Pembrokeshire & South Wales: Pt 7 – Carmarthen

After a truly incredible day around Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, visiting the Cathedral city of St David’s, the historic towns of Haverfordwest, Pembroke and Pembroke Dock, we left for the 2nd and final day of our trip, as we entered Carmarthenshire…

Carmarthen:

Status: Carmarthenshire, Town, Wales

Date: 09/09/2015

Travel: Car

Eating & Sleeping: Cafe Nero

Attractions: Carmarthen Castle, Dragon Sculpture, River Towy, Carmarthen Guildhall, Guildhall Square, General Nott Statue, St Peter’s Church, Pont King Morgan Footbridge, Carmarthen Bridge, County Hall, War Memorial, South African War Memorial, Nott Square, St John’s Church, Carmarthen Infirmary etc

Carmarthen 1

We parked up on the outskirts of the town centre, and made our way in by foot. En route, we found a few items of interesting, starting with the Church of St Johns, shown on the right behind the road sign.

It’s a relatively new building, being completed in 1890 by Middleton, Prothero & Phillot from Cheltenham in Gloucestershire, England. It is actually closely tied to the building to its immediate left, built 20 years earlier in 1870 as a joint Church (Welsh Language) along with a Sunday School. When the new Church was built, religious functions were transferred, whilst the School continued in use until 1988, when the building passed to the Lloyds Bank Group, and later the BBC (which it still comes up as on Google Maps, BBC Cymru/Wales).

Together they form a duet of beautiful Welsh/Victorian buildings, and whilst their use may have changed over the years, they are still a welcome addition to the street.

Carmarthen 2

Continuing towards the town centre, we passed by the Carmarthen Infirmary, another child of the Victorian Age, albeit one in a slightly sorrier state than the Churches we looked at previously. Like the Churches, which were built as such, the Infirmary was custom built to be the local hospital, in 1858, and it became part of the NHS when it was established in 1948. Sadly they vacated the premises in 1996 and it has fallen into disrepair, with parts of the complex, which was originally much larger, having been demolished. Happily however, just this year it was confirmed it will be converted into flats, and the building saved for future generations! I’m sure it’s original architect, William Wesley Jenkins would be pleased his creation is still around today, a historical gem for architecture buffs like myself!

Outside in the courtyard stands the Priory Street War Memorial, originally erected in 1924 at the end of World War I by Goscombe John (1860 – 1952, Welsh Sculptor from Cardiff). Whilst the original inscription pays homage to the brave soldiers who lost their lives in WWI, later additions commemorate World War 2, as well as the Korean War (1950 – 1953, between North/South Korea).

Carmarthen was already full of surprises, with some nice little snapshots of history in a series of buildings that many people would have walked straight past. Our exploration didn’t stop there, in fact it was just beginning, as we came across Carmarthen Parish Church, St Peter’s, which is widely held to be the largest Parish Church in the whole of Wales. Put this alongside Carmarthens claim to be the oldest town in Wales, and you get quite an interesting adventure. Carmarthen is first recorded as a Roman Fort called “Moridunum” after the Roman invasion of Britain, and has remained inhabited ever since.

The Church was written into the towns history book around the 12th century, although little if any of this original structure still exists. The listing for the building suggests that, like many old Churches, its general layout dates back to the 13th century, in the form of the Nave and Chancel. The Clock Tower was a much later addition at the turn of the 16th century, and a Clock was installed in 1903. If you look at the Tower itself, it is a markedly different colour to the rest of the Church. This is because a Lime Render was added in 2001, giving it its distinctive colour.

Moving past the Church, and towards the main shopping streets in the town centre, we came across 1 of the 2 large squares connected together by a series of pedestrianised streets, called Nott Square. It is marked by a statue of Sir William Nott (1782 – 1845), completed in 1851 by Edward Davis. The statue is notable as it was actually a cast taken from a Cannon captured by the British during the Battle of Maharajpur, between the British and the Marathan in 1843. In 1818 the British had invaded the Maratha Empire, taking what became British India.

Nott was a well known figure who joined the Indian Army in 1800, going on to become an important part of the British War in Afghanistan between 1839 – 1842, which saw eventual victory for the British. Nott survived his military service and was awarded numerous honours, settling down to retire before his eventual death in Carmarthen at the age of 62. His connection with the town stemmed from his father Charles, who had been an innkeeper here.

Just around the corner, and in full view of Sir Nott, is the entrance to Carmarthen Castle, a grand edifice which sits on an outcrop in the centre of town, overlooking the main road into town, and the River Towy which snakes its way through, between the Southern half where the station is located, and the Northern town centre.

It has stood here since at least 1105, just a few decades after the Norman Invasion of England, and later Wales. Whilst records indicate an earlier Castle, no exact location is given, so it may have been located elsewhere in the area, or further up the river etc. Like many large towns/Castles in Wales, it was subjected to various attacks, so to strengthen its position large stone walls were added in the 13th century, followed by the Gatehouse we entered by from Nott Square in the 14th.

The Castle began use as a Prison in the late 18th century, having passed through the hands of numerous owners during the preceding centuries. Today it stands a ruin, although areas such as the Gatehouse have been restored over the last few decades, so much so that it is used as the entrance to Carmarthen County Hall, which now occupies the site within the Castle walls. Standing on the Walls you get a fantastic view across Carmarthenshire, the River Towy, and a few local landmarks, but more on those in a moment.

