its north face scarred with precipices, and the great Usk Reservoir, near the wooded shorf:S of which rises a huge standing stone.
The Welsh name of this low-lying Severnside town, Y Trallwng, literally means ‘the marshy or sinking land’; it became known first as Pool and then as Welshpool to distinguish it from Poole in Dorset. Many fine Georgian buildings still stand in today’s busy market town, and Powis Castle, originally medieval, with late 16thcentury plasterwork and panelling, lies1 mile to the south. The history of the area is traced in the Powysland Museum, its most notable exhibit being an Iron Age Shield.