July 23rd, 2018
Whether small or large, natural or man-made, modern or historical, the harbours that are dotted along the beautiful Welsh coastline each have a unique history and a fascinating story to tell. A history that is bound to the rhythm of the tides, and tied up with the lives of people who have lived near them and worked within them.
Natural harbours have been used by boats and vessels for as long as ocean voyages have taken place. A harbour was traditionally a safe-haven, a place where boats could seek shelter from stormy weather. These days of course, many harbours are now used as a base for leisure boats, although his wasn’t always the case. Join us as we delve into the hidden histories of some of Wales’ prettiest harbours.
Today Aberaeron’s Harbourmaster Hotel is famed for its delicious lunches and cosy accommodation, but the building was once the most important in the town. The Harbourmaster’s offices were the heart of the harbour, keeping a watchful eye on the bustling activity along the shores of the dock.
From a tiny creek that wasn’t even mentioned on maps before the 16th century, Aberaeron quickly grew into a busy port with a thriving ship building industry, all thanks to the Reverend Gwynne, Lord of the Manor of Aberaeron.
Plans for Gwynne’s new town sprung up in the Regency style that it is now renowned for and by 1816 the harbour was completed and supported many thriving industries, not only exporting and ship-building. The town once boasted 35 different ale houses, just enough to quench the thirst of the many labourers who flooded into the town to find work.
Sadly, the maritime industries began to dwindle by the early 20th century, and the introduction of railways in 1911 saw the last commercial boats leave Aberaeron harbour for good. Today, Aberaeron’s pretty harbour is used for leisure boats and one or two small fishing craft, all taking advantage of the peaceful waters of the Ceredigion coast.
The harbour at Porthmadog owes its existence to the lucrative contents of the nearby hills and mountains. Built by William Maddocks in the 1820s, Porthmadog’s harbour was primarily used to export the thousands of tonnes of slate that were mined from the hills of Blaenau Ffestiniog and carted down to the harbour on the now renowned Ffestiniog Railway.
Slate from Porthmadog was exported all across the world and helped, literally, to raise the buildings, warehouses and factories of the industrial revolution. But Porthmadog was also an important ship-building town with over 260 ships being built here in less than 100 years.
The handsome brigs, schooners and barquentines were tough and strong and made for travelling across the world with their heavy grey cargo. Even when the demand for these boats declined, the shipbuilders of Porthmadog pioneered the development of the Western Ocean Yachts, designed for the salt-cod trade of Newfoundland. These elegant three mast schooners were strong and steady to cross wide oceans but small enough to navigate the rocky shores and narrow estuaries that awaited them on the other side of the world.
As with our other harbours, the docks of Porthmadog are now much quieter than they ever were. The great working ships have been replaced by yachts and the harbour is lined not with cargo ships but with small cruisers. But the legacy of all of these industrious, pioneering and once great harbours lives on in the stories of its people, whose histories are built into the ports and docks that helped shaped the coast as we know it today.