Llandrindod Wells, Powys

PUBLISHED: 10:56 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:49 20 February 2013

Gwalia building

Gwalia building

Michiel Blees takes a leisurely stroll through Llandrindod Wells. Photographs by Jeff Morgan.

Michiel Blees takes a leisurely stroll through Llandrindod Wells. Photographs by Jeff Morgan.

Wherever you look, you see towers, mosaic floors, leaded windows and sculptured doorways.

Each year around the last two weeks in March, volunteers from the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust help toads cross the road to their mating grounds, a sort of 'toad patrol' to prevent them getting flattened by passing cars.

A leisurely hour's drive from Hereford, through stunning countryside, brings you to the historic town of Llandrindod Wells, the county town of Powys. Llandrindod means 'Trinity Church' in Welsh; 'Llan' is Welsh for church and 'drindod' is a mutation of 'trindod', meaning trinity.

Although there is evidence of a settlement here since 1291, Llandrindod became the town it is today thanks to the rediscovery of the thermal springs around 1670. (I say rediscovery as there is evidence of the Romans using them.) It was not until 1749, however, that the curative properties of the springs were appreciated, and the word 'Wells' was added to its name.

Hotels and shops sprang up and sulphur, saline and chalybeate waters were pumped to various locations, especially the Rock Park pump rooms, using hydro power and an ingenious system of buried storage tanks. The Victorians then not only created a wealth of marvellous buildings, but also designed parklands around the pump house and created a large boating lake with another splendid park beside it. With the coming of the railway line in 1865, the development of Llandrindod was complete and the waters remained an integral part of the town until the First World War. Today it is the administrative headquarters of Powys County Council, as well as a popular conference and tourist destination.

Some towns can boast a number of 'special' buildings: Llandrindod has streets full of them. Their architectural importance was fortunately recognised and a conservation area now protects its heritage. In 2001 a restoration scheme was launched as part of the Townscape Heritage Initiative. Using old postcards from the sub-postmaster's collection for reference, many original features, lost with time, were put back and some tired-looking properties received a facelift. Information boards throughout the town now explain and point out the architectural features and give an insight into the town's history. Wherever you look, you see towers, mosaic floors, leaded windows and sculptured doorways.

The centre of Llandrindod Wells is Temple Gardens, where the larger hotels can be found, and most visitors start their tours from here. Temple Gardens hosts the annual Victorian Festival (always the week before the August Bank Holiday). Participants dress up in Victorian finery and visitors come from afar to join in the fun. Exhibitions, a crafts fair and street entertainment, as well as an excellent selection of shows in the evenings, make this a week to put in your diary. On the last Sunday, the festival ends with a firework display on the lake, attracting thousands of spectators.

Looking from Temple Gardens towards Middleton Street - the town's shopping centre - the bank building on the corner is impressive. The left side of the building is several decades younger than the right, but only the trained eye would spot that - see if you can! Many of the individually-owned shops along Middleton Street have had their frontages restored. Notable examples are the light blue frontage of the optician on the right, which is a complete rebuild; the Victorian Arcade, also on the right; and notice the 'Dutch Gable' roof line of the building opposite. The imposing post office building at the end of the street is Edwardian, but the classic wooden interior is worth a look.

Back at Temple Gardens is the start of the town's sculpture trails. Three trails show some 20 individual sculptures, ranging from national award winner Philippa Lawrence's 'Tree of life' to the 'Four Kings' seats in the Rock Park, created by one of the town's high-school students. The sculptures are evidence of the ongoing love affair of Llandrindod Wells with arts and crafts. A statue in memory of local artist Thomas Jones (1742 - 1803) underlines this.

Taking the trail towards the Lake Park, a short 5 to 10 minutes' walk past the Art Deco Norton's Automobile Palace at the end of Princess Avenue, the lake comes into view. On the roadside is an unusual toad-warning sign. Each year around the last two weeks in March, volunteers from the Radnorshire Wildlife Trust help toads cross the road to their mating grounds, a sort of 'toad patrol' to prevent them getting flattened by passing cars. After years of campaigning, the local authority has finally agreed to close the road for several hours during the height of the evening 'toad crossings'. To fit into the authority's strict rules, the reason given for the road closure is the 'safety of motorists'..... !

We're now standing at the edge of the lake and here too we can see many works of art. From the middle of the lake rises the Fabulous Water Beast, a copper fountain created by local artist Richard Taylor, depicting a dragon. This was a community project in which some 2,000 people made little scales to cover the beast. School children, locals, tourists - everyone got involved. All of the scales have messages inscribed on them. Although the lake was designed for boats, they have long disappeared, and the whole area is now being developed as a nature reserve. What looks like a natural woodland behind the lake was in fact planted in Victorian times.

Next to the restaurant overlooking the lake we find 'Dewi Fawr' (Big David). This is a wooden sculpture created out of a dying oak, and is part of a series of six 'Llandoddie' sculptures. The Llandoddies are the fabled water-keepers of the wells. They are about five inches tall and a source of enjoyment for both young and old. The sculptures are all characters from the book The Chronicles of the Llandoddies, and an information board on the side of the restaurant tells some of the story. Wonderfully illustrated, the book is a delightful mix of fun and laughter; and rumour has it that all the characters are based on local people. The author, Griswallt ap Lechitwit, is in fact better known as the artist and illustrator David Bellamy.

Following the trail back to the town, we arrive at the original High Street. This area had fallen into disrepair until it was saved by the Townscape Scheme. It is now restored to its former glory and the imposing Gwalia building is used by the County Council. Nearby is the Albert Hall Theatre with its Art Deco frontage. It has hardly changed since it was built. You can step back in time with one of its many music hall performances each Thursday night during the summer, or join its drama festival (May 4-9) .

Next to the Gwalia we enter the historic Rock Park. This 14-acre park is a mixture of formal and wilder areas and shelters a wealth of wildlife. An arboretum includes a variety of unique trees. The huge Wellingtonia with its spongy bark next to the car park is breathtaking. The park stretches out all the way to 'Lovers' Leap', overlooking the river Ithon. If you're in luck, you'll spot a kingfisher flying low over the surface of the water.

Following the lovers' walk back to the centre of the park, we arrive at the Rock Park spa centre. This was where the Victorians used to take the waters. What was the bath house is now a complementary health centre; and the heritage centre, now a successful conference centre and popular wedding venue, used to be the pump room. Its original mosaic floor and marble counter can still be seen.

Behind the building is a sulphur well, recently reopened, with its 150-year-old brick lining still intact. The spa buildings also host the headquarters of the Spa Town Trust charity, the community group which has brought about many of the improvements in the town. A little further on are the outdoor bowling greens, with the players in their smart whites on a fine summer's day just as they have been for the past 100 years. The greens are of international standard and players come from all over the world to compete here.

Wandering back towards the centre of town, we come to the chalybeate spring. Here, at the foot of the Arlais Brook waterfall, are the Four Kings' seats. Take a drink from the spring to finish our walk. Ugh......, iron-based, but it must be good for you.

Llandrindod Wells is a charming, beautiful town. From every angle you can see the surrounding breathtaking countryside. Within walking distance there are good restaurants, individual shops and some very interesting galleries. The concern among local people for their handsome old buildings is commendable and the art scene is lively. The sculptures certainly got everyone talking and, as one of the artists said: "If my art is talked about, questioned or admired, it will leave a lasting impression." A visit to Llandrindod Wells will certainly do that!

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