What have the French said about Aberystwyth over the centuries? Here are a few highlights from my lecture ‘Views of mid-Wales by artists, exiles and royals from Europe’, for the Ceredigion History Society on 7 October 2017.
Photo by Steffan Nicholas
On the road from Cardigan to Aberystwyth in 1810, Louis Simond (1767-1831), who was French but had lived for 20 years in America, married to an English woman, liked what he saw:
Nous rencontrons certainement un plus grand nombre de jolies personnes ici qu’en Angleterre
[We certainly meet more good-looking people here than in England]
Or, in Simond’s own English version:
The women certainly are uncommonly good-looking.
He clearly likes the locals a lot, and describes approvingly the way that they greet the passing travellers with a nod of the head. Gestures that are all the more important since his only means of communicating with them is sign language. He is no less struck by the landscape:
La mer, sur la gauche, nous a suivis tout le jour, unie comme une glace et marquée de longues rayures d’un vert vif et de violet foncé, alternativement; les nuages y étaient réfléchis avec la plus grande exactitude. Des hauteurs, nous nous sommes plusieurs fois imaginés que nous apercevions la côte d’Irlande.
Or, in his own English version :
We have been nearly all day in view of the sea, on our left hand, and fancied we could see Ireland: the clouds were exactly reflected by the glassy surface of the water, curiously streaked with the brightest green and dark purple.
But disappointingly he says nothing of Aberystwth when he passes through on his way to Dolgellau, preferring to save his ink for the sublime mountains of north Wales.
Adolphe Thiébault (1797-c.1875), an artist from a Franco-British family visited north Wales in September 1827 to paint landscapes, mainly waterfalls. Because of poor weather he decided to return to England through Aberystwyth, where he stayed at the Gogerddan Arms, and drew Castle House. He says very little about the town of Aberystwyth, and rather more about the Gogerddan family: Pryse Pryse and family were not in town by the time Adolphe Thiébault arrived, but his staff look after him, and he is impressed by the stables and foxhounds, though he finds the house rather small for such a rich man. On his journey out through the mountains of Pumlumon he stops for lunch at Devil’s Bridge, presumably not long enough to draw a picture, which is a shame for us. He describes the rivers that rise on Pumlumon, then leaves and dines at Rhayader. The final part of his journey out of mid Wales towards Kington, Worcester and Oxford, is terrifying on account of awful roads and a drunken coach driver. As they cross the river in Kington, he says, there is a sharp turn to the right, and it is a miracle that they weren’t thrown into the water. He reports that the travellers were so relieved not to be dead that they forgot to complain and gave the man his tip anyway!
Alphonse Dousseau (1796-1875) is another artist who made some seven separate journeys to Wales between 1830 and 1869. His illustrated diary contains 123 views of Wales, all of which have been digitized by the National Library of Wales. Each picture is accompanied by a short text that describes it. Of Aberystwyth he says:
Aberystwith, 5000 habitants, la ville la plus jolie et la plus gaie du cardiganshire fashionable, très fréquentée, à cause de ses Bains de mer. Ruines de la vieille forteresse, 1. Craig Lais et l’église paroissiale. Le pont du Rhaidol, confluent du Rheidol et de l’Ystwith dans l’avant port [ ?], Vue prise de la jetée du sud, 19-20 August 1841.
Aberystwyth, 5000 inhabitants, the prettiest and gayest town in fashionable Cardiganshire, very busy on account of its sea bathing. Old castle ruins, 1. Craig Glais and the parish church. The Bridge over the river Rheidol, the confluence of the Rheidol and the Ystwyth at the harbour. View taken from the south jetty, 19-20 August 1841.
When he returned to Aberystwyth a second time 23-25 August 1869, he noted an increase in the population to 6500, and he describes his second Aberystwyth drawing:
Partie de la terrasse de la marine et de la plage des bains. Le Craig (promontoire) Lays et les ardoisières. Vue prise des ruines de la citadelle.
