(Banner photo above taken from www.heritageofwalesnews.blogspot.co.uk – Aberystwyth promenade July 1947)
Aberystwyth’s history goes all the way back to when the area was first made habitable after the retreat of glaciers after the ice age. There’s traces of Mesolithic man roaming the area. The first recorded history occurred in the middle ages when a Gilbert Fitz Richard built a fortress at the mouth of the Ystwyth.
The fortress/castle and settlement that grew up around it, suffered under various English monarchs and subsequent recapture by the Welsh including Owain Glyndwr between 1404 and 1408.
The town in the intervening years grew as a bustling market town with close links to the sea through the port that developed there due to the town being located on the mouth of the river Ystwyth. Aberystwyth, meaning ‘mouth of Ystwyth’. The town actually sits near the convergence of the river Ystwyth and the river Rheidol however despite the name, only the river Rheidol runs through it.
The historic market town like many others along the Welsh coast, went through a revolution with a tourism boom brought about by the arrival of the railways during the Victorian era. The first to arrive in the town was the Cambrian Railways Line from Machynlleth linking Aberystwyth to the North West of England. This led to the building of many hotels and fine Victorian townhouses and villas, leading the town to be once billed as the ‘Biarritz of Wales’ no less. Two of those such properties now make up the Glengower. One hotel that was built at the time just a few yards down the prom the Glengower was the Queens hotel, which later became Aberystwyth’s police station, then county offices and court and most recently used again as a police station for the set of the television show Hinterland. Another which began construction at the time was ‘The Castle Hotel’ the largest to be conceived. However bankruptcy led to the hotel never being completed and the building was sold off cheaply to the Welsh University Committee, a group of individuals dedicated to the creation of a Welsh University. And so it was in that building that the first University of Wales was established.
Aberystwyth University is home to over 7500 students who come to the town each year to study within one of the three main faculties of: arts, social sciences and the sciences. Established in 1872, Aberystwyth was the first university institution in Wales. Aberystwyth University has pioneered a number of academic disciplines – drama, geography, international politics and Welsh were first taught to degree level at Aberystwyth. An alumni of particular note is a certain HRH The Prince of Wales.
Royal Pier / Promenade & ‘Kicking the bar’
During the Victorian era, seaside towns were not only an escape from the grime of the industrial towns but Victorians also believed that sea water and sea air had great health benefits. Many thousands headed from the industrial towns of the midlands to the bracing coast of mid Wales and to the town of Aberystwyth. What better way to enjoy the sea and sea air (and empty tourists wallets) than a pier! The town’s Royal Pier was Wales’ first pier to open to the public on Good Friday 1865. The Pier has had a turbulent history being severely damaged by storms several times leading to shortenings, subsequent lengthening and then subsequent shortening by wind and waves.
As well as the pier Aberystwyth also has a stunning promenade, both attracting many visitors each year. The prom runs along the stretch of the bay covering a few stretches of golden sands and beautiful pebble beaches overlooked by the famous Constitution Hill. A lovely walk can be enjoyed up to Constitution Hill and the views that you get from the top are simply stunning. Or for those who aren’t so keen on the hill walk then there is the lovely Aberystwyth Cliff Railyway that takes you to top to the viewing point.
Whilst in Aberystwyth one mustn’t forget to partake in the tradition of ‘Kicking the Bar’, the practice of kicking the railings at the end of the promenade under Constitution hill, three times with one foot and then the other. This is to ensure your safe and healthy return to Aberystwyth in the future. It is unclear when and how this tradition started but there have been a number of suggestions over the years. Some of the most popular are;
Royalty and Prince Edward – When Prince Edward (later Edward VII) and Princess Alexandra visited Aberystwyth in 1894 they enjoyed a stroll along the promenade. The story goes that when he reached the northern end of the promenade, Prince Edward spotted that the lace of his shoe was untied. And in order to retie them he placed his shoe on the railing, after which people of the town followed suit in a somewhat distant tie to royalty and the good luck that might bring.
Alexandra Halls – Alexandra Halls situated beside the railings, were originally a female only halls, and it is suggested that male students would kill time by pacing up and down the prom and kick the rail out of boredom or just killing time until their suitor would leave the halls and they could accompany them on their walk into town.
Gallows & Hanging – In the days of hanging the gallows used to be located in the vicinity of the railings, it is believed the kicking of the rail could have been thought to ward off the evil spirits of those hanged on that spot.
Railings saving someone’s life – During the Great Strom of January 14th 1938 which destroyed much of Aberystwyth’s seafront, pier and promenade, a local boy named Evan Moore was caught by a huge wave outside of Alex Hall and he managed to grab hold of the railings which saved his life, hence the thought that locals then had an association with those railings being lucky.
Outbreak of TB – During the 1920s there was an outbreak of TB at the University among its students, those that contracted it were told to walk the full length of the promenade three times every day and to kick the rail at the end to ensure they walked the full length. The three times suggesting where the three kicks came from.
National Library of Wales
One of the most iconic buildings and attractions of Aberystwyth is the National Library of Wales which was established in 1907 and remains to this day an integral piece of both the history and the modern day, with many visitors passing through its doors each year.
Another interesting feature of the town is its castle, which sits high up on Castle Hill. This castle (or tower remains to be more precise!) that you can see today was built in 1277 by Edward I following the destruction of the previous castle by the Welsh, this castle was subsequently destroyed Cromwell’s troops during the English Civil War as the then owner occupier was a loyal Royalist whom raised a regiment of troops.
The impressive Aberystwyth railway station opened in the town on Good Friday in 1869 on the same day as the opening of the 292m long Royal Pier. The station was built to serve the Cambrian Lines Railway to the north to Machynlleth and the south to Carmarthen. This was the start of the Victorian tourism boom to the area which kick started the opening of many hotels and guesthouses and the building of many townhouses and villas for the rich Victorians.
The town also boasts a lovely harbour to the south of the town, although it is only small and not in great use today other than for leisure purposes, it did used to be an important Atlantic Ocean entryway. It was used to ship locally, to Ireland and as a trans-Atlantic departure point. The importance of maritime trade in the 19th century is reflected by the life boat station that was built in 1843 and still remains today. In those days however, it was a 27ft boat rowing boat not the 28 foot twin engined rib that is in use today! The RNLI took over the service in 1861 and established Aberystwyth Lifeboat Station. The lifeboat station still today remains an integral part of the community and well being of local sea goers.
More information can be found at www.aberystwyth.org.uk.