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Brecon, Powys. “An ancient town,” says Daniel Paterson's Direct and Principal Cross Roads of 1811, “called by the Welch Aber Honddey, being seated at the conflux of the Honddey and Uske rivers. Several Roman coins have been dug up at this place. Here are three Churches, one of which is collegiate; and a considerable trade in clothing is carried on. A little east of the town is a large Lake, abounding in fish.”

As usual in that work, the information is concise. Each shire-town in Wales has its own character, and Brecon, or Brecknock, is outstanding. It is a town apart from the rest of Wales and, to some extent, from Welsh history. Brecon concentrates upon its own cathedral, the Priory Church of St John, the centre of the diocese of Swansea and Brecon since 1923.

Its first connection with history seems to belong to the Iron Age hill-fort, Pen-y-crug, immediately to the North on a hill above the town, watching the valley-rivers. Otherwise there is no nearer human settlement than a probable lake-village at Llangorse and a Roman station at Y Gaer, about 3 miles out, excavated in the l920s and still showing masoned walls and warded gates. The ridge on which Aberhonddu (as the Welsh call Brecon) stands was not seen with a strategic eye until the Norman drove into Wales after his conquest of England. But the older name of Brecknock is a link with that time between the relaxation of direct Roman rule and the crystallization of British rule in Wales upon Aberffraw in Anglesey, Dynevor in the South, and Pengwern Amwythig (Shrewsbury) on the Severn. For Brecknock is derived from the original Welsh word Brycheiniog, which described the whole district ruled by the Brychein who, as one of the “sons” of Cunedda, reorganized the West of Britain in the 5th century. A thrust of Powys into the restive uplands of Wales founded Brecknockshire the Roman station may well have been reoccupied for that purpose, but this has not yet been proved. When Bernard of Neufmarché pushed his forces from the South into the Ellennith in the days of Henry I, and set his castle on the high ridge of Brecknock, he seems to have been the first to see it as a position of strength. He made it a town of Norman identity, with a bridge and a priory (the present cathedral), which was to be served by Benedictine monks brought from Battle Abbey, set up near the site of Senlac Hill where the Conqueror had, by a single stroke, defeated Saxon England and its King. But Brecknockshire had its own attitude to the Saxon. Like Cardiganshire, when both Wales and England were at odds with the Dane, it had sought alliance with Alfred; and whatever resentment it felt against the Norman it shared with Englishmen.

Today, Brecon is an English-speaking town with the sense of being an English cathedral city. It remembers Nest, the fatal princess who involved Bernard and his son in the feuds of the South when family hatreds made no distinction between Welsh and Norman: it remembers the Norman overlord, William de Braose, who succeeded to the Neufmarchés and had the young Trahaiarn of Wales treacherously mocked and slaughtered in its streets. But, after the total defeat of Henry I in the North East and the collapse of Anglo-Norman England itself under Stephen about 1150, Brecon town seems to have remained an unassailed island outpost, protected perhaps by the sanctity of its churches. Gerald de Barn visited it in 1188, shaking his head at the villainies that De Braose had perpetrated a generation before, but pointing out that at least the Norman overlord never failed to preface them by invoking the name of the Lord; and he adds a note on the miraculous powers lodged in the neighbouring Church of St David at Llanfaes, a suburb just over the river from the town. A boy who had chased a pigeon into the holy place found this sin punished when his hand stuck to a stone; it was not released until he had repented. The impression of the boy's fingers were there for all to see. The mistress of a Church dignitary in England, adds Gerald, had been similarly punished by finding herself stuck to a stone in his church. She had been more embarrassed than the boy, for she had sat on the stone, and could be removed only with damage to her underwear and what it clothed.

From Brecon Sir John Price, a true Welsh-man, sent his petition to Henry VIII, Tudor King of England, for the union in legal matters between Wales and England. The “maggotty-headed” John Aubrey, antiquarian under the Stuarts, lived here and lost the Welsh estates he had inherited; and in the 18th century the great actor and actress Charles Kemble and his sister Sarah, later known as Mrs Siddons, lived at 47 High Street, then the Shoulder of Mutton Inn.

A pleasant and prosperous place, Brecon still holds itself apart. It is a centre for education; there is a training college for Congregational students and a public schools in Llanfaes Christ's College, founded in 1541 as part of the great Tudor experiment in education and refounded in 1855.

The Cathedral still dominates the town and sets a note of bright respectability over its streets and people. Massively cruciform, it has a choir in Early English style, and a nave in the still later Decorated style. The font suggests some foundation older than that of the main building; its side chapels are evocative of the Middle Ages with their names of the corvizors (shoemakers), tailors, weavers, tuckers, and fullers. Apart from this reminder of the trade guilds, a chapel to the men of Battle and one to the red-haired men seem to speak of the first Norman intrusion. Although a small place called Battle is not far off, the name almost certainly derives from the Abbey near Senlac Hill; and there, if anywhere, the red-haired men must have been Normans. The Parish Church of St Mary is also of Norman foundation, with at least one pillar of Norman style, though the tower is 16th century. Of the castle only fragments remain, part in the gardens of the Castle Hotel and part in the Ely Tower, a residence of the Bishop where the overthrow of Richard III and accession of Henry VII was plotted.

Brecon is a monument to peace and beauty. Of all its inhabitants, Gerald de Barn, Arch-deacon of the Priory of St John, seems to have left the deepest mark. Charles I entered the place, more for meditation and despair than for war; and Brecon apparently escaped the Round-heads. Around it are the hills that Gerald loved: the Beacons and the Fanau, the Fforest Fawr and the Black Mountains, with the sight of Cader Idris to the North and the heads of Plynlimon beside it if the air is clear. Farm land and woodland lie around it, and the Usk, shaded with trees, runs by it as it did 150 years ago, when officers of Napoleon, spending their captivity here, went contemplatively by its side on the path still known as the Captains' Walk.

At Llwynllwyd, about 5 miles North West of Brecon. one of the most famous of the Nonconformist academies was founded, probably by Vavasor Griffiths, minister and schoolmaster at Maesgwyn, Beguildy, Radnorshire. He refused to have his academies in any town, but preferred the remoter countryside for the better moral growth of his pupils. He was a native of Beguildy, born there about 1688.

Nearby towns: Aberdare, Abergavenny, Builth Wells, Llandovery, Llanwrtyd Wells, Merthyr Tydfil, Pontardawe, Talgarth, Ystradgynlais

Nearby villages: Aber-Bran, Boughrood, Bronllys, Bwlch, Cathedine, Cray, Crickadarn, Cwmdu, Defynnog, Erwood, Felin Fach, Glasbury, Gwenddwr, Llandefalle, Llandeilo r-Fan, Llanfihangel-Nant-Bran, Llanfrynach, Llangorse, Llangynidr, Llanhamlach, Llansantffread, Llanspyddid, Llanstephan, Llowes, Llyswen, Lower Chapel, Merthyr Cynog, Pentre Bach, Sennybridge, Talybont-on-Usk, Tretower, Upper Chapel, Velindre, Ystradfellte

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