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Historic Character

Urban character reports

In this guide

1. Aberdare

Aberdare enjoyed a meteoric rise from a small village with medieval origins to a full-blown town over the course of a few decades in the mid-nineteenth century.  Its rapid growth was fuelled by the iron industry and coalmining, and when they came to an end, they left behind a remarkably complete industrial town. A commercial and civic core is surrounded by a series of well-planned residential areas built on former fields. Each area has a dominant style of building and a distinctive character. In the town centre, the commercial buildings display their own style, including an unusual tradition of boldly decorated render. The residential streets have seen considerable change in recent years, but the distinctive styles adopted by different landowners at different times can still be seen, and there is some unusual detail.

The study provides information to support a Townscape Heritage Initiative focussed on the town centre, as well as planning and regeneration activity in the wider area.

2. Aberystwyth

Urban characterisation defines the unique historic character of individual towns and identifies the variety of character within them.

It looks at the history of a town and identifies its expression in patterns of space and connection and in traditions of building, which are the fundamental ingredients of historic character.

The immediate purpose of this study is to inform plans that are coming forward as part of the strategic regeneration of Aberystwyth.

It also provides a general introduction to the historical development and character of the town as a whole, as a source of information for planning and management, and for anyone wanting to get to know Aberystwyth better.

3. Barry Island

Barry Island has a key place in the social history of south Wales. This is because from the 1890s until the recent development of mass foreign tourism it was the focus of day trips to the seaside from the communities of the coalfield, and beyond. But the island is more than this. It is a distinctive part of a dock and railway town that grew up rapidly from 1884. Dock and town were designed to break the monopoly of Cardiff Docks over coal exports from south Wales. By 1913, Barry was the world’s premier coal exporting port. It was, of necessity, a new community, which attracted migrants from across the British Isles, and its cosmopolitan dockland reflected its global reach.

The immediate context of this study is the ongoing regeneration work that the Vale of Glamorgan Council and its partners are carrying out in Barry. This has generated enhancements to the historic eastern promenade and, at the time of writing, major redevelopment of the quays at Dock No. 1 is underway. However, it has broader intentions. Recognition of the significance of the landscape and townscape features that contribute to a distinctive sense of place and an associated feeling of community may influence the way Barry Island is looked after, enhanced and developed, now and in the future, in a sustainable manner. The report could inform dialogue about what is significant in the historic environment of the island, as further initiatives and opportunities arise — whether at the seaside or in residential areas.

There is also much of interest for anyone who simply wants to find out more about the history and historic character of Barry Island.

4. Blaenau Ffestiniog

Blaenau Ffestiniog — town of slate — is a remarkably well-defined nineteenth-century industrial town, whose rapid growth was entirely sustained by slate quarrying, and whose character was laid down in just a few decades.  Overshadowed by the slate quarries, the town is linked to its surrounding industrial and rural landscapes by a mesh of tracks, roads and railways. The town itself is a series of communities strung together as a long, linear settlement. Its housing stock seems remarkably uniform until closer inspection reveals a series of subtle distinctions – small differences in size and scale, variations in the way building materials were used and finished, and in plot layouts and their boundaries. These distinctions helped to differentiate its society in the nineteenth century, and are still important elements of its character today. 

The study was prepared to help inform emerging proposals for regeneration in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and to act as a baseline for planning and management in the town.  It also provides an introduction to the historical character of the town as a whole as a source of information for anyone wanting to get to know Blaenau Ffestiniog better.

5. Caernarfon Waterfront

Wrapped around the castle and walled town of Caernarfon is a waterfront which has been integral to the fortunes of the town throughout its history. There was probably a harbour here long before the foundation of the medieval town and castle in the late thirteenth century.  The town benefitted from two working rivers as well as a long frontage to the Menai Strait which provided essential trading links.  In the nineteenth century, the two river mouths were developed as harbours - Victoria Dock for general coastal trade, and the Slate Quays as a specialist harbour for the export of slate.  Associated with the impressive structure of Victoria Dock are the remains of a series of compounds and some nineteenth-century buildings – reminders of the working history of the port.  The Slate Quays were also laid out in a series of compounds where slate was stored and where small industries operated.  Between the two harbour areas, the medieval wharves that stretched alongside the Menai had a new lease of life as a promenade. Today, a walk along the waterfronts is a walk through many chapters in the story of the town.

