It was besieged by Prince Llywelyn in 1262, pillaged by Owain Glyndwr in the early 15th centu- ry and ravaged by three successive epidemics of plague.
But then this frontier town on the River Lugg, at the corner of the three counties of Powys,Shropshire and Herefordshire, began to find its feet.
By Tudor times it was hosting a weekly market, five annual fairs and the County Assizes. Its place on the post road between London and Aberystwyth saw it grow in importance. Eventual- ly it became the prosperous county town of Radnorshire.
The result of all these ups and downs is the Presteigne we still see today – and which so de-lights Clive Aslet and other lovers of unspoilt historic market towns.
Unspoilt, but not sleepy. Presteigne may have more listed buildings that you can shake a stick at but behind all those Georgian frontages on the High Street are loads of thriving independ- ent shops and great places to eat.
It may have a vivid past but it’s not trapped in a heritage bubble. This is a modern, free-think-ing sort of place – a “transition town” that working towards a carbon-free future and a buzz- ing centre for the arts where you’re just as likely to hear a reggae collective as a string quar- tet.
The Radnorshire Arms is as famous for its real ale and special recipe pork sausages as for its magnificent Jacobean timber-framed building.
The Assembly Rooms, built in the Italianate Gothic style in 1869, are better known today as the home of Mid Border Arts and its eclectic rolling programme of concerts, theatrical perfor-mances, puppet shows, literary talks, dance workshops and films.
Many visit St Andrew’s parish church to see a Flemish tapestry woven around 1510 – one ofonly two pre-Reformation tapestries still hanging in a British church. Thousands of others are more interested in its acoustics.
Because for six days every August the church hosts the Presteigne Festival of Music and the Arts, which combines contemporary classical music with works from the standard repertoire. And the whole town gets involved.
“It feels like Aldeburgh must have felt in the very early days,” says critic Michael White. “Every- body gathers in the pub – there’s no barrier really – everybody feels that they’re in this togeth- er.”
Even the Witheybeds and Wentes Meadow nature reserve beside the River Lugg is no longerjust a pretty spot for a picnic. Now it’s where Sheep Music happens.
This three-day world music festival takes in everything from gyspy punk and European big band to nu jazz, ska and hip hop. Over the last 22 years it’s become a fixture on the festival scene – and the dragonflies, kingfishers and otters seem to have got used to it too.
You get the idea. Behind its genteel façade, Presteigne is a happening sort of place. So when it does want to connect with its eventful past, it doesn’t do any old stuffy museum. It does theJudge’s Lodging instead.
This isn’t history just for pointing at. This is history you can touch, hear and smell. At the Judge’s Lodging, you really do feel as if you’re stepping into the 1870s.
Lit only by oil and gas lamps, you can wander through the judge’s private apartments and sit in his armchair. Below stairs you can pump water and explore the servants’ sleeping quarters.And in the vast courtroom your imagination will be captured by the echoing trial of WilliamMorgan, local duck thief.
No wonder historian Dr John Davies described it as “one of the world’s most appealing smallmuseums”.
It’s hard to tear yourself away from Presteigne. But when you do make a move, try pedal pow-er. The town is one of Mid Wales’s official Cycle Break Centres with three circular routes from11 to 33 miles starting from the town.
Presteigne is also on the 84-mile Radnor Ring. But if that sounds too much like hard work,you could always hire an electric bike from Pete Mustill, one-time organiser of the Tour dePresteigne – the world’s first race for battery-driven bikes.
They make light work of the gradients so you get to choose just how much effort you want toput in. “It’s the best possible way to explore the countryside,” according to Pete. “All the pleas- ure of a leisurely cycle ride without any of the pain.”