If Victoriana is your thing you won’t want to miss Llandrindod Wells. The premiere Mid Wales spa town has always reigned supreme amongst its local ‘Wells’ rivals, Builth, Llangammarch and Llanwrtyd. You can still sample the waters here (if you dare). But most visitors nowadays come to bathe in Llandrindod’s period charm, which remains intact after all these years.
Fans of Victorian and Edwardian architecture go mad for Llandrindod. Leaf through the pages of a text book on the subject then take a look around town, and you’re guaranteed to see in the flesh all the classic features … and more. Balustrades, balconies, fancy brickwork, ornate gables, eaves, gargoyles, bay and dormer windows, decorative ironwork, turrets and glass-roofed canopies festoon the streets in an orgy of Victoriana (if that’s the correct description for this prim and proper era). It’s little wonder that the centre of town is an architectural conservation area with lots of listed buildings.
The good old days
You can almost imagine gentlemen in frock coats and top hats accompanied by ladies in elaborate crinolines or bustles, parasols in hand, promenading its streets. Actually, you don’t need to enlist your imaginative powers, for every year Llandrindod hosts an esteemed Victorian Festival where dressing up is de rigeur.
Like its smaller relative, Llanwrtyd Wells, Llandrindod’s overpowering uniformity and sense of place derive from its single-minded creation as a purpose-built – identikit, if you like – spa town to coincide with the coming of the railways in the 1860s and the birth of Britain’s inland resorts. Located in the heart of Mid Wales, it presented itself as the perfect escape from the dirty, crowded cities and industrial towns of the time.
People flocked here not just to ‘take the waters’ but to enjoy a busy social life and entertainments scene provided by theatres, parks, gardens, a boating lake and sporting facilities.
A great escape
Today, Llandrindod still has that sense of escape. The town’s original visitors came for the novelty of ‘taking the waters’ plus a busy social life and multitude of diversions provided by theatres, parks, gardens and sporting facilities Today’s clientele appreciates the way the town still goes its own way, preserving most of its 19th-century features and avoiding the ubiquity of the modern, formulaic high street.
The shops and stores here are mainly independent, sometimes quirky (like the town itself). Middleton Street is the main shopping thoroughfare, retaining many Victorian shopfronts with giveaway features like elegant cast-iron decoration, curving windows and neo-classical façades.
Bradleys, a grand three-storey former hardware store and landmark building along the street, is being reborn as a recording studio, gallery, mixed-use space and café. It stands amongst shops selling veggie food, bikes, home furnishings and antiques.
Close by there’s the Radnorshire Museum, housing an eclectic range of exhibits linking Llandrindod’s Roman past with its spa heritage and experiences during the two world wars. It was World War Two that turned the tide for the town, when ‘taking the waters’ as a pastime dried up to be replaced by a new travel market based on conferences and tours by coach and car.
In the vanguard of this move was the Metropole, one of Wales’s most iconic hotels and a major meeting places in Wales thanks to its location more or less equidistant from north and south. It’s a quite monumental, typically Victorian building adorned with gables and soaring copper turrets that wouldn’t look out of place in the Scottish Highlands.
Mind you, the hotel has moved with the times. Its modern spa, kitted out with all the contemporary luxury features demanded by today’s visitors, would have been unrecognisable to the hair-shirted Victorians who endured those original, often harsh spa treatments.
Further down the street there’s a place that, for once, doesn’t conform to Llandrindod’s architectural norms. It’s an alien, curved corner building of streamlined white stone in art deco style, topped with 22 lions. Forever known as the Automobile Palace and an important early example of the use of concrete and steel, it has been earmarked for major planned refurbishment.
Though car and petrol sales have long since ceased, it still keeps the wheels turning as a base for the excellent National Cycle Museum, where over 260 bikes chart the evolution of cycling from the early 1800s to the present day.
Another pleasing feature of Llandrindod is the way in which greenery spreads its leafy fingers into the town. The focal point of the town centre is its Temple Gardens (complete, of course, with obligatory bandstand). Head one way from here and you’ll soon come to more generous green spaces surrounding a large boating lake (another Victorian must-have).
But the pièce de résistance lies in the opposite direction, where you’ll find the Rock Park and Spa, an enchanting mix of gardens, winding paths, mature woodland, sculptures and intriguing features such as the original pump room and bath house. Dating from the 1860s and one of the first public parks in Wales, it’s a verdant 12-acre/4.9ha oasis, just a stone’s throw from the town centre.
Near the entrance to the park look out for the Gwalia building. You can’t really miss it. The vast, red-bricked Gwalia was built as a hotel. In its day, it must have rivalled the Metropole for top honours in the town. Sir Edward Elgar and Lloyd George stayed here in 1927 in some considerable style.
