Historic Landscape Characterisation

Dolgellau - Area 1 Dolgellau (PRN 19180)




Historic background

The historic core of Dolgellau is built on the floodplain at the junction of two rivers, the Wnion (running east to west), and the Aran, which joins it from the south. The name 'Dolgellau' ('meadows of the cells') may refer to the pens used by drovers for herding animals, or to the presence of the medieval Cistercian Abbey to the north (area 06). The first mention of the church (dedicated to St Mary) and indeed of Dolkelew is from 1253 (in the Norwich Taxatio), and in the 1293 Extent (Williams-Jones, 1976) there is reference to the bond community of Dolgellau. In 1285 the town was referred to as 'Dolgethley'. In the 17th century another religious community, the Quakers (see above), were important in the town and surrounding area before most left for a new life in Pennsylvania. Dolgellau has also had an important administrative history. Owain Glyndwr held an Assembly in the town in 1404, and Dolgellau later developed as the main agricultural market, Assize and county administrative centre (see area 02) of Meirionnydd.

Dolgellau appears to have developed as a town in the medieval period 'almost by stealth' (Smith, 2001), its urban characteristics virtually unrecognised by royal administrators for several centuries (although there is an intriguing reference to 'a mayor of the town of Dolgellau' in 1367). Dolgellau was never a borough, and is one of the few county towns in Wales wich never returned a member of Parliament. Not until the early 17th-century are there references to its being a market town or borough and to its tenements as burgages, but the commercial importance of the town may have begun by the early 14th-century when there were already references to a market and fairs. Certainly, Dolgellau seems to have superseded Harlech as the premier town of the shire in the course of the 16th-century (Smith, ibid). Dolgellau's eventual success must, undoubtedly, be attributed to its favourable geographical location. Its situation at a point where several road systems converged upon a bridgehead and river which was probably navigable by small boats were to its advantage, while its location on the economic frontier between the sheep and cattle farming countryside in the uplands and the good arable lands in the immediate vicinity may have enabled the town to develop as a place where the produce of two economic zones might be exchanged.

In 1791 (in the Universal British Directory) Dolgellau is described as follows - 'The buildings in general, are low and irregular. The markets are on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and there are 7 fairs in the year. The tide flows within a mile of the town. The principal occupations of the town are, Physicians 2, Lawyers 3, Merchants 7, Grocers 4, Web-manufacturers 11, Web-merchants 1, Tanners 3, Skinners 5, Mercer 1 Currier 1, Carrier 1, Corn factorer 1, Timber merchant 1, Woolstapler 1, Plumber/glazier 2 and Sadler 2'.

A 1794 map of the town (ZM/3667) shows the irregular layout of town much as it is today, and also shows the roads out over the bridge to Bala and Barmouth, as well as to Dinas Mawddwy and Tywyn. The town's development was due to the central part it played in the county's woollen industry, which reached its peak c. 1800, but declined over the following century due to the birth of mechanical mills. All the factories shown on the 1901 OS map, for instance, are described as 'woollen', and there is a drawing of a fulling mill c. 1830 in the DRO (ZS/36k/38). The population of the parish rose from 2940 in 1801 to a maximum of 4037 in 1831, but then dropped to 2467 by 1891 before rising to 2632 by 1991.

Visitors in the 17th and 18th centuries complained that every entrance to the town was barred by a turnpike, the streets were irregular and very narrow, and the houses small and ill-lit. Rev J Evans in ‘A Tour Through Part of North Wales’ in the year 1798 and at other times, claimed that Dolgellau 'is improving in building and population from the increasing trade in coarse cloth, it promises to become no inconsiderable place'. In 1808, Richard Fenton wrote 'the Masonry of Dolgelley merits particular notice. From time immemorial they have been built with very large stones...lifting them with an immense machine which takes above a day to erect, and worked by two men requiring a Lever of vast power'.

However, during the first part of the 19th-century the town was greatly improved by Sir Robert Williams Vaughan of Nannau. He largely rebuilt the centre of the town, laid out its fine market square and was instrumental in getting a Court House built, a National School founded and a new county gaol erected (it closed in 1878 for lack of occupants!).

The 1838 tithe map shows almost all settlement in Dolgellau restricted to south of the river Wnion, with the exception of three buildings north of bridge (including Llwyn – see area 02 below), but even these areas are described as fields. The settlement is concentrated around Eldon Square, but is shown extending south along the road running alongside the Aran where the woollen mills and their associated buildings were located . The 1901 OS map shows that the town had not expanded much beyond its 1838 limits, except to the east where it has crossed the river and Victorian infrastructure buildings such as schools, a brewery and a sawmill have been built. It also clearly shows the extent of the woollen industry on the river to the south, with four factories and two mills marked (Fron-goch factory, Idris factory, Wenallt factory and Factory fawr, as well as Pandy and Pandy Aberneint (dis.)).

