Historic Landscape Characterisation

Mawddach - Area 1 Barmouth (PRN 18331)

Historic background

Situated on the northern side of the seaward end of the Mawddach estuary, Barmouth was a small and inaccessible fishing settlement until it started to develop in the 18th century. The sea was the basis of the town's economy and shipbuilding started in the 1750s. By 1770, the town was well-established as a small port in coastal trades, based largely on the Meirionnydd woollen industry. The harbour was deepened and a new quay built in 1802, and the opening of the railway in 1867 resulted in further growth as the town began to cater for the new tourist trade. The town has a distinctive Victorian architectural character.

From the end of the eighteenth century, travellers accounts provide a series of vignettes of the town, and a vantage point from which to survey the lines of its subsequent development. They make it clear that Barmouth (in common with many other North Wales towns) had embarked on a process of rapid change its buildings amazingly increased' by c1810 (Fenton, 1917 ed). This growth appears to have had two main engines. One was the expansion of trade there were a hundred ships registered in the port in 1795. This prompted an Act of Parliament for the repair and enlargement of the harbour, in 1797. The port's continental trade never recovered after the war with France, but a coastal trade remained busy with imports including coal, American and Baltic timber, limestone, corn and grocery, and with the export of woollen cloth, timber, manganese, copper and lead ore, slates, butter and cheese. In spite of growing difficulties of access to the harbour, a coastal trade continued until the arrival of the railway in 1867 hastened its decline. In its heyday, this trade was supported by ship-building and repair.

The other agent of the town's growth was the rise of holiday-making. By 1800 there were already two inns in the town - the Cors y Gedol (with a large boarding house adjoining) and the Lion. By 1833 it had risen to an eminent rank among the watering places on this part of the coast' and numerous respectable lodging houses' had been built (Lewis, 1833). Through the efforts of the land-lord of the Cors y Gedol, there was also a bath house, a billiard room, and regular assemblies in the hotel during the season; there were three chapels and the Church of Saint David, built in 1830.

The arrival of the railway marked an even more dramatic shift in the fortunes of the town and stimulated a major campaign of building: the Cors y Gedol hotel was rebuilt in 1870, and many other boarding houses and domestic terraces can be dated to the following decades (Porkington Terrace, c1870, for example). Several chapels followed (Caersalem, of 1866 just pre-dates the railway), and The Church of Saint John was built specifically to provide for the town's population of English-speaking visitors in 1889. By 1902, with but few exceptions, all the houses in the town are let to visitors (Heywood). This rapid growth fostered urban institutions and amenities, with a public water supply from 1873 (from a reservoir at Llyn Bodlyn). Commercial establishments shops and banks also signify its urbanity: the North and South Wales Bank arrived in 1870, and Morris and Co was built in 1882.

This growth had a distinct spatial character. Some of the earliest buildings to survive are on the flatter ground between shore-line and hillside: A street is formed by a few mariners and fishermen's houses, built on the strand' (Rev. J Evans), but at the end of the eighteenth century, it was building on the steep slopes which imparted a distinctive character to the place: The houses placed on the steep sides one above another in such a manner as to give the upper an opportunity of seeing down the chimney of their adjacent neighbours.’ (Pennant, 1779). Principally built upon a high rock, rows of houses standing upon the shelves one above another, like part of the City of Edinburgh, and said to resemble the town of Gibraltar’ (Rev. J Evans, A Tour Through Part of North Wales in 1798). The most remarkable part of the place is a cluster of houses built many years back, occupying the sides of a little gully in the mountain, and rising one above the other to the very summit, looking like a lava of houses, as if they had been vomited out of the rock’ (Fenton). This essentially eighteenth century character still survives in what is now known as Old Barmouth', and it was in this area that the Guild of Saint George established itself in 12 or 13 cottages given by Mrs Talbot in 1874.

Early nineteenth century development consolidated the sense of a single long street, but later, the town also expanded seawards to the north-west: during the 1870s, a triangle of land to the south-west of the railway line was laid out according to a more formal plan (1-12 Marine Parade is dated 1878): perhaps this formality was in part due to the activities of the Local Board, the first one of which was elected in 1872.

Key historic landscape characteristics

Townscape, harbour

The shape of the town before c1750 remains very unclear, but the location and character of known early buildings (seventeenth century or earlier) provides some clues. Close to the harbour, Ty Gwyn is a later 15th century floor hall, an important and rare survivor from this period, built by Gruffydd Fechan of Cors y Gedol. The choice of first floor hall is interesting, especially in the light of the later pattern of building in the town, which appears to have favoured the vertical division of property, as if space was at a premium. The first indication of this comes with another early survival. Pen y grisiau, is a late seventeenth century house built at right angles to High Street. It is thought to have originally comprised three independent domestic units, one above the other. The only other putatively seventeenth century building (Pen y graig and Gibraltar cottage) appears also to have been built from the outset as a complex of independent dwellings, again partly vertically divided, on a steeply sloping site in what is now known as Old Barmouth. This building has not been investigated in detail, and there may possibly be others, as yet unidentified, of similar date and type.

