Last updated on August 23rd, 2023 at 11:14 am
We went to the small town of Montgomery, in Powys, for some much-needed peace and quiet – and found it. Girdled by lush landscape, the old county market town of Montgomeryshire has a Georgian appearance and is a peach, a place to mentally recharge. There is little to attract the seeker of brash entertainment, or retail therapy. In fact, Montgomery contains few shops, even fewer pubs (we spotted one, but never found it open) and – as far as we could tell – no sports bars or nightclubs. Tsk tsk. To compensate for these shortcomings, derive cerebral stimulation from a splendid, ruined, castle, an interesting church, a wonderful museum, a surprising number of other fascinating features and walks in the very green countryside, red kites wheeling overhead. It also has a hotel, the Dragon (what else would a Welsh hotel be called?), which has a pleasant bar serving real ale, and a decent restaurant – both of which I do regard as essential. There is little rowdiness, but plenty of bright chatter, for Montgomery is also quite one the friendliest places I have ever come across.
We arrived too early to drop our bags or have lunch, and were forced to kill time sitting in dappled sunshine in the garden behind the Castle Kitchen café, sipping great coffee and munching the most amazing cheese and herb scone I have ever had. Sometimes, life is tough. Later, we set off to explore the town.
The origins of Montgomery
Things have been going on in and around Montgomery for some time. High on a wooded hill behind the town is the site of Ffridd Faldwyn, a multivallate Iron Age fort with indications of Neolithic settlement. Skipping forward in time, a few miles to the north is the site of Forden Gaer, a Roman fort that lay on the road to Wroxeter and which its builders probably knew as Lavrobrinta. Later, as the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate what is now England, the area became bandit country between the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia and the British tribes to the west. Part of Offa’s Dyke, the eighth century defensive earthwork that roughly follows the border between England and Wales today, is a very short distance to the east of town.
However, the direct ancestor of Montgomery is generally given as a place known as Hen Domen, which means something like ‘old mound’ in Welsh. This is where the first Montgomery castle, a timber motte and bailey affair, was built in the early 1070s. Its builder was Roger de Montgomery, Earl of Shrewsbury, Earl of Arundel and one of King William I’s most powerful supporters. Like his fellow Norman nobles, Earl Roger sought to consolidate authority over the English in the wake of the Norman victory at Hastings in 1066. He generously gave the name of his ancestral estate in Normandy to the castle – and thus the name of this mini-municipality on the Welsh-English border is French. Later, Hen Domen passed to one Baldwin de Boulers and it is from him that Montgomery gets its Welsh name, Trefaldwyn, ‘the town of Baldwin’. The castle was rebuilt in stone on a dramatic rocky hilltop about a mile to the southeast between 1223 and 1234. It is the ruins of this later, far more formidable, fortress that tower over the walled town that developed in its shadow. The town was intended to provide an income to the castle and received its Royal Charter in 1227. Hen Domen fell into disuse, its earthworks still visible on private land adjacent to the modern village of Hendomen.
You get the feeling that Montgomery was busier in the past than it is now. It is hard to imagine that it was once a central part of the Welsh Marches, an often violent frontier area between England and Wales in the medieval period, where mighty Marcher Lords exercised authority largely independent of the King of England. In the thirteenth century, Montgomery was attacked and taken by the Prince of Gwynedd, Llewelyn ap Iowerth – Llewellyn the Great. Llewelyn dominated Wales for 45 years. His grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, was acknowledged as Prince of Wales by King Henry III of England at the Treaty of Montgomery, on 29 September 1267. The Welsh leader Owain Glyndŵr attacked and destroyed the town in 1402; it is said to have remained a ruin for two hundred years. Yet it still had strategic importance; Parliament seized the castle during the Civil War and the subsequent Battle of Montgomery that took place just to the north east of the town in September 1644 was a major defeat for the Royalist cause. The castle survived, but was slighted in 1649.
Montgomery castle today
The impressive remains of Montgomery Castle can be accessed from a small car park above the town. But it’s more interesting, and rewarding, to heave yourself up a short, steep, lane from the old Market Square outside the Dragon Hotel. At the foot of the lane is an ornate retaining wall and former well beneath what was formerly the town reservoir. The lane is known as the Conduit and was an escape route for the townspeople to the castle in the event of a Welsh raid. A little way up the Conduit, on the left, is a handsome three-storey, residential brick building. A plaque on the wall tells you that this was the first County Gaol, built in 1740. In 1803, its inmates consisted of “Debtors 3,, Felons 10, Lunaticks 3”. By 1823, all male prisoners had been transferred to the new County Gaol on the other side of town; one female remained.
When you reach the castle, it is easy to appreciate why the location was described by one of the advisors to the 16-year old King Henry III of England as, “suitable for the erection of an impregnable castle”. The Norman-English apparently thought of Montgomery as the gateway to Wales. Even now, the castle’s rocky foundations, remaining walls, ditches and modern wooden bridges indicate its once formidable defences. It is particularly remarkable that medieval miners dug 210 feet (64 metres) through solid rock to ensure the castle’s water supply. We leant on its old walls and looked out over the beautiful valley of the River Camlad toward Shropshire, and down onto the pretty town below. Unimpressed, a handsome horse stood munching vegetation in an adjacent field.
A path opposite castle entrance eventually leads to Town Hill, on top of which is the County War Memorial, built in 1923 to commemorate those from Montgomeryshire who had been killed in the First World War. It has since been rededicated to honour those who have died in all wars. Cows stood guard when we visited; I am never too sure about cows.
