Aberystwyth [52°25'N 4°05'W] [OS National Grid SN584817] is a small sea-side town (population 13,500) in the county of Ceredigion (population 75,000) on the west coast of Wales. Situated towards the centre of the crescent of Cardigan Bay, Aberystwyth's harbour is fed by the confluence of the rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol.
The town is huddled between three hills and is focused around a seafront with two gritty beaches, some castle ruins, a pier and a harbour. Of the three hills: Pendinas to the south has visible remains of an iron age fort and a monument to Wellington. To the north is Constitution Hill with a cliff railway for those not up to the 110m ascent up the zigzagged path to the summit. Apart from the amazing views of Cardigan Bay the reward for your climb (during the summer) is a small café and the camera obscura. Rising more gently to the east is Penglais Hill hosting, the hospital, the National Library of Wales and the main Aberystwyth University Campus including an Arts Centre. Just over the crest of the hill is Penglais School one of the two secondary schools in town and the "science" park. Almost everything in Aberystwyth can be reached by a 10/15 minute walk from the centre of town.
Aberystwyth originated as a garrison town to help the Normans subjugate the local population. Since then it has been mining town (silver and lead), and for a while, through fishing and transporting ore, it had the 2nd busiest port in Wales. From the 1870's to the 1950's it had a thriving tourism industry. Now Aberystwyth is a University town which adds over 7,000 students to the local population.
Most of the town's economy is based around: repairing broken shop windows, alcohol, tourism, education, retail, local government and the service sector for the rural neighbourhood. Once the summer's over the students return and take over the accommodation, bar stools and supermarket queues that the tourists vacate. Unlike many small sea-side towns, businesses in Aberystwyth manage to stay open all year. A significant social feature of the town is that nearly 1/3rd of its population is transitory, with the students here for 27 weeks and the main tourist season being 6-to-8 weeks.
For hundreds of years Aber's had an inordinate number of pubs. It's a dipsomaniac's dream town. The compact town centre has led to a particular form of the 'art' called the 'crawl' - where revellers have a drink in one pub and then move on to the next pub. For three or four evenings a week the town centre is vibrant throng 'crawling' between pubs. And with extended opening hours, the cheer of the revellers can be heard about 20 past the hour, every hour, until dawn. The extra bright street lighting (to aid the extensive network of CCTV cameras) adds a surreal quality to the night scene.
This endless 'vibrancy' does not suit everyone and most families with children and owner occupiers have moved out of the town centre - funding their escape by transferring the housing stock to the rental sector.
A white railed, wide promenade is built up off the beach to protect the buildings from the storms in the Irish Sea which are vigorous enough to reach into Cardigan Bay. In winter these can be spectacular - with waves slam into the 'prom wall' splashing higher than the seafront houses and dumping the beach across the width of the prom and onto the road. (This is particularly evident at the north end of town. This was once a salt water marsh and the storm waves used to break where there are now houses. Sea walls have been made larger and larger over the years to keep the sea out, but from time to time a powerful storm puts the salt water back.)
The seafront buildings are brightly painted, Victorian and 4/5 stories high. The few that aren't hotels or guest houses are various Halls of Residence for the University. Splitting the main (north) beach from the south beach are the castle ruins which are now laid out as park gardens, beside them is a sandstone neo-Gothic building that is known as the 'Old-College'. This was the first university building in Aberystwyth. Although some teaching still goes on in this building, it is now mainly given over to university administration.
The prom has many of the usual sea-front accompaniments: flower beds, illuminations, benches, white railings, paddling pool for toddlers, breakwaters, a pier with slot machines and a jetty for small boats. During the summer the flag poles along the promenade fly the flags of many countries but prominent amongst these are the flags of minority nations.
From Autumn to Spring (almost exactly from the Autumnal Equinox to the Vernal Equinox), tens of thousands of starlings flock to the pier at dusk. It's easy to be attracted by the hypnotic chattering of starlings flying in unison like a shoal of fish, however, it is advised not to stand too close to them when they take off! These are not the dominant birds in town, which is also full of gulls, pigeons and rooks, there are also swans and ducks at the harbour.
