A small but pretty town

Crickhowell, St Edmunds and the Vale of Usk from an old print by Henry Gastineau (1830-1). This view is taken from the top of the Norman motte looking northwest

through the eyes of the visitor 1740-1910
by Robert Gant, William Gibbs and Elizabeth Siberry.
Crickhowell District Archive Centre 2021

Crickhowel [sic] is a small but pretty town … very close to the river, which looking upwards from the bridge, is truly picturesque in its windings and the character of the landscape on either side. It is a charming ‘bit’ for the painter.

Miles Birket Foster, 1864

This handsome and profusely illustrated booklet of some hundred pages has a history of its own, revised in 2009 after its first appearance in 1981 and now expanded from its previous 1780-1870 range to include new images from as early as 1740 and as late as 1910.

Along with reproductions of maps, prints, engravings, paintings and sketches is an informed and informative text, drawing on material in the Crickhowell District Archive Centre as well as that found online and in collections including the National Libraries of Wales and of Scotland, the British Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and institutions in New Zealand and Canada.

But this publication has more than merely local interest: it could serve as a template for how such historical guides focused on visitor experience may be successfully produced, and it shows how even an apparently out of the way small town may feature in national or even international consciousness when figures such as Lord John Wesley, Nelson, the Duke of Clarence and Compton Mackenzie stayed locally, and aristocrats fled here escaping the French Revolution.

Henry Gastineau: Crickhowell Castle, 1830-1

The authors structure the book by looking at how the town developed through the 18th century, identifying major buildings such as townhouses and gardens, public structures like the church, ancient buildings including the ruined castle and Tudor gatehouse, and some of the street layout. The town’s post-medieval economy was based on flannel and weaving, the latter a domestic industry reliant on house looms; flannel is forever associated with Wales, of course, the Middle English word probably deriving from gwlân ‘wool’ via the Welsh gwlanen meaning a ‘woollen article’. But already by the late 1700s the Romantic aesthetic and the river Usk were drawing visitors interested in the scenery for its wildlife, fishing and picturesque nature.

The main attraction of this publication is the vast array of images, most in colour, many by women artists, all printed on quality paper. A late 19th-century Ordnance Survey map and the 1840 tithe map allow readers to orientate themselves, and paintings, engravings, sketches and a couple of vintage photographs, the majority taking up a full page, are placed in close proximity to any relevant discussion.

One of the most popular vistas over the years has been of the historic bridge over Usk River — reputedly the longest stone bridge in Wales — looking towards the spire of St Edmunds with the Black Mountains behind, and at least ten examples show variations on this view, the earliest from 1792. In recent years the focus has been on the mostly independent shops and eateries available in and around the High Street; this book indicates that much of the town’s attraction used to be seen through the lens of well-off visitors residing with local gentry and wealthy landowners. Their modern equivalents are more likely to be shopping and uploading selfies with local sights to their social media.

Crickhowell Bridge (1706) © C A Lovegrove

8 thoughts on “A small but pretty town

    1. Etymonline.com helpfully tells us that Old English ‘wull’ is cognate with Greek ‘lenos’ “wool;” Latin (and Italian) ‘lana’ “wool,” vellus “fleece;” Old Church Slavonic ‘vluna’, Russian ‘vulna’, Lithuanian ‘vilna’ “wool;” Middle Irish ‘olann’, and Welsh ‘gwlan’ “wool” — so thanks to a Proto-Indo-European root all our flannel words are related!


    1. I guess it was worth producing a quality volume, Karen, given Crickhowell’s accolades in recent years, including Great British High Street 2018, judged the Best Place to Live in the Wales in The Sunday Times in 2019 and The Bookseller’s Bookshop of the Year 2020, all of which still draw in visitors despite the pandemic.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks are due to the local authors (one of whom sings in our local choral society) and contributors, and especially the town’s District Archive Centre which survives despite drops in public funding in recent years.

      Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.