There is no ‘bucket list’ - Lynne and I are both well, thank you – but we have arrived at a point in our lives where we have the time, the money and the good health to indulge in a passion for travel. We know how lucky and privileged we are to be able to do this, and we know it won’t last for ever, but while it does…..

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Montgomery: Punching above its Weight

Tradition dictates that for our wedding anniversary I organise a day out culminating in a meal at a top class, usually Michelin starred, restaurant while Lynne remains ignorant of where we are going until we arrive. The 26th is our anniversary and this year’s restaurant is The Checkers, just over the Welsh border in the small town of Montgomery. I intended to write a post entitled Montgomery and The Checkers, but my plan seriously underestimated the charm of the tiny town (pop 1,300) which deserves a post of its own – so there are two this year, this one for Montgomery, the next for The Checkers.

The Historical Counties of Wales
Montgomery, only just in Wales and the former county town of a former county

Our visit to the Welsh Marches did not start well, but by Welshpool the sky had a few blue patches and the rain was no longer continuous. South of the town I swung confidently into Glansevern Gardens only to discover they were closed. Their website clearly says the gardens will be closed for 2017, but I missed it. Ah well, next time.
Instead we headed straight for Montgomery only to meet a ‘road closed’ sign. A diversion onto single track roads, including a do-it-yourself level crossing, brought us into Montgomery at The Cottage, the visitor centre for Monty’s Brewery. Things were starting to look up.
Lynne outside The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre
Inside we met Pam Honeyman, the head brewer who founded Monty’s in 2008 with her husband Russ, the commercial director. She left for the brewery a mile down the road while a charming and knowledgeable young lady talked us through the beers and sold us three ⅓ of a pint tasting glasses each.

Talking us through the beers while pulling a ⅓ of Old Jailhouse
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery

Cascade hops give Monty’s Sunshine (4.2%) floral and citrus aromas. It is a very good beer and (for my taste) a little more bitterness would make it a great beer. Monty’s Pale Ale (4.0%), lighter in colour, alcohol and flavour is, at first sip, a tad underwhelming, but it grew on me. Old Jailhouse is a darker, maltier brew and at 3.9% as good a session beer as you will find.
Left to right, Sunshine, Pale Ale and Old Jailhouse
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery

Lynne’s trio consisted of Sunshine, Pale Ale and Best Offa. Best Offa (4.0%) is a clever name and each pint triggers a donation to the upkeep of the Offa’s Dyke footpath, which passes a mile or so east of Montgomery but, for me the fine balance of hop and malt left it short of personality.
Lynne with Sunshine, Pale Ale and (left of picture) Best Offa
The Cottage, Monty's Brewery Visitor Centre, Montgomery
Monty’s beers are interesting, individual and worth seeking out. The same cannot be said of their ‘gourmet' sausage roll, a stodgy relic of the 1970s and best avoided.
We drove into town and took the road that winds up the hill to the castle.

After 1066 William the Conqueror quickly established control over England, but having left Wales for another day he needed a strongman to guard his western flank, so in 1071 he made Roger de Montgomery* Earl of Shrewsbury.

Like the Romans before him, Montgomery realised that controlling the broad valley of the little River Camlad, which flows into the Severn at a fording point, was the key to blocking Welsh marauders from English lands. The Romans built their fort on the lowlands near the confluence, Montgomery built a wooden motte and baily castle on high ground overlooking the valley. When Roger de Montgomery died in 1094 the castle soon passed to Baldwin de Boulers whose family held it for the next hundred years.

The route into England. The River Camlad flowing along the far side of the valley (aka the Vale of Montgomery) marks the English border
The town that grew below the castle became known as ‘Montgomery’ in English and ‘Trefaldwyn’ (Baldwin’s Town) in Welsh.

The weakness of King John encouraged Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, Prince of Gwynedd to flex his muscles, and he destroyed the castle in 1215.

John died the next year and his son, Henry III, became king at the age of 9. With a boy king to the east and a clever and ambitious Welshman to the west a stone castle seemed a good idea. Architect Hugh de Burgh chose a new site, a prominent outcrop immediately above the town, which by 1227 had become important enough to receive a Royal Charter. In 1228 the inner ward was completed and another attack by Llewelyn was repulsed, but for more security, middle and outer wards were added. By 1233 Llewelyn had established himself as the first ruler of a united Wales, so he had another crack at Montgomery and failed again.

