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Machynlleth in Powys

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Visit Machynlleth and the surrounding villages and stay in bed & breakfast accommodation:

Machynlleth, Powys. This fascinating market town stands inland, on the South side of the Afon Dyfi (Dovey), some 10 miles, from Aberdovey and 18 miles from Aberystwyth. Although the town itself has not many more than 2,000 inhabitants, its part in Welsh history has been considerable.

It was once thought to have been founded as a Roman military station, Maglona. But the late Protl Fleure, digging at a site on the hill Pen-yr-Ailt just above the town, discovered an Iron Age “Celtic” encampment, and undoubtedly from very early times the position occupied by Machynlleth was of first importance. The Dovey estuary makes a deep bite into the coastline of Wales from the Irish Sea, and the river-valley carries far into the run of hills at the centre of Wales, offering the shortest and easiest approach to the valleys of the Dee and Severn and the English Midlands. The Roman administration must have realized the significance of the area, since its roads have been traced leading to Machynlleth from the North through Corns and Esgairgeiliog and through Tal-y-bont and Taliesin from the South. A series of steps, now much reinforced with concrete but still largely hewn from a slope of rock, can be seen at the rear of the Plas Machynlleth on the Aberystwyth road; they are called the Roman Steps. The rock-hewn portion does not in fact date from before the 1870s, having been made for travel by horse into Machynlleth from the house near Glasbwll now known as Garthowen. All the same, the rock-slope itself probably belongs to a very old track leading to the town along what is now a pathway through the Plas parkland; it was originally the highway into Machynlleth, and was incorporated in the park by its owner about 1840. The hill from which the Roman Steps descend is called Wylfa (Watch-Place), and it may well have been connected with a military installation as far back as the Romans.

A later association may be with the Roman-British commander Maglocunos, who by tradition was proclaimed leader of the Cymnic forces rallied to oppose the Anglo-Saxon attack on Britain from the South and East in the middle of the 6th century. He is known in Welsh legend as Maelgwn. His installation was carried out on the sands of the Dovey estuary. Whether there is really a connection between the names Maglocunos and Machynlleth, we can only guess. The accepted derivation is from “maen” (stone-block, particularly a pointer-stone) and “cvnlleth” (wetness, in this case probably a river).

Later still, Machynlleth was chosen by Owain Glyndwr to be the capital of the Wales he had succeeded in freeing for some years from the rule of Henry IV. Dolgellau, Harlech, and Machynlleth were made in succession the place of assembly for his parliaments; but it was at Machynlleth - in 1404, when he had reached the pinnacle of his success that he was proclaimed King of Wales. This sealed the traditional importance of the town as the centre of a distinctive Welsh culture.

His Parliament House much extended and restored, now stands in the centre of Macn Gwyn Street immediately opposite the ornamented park gates of the Plas. The original structure is confined to the low and narrow run of rooms forming the Library. In the 19th century it played its part in the dominant economy of Machynlleth as a storehouse and carding-room for wool.

Machynlleth sprang from a combination of three hamlets, Pen-yr-Allt. Pentre Rhedyn (Fern Village), and Macn Uwyn; and the town grew steadily as a vital locus for the traffic of the day. The crags and morasses of the area northwards from the Dovey valley allow passage, North to South, only through the defiles from Corns and Dolgellau, and along the narrow coastal strip following the line of Cardigan Bay; and, East to West, along the river-line. This geographical problem is still only gradually being overcome; earlier centuries concentrated on the coach-roads clinging to the banks of the “Douey Fluvius” and converging mainly on Machynlleth. As a result, in the middle of the 19th century, the town had no fewer than twenty-four thriving inns.

Of these not many are left. The 18th century White Lion and Wynnstay Arms (originally the Herbert Arms) largely keep their traditional character. They stand about the road-junction in the heart of the town now marked by the Clock Tower. Another inn enjoys a wholly ghostly existence; although it was demolished to make way for a side road out of Maen Gwyn Street, the space it once occupied is still affectionately known as the Cross Pipes. The Red Lion, facing the Wynnstay Arms, is a smaller and perhaps even older hostelry; the Skinner's Arms is another such. The glory did not depart until the coming of the Cambrian Railway, but, with the decline of the railway system as a whole, the glory shows signs of returning.

The three original villages had their common centre at the Market Cross, replaced in 1873 by the Clock Tower, commemorating the family of the Marquesses of Londonderry, who had become owners of the Plas. A photograph of the Market Cross on its original site can be seen in the Owen Glyndwr Institute. This building is celebrated in literature through the visit of George Borrow, who, about 1860, entered it to observe various trials before the magistrates, mainly of local townsfolk for the heinous crimes of poaching salmon from the Dovey waters. Whatever his views on the legal points involved, Borrow had no great opinion either of the offenders or of the keepers who gave evidence against them, it must be admitted that this matter of poaching is another age-old tradition of which Machynlleth is proud. The Dovey is noted for its salmon; in the 1920s the war between private owners of fishing rights and the town, a constant series of night battles between gangs and wardens, culminated in open riot by day. The municipality has now acquired control of rights in fishing the waters and issues licences for the appropriate fee. Whether under these changed conditions poaching has been given up is a delicate question. Besides salmon, the rivers and streams in the immediate area provide excellent trout.

