Historic Landscape Characterisation

Vale of Ffestiniog - Area 10 Porthmadog

The town of Porthmadog came into being as a consequence of the draining of the Traeth Mawr by William Alexander Madocks and the unintended creation of a harbour by the newly-channelled Afon Glaslyn where it passed through the sluice gates. It is a town built partly on made-up land, partly on higher ground.

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

Historic background

A settlement of sorts was established by Madocks to house the navvies building the Cob in the period 1808 to 1813. The first public wharves were built in 1825, and thereafter a series of wharves was built by individual quarry companies along the shore almost as far as Borth y Gest. The opening of the Festiniog Railway from the quarries to the sea in 1836 largely brought about the end of the previous system of carting down to the quays along the Dwyryd, whence the slates were boated to Ynys Cyngar for transfer to sea-going vessels.

Though the earliest trackway across the newly-reclaimed land wound its way to the east of the present High Street, by 1841 at least this had been straightened out and was to be developed into the main commercial street of the town (see photograph), with a range of shop fronts and public houses and post office, but still retaining the open green. At the same time, the mineral railway to Tremadoc, along which Madock Street was later to be built, was also in existence. These two transport axes bequeathed the town its distinctive diamond pattern street plan. Dwellings are evident on maps from as early as the 1830s, and developed over the next decades in part due to the management of the Tremadoc estate by the solicitor David Williams. He founded the seamen’s mission on the quay (SH 5689 3829) in 1852 (now a yacht club).

Unusually for a port town, Porthmadog has never had much in the way of housing for dock-workers, nor did it ever acquire the underworld of brothels and seedy taverns which were to be found in sea-ports worldwide. In part, this is because of the fact that Porthmadog vessels were crewed and captained by local men, and they had much of the share of the trade. Architecturally it is dominated by substantial nineteenth-century dwellings erected for the local middle classes – not only the captains but also the shipping agents, administrators, lawyers, quarry officials. These preserve many distinctive features. The overall conception is Regency, even when the buildings are much later in date, and a very common feature is the pattern of ornamental drip mouldings. Since the end of the slate trade, Porthmadog has become an attractive option for the comparatively wealthy yachting fraternity, apparent in the construction of the unattractive maisonettes on the quays in the 1960s.

Key historic landscape characteristics

19th-century port town

As a newly-built port town of the nineteenth century, Porthmadog never developed the seedy underworld of brothels and bars, and is characterised by broad, well laid-out streets, substantial houses and large chapels. High Street (SH 5705 3849 – SH 5671 3885) is dominated by substantial commercial premises, nearly all of 19th-century build, Garth Road (SH 5675 3856 – SH 5684 3814) by the distinctive double-fronted captain’s houses, often with a distinctive pattern of drip-moulding over the doors and windows. Madock Street (SH 5705 3849 – 5693 3901) and the streets which run between it and High Street, make up the bulk of the smaller housing, nearly all two-up-two-down housing. However, little remains of the industrial area which once flourished to the north and east of the town, and which included foundries, timber saw mills, slate-works, soda-pop plant, a gasworks and a flour mill. The High Street continues to be the commercial heart of the town, with recent developments particularly at the esatern end near the Cob, and there is an interesting contrast in social terms between the small, squat terraced houses on the 'level' leading off the High Street, and the altogether grander 3/4 storeyd houses on the hill overlooking the town and out to Glaslyn.

A considerable number of structures survive from Porthmadog’s days as a port. The development of harbour facilities is reflected in a surviving sail-loft, and in a surviving fragment of the Glaslyn foundry incorporated into the Co-op supermarket. The Glaslyn foundry buildings were demolished in the 1960s to make way for the Inland Revenue office, an unattractive exercise in office block standard. Griffith Williams’s school of navigation survives at SH 5685 3844, amongst the substantial warehouses at Grisiau Mawr, situated in the loft of Cornhill Pencei, above Casson’s bank. Visible evidence of the area’s cultural contacts with the wider world is to be found in the names of Porthmadog pubs such as the Australia and The Ship Launch (where the launchings of new ships were posted)

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