Carmarthenshire, where do I start? The county is a bit of a Leviathan so I'm just going to share a few of my favourite places, thoughts and perspectives on the place. I have a bit of an interest in history, including local so I am sure I will ramble on about battles and come over all nationalistic at some point. I'm sure this will be an eclectic mix, and will by no means cover all of what makes up the county. I won't even attempt to go into the realms of socio-economic data etc. you'll be relieved to know.
I often think of Carmarthenshire as primarily an inland agricultural area, however my husband considers me an idiot for this view as we have the benefit of quite a long coastline and so much more. It encompasses Mountain ranges, coastal areas, places of high industrial development, and mile upon mile of farmland, country parks and glorious greenery.
To the East we take in part of the Brecon Beacons, The Black Mountain being the most locally famous, and has recently been named as part of the FForest Fawr Geopark, which is the only site in Wales to be included among the most exceptional geological sites in Europe. The Beacons are wild and lovely, ranging from green and wooded to windswept and barren, a beautiful mixture of geologies and geography, and also steeped in legend. The Lady of the Lake (lake Llyn-y-Fan Fach) from who the Physicians of Mydffai are purportedly descended being one legend most Welsh school children are taught at an early age. Briefly a local farmer falls in love with a beautiful magical being whom he sees 'sitting' upon the waters of the lake, (or at the lake edge or tending a magical herd of cattle at the lake edge depending on the version). He is allowed to marry her (if he can tell her from identical siblings) on the condition that he never strikes her (without reason) with a three strikes and you're out rule. Of course he does accidentally and very gently strike (tap on the arm etc.,) the woman three times over the course of a long and happy marriage. She must return to the lake, taking all the fairy cattle etc, that came with her, but appears to her eldest son from time to time, teaching him herbal folklore and healing. This is where the Physicians of Myddfai are said to originate. Carmarthenshire is ripe with such folklore, based half in legend and half in fact. The physicians of Myddfai you see were a real family of healers/medics, who left a medical treatment book that was state of the art at the time and used by many subsequent physicians. It was written in the 13th Century, and described methods, treatments and recipes for medicines that were way ahead of the rest of Europe at that time. Rice Willliams MD who died in 1842 at the age of 85 is thought to have been the last in the line, but some say the last physicians of Myddfai were David and John Jones who died in 1719 and 1739 respectively. Apparently several royal surgeons have come from this little Welsh village. Continuing the royal connection Prince Charles has a residence in a little place just outside Myddfai.
Carmarthenshire has been called the garden of Wales, and it does seem to be a breathtakingly green and verdant County where ever you chose to visit. We are home to the National Botanical Garden of Wales, which opened in 2000. It has what looks remarkably similar to one of the domes at the Eden project in Cornwall, but is in fact the worlds largest single span glasshouse (designed by Sir Norman Foster). The site covers 568 acres, from wild flower meadows and lakes to historical and modern buildings. The gardens are starting to come into their own now, with the fresh landscaping looking more mature and plants becoming well established. There is transport (a train) to take visitors around the site, and kids seem to like this. There are cafés and shops if you're peckish. We hardly ever eat at on site venues when we visit anywhere so I can't vouch for the quality or prices. The entry fees aren't cheap, at £8.00 per adult, there are concessions for the elderly and kids are half price or free under 5 (there are family tickets at £19.50 for two adults and two children), which means it's out of reach of most local pockets to visit on a regular basis but a nice place to take in if you are holidaying in the area. One other thing to bear in mind is that the opening times are quite limited, opening at 10am and closing at 6.00p.m. in the summer, and 4.30 at all other times!
Then there are the restored ancient gardens (and house) of Aberglasney which personally I prefer, it's where archaeology meets gardening. The gardens are restored to how they would have looked in the past, sadly I haven't yet been able to find out to which period each part of the garden is restored, this would be of great interest to me and to others. The gardens cover about ten acres, so are not as dispersed as the grounds of the Botanical Gardens, but they encompass diverse styles from walled gardens, more formal layouts, an oriental garden, to the stream garden with 'pigeon house' wood (with lots more in between). There is a café if you feel in need of sustenance, but as before we have never used it so unfortunately can't vouch for prices and quality. The house is partially restored but the real joy of the place is the gardens. Aberglasney also had the.. umm.. pleasure of hosting Most Haunted in Season 3, when they still had the regularly improbably possessed Derek Acorah in their midsts. The opening times and prices are similar to The Botanical Gardens and I've listed details below**.
