Llandeilo: The Town Walk
about 30 minutes
The Llandeilo you see today is a creation of late Georgian and Victorian Britain. The town did not encounter forces that resulted in the destructive redevelopment of many other ancient market centres. Its streets and buildings, unified by style and scale, are a unique encapsulation of the period. It is possible for pedestrians to re-create, in the mind's eye, the web of social, economic and religious forces that spread rapidly through England into Wales at the beginning of the industrial revolution. This may be set against the background of 1200 years of social history.
Leave the central car park by the vehicle entrance and turn right into Crescent Road. Walk to the railings in front of the Council Offices.
The first historical communities of the Llandeilo area were small, scattered, and usually clustered around an old church. Each was a basic Welsh social unit called a 'llan'; the nearest English concept would be 'Christian enclosure'.
The 'llan' system possibly dates from the post-Roman missionary activities of churchmen from Ireland; Llandeilo (St Teilo's Llan) is presumed to date from the mid-6th century. This site is typical of such sites throughout Wales in terms of its secluded location on a wooded hillside. They became meeting places for country folk and were the sites of the earliest markets.
Since people first came to Wales, the valley of the Tywi below has always been an important east-west communication route. When the Normans entered the valley from the south, at the end of the eleventh century, they found wooded hillsides and marshy valleys. The large wooded area to the left, gives idea of the appearance of the untamed Tywi landscape. They consolidated their military hold with a string of motte and bailey bridgeheads along the northern banks of the river and for the next 400 years, Llandeilo was in the front line of most Anglo-Welsh skirmishes and major military confrontations.
As a political policy the Norman warlords created civil settlements dependent on their castles. Some of he older Welsh communities were expanded and reorganized along the lines of the English boroughs, the settlers often coming from England. Quite early on, Llandeilo became part of the estate of the Bishopric of St Davids and, unlike the 'planted boroughs' of the Normans, it was predominantly Welsh, with strong ecclesiastical connections. However, it was more often than not under English military control, being destroyed by Welsh forces in 1213 and again in 1403.
It may seem that the position where you are standing would have made an ideal site for a castle, but the town was never a military outpost, despite the fact that it was at a very important river crossing. There was a much better natural basis for a fortification about a mile to the west of the town in the adjacent parish of Llandyfeisant This became the separate military settlement of Dinefwr which controlled the bridgehead and a major east-west route through the hills north of the town.
Walk down Crescent Road to the Ebenezer Chapel
Behind the chapel is the site of an enclosure which once belonged to the rich Premonstratensian Abbey of Talley, sited about 8 miles to the north. The enclosure, called Abbots Barn field, contains a chapel and a tithe barn and could be reached from the valley by the track up the bill below the railings. Crescent Road was not built until the mid-19th century. This track, known locally as Ysgubor Abad - the 'Abbot Barn' - now reaches the crest of the hill at an acute angle by the junction of Crescent Road and Abbey Terrace, The early town was therefore associated with an influential, commercially minded monastic community, which had large agricultural estates in the northern countryside and exerted a dominant ecclesiastical influence on the neighbourhood. This relationship was probably the key to the post-Norman establishment of Llandeilo as a trading centre.
Walk to the junction of Abbey Terrace and Ysgybor Abad and right along Abbey Terrace to the battlemented wall.
The high stone wall between nos 5 and 7 is listed as being of special architectural interest. The ground level behind it is much higher than the road and it appears to have been built to support a cutting between the former Abbey property and the churchyard. The wall seems at one time to have been part of a much longer structure, older than the houses on either side, and may possibly be based on a boundary wall protecting the Abbot's property and stores. Since the mid-19th century it has enclosed a private ornament garden.
Return to the road junction
Most landscape features are older than we think and Ysgubor Abad could well be the northern portion of the first prehistoric route across the valley. It now leads to a footbridge, constructed when the railway embankment cut the original route to a ford or ferry. A walk down and up again will give you an appreciation of the problems of medieval pedestrians and will present the town in a different, dramatic perspective. The large, double stone house, on the corner of Ysgubor Abad and Church Street called Mount Pleasant in early documents, is one of the oldest buildings in the town. It may have been a farmhouse with lands on the riverside.
