From hendre to hafod - come May we decamp to summer pastures.
This image and the innocence of just jumping in the car or onto a train and hitting the seaside, seems like a mirage now - how did we once take it for granted? How did I, living as I do now only one and a half miles from the sea, not go there every week; every day? If this situation has done anything positive, it will it be to remind us, ( though surely only for a brief period, human nature being what it is), not to take simple pleasures for granted.
Imagine for a moment 1750 on the Morfa Mawr at Aberystwyth. Nothing in the picture is here - most of the familiar Aberystwyth is later. The sea comes right in at Morfa = literally sea place; mawr= great. Now the wall holds it back...sometimes. Though the castle and the mint(1) established there had been crucial, by the 1750s the castle site was ruined and, though shipping was important - e.g. for the export of lead ore, fishing, boat building, Aberystwyth had to wait until the end of the eighteenth century to begin its 'boom town' experience as the 'Welsh Brighton'. The gentry families such as Johnes, Pryses, Vaughans and Powells owned land in the town and developed it to include the lovely Laura Place, 'the heart of the eighteenth - century resort', a complex that still impresses today. By 1820 Aberystwyth had its Assembly Rooms and by the 1830s ' 'could be considered a resort with every facility'.
What I find fascinating about Aberystwyth is the way it operates on so many different levels. It is a major Welsh academic site and cultural hub, housing the National Library, a university, a vibrant Arts Centre, a camera obscura, vintage railways, a folk museum, several theatres and major historic buildings such as Llanbadarn Church and the ruined castle. The Georgian old town is both romantic and seedy by turn - splattered by seagulls whose other worldy cries echo off the high buildings lining the narrow streets.
The town clings to the area between the seashore and the surrounding hills like it doesn't belong there. Though the remains of a massive hillfort dominate the town and discovered artefacts date back to prehistoric times, it feels impermanent somehow. The area inside the original walls was relatively safe from the sea, but the town has spread across the Morfa and lies now between the powerful flooding Rheidol and Ystwyth rivers and the sea.
It's not just the location though that makes Aberystwyth shimmer with fragility for me. The residents are such a mixture too: its both so local, so idigenous ( the Welsh language spoken on the streets and in the shops) and also so cosmopolitan. Every year there's a free intake, a fresh exodus of students. Academics working in the university and library form a fascinating crust; the Welsh Government has an important centre here and civil servants make up a significant part of the population. Pensioners and those out of work from all over the UK retire here. People from all over the world find work here; 'foreign' students stay on after their studies have ended. Here too those looking to escape the great cities enjoy the relatively cheap property prices and clean air and there is a booming environmental movement. Aberystwyth seems so far from eveywhere and, in these Covid days, that feels good, but soon it will be time for the temporary visitors to remind us of how great this place is; I hope that there is a chance for them to come and enjoy this year, from hendre to hafod, if not in May, at least before summer's end.
(1)On 30th July 1637 permission was granted for Aberystwyth to mint its own coins for the crown, after a request was made by Thomas Bushell who worked a number of the local mines for the mint. Production started in 1639 and the mint was closed 3 years later in September of 1642, and was moved to Shrewsbury. After further moves, the mint was also located atFurnace, which is 12 miles north of Aberystwyth on the road toMachynllethfor a brief period in 1648. In the 1630′s King Charles I was running low on money. In a search for more money, he earmarked Mid Wales, with its huge natural resources, including a number of silver mines as a potential place for minting more coins.
Mines such as Cwmsymlog produced large amounts of silver which was at first shipped to the Tower Mint in London, at great expense to the King. However, this journey became so expensive and also so dangerous as bandits targetted the loads of silver being transported the couple of hundred miles to the capital.
Special thanks to everythingaberystwyth.co.uk and Cardiganshire County History Volume 3 published by the University of Wales Press