Newcastle Emlyn ('Castell Newydd Emlyn' in Welsh) is a small town, but one of the main settlements in the area along the Teifi Valley in West Wales. One of the reasons for this is that it is one of the points at which the river can be bridged. This can lead to a great deal of traffic in the town's fairly narrow main street during some periods of the day. The 2001 Census gives the town's population as 941. It is growing at a reasonable rate on the back of the counter-urbanisation trend, so it is now some way over the thousand mark.
The town is located about nine miles south-south-east of Cardigan, down the Teifi valley. Carmarthen lies around 15 miles to the south-east.
Officially the town is in Carmarthenshire, but it is often said to straddle Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion, because of its position bridging the River Teifi, which forms the boundary. Officially, however, the part of the town on the northern, Ceredigion side of the river is called Adpar.
The town centre is strung out along the main street, Sycamore Street. It is part of the A475, and runs in a roughly northerly direction until it crosses the River Teifi at a rather nice, if elderly-looking, stone bridge. It was built in the time of the horse and cart, and so it can only just accommodate two cars abreast. During 'rush hour'1 the streets can become rather congested, as they are not particularly wide anywhere and some people persist in parking on the street despite the double yellow lines telling them not to. Of course, this is nothing on the scale of a metropolis, but for a small rural town, the traffic is quite bad.
Officially, 69% of the town's population speak Welsh fluently. Don't worry, English will serve you perfectly well - everybody there will be able to speak it. You may come across the odd person who will insist on speaking only Welsh to you, no matter what language you ask them a question in, but many of that 69% rarely use their Welsh skills. And then you have to define 'fluently'...
Newcastle Emlyn takes its name, unsurprisingly, from its castle. In the early medieval period, the area surrounding the crossing point of the river was called Emlyn - perhaps named after a Roman official, Emelinus. It was inhabited by a small number of serfs who owed service to the local chief. Lord Maredudd2 ap Rhys built a castle on a small hill to guard the crossing and to serve as a new home for his family. It was one of the few stone-built castles to be built by the Welsh in the area. The meanders of the Teifi produced the ideal site: at Emlyn the river curves so sharply it almost forms a neat little natural moat, protecting the hill on three sides. The front of the castle faced the open side, which could be defended by ditches and earthworks.
More houses began to spring up the shadow of the castle, in a settlement which was known as Trecastell3. During the Middle Ages Wales was gradually assimilated into the Norman Kingdom of England, despite the numerous attempted rebellions. Maredudd's son Rhys's rebellion was put down in 1289 and the castle came under the rule of the English. That most famous of Welsh rebels, Owain Glyndwr, took the castle in 1408, but after this it fell into disrepair. Crown dominance led to an influx of English settlers, and in the 14th Century it was granted a town charter, becoming known as Newtown in Emlyn.
During the Tudor period, a new town hall was built and some new shops sprang up, forming the beginnings of a permanent market. The castle was repaired, and changed hands several time during the Civil War. Eventually the Parliamentarian forces blew the castle up to stop the Royalists retaking it and using it as a stronghold.
In 1718 one Isaac Carter set up the very first printing press in Wales on the north side of the river. Carter had arrived in the town from Shrewsbury the year before, seemingly struck by a primal urge to build the first printing press in Wales in an obscure rural agricultural community. He later went on to Carmarthen and became involved in various printing exploits before disappearing from records in 1730.
The Industrial Revolution was beneficial to the economy of the town, even though it was far away from the industrial heartlands of the Welsh south coast and the 'valleys' area around Merthyr Tydfil. Population growth resulted in an increase in demand for food, which the area - overwhelmingly agricultural - could supply. The area was still quite a poor one, stuck as it was in the peripheral areas of the country. A Poor Law Union was formed in 1837 and by 1839 a workhouse housing 150 inmates had been built. Today a mozzarella cheese factory, Dansco, stands on the site.