Continue down Church Street and enter the Churchyard
The social origins of Llandeilo are bound up with the site of St. Teilo's Churchyard, enclosing a hill which physically still dominates the old town. The church was an important scholastic foundation and was regarded as the 'clas' or mother church of the surrounding district of Llandeilo Fawr. It lost this dominance to become a parish church in 1100 when the role of the 'clas' was taken over by Talley Abbey. The very large size of the parish called Llandeilo Fawr indicates the former importance of the church estate. Evidence for it being an early centre of learning is a Celtic illuminated manuscript, which used to be kept in the church but is now in Lichfield Cathedral. Four stone crosses occur in or near the town dating from the 7th to the 9th centuries, two of which are from the church and churchyard. All bear testimony to Llandeilo's pre-Norman religious importance.
Teilo played an important part in the consolidation of the Welsh church in the latter part of the 5th century. One manuscript describes him as being a son of a king of Ireland and throughout his career he was at the centre of Welsh religious and political affairs. Unfortunately nothing definite is known about his connection with Llandeilo. The cult of St Teilo flourished in the middle ages and even challenged that of St. David.
The church, apart from the tower, was completely rebuilt in 1848 to designs by Sir George Gilbert Scott. Local comment at the time suggests that many people were disappointed that sufficient funds were not available to build a tower in keeping with the style of the new nave.
After examining the church return to Church Street and examine the spring set into an alcove.
The fact that Teilo was said to have died in Llandeilo probably reinforced the reputation of the town as a place of pilgrimage. St. Teilo's baptistery, a well associated with a spring rising out of a bed of sand in the churchyard, was probably a focus of this activity. No doubt this unfailing water supply was the most important physical factor that determined the site of the original settlement. Until the 1860s it was the principal source of water for the town and the spring had been augmented by about 30 hand pumps throughout the town.
Opposite the alcove is private gated drive. This is the site of second ancient track from the town to the fields. South of the church the land falls steeply away to the valley bottom and as you move further down to Bridge Street you will notice the large amount of excavation that has been involved making terraces for the road and the houses, yards, and allotments to the left.
Continue on down Church Street to the junction with Bridge Street and Quay Street
You are now in the area of the earliest settlement. The Norman town grew up just above a bridge-crossing of the Tywi, which is mentioned in manuscripts of 1289. Most of the early land allotments, called burgages, were below the church. Old maps show that the area between Quay Street and Ysgubor Abad was divided into about 50 small compartments, mostly for cultivation. They probably mark the properties of 30 burgesses recorded in the rent roll of the Bishop of St David's for the year 1326. They each paid one shilling for their land, and there were eleven other residents who each paid fourpence for the Bishop's protection. Mention is also made of a mill and the town as allowed a weekly market and three annual fairs.
Quay Street is an anglicised form of 'cae', the Welsh for meadow. Heol-y-Cae (Quay Street) was the third old track from the town, which used to lead to the cultivation terraces and river pastures. The eastern side of Bridge Street was not built up until the second half of the 19th century. Before that it consisted of about 12 narrow cultivation strips at right angles to the road. The remains of the old system of terraced cultivation, by which the townspeople grew their own crops, can be seen over the wall to the left just above the bridge.
Continue down to the bridge
The river has never been navigable for trade above Carmarthen. It has numerous shallows, which nevertheless provided useful summer fords. The river has always yielded plentiful fish and the local fishermen in the valleys developed the round, skin-covered, basket-boat called a coracle which, until recently, was used by Llandeilo fishing families to catch salmon, sea trout, eels and lampreys.
The present single-span bridge was constructed in 1848, replacing a previous dilapidated structure which a painting, dated 1750, depicts with two stone supports, one on either side of the river, connected by a wooden roadway carried on wooden piles. The wooden centre-piece replaced two former stone arches which had been destroyed by floods.