At the upper end of Maen Gwyn Street stands a genuine survival of Machynlleth's Jacobean prosperity, a typical early l7th century building that gives the effect of half-timbering although the front is worked in local slate. It appears to be inscribed “1628 OWEN PVQH 10 VXOY”. The lettering really means that the house was the property of one Owen Pugh and his wife(UXOR); that is, of a Machynlleth notable who, it seems, acquired the property through his wife. If permission is obtained, a visitor may be shown, inside the house, a striking example of the family tree. worked in plaster over the chimney-breast as a many-branched apple tree with the names in line of descent painted on each branch.

A little further into the town, now set against a house wall, is the ancient monument from which the street takes its name: the Maen Gwyn itself. It is in two fragments, but its first shape as a single direction-stone is clear. As such, it belongs to the remotest history of the Dovey valley. Its companions can be traced on the bank of the Dulas at Penegoes; at the road-junction at Abergwydol, lying beyond Penegoes: and, shattered, along several remote lanes winding through the Plynlimon foothills. Such early signposts of a pre-Christian and pre-Roman society were often deliberately broken as pagan symbols. Most of such destructive efforts. however, were made in the reforming days of Henry VIII and the even fiercer period of Cromwell. The Second Civil War, as it is called, which followed the execution of Charles I in 1649, took place mainly in Wales: after the Protectorate had succeeded in pacifying the country, it was heavily garrisoned, and much of its memoried past enshrined in monuments and language was suppressed. The name Staylittle, found as small villages here and there in the district, is said to mark the establishment of such temporary garrison outposts. In Machynlleth itself, the names of side streets, such as Garsiwn (Garrison) and Barracks, belong to this period.

Maen Gwvn has a remarkable line of houses from the 17th, 18th, and early 19th centuries, outstanding in a country that has not in the past been greatly concerned with town architecture, but has preferred to concentrate on village and farm. Several of the houses admittedly need preservation; but the street is a living whole.

Threatened by floods that still at times fill the Dovey valley from side to side. Machynlleth took the precaution of building, particularly against the low-lying fields, a series of high slate-pile walls intersecting each other at right angles. Once very evident, they are now largely dismantled, but one at least can still be seen running alongside the road as it passes below the railway bridge by the station.

A little below the site of the Clock Tower, at the corner of a steeply dropping line of cottages, stands Royal House. Its street-front in later years was converted into a shop; but it is a house of late medieval construction with rooms and fireplaces and narrow windows typical of its period. Tradition says that it was the resting-place of Henry Tudor on his way to Bosworth Field and the winning of the Crown of Britain as Henry VII of England; it is respected as commemorating the achievement of an ambition that inspired Owain Glyndwr and the Princes of Powys long before him. It may also have associations with the Royalist cause during the Second Civil War, since the royal visitor is alternatively taken to be Charles I. A persistent legend insists that a tunnel runs from beneath it, under the Dovey itself, to emerge as far away as Pennal, also the site of a Roman military station.

Machynlleth Plas is now the property of the town and houses its offices. It was given to the town by the late Marquess of Londonderry shortly before the Second World War. It was owned in the early part of the 19th century by one Sir John Edwardes and passed to the Londonderry family by way of marriage. It is mainly 17th century, with considerable 19th century additions, but a portion of the fabric at the rear is 16th century. The grounds are extensive and take in the hilly woodland known as Llynlloedd that rises between Machynlleth and Glasbwll. Beneath these hills, and close to the Dylife road, is another Plas called Llynlloedd.

Notable in present-day Machynlieth are the church and Dyfi Bridge. The church, grey and dignified, has a set of houses by its entrance, built typically of the local slate-stone and dating to the days of Machynlleth's earlier prominence. The churchyard is filled with graves of the late 18th and early 19th centuries; the banker, the merchant, the gentleman, the naval surgeon who were aware of Nelson and Napoleon as contemporaries still lie there side by side. And for us the occasional lines of verse contrive to make them live again:

Before the Infant knew his mother's name
Or seemed to know her only by her smile,
Unsparing Death with speed relentless came
And snatched him from his mother's arms awhile.

The separation was not long endured
Ere they again did meet in love more pure,
Where they an everlasting life will lead,
From death, from sorrow and from pain secure.

Nearby towns: Aberystwyth, Dolgellau, Llanfair Caereinion, Llanidloes, Newtown

Nearby villages: Aber Cywarch, Aberangell, Aberdovey, Abergynolwyn, Aberllefenni, Arthog, Barmouth, Borth, Bryn-crug, Caersws, Cemmaes Road, Corris, Cross Foxes, Darowen, Dinas Mawddwy, Dylife, Eglwys Fach, Elerch, Esgairgeiliog, Llanbrynmair, Llancynfelyn, Llanegryn, Llanfihangel-y-Pennant, Llanwrin, Llwyngwril, Mallwyd, Pandy, Pantperthog, Penegoes, Pennal, Pennant, South Beach, Staylittle, Tal-y-Llyn, Talybont, Tre-Taliesin, Upper Borth

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