WHEREVER one wanders around Aberystwyth, the peerless beauty of the National Library on its hillside setting above seems to be scanning an ever watchful eye over the bustling town’s comings and goings. And the upland Penglais area where it sits can justifiably lay claim to being Wales’ very own Acropolis, albeit not quite so sunny as the Athenian original.
Not, of course, that it can compete with the Greek citadel’s great antiquity. But it certainly ticks the boxes as a major centre of culture and learning, with Aberystwyth belying its status as a middling town of 12,000 people on Wales’ western coast. Aberystwyth was after all where the now largely de-federalised University of Wales first set up shop in 1872, with the National Library following in 1916.
And it needn’t be just that avid bookworm who joins the familiar hordes of university students making their regular trek up that hill from town to their campus. That sits comfortably side by side with the National Library and Ysbyty Bronglais, the general hospital for this part of the country. If the somewhat steep climb seems a step too far for you to tackle, buses regularly ply the route here from the main bus station just outside the railway station in the centre of town.
Sure, the National Library in its Portland stone grandeur holds some 6.5m books, and counting, many of them Wales’ rarest and most valuable. Some date as far back as Llyfr Aneirin, a priceless volume that was hand-written by monks on animal skins, and is believed to have been completed in the 14th century. It features some of the oldest known literature in the Welsh language, including elegies to those killed at the battle of Catraeth in the 7th century, that it is thought were previously transmitted verbally down the centuries. Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin – the Black Book of Carmarthen – is believed to be even older. The Library also holds nation-defining 14th century manuscripts of the laws of Hywel Dda.
But it’s not just books, books and books, fascinating as they might well be. The place also hosts the National Screen and Sound Archive, a Political Archive, and is the national repository for any publication in any format deemed of value, from posters and electioneering leaflets to newspapers and magazines, video tapes, DVDs and CDs. You’ll find a fascinating collection of publications, including a huge archive of Welsh-American newspapers, and a collection of journals in Welsh published in Argentina up to the present day.
The Library also holds a stunning collection of some of the finest art in Wales, including landscapes by JMW Turner, Richard Wilson and Sir Kyffin Williams. It has some 800,000 photographs in its vaults, including a shot of Margam Castle taken by pioneering Welsh photographer Rev Calvert Jones dated 1841, the earliest known photograph taken in Wales.
You’ll likely find more than a few exhibitions going on at any given time in the various galleries lining the rarefied atmosphere of its hushed marbled halls. Every nook and cranny – and there are dozens of them – is utilised to show off something curated from its stunning collection. You’ll also be welcomed in the reading rooms, joining others perhaps tracing their family history, studying maps, or undertaking academic or journalistic research. Y Drwm is a compact performance theatre where they put on anything from concerts to lectures.
And when you’ve cultured yourself out, the on-site Pendinas café offers the ideal spot for a coffee or a bite to eat, eavesdropping on some eclectic chatter amongst library staff or visitors as you relax. Meanwhile the ubiquitous library shop lets you indulge in some retail therapy. Admission to the library is free, but be prepared for some painlessly rapid security measures should you wish to conduct some research, and do take some form of identity documentation with you.
The huge Aberystwyth Arts Centre next door, just a short walk away down a concrete path, offers more in the way of catering in its café and bar. This is Wales’ largest arts centre, owned by Aberystwyth University on whose campus it stands, and is the centrepoint for a great hubbub of artistic activity. It’s also where BBC Wales has its regional studios, and from where a considerable output of Welsh language radio broadcasting emanates. Whether you’re into drama, comedy, film, art, crafts, literature, or just relaxing over a beer or glass of wine, even the strictest philistine should find something to their taste here.
The Penglais area offers sweeping vistas over Cardigan Bay. But if the views from the Library or the Arts Centre can be bettered, it can only be from the Parc Natur Penglais nature reserve directly across the main A487 road. The 11-hectare site is a veritable oasis of peace, perhaps surprisingly so given that it is Wales’ only urban nature reserve designated as such on UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere list.
It was created in 1995, comprising of mature native woodland amid the scarred evidence of an old quarry that used to form part of the once privately-owned Penglais estate. Criss-crossed with footpaths, it offers a haven for wildlife and inspiring views over the town and the coastline, especially at dusk. Visitors flock here with their cameras in April or May for the stupendous display of bluebells as they blossom.
Should the culture vulture in you still feel a bit peckish, you could do worse than pop into the university’s School of Art in the impressive Edward Davies Building nearer the town centre in Buarth Mawr. Founded in 1872, it hosts a regularly changing cycle of exhibitions in several genres in its ground floor galleries, including painting, arts and crafts, and ceramics. Admission is free.
Many visitors book on-campus accommodation for sensible prices at the university out of term, with rooms meticulously tidy and many offering stupendous views. But do bear in mind that it is student accommodation at the end of the day. Others prefer to make their way down the hill to find accommodation in the centre of town, or by the sea on one of two promenades lying either side of the remains of the 13th century castle.
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