Whitland History & Heritage
Whitland Town Council is delighted to announce that they have taken on the leasehold and management of Whitland Abbey ruins site. A very brief history is provided here - there is more in section 4 below on religion and architecture more generally in and around Whitland.
In 1837, when a farmyard pond was cleared out at Home Farm “bases of several clusters of church pillars” and “foundations of extensive buildings… of cloisters of monastic cells” emerged. Whitland Abbey had disappeared when its stones were used to build an Iron Forge, and later re-used in the building of Home Farm and Abbey Mansion. Now, its remains had been found again.
You can read more about Whitland Abbey here.
The Whitland Heritage Sculptural Seat in Parc Dr. Owen is the work of the local Artist Mr Gideon Peterson. The Sculpture represents the story of Whitland. The sculpture provides an inspiring space for people to gather and reflect on the achievements of the Town and its people. The following notes explain stories behind each of the nine panels and this website is a means for everyone to join in as we discover more about the fascinating local heritage. The nine themes represented are Celtic Myth and legend, Taf Valley Landscape, Hywel Dda, Religion, Transport, Creamery, Agriculture, Sports and Education.
- Celtic Myth and Legend
- The Landscape
- Hywel Dda
- Religion and Architecture
- The Dairy Industry
Celtic Myth and Legend
The Welsh people are known for their fondness of storytelling. The most well-known of these stories are collectively known as the “Mabinogi” and were translated into English in the mid-19th Century when they were published with eleven medieval folk tales under the title “The Mabinogion”. The tales are set in a magical landscape in South West Wales and North Wales. Whitland is one of the towns mentioned.
The Whitland Heritage Sculptural Seat in Parc Dr. Owen, an owl features in the fourth branch of the mabinogi, in which a lady called “Blodeuwedd” is formed by the wizards Math and Gwydion from flowers to create a wife for Lleu Llaw Gyffes, whose mother has cursed him so that he shall never have a human wife. Blodeuwedd, however, has an affair with Gronw Pebr, the lord of Penryn, and together they vow to kill Lleu. Blodeuwedd nearly succeeds, striking Lleu with a spear but instead he is transformed into an eagle. Gwydion manages to capture the eagle and switch him back to human form and nurse him back to health. Gwydion then overtakes a fleeing Blodeuwedd and turns her into an owl (in Welsh 'tylluan' or 'gwdihŵ'), the creature hated by all other birds, proclaiming:
“You will not dare to show your face in the light of day ever again, and that will be because of enmity between you and all other birds. It will be in their nature to harass you and despise you wherever they find you. And you will not lose your name – that will always be "Bloddeuwedd (Flower-face)."
And what became of Gronw? Despite begging for his life, Lleu orders Gronw to stand on the bank of the river Cynfael and receive a blow from his spear. Gronw, in desperation for his life requests that a boulder be placed between him and Lleu. Lleu allows this but then throws the spear with such force that it goes straight through the stone, killing Gronw. A local river named Gronw runs alongside the East boundary of Parc Dr Owen and inspired the choice of myth shared with you above. As for the Owl… you will not hear the owl passing over the Parc at night since the wing movements are silent due to the very special feather tips. If you explore the copse beyond the Bowling Club you may find broom, meadowsweet, oak blossom, primrose, cockle, bean, nettle, chestnut and hawthorn. These are all the plants that the Wizards used to make Blodeuwedd.
The Celtic design is known as a “Celtic Knot”, is a stylised representation of knots, originating with the Romans but widely adopted by the Celts in their ornamentation. A garden design is being developed to represent the Roman influence on Whitland. Plants first brought to Wales during the first century AD are to be included as is slate which was mined by Romans for use as roof tiles.
Whitland lies in the valley of the River Tâf, which rises in the Preseli hills in North Pembrokeshire and flows approximately 50 km to Carmarthen Bay. The rivers are said to contain the elusive “Whitland trout”, noted for its eggs and oily scales. The phrase “Perlau Tâf” was at one time the name of a local pop group, but it originally refers to the pearls from the river Tâf. The type of mussels which were the source of these treasures were Margaritifera-margaritifera first named by Linnaeus, a Swedish Botanist in 1758.