The inner ward of Hugh de Burgh's Castle, Montgomery
Our visit started with a sit in the car park while large raindrops belaboured the car roof. The path to the castle, through the long gone outer ward uses the only level approach to the outcrop. The ditches, now spanned by modern bridges, made the castle impregnable to any medieval army, and a well, hacked through 25m of solid rock, meant they could hold out almost indefinitely.

A little damp and windswept, Lynne stands on the bridge between the middle and inner wards, Montgomery Castle
After treaty negotiations here in 1267 Henry III granted Llewelyn ap Gruffudd, the grandson of Llewelyn ap Iowerth, the title of ‘Prince of Wales,’ though it was more a recognition of reality than a 'grant'. 15 years later an army gathered at Montgomery before marching south and killing Llewelyn ap Gruffud, the last indigenous Prince of Wales, near Builth Wells.

Montgomery Castle, the inner ward on its impregnable rocky outcrop
With Wales subdued, for a while, Montgomery castle lost its importance. In 1402 however, during the uprising of Owain Glyndŵr (who also has a claim to be ‘last indigenous Prince of Wales’) the castle was attacked, but again could not be taken. The town, though, was destroyed and remained abandoned for almost 200 years.
In the Civil War, the castle was surrendered to the Parliamentarians in 1643, and like so many other medieval castles, subsequently demolished.
From the car park a sign points up Town Hill to the Montgomeryshire War Memorial. Starting steep and overgrown the path soon reaches a larger track…
Towards the Montgomeryshire War Memorial
….which eventually leaves the woods and heads for the hill top memorial. The 6m tall Portland stone column was dedicated in 1923 to Montgomeryshire’s 1914-18 dead. It has since been re-dedicated to the victims of all wars.
The Montgomeryshire War Memorial (from this angle looking more like an industrial chimney) on the top of Town Hill
Returning to town we dropped into the Old Bell Museum. The 16th century building, which has previously been a slaughterhouse and a temperance hotel among many other things, is like the TARDIS, larger inside than it looks from the outside. Its eleven rooms are crammed with exhibitions of local history including many fascinating old photos. Local medical practices, the Cambrian Railway, the workhouse, the castles including models and artefacts from excavations and even the architecture of the building itself are all covered. Run by Montgomery Civic Society volunteers, it’s the sort of quirky local museum every self-respecting town should have, but very few do. And it only costs £1.

The Old Bell Museum, Montgomery
After looking at the old pictures we walked outside to find the town has changed remarkably little. Of its two main streets, Arthur Street has gained some parked cars, but little else..

Arthur Street, Montgomery
…retaining its timber frame buildings…
Timber framed buildings, Arthur Street, Montgomery
…and Bunner’s Hardware store which is well into its second century. Another Whovian enterprise this TARDIS stocks everything from a coffee cup to a lawn mower.
Bunner's Hardware store, Arthur Street, Montgomery
The Dragon Hotel, a 17th century coaching inn, still provides food drink and accommodation.

The Dragon Hotel, Montgomery
While Broad Street, the other main street ends at what looks like the town hall.

Broad Street, Montgomery

The Checkers is also in Broad Street and we went there next. It is the subject of the following post, so this one skips nimbly forward to ….


After an excellent breakfast – and more delicious pork products from Neuadd Fach - we walked down Broad Street, across the B4385 (the ‘main road’ through Montgomery) and up Church Bank…

Looking down Broad Street from Church Bank, Montgomery
…to St Nicholas’ Church. The photo below was taken across the town from near the castle, about the only place you can see the building in its entirety. The nave is early 13th century (c1227) and the transepts were added around 1275. A spire was added in 1543 but that was taken down and replaced by the current tower in 1816. That late addition looks wrong to me and spoils the exterior….

St Nicholas, Montgomery
…but the interior is wonderful. The western part of the nave has a 15th century hammer beam roof, visible at the top of the photograph below, while the central part has a slightly later barrel ceiling.