Back in town, the Dragon Hotel, a former 17th century coaching inn, dominates the small Market Square. Rumour has it that materials from the castle were used in its construction. The old covered coachway leading to the rear of the building has been attractively converted to a new entrance foyer.
Montgomery Town Hall
The Town Hall was built in 1738 on the site of a previous guildhall. It is still in use for markets and other events and has a ballroom on the first floor where the county assizes were once held. It faces onto Broad Street, lined with attractive buildings, including the aforementioned Castle Kitchen café. Most of the houses are built on the site of 13th century plots (burgage plots), a standard width of two perches (33 feet).
St Nicholas’ Church
The present parish church of Montgomery dates from the 1320s – the same age as the castle above. It is dedicated to St Nicholas of Myra, or Bari, patron saint of children (of course – see Santa Claus) and, among other things, sailors, brewers and pawnbrokers. St Nicholas’ is a large, attractive, church with an impressive roof. Its features include an original 13th century rood screen, choir stalls and misericords, all brought from nearby Chirbury Priory when the latter was dissolved in 1536.
However, you might be more astonished by the ornate Herbert tomb, an Elizabethan canopied monument to Richard Herbert (1557-96), Lord of Montgomery Castle, erected by his wife Magdalen (1561-1627). The couple lie together, side by side in ghostly lifelike effigy. He is wearing armour; she is more comfortably attired. Behind are featured eight of their ten children, which included the poet George Herbert. Beneath them is a memento mori, an effigy of a cadaver – presumably representing Richard. Magdalen is not entombed here; she moved away after her husband’s death, remarried, and is buried in Chelsea.
Also somewhere in the tomb is the couple’s grandson, Richard, 2nd Baron of Chirbury, who died in 1655 and was the last of the Herbert family to live at the castle.
To the left of the elaborate tomb, on the floor, are two simple effigies. Closest to the wall, wearing a helm rather like the Black Prince, is possibly another Richard Herbert, grandfather of the Richard in the tomb, who died in 1534. Closest to the camera with long, flowing, hair is said to be an effigy of Sir Edmund Mortimer, one-time constable of Montgomery Castle, who died in 1408 supporting Owain Glyndŵr at the siege of Harlech. He married Glyndŵr’s sister Catrin, while his sister Elizabeth was the wife of Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy. Mortimer appears in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 1. Personally, I found the effigies more interesting than the big, extravagant, monument.
It doesn’t end there, oh no. Outside in the churchyard, not far from the rear entrance, is the Robber’s Grave. This contains the mortal remains of John Davies of Wrexham, convicted of highway robbery and executed in Montgomery in 1821. Davies swore his innocence and said that, just to prove it, no grass would grow over his grave for 100 years. The lurid version of the story is that he spoke his words as the noose was being placed round his neck, and as thunder and lightning crashed and flashed around the town. His grave certainly seems a little bare in places, but maybe it has been worn by the feet of tourists. Of course, the place is haunted; but it’s a graveyard, so it would be, wouldn’t it? Actually, I am a little surprised that a convicted felon was buried in consecrated ground, rather than anatomised or gibbeted; but please don’t let me spoil your fun.
Second County Gaol
Nestling among a small estate of bungalows off the Chirbury Road is a grand gateway. Now residential, this was the gateway to the second County Gaol, which opened in 1836 – though the gateway was built in 1866. The gaol closed in 1878. As you can see, the inhabitants when the photo was taken were loyal monarchists; there is even a cutout of Her Maj by the Royal coat of arms.
The old walled town
Several of Montgomery’s streets follow the route of the medieval town. However, in the middle of a residential area, Arthur’s Gate, is a section of restored wall and a tower, with a ditch. It seems slightly out of place; or maybe the houses are.
It would be wrong to suggest that Montgomery is bereft of any retail establishments whatsoever. A small Spar provides everyday essentials, there is a lovely florist’s, a home interiors shop – and there is Bunners. People kept mentioning Bunners in enthusiastic tones: “You must visit, Bunners,” they said. I hope I have quoted that correctly. Bunners describes itself as a traditional ironmonger, which it is; but it is so much more too. In addition to the things you would expect, such as tools, brackets, hinges, paint and brushes, it sells toys, kitchenware and gifts. It sells stoves and garden equipment. You never know; we wanted some socks, and got some. Established in 1892, Bunners is still a family business and, inside, it is a little like stepping back in time. There is a traditional shop counter with friendly, helpful, staff who know their stock. You can still buy a single screw, rather than a pack of 10 or more, most of which disappear into a man box, never to emerge again. Eat your heart out B&Q. Beyond the counter, the place is something of a rabbit warren and, frankly, worth exploring for the experience and education.
Old Bell Museum
Across the road from Bunners is the Old Bell Museum. This is a local history museum situated in what was a 16th century inn. It is run by volunteers – so not open all hours – but it is extremely good. There are exhibitions about Hen Domen (including one of the best models of a reconstructed motte and bailey castle that I have ever seen), Montgomery Castle, the Battle of Montgomery – and, of course, life in Montgomery. It is one of the best local museums I have ever visited; we spent ages there.
So – that’s a bit about Montgomery. If you haven’t been, think about it.
Montgomery Civil Society has devised a series of local trails, including a comprehensive trail round the town, which are available locally or from its website. https://www.montgomery-wales.co.uk/tour/trails.html
Click or tap here for the website for Montgomery Castle
Click or tap here for the website of the Dragon Hotel
Click or tap here for the website of St Nicholas’ church
Click or tap here for the website of Bunners
Click or tap here for the website of the Old Bell Museum