Between 1926 and 1936 groups of Scotsmen came down to fish for the pearls. They used two methods, either a net slung between two small craft (probably small coracles) or wading waist deep into the river with a pole with a forked end, or a combination of both. A sighting tube with a glass end would be employed for finding the mussels on the river bed. A survey conducted at the end of the twentieth century reached the conclusion that there are no more fresh water pearls in the River Tâf.
The mussels were reliant on baby salmon and trout to hitch a ride and cling on to the gills for their first year of life. A drop in numbers of fish affected the life cycle but now fish numbers are increasing and who knows the mussels may return.
The countryside is often best appreciated on foot, and Whitland is blessed with a number of paths through its surrounding fields, woods and lanes. The popular three mile walk known as the “Abbey Byway” passes near the sculptural bench and forms a circular walk passing by Whitland Abbey, crossing the River Gronw and traversing fields and woodlands. Views over Whitland as far as the Preseli Hills can be found south of the town by climbing the ridge towards Cyffig. This can be done by road or by footpaths leading east from Trevaughan then south up the hill.
Hywel Dda was a Prince of Deheubarth, (the ancient region containing Whitland) who became eventual ruler of most of Wales through inheritance. He is noted in history as being responsible for codifying the laws of Wales, laws which stood for nearly 400 years until Henry VIII combined them with those of England. The “Dda” in Hywel's name means “good”, indeed his laws were considered forward thinking and fair, with emphasis on common sense and rights for women and compassion rather than punishment. In the image shown on the sculpture, Hywel Dda has an elongated forefinger; this is in accordance with the artistic code of the middle ages to show he was a man of great importance. An Interpretive Centre and pocket gardens in Whitland represent the laws and is only a short walk away. Guided tours can be arranged. See http://www.hywel-dda.co.uk
Religion and Architecture
The ruins of a Cistercian abbey, founded in 1151, are to be found on the Abbey Byway walk. The chapel ruins are visible in the private grounds and the abbey ruins themselves can be accessed just beyond the chapel walls along the lane. Cistercian monks favoured Wales as a base as it was more in tune with their way of life. Before they settled in the site where the abbey ruins are now to be found, the monks built an abbey south of the town and this is now thought to have been on the current site of the parish church of St Mary. The site of St Mary’s church is steeped in history. The churchyard is oval shaped (It has been changed by the recent addition of the road to the park) and is angled towards the setting sun of the equinox, which suggests that the site was first established in the Iron Age or Bronze Age. The grounds are next to the River Taf but are raised higher than the flood plain, and have had a moat around them, again suggesting that something important has been here for a very long time. “Hendy Gwyn ar Daf” literally translates to “White House on the Taf”, so it is very likely that Hywel Dda’s “White House” was built on this site, and this is where the wise men of Wales came to formulate the Welsh laws. There would have been space in the surrounding field to set up the encampment for families, friends, servants, horses – indeed there would have been an immense amount of activity here in these exciting times.
The design of St Mary’s church has an inward-leaning belcote which can be seen in churches in certain areas of France. The bell mysteriously almost seized up when Mr Dai Skyrme, who had been verger for seventy years became too ill to ring it himself. Only the combined (and voluntary) efforts of Whitland Fire service and Whitland Engineering could free it up in time for Dai’s funeral.
The next use of this site was probably by the Cistercian Monks to set up their original abbey. The abbey was soon moved to the site alongside the By Way and a chapel of ease was created on the St Mary’s site. Both of these welcomed travellers, with grander people staying at the abbey and poorer pilgrims in the chapel of ease. Whitland Abbey was said to be so welcoming that travellers were loath to leave it! As well as being a welcoming stop for grand pilgrims, Whitland was an extremely important abbey, for example the monks from Whitland went on to found Strata Florida Abbey and Saint David went to College here. The building by the river remained a chapel of ease for pilgrims until the beginning of the nineteenth century when the Yelverton family had it enlarged to a French design to become the parish church. A local building bears their name still.
