Aberystwyth: Escaping to the Welsh Coast

by Amber Bryce  |  Published February 18, 2014

Pastel coloured buildings, a funicular railway, delicious cakes and the calming presence of the sea – the Welsh town of Aberystwyth feels as dreamy and comforting as a sweet memory from long ago.

Ruins of Aberystwyth Castle (Photo: Abhimanyu via Flickr)

Ruins of Aberystwyth Castle (Photo: Abhimanyu via Flickr)

When I mention Aberystwyth to people they usually respond with, “Aber-where?” Even its name sounds distant and strange, knotting the letters in your mouth and making you think of mythological places. Despite being just a small coastal town in mid Wales it does have an essence of a fairy tale world, with castle ruins and the adventurous spirit of the sea.

The route there takes you down winding roads that stream through lush green valleys and lumpy hillsides scattered with sheep, along with the occasional little house that’s tucked away amongst trees and road signs written in two languages. There’s a sense of disappearing as you drift further and further away from the rush of any nearby cities and let the natural surroundings put you in a dreamy daze.

Tiny roadside cafes, hotels or petrol stations become the main traces of human life until you begin to get closer to Aberystwyth, hearing the faint sound of seagulls and feeling the liberation that comes from being near the sea.

At first glance on a smokey skied day Aberystwyth can feel a bit bleak, with gusts of wind that require some serious power walking along the promenade, not to mention a hairbrush. It has a haunted feel to it on blustery nights, an atmosphere that is cast by the gothic appearance of the Old College watching over the restless waves and grey horizon. The longer you stay though, the more you begin to realise this is all part of Aberystwyth’s character. It can change suddenly from being a dramatic scene of a Victorian novel into a beautiful, charming town, with a cosiness inspired by pastel coloured seafront buildings and a spectacular curved coastline speckled in the glow of town lights at night.

Funicular Railways and Pubs

The expectation is that there’s not a lot to do here, though being popular with both students and retirees, Aberystwyth actually has plenty to offer. Without a doubt, you’ll want to go up Constitution Hill. While if the weather’s nice and you’re feeling energetic you may want to walk up, it’s definitely worth getting the funicular cliff railway train at least once. This dates all the way back to 1896 when it ran on a water balanced system and was the longest funicular railway in the British Isles. Today it runs up and down the hill regularly with tickets that cost around £4.00 return for an adult.

Aberystwyth Funicular railway. (Photo: SteveinLeighton via Flickr)

Aberystwyth Funicular railway. (Photo: SteveinLeighton via Flickr)

While the journey is brief the experience takes you back in time through the train’s old fashioned design, and allows you to admire the views of the town as they descend in a much more relaxed state than if you were climbing by foot. At the top of Consti is a cafe serving both hot and cold food. There’s also a camera obscura and play area for children, as well as benches outside that are perfect for admiring the amazing sights accompanied by a cold drink in the summer.

If there’s one thing that Aberystwyth isn’t short of, it’s pubs. There’s almost every kind here, from the lively Cambrian that serves a plethora of cocktails cunningly concocted by students, to the likes of Scholars and Rummers, which have live music on certain evenings and cosy sofas to sink into with a sigh. At Scholars there’s a regular band called Chocolat, who have a light-hearted, laid back gypsy jazz style to their music. This creates a lovely ambience that allows you to really relax, even when the rooms are filled with sociable chatter.

Cafes are also in abundance, of which MG’s has to be one of the best. It’s decorated in fairy lights and alluring through its window of delicious cakes at the counter. This cozy place is the prime spot for English literature students looking to read some poetry with a slice of apple strudel, and equally enticing to friends and family looking for a mid day break with a cup of earl grey and cream cheese sandwich. Beyond being a great destination for breakfast and lunch, MG’s also hosts pizza and wine nights, which work nicely in the romantically lit cafe.

The History of Ceredigion County

For a brief history of Aberystwyth, there’s the tiny yet fascinating Ceredigion Museum, which sits just down the road from the seafront. Being an old Coliseum Theatre, there’s a fantastic historical presence inside that enhances the artifacts of local Welsh life. Two highlights are an old film projector and recreation of a 19th Century Welsh cottage, while oddities such as dentistry equipment provide a truly rounded vision of Ceredigion County through the ages.

The Old College is another important part of the area’s past. It was first founded in 1872 and is used today for the administration as well as some classes and seminars. Its castle-like appearance casts an enchanting atmosphere and will have you feeling as though you’re wandering through Hogwarts as you tread its spiraling staircase and echoey halls.