There are many fine coastal areas to enjoy, not least of these is Cefn Sidan, which literally translates to silk back. I wonder if back refers to the dunes or the long gentle curve of the 8 mile long sands, a little like a supple spine of sand. The sand really is like silk, gloriously soft and sifts through your fingers like a dream, of course this does mean it gets into your sandwiches even more easily. I remember one very warm late summer evening in August many years ago, when the children were younger, one of our neighbours decided to have a very rowdy barbecue for the umpteenth time that month. The music was (in my opinion) horrible, Frank Sinatra and the Birdy Song played at maximum volume. Rather than persevere in trying to get the girls to sleep we decided to go for a drive, which took us to Pembrey Country Park, of which Cefn Sidan is a part. It was a glorious night and the sun was just setting. We took a sand dusted path towards the dunes and beach. Lying in a loose spiral in the middle of the path was a beautiful half grown adder soaking up the last of the heat from the tarmac. The girls had never seen a snake before and were mesmerised, it was a magical moment that we will remember for ever*. We took a wide berth and carried on down to the glorious warm waiting beach leaving Mr. Adder to enjoy the radiating warmth. I like that the children have grown up at least partially involved with nature, they don't freak out when they see a perfectly harmless (if left alone) native animal, and are aware of 'the countryside code'; wow that sounds outdated now!
The place I think I love the most in Carmarthenshire is Gelli Aur (or Golden Grove). It is formerly part of the historic Cawdor estate, and now boasts a country park at its centre. The Golden Grove road links what were in the late middle ages the English colonies established in Llandeilo, and Carmarthen as part of the military occupation of Wales. The remains of this conflict can be seen in the line of castles that litter the landscape. You almost can't throw a stone without hitting a historical site around here. Most of these castles are in deep ruin. However Dinefwr was restored, originally in the nineteenth century as a kind of romantic folly. It was subsequently neglected and ignored for many years during the twentieth century as its native Welsh origins did not resonate with the emphasis placed on English castles by the then so called Welsh Tourist Board. It has now received some further restoration and is worth a visit. Further to the west, and lying right on the river Tywi, stands Dryslwyn Castle. It's outline stands like a stark skeleton of a once mighty structure, on a mound which may or may not be man made (no one has been able to tell for some reason).
Across the valley on the hillside stands Paxton's Tower. The official story of the tower is that it is a folly/banqueting hall built for William Paxton on the Middleton estate in about 1808 (to a design by S.P. Cockerell and dedicated to Admiral Nelson). It was built to be visible from the house, which no longer exists. It gives a brilliant view over the Tywi Valley. However the local 'legend' is a little different. It says that Paxton having failed to bribe the local farmers into voting for him (to become the local M.P.), with the offer of building a bridge over the river Tywi for them - then went on to spend the money on the tower instead; and famously told the local population 'there is your bridge'. The tower, visible for miles around, is an indelible reminder of his alleged spiteful nature. My daughters however loved visiting the tower, and it was one of our favourite destinations for Sunday drives as a family for years. The second floor is a basic skin of wooden planks, put in fairly recently, and freaked the girls and their dad out considerably, as you could see the full drop right down to ground level through the gaps in the planks All three would usually make their way to the glass less windows like crabs inching their way breathlessly around the sides of the wall. I think this is why they liked it so much, like a fairground ride, the thrill and relief of getting out safely was quite a rush. Below the tower the river Tywi continues to wind its majestic way through the valley. Little did Paxton realise perhaps that this apparently huge 'waste' of money, would become a local landmark, and add to the mystical feel of the landscape. The river Tywi itself is well used by swans and many other water fowl, not to mention (licensed) fishermen. The whole area to me feels magical, and when viewed from the hillside on the road to Carmel it looks like something straight out of the Arthurian legends.
