Are you already missing the summer holidays? Then let’s go on a tour of Wales with the Traveller’s Instructive Guide through England and Wales as our trusty companion. Dating from around 1820, and measuring only 13 x 9 cm, the Guide intends to provide all the information the inquisitive traveller might need, including market towns and days, fairs, local members of Parliament, banks and bankers, seats of the gentry, distance from London, and mail coach routes and prices. Information on each county is compressed on to a single page, with a coloured map on the facing page. The introduction promises that ‘to all classes of persons, the merchant, the trader, the farmer, but especially the traveller, from its portable size will be found of infinite service’.
I’ve left the spellings of place names as they appear in the guide. Monmouthshire is missing from the Welsh guide, listed instead with the English counties, which are not included in this volume. This is common in guides and on maps dating from the 16th to the 20th century, and results from long-running legal ambiguity about whether Monmouthshire was part of Wales, with different pieces of legislation treating the county differently. The situation was clarified legally only in the Local Government Act of 1972.
Beginning in Anglesea, we’ll be sure to seek out the ‘many rude vestiges’ of Druidic temples, not to forget the ‘neat and handsome town’ of Beaumaris, and popping to Newborough for ‘ropes and mats made of seaweed’.
Next-door Carnarvonshire ‘contains that stupendous mountain Snowdon, with its summit…lost to human view amidst the clouds of heaven’. Carnarvonshire seems a good place for a snack, as the county produces excellent beef and ‘the cows are remarkable for yielding great quantities of milk’. To ease our aching feet, we’ll make a stop in Carnarvon for the ‘fine salt water baths’. According to the Guide, Bangor is only a single street a mile long, so we’ll proceed swiftly on to Conway, a ‘remarkable pleasant town’, boasting both a Gothic cathedral and an ancient castle ‘in a high state of preservation’. The MP for Caernarvon Boroughs is Sir Charles Paget. He succeeded his brother Edward in the same seat, and never made a single contribution to a parliamentary debate, despite serving for 24 years!
Heading east, the Guide calls central Denbighshire ‘one of the most delightful spots in Europe’ and notes that ‘the vale of Clwyd has been justly made the theme of literary eulogium’. Be sure to pack a notebook so you can jot down any lines of poetry that occur to you while admiring the Denbighshire views.
After the delights of Denbighshire, the Guide seems not to have been impressed by Flintshire. Flint is ‘irregularly built’ and ‘although it sends one member to parliament, has no market’, while St Asaph is ‘a very insignificant place’.
Heading south into Montgomeryshire, we are in the home of ‘luxuriant crops of corn’ and pastures filled with black cattle and horses. If you are in the market for livestock, head to Llanfair and (a very oddly spelt) Llansdiloes for cattle. Or best of all, Welchpool for horses, cattle and hogs.
Hop back north-west into Merionethshire for a ‘picturesque and beautiful romantic appearance’ and a wide array of textiles: excellent flannels from Dolgelly, druggets (a type of coarse fabric that was used to protect carpets in large houses) and ‘coarse woollen cloths’. If you’d like to accessorise, head up to Bala, for gloves and Welch wigs.
Now, onwards to Cardiganshire, which gets a mixed review: ‘the air in some parts is beautifully serene, in other parts it is bleak and piercing’. Be sure to stop by Llampeter, which holds a fair on the first Saturday in August, and Llanbadarnvawr for its ‘fine church, built in the form of a Greek Cross’.
East again to Radnorshire, where the air is ‘highly favourable to health and longevity’, despite the ‘rather indifferent’ soil, and the county town, Radnor, containing ‘nothing worthy of notice’.
All this traipsing may have worn holes in our socks, so it’s time for a trip to Brecknockshire, famous for manufacturing stockings. Builth in particular has a ‘great trade in coarse stockings’. The text and the map disagree on the correct spelling, with the text plumping for ‘Burlth’, while the map shows ‘Bualt’. Neither includes ‘Wells’, which was appended to the name only in the 19th century after chalybeate springs were discovered in the town and began to be marketed to tourists.
Veering back west, we reach Carmarthenshire, ‘situate[d] in the most beautiful part of South Wales’. Carmarthen itself is worth a visit, for its ‘fine bridge’ over the Teifi and its market selling black cattle and horses.
West from Carmarthenshire into Pembrokeshire, for some ‘salubrious’ air, despite the soil in some parts of the county being ‘barren and sterile’. Of course, no visit to Pembrokeshire would be complete without a trip to St David’s, ‘an episcopal city of great antiquity’, with an estimated population of just 200. Unfortunately St David’s offers neither market nor fair. So our souvenir shopping will have to wait until we reach Glamorganshire.
Swansea is ‘a town of great commercial business’ and there are ‘extensive manufactories of copper, brass, &c.’, as well as a fine harbour. At this time, Llandaff and Swansea are the principal towns of Glamorganshire, not Cardiff. In the north of the county, the air is ‘excessive bleak and keen’, but there are also ‘rich mines of lead and coal’.
If you want to send a postcard home, you’re out of luck, as the first picture postcards weren’t produced until the 1870s, but if you’ve sat down to write a letter detailing your adventure (or perhaps to show off your Denbighshire-inspired poem), you’ll find a handy list of postage prices at the back of the volume, and each map highlights the mail coach road in bright red.
Trainee Assistant Map Curator
The Guide In the catalogue
Mills, A. D. “Builth Wells.” In A Dictionary of British Place Names. : Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sir Charles Paget. Hansard 1803-2005.
The Regency Household: protecting carpets. Jane Austen’s World [blog]
This blog is also available in Welsh.