The Barmouth Heritage Trail starts from Talbot Square, just a few paces from the fine Victorian Railway Station. The square takes its name from Mrs Fanny Talbot, one of the principal figures in Barmouth’s history. Born in Somerset she moved to Barmouth in 1873 following her husband’s death and devoted herself to local philanthropic work. From the square many of the buildings from the town’s Victorian and Edwardian heyday are still visible. To the right, the round topped building, (now a DIY store), was once the home to motor charabancs and coaches that served to take visitors to the many attractions nearby. To the left the town library still operates on the square.
Looking towards the hills it is easy to make out The Arches, small individual shop units but conceived as a single and uniform development. Each has always developed its own individuality with successive owners. To the right hand side of the Arches the small road leads up to the first stop on the trail, St. Johns Church. You will pass the former Church Hall, built in 1910 and paid for by Mrs. Williams, the former Mrs Perrins, (see No. 1). It followed the style of St. John’s Church.
1. St John's Church (1895)
The original Anglican church in Barmouth was near the harbour, (see No 5), but with the influx of tourists following the arrival of the railway in 1867 it became apparent that a much bigger church was needed. St. John’s was built on a platform blasted from the hillside and red stone and slate form this hugely impressive and commanding presence over the town. It owes its existence to the determination – and money – of Mrs Sarah Perrins, (the widow of James Dyson Perrins who, together with John Wheeley Lea, created Lea and Perrins Worcester Sauce). It was built between 1889, when Queen Victoria’s daughter Beatrice laid the foundation stone before a great crowd, and 1895. In between, in 1891, the great tower collapsed into the nave, destroying much of the building, but Mrs Perrins again helped with a further donation of £15,000 to complete the church.
The church is usually open seasonally for visitors.
2. Dinas Oleu
Dinas Oleu, (‘Fortress of Light’), was a Roman-period hill fort on a four and a half acre parcel of land. It was the first property to be given to help form the National Trust and was donated in 1895 by Mrs Fanny Talbot, a local landowner and philanthropist who was a major figure in Barmouth.
Mrs Talbot said at the time, "I have long wanted to secure for the public for ever the enjoyment of Dinas Oleu, but wish to put it to the custody of some society that will never vulgarise it, or prevent wild nature from having its way. I have no objection to grassy paths or stone seats in proper places but I wish to avoid the abomination of asphalt paths and the cast-iron seats of serpent design which disfigure so largely our public parks, and it appears to me that your association has been born in the nick of time."
A stone seat marks the National Trust Centenary of the donation. It is a remarkably atmospheric location, looking out over Cardigan Bay, and a few moments here contemplating what life on this hill top site must have been like can be very sobering.
3. The Frenchman's Grave
During the 1870s a white haired man could often be seen tending the terraced gardens that he had carved out of this inclement rock on the slopes above Old Barmouth. Auguste Guyard was a Frenchman who had come to Britain with his daughter to escape the Franco-Prussian War of 1871 and took up a quiet life in Barmouth. John Ruskin, a poet and social reformer, had been given some cottages by Mrs Fanny Talbot for a social housing project. Guyard, who had tried to set up a similar social commune in France, met Ruskin as one of his cottage tenants and they found they had much in common. They became friends and the two of them tended the land on these slopes extensively, growing herbs, flowers and vegetables. Guyard gained a reputation as a plantsman, a herbalist and a radical thinker, however he succumbed to illness and died in 1883. His wish was to be buried on the slopes he tended so lovingly and the NT now looks after his grave - a fitting tribute. He composed his own epitaph which can be seen by the grave:
Here lies the sower who
Sowed right up to his grave,
Truth, Goodness and Beauty,
Through a thousand battles of
the pen and of the hands.
Such works in this world are
not compensated for.
4. Old Town
Many people who visit Barmouth never discover Old Barmouth, or The Rock as it is commonly called by locals, and yet is probably the most notable feature of the town and quite unique in its character and setting. Here are the remnants of the earliest settlement in Barmouth, when the small port served a coastal trade in goods and the fishing of herring. Much of the town was rebuilt as the 19th century progressed but the character of this area retains its special nature. The winding alleys that climb up and around the largely 18th and 19th century cottages give wonderful views over the town, sea and estuary and the steepness means you often look down the chimneys of the houses below you. It is well worth wandering these paths and you won’t get lost!
Among these cottages were several presented by Mrs Fanny Talbot to the Guild of St. George. The Guild had been founded in 1871 by John Ruskin, the famous artist and polemicist/philanthropist. He wished to establish a community to promote the well being and happiness of working men and to prevent them from slipping into beggary/poverty. Of the 13 cottages originally taken on by Ruskin 9 remain. Ruskin kept the existing tenants at the set rents. In one of these, 2 Rock Cottage, lived the Frenchman Auguste Guyard and his daughter, (see 3). He was certainly a kindred spirit of Ruskin for he was exiled after he had fallen out with the authorities in his homeland for promoting similar ideas.