Kidwelly is a small Norman immigrant town on the coast, which was eventually re-taken by the Welsh. It is dominated by its largely intact castle, which has special meaning for me, as it is in a little cottage next to the castle that my grandmother was born, the youngest of eleven children. Her father was a lay preacher and insisted that all his children were confident in one language (Welsh) before allowing them to speak English. Unfortunately she didn't pass this on, and my children are the first in my side of the family since then to be fluent native Welsh speakers. Kidwelly is also the site of the second Tinplate works in the country, on the site of which is now a museum dedicated to that industry. Kidwelly represents the multi faceted nature of Carmarthenshire, in its rural location, it's rich medieval history, for example the famous Welsh heroine Gwenllian (well worth googling) lies at the centre of this history, having (unsuccessfully at the cost of her and a sons life) led a battle to prevent a Norman invasion of the area in the twelfth Century - and the modern industrial heritage which helped to make Wales the crucible of the Industrial Revolution.
Llanelli is the major population base for the county. A town which grew up around the tinplate industry with a radical socialist political tradition. In local folk memory, perhaps somewhat uniquely in the U.K., the name Winston Churchill is often reviled. He is commemorated as the man who sent in troops (in his capacity as home secretary) to crush a national railway strike which had gathered widespread support in Llanelli (see http://www.socialistworker.co.uk/art.php?id=19750 for more information). The troops opened fire on the demonstrators killing two men. The use of English troops firing on Welsh workers inflamed both socialist and nationalist sentiments and ultimately led the state to negotiate a compromise with the strikers. So in a way this became a pivotal moment and opened the way for more civilised negotiation between management and workers all over Britain.
There has been a lot of talk about introducing tolls on roads of late (only today- 15th May 2010 - it was commented in the Independent and Telegraph that "Mr. Hammond said tolls on new roads might be introduced"), and this has particular resonance in Carmarthenshire. A significant political movement began here in the nineteenth century, protesting against the toll charges on local roads, these became know as the Rebecca Riots. The village of Hendy in particular, on the banks of the river Loughor was the scene of a major skirmish between the rioters and the military forces sent from Carmarthen following the fatal shooting of the local tollgate keeper in Hendy. A number of the rioters were subsequently transported to Australia, although widespread perjury by the local population saved many from this fate. Ultimately the toll gate system was reformed and the principle of free access to roads became the norm. This was important as the level of toll charges had become ludicrous and was literally causing people great hardship as they couldn't get to and from work, or market etc to sell or buy necessities.
I'm not a rugby fan myself but Llanelli is a huge rugby stronghold, home of the Scarlets, and has provided many a world class rugby union player, rugby being historically the 'working class' sport of this country.
If you're old enough to take yourself back twenty years, to the ambience of your local spit and sawdust pub, where pork scratchings are the haute cuisine... then the local Felinfoel pub chain is for you (if you liked the old fashioned pub ambience). Llanelli has a long brewing tradition with Felinfoel being the first beer in Britain to be sold in a can... It looked like an old fashioned tin of Brasso (for those of you who remember the old tins of Brasso).
Another part of Carmarthenshire that I dare not leave out is Laugharne (pronounced larne), it lies on the Taf estuary (Taf is pronounced Taav as a single f in Welsh represents v, a double ff represents f as in the name FFion). Laugharne is most famous now for the 'boathouse' where Dylan Thomas spent much of his time, and it is now a heritage site. He his wife Caitlin and their three children lived there for the last four years of his life. I was very surprised when I saw the boathouse, it's tiny! And I suppose as it's name suggests, right on the 'water'. I would have been terrified living there with children. It is however a beautiful setting, and I can see why he found it so inspirational. Dylan and his wife Caitlin are buried there in St. Martin's church. He was born in Swansea, but his family roots were in Carmarthenshire, and it's where he chose to spend eternity. The village is small but has a rich history, it has not been a primarily Welsh speaking area since the twelfth century, when the English king Henry I gave away land there to Flemish people made homeless by flooding to their homelands. With a later influx of Flemish soldiers banished by Henry II. The actor Neil Morrissey bought property in the area including the Three Mariners pub, but later his company went into liquidation and he had to withdraw. The village is dominated by the castle, which was known as Abercorran, and was there long before the immigration of non Welsh speakers to the area, and was owned by the Princes of South Wales. I enjoy spending time in the beautiful village of Laugharne, but my heart is still with the rolling wooded hills of Gelli Aur.