This study was carried out to inform emerging proposals for the regeneration of the waterfront, which is a critical part of the World Heritage Site of castle and town walls. It also provides a general introduction to the historical development and character of the town as a whole, as a source of information for planning and management, and for anyone wanting to get to know Caernarfon and its waterfronts better.

6. Cefn Mawr and District

Urban characterisation defines the distinctive historic character of individual towns — what makes each place special.

It looks at how the history of a town is expressed in its plan and topography and its building traditions.

Armed with this knowledge, we can take better planning decisions and regenerate our urban centres so that we keep what makes them distinctive.

The immediate purpose of this study of Cefn Mawr and the surrounding district is to inform planning policy and regeneration initiatives in the area of the World Heritage site of Pontcysyllte now and in the future.

The report also provides a general introduction to the historical development and character of the area as a whole for anyone wanting to get to know Cefn Mawr better.

7. Denbigh

Crowning the hill along with the castle, Denbigh’s town walls enclose only a handful of buildings now, and the real town is spread out beyond the walls.  From the late thirteenth century, there were already two settlements here, one within the walls and one outside them. The town within the walls gradually diminished, whilst the town outside them prospered and grew. Early development here was first clustered around a market space, but buildings had encroached onto this open space by the early sixteenth century. Around the edges of the space, and down the long hill that is now Vale Street, development was more formally set out in regular plots.  Denbigh contains some remarkable early buildings, both townhouses and shops, and its continued prosperity as a regional market town has resulted in a legacy of fine buildings from many periods. This long history of building lends considerable variety to the townscape with an interesting mix of building types and materials. With its dramatic hilltop position, Denbigh is a richly rewarding town to explore.

The study was prepared to provide a framework that would bring together individual initiatives, including a Townscape Heritage Initiative, and provide a context for detailed survey work on individual buildings.  It provides an introduction to the historic character of the town as a whole, as a baseline for planning and management, and a source of information for anyone wanting to get to know Denbigh better.

8. Dolgellau

At the heart of Dolgellau is a Welsh medieval settlement, which became a flourishing market and trading centre and a hub of the woollen industry before finding popularity as a picturesque place to stay in the nineteenth century.  Its medieval and marketing past is reflected in the extraordinary structure of the town centre, where buildings are crowded onto irregular plots of land, divided by meandering lanes and alleys which suddenly open out as wide spaces.  The few straight lines were introduced in the nineteenth century as attempts to impose order on this seemingly haphazard layout.  Buildings of many different types are crowded together, with small cottages rubbing shoulders with substantial townhouses, workshops, warehouses and shops. The town centre is fringed with villas in their own grounds, built as the town became a fashionable destination in the nineteenth century.  The local building stone is distinctive, not least for the sheer size of some of the blocks. It lends a harmonious character to the town.

The study of Dolgellau was prepared to support a Townscape Heritage Initiative focussed on the conservation area, but provides an introduction to the character of the town as a whole for anyone wanting to get to know Dolgellau better.

9. Flint

Flint is a modern town with a remarkable past.  It was the first of the new castle towns to be created by King Edward I in the late thirteenth century, and the outlines of the planned town that accompanied the castle can still be clearly traced in the modern streetscape.  Flint was a small town transformed by industrialisation, which first supported rebuilding and growth within the limits of the medieval town, then steady expansion outside it.  Although many of the town’s older buildings were lost in twentieth-century redevelopment, the main streets still contain good examples of building from the early 1800s to the mid-twentieth century, and the suburbs often retain the distinctive character of their period.

10. Hafod and the Lower Swansea Valley

Hafod and the lower Swansea Valley are justly celebrated as the home of the copper industry in the UK and the site of what were once works of world significance. The industries themselves were intimately linked with historic transport systems and routes, which provided a web of local and more distant connections. They were also closely associated with settlements planned and built for their workers, with schools, churches and chapels alongside a full complement of housing. Together, these components added up to a remarkable integrated industrial landscape which provided powerful testimony to an industrial economy and way of life.

Decay and dereliction in the twentieth century took their toll. All that is left of the copperworks are isolated and sometimes fragmentary remains, their immediate context lost and their connections severed by new roads and redevelopment. However, amongst the survivors are individual structures of considerable importance which, together, are capable of interpreting many aspects of the story of copper production in Swansea. The associated settlements have lost relatively little of their historical integrity. Although little historical detail has survived, housing renewal work has helped ensure a sustainable future for the housing stock. On both sides of the river, the surviving settlements are still a valuable repository of social history which is an important counterpart to the technological and industrial history of the works.

