Travel & Tourism in Barmouth

Barmouth in 1840If you are visiting Barmouth you are joining a host of visitors who have come to the region over hundreds of years. For most of its history Barmouth was, like the rest of north-west Wales, isolated from the rest of the country by geography. Roads were few and traversed difficult landscapes so travelling was an adventure. The river Maw, (now the Mawddach), whose estuary joins the sea at Barmouth, first got a mention in the 12th century from Geraldus Cambrensis, a cleric, who travelled the region encouraging followers to sign up for the Crusades to the Holy Land. He used the ferry to cross the river. There was little habitation that we know of.  A few hundred years later, around 1545,  John Leland, who submitted his writings of his travels around England and Wales to Henry VIII, travelled through Abermowe as it was then known.  

The 18th century saw a fascination with picturesque landscapes and the romantic notions of the ‘enlightenment’. Despite the difficulty of access Wales became attractive to the well-to-do travellers of the day and the Mawddach Estuary was an incredible draw. In the latter part of the century the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars had made the Grand Tour somewhat unattractive so the scenic regions of Britain, such as North Wales, became the destination of choice. A great variety of figures visited Barmouth and its vicinity, some of whom became quite well known. Visitors included Charles Darwin, who visited locally on several occasions, Percy Bysshe Shelley, William Wordsworth and George Byron amongst many others. They came in part, no doubt, because of the great works of Thomas Pennant, (1726 -1798), a world renowned naturalist and antiquary whose descriptions of every part of Wales encouraged visitors to see them. He described Barmouth thus…

'I found the little town of Barmouth, seated near the bottom of some high mountains, and the houses placed on the steep sides, one above another, in such a manner as to give the upper an opportunity of seeing down the chimneys of their next subjacent neighbours. The town is seated very near to the sea, at the mouth of the 'Maw', or 'Mawddach'; and takes its name of Barmouth, i.e. Aber Maw, or Mawddach, from that circumstance.'

BarmouthHis descriptions were often copied, however many others of the ‘better sort’ came browsing around to write of their experiences and whilst the common theme in most of their reports was the magnificent scenery not all were complimentary. Descriptions of poor accommodation, sand inundation and pigs living alongside humans in parts of the Old Town give an alternative flavour, but generally the view was positive. We can only wonder what the atmosphere was like when the harbour,  thronged with boats, sailors and others of the ruder sorts were visited by the ‘new tourists’. We must remember also that the road from Barmouth along the estuary was not blasted through the rock until the 1790s and people had a steep decent down into the town so it was much easier to reach by boat unless coming from the north!

As well as the scenery, the other great draw to Barmouth was the attraction of sea bathing and some local entrepreneurs thought it a good idea to cater for these people. One such man was William Barnett, innkeeper of the Cors y Gedol Arms Hotel who established the Bath House in the early 19th century to offer bathing from within the building and bathing machines had also been erected on the sands.

Barmouth Bridge in the 1880sIt was the laying of the railway in 1867 by the Aberystwith (sic) and Welsh Coast Railway that proved a great catalyst in the fortunes of Barmouth. Within ten years the railway had seen off the boat building activity but it had unleashed a new direction for the town as it brought a great influx of new trade in the form of tourists – 1200 on the first train! From its genteel Georgian period there was a great impetus to regenerate the town in its new Victorian form and many of the buildings you see today came from the rebuilding that went to serve the new economy.

Holidays in the Victorian period were still restricted to the well-off as most working class people did not yet enjoy paid holidays, with just the odd Bank Holiday from 1871. Nevertheless, seaside holidays became increasingly popular and the train brought thousands to stay in the town’s ‘boarding houses’ and hotels with some staying the whole summer. It was not until the twentieth century that the traditional factory summer holiday closures brought a wider population to town.  Summer specials transported thousands of factory workers and their families to the coast; south to Weston-Super-Mare and Torbay, west to Aberystwyth, Tywyn and Barmouth. It was not long into the 1930s and 1940s that the private motor car and the coach slowly began to give the train increasing competition. But those trains transformed Barmouth’s fortunes as the combination of great beaches, mountain walking and a friendly climate quickly established a reputation that encouraged tremendous loyalty. That legacy lingers even today. 

Although the train still brings tourists to Barmouth the vast majority arrive by road, the fast ‘A’ roads from the Midlands offering an easy route to the coast. And that loyalty to Barmouth is still there. Listen to the accents along the prom on a summer’s day and you’ll realise that the West Midlands dialects dominate!