Cross the road and walk to the middle of the bridge
The old bridge crossed the river slightly downstream from the new one and was reached from a wide causeway at the bottom of Bridge Street. This causeway is the wide opening at an angle to the main road, now only giving access to the flood plain pastures. One of the old bridge abutments may be seen built into its stone embankment. It is also the start of an ancient track, terraced above flood level, to Llandyfeisant Church and Dinefwr Castle. This track was the medieval southern route to the castle and its paired boroughs of Dinefwr and Dinefwr Newtown. It is a right of way to the church and the ruined castle.
Before the new bridge was built, the road from the south ran alongside Bridge Farm below you, which is now dwarfed by the construction of the southern bridge viaduct. Until the road improvements of the 20th century, most traffic from London to Southern Ireland used to pass over Llandeilo bridge, then travel along the southern bank of the Tywi to Carmarthen.
The rail link with Llanelli bridged the river in 1857 to connect Llandeilo with ports of the Bristol Channel and with the south Wales main line to Bristol and London. Eventually the continuation of the Llanelli line through mid-Wales opened up commercial links between Llandeilo and the English Midlands. There also used to be a western branch line down the Tywi valley to Carmarthen which was closed in 1964.
Look back up Bridge Street
The medieval bridgehead was not controlled by the town, which had its southern boundary about 50 yards up the hill at No 11 Bridge Street. The causeway, the allotments to the south below the road, the first seven terraced houses on the north of Bridge Street and Myrtle Hill behind, belonged to the western parish of Llandyfeisant. The significance of the apparently anomalous position of the parish boundary is that the military garrison of Dinefwr, the major settlement in Llandyfeisant, was in charge of the river crossing, and not the townspeople of Llandeilo.
The building of the new high-level bridge meant that the road into the centre of the town had to be graded above the old track to the causeway. The steepness of the old road can be appreciated by walking up the original flagged path below the present road level. The construction of the bridge had the local impact of a modern motorway flyover.
Return up Bridge Street to the junction with Bank Street
Once, all medieval traffic through the town had to negotiate a steep and tortuous route up Bank Street to your left. The terracing of Church Street and the Abbey Terrace cutting were 13th century attempts to improve the movement of coaches around the eastern side of the churchyard. A later, more drastic, attempt at road improvements was the cutting made through the graveyard at the beginning of the 19th Century. Bank Street remains as a fossilized reminder of what it was like to traverse the old town. A hundred years ago all the streets of the town were mostly bare rock like Bank Street. The steep ones, such as lower Bridge Street, were strewn with rushes to prevent horses slipping.
The hilly terrain has always presented the townsfolk with transport and building problems. The numerous cul-de-sacs off the main roads, which lead to small building platforms terraced out of the rock, such as the Myrtle Hill entries off Bank Street to the left, are an indication of these constraints. An idea of the original uncompromising topography that met the first settlers can be obtained by looking into the churchyard from the top of the hill.
Walk up Bank Street to the junction with George Hill and King Street
The present townscape of Llandeilo originated in the late 18th century and most of the present buildings of the old town date from the first half of the 19th century. This was the time when the small thatched houses walled with earth and stones became inadequate for an expanding population, which doubled between 1800 and 1830.
King Street below you was named to commemorate a short visit by George IV (George Hill also commemorates this special day). The English street names of Llandeilo originated at the turn of the 18th century when the majority of the population were Welsh speaking, an indication of the dominance of the town's affairs by an Anglo-Welsh squirearchy. The triangle of buildings at the bottom of King Street was built on the site of the medieval market place as land became scarce. With the loss of this open space the market had to be held in the remaining cramped area between the houses and the churchyard wall. Every Saturday the livestock sales overspilled into Abbey Terrace where animals, the pigs in particular, added to the traffic congestion. Records of the 13th century tell us that the wares of the merchants were displayed on the gravestones.