So this is County Hall, the home of Carmarthenshire County Council since 1955. The building was designed by Percy Thomas (1883 – 1969, who also designed Swansea Civic Centre) in the 1930’s, however it would take another 2 decades before it was ready for use. I’m guessing World War II may have had an impact of this, particularly with the major bombing of the nearby city of Swansea.

Between 1974 and 1996, Carmarthenshire County Council ceased to exist, as the county, along with Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire were all merged together to create one large county, called Dyfed. Dyfed County Council was based here at County Hall for the entirety of it’s existence, before it was split back up into the original counties in 1996, and Carmarthenshire County Council returned to the building.

The Hall occupies a prominent position in the town, giving it a true commanding presence in the county. I personally think it fits in rather well with the historic Castle ruins around it, and it has to be 1 of the most imposing County Halls in the UK.

I mentioned earlier that you can see some local landmarks from the Castle Walls, and I would like to share a few with you here:

  1. Pont King Morgan – Carmarthen has a number of bridges which cross the River Towy here, including a modern Cable Stayed Suspension Bridge which opened in 2006, to designs by a firm named Gifford.
  2. Carmarthen Dragon – To the West of the Castle, stood in the centre of a small roundabout on the way into the town centre is a large, Steel sculpture of a Dragon, the famous emblem of Wales, which also appears on the countries flag. Completed in 2007, it was originally built for the “Heart of the Dragon Festival” in nearby Newcastle Emlyn. The Festival is held annually, and celebrates the legend that the last surviving Dragon in Wales was killed in the town. After the 2007 event, the Dragon sculpture found a permanent home back in Carmarthen.
  3. Carmarthen Bridge – This is 1 of the main routes into town, and is a modern version of a bridge which has stood here for much of the last thousand years. Despite being replaced for a few decades with a small ferry service whilst funds for a new bridge we raised, there has been a constant crossing here for centuries, with the previous incarnation lasting until the 1930’s. A new, modern bridge was designed by Clough-William Ellis (1883 – 1978, English Architect from Northamptonshire most famous for designing the model village of Portmeirion in Gwynedd), and completed in 1937, notable for having just 3 arches, whilst the previous had up to 7.

Carmarthen 14

The views are beautiful in this part of Carmarthenshire, and we were lucky enough to experience the 2nd day in a row of stunning sunshine in South Wales. The sunlight glistened off the water in the Towy as it flowed past us, reflecting a glorious blue sky, which illuminated the surrounding green peaks.

The Towy itself is the 2nd longest river entirely within Wales, after only the Teifi which we encountered in Cardigan, Ceredigion. It rises in the Cambrian Mountains along the border between Ceredigion/Powys, and flows South for 75 miles through Carmarthenshire to Carmarthen, and out into Carmarthen Bay between Tenby and Llanelli.

Carmarthen 15

Moving back into town, we crossed Nott Square and headed down to the Guildhall Square, named after it’s famous centrepiece, Carmarthen Guildhall. It was completed in 1777 to designs by Sir Robert Taylor (1714 – 1788, English Architect from Essex who also designed the Bank of England in London), and currently houses the Carmarthen Magistrates Court.

It sits amongst some of Carmarthens most historic buildings, many of which are centuries old town houses around the edge of the square. Directly outside the Guildhall stands a Memorial to the South African War (1899 – 1902, AKA the 2nd Boer War), and commemorates all those from the County of Carmarthenshire who perished in the War. A soldier in Boer War apparel tops the monument, looking out across Guildhall Square.

Carmarthen 16

Along the North Western edge of the square is the truly stunning Barclays Bank Building, which either opened as, or was later bought out by the London & Provincial Bank, the name of which is engraved above the main entrance on the left. The Bank was later bought out by Barclays in 1918, and it remains part of the Barclays group to this day.

The building is a fine example of architectural heritage in Carmarthen, along with another building sat almost directly opposite on the far side of the street…

Carmarthen 167

This is Numbers 11 & 12 Guildhall Square, made up of a small house on the corner of Blue Street originally built around 1800. In 1850 the building was bought by Mr Wonnacott, who created a joint Coffee Shop & Grocers. The most famous feature of the Coffee Shop was the large coffee jug, crafted out of timber which hung on the outside of the building, which incredibly still sits there today!

It was preserved by later owners of the building, including J. O. Morgans, who served as the Mayor of Carmarthen between 1935 & 1937, whose family also had a Grocers here. Today it is owned by the Nationwide Building Society, and remains one of Carmarthen Town Centres most famous buildings.

So that was our visit to Carmarthen, and after stopping for a cup of tea in Cafe Nero’s, we moved on towards our next destination. Carmarthen is a fascinating place to visit, and must be the only place we have visited where the County Council is based within a Castle! There are some fine buildings to admire, and plenty of history behind every brick, so the oldest town in Wales did not disappoint. It was our first ever trip into Carmarthenshire, and we shall definitely be back for more in the future.

Carmarthen is well connected to the rest of Wales, as the M4 Motorway has its Western terminus less than 20 miles to the East. The M4 runs past the major cities of Swansea, Cardiff (Welsh Capital), and Newport before entering England near Bristol, and heading to London via various English Counties. Local rail links also connect the town to London via the West Wales line, which follows the same broad route as the M4, and diverges near the town into branches towards Pembroke, Fishguard and Milford Haven.

We set off from Carmarthen, bound for the City of Swansea, leaving another fascinating place in our Welsh Road Trip behind us…

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