Llandrindod Wells: the heart of Wales

Friday 14 September 2012, 15:21

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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Llandrindod Wells is one of those places that people tend to pass through on a trip to somewhere else. They rarely stop to spend time in what is a charming and picturesque community – a community with a history that is both intriguing and rewarding.

Llandrindod Wells Llandrindod Wells Victorian Fair (Image John Batts)

Taking the waters
Most people simply do not realise it but, at one time, this tiny Welsh town in the heart of rural Powys almost rivaled the famous English spa towns of Cheltenham and Tunbridge Wells. In the Victorian Age, a trip here to “take the waters” was something that was eagerly anticipated and looked forward to by many of Britain's emerging middle classes. It was the place to be – and to be seen to be!

Roman camps
While the town did not achieve prominence until the middle period of the 18th century, there had been human activity in the area for many hundreds of years. The Romans certainly knew the region, 18 practice camps for their Legions (probably, in the main, auxilliary rather than legionary troops) having been discovered in and around the town.

Despite the Roman presence in the area, Llandrindod remained a small community of little or no importance for most of the middle ages.

Saline and sulphur springs
The town's saline and sulphur springs were first uncovered in the 16th century but it was 1756 when their medicinal effects were first trumpeted to the medicinal wider world  in a book about their benefits written by Dr Wessel Linden.

Linden was clear about the benefits of “taking the waters” at Llandrindod – Llandrindod Wells as it was soon known. Influential publications like “The Gentleman's Magazine” soon took up the cause, declaiming on the benefits to be gained from the springs, and people began to flock to the town. They came in their hundreds, by coach and on horse back, all eager to see what was on offer in this remote mid Wales town.

Vibrant economic growth
It was a time of sudden and vibrant economic growth. Llandrindod House was converted into a hotel and here balls and concerts were held on a regular basis. Several fine new buildings were created and with things like race balls and shops to attract visitors it seemed as if the town's future was assured.

However, the very success of Llandod (as it is still universally known) was its undoing. With race meetings being held on Rock Ddole Meadow and with the converted hotel as their base, many undesirable elements were soon being attracted to the town:-

“Gaming for large sums became common; £70,000 is said to have changed hands during one session at the hotel, which closed in 1787.” (The Encyclopaedia of Wales)

Nobody wanted such adverse publicity and the gamblers and bookies had no real interest in the town, apart from seeing it as a way to make money. With the closure of the hotel, the town hit something of a slump in its fortunes, a slump that did not really end – despite the re-building of the town Pump Room in the early years of the 19th century – until the railway arrived in 1865. And then the place commenced its second period of prosperity.

Establishing a season
A “season” was quickly established – May through to the end of September – when visitors would take the waters, either at Rock Park or the Pump House, and then promenade around the town. A whole infrastructure of hotels, boarding houses and shops was created to service these visitors and the town centre that we see today was, largely built between 1890 and the outbreak of World War One.

An ornamental lake was created by draining marshland close to the Pump House – now the site of the Powys County Council Offices. Around the lake was a nine hole golf course, superseded in 1905 by a larger 18 hole course on the hills above the town. Horse racing recommenced – without so many of the “undesirables” who had previously caused so many problems – and there were even air displays (balloon ascents), to entertain the holiday makers, from the Meadow.

So significant had the town and community become that Holy Trinity Church in Llandrindod Wells was chosen as the location for the election of the first Archbishop of Wales.

World War One
The boom continued until the outbreak of war in 1914 when, understandably, things began to change. The hotels and boarding houses were taken over as billets for soldiers and  refugees from places like Belgium and France were also housed in the town. Matters were not helped by the Depression years of the 1920s and '30s, many of the smaller hotels and boarding houses closing their doors for the last time.

World War Two
During World War Two the town was again used to billet troops and also to care for wounded soldiers. The Beeching cuts of the 1960s saw the closure of the Mid Wales Railway Line and Llandod lost its railway links to Cardiff and many of the English Midlands towns. The line to Swansea and Shrewsbury, now the Heart of Wales Line, did remain open but by the middle years of the 1960s the great days of spa towns were well and truly over.

Those hotels that remain now cater, largely, for conferences and for people stopping briefly on coach tours around Wales. For those who wish to take the time and make the effort, however, the faded grandeur of Llandod is well worth sampling.

There are some wonderful art deco style buildings, notably two old garage premises on the edge of the town. They now contain an array of different shops but in one of them, the old Automobile Palace, there is now housed the National Cycle Collection.

And at the end of August every year the town holds the Llandrindod Wells Victorian Fair when residents – and visitors, too, for that matter – dress in Victorian clothes and try to recreate what the town would have looked and felt like a hundred years ago.

The great days may have long gone but Llandrindod Wells still has enough history and atmosphere to entertain.

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