Walk up George Hill
The large house at the bend, where the road turns right into George Street, used to be the rectory. Before becoming the rectory it was the Old George Hotel, a large inn with a broad thatched roof. The petty sessions of the court used to be held there and it was a centre of the social life of the town, particularly on market days and fairs.
In 1843 it housed part of a regiment of soldiers, based at Dinefwr Castle, called in to quell the so-called Rebecca Riots. The 'Beccaites' or' 'Beccas' were a South Wales manifestation of the countryman's opposition to the principle of paying to use the newly improved turnpike roads. The social grievance lasted about two years and resulted in the destruction of several toll gates. A local folk hero of this time was Dai y Cantwr (David the Singer) who received a 20 year prison sentence of transportation for being connected with the riots.
Just over a hundred years ago George Hill was looked after by a lady named Mary Patch, who swept the road four times a day, a reminder of the 'manure problem' associated with horse-drawn transport. Llandeilo has always taken a pride in the cleanliness of the town. Before the local government reorganization, when the Town Council was in charge of its public health services, the roads used to be swept early every Sunday morning so that people could walk to church through clean streets.
Go up George Street to the junction with Carmarthen Street and turn left
Carmarthen Street marks the northern limit of the old town of Llandeilo, and the land to the north side was originally occupied by stables, stores and other non-residential buildings. The name Carmarthen Street dates only from the time when road improvements enabled traffic to go from Llandeilo to Carmarthen through the northern hills instead of going by way of Bridge Street and the road which ran along the southern side of the Tywi river.
Turn left up Carmarthen Street to the junction with New Street
The two impressive buildings at the top of the hill are, on the left, the old school and on the right, the covered market. This was the Upper Market specially built in 1638 as a provisions and livestock market with an integral abattoir which used to house a livestock fair on the first Tuesday of every month. It is now an engine workshop.
The stone building on the left housed the National Schools of Llandeilo. It was built so well by local masons that it is said their handiwork produced a contract to construct a London town house for the Rothschild aristocracy. They journeyed to London only to become involved in a strike; it took them twelve days walking to get back to Llandeilo, along the route of the modern A40.
New Road, until recently part of the A40 trunk road, was constructed in 1837 as part of a housing development north of the town. In effect it functioned as a by-pass allowing east-west through-traffic to avoid the town centre. It began in 1777 as a private coach-road through fields constructed by Lord Dynevor to enable his private coach 1o travel east from Llandeilo without having to negotiate the narrow town streets.
Just beyond the school on the left is the entrance to Penlan Park. This is the start of another walk through the Castle Woods Nature Reserve to Dinefwr Castle.
Turn back down Carmarthen Street to where it widens at the Shire Hall
The Shire Hall was built in 1802 when the town was expanding as a civic centre of Carmarthenshire. The upper floors contained courts for the sessions and a grand jury room. A corn market used to be held on the ground floor every Saturday, coinciding with the market in King Street. For a time it was the headquarters of the Carmarthenshire Constabulary.
Rhosmaen Street. Rhosmaen means 'stony moorland'. As the name of one of the hamlets of Llandeilo Fawr, it illuminates the inhospitable landscape character of the northern limits of the original settlement. It has always been the main route in and out of the town, but only began to be developed with buildings when the population increased at the end of the 18th century. The lower part of Rhosmaen Street was already built up in 1800 but the upper part only had 'some straw thatched houses of the poorest description' and was closed by a toll-gate called 'the Gurrey Fach'.
Cross the road into Abbey Terrace, opposite
Nos 3 & 4 are the site of the Llandeilo Bank started by David Jones & Co. which opened in 1842 and issued its own bank notes. The first town bank was Lord Dynevor's Savings Bank which opened in 1802. This period of private banking marked the start of a prosperous time for Llandeilo and other towns of the Tywi Valley. The goodwill of the many small bankers of South Wales was eventually bought up by Lloyds Bank, which also had its beginnings as a private Welsh bank.