Gibraltar Cottage probably dates from the late seventeenth century and is therefore one of the oldest cottages on 'The Rock'. The origin of the name is not certain but in the book by Rev. J Evans, ‘A Tour Through Part of North Wales in 1798’, this steeply sloping site is ‘said to resemble the town of Gibraltar’.
5. St David's Church (1830)
There are one or two buildings in Barmouth built from this remarkable green slate stone. St David’s Church was the first, in 1830. A simple Gothic cruciform church, designed by the architect Edward Haycock the Elder of Shrewsbury, it was the first Anglican church in Barmouth. When initially built at a cost of £2000 it was almost on the beach. Built on the site of a former shipyard, there was considerable local opposition to the construction, the opposing faction contending that sand-drifts would make the approach practically inaccessible, and for some years after opening the congregation were indeed greatly annoyed by sand-drifts!
6. The Sailor's Institute (1890) and "The Last Haul" Sculpture (2000)
Built in 1896 by Canon Edward Hughes to provide a ‘Christian haven’, the Sailors Institute is a reading and rest room for local and visiting sailors and features a remarkably preserved Victorian reading room which can still be enjoyed by visitors who venture into this small building. It was renovated in 1984 and subsequently given back its corrugated cladding of iron. The Reading Room is open daily to all members of the public free of charge, (closed Sundays November to April). Newspapers and magazines are available for reading and there are many photographs and sea charts depicting Barmouth’s maritime history.
A video showing the interior can be found here.
Almost opposite the Institute, (under the railway bridge), is a splendid sculpture by local artist Frank Cocksey. Called the ‘Last Haul’ it shows three generations of fishermen bringing in a catch and is carved from the famous Italian Carrara marble from Tuscany in Italy. This block was part of a cargo of marble found in the wreckage of an ancient ship that came to grief off the coast about four miles north of Barmouth. It is believed the ship went down in 1709 and it is known as the Bronze Bell Wreck. One theory suggests that the marble cargo was destined for St Paul’s Cathedral. A fascinating exhibition including information on the wreck can be seen a short way along the harbour in Ty Gwyn, (See 7).
7. Tŷ Gwyn (c1465)
One of the oldest buildings in the county, Tŷ Gwyn, (‘White House’), dates to around 1465 and is a mediaeval first floor hall with a cellar below and the first building we know existed in Barmouth. Historically, the building was said to have been erected by a local member of the gentry, one Gruffydd Vaughan - a Lancastrian supporter. It was to provide a safe house for meetings with Jasper Tudor, uncle of the future king Henry VII, in planning the overthrow of the Yorkists during the Wars of the Roses. The building was said to afford an easy getaway to sea. Did Tŷ Gwyn stand alone or were there other buildings here? We can only wonder but an Elizabethan survey on havens and creeks, conducted in 1565 in order to combat piracy, records just four houses in Barmouth/ Abermowe(sic).
Referred to as a storehouse in 19th century deeds Tŷ Gwyn was converted to form a number of tenements to let. In the 1970s it was recognised as being the building mentioned in early poetry, but thought lost, and it was restored to something like its original form. It now houses a fascinating museum in the former hall, (open afternoons in season), and a café below, so the whole building can be viewed.
8. Tŷ Crwn (1834)
This unusual building was constructed to lock-up the drunks and ne’er-do-wells that must have frequented a busy port like Barmouth. It was built in 1833, at the orders of the local magistrates, to a circular design so that the Devil would have no corners to hide in! The space was divided into two halves by a curtain wall to enable the holding of male and female drunks separately. There are newspaper accounts of people being locked up for merely being without a home for the night – for their own safety! The interior has been partly restored and includes two figures showing what life was like as a prisoner in the 1830s.
9. Bath House
The first bath house was built around 1805 by William Barnett, innkeeper at the Cors y Gedol Arms Hotel (see 21), and has had several alterations that have enlarged it suggesting they were very successful. The modern version bears little resemblance to its earliest form. It was first built to provide private bathing for visitors to the town, including delightful sounding seaweed baths. Today it is a thriving coffee shop and ice cream parlour.