Hammer beam ceiling (top of picture) and barrel ceiling, St Nicholas' Church, Montgomery
The rood screen is 15th century and was brought from nearby Chirbury Priory at the dissolution of the monasteries. The ceiling beyond is part of the 1865 restoration.

Rood screen and barrel ceiling, St Nicholas, Montgomery
In the South transept is an Elizabethan canopy tomb.

Elizabethan canopy tomb, St Nicholas, Montgomery
The occupant is Richard Herbert, Lord of Chirbury who died in 1596. His family were the last to hold Montgomery Castle and it was his eldest son Edward (b 1583) who surrendered the castle in the Civil War. His 7th child was the poet George Herbert while Thomas (the 10th and last) was born posthumously. The tomb also contains an effigy of his wife Magdelene, though she is not buried here. She must have been a tough lady; despite giving birth to 10 children in 14 years she survived her husband by 31 years. She remarried and is buried in Chelsea.

Richard Herbert (present) and Magdelene Herbert, née Newport, (absent)
Canopy tomb, St Nicholas', Montgomery
Beside the canopy tomb are two more tombs with heavily restored effigies.

The one with the helm is said to be another Richard Herbert who died in 1543, though the carving probably dates from earlier. The man with the flowing locks is Edmund Mortimer, 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. He features in Henry IV Part 1 as Hotspur’s brother-in-law, though Shakespeare conflates him with his nephew the Earl of March.
Richard Herbert (possibly) on the far side #, Edmund Mortimer, nearest the camera
St Nicholas, Montgomery
In the cemetery is the ‘Robber’s Grave.’ John Davies (not my father-in-law but a man of the same name) was sentenced to hang for highway robbery in 1821. Protesting his innocence, he said God would prove him guiltless by not letting grass grow on his grave for a hundred years; and so it came to pass (allegedly). There is, of course, plenty of grass on it now, except where it has been worn away by the feet of tourists. I wondered as I took the photograph if the virtuous people in the surrounding graves ever get the hump that the only one to get any visitors is the convicted felon.
The Robber's Grave, St Nicholas, Montgomery
And finally…

On our way home, having crossed the Vale of Montgomery into the Shropshire Hills we stopped at Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle, or rather we stopped on the road and walked to it, a mile there and back, across an increasingly exposed and windswept moorland. And was it worth it? Of the 1,000 or so Neolithic/Bronze Age Stone Circles in Britain and Ireland, it probably ranks in the top 950, but only just. Of the original 30 stones, 15 survive, not all of them vertical. The largest stone, was once one of a pair.
Mitchell's Fold stone circle
It is difficult to appreciate what our ancestors saw in sites like this. We look down from the moor onto rich agricultural land, but when Mitchell’s Fold was erected all they would have seen was forest. I find it easier to understand the storyteller who dreamed up the medieval explanation. As the plaque at the site tells it ‘during a time of famine a fairy gave a magic cow that provided an endless supply of milk. One night an evil witch milked her into a sieve. When the cow realised the trick, she disappeared. The witch was turned to stone and a circle of stones was erected around her to ensure she could not escape.
Looking back towards Wales from Mitchell's Fold stone circle
If you are in these parts I would not bother with Mitchell’s Fold, but little Montgomery has an important Marcher Castle, an impressive church, more old buildings than you can shake a stick at, a Michelin starred restaurant, cheaper places to eat and drink, a fascinating little museum and its own brewery. Many much bigger places have less to offer.

*Roger de Montgomery came from what is now the Calvados department of Normandy where the villages of St-Foy-de-Montgommery and St-Germain-de-Montgommery (both with two ‘m’s) can still be found. Nearby Colleville-Montgomery (one ‘m’), previously Colleville-sur-Orne, changed its name in 1946 in honour of Field Marshall Sir Bernard Montgomery, commander of the invasion of Normandy in 1944.

Although born in London, Montgomery’s family came from Ulster and were members of the Clan Montgomery who had emigrated from lowland Scotland to form part of the Protestant Ascendancy. The Clan Montgomery had emigrated to Scotland in the 12th century from the Welsh border country as vassals of the FitzAlans, so Viscount Montgomery (as he became) took his name from the Welsh town, though not from the family of Roger de Montgomery

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