Historic Landscape Characterisation

Ardudwy - Area 24 Harlech (PRN 18257)


© Crown copyright. All rights reserved, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, 100017916, 2005

Historic background

The castle and town of Harlech both occupy an impressive promontory site which overlooks Tremadoc Bay and across the Llyn Peninsula. They were jointly conceived as part of the chain of castle-boroughs intended to encircle North Wales by Edward I. Building operations began in 1283 and progress was sufficiently rapid for the new borough to receive its royal charter in the following year. Despite the grandeur of the castle, which was largely complete by 1289,2 the town proved to be the smallest of the Edwardian planned boroughs and only 12 taxpayers appear in the Subsidy Roll of 1292—3. By 1305 the burgage total stood at 24, and by 1312 it had risen to 29, but neither figure suggests that the population of the community exceeded 150 persons.

Like nearby Cricieth the medieval settlement at Harlech was a poor companion to its splendid castle, although it had its commercial and administrative functions since both the hundred court and the county sessions met here, and there was also a weekly market on Saturdays together with four annual fairs. No attempt was made to wall the borough, however, a decision which must have been regretted after Glyndwr’s attack when 46 houses, virtually the whole town, were destroyed. Neither was a church built within the area of the early town, although there was a medieval chapel which Speed (1610) marks as standing in Stryd Fawr, immediately to the east of the castle in the area of the modem hotel’. He adds that the building was then ‘decayed and without use’,and no traces of it remain, although its site appears to correspond with the area of the hotel car park since this land appears on the 1843 Tithe Map as ‘Chapel Yard’. Attached to the chapel was a small graveyard, and several burials were unearthed during building operations in 1808. Few other vestiges of urban life are recorded. The borough had its mill, mentioned as early as 1305, and Speed shows its position as beyond the north-eastern corner of the castle where the land falls sharply down to the caravan park. There was also an early town hall, but its site is not known; the building was ruinous at the beginning of the 19th century, and its site had been built on by 1813.

The later history of Harlech is poorly documented and appears to have been uneventful except for the role of the castle during the Wars of the Roses and the Civil War. Speed’s plan suggests that the borough failed to recover from the ravages of Glyndwr, who held the castle for nearly five years,and he indicates a mere handful of tene­ments lining Stryd Fawr with the beginnings of a secondary street at right-angles to it, the present Pen Dref. Harlech declined during the later middle ages as its military function became superfluous, although it retained some administrative status and later attracted renewed commercial activities which caused it to assume a “sub-urban” character in which small-scale rural industries played an increasingly important role. A contemporary description of the borough referred to ‘a verye poore towne ... having no traphicke or trade’, and 200 years later Fenton was still able to observe that it was ‘the most forlorn, beggarly place imaginable’. Harlech is also the court in which Bendigaefran is sitting at the beginning of the second branch of the Mabinogi, Branwen ferch Llyr, when Matholwch arrives from Ireland seeking marriage with Branwen. Obviously the place was associated with a royal court and would have been well-known to the story's audience.

Key historic landscape characteristics

Medieval castle, largely 19th century townscape, elegant stone buildings, arts and crafts houses

Harlech is the only true town in Ardudwy, although there are no buildings within the town itself which betray its medieval origins. The layout of the town has been dictated by the local topography: it is set on a steeply-sloping hill side above the now-enclosed and drained Morfa. The main thoroughfare through the town (formerly the main road running through Ardudwy, but that now runs along the Morfa and climbs the hill at the southern end of the town) is Stryd Fawr, and is probably on the line of the medieval main street. The buildings are all of stone, in a bewildering variety of styles but mainly 18th and 19th century (although many of the non-domestic buildings have 20th century frontages), mostly in short terraces, either 2 or 3 stories high. This street contains most of the town's amenities - as well as terraced houses, there are shops, banks, a surgery, a library, a chapel, hotels and restaurants.

Pendref, which also probably lies on the line of a medieval street, leads off from Stryd Fawr at right-angles up a very steep hill. Apart from the hotel on the corner, most of the buildings here, all of which are on the south side of the street, are short, terraced 2 storey houses. A longer terrace is set again at right-angles to the north side, and above them are several, larger villa-type houses on individual plots.

As the main street heads southwards out of town it passes around in a loop to keep the contour of the ground where it becomes Ffordd isaf. Below this are a series of stone-built terraced houses, many of which are listed: these include Tryfar (several short terraces of 2 or 3 storeyed houses of different designs opposite a smaller terrace of one build) and Bronwen Terrace (a superb one-build terrace of two-bay 19th century houses, 3 storeys high).

A strong arts and crafts tradition in the early 20th century continued an impressive formulation of an architecture of stone: this is seen at its best in the series of houses on the southern edge of the town above Ffordd Isaf, all individually designed and built in their own grounds (such as Bron Meillion surgery, Maelgwyn, Perthi) associated with a cosmopolitan group of artists etc centred on the figure of A. Davidson, whose home subsequently became the nucleus of Coleg Harlech which is set right down at the bottom of the town alongside the railway.

Elsewhere there are large, detached 18th and 19th century houses (many in a 'villa' style) set irregularly below the castle, as well as hotels, testifying to the increasing importance of Harlech as a holiday destination.

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