There is a Roman road passing through Whitland’s northern boundary but it stops before Haverfordwest at Wiston. This would have been built as part of the Roman campaign to invade Ireland but was never completed as the Roman Empire had its own issues before Ireland was reached. The Romans had little evident influence on Whitland although Whitland is a day’s march from Carmarthen so would have been a stopping point for Romans creating the new road. A number of pre Christian and roman ruins have yet to be explored. There is also an older road underneath the Roman road, so the route was already established when the Romans first came to Whitland.
Other buildings of interest in the Whitland area are Llan-gan church (sadly inaccessible to the public at the time of writing), an ancient church dedicated to St Canna after whom we see local names like “Pont Canna” and Canton Farm. The site of the church and farm were once that of an Iron Age settlement.
There are a number of chapels in Whitland. The Tabernacle Congregational Chapel was built in 1873 and Nazareth rebuilt in 1885. The English Congregational Chapel in West Street has a War Memorial dedicated to the fallen of the chapel during the two World Wars and features Arts and Crafts style furnishings. Zoar Chapel was demolished in the nineties but the adjacent burial ground is still in use. The working Holy Cross Abbey is on Waungron hill. The Community of Nuns provide respite for pilgrims and have a small Abbey shop open to all. See http://www.hcawhitland.co.uk
Whitland owes its establishment as a town largely to the development of the railway Station. This was built in 1866 when the line to Tenby and Pembroke Dock was built.
Over time, lines were established to Clarbeston Road (South Wales Railway), Rosebush (North Pembrokeshire Railway), Tenby and Pembroke Dock (Pembroke and Tenby Railway) and Cardigan. The latter originally only went to Crymych, at which time it was called the Whitland and Taf Vale Railway but on later being extended to Cardigan became the Whitland and Cardigan Railway. This line was closed for passengers in 1963 and completely closed in 1964. The line was very pretty to travel with steep inclines over the Preseli hills, and was known locally as the “Cardi Bach”. Some stretches are still visible as tracks and paths.
The railway was important to industry in the area, carrying dairy goods and farm produce away from Whitland whilst bringing coal in.
Now, Whitland Station forms a valuable link for travellers in the area with regular train travelling west to Tenby, Pembroke Dock and Fishguard and East to Paddington Station in London via Carmarthen, Swansea, Cardiff and various other stations. The trains always stop in Whitland as a system is in place which dates back to the Victorian era in which a token is given to the driver at the Whitland signal box and operates a gadget in Tenby to ensure only one train is ever on the single track between Tenby and Pembroke Dock.
Travellers who take the opportunity to reach Whitland with their bikes can enjoy the quiet lanes in the area with routes accessible for the whole of Pembrokeshire and West Carmarthenshire from Whitland. Whitland's bypass was opened in 1996 and forms part of the continuous road linking London with Fishguard. The route follows that of the Roman Motorway via Julia.
The Dairy Industry
Because of its good rail links and surrounding dairy farms, Whitland was for some time home to a large dairy which employed many local people. It had its own railway sidings and dominated the town's skyline. The dairy was closed in 1996, with milk from the area now being transported further afield to be processed.
The main employment in the town now comes from medium sized enterprises such as Magstim, an innovative neuroscience company. Whitland Engineering was developed by former staff of the Whitland Daries into a successful expanding company. Riverlea Tractors supports the Farming Industry of the area. Davies Builders provides supplies for house builders and business. As well as these and other successful businesses, Whitland's central position and transport infrastructure lends itself as a hub for various services. There is a Fire Station in the town, and its industrial area boasts an ambulance station and a parcel sorting office as well as a variety of thriving and award winning private businesses.