Various industries have contributed to the character of Dolgellau, and have left their mark on the names of buildings and roads in the town and in the intriguingly complex pattern of streets and small squares south of the river Wnion, which is unique in Wales. A valuable woollen industry, specialising in flannel, flourished in the 18th- and 19th-centuries, and tanning was an important part of the local economy until quite recently. Many goods produced here were taken either to Barmouth for sea transport, or to Bala and thence Shrewsbury. Cae Marian is where Welsh cattle were shod before starting on the long journeys to the markets of Kent and Essex. It was given in trust to the town in 1811.

Since the 18th century, visitors and artists have come to the area to explore the scenic landscapes of Cadair Idris and the Mawddach estuary.

Key historic landscape characteristics

Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century architecture, tourist town

The architectural character of Dolgellau is dominated by the grey dolerite and slate buildings (built from local stone), of which over two hundred are listed. Although visitors in the 18th- century complained of the streets and houses, during the first part of the 19th-century the town was vastly improved by Sir Robert Williams Vaughan of Nannau. In rebuilding the town centre, creating the market square and exerting the necessary pressure to have public buildings built, he seems to have largely followed the same layout that the town had previously (compare the 1794 map with a modern one for the town centre).

The town has a very dense architecture, with narrow streets and tall buildings (some made even taller and more imposing by the massive chimneys obviously required to keep fires going), all built from the same stone but with different finishes marking both development over time and social status. The jumble of streets and irregular layouts of house plots seem chaotic by 19th century standards (cf. Tremadog and Porthmadog), and the social juxtapositions of ‘grand’ town houses with terraced cottages and even industrial buildings is unique in Wales. The town displays a range of masonry styles (for example in the use of ‘snecking’ after c. 1870, and of rough boulders in earlier phases).

The Dolgellau Town Trail gives an excellent overall impression of the present-day architectural splendour and history of the town. A map of the trail and full details are available from the tourist information centre on Eldon Square (see photograph), but some of the finer and more important buildings are described here.

At the northern end of the 'old' town, Bont Fawr (formerly a scheduled ancient monument) was built in 1638 (the date is on the downstream side of the bridge) and has since been widened and extended. It is called Y Bont Fawr (the Big Bridge) to distinguish it from a smaller bridge that lay just to the south. Dolgellau has suffered from many floods, and one major flood in 1903 destroyed part of the bridge. The top end of Bont Fawr was raised to accommodate the railway which ran on the line of the present bypass to the north of the river, the station being located just upstream of the bridge. Initially (in 1868), through-passengers were obliged to change here as two rival railway companies, each with its own terminus, met here.

Arguably the finest architect-designed building in the town, the County Hall, just south of Bont Fawr, was built in 1825 at a cost of £3,000, the architect being Edward Haycock. It served as the administrative headquarters of Meirionnydd in the 19th century, and its role as a court house continues to this day. The porches were filled in in 1995, spoiling the simple elegance of the building.

Just off Eldon Square is the imposing building (ca. 1886) of T H Roberts, a remarkably well preserved ironmonger's which still has its original fittings. A much older building, Cwrt Plas yn Dre, once stood on the site, and was reputedly a meeting place for the famous Welsh rebel Owain Glyndwr who temporarily controlled much of Wales in the early 1400s. Despite being the town's chief tourist attraction at the time, the building was demolished in 1881 and parts were re-erected in Newtown.

By the mid 19th-century Dolgellau had its own gas supply produced from burning coal. The retort house remains, though its chimney stack has been removed and slated over. Gas was stored in gasometers behind the works.

The now defunct Golden Lion Inn was once a coaching inn. It became the premier hotel of the area and was an obligatory stopping point for any passing European royals. The Old Town Hall (Y Sosban), dated 1606, once fulfilled the judicial and administrative functions of the town (before the building of the new County Hall). Two dungeon-like rooms downstairs served as a lock-up for vagrants and drunkards.

The present St Mary's church dates from 1716, with a chancel added in 1864. The masonry is, unusually, of dressed slate with blocks overlapping at the corners, log-cabin style. The timber piers inside were brought over the mountains by ox-cart from Dinas Mawddwy. A carved stone effigy (ca. 1350) of Meurig ap Ynyr Fychan lies in the north-east corner of the church. The first mention of the church and indeed of Dolkelew is from 1253.

