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Carmarthen

"Few towns can, perhaps, boast of greater antiquity,
or of so many antiquarian remains as Carmarthen, South Wales; although,
I am sorry to say, that their origin and history have not been, I
believe, clearly explained or understood by the literary world. One
would conclude, that as a Welshman is almost proverbially distinguished
for deeming himself illustriously descended, and relating his long
pedigree, he would naturally boast of, and exhibit to the public, some
account of these vestiges of his ancestors; but such is not the case,
and to their shame be it spoken, these ruins are scarcely noticed with
any degree of interest by the inhabitants of Carmarthen." THE MIRROR OF LITERATURE, AMUSEMENT, AND INSTRUCTION. VOL. 13, No. 351.] SATURDAY, JANUARY 10, 1829.

 

Carmarthen is the county town and an historic one. The Romans knew the town as Moridunum. The name Carmarthen is an anglicised form of the Welsh Caerfyrddin, Caer is Welsh for fort and fyrddin is the mutated Myrddin, Welsh for Merlin (in Welsh the first letter of a word changes according to what precedes it). This has given rise to the belief that Carmarthen was the home of Merlin the wizard of King Arthur. Legend has it that Merlin is imprisoned in a cave on Merlin's Hill east of the town. Another theory is that the name is a corruption of the Roman name for the town.

Transport Links

The town is served by good roads, the A40 which is the old Fishguard to London road running via Brecon, Gloucester and Oxford while the A48 is a dual carriageway linking the town to the M4 and then to Cardiff and London. A rail service connects the town with Manchester and London and Fishguard for ferries to Ireland. The service also connects with the scenic Heart of Wales Railway at Llanelli and this runs via Llandeilo and Llandovery and on to Shrewsbury, while the line to Swansea follows the Towy South to Ferryside and on to Kidwelly.

Shopping

Unlike the other towns in the valley, Carmarthen has a good range of nationally known chain stores and out of town superstores. Of particular note is Carmarthen Covered Market, the oldest market in Wales. for a range of local produce and items of interest. As of 2008  a large retail development is being built on the site of the old cattle market.

History and Places of Interest

Carmarthen is situated on the River Towy, on high ground above the flood plain of the river that is tidal at this point and navigable though the approaches are treacherous. An 1829 report records ships of 200 tons using the port of Carmarthen and trading with Bristol.

The Roman Amphitheatre at Carmarthen

The Romans established a fort here in around 75 A.D. and its Latin name is translated as Sea Fort. It was mentioned by Ptolomy in 140 A.D. As Roman rule in Britain developed the fort was dismantled and the town of Moridunum established. Little remains of the town which lies under the modern town but the Roman Amphitheatre off Priory Street is clearly visible. The Amphitheatre is one of only seven in Britain. Dating from the 2nd century, it was positioned 150 metres outside the Eastern gate of the Roman town. The total area was 92m by 67m with the arena semi-circular 46m by 27m, the elliptical arena of the Coliseum in Rome measures 83 metres by 48 metres, so for a small town the amphitheatre was quite large. Permanent wooden seating was provided for the audience. The Amphitheatre was created by digging into the side of the hill and using the soil to build the Southern bank.

A plaque on Priory Street marks the outside of the Amphitheatre but while the grass is kept tidy, there is no sign giving information about this very important archaeological site. Climb up the Northern bank and you realise that this provided spectators with a splendid backdrop to the entertainments with the view of the Towy valley unrestricted by more modern housing.

 

 

Carmarthen Castle

Carmarthen Castle Southern Tower

The Norman, William fitz Baldwin built a castle to defend the river crossing at the end of the 11th century to the South at Rhyd y Gors but abandoned it in favour of the existing castle site that has been used since 1105. It appears that all trace of Rhyd y Gors was destroyed in the 19th century with the coming of the railway. Llewelyn the Great destroyed the castle in 1215. It was rebuilt in 1223 and permission granted to wall the town. Castle and town were taken by Owain Glyndwr in 1405.

The Gatehouse

Little remains of the Castle today; in the late 18th century, John Nash was commissioned to design a new County Jail within the castle. Nash lived in Carmarthen for a number of years before returning to London where his work has come to symbolize the Regency period. He was the favourite architect of the Prince Regent, later George IV and was responsible for many of London's monuments, buildings, parks, streets and squares including Marble Arch, Regents Park and Street, Trafalgar Square and in Brighton the Royal Pavilion. More recently County Hall has been built within the old Castle. Just one wall of Nash's jail survives.

After the Acts of Union under Henry VIII, Carmarthen became the home of the Court of Great Sessions for South West Wales.

 

 

 

Nott Square: The statue is in honour of General Sir William Nott, the second son of a Carmarthen innkeeper. At the age of 18 he joined the Indian Army. He rose to the rank of general and distinguished himself in a number of battles following the outbreak of the First Afghan War in 1838. He was knighted and returned to Britain in 1843. He died in Carmarthen on January 1st 1845. His father was landlord of the Ivy Bush Inn in King Street , no longer standing. His inn advertised: "Come in, eat, drink, be merry and pay Nott"

Beneath the statue is a plaque commemorating the death of Bishop Ferrer, Bishop of St David's  who was burnt at the stake in this square during the persecution of protestants under Mary Tudor.

Under James I a Charter was granted in 1604 decreeing that the town should be known as the Town of the County of Carmarthen with two Sheriffs though this was reduced to one Sheriff in 1835 and this ceremonial position is maintained today.

 

Coracle Fishing

The Towy is famous for its coracles and coracle fishing that has been going on for more than 1000 years. They are traditionally made of pitched canvas stretched over a frame of hazel or ash measuring about 1 metre wide and 1.7 metres long and are light enough to be carried on the back of a fisherman . They are stored on the river front in Carmarthen. Different rivers have slightly different designs but the Towy coracle is slightly longer and is the most stable. (Towy Coracles). The coracles are used in pairs for fishing with a net stretched between the two boats. The number of licences for coracles has been reduced over the years.