Now a library and council offices, it’s well worth peeking inside the revolving doors (the library is open to all) to glimpse its former grandeur (the tiled floor and stained glass are particularly impressive).
Back in town, another notable survivor from Llandrindod’s heyday is Pavilion Mid Wales. Now a multi-functional events and conference centre, the ‘Pivi’ was built in 1912 and in its time served as a dance hall, cinema and theatre. If you’re a local, you come from ‘Llandod’. And as a local, you know it as the ‘Pivi’.
CURIOSITIES AND SURPRISES
Bowled over. Llandrindod boasts one of the UK’s finest bowling greens, used regularly for international events.
Some holiday. A three-week cure at Llandrindod might involve drinking saline water before breakfast, followed by sulphur in the morning and afternoon, and chalybeate after every meal. Regular baths could include spine-tingling electric current therapy.
First steps. A plaque at Llandrindod’s railway station marks the spot where Queen Elizabeth II first set foot on Welsh soil, on 23 October 1952, after her accession to the throne.
On a high. Llandrindod’s 18-hole golf course is recognised as one of the best in Wales. But it’s not just the golf that sets it apart. It stands 1,000ft/305m above sea level, with sensational views in all directions.
‘It tastes like rusty nails.’ That may well be the case, but it didn’t deter people from drinking chalybeate water. Possibly because, according to a 17th-century claim, it could cure: ‘the colic, the melancholy, and the vapours; it made the lean fat, the fat lean; it killed flat worms in the belly, loosened the clammy humours of the body, and dried the over-moist brain.’
A DAY IN THE LIFE
You can easily spend a day exploring Llandrindod. To point you in the right direction we’ve included some of the highlights here. You’re free to approach them in whatever order you like, but we’ve arranged an itinerary below in a way that makes sense on the ground. If you don’t have a day at your disposal, take your pick from the places that spark your curiosity.
The boating lake
Head first to this large 14-acre/5.7ha lake, complete with small wooded island and fearsome water dragon sculpture. There’s a boathouse and café, plus boat and bike hire.
On your way into town look out for the information boards on Capel Maelog. The foundations to this ancient church, a small, simple affair that was demolished in the early 16th century, can be seen amongst the trees.
National Cycle Museum
Even if you’re not a fan of two wheels and pedal power, you’ll still find this place engrossing. Housed in the unusual – for Llandrindod, anyway – white-stoned art deco Automobile Palace, the museum’s 260-odd cycles take you on a journey from an 1818 Hobby Horse contraption to the latest high-tech carbon-fibre machines. Bikes of all shapes and sizes – penny farthings, choppers, tandems, boneshakers, electric and police bikes – tell the story of cycling in an accessible, entertaining way
This typically wide-ranging local museum, arranged over two storeys in the former library, contains everything from Victorian memorabilia (doll, toys, china, etc) to old photographs, postcards, artefacts and souvenirs, evoking Llandrindod in its spa heyday. As its name implies, it also casts its net far wider, with exhibits (including fine art) that interpret the rich cultural heritage and social history of the old county of Radnorshire.
Train buffs make a pilgrimage to the station for three reasons. It’s about halfway along the 121-mile/195km Heart of Wales line, one of Britain’s most scenic railways, that links Swansea with Shrewsbury. Secondly, the station, with its glass-covered canopy and decorative iron supports, was re-Victorianised in 1990. And, lastly, at the end of the platform there’s the 1876 signal box, an early example of the flat-gabled style of boxes produce by the Crewe Works.
Rock Park and Spa
This is where it all began. This delightful park, a tangle of trees, shrubs, dingles, dells, paths, bridges and secret places, is the source of the mineral-rich springs (with supposed health-giving properties) that put Llandrindod on the map. The springs, which were known as far back as Roman times, produced saline, sulphur, magnesia, lithia, radium and chalybeate water.
The old pump room and bath house, once the heart of the spa, are now closed to casual visitors, but you can still sample the water, issuing from the mouth of a lion, at a nearby fountain with the inscription ‘This fountain and the free chalybeate spring was given for the use of the public by the Lord of the Manor WG Gibson Watt Esq, 1879.’ The water is metallic and salty, and not to everyone’s (or is that anyone’s?) taste, so be warned.
A network of paths take you into every nook and cranny of the park, including one of its best-known features, Lover’s Leap, where steep cliffs overlook a great loop in the River Ithon. There’s also a dedicated Rock Park Tree Trail.
Pavilion Mid Wales and Albert Hall
Thanks to its former role, Llandrindod is well-endowed with performance venues. Keep an eye open for what’s on at the ‘Pivi’, the largest independent music venue in the area, and the Albert Hall Theatre. Between them, they cover everything from conferences to community events, drama to comedy.