Return and look up Rhosmaen Street
The Bear Hotel, now the much-modified Cawdor Arms, was one of the first of several new buildings to be put up as Rhosmaen Street which began to be developed in the 1770s. Church Square, now marked by the slight widening of the roadway in front of the Cawdor Arms, used to be the venue of an annual hiring fair, where farm servants and Labourers presented themselves for service on a yearly basis. Another building of this time was the Calvinistic Methodist Chapel of 1779, behind the east side of the street.
The Bear had a more refined clientele than the George. The long room over the stables was the centre for election banquets and balls. It was also used for theatrical performances with notable touring actors. Llandeilo, which was, after all, the county town of Carmarthenshire, had become a wintering place for local landowners, many of them building substantial houses for seasonal use.
Walk up Rhosmaen Street to the archway on the right leading to the White Horse public house
The were many inns in early 19th century Llandeilo, indicating the importance of travel to the town's economy. Two typical ones, The White Horse and The Castle, are reached by separate alleyways from the right hand side of Rhosmaen Street. They catered for the many travellers who passed through the town on two main stagecoach routes to Carmarthen, one along the Tywi Valley from London and South West England, and the other from Swansea and the south. The inns were also the venue of drovers and corn traders. In this respect Llandeilo was the centre of several prosperous agricultural trading routes.
Continue to the entry leading right, to the Public Hall and Literary Institute
The Public Hall and Literary Institute developed from the old Mechanic's Institute, At the beginning of the 19th century every town with aspirations to social pre-eminence established a Mechanics Institute which in Llandeilo had "for its main object the cultivation and improvement of the intellectual faculties by means of discussion classes, the reading of essays, the establishment: of' a good library, and by the delivery of addresses".
Walk up Rhosmaen Street to the archway on the right opposite the Post Office
You now have the option of returning to the car park through the archway or taking a walk through the side road by the Post Office called Bank Buildings, which leads to New Road. By turning right at the New Road junction you can reach the top of Rhosmaen Street, continue across to Abbey Crescent and so complete a circuit of the town, This final section enables you to see the wide variety of buildings which were associated with the development of the northern part of Llandeilo in late Victorian and Edwardian times.
By the mid-19th century the vital statistics of the town were: Population, about 1300; 290 houses, 11 streets, 73 shops, 23 public houses; 4 chapels; and a church. In 1879 most of the properties in the town and the surrounding fields, which belonged to the Gulston family, were sold in anticipation of rapid development. All was set for a period of increased prosperity. Unfortunately this did not occur. Llandeilo, like most other small country towns dependent upon agricultural trade generated by a scattered population, slipped into decline. In this respect the region's centre of gravity shifted south to the Amman Valley and the Swansea mining valleys. This fear was voiced as early as 1858 by William Davies, a local businessman and bard, when writing about the modern amenities which were just beginning to make their appearance in Llandeilo.
Davies was an articulate promoter of Llandeilo. He wrote, "it may be fairly hoped that our men of substance will now, that all the conditions necessary for the sustenance of a successful trade in many of its forms exist in the precincts of old Llandeilo, either individually or jointly, bestir themselves to prevent the town, as a town, from being sucked of its means, or altogether swamped in the rapid growth of Llanelly and Swansea."
Local 'men of substance' did bestir themselves but the southern industrial magnet resulted in the rapid creation of towns from communities that in 1850 were smaller than Llandeilo. It is this arrested urban development that preserved Llandeilo as a rare, varied mixture of late Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian buildings, and makes the town so instructive to the pedestrian. Nevertheless, the lack of early development has brought added problems to the present population in a period when much larger centres of population are also suffering from a recession in trade and industry.
Produced by Professor David Bellamy, Cardiff University and Ian S. Watt, Dyfed Wildlife Trust, Llandeilo, 1986. Deposited in Llandeilo Library. If you want a copy for a walk through Llandeilo you can print it off from this screen.