The factory was the source of a surprisingly juicy bit of scandal in late 2006. Its owner, a Kuwaiti named Mohamed Ali Soliman, was found guilty of a £250 million fraud. The factory was awarded £1.6 million in grant aid to help with its development, with the authorities seemingly unaware of the owner's criminal record. As a result of the scandal, as these things came into the public eye, the factory began to decline. Many of the farmers supplying it with milk suffered massive losses - one being owed £90,000 - as they were not paid for much of their produce. The factory went out of business in early 2007 and was bought for £5.3 million by a Canadian firm.
The Last Dragon
Of course, every town worth its salt has some kind of local legend. Emlyn's happens to be rather good.
The story takes place at an unknown time, generally taken to be 'a long time ago'. The people of the town were gathered for the annual fair, but it is interrupted by the appearance of a dragon - the last in Wales. It seemed uninterested in all the edible people running about and settled down to sleep on one of the turrets of the castle. The beast was eventually shot by a lone young man, and it plunged into the river nearby. It is said the fishing in the river was not good that year.
The town has both a primary and a secondary school. The primary school is located near the market car park (more on that later) and is called Ysgol y Ddwylan, or 'School of the Two Banks'. The name comes from the time when there were separate primary schools on either side of the river, which we then unified into this one on the south side. In 2004 a whole new block of classrooms, costing £778,000, replaced the numerous mobile classrooms, providing space for 168 of the the 287 pupils. There is also a secondary school further up the south side of the valley, though still within a few hundred metres of the town. Ysgol Gyfun Emlyn4 was built when its capacity was rather smaller than it is now, meaning access by road at peak times when buses ferry some 700 pupils back and forth is difficult. Access depends mainly on an uphill road off the A484. This junction is made dangerous when school finishes at 3.35pm, because many pupils walk down to the town and cross the road here. There have been accidents in the past, and now there is a crossing with traffic lights a short distance down the road from the junction.
Next to the primary school there is a football field and the small volunteer-run King George V playing fields. There are also a couple of tennis courts and a bowling green. While on the topic of sporting facilities, there is a rugby club just over the bridge on the north side, and rugby fields down on the northern floodplain, where they are flooded rather frequently during rainy periods. The secondary school campus boasts a small swimming pool and leisure centre.
The town market deals mostly in sheep, and is slowly beginning to recover from the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001. During and after the crisis the movement of agricultural animals was carefully regulated to such a degree that it became very difficult indeed to buy or sell them. The market takes place in a small group of buildings next to the market car park5 - hence the name. There are also some vegetable sellers. There is also an indoor market selling fruit, vegetables and whole foods in part of the old town hall, a rather picturesque building with a nice clock tower.
Newcastle Emlyn has a pretty ordinary6 Anglican church, not far from the King George V playing fields. Just outside the Anglican church there is a war memorial and some council buildings which play host to a library with rather limited stock. There is a Catholic church next to the castle, of rather more modern construction. Still, there is an image of Jesus on the cross on the front, so you won't miss it.
In the 19th Century people had no other choice but to lead their stock to market. The drovers, as they were called, used it as a point of exchange, mainly for pigs and cattle. All these rustic drover folk naturally needed somewhere to wet their whistles; in 1873 the town was home to a sum total of 33 pubs. Now there are six.
The Coopers Arms is just outside the town centre and has nice views over the river and the castle. It provides very palatable food, and is also the first pub in Emlyn to offer free wireless Internet access.
The Bunch of Grapes is widely regarded as the most pleasant pub in town. It has a laid back atmosphere and is shunned by rowdy youngsters. As a result you can have a more civilised drink than elsewhere, perhaps one of the three excellent real ales. Thursday is live music night.
The Three Compasses is right in the town centre and has the nice rustic feel of a good country pub.
The Ivy Bush, The Plough and The Pelican are nice enough, perhaps very nice depending on your own personal taste. The Plough doesn't do food; the Ivy Bush does, though it is only simple, inexpensive fare - you get what you pay for.
