A day in… Aberystwyth

By | Category: Travel destinations
The Old College with images of a boat and a train, two important ingredients in the growth of Aberystwyth

The Old College with images of a boat and a train, two important ingredients in the growth of Aberystwyth

It is over forty years ago since I first visited Aberystwyth. Unlike most, it wasn’t a childhood holiday but rather to go to university so my first thoughts were that I would have to climb the hill every day between the old college down in the town and my hall.

The Old College, which is about to be refurbished by the university, was built as a hotel. the owners went bust so it became the first university college in Wales. It is still a local sightseeing must for its towers and the artwork that gazes over the castle.

Getting used to the geography of the town, on a dark December day, I went over to the National Library of Wales because that gave the best view of a place where I was to spend the next eighteen months. You could look down over Bronglais (the hospital) to the prom, the ruins of the castle, the harbour and Constitution Hill from where the vehicular railway dropped into the far the farthest edges of the town. Over the other side of the valley stood Penparcau, almost a suburb of the town and where digs could be had if you didn’t have them in town. All around was either sea or green fields and hills. Aberystwyth seemed to be a little enclave all of its own stuck on the very edges of Cardigan Bay and living a life of its own almost oblivious of the rest of the world.

The diesel engine that pulled my compartment coached train had left London at 17.40. That has long since gone and there is no service to London any more just as ten years earlier the last trains from Carmarthen had ended. Getting to Aberystyth means driving, the coach or catching the train from Birmingham International or Shrewsbury. And get in to the right part of the train or you will end , when the train splits in two, heading up towards Harlech and Pwllheli.

the beach and pier in Aberystwyth

the beach and pier in Aberystwyth

In those days, there were no traffic lights, no roundabouts and students gathered in the pubs or at the National Milk Bar and shopped for groceries at Liptons. A half pint of bitter which helped me face the hill back up the hill to Pantycelyn cost me 9p but nobody went to the pubs on Sundays because Aber was dry in those days. If you wanted a pint you became a member of the Conservative Club or the Railwayman’s unless, of course, you were a student in which case the student bars served alcohol.

This was the town that banned the showing of Monty Python’s Life of Brian for religious reasons and which was only rescinded a few years ago when the actress who played the part of Judith in the film actually became mayor. This is the place that is satirised in a series of Dashiell Hammett style novels by Malcolm Pryce such as Last Tango in Aberystwyth and Aberystwyth, Mon Amour.

A lot has changed over the years apart from the holidaymakers who come to the town for the summer holidays either by car or train; the ramblers who walk the hills looking for the red kites and the Devil’s Bridge Railway which is properly called the Vale of Rheidol Railway and which still puffs along railway lines adjacent to the station.

There are more coffee and tea shops, more restaurants along the front and in the streets. Gone is the Chinese restaurant where they served gravy over the rice which made me wonder where on earth I had come to.

the horseshoe gallery in the museum

the horseshoe gallery in the museum

The beach is long and wide when the tide is out. But when the high tides or the storms come, the sea becomes aggressive warning tourists to stay away. It will whip up waves and surf over the prom hurtling pebbles and sand at the halls of residence, houses, hotels and guest houses on the opposite side of the road. On a warm, summer’s day, the sea is so benign you would hardly think that it was the same place. Now, children and dogs run along the beach whilst parents and students watch them from the bars and coffee shops. When they are tired of the beach, the pier provides rides and typical pier food whilst the adults look at the gaming machines. In many ways, Aberystwyth is a typical seaside town. As an alternative they can take the vehicular railway up Constitution Hill and walk back down or – if they are feeling intrepid – walk over the hills to the sand dunes at Clarach and Borth. On a clear day you can see around the bay to Cardigan to the south and sometimes even Bardsey Island off the tip of the Lleyn peninsular in the north. With so many dolphins in the bay, you should stand a reasonable chance of sighting them although the boats that take you out in the bay tend to be clustered further south in Newquay, a village much loved by Dylan Thomas for his summer holidays.

But having a university means it has an arts centre and, up on the hill in the arts centre it has an array of shows that would rival many big towns hundreds of miles away. It was here I first saw Fairport Convention (they are still around too!) and met the great Welsh playwright and novelist Gwyn Thomas as he premiered his play SAP here. It was where I met other novelists such as Emyr Humphries and a new, up-and-coming novelist, Angela Carter, who was seeking a residency for the year.

the rugged countryside seen from the Vale of Rheidol Railway

the rugged countryside seen from the Vale of Rheidol Railway

And you have the National Library I mentioned earlier. An under-used and under-visited tourist attraction, the NLW is a copyright library and, therefore, you can find any book that has been published. It holds some very rare documents as well as paintings and exhibition quality artefacts that complement the museum down in the town. The museum is housed in one of the old cinemas the town used to have. The horseshoe interior with its music hall type gallery and cardboard cut out figures looking down on the exhibits below now displays a history of the area from the time of the Romans, Celtic saints and Welsh princes right through to the present. Making me feel like a museum specimen myself, part of it is named after my old professor who supervised my dissertation.

Aber –as everyone calls it who has been there more than a day or two – also possesses  a narrow gauge railway that links the thirteen mile route between the town and Devil’s Bridge. In my university days the Vale of Rheidol Railway was part of British Rail, the last steam line they operated. Today it is a charitable trust that runs the line but the same steam engines are there, jst painted in a different livery. A journey takes you out of town through Llanbadarn Fawr where Victorian painters used to come and paint the church and out along the hillside where you can gaze down into the valleys. From this vantage, you can see red kites maintaining a majestic rule over their domains as they ride the thermals and swoop on prey and carrion. Years ago, red kites were rarely seen; now you will be very unlucky not to see them. They alone – like the ospreys further near up towards Machynlleth – attract hundreds if not thousands of people to walk the roads and lanes through this part of Wales.

preparing to take us to Devil's Bridge

preparing to take us to Devil’s Bridge

After a brief stop to take on water, the old train seems to struggle on, puffing and panting as it snakes around the hillside until eventually it reaches Devil’s Bridge. Tourists have been visiting the falls ( there are two, with one dropping 100 metres) for over two hundred years to see the bridges that are stacked one above the other. The first is probably getting on for 800 or 900 years old, the second, three hundred and last one is just a youngster at just 100 or so. The youngster protects the other two and that might be why they have survived. To explore you’ll need more than the turnaround time of the train otherwise you will really rush things and have no time to walk down to the falls. There are quite a few trains in summer so you will have the option to stay and look around or take a meal at the Hafod Arms, the old hotel that as probably been there as long as tourist have been coming.

The railway journey alone will occupy at least half a day so spending a day in Aber is not going to be enough; a weekend is the bare minimum and that’s before you start exploring the surrounding rugged countryside.

For more about Aberystwyth, click here.

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