Part of the Marine Terrace and bathing beach. Craig (promontory) Glais and the slate quarries. View taken from the castle.
His view of Cardigan Bay shows Llan-non and Llanrhystud on 20 August 1841:
La baie de Cardigan, vue de la route d’Aberystwyth à Abereyron. 1. Pointe du Caernarvonshire. 2. Cader Idris. 3. Aberystwith et le Craig Lays. 4. Village de Llanon. 5. Plinlymmon et village de Llanrhystidd. 20 août 1841.
Cardigan Bay, view of the road from Aberystwyth to Aberaeron. 1. Point of Caernarvonshire. 2. Cader Idris. 3. Aberystwyth and Craig Glais. 4. Village of Llan-non. 5. Pumlumon and the village of Llanrhystud.
His view of Aberaeron shows New Key in the distance:
Petit port dans la baie de Cardigan. 1. Bourg de New Key. 2. Pointe du Pembrokshire. Vue prise de Llanon. 20 août 1841.
Little port in Cardigan Bay. 1. Little town of New Quay. 2. Point of Pembrokeshire. View taken from Llan-non. 20 August 1841.
Alfred Erny (b. 1838) has given us a very detailed account of his travels in Wales in: ‘Voyage dans le pays de Galles’ (1860). Like Louis Simond he describes the same coast road northwards from Aberaeron to Aberystwyth, evoking fields of wheat alongside the shore, covered in pebbles, whose dark hues contrast with the golden colour of the crop. Ahead stand the mountains of Merionethshire, and a backward look takes in the very tip of Cardigan bay. On to Aberystwyth, described as the Dieppe of Wales, where he says he stopped for a while (‘un court séjour’). Here, he says, a great number of bathers come for the summer season, making the town noisy and lively. He describes the town’s seafront, from Constitution Hill, which he specifies is known as ‘Craiglais’, and which boasts views of the coastline from Cardigan to Caernarfon, to the ruined castle, situated on a storm-beaten promontory. Tradition has it that the great Cadwallader resided here, he says, and all that is left of it is one tower and a few bits of wall.
Alphonse Esquiros (1812-1876) published a guidebook on Britain and Ireland in the Guides Joanne series Itinéraire descriptif et historique de la Grande-Bretagne et de l’Irlande (Paris: Hachette, 1865), that includes Aberystwyth. As a mainstream guidebook it gives us a valuable idea of what French people at the time could have known about Aberystwyth Esquiros’s account of Aberystwyth stresses the fury of the sea; he fears for the castle on its promontory, and warns that Aberystwyth may be swept away one day, as the slate cliffs are under pressure from the fierce waves:
Les falaises d’ardoise elles-mêmes ont de la peine à soutenir un pareil choc, et le tout est menacé d’être un jour ou l’autre balayé par la mer.
He gives a potted history of the castle, then describes the area north of the castle:
Au nord du château s’étend, à quelques centaines de mètres, une grève d’un niveau assez égal, mais à cette grève succède une longue chaîne de rochers, dans lesquels l’action impétueuse de la mer a creusé des grottes et des cavernes. Au milieu des ruines, il est une promenade qui, par son élévation, domine toute la ligne des côtes formant la baie de Cardigan.
North of the castle a mostly level shore stretches for a few hundred metres, but beyond this lies a long chain of rocks, into which the relentless action of the sea has carved caves and holes. Among these ruins there is a promenade that, thanks to its height, dominates the whole coastline of Cardigan bay.
Aberystwith s’élève à peu près au centre de cette baie, et de la ville elle-même on peut suivre de l’œil la côte de Merioneth se prolongeant vers la mer par le long promontoire montagneux de Caernarvon, que termine l’île de Bardsey. Cette mer elle-même, qui se développe dans toute son étendue et toute sa majesté, chargée de vaisseaux à voiles, de bateaux à vapeur, de barques de pêche, offre un panorama grandiose et varié.