10. Ynys y Brawd
The dunes adjacent to Barmouth used to be an island, known as Ynys-y-Brawd, (“Island of the Brothers”), which was inaccessible by foot other than at very low tides. John Leland, the Elizabethan traveller, described it in around 1549 as ‘being two bow shots from land’. The ferocious tides were extremely dangerous and attempts were made to site a light beacon on the island but this was destroyed by a storm. The dangerous currents claimed many lives and a linking barrier/wall was built during the late 1960’s/early 70’s as part of a wider flood prevention scheme to prevent further loss of life. The ‘Brothers’ of the islands name may well have been Friars associated with the Cistercian monks of Cymer Abbey in nearby Dolgellau.
11. Habour Master's Building - Penycai (19th C)
What is now the Harbour Master’s Office was once the abode of fishermen and old photographs show the house rising from the rocks and sea. It now also carries a plaque that commemorates Harold Lowe, 5th Officer on the Titanic, who bravely saved many lives on the terrible night in 1912 when the ship went down. He lived in Barmouth for a number of years. Lowe’s fame came from his use of the Titanic lifeboat but Barmouth had launched its first lifeboat in 1828 and has done magnificent service ever since in attending the many calls for help, saving many lives.
12. The Habour or Quay
If Barmouth’s early heritage can be seen in Old Barmouth the breath-taking vista enjoyed from the Quay in some ways says everything about the town’s later development.
As you would imagine the early settlement in Barmouth was centred along the water’s edge but the town was laid out along one main road with buildings initially clustered around the harbour and then developed northwards as the town grew. The earliest building is Ty Gwyn built around 1465 but most of the few early buildings now date from the 17th century onwards. The town gradually developed, largely thanks to maritime trade and shipbuilding, with over 300 vessels being built in Barmouth and along the estuary.
The original harbour was further upstream, just beyond the later railway bridge. It was a busy port with a hundred ships being registered there in 1795, thanks mainly to the Merionnydd woollen industry and the difficulty of reaching this part of Wales by land. So busy was the port that an Act Of Parliament was passed in 1797 for the repair and enlargement of the harbour and the port remained busy with exports or woollen cloth, timber, manganese, copper and lead ore, slates, butter and cheese. But increasing difficulties of access to the harbour and the arrival of the railway in 1867 hastened its decline.
Barmouth Railway Bridge must be one of the most iconic structures in Britain. The bridge was built by the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway and opened in 1867, master-minded by Thomas Savin, a Welsh entrepreneur. Construction was difficult due to the strong currents and two men were drowned. As built, it included a lifting drawbridge section to permit the passage of tall ships, and was constructed entirely of wood. The drawbridge section, at the northern end of the bridge, was rebuilt in 1901 as a swing bridge with two steel spans.
Serious doubts emerged in 1980 concerning the safety of the ageing wooden structure under the weight of modern locomotives which led to a ban on locomotive-hauled trains. The main problem was that the timbers were suffering from the activity of teredo worms. These small creatures live in salt water and bore holes in timber to secrete their larvae. To bore the holes they have two miniature shells in the head which act as boring wheels. It is said that this was the source of the inspiration of Sir Marc Brunel which led to his tunnelling shield used in boring the Thames tunnel. A major overhaul of the bridge led to the locomotive ban being rescinded in due course.
One feature of the harbour is the ferry which has existed as a Crown lease since medieval times. It is the oldest continuous human activity here…
Sadly the port now boasts just a few working boats and mainly serves the pleasure craft of locals and visitors.
13. The Last Inn and Surrounding Buildings
A large number of the buildings in Barmouth date from the rebuilding of the town from the 19th century but earlier buildings give Barmouth great variety if we investigate a little.
Graig Fach forms a pair of cottages with a well preserved early 19th century frontage and is squeezed between later buildings. Earlier cottages also remain at Anchor Cottage and Quay Cottage and give the scale/size of many of the buildings that stood near the shore.
The Last Inn itself, although much altered now, is clearly of the same type of building and as it is a pub you can go inside and get a good idea of the interior of one of these cottages from Barmouth’s earlier days. A unique feature is a well at the rear of the interior where the bare rock of the mountain forms part of an interior wall. Fresh spring water bubbles up here into a pool within the pub itself. The Last Inn used to be home to a shoemaker and takes its name from a cobbler’s last, used to hold a shoe while being made or repaired.
14. Church Street
Walking up the road, (Church Street), a variety of Victorian ‘boarding houses’ and hotels, such as the Barmouth Hotel, show how the town developed to cater for the new age of tourism in the 19th century. But immediately behind them remained the often squalid conditions of Old Barmouth (See 4).
The Old Tea Rooms, (‘Walsall House’), occupy an early 18th century building with a later addition to the right. It was converted from cottages to become a leather goods and hardware shop in the 20th century and was painted in a vivid black and white timber frame effect during the 1930s. If you go up close you can still see the outline on the paintwork. Tradition has it that they were fishermen’s cottages.
