Carmarthen town

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The town of Carmarthen sits on the River Towy – actually the lowest bridgeable point on the whole river – some eight miles from the point where the Towy exits into Carmarthen Bay, and is proud to claim that it is the oldest town in Wales. The statement has some credibility.

These days Carmarthen is a pleasant little market town that has recently undergone a major re-development and witnessed the creation of an up-to-date shopping complex, but its history is both old and distinguished.

A Roman fort was built here in about 75 AD and the town which grew up around this military encampment became the centre or capital of the local Demetae tribe. Known as Maridunum (Sea Fort in English), town walls were built in the third century along with a large Roman amphitheatre. This was one of only seven amphitheatres in the UK and one of just two in Wales – the famous amphitheatre at Caerleon being the other one.

Carmarthen's stone bridge. Copyright Chris Whitehouse, licensed under Creative Commons

A castle was built to protect the town and Norman interests in approximately 1094. It was the brainchild of William fitz Baldwin and although the castle was destroyed by Llewelyn the Great in 1215 the area was firmly in the grip of the English, both before and after its destruction. The castle was rebuilt in 1223 and the strong stone walls erected around the town at the same time made Carmarthen the first walled town in Wales.

The legend that Merlin of Arthurian fame was born in a cave outside Carmarthen has persisted and Merlin's Oak, which stood for years at the eastern end of the town, added to the story. If the tree should ever fall, said the legend, it would lead to the destruction of the town. These days the remains of the long-rotted tree are kept in Carmarthen Museum.

By the 12th century the town was made up of the twin settlements of Old and New Carmarthen. Old Carmarthen was created around the Augustine priory that was established in approximately 1125, New Carmarthen around the Norman castle. It is possible that the famous Black Book of Carmarthen, a collection of writings dating from the middle years of the 13th century, was written and compiled in the priory.

Carmarthen actually played host to several priories. In 1110 the Benedictine Priory of St Peter was created, replaced 10 or so years later by the Augustine priory. Franciscan friars arrived during the late 13th century in 1284, creating their friary on Lammas Street.

This was the burial place of Edmund Tudor who was carried off by the plague in 1456, three months before the birth of his son who went on to become Henry VII. After the dissolution of the monasteries Edmund's tomb was removed to St David's Cathedral.

Carmarthen suffered badly during the plague years, the disease originally being brought in by merchants involved in the busy and highly successful river trade. It is believed that there was once a plague pit where mass burials took place in an area to the rear of present-day St Catherine Street.

In 1546 the two towns of Carmarthen were amalgamated into a single borough and during the 16th and 17th centuries Carmarthen was the most populous borough in Wales. By 1576, when the town's grammar school was established, it had a population of over 2,000. It could not last, however, and the town was eventually, and somewhat understandably, left behind once rapid industrialisation hit the eastern valleys of the country.

Carmarthen became an important centre for printing and was, in 1810, the home of the second weekly newspaper to be established in Wales, the Carmarthen Journal.

Boer War Memorial, Carmarthen. Copyright George Causley, licensed under Creative Commons.

The town will always hold an honoured place in Welsh history as, in the words of the Encyclopedia of Wales:

"1819, Edward Williams (Iolo Morganwg) held a Gorsedd in the garden of the Ivy Bush Hotel, thus initiating the association between the Gorsedd and the Eisteddfod."

The Ivy Bush Hotel had already had one brush with fame. This was where Colonel Tate and several of his officers were held for a number of weeks after their abortive landing at Fishguard in 1797, the last time mainland Britain ever felt the invader's foot. Tate and his colleagues had pledged their parole and were consequently allowed to walk the streets of the town where they became well known and popular with the townspeople.

Carmarthen had a further brush with prisoners of war during World War Two when POW camps were established at Johnstown and Glangwili. The huts at Glangwili, where German officers had once lounged away their days, were later used as the basis for a large regional hospital.

Due to its riverside quays, Carmarthen was a prosperous place in the early 18th century. It also had a number of iron and tin plate factories and a rope works. The arrival of the Great Western Railway in the middle years of the century merely added to that prosperity.

Not everything was plain sailing, however, and the community was host to friction and discord on many occasions. In particular Carmarthen was at the centre of the Rebecca Riots when toll gates were burned and destroyed. In June 1843 the town workhouse, a symbol of oppression and tyranny, was sacked by the rioters.

Trinity College for the training of teachers opened in 1848. The college still runs, now known as University of Wales, Trinity St David's. But it was as a market centre that Carmarthen saw in the 20th century. And with the farmers' markets came a lucrative sideline. The Encyclopedia of Wales again:

"In its bibulous heyday, the town had 150 taverns; as they were open all day on market days, and almost every day was a market day at Carmarthen, it was long the only place in Britain with opening hours similar to those of France or Germany."

These days Carmarthen, the town that boasts people as notable as architect John Nash, writer Byron Rogers and the rugby player Stephen Jones amongst its one-time residents, is not so rowdy.

Fine Georgian houses and monuments to men like Waterloo hero General Picton and the martyr Bishop Ferrar, who was burned at the stake in Market Square in 1555, mark the place down as being quite special. It also has one of the few pre-World War One memorials commemorating the ordinary soldier and fighting man.

Carmarthen town, one of the truly great and fascinating communities in Wales.

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