Historically, the area was tightly organized: industrial sites were laid out for specific processes, precisely connected by road, rail and water transport for supply and despatch. They were closely linked to settlements which were themselves coherently planned. The principles of this organization have been damaged, but not entirely lost in post-industrial regeneration, and there are opportunities to ensure that future planning and redevelopment activity repairs and reinforces them. These underlying principles were part of the distinctive character of the area — the powerful physical impression of an industrial history of global importance.

The study can be used to inform plans for regeneration and development in the area so that they can be securely based on an understanding of its wider physical and historical context, and relate well to it.

11. Holyhead

The fortunes of Holyhead as a town were made by its role as a national port, consolidated in a series of spectacular installations commensurate with its status as an official port during the nineteenth century. It is the harbour installations that above all else give Holyhead distinction.

The great breakwater is the longest breakwater in Britain and a fantastic engineering achievement which is powerful testimony to the importance of maritime trade.

But Holyhead has a history which reaches back long before it achieved renown as a port. The remains of the Roman fort and the medieval churches are evidence of its importance in earlier times, but it could hardly claim the title of town until the nineteenth century. Investment in the harbours was the spur for rapid urban growth. Holyhead’s form and layout betray the haste with which it grew: an extraordinary fieldscape is never far beneath the streets. The speed of development imparted uniformity in the pattern of building, but the complexity of the port-town society contributed variety to the types of building. Although generations of renewal have eroded much of the detail, much still remains and the seeds of a distinctiveness that once marked one street or one row from another are still in place.

12. Llangollen

Llangollen is known as a small town of handsome and substantial red brick buildings on the banks of the River Dee. Its highlights include the bridge, the heritage railway, the canal, Plas Newydd — the home of the Ladies of Llangollen — and the site of the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod.

Traces of its rich history are preserved in the street patterns and buildings, which give Llangollen its distinct character. Together, they help tell the story of the transition from a small rural town to a Georgian tourist destination and the rise and fall of a Victorian industrial boom town. Its twentieth-century reinvention as a tourist centre depends on this historic character, which should be cherished and respected for the benefit of future residents and tourists alike.

This study of the historic character ranges from its earliest parts through to more modern development. It can be used as guidance to inform future development both within the town and in the surrounding area. It should help to guide the management of change in listed and unlisted buildings within the conservation area as well as to act as guidance for design issues both within and beyond the conservation area.

13. Merthyr Tydfil

Merthyr Tydfil was not only the largest town in Wales, but also the iron and steel capital of the world in the mid-nineteenth century. It was here that the effects of the industrial revolution, centred on large-scale iron production, created an integrated industrial landscape with a complex urban economy and society. In the wake of the economic collapse, which followed the decline of the iron industry and the enterprises associated with it in the twentieth century, redevelopment took its toll on the legacy of this proud history. The town of Merthyr Tydfil, however, retains a strong heritage of industry and the urban culture that it generated.

Regeneration activity has already begun to focus on the repair and reinstatement of historical routes and supply lines, on townscape and some of the principal buildings. This study of the town’s historic character will help inform further regeneration initiatives in Merthyr Tydfil, including a Townscape Heritage Initiative in the town centre. The study also examines the historic character of much of the surrounding area which will provide a baseline for strategic planning as well as local management.


14. Pembroke

Pembroke is a unique and unusual town, rich in history and with a layered architecture firmly fixed in its earliest origins.

The town began as part of a Norman fortified settlement with one long main street bordered either side by narrow medieval burgage plots. Some of the earliest buildings survive near the castle and others may be hidden beneath later alterations. Their bare stonework is visible, but development of the early town from the Georgian period onwards has given Pembroke a character of coloured stucco and render, which reflects its rise in the eighteenth century from a neglected medieval town to a regional trading centre.

Nineteenth-century regrowth took place as a result of the explosion of activity at nearby Pembroke Dock and further development has been a response to the influx of growing prosperity and commercial adaptation. Nevertheless, the town centre is medieval in plan with later buildings occupying the medieval layout and plot pattern.

This study of Pembroke includes the conservation area, Monkton and areas of later development to the south and north of the town. It is anticipated that it will be used by planning officers, developers, home owners and other interested parties when considering development within Pembroke and the surrounding area in order to sustain and enhance the character of the town.