The town of Carmarthen itself houses the local government offices, and offers a very pleasant shopping and social experience. The dooyoo picture depicts the old armoury, set on the main eastern entrance to the town, troops were housed there for quick action on the narrow bridge entrance and further afield, this building is now Carmarthen's county hall. It is yet another Norman town, which is why I guess there are so many castles in the area, us Welsh don't take to invaders very kindly and the invaders needed to wall themselves in. It is supposedly the birth place of Merlin (the Merlin from Arthurian legend) and until recently an ancient oak tree 'Merlin's Oak' stood in the centre of the town and is said to have had a protective 'curse' put on it by the aforementioned Merlin or Myrddin as is his true Welsh name. The curse proclaimed when 'Merlin's Tree shall tumble down, then shall fall Carmarthen town'. Unfortunately in the 1850s the tree was poisoned by a local idiot who didn't like the fact that meetings were held under its sheltering boughs. The trunk still stood and was protected by railings until it was removed in the 1970s coincidentally ... or maybe not, that winter Carmarthen suffered the worst floods in a very long time. What is left of the stump can be found at Carmarthenshire County Museum in Abergwilli. A Sculpture by Andrew Rowe depicting an oak tree now 'grows' at Llangunor roundabout in memory of the real thing, and I think it is an attractive welcoming sight as you enter or leave the town. Carmarthen once had alleyways leading down to the water, and had a sort of 'Yorkish' feel to it, unfortunately generations of urban 'planners' have pretty much completely ruined this ancient layout. Cutting across the old walkways and alleys.
Carmarthen is a market town and that character is still very strong, there is a big market held on a Wednesday, but the new covered market is open 6 days a week, although hardly ever busy on a Monday. An eclectic mix is sold at market, local cheeses being a big favourite of mine. There are also regular markets featuring foreign sellers, which are great fun, you can get anything from real Turkish delight, olives of every variety, stuffed with virtually anything or plain sold by the kilo, alligator burgers, kangaroo hotdogs... you get the picture I'm sure. You will hear Welsh spoken on the streets and in the shops of Carmarthen, as you will in many places in Carmarthenshire. This is not in an attempt to bamboozle visitors from non Welsh speaking areas, it is simply the natural mother tongue of a huge proportion of the inhabitants. When I first moved to the village where I now live I was referred to as English by several people, (they weren't making a statement or being rude) simply because I didn't speak Welsh. I'm pleased to say I can at least now follow a basic conversation in Welsh, and have added two offspring to the Welsh speaking pool.
I could go on as I'm sure everyone could about their own county, but I'll shut up as I'm sure you're on the verge of coma already. I hope that this piece has given a little taste of the county that I like so much, but I know I have left out far more than I've included. If your interest has been piqued maybe you could pay it a visit.
I just realised that I have completely overlooked accomodation for those who wish to holiday in the area. There are many small hotels, bed and breakfast places not to mention the chains such as travelodge, and self catering accommodation to chose from. I've included one of the sites where you can check some of them out. accomodation is easily found on the internet. As I live in Carmarthenshire I haven't stayed in any overnight accommodation so can't really give an opinion on it. http://www.visitcarmarthenshire.co.uk/
*We took the opportunity of seeing the snake to explain to the girls what an adder was, and point out his distinctive markings so they would recognise one in future, also to ensure they understood that they must never ever touch, tease or frighten one, and to never go too close to one.
**Price and opening times for Aberglasney.
Gift Aided Non Gift Aided
Adult/OAP £7.00 £6.36
Children £4.00 £3.63
Under 5`s Free Free
Disabled (Carer Free) £7.00 £6.36
Family (2 adult & 2 children) £18.00 £16.36
Summer (April to September) - 10am - 6pm (last entry 5pm)
Winter (October to March) - 10:30am - 4pm (last entry 3pm)