Other early houses apparently lie within the conventions of the regional vernacular: Anchor Cottage is parallel to High Street near the harbour a two unit, end-chimney house. There are other buildings in the town which belong to the next phase in the development of regional building traditions as storeyed houses (Quay Cottage, Walsall House, Church Street; Cumberland Place area).

By c. 1800, there were several strands in the architecture of the town. On the higher slopes, a scatter of small cottages appears in early engravings of the town they are probably mid eighteenth century. These lofted cottages lie within an identifiable regional vernacular tradition. They are of particular interest as being early examples of small cottages - a building type rarely surviving from this early period. Some of these formed the nucleus for the Guild of Saint George (Saint George's Terrace, Rock Terrace, Caprera Cottage).

It was on the lower slopes and the sands below them that most development took place. In this area there are several substantial buildings which may also be of pre-1800 date: they are characterised as two storeyed, with distinctive slab-rubble walls, coped gables and fine stone gable-end chimneys. Bennar Terrace is a listed example of this house type. It is becoming clear however, that there are several other examples of this type, partially concealed behind later facades.

Representing a refinement of this vernacular style, are several individual houses showing the influences of polite architectural ideas. There are some good late eighteenth century buildings close to the High Street perhaps the finest of these, Saint Anne House, was originally the Lion hotel., but Tyn y coed, and Aber House, High Street belong in this tradition, and Maine House antiques (altered with the later addition of a shop) may be another. Their architectural refinement is indicative of the prosperity and esteem of the town in this period.

Characteristic of early nineteenth century development was the building of pairs or short terraces a building form which normally implies speculation and an organised building process. Some of these are not far removed from a vernacular tradition especially in their handling of building materials Walter Lloyd Jones and Co, and Bennar Terrace for instance. The sophistication to which this building process could also aspire, however, is exemplified in Fron y Graig/Tan y Fron, High Street, Graig Fach, Church Street and 1-4 Goronwy Terrace.

The clustering of dwellings appears to have continued as a feature of development on the by now crowded lower slopes: one vertically arranged tenement house - Williams Buildings - has been identified, and there may be others. This is a highly unusual mode of building which would repay more detailed investigation.

Until the coming of the railway, urban building during the nineteenth century remained within the broad confines of a Georgian tradition, at times more or less polite in its aspirations, but deriving an overall harmony from the common use of local materials. It is variety in the handling of the local stone (characteristically worked in very large blocks) which begins to describe nuances in that tradition. This coherence was challenged in the rapid growth of the town following the arrival of the railway, which introduced quite different building types and traditions. In the first place, the units of development were often bigger, with longer terraces, the largest of which was 1-12 Marine Terrace of 1878 probably the town's most ambitiously scaled project which was originally a symmetrical composition. Later nineteenth century buildings were also taller, of 3, 4 and even 5 storeys. They often employed a new masonry style (snecked stonework), and introduced other architectural elements. Two of these are the dormer gable and the bay window, the latter especially associated with sea-side boarding houses. There was also a greater stylistic eclecticism, with a wider vocabulary of detail (classical, renaissance and gothic). Bellevue buildings and Hendre villas are good examples of this.

The commercial building which characterised the main street also exemplifies this new architecture. Ael y Don, Church Street, dated 1871, is a grand symmetrical terrace; elsewhere on the axis of High Street and Church Street, much of the development comprises single buildings on single plots. Possibly this is indicative of the earlier origins of settlement in this area, since it is a development process that implies constraints on available plot size. Individual buildings in this area illustrate the importance of commerce in the later nineteenth century town, not least as patron of particular architectural styles and building types. Good individual examples include Morris and Co, and the Midland Bank, but the architectural variety of the main street resulting from this pattern of development lends a strong character to the town.

Although building materials had been imported previously, there were new sources of material in this railway era: brick and terracotta make an appearance, as does non-local stone, and cast-iron the railings at Bellevue buildings came from a foundry in Birmingham.

So in conclusion, Barmouth developed much more sporadically after c1880. There is a series of later nineteenth and early twentieth century detached houses on the higher slopes, but its largest expansion to the north-west is with mid twentieth century public housing, quite detached from the historic part of the town. What remains, therefore, is a well-preserved resort, in which the successive chapters of its history until its prime c1880 can still be clearly traced.


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