The Unchanging Quiet Charms Of Crickhowell, Powys
PUBLISHED: 11:05 09 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:41 20 February 2013
Martin Woollacott delights in the unchanging quiet charms of Crickhowell. Photographs by Jeff Morgan.
The mayor knows that Crickhowell has to preserve the charm that represents one of its main means of making a living, and of retaining the loyalty of its people.
If you climb to the top of Crug Hywel, the flat-topped hill after which Crickhowell is named, you will be rewarded by an extraordinary panorama. From the ramparts of the fort which an iron age chieftain and his men created as a refuge and strong point to which they could retreat in times of trouble, you look south across the spacious valley of the Usk to the formidable wall of the Llangattock escarpment.
To your west is the pathway into Wales, to your east the road to England. The air in the vast trough formed by the two sides of the valley has a luminous quality. Far below, Crickhowell and its twin community, Llangattock, lie close together on either side of the Usk, guardians of the valley routes, able to help, or to hinder, as the ruins of the town's castle remind us, those wishing to pass through.
Traders, soldiers, travellers, tourists, and adventurers have come this way over the centuries. They still do. From up here you can count the lorries, some of them heading all the way to Ireland, moving along the road which horse-drawn waggons and coaches used to follow. A part of what is now the A40 was once a Roman road, and where the legionnaires once tramped youcan spot dun-coloured British Army convoys snaking to or from Brecon.
Brecon is the country's main infantry training centre, the headquarters of the Wales Brigade, and the home of the South Wales Borderers museum, where Rorke's Drift is remembered.
You can follow the little pastel blobs of caravans and motor homes as families head for their holiday idylls.Sometimes, in the great bowl of air, you can watch hang gliders drift like thistledown. And, although you cannot see them, you know that in the intricate cave systems of the escarpment, potholers with lights in their hats are worming their way deep into the earth.
The town stands at a dual cultural crossroads. It is on the interface between the rural world of central Wales, dominated by agriculture, and the industrial, now post-industrial, world of the valleys, which begins just over the top of that escarpment. Crickhowell is also on the interface between
Welshness and Englishness, with the English border only a few miles away and long established local names reflecting Midlands as well as Welsh origins. Both contrasts can be overdone. Crickhowell and the area around once had much industry, and the valleys were of course agricultural before coal and steel changed them. Equally, the cultural border between Wales and England is best seen as a blurred spectrum, shifting mile by mile, and changing year by year. Little Welsh is spoken in Crickhowell, yet at the recent Remembrance Day service choir and congregation followed God Save the Queen with an impassioned Hen Wad Fy Nhadau (Land of Our Fathers).
Crickhowell people know that their life has been gentle by comparison to that of the valleys during their long decline. And, as a town once nicknamed Knightsbridge-on-Usk because of the London celebrities scattered around, they are also aware of certain ambiguities in their relationship with the English. They cope with these complexities.
From the valleys came the fortunes which sustained the great estates around the town, some of them still surviving, as iron masters and mine owners transformed themselves into landed gentry. They brought employment in their lavish great houses, and their patronage helped erect town hall, fountain, market hall and other embodiments of municipal pride which give the centre of Crickhowell an Edwardian charm.
From England, and from even further afield, came migrants, travellers, tourists, and owners of second homes, all of them making their usual mixed contribution to both the prosperity and the problems of the town and its region. It is typical of the way in which Crickhowell, a community of just 2,500 people, is open to the world that it has an American as its mayor, an Englishman as the headmaster of its high school, and an Ulsterman as the rector of its parish church.
Tony D'Anna, the mayor, is the son of an American merchant seaman and a Welsh mother who married during the second world war. Now this former Californian trial lawyer spends much of his time trying with his fellow councillors to steer the town between the Scilla of too much development and the Charybdis of too little.
"People made their money in the industrial valleys," he says, "and came here to relax and enjoy it, or to drink the goats milk and build up their health." The goat's milk is gone, but D'Anna knows that Crickhowell has to preserve the charm that represents, now as then, one of its main means of making a living, and of retaining the loyalty of its people.
Andy Timpson, the headmaster, runs a much admired school, the majority of whose most succesful pupils will find employment far from Crickhowell. "But many will return in later life...there is here a very strong feeling of home." Barry Letson, the rector, moved to Crickhowell from a parish in the valleys, "30 miles away and half a world away."
Crickhowell's good fortune is everybody's theme. It is particularly evident in what Barry Letson calls its "little gem" of a High Street. It is something from the pre-supermarket era. Two butchers, two newsagents, three grocers, two chipshops, several pubs and inns, a baker, a furniture and kitchen store, a caf, a country clothing store, a shop for hikers, a gallery, and a florist. All independently owned by local families.
A handsome garage with a wonderful corrugated iron gable end, which would be listed if I had my way, completes the ensemble. John Webb, whose father started the furniture and kitchen store on the back of a paraffin delivery round he bought for 10 in the thirties, sees Crickhowell's luck as being that it is just big enough to sustain its own lively commercial life but just too small to attract the big chains. "With a bit of luck, the big boys will leave us alone."
Crickhowell is small but perfectly formed. It has all the elements of an ideal townscape, the kind that a child might spill out of a box. Everything is there, but all on a rather moderate scale and in a small compass. A scrap of ruined castle at the side of a sports field, the Clarence Assembly Hall with its aspirational red roofed tower, a miniature market building with stone colonnades, an old coaching inn, The Bear, three or four other hostelries, a 14th century church.
Winding and often narrow streets, here a little bit Georgian, here more Victorian, hereturn of the century, strike off from the central T junction formed by the A40 and the High Street. Another stretch of old masonry fronts the modern high school and a little further out are 1930s and 1960s estates, also very small, and with a nostalgic charm of their own. A narrow bend in the A40 right in the centre of town severely slows traffic, a boon that makes Crickhowell almost a pedestrian precinct.
The latest addition to the town centre is the Crickhowell Resource and Information Centre, or CRIC -- happy acronym ! -- a new stone building,where volunteers advise tourists and locals. Above is a gallery and the Crickhowell District Archive Centre, an exemplary local history operation of which many bigger towns would be jealous. A couple of days a week you can find retired geography professor Geoffrey Williams there. He muses, as Crickhowell people sometimes do, on the town's good fortune.
Was it a saving grace that the railway never came to the town ? Or that its agricultural hinterland was smaller than that of both Abergavenny and Brecon, nearby market towns that historically outclassed Crickhowell ? Or that the coal and iron were 30 miles south, away over the heights ? Or that the army and the church set themselves up in Brecon ?
The Duke of Clarence, a member of the royal family, laid the foundation stone of Clarence Hall in 1890 at a time when there were thoughts of a rail link between Abergavenny and Brecon and other speculative ideas about Crickhowell's future were in the air. The building seems in retrospect to represent a moment of civic striving, when Crickhowell was preparing itself for bigger and better things, which, in the end, did not quite happen.
Yet, if sometimes in the past Crickhowell felt that the development it deserved had unfairly eluded it, today that seems a kind of blessing.