Presteigne is situated on the bank of the Lugg River in a quiet and beautiful area of mid-Wales, just three miles east of the 8th century earthworks of Offa's Dyke. The town’s name comes from Presthemede, meaning ‘priest household’.
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This is border country—Herefordshire, England is just across the river. As a result, the town’s past is full of troubled times. It bounced back and forth from Welsh to English hands a number of times. Town buildings were damaged when, in 1052, Gruffyd ap Llywelyn ravaged the area. In 1213 Llywelyn the Great followed suit, and in 1261 Presteigne Castle was completely destroyed. In 1402, Owen Glyndwr fought a battle nearby at Pilleth.
If that wasn’t enough, the economic growth of the town was severely affected by a series of bubonic plague epidemics starting in the second half of the 14th century. Epidemics again visited Presteigne in 1593, in 1610, and in 1636, when the local weekly market was closed. The cloth industry in the town was devastated, because people outside the area were afraid of catching the plague by buying locally woven cloth. Then along came a terrible fire on September 12th, 1681. Approximately sixty houses in the High Street and in St David's Street were completely destroyed, along with the schoolhouse.
During the Middle Ages, the Mortimers of Wigmore Castle were overlords of the area. Then the Earl of March, later Edward IV, took over the estates. Black and white timbered houses feature prominently in the architecture of the town. The Radnorshire Arms, built in 1616, and the Radnor Building, with its ornamental plaster and mosaics reflect the fact that Presteigne was once the county centre of Radnorshire.
There are two places of special note to visit in the town. The first is the Parish Church of Saint Andrew—considered the finest church in what used to be the county of Radnorshire—with its massive tower. A church has been on the site since Saxon times, and the present one reflects architecture from that time to the present day—the oldest part is in the northern aisle. In the 13th century Augustinian monks took over the church. The church has two unique features: the only workable wooden carillon of its type in Great Britain, installed in 1726, and an early 16th century tapestry. The tapestry is woven in silk and wool and depicts Christ and the disciples’ entry into Jerusalem. Its origins are obscure. A sandstone font dates from the 14th century, and a stone bowl from the early 13th century. Pillars and arches in the 84-ft long nave support a 14th century timber roof. In the north wall is a decorated coffin lid from 1240, possibly part of the tomb of one of the Mortimers.
Don’t miss the living museum, the Judge’s Lodgings, located in Broad St. in the former Shire Hall. The building, built in 1825, served as the Court of Justice and accommodations for judges. Allow a couple of hours to take in this fascinating place. Stop first at the Tourist Information Centre in the building to pick up an audio tour. There are two interesting exhibitions on the ground floor. The first, “Neither England nor Wales”, tells the history of Radnorshire through the ages while the other focuses on the history of Presteigne. There are two computer interactive programs where you can talk to various persons of interest, including King Offa, the architect of the Judge’s Lodging, and past Presteigne townspersons.
When you leave the exhibitions section of the building to enter the luxurious judge’s apartments, you truly enter the Victorian age. The only lighting available is the gas light of the times. The audio tour’s voices from the past direct you through the building, both upstairs and downstairs, as you learn about life in Victorian times. Original furniture, glassware, silverware, utensils, and portraits are on display. You are free to wander all around the rooms—there are no ropes or barriers.
The Servant's Hall served as a parlour for the servants. Original furnishings include the table, chairs and benches, along with two dinner services. The Withdrawing Room or Parlour was used by the Judges and as gentleman's club by magistrates and local dignitaries. Bedrooms are also on display, along with the kitchen, and a couple of old cells.
The courtroom, 1830, is unchanged except for the gas lighting installed in 1860. Here a trial is recreated using recorded voices coming from where the people would actually be located. The trial depicted is that of William Morgan who stole three ducks and seven fowls. He was sentenced to six months of hard labour for his crime.
Presteigne’s history was troubled. Today it is a pleasant and unhurried town, a fortunate place for the traveller of today.
Presteigne Tourist Information Centre
The Judge's Lodging
Open daily March to October, 10-6pm; Nov-Feb, 10-4pm
Tel: 01544 260650
Website: Judge's Lodging
Photos courtesy Judges Lodgings, Presteigne and by Barbara Ballard