The place-name Aberystwyth come from the Celtic prefix ‘aber’ meaning ‘mouth of’ and Ystwyth which is the name of the river which empties its churning contents into the sea on the edge of the coastal town which I now call home. It is a good name for a place surrounded on all sides by water. From where I sit now typing I hear the Irish sea whooshing to the west of me, and when I step outside and head towards Rummers, I know what my musical accompaniment will be: the rigging of ships rattling like spoons in the wind, moored in the marina just behind South Marine terrace.
The geography of the town is especially easy to observe from the summit of Constitution Hill which towers on a cliff to the north of the town. With the advantage of height you can easily make out the two lobed beaches which demarcate the edge of the town, and the point where they meet, by the WW1 memorial in the park of the castle grounds. The town unfolds itself backwards into the broad sweeping floor of the Ystwyth valley. From a distance the eye cannot make out the deformities that modernity has engendered: the large industrial estate to the back of the town, the numerous busy roads and ‘commercial parks’ now in its centre, or even what the developers have been doing on its fringes, importing their carbon-copy houses onto the good Welsh earth, so pristine and bland they look like they have been dropped from the sky.
No, from up high all you can see is the town’s attractive beachfront, the pedestrian-spotted promenade, the heart-shaped arcing curves of two sandy beaches and the sympathetic town-planning of over two centuries’ ago. For Aberystwyth is a capital in a way. It is certainly the economic capital of mid-Wales, with its university, hospital and numerous shops. Going back centuries its name has been synonymous with its Saturday market and with a certain entrepreneurial business spirit and student joie-de-vivre. It is still a commonly-reported fact that Aberystwyth has at least 54 pubs, one for every day of the week.
But Aberystwyth was not always famous as a student town, albeit one of the most isolated and safest student towns in the UK – it made its name, at least among English visitors to the place, as a holiday resort in the nineteenth-century. ‘Aberystwyth: There’s Health in the Air and a Friendly Sun’ announces one travel propaganda poster, ‘Aberystwyth: Travel by Tain’ announces another. In the nineteenth century, the century where the concept of the holiday become firmly embedded in collective British psychology, Aberystwyth was an alluring option. At that time the Aberystwyth- Camarthern railway line served the coastal towns, access was perhaps even easier than it is now and it was possible to travel in fine style all along the welsh coastline from pretty towns like Newquay and Aberaeron, straight to Aberystwyth and neighbouring Borth.
The development of Constitution Hill into a tourist fairground was an expression of this Victorian tourist heyday. The legacy of it still remains till this day: and one of the most obvious day-time attractions in the town on a rainy or sunny day is to take the cliffside railway up to the top where you can peer into a misty camera obscura or laze about beside the restaurant and crazy golf course.
Other remnants of this Victorian holiday-making culture still flows strongly in the blood of the people who visit this area. If you are intrepid enough to take your car to the nearby seaside resorts of Borth and Aberdyfi in July or August, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a parking space due to the summer crowds that come across from the Midlands. I sometimes meet them at the restaurant where I do some part-time work. They are always very polite and friendly, and as a rule as intrigued about what led a metropolitan Londoner like me to this hidden-away place as I am about them. What brings a Brummy to Ceredigion? Many of them own caravans in the local caravan parks and spend every summer on the coast of west Wales. Good on them, I think. The caravaners that I have met are all very kind, non-judgmental people.
So much for the history of the place, but what do I love about it?
What keeps me here despite the weather and despite the harpy calls of youth? Well, there are many secret places in this town, places that I feel are mine, though of course they are not. One place I love above all is the Old College, the former chief premises of the university, now its orphan child. Another is The National Library of Wales – a copyright library, that lies at our doorstep beside the University campus. Other places that I love must include my flat; I have grown quite attached to waking up to seeing an unruffled sea at dawn or watching the sun set in the horizon as I cook. Then there is also the context of the town, the lovely stretches of countryside that unfold in bumpy hills and mountains to north and south. Perhaps, finally, it is the community that lives here. Not quite as ‘alternative’ as the community that has moved to Machynlleth, but the people who live here are kind, open-hearted and honest. I can drop into a friends’ house without texting her beforehand. When I go to my local pub on a Friday night I will see everyone I know. I will be pleased to see them and they will be pleased to see me. That’s why I have stayed. It’s beautiful and simple here and there is plenty of opportunity to think and write. I may not be in Paris or Berlin or Amsterdam, but that’s fine because…
I’m in Aberystwyth.