Whilst Wales is known internationally for its sheep farming, the lush pastures surrounding Whitland have been used traditionally for dairy farming, with Carmarthenshire being one of the most densely populated dairy farming areas in the UK. Beef cattle and sheep are also reared in the area, the grassland and weather here being better for livestock than horticulture or arable crops. Smallholdings are very popular in the area surrounding Whitland, although these tend to be run as “lifestyle” properties rather than for full time farming.
Whitland has for many centuries hosted a “Mart” or livestock market which used to be in the town but is now based just outside, but within walking distance of the centre. It's said that one of the reasons for moving the market was for public safety, one of the bulls having escaped and actually found itself in a china shop! Markets are held weekly on Tuesdays and the first and third Saturday in the month.
Even sunlight is harvested in the Whitland area, with one of the larger solar parks in the UK being based in the west of the town.
Whitland is home to a number of different sports clubs, notably Whitland Rugby Football Club, Whitland Football Club, Whitland Cricket Club, Whitland Bowling Club, Taf Valley Cycling Club, Repz Gym and Whitland Town Amateur Boxing.
Classes are run in Whitland Memorial Hall and Town Hall to help everyone keep fit. There is also a walking club operating from The Station House Hotel which helps local people investigate the footpaths in the area whilst enjoying each other's company. In 2007 a sports hall was built at Ysgol Dyffryn Taf which is available for hire to groups in the evenings.
The Rugby club, known as the “Borderers” was established in 1890, and has provided Wales' international team with a number of stars over the years. In the first decades of 21st century, Mike Phillips, Jonathan Davies, Scott Williams, Natalie Bowen, Sioned Harries and Vicky Owens achieved the honour of playing for their country with James Davies continuing the dynasty of rugby greats playing on the Welsh team in rugby 7's. Mike Phillips and Jonathan Davies also played on British and Irish Lions tours. The women's team was established around 2010 and by 2014 has achieved its place in the premier league.
The cricket club has been in existence for over 100 years. Over the years it has played at Parc Dr Owen as well as the old Grammar School, before making its home at the present ground in 1971. The club runs three senior sides on a Saturday playing in the Pembrokeshire League. It has a very successful youth side and also has teams for boys and girls from under 9 through to under 15. Over the years a large number of both boys and girls have gone on to represent Wales at various age levels.
The bowling club was established in 1986 and has nurtured two Welsh International bowlers in Hannah Thomas who by 2014 is bowling for the Welsh senior team, and Katie Thomas who aged 15 has represented Wales in all age groups to under 25.
In 2013 Taf Valley Cycling Club started with the aim of including everyone who wants to ride a bike in their numbers. The club pride themselves in taking “all abilities” into their membership.
Whitland Town Amateur Boxing Club runs fitness sessions for old and young, male and female, and Repz Gym opens its doors daily to anyone who wants to improve their health through training with weights.
Whitland is home to two schools. Ysgol Dyffryn Taf (“Taf Valley School” in English) was first built as a grammar school in 1896, and in 2014 celebrated its 25th anniversary as a comprehensive school. The motto of the school is in Welsh “Aim for the Highest”.
Ysgol Llys Hywel is “place of Hywel or Hywels court”. The school was built in 1875 and extended in 2003. In 2013 Llys Hywel was the name chosen by the School Governors, inspired by the Head Teacher, Mrs Ward, to recognise the historical connections of Whitland to the King of Wales, Hywel Dda (Hywel the good). The uniform was revised and is now a colourful red and green featuring the yellow crown of Hywel Dda with five points.
Hywel Dda`s law and fair principals were used by school children to develop new school rules and a tapestry hangs in the foyer of the school to highlight their work. It is one of the only schools in Carmarthenshire with a bell tower. There is a Welsh nursery “Meithrin” on site that was started nearly 50 years ago to support the use of Welsh in the Community. Both schools educate pupils through the mediums of Welsh and English. Pupils from all parts of the world are welcomed.