Aberystwyth stands more or less at the centre of this bay, and from the town itself the eye can follow the coast of Merionethshire stretching out into the sea the mountainous promontory of Caernarfonshire with Bardsey island at its tip. The sea itself, which shows itself in all its scope and majesty, full of sailing boats, steamboats and fishing boats, offers a grand and varied panorama.
Then he turns to the tourists,
On a dit d’Aberystwith qu’elle est une sorte de Brighton dans la principauté de Galles. Les baigneurs s’y rendent en effet en grand nombre pendant l’été : aussi les logements garnis y abondent. Les meilleurs sont situés sur la Terrasse, en face de laquelle se trouvent réunies les voitures pour les baigneurs et les bains chauds d’eau de mer,
and describes options for accommodation (it is plentiful) and bathing (bathers are numerous during the summer). The best places to stay (literally he says furnished accommodation) are on the ‘Terrasse’, opposite the bathing machines and heated sea-water baths. All, this has made Aberystwyth a kind of ‘Brighton’.
La grève est célèbre pour les cailloux précieux que l’on y rencontre, cornélienne, onyx, etc. Les baigneurs et surtout les nageurs feront pourtant bien de prendre leurs précautions. Il est imprudent de s’avancer trop loin dans les eaux, car la marée accourt quelquefois avec une violence soudaine et peut donner lieu à de graves accidents.
But bathers and swimmers must be prudent as the currents are strong. Precious stones such as onyx are to be found on the beach, he says.
So better, perhaps, than Brighton, Aberystwyth is said to have all the advantages and charm of a seaside town, but without the disadvantages that too often spoil these places:
Le caractère particulier d’Aberystwith est qu’elle réunit tous les avantages et les agréments d’une ville de bains, sans le bruit, l’éclat et les plaisirs fastueux qui troublent trop souvent ces sortes d’endroits. Les marchés et les boutiques sont bien approvisionnés en vue des visiteurs; les hôtels jouissent d’une certaine célébrité à cause de leur aménagement et de leurs prix modérés; les logements garnis sont en rapport avec tous les rangs et toutes les bourses.
The noise, the glitz and glamour of the entertainment. The market and shops are well stocked for the needs of tourists, the hotels are well known for being well planned and moderately priced. There is furnished accommodation for all ranks and every budget. He goes on to describe the town in some detail: churches, buildings and markets. He mentions the new 300 metre jetty stretching to the North West. Ships are constantly leaving for Liverpool, Bristol and the ports of Islande (which must be a misprint for Irlande). The sea shore presents a grandiose spectacle. From Aberystwyth castle you can see the Dovey Estuary, and behind it Cader Idris, and behind that the mountains of Caernarvonshire, with Snowdon’s summit a crown on it all. Recommendations to tourists include: Plas Crug: the remains of an old fortified manor house, Alltwen: a beautiful cliff near Tan-y-Castell, which was quarried to build the stone jetty, and also the site of another fortress, and Llanbadarn Fawr. But, the star attraction of the area is in his opinion Devil’s Bridge. He describes the 12 miles of road and scenery that take the tourist to Havod Arms, which is one of the most beautiful viewpoints imaginable:
un des plus beaux point de vue que l’on puisse imaginer.
Needless to say, French visitors were not always enthusiastic about Aberystwyth, and I shall finish with one Albert Huet (1822-1866), whose Un tour au pays de Galles (1877) describes the Aberystwyth area as ‘a bit monotonous in the middle of fields’,
un peu monotone au milieu des prairies,
and is far from convinced that it is worth stopping at Aberystwyth at all. Devil’s Bridge is also dismissed, despite being recommended by guidebooks, and the tourist is advised by Huet to push on to Dolgellau as the 12 miles to Devil’s Bridge are an ‘ordinary journey’. Better go to Borth, he says, as ‘La route est très pittoresque’ [the journey there is very picturesque], and it is a ‘jolie résidence de bains’ [pretty bathing place].
This research was funded by the AHRC through the ‘European Travellers to Wales: 1750-2010’ project, full details here. You can find out more about the travellers mentioned here by searching the project database.