         The Old Bridge, Quay and County Hall            

The New Footbridge

The oldest existing bridge at Carmarthen was built in 1937-38, replacing the medieval seven arch stone bridge. The South end of the bridge is higher with a longer and higher arch as the road goes on to cross the railway station. There are a further two road bridges carrying the by-pass, a new footbridge and rail bridge. Carmarthen's bridges are the last on the River Towy before the sea. 

Across the river from Carmarthen 

General Picton

General Picton was born in Poyston in Pembrokeshire in 1758. An army officer from the age of 15, Picton went out to the West Indies in 1794 taking part in the capture of St Vincent. He was appointed Governor of Trinidad where he gained a reputation for brutality and torture, (the torture known as pictoning is named after him). He returned to Britain and was tried on 35 counts in 1806, but found guilty on only one and was acquitted on retrial. Now a Major General, after service in the Netherlands as Governor of Flushing, Picton joined Wellington in Spain and became celebrated as a successful commander in battle distinguishing himself at Busaco, the Battle of Fuentes de Onoro, Ciudad Rodrigo, Badajoz and Vittoria. He was honoured by Parliament, became a K.B. and G.C.B. (Knight of the Order of the Bath and Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath)

The original Picton Memorial

In 1815 Picton accepted a high command in the Anglo-Dutch army. He was wounded at Quatre Bras two days before Waterloo, but concealed his injuries and commanded his troops in the battle. Because his luggage had been delayed, he took the field in civilian clothes and a top hat. He was killed when a musket ball hit his temple. A monument was erected to his memory in St Paul's Cathedral, where his remains were transferred in 1859, by order of Parliament and in Carmarthen the Picton memorial was completed in 1828 following a public subscription started in 1823, the King contributing 100 Guineas. The monument did not survive the inclement Carmarthen weather and the current monument is much smaller than the original, having been replaced in 1988. some of the bas-reliefs from the original can be seen in the Carmarthen County Museum at Abergwilli. Sir Thomas is the only Welshman buried in St Paul's Cathedral.

Merlin's Oak

When Merlin's Tree shall tumble down,

Then shall fall Carmarthen Town.

The oak is believed to have been planted to celebrate the return of Charles II in 1660 but by the 19th century a myth had grown up connecting the tree with Merlin and the tree was a popular meeting place. In the mid 19th century it is believed that a schoolteacher poisoned the tree which died in 1856. It remained protected by iron railings but a branch broke off in 1951 (the branch is in Carmarthen Museum). In 1978 the remains of the tree were removed and the following year Carmarthen suffered floods and a train derailment.

The Carmarthen County Museum

The Old Bishop's Palace

Situated in Abergwilli, a mile to the East of the town is the old Bishop's Palace which now houses the Carmarthen Museum. By the 17th century St David's Cathedral was in poor condition and the Bishops Palace in ruins so the Bishop of St David's built a palace in Abergwilli. Among its early residents was William Laud appointed Bishop of St David's in 1621 and subsequently Archbishop of Canterbury in 1633. He was beheaded on Tower Hill in 1645.

The museum contains exhibits of archaeology, pottery and porcelain, portraits etc. Remains of the Picton Memorial and paintings and memorabilia of General Sir Thomas Picton are displayed, as is part of Merlin's Oak. The grounds are tranquil with a picnic area and nature reserve.

The stone that caps the spire of Abergwili church is said to be the stone to which Bishop Ferrer was tied when he was burned at the stake in Nott Square in 1555.

Description of Carmarthen in 1829

St Peter's Church

St Peter's Church dates back to the early 12th century though it may well have been the site of an earlier Celtic church as is indicated by the circular graveyard.

Among the notable tombs are those of Walter Devereux first Earl of Essex, the father of Elizabeth I's favourite, and Sir Rhys ap Thomas of Dynevor

The organ was given by King George III in 1796. It was originally built for the royal chapel at St George's Windsor but speculation has grown that it was sent by the King to Carmarthen in memory of his daughter Sarah, by his first wife, Hannah Lightfoot a Quaker girl he married while he was Prince of Wales in 1759. The marriage was never dissolved so his subsequent marriage to Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in 1761. It is from this allegedly bigamous second marriage that the present royal family descends. Sarah married a Carmarthen doctor, James Dalton. There were two other children of Hannah and George III, George, known as Rex who moved to South Africa while nothing is known of the third. Other versions suggest that Hannah had married previously in 1753 and her husband Isaac Axford remarried in 1759 as a widower. There was  a court case in 1866 in which the judges ruled that the marriage certificate of George III and Hannah Lightfoot was a forgery. Another theory is that the Lord Chancellor of the day reportedly confiscated the marriage documents and they are believed to held in the Public Record Office. In 2000 archaeologists discovered the tombs of Sarah Dalton's daughter and her niece and while the memorial gives details of family connections it was buried under a tiled floor with no record of the burial.

Merlin's Hill

Leaving Carmarthen on the A40 towards Llandeilo there is an oddly shaped hill to the left, known as Merlin's Hill with a cave said to be his home and grave as according to legend he was imprisoned there in bonds of enchantment by his lover. 

Merlin's chair was hewn from the rock on the hill and it was said he gave his prophecies while seated in the chair. 

 The hill is the site of an Iron Age Fort and offers extensive views over Carmarthen and the Towy valley. A farm half way up the hill is open to visitors and has a heritage centre and wool exhibition. It is signposted off the A40 at Abergwilli.

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Site and Photographs Geoffrey Davies 2008-10  Contact info@enchantedtowy.co.uk