A day in…Machynlleth

By | Category: Travel destinations

the clock tower that marks the centre of the town

Why visit a place most people would be hard pressed to pronounce? Why visit a place most people would be hard-pressed to pinpoint on a map and why visit a place that many people would never have heard of?

One of my key rules about visiting places is that that I prefer visiting those that are less known or that mean little to me. I have an aversion to heading to places that everybody knows as a tourist destination. I want to subconsciously believe that I have been somewhere different.

Machynlleth fits the bill.

For a start, many people just refer to as Mack rather than using its full name. Hardly ever do you here a railway guard refer to the town by its full name as he makes his way through the train making sure passengers are sitting in the right part to go to either Pwllheli or Aberystwyth. Every second row they seem to have to say that the traveller will need to change at Mack.

Machynlleth (pronounced something like Mack –un –cleth) is a few miles inland on Cardigan Bay in Mid Wales. It sits on the River Dovey or Dyfi depending on your nationality at the southern limits of the Snowdonia National Park. Many therefore claim that it is the gateway to Snowdonia so it attracts walkers and hikers come to explore the mountains and hills. If it were a few miles further north, some would claim it be in North Wales. As it is, map makers place it in Mid Wales about an hour and a half by train from the nearest big English town, Shrewsbury.

The unimposing outside of the Owain Glyndŵr centre

Finally why should you have heard of the town? You will have heard of Cardiff the capital of Wales but it has only been the capital since 1955. Prior to that it might have been considered to be the capital but that was probably because it was the largest city in Wales. Before 1800  it scarcely had 2,000 people living there.

If there had been a capital prior to this it may well have been Machynlleth because this is where a parliament was held by Owain Glyndŵr in 1404.It was here that he proclaimed belief in a Welsh nation and a Welsh parliament with an emphasis on laws derived from those of a much earlier Welsh prince, Hywel Dda who ruled much of Wales five hundred years earlier.

Inside the Owain Glyndŵr Centre

The building where the parliament was held is no longer there. Today in one of the three remaining mediaeval buildings in the town, is the Owain Glyndŵr Centre said to be on the original site. It is a spartan building from the outside which gives no clue to its heritage or importance in the growth of Wales. Inside, the building is just as modest and, apart from the exhibitions and artefacts you would hard pressed to know that a parliament was once held here.

Coming completely up-to-date, the town (It had its appeal for city status turned down twice this century) is home to MoMA Machynlleth, the Museum of Modern Art which encourages contemporary artists all over Wales. It has a permanent collection of art from the twentieth century and this one with works by famed Welsh artists such as Frank Brangwyn, Augustus John, John Piper, Shani Rhys James and Kyffin Williams. The collection and the exhibition areas occupy only a part of the space. Each August the Tabernacle – an old Welsh chapel seating 350, becomes a music venue and the Machynlleth Festival draws people far and wide.

The programme from this year’s festival

It isn’t the only festival that attracts people. Every year in late April is the Machynlleth Comedy Festival. In just eight short years it has become probably the best comedy festival in Wales. In the three days this year, there were more than thirty acts as well as plenty of music and food. The popularity can be measured by the number of campervans and tents parked around the town. The hotels and guest houses must be doing just as well.

The town itself is small, easily walkable and a magnet for antique and bric-a-brac hunters. Even after enjoying a cup of tea or coffee you probably will see all you want to in a few hours unless one of the festivals is coinciding with your visit. No, to fill a day a day you will probably want to travel south or north to get the most enjoyment from your visit.

one of the osprey’s in mid-Wales that has returned again this year

Ynys-hir, the RSPB reserve which is a few miles south of the town signposted from the road to Aberystwyth has had lots of publicity in recent years even non-birdwatchers are aware of it. Firstly, the BBC Springwatch programme was based there for a few years and secondly this is the spring nesting place for some ospreys, the first birds to be found in Wales for many hundreds of years. A few years ago when the birds arrived from Africa, thousands and thousands of people visited. Even rail visitors were lucky because the line runs past one of the sites and if you are aware it is coming up you can peer up to the nest in the hope of seeing them.

On the opposite side of the road you’ll find Dyfi Furnace, a blast furnace built about 260 years ago to produce pig iron at the very beginnings of the industrial revolution. The two buildings –the furnace and a storage building – had a short life. By 1810 the buildings were converted to a sawmill and the great water wheel you will see is a relic of the latter times rather than when it was a furnace.

Venture further south and you will see sheep grazing on the salt marshes. The railway line gives a better view than the road does as , from the line, can see across to the Dovey estuary and not nly see the coloured buildings on the other side but sometimes the Pwllheli train as it meanders along the coastline on one of the prettiest journeys you can take.

and the most interesting attraction – the scarecrow piano player

Instead of heading south, heading out of the town on the way to Dolgellau (where Mrs May may have decided on calling the election) you will come across a slightly unlikely tourist attraction. The Centre for Alternative Technology was originally set up as a demonstration centre for recycling and renewable energy. Now it also runs holiday residential courses, offers education programmes, postgraduate degrees as well as guidance on sustainable living. The shop, restaurant and forty acres exhibition site add up to the largest tourist attraction hereabouts as people come to see, for example the  organic gardening methods and the funicular railway.

Head further north and you are deep into Snowdonia but that journey must be made by car or bus as there is no train service.

There is one other feature of Machynlleth that I haven’t mentioned and that is the front garden of a private house. In it you will find a straw man or maybe a scarecrow. Dressed quite elegantly he sits at a piano. Now that is a sight you don’t see every day! But then Machynlleth !

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