A day in… Kidwelly

By | Category: Travel destinations
Kidwelly Castle entrance

the imposing entrance to Kidwelly Castle

This small Welsh coastal town is where thousands of visitors spend their summer holidays each year. Primarily they come for the sandy beach along the estuary which stretches for miles and, sometimes it seems, the holiday static homes stretch the same distance.

Three rivers all come together in Carmarthen Bay so the birdlife, the sailing, kayaking and fishing draw one audience another is made up of those exploring the castle and the industrial heritage of the town. But many, when they get there, use Kidwelly as a base to explore local places like Llansteffan with its domineering castle overlooking the bay, Laugharne, forever linked with Dylan Thomas and the nearby Llanelli Wetland Centre which has reed beds and any variety of wading and seabirds to watch.

For a start, the name, Kidwelly confuses people. How should it be pronounced? It is an English word rather than a Welsh one so it should be pronounced exactly as you see it. The Welsh is Cydweli which would be pronounced exactly the same.

looking over the salt marshes to the sea from the castle

By far the prettiest way to get to Kidwelly is to travel by train as the journey takes you along the coastline and you see some picturesque sights particularly if it is low tide. Tell the guard you want to alight at Kidwelly as it is only a request stop and you might end up in Carmarthen or Pembury and Burry Port if you don’t. But most people will take a car so they can explore the area.  Parking is plentiful and mostly free.

The first place that most people will start at would be Kidwelly Castle which is perched on a hill on the eastern side of the town. There is only parking for twelve cars so at busy times you might have to park in one of the nearby streets and walk. But that’s not a problem as there is plenty of free, kerb parking.

Like most early mediaeval castles, the original structure was wood but by the thirteenth century, stone was the preferred building tool. It was attacked by supporters of Owain Glyn Dŵr but never taken although the town was burnt. It survived the civil war as well in the hands of the Vaughan family who continued to repair parts until it came into public ownership in 1927.

Would you want to storm these walls? No wonder the castle held out whilst the town was burnt

This could be why so much of it remains compared to many other Welsh castles and that, as castles, go it is quite a compact castle so owners may not have been deterred from repairs as much as if it were the size of Caerphilly. Unlike some, there are seats in the grounds so, after climbing up or descending from the ramparts you can have a sit down. When I was there some children were more interested in watching a pair of swans on the River Gwendraeth (which forms a natural border o one side) rather than listening to their guide regaling them with the important role the castle played in history.

They did perk up when they were told about a nearby field where Maurice de Londres defeated and killed in 1136 the Welsh princess Gwenllian who led an army against the Normans. Captured she was beheaded in the castle and in the field of battle known as Maes Gwenllian, a spring spurted from the ground. As a Boadicea figure in Wales her name was frequently uttered to drum up support against the Normans.

Gwenllian Pool showing some of the industrial heritage still visible.

The name still means a lot and, a little way from the centre of town if you follow the road to and past the Kidwelly Industrial Museum, (closed since 2017) is a pond called Gwenllian’s Pool where summer picnics and paddling are pastimes on summer days. She would have had nothing to do with the industrial heritage of the town which made it prosperous in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There was a large tinworks here as well as brickworks, both of which continued into the twentieth century. It was due to this industry that a canal was built – the first in Wales – to transport the goods down to the harbour where they could be sent around the world.  The tinplate works had a life of over 200 years until they closed during WWI.  The canal had a much shorter life. It was replaced by a railway in the 1870’s and today the railway hauls not industrial material but commuters to Swansea, holidaymakers and day trippers to the hundreds of holiday homes hereabouts. Hugging the coastline for many a mile, it provides fantastic views over the estuary and the wetlands.

Kymer’s Canal – named after the man who built it from the town to the coas.

Where the canal meets the estuary, a picnic site and nature site has replaced what industry was once here and, today, it is hard to believe that this seaside town was such an important port.

People come here to walk along the beach, follow the coastline where it is possible to do so and to bird watch. The birds appreciate the salt marshes which extend for miles and you can easily see birds such as Little Grebes, Teals, Mallards, Shovelers, Little Egrets, Megansers, Dunlins Oystercatchers, Curlews and even the odd Hen Harrier and Merlin. Picnic tables on a hot summer day will be hard to find unless you get there early but there is so much space in which to walk that you’ll always find somewhere to sit if you’ve brought a rug for the ground.

remains of the Town wall, the gate and The Gatehouse

Returning, for a moment, to the castle, if you turn left you pass under an old fourteenth century bridge that once would have been part of the town wall and The Gatehouse, a useful place to pause for morning tea after climbing the castle steps.

Within the own there is one last place you must visit – the Grade I listed, St Mary’s Church. The reason is that inside you will find a modern tapestry sewn by locals in honour of Kidwelly’s 900th anniversary. For a small town, such a large church may seem strange but Kidwelly in its heyday was a much bigger place than today. Its significance in mediaeval times as a major source of power probably indicates why the church is so large, and originating as a priory, it might have needed to be larger to accommodate monks.

part of the tapestry – Cydweli 900 – that hangs at the back of St Mary’s Church

Even after the nineteenth century changes, it still seems quite large. The tapestry isn’t the only interesting feature. An oddity is a family tree of a local family the Dwnn’s and how, via the Queen Mother’s, family they are ancestors of the royal family.

And there’s one other sight that is quite rare. A town abattoir. The slaughterhouse is today a derelict, fenced off building. You can peek in through the glassless windows but there isn’t much to see. What it does do is remind you that once every town had its own abattoir fulfilling local needs. Just as the sheep still graze on the nearby salt fed-lands, they would have been grazing on the same lands for centuries. Then an abattoir was an essential town building and finding ne is quite rare in this modern world of centralised services.

On my day in Kidwelly, I was surprised by the number of people I spotted who were travelling to and from other local attractions. You don’t a whole day in the town but you do need a day or a week in order to see an area which combines wildlife, heritage, a beach to gently bake in  the sun and walks along one of the prettiest coastlines you will find.

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