There are some places I fall in love with at first site, and the small town of Montgomery in the mid-Wales borderlands is one of them. I am still trying to figure out why, because it was pouring in torrents and a vicious wind was blowing when I arrived. Perhaps it was because I saw it as a port in a storm, or maybe it was because of its beautiful setting or its friendly people. Whatever the reason, Montgomery charmed me immediately.
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Pulling off the highway, I parked on Broad Street, a large cobbled square, in just the perfect spot in front of a wonderful little restaurant and deli, the Castle Kitchen, that served vegetarian food and fresh fish dishes, all homemade. After a long drive in the storm, I opted for a hot bowl of homemade soup. I knew the cafe would be a good one because it was packed with locals. The food was delicious.
The town’s name comes from the Norman lord, Roger de Montgomery, given this area by William I after the Norman Conquest in 1066. The Welsh prince Owain Glyn Dwr sacked Montgomery at the beginning of the 15th century. In 1425, after the death of the last Earl of March the estates passed to King Edward. They eventually came into the hands of the Welsh Henry VII, who gave them to the Herbert family in 1541.
Montgomery, originally the county town of Montgomeryshire and now part of Powys, was founded in the 1220’s. It literally climbs up a hillside and keeps going right up to the top where the medieval Montgomery Castle is perched on a steep rock outcrop. Once enclosed by a massive wall and ditch with four gate towers, none of which survive, the town’s street layout remains almost unchanged.
From Broad Street it’s a steep walk—or drive your car—up past the former 17th century coaching inn, now a hotel, to the castle parking lot. Then walk along a path on the edge of the hill to the castle. Built by Henry III, the castle was part of the border defences against the Welsh.
Though not much remains there are remnants of a twin-towered gatehouse and a deep ditch carved into the hillside. The view alone is worth the walk. It commands the vale of the Severn and reaches into England. The area’s strategic importance is easily seen from here—it was two miles (3km) from a narrow ford of the river Severn on a major communication route.
The castle was attacked in 1228, 1231, and 1245. During the civil war both the King’s men and Parliament held the castle. After the war Parliament ordered it demolished, and like most ruined buildings, it provided a ready source of building material for the locals. Hence its ruinous state today.
In Georgian times, Montgomery was a market town, and much architecturally remains from that time. Broad Street, where I parked, is a good example. The town drain once ran down the left side of this street.
In 14th century documents it was appropriately called the Shitebrok. A town market and four fairs a year were held here. The Town Hall is late Georgian and replaced an earlier half-timbered market hall whose ground floor arches were open.
On the hillside behind the Town Hall is the mid-18th century House of Correction. It was still used for a jail in 1803 when its inhabitants were 3 debtors, 10 felons, and 3 “lunaticks”. They were allowed 6d’s worth of bread a day, and the women were given a wooden bedstead with straw, two blankets, and a rug. Men slept on the floor and were allowed only straw.
The mainly 13th century church of St Nicholas, located on the eastern side of the town, has a timber roof, 15th century screen, a canopied tomb and wooden carvings, some of which originated at the nearby Chirbury Priory.
On Arthur Street, just off Broad Street is a row of old cottages. A pair of 16th century half-timbered houses was, at one time, a hall house with a connecting wing. In the early 18th century it was an inn called the Plume of Feathers.
The Old Bell Museum is located in this row of cottages. Successively, it was an inn, a butcher’s shop and slaughterhouse, the post office, and a newsagent’s shop. The museum is small but interesting and a great place to learn about Montgomery through its history exhibitions and exhibition on the castle.
Attractions within a few miles of Montgomery include the remains of the iron age hill fort called Fridd Falwyn, Forden Gaer (one of the most important Roman forts in Wales), Offa’s Dyke, and three other castles. Roads lead from Montgomery to Newtown, Welshpool, Shrewsbury, and Bishop's Castle, but stay awhile. You’ll be glad you did.
Montgomery is located on the B4385
The Old Bell Museum
Tel. 01686 668313
Web: Old Bell Museum
Tel. 01686 668 795
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