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Aberdovey, Gwynedd, called Aberdyfi in Welsh, is a small town, beautifully placed at the mouth of the Dovey (Dyfi) estuary. The hills of Cefn Rhos, gorse-covered and rugged, shelter it from the north wind. There are some older houses clustered along the quay, but the main town rises in pleasant Victorian and Edwardian terraces round a curve of the lower slope of Cefn Rhos, and looks across over the wide sands of the estuary to the wilds of Plynlimon in the South. Aberdovey, however, has plenty of sand to itself. The wide beach curves round the steep plunge of Cefn Rhos and runs northwards towards Towyn.

Aberdovey is now firmly in the holiday business, but 100 years ago there was a different atmosphere here. The little quay was thronged with the trading schooners that made all these small Cardigan Bay ports into lively places, full of the adventure of seagoing and trade. The young men of Aberdovey went to sea as a matter of course, but - as the historian of seagoing Aberdovey, the Rev. D. W. Morgan, suggested by the title of his bookó it was a Brief Glory. Documents survive to throw a good deal of light on the ships and shipping that used the Dovey waters 150 years ago. They were held by partnerships that divided the interest in them into as many as sixteenth parts or, in one case, sixty-fourth parts. In 1828, four of these last were sold for £35. Owners were not always mariners themselves: one partnership included also a farmer, a ropemaker, a timber merchant, a spinster, a tanner, and even an ostler. But the ostler would be one of those who owned an inn and had a stable of horses on hire for the coaching-roads. Lime, timber, culm, hides, and wool went aboard for shipment, and the sloops would not only touch in at Gareg, as the Dovey shore between Eglwys-fach and Derwenlas was then known, but were often built at wharfs both there and at Llugwy on the opposite bank.

Aberdovey's early story is also quickly summarized. It had the happy knack of keeping out of the more dangerous events of Welsh history. After all, the road along the estuary was not completed until 1827, and the railway had to tunnel industriously to get here. But from Penhelyg, the true port of Aberdovey, can be seen, and for some distance walked along, a roadway cut at the base of the rocky hill-sides through which the railway line burrows. It reaches a fair distance into the estuary; but it is rarely safe to use, for the tide drowns it at intervals. Local belief is that this is a roadway cut to serve the coach-routes of the 18th and 19th centuries but one can scarcely believe that vehicles in those days would have risked such a perilous journey. It seems to have been engineered when the estuary lay further below its present level, which would have been a considerable time before the silt and sand affected the river mouth. The Romans used Pennal as a military station; and there could have been for them no alternative way to reach it except at the foot of the rocks. Llywelyn the Great, however, did summon an assembly of all the leading men of Wales to meet him at Aberdovey in 1216, in what was virtually the first Welsh parliament. Llywelyn succeeded in settling, with statesmanlike moderation, the claims of all the lords who owed him homage. The main outlines of this settlement were not disputed in his lifetime, and they became the main base of his power.

If history has been largely silent about early Aberdovey, legend has more than made up for this reticence. The name of the little town has rung round the world on the notes of the popular song “The Bells of Aberdovey”. This is no folk-song. The music was composed by Dibdin for his opera Liberty Hall, and the original words have a period charm, with the refrain in Welsh: “If you love me as I love you, the Bells of Aberdovey ring one, two, three...”

Do salmon love a lucid stream,
Or thirsty sheep love fountains?
Do Druids love a doleful theme,
Or goats the craggy mountains?
If it be true these things are so,
As truly she's my lover,
And os wyt ti yn earn fi,
Fel wyffi yn caru di,
As un, dau, tn, pedwar, pump, chwech
Go the bells of Aberdovey.

Other lyricists have added other words to the tune, but the theme remains the same. A city lies off Aberdovey, sunk beneath the waves, and the bells can be heard, “in the quiet even time”, swinging softly in the swell of the sea. The story is a common one all along the Welsh coastline and is known in Brittany as well. It may reflect some far-off folk memory of the advance of the sea after the Ice Age. Geologists date some of this advance to as late as 5000 B.C., and there were certainly hunters wandering over the drowned areas at that date.

There could be a second source for the story. Not many miles North of Aberdovey, near Towyn, one of the “sarnau” or causeways that are such a strange feature of Cardigan Bay runs out to sea. This is Sarn-y-Bwch. Even stranger is the long bank of stone and sand called Sam Badnig (St Patrick's Causeway), which stretches over 12 miles into the sea from the sandy point of Mochras, near Harlech. This dries out in patches at very low tide. A third sarn begins 7 miles South of Aberdovey at Sarn Gynfelyn. There are even traces of a fourth sarn starting to form off Llanrhystyd South of Aberystwyth.

The origin of the causeways is still uncertain. At one time it was suggested that they might be moraines deposited by the glaciers of the Ice Age in retreat. Maybe the swirl of the tides into the circling arms of the Lleyn peninsula has something to do with it. And does each sarn reach a certain limit, and then act as a breakwater to turn material to the next sarn growing further South? Nothing is sure, but the sarnau have always impressed the sailors of Cardigan Bay with the regularity of their structure. This could have suggested some vast defence work protecting fertile lands from the sea. Thomas Love Peacock gave memorable literary form to the story told in the old Triads of the drowning of Cantref y Gwaelod (Bottom Hundreds). Seithenyn, one of the “three immortal drunkards of Wales”, had been entrusted by Prince Gwyddno Garanhir with the guardianship of the great dyke and sluices that protected the most fertile land of Wales. Gwyddno himself had his palace somewhere on Sarn Gynfelyn. Seithenyn saw no reason to disturb himself about the state of his charge. To every warning that the embankment had become rotten, he laughed and gave the immediate order: “Cupbearer. fill !” Nemesis arrived on a night of great storm. The embankment was overwhelmed and Seithenyn with it. Gwyddno escaped to spend his life in lamentation over his lost province.

Aberdovey's concern with the sea is now in fishing. It has rivals in this activity along the estuary. And of one of them a tale is told that is bitterly resented. It alleges that this other community of toilers in the sea had the habit of thieving whatever was thrown up as flotsam and jetsam, including men cast away by wreck. One unlucky Portuguese was washed up, alive and wearing a pair of remarkable sea-boots. To get them, runs the slanderous tale, his legs were cut off. “And they are cursed down to the ninth generation,” say the seamen of Aberdovey; repeating, however little they are aware of it, the doom pronounced by the earliest Welsh tribal law.

The present church of Aberdovey is modern, and so are the bells. Until it was built, Aberdovey folk had to walk to Towyn, and the spot on the road from which they first caught sight of the building is still called Bryn Padria, from the paternosters pronounced by the devout.

Behind the Cefn Rhos ridge lies Cwm Dyffryn, a fine, somewhat rugged valley that the old guidebooks insisted on calling Happy Valley. Apparently no Welsh resort was considered respectable in late Victorian days unless it had a Happy Valley close at hand. This one has luckily been left in its natural state. On the hills near the top of the pass lies Llyn Barfog (Bearded Lake), a somewhat melancholy tarn.

Nearby towns: Aberystwyth, Dolgellau, Machynlleth, Tywyn

Nearby villages: Abergynolwyn, Aberllefenni, Borth, Bow Street, Bryn-crug, Capel Bangor, Corris, Eglwys Fach, Elerch, Esgairgeiliog, Llanbadarn Fawr, Llancynfelyn, Llanegryn, Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, Llangelynin, Llwyngwril, Pandy, Pantperthog, Penegoes, Pennal, Ponterwyd, Tal-y-Llyn, Talybont, Tonfanau, Tre-Taliesin, Upper Borth

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