The fine town house of Tan y Fynwent dates from the late 17th-century and was the rector's residence at one time (possibly being built as such). Its chimneys are unusually positioned, and it has an interesting 19th-century lattice-work porch. Such porches are one of the characteristic architectural features of the town.

Just south of the river, the Marian, Dolgellau's main green space and one of its greatest assets, was given in trust to the town in 1811 and has been the focus of the town's leisure activities for generations. By the 16th-century there was a bowling green here (now under the car park), surrounded by ditches to keep out grazing animals. A hollow in the grass in the cricket outfield marks the site of a cockpit. The stone circle was set up in 1948 to proclaim the National Eisteddfod of Wales the following year. Dolgellau rugby club matches are also played here, and the space now hosts the annual Sesiwn Fawr local music festival.

To the west of the church and south of the Marian, the Lawnt is the historical centre of Dolgellau, where the first settlement is thought (without archaeological evidence) to have grown up around the slightly raised ground in the area of the church. The Lawnt is now a residential area but still retains evidence of former commercial activity such as shop windows. Hope House was a woollen factory, while nearby a building with a tall window was Dolgellau's first bank, established in 1803.

The former police station dates from the mid 19th-century. Its delicate Gothic windows present a very different image of the law from that of the modern police headquarters across the river (area 02). On the road out to the west is the toll house of the former turnpike road to Tywyn.

At the height of the religious revival at the beginning of the 20th-century, Dolgellau had about ten chapels, and their services, Sunday schools, prayer meetings and bible readings were a major social focus in the town. The main chapels were largely rebuilt in the late 19th-century (Tabernacl 1868, Salem 1893, Ebenezer 1880, Judah 1839/1928), and more recently several chapels have been converted to other uses, including a post office, a theatre and a dental surgery.

In the early 19th-century, the area around Y Domen Fawr (Meyrick Square) in the southern part of the town was a crowded warren of little houses, workshops, shops and 'tippling houses'. The 1801 census recorded 2,949 inhabitants in Dolgellau, and while today the population is slightly lower, there are at least twice as many dwellings in the town. Nearby, Tan y Gader, built c. 1800, was used as a maternity home. The unusual wheel window in the attic gable can be seen in several houses of similar age in the area. To the north, Fro Awel is a typical vernacular cottage. The design, with its low roof and hipped dormer windows, is typical of the mid 17th - mid 18th-century. The rear wing was once a candle factory to supply the gold mines. Opposite, Siop y Seren was built in 1800, partly for commercial use, with a shop extension added later. The stone bridge at the back on the second floor gave weavers access to the loom rooms in the upper two storeys.

Near the crossing of the Afon Aran is Wtra Plas Coch . The name 'wtra', used for a narrow lane, comes from the Shropshire word 'out-track', a farm road (this was originally the route which led out of the town towards the woollen markets of Shrewsbury). The Unicorn and Plas Coch were built around 1700 and originally had steeply-pitched roofs with dormers and tall chimneys. The Clifton Hotel, next door, was rebuilt around 1820 from the old town jail (1716-1813). John Howard, the penal reformer, visited the jail in 1774 and commented on its filthy state. Little had improved by 1788, when prisoners petitioned about the maggots and 'nasty filth' in the water, which came from the river Aran where sheep skins were washed.

Nearby is Bwthyn Pont yr Aran, a vernacular cottage of the 17th-century. The roof details here are interesting: the slates are laid in diminishing courses and there are inset stone slabs to shed the water away from the base of the chimney stacks. These are a common feature in Dolgellau, which enjoys an annual rainfall of around 70 inches. The ground floor is below road level. This is also true of the older buildings along Wtra'r Felin, which leads from here to the church. This is likely to have been the route of the road that led west to the centre of the town. The buildings behind housed a fellmongering business, where sheep pelts were processed. The business closed in 1989, thus ending the long tradition of processing wool and sheep-hides in the town. The present bridge (Pont yr Aran) is built on top of its much narrower predecessor.

Finally, Eldon Square (named for Lord Eldon, Chancellor of Britain in 1801, who was a friend of, and won a lawsuit for, Sir R W Vaughan), in the centre of town, was the meeting place, market place, trading place, and the venue for fairs, community events and festivals. It contains several buildings of interest including Eldon Row (1810); Neuadd Idris, built c. 1870 as a market hall (now converted to shops) with assembly rooms above; Plas Newydd, at the top of the Square, which dates from the 17th century, with the bays facing the Square added around 1800; Central Buildings was formerly a warehouse and shop for the locally produced tweed, while Ty Meirion used to be called London House, being an emporium for goods from a London merchant. (Many Welsh towns have their London, Liverpool or Manchester House.) At the rear, the hoist and loading bay on the third floor are still visible.


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