On both sides of Church Street later shops were built on the remnants/foundations of older buildings but there are a few survivals. The Steps, for example, (now a jewellery shop), stands where John Owen the barber operated in 1880.
Church Street runs north, becoming the High Street just to the right of an imposing Georgian building with a splendid façade, (Aber House).
The Trail now heads along the High Street where a short walk reveals a surprising wealth of historical buildings.
15. Caersalem Chapel (1866)
Like much of Wales, worship in Barmouth tended towards non-conformity during the 18th and 19th centuries and this chapel expresses the success of the Calvanistic Methodists in Barmouth. Originally started in the home of early Methodist followers, a chapel was then constructed in the area where the railway bridge and St David’s church are now. The land was later sold to the railway company and the present site was chosen. The chapel was built for £2,500 and it is remarkable that this investment was paid up by the fervent congregation themselves within a few years. The building is now utilised as a shop, but is Grade 2 Listed and retains much of its contemporary interior, including a fine ornate ceiling.
16. Tyn y Coed
Tyn y Coed is a good example of the buildings erected during Barmouth’s first flush of success around 1800 and retains its early windows and detailing. It was the birthplace of Rowland Owen Lloyd. During service in the 1st World War he received the Order of St Stanislaus of the 3rd degree for saving many ships loaded with ammunitions from a fire whilst iced up at Alexandrovsk, serving as Lieut. R.N.R. on the H.M.S. Albermarle.
In 1919 whilst Captain of the Torpedo-Boat Destroyer Mallard he was awarded an O.B.E. for his bravery in saving many lives after the Irish Mail boat the Leinster was torpedoed in the turbulent Irish sea on 10th October 1918.
17. Ebeneezer's (1881)
Another of Barmouth’s fine chapels, built in 1881, constructed from the distinctive green slate stone. The pews are now removed from this former Wesleyan chapel but the interior is otherwise intact with an interesting décor. The attached building to the left was the Methodist Manse.
Slightly further along on the other side of the road was the General Cambrian Drapery, (1882-5). The long established business of Morris and Sons was still operating from a small traditional shop until Glan Glasfor was built as a much more impressive house with shop premises on the main road, thus forming the General Cambrian Drapery. Like other stores in the town this development took advantage of the influx of people into Barmouth who wished to purchase good quality products. Sadly the First World War affected the success of the venture and it seldom reached its early ambition. It has stood empty for several decades.
18. Tan y Grisiau & Pen y Grisiau
Tan y Grisiau, (‘Under the Steps’), and Pen y Grisiau, (‘Top of the Steps’), comprise one of the few surviving vernacular buildings in Barmouth that still exist in anything like their original form and mark a strong contrast to the classical Victorian Cambrian Drapery next door. Originally there would have been three separate living units, one on each floor.
19. Tan y Fron and Fron y Graig
Once a terrace of three units, but now converted to two dwellings, this building which is set back from the road a little has one of the best surviving early 19th century frontages in Barmouth.
20. Walter Lloyd Jones
Now home to an estate agent and auction house this early 19th century building is of a similar date to the previous houses but with a later Victorian shop front on the ground floor and another little-altered interior. The fine bank building standing to the right provides an interesting contrast in the development of the town.
21. Cors y Gedol Apartments
The Cors y Gedol had an impressive history as one of Barmouth’s leading hostelries and hotels until recently, when it was converted to flats and shops. It is not certain when it was originally constructed built but it was rebuilt and re-opened in 1795 when Lowry Lewis was landlady. It was rebuilt in its present form around 1869 by John Robert Davies.
One colourful tenant was William Barnett who farmed in the area as well as being a sergeant in the Merioneth Militia. Always with an eye to trade he encouraged the introduction of sea bathing in the town as well as putting warm ‘seaweed baths’ into the hotel and building the Bath House on the quay.
Behind the Cors y Gedol Arms is Tanyrallt , an early 19th century house, (now Grade 2 Listed), and one of the few buildings with a decorative stucco (render) finish rather than stone.
23. St Anne's Square
The square was a new focal point for the town with older elements like St. Anne’s Building, and a variety of later buildings that included the imposing St. John’s and a Masonic hall, all facing down Beach Road, thus directing throngs of visitors to enjoy the seaside. St Anne’s Building, (24), situated slightly above the square, has one of the best facades in Barmouth. Previously called the Belle View and also the Red Lion it once proudly stood alone on an elevated site and later became a hotel, some say haunted! A stable range sat on its left and this building can still be identified. To the right of St. Anne’s building is Barmouth’s Masonic Lodge.
You are almost back in Talbot Square and the end of this trail but please carry on and explore more of Barmouth.