The Emlyn Arms Hotel has a clean and pleasant bar as well as being the main source of temporary accommodation in the town.
There was once a small nightclub going by the name of Hookers. It was never really popular enough to be a long-term success, being provincial in character and not usually thought to be worth the money. It closed down in late 2007.
Apart from the pubs, most of which do food, there are numerous other places to eat. Although there aren't any really serious restaurants (apart from the well-furnished Royal India, which also does takeaways), there are a fair few others. Central Café isn't actually a café - it's basically a fish and chip shop, though other food is sold, and you can eat in. There is a shop that does a roaring trade in baguettes at lunchtime, and a plethora of coffee shop-type places. There is also a Chinese takeaway and a slightly run-down place serving kebabs and other similar fare.
The town has enough shops to be practical, though not enough to make the town a place to go shopping in. There is a small supermarket in the town and a larger one just outside it, and a newsagents'. The butchers' and the bakers' happen to be right next to each other, though there is no candlestick-maker in sight. The town is also served by a decent delicatessen and a tempting sweet shop.
There are two pharmacies and a doctor's surgery on the north side of the river if you should find yourself in need of some drugs (the legal kind, of course7).
There are also a large number of shops selling gifts, arts and crafts and antiques, though these never seem to have many customers. One of these, housed in a smart red-brick building, also has a small selection of plants. It also sells a large number of items that are valuable, and consequently easy to break. It's best you don't, as you will of course have to buy them. Trefehdyn8 Garden Centre is better-stocked in plants and has nothing particularly easy to break.
The town has a Post Office and branches of three major banks: Lloyd's TSB, Barclays and HSBC.
Things to See and Do
Emlyn's castle really has seen better days. Little remains beyond a battered gatehouse and some low walls. Still, it is quite attractive in the way only ruins can be, and there are numerous footpaths for walks along the riverside. At the rear there is a tongue of flat land enclosed by the river meander, with picnic tables and a small arboretum.
The clock tower hall is home to 'Hanes Emlyn'9, the town's history society, with a collection of various historical memorabilia. A particularly interesting historic building within the town is the hydro electric power station, built in 1908. The town has been criticised for not making the most of this, because the turbines are the only ones of their kind in the UK, and once provided power for the town's lighting. The old power station sits near the castle. A hall was built by the power station's founder, JR Parkington, to show silent films, powered by the nearby turbines. It is now a dancehall. In 2004 the power station was sold at auction, and was purchased by a private bidder despite a community bid of £177,000.
There is a small amateur theatre in above the indoor market in the old town hall. It is in the attic, so to speak. It's called The Attic Theatre. How original.
Caws Cenarth10 won't fill your day, but is perhaps worth a visit. It is a small farm that produces excellent cheese which has won numerous awards. It was featured on Rick Stein's Food Heroes television series. The shop has a small exhibition on how the cheese is made.
The National Wool Museum at Felindre is located four miles to the east of the town, and is a nice place to spend a few hours. You might find it hard to stretch it to a whole day, but hey, it's free.
The village of Henllan is the proud owner of 'the most laid back railway in West Wales'. This rather bizarre tagline comes from the railway's own website. It is a narrow-gauge railway which was once part of the Great Western Railway between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, which ran through Newcastle Emlyn, and is now a tourist attraction. There is a tea room, shop, a kind of small woodland theatre and crazy golf.
The village of Cenarth lies a couple of miles to the north-west. The Teifi produces something resembling a series of waterfalls here. They are nothing huge, but nice enough to see. There is also the National Coracle Centre here. These little boats have been a means of transport in Wales for centuries. The Centre has an exhibition of coracles from all over the world and shows how they are made.
In early July 2007 the town hosted the Heart of the Dragon Festival. It had been a major criticism that there were few such community events in the town, which would have made the most of the castle and brought in the custom of tourists. It followed the basic structure of rural fÃªte with a medieval twist, and included a semi-convincing re-enactment of the battle with the famous dragon.