You’ll never travel far in Wales without seeing a castle, or in the case of Aber, castle ruins, sitting on a green hilltop that looks out across the sea. Although you wouldn’t believe it now, this castle was once considered one of the greatest in Wales. It sadly started to decay in the 14th century and now appears only as fragments of a once spectacular building. Despite being so disheveled, it makes quite an impression as a symbol of the passage of time.

Literature and Art

If you like to shop then two of the best places for a retail fix have to be Polly and Ystwyth Books. There are multiple Polly shops and each sells delicate and quirky goods such as pretty candle holders, patterned scarves, unusual jewelry and vintage style dresses. It’s great for finding souvenirs or designs that you’re unlikely to get anywhere else.

Ystwyth Books is the place to go if you love to read. Stepping inside is a bit like entering the house of a book hoarder, as literature embellishes every room including the staircase. You could spend hour upon hour book hunting, which is part of the fun. The majority of the books are second hand too so you can find some real bargains as well as antique treasures, with musky smelling pages and weathered covers.

The National Library of Wales. (Photo: Caroline Ramsden via Flickr)

The National Library of Wales. (Photo: Caroline Ramsden via Flickr)

Bookworms can’t miss the National Library of Wales. In their own words, “The National Library of Wales is one of the world’s great libraries. Established in 1907, and located in an iconic building in Aberystwyth, the Library offers services of international standard and repute, available, free of charge.”

There’s a rich documentation of history inside through the 4 million printed volumes of literature it holds. Many of these are extremely rare too, such as a manuscript of Geoffrey Chaucer’s works and the earliest surviving manuscript that is written entirely in Welsh. It’s an incredibly important symbol of not just the UK and Ireland’s writing works, but also of the Welsh identity.

The main hub of Aberystwyth’s entertainment is held within the Arts Centre. This is a large, modern looking building that sits at the top of Penglais Hill, which is about a fifteen minute walk from the town centre. Inside is a theatre, a bar, a café—serving the best cakes you’ll ever taste—an art gallery that shows various exhibitions, a book shop and a cinema.

The cinema shows a vast range of films. Not only can you catch new releases but also foreign films, themed movie events and classics that have been voted for by the film society. Every November there’s the Abertoir Horror Film Festival too, which usually has q&a’s with directors along with prizes and an atmosphere that is interactive and energetic.

The other cinema within the town is the family-owned Commodore. The Commodore has a very traditional feel to it having just one screen and two film showings a day. A bar downstairs allows you to arrive early for a drink, and then there’s a short interval after the trailers during which a small stall selling food and drinks opens for customers to get any last minute treats before the feature starts. It’s small details like this that make the cinema experience unusual and give the Commodore that extra personality.

Getting Out Of Town

For a trip outside of the town, take a steam train through the Rheidol Valley to Devil’s Bridge Falls, about 12 miles from Aberystwyth, an awe inspiring place for seeing some of the UK’s most incredible natural beauty. It has been a popular tourist attraction since the 18th century and was a favorite of the famous poet William Wordsworth. You can admire the waterfalls and punchbowl, along with taking a nature trail and crossing the bridges, one of which was built by the devil as the legend goes.

There is so much scenery to see around this part of Wales, and another good example is the Hafod Estate, which is 12 miles south east of Aberystwyth and recognised as one of the finest examples in Europe of a picturesque landscape. It displays 200 un-spoilt hectares of Ystwyth Valley, completely unburdened by the rush of modern day life and sure to inspire serenity along with some poetic musings.

Embrace the flora and fauna of the region at The Magic of Life Butterfly House. You’ll be able to spot hundreds of different endangered plants, insects, and butterflies, with their wings each detailed in rare and mesmerizing colours. Woodland walks can be organised and take you through the serenity of the valley. The UK will have never felt so exotic before.

A Nostalgic Yearning

Of course, no visit to Aberystwyth would be complete without a stroll along the promenade with some crispy chips or an ice cream. If visiting in the summer then there’s a good chance you’ll catch some live music or dancing on at the Bandstand. As the afternoon creeps in you’ll want to sit down beside the pier, where around 5pm you can spot the murmurs of starling birds as they form hypnotic shapes against the skies. This is a natural wonder that Aberystwyth has become famous for, and is made even more spectacular by the striking sunsets that melt through the horizon each evening.

To quote Douglas Adams’ definition of Aberystwyth in ‘The Meaning of Liff’, it is “A nostalgic yearning which is in itself more pleasant than the thing being yearned for.” Amongst the sea breeze and surrounded by serene valleys you’ll feel completely removed from the rest of the world, lost in a little bubble where time is lost and dreams inspired. Just watch the seagulls don’t get your sandwiches.