As well as the sea, the prom also offers glimpses of the surrounding hills and mountains. In winter these can often be covered in snow even when the town isn't. On a clear day (sic), from the area around the Pier and Castle, it's possible to see the tallest mountain in Wales, Snowdon, which is 80km due North.
EU money has smartened up large parts of promenade pavement, now yellow brick, laid into patterns along with inlayed marble! An advantage of being on the west coast is the unrestricted view of the setting sun over the sea which are particularly popular with land-locked visitors. (Watch out for the green flash phenomenon).
If there is high air pressure in the bay the street lights of the other Cambrian coast towns can be seen twinkling in the night sky. Illuminations are popular in Aberystwyth. Strings of bulbs zig-zag along the main streets and along the promenade for months either side of Easter, Christmas and the summer tourist season. Unfortunately, there is so much light pollution that little else is visible in the night sky. One source of strange lights that come out at night that is the LIDAR run by at the University Physics Department. This is a vertical, flickering, pencil thin, green laser beam and is used to measure the amount of 'gunk' in the middle and upper atmosphere.
Several national Welsh institutions have based themselves in Aberystwyth because of its central location in Wales:
With over 6,000,000 books (5,000,000+ texts in the National library and over 1,000,000 in the university library) and a population of about 20,000 (13,000 locals + 7,000 students), Aberystwyth is said to have the highest ratio of books to people in the world!
A fact that may not be apparent as you travel through the centre of town having stepped off the 21:35 train on a Friday evening.
The constitution of the sloping beach varies with the currents and storms, mostly it's grit, sometimes shingle, sometimes even sand. A few rocky outcrops, especially beside the pier, reveal tidal pools which attract kids with fishing nets and 6th form students on field trips. The environment agency regularly measure the murky water quality on Aberystwyth's main beaches . Unstable Site Semi-polished multicoloured pebbles can be found under the pier and below Constitution Hill, though care should be taken as there are strong undercurrents here. In the summer, with patience, it's sometimes possible to spot Bottlenose dolphins and Harbour porpoise out in the bay. Grey seals from the Irish Sea overwinter on the local coastline.
Once one of the busiest in Wales, the harbour is situated at the south end of town and fed by the rivers Ystwyth and Rheidol (which is the steepest river in Britain). A couple of years ago the harbour had a 'make-over' and was turned into a Marina. The harbour is highly tidal so it's important to refer to the tide tables if approaching by sea.
Much of the town is built of locally quarried poor quality gray shale, and many of the older houses are rendered and painted. The old town, (within the former town walls) was only slowly built up and most buildings differ from their neighbours. During a rapid expansion in the late 1800's many uniform terrace houses were built outside the town walls. Again much of this using the local stone, this time not covered over. Transport links have improved and the recent expansion was built using red and yellow bricks with much of the new accommodation in the form of apartment blocks.
Geographically, Aberystwyth is somewhat isolated from the rest of Britain by the Cambrian mountains which sweep down the backbone of Wales. In the past this isolation pushed the peoples of Cardigan Bay to make do with the resources available locally, rather than transport materials or services over the mountains. Even now in the rest of Wales, the term Cardi refers to the 'thrift' of the people in this area. An advantage of this isolation is that over the years Aberystwyth has acquired many more resources than a town of this size would normally have. It has become the centre for a wide rural area between the Cambrian Mountains and the sea. Aberystwyth has numerous cafés, bars, and restaurants including: Bangladeshi, Chinese, Greek, Indian, Italian, Japanese & Spanish.
Aberystwyth's climate is dominated by the sea. The Gulf Stream warms the whole of this region making the UK warmer than its latitude would suggest. The prevailing winds are from the west, bringing in warm, damp air from the Irish Sea. If the air is not already raining as it strikes land then it is cooled by being pushed up over the local hills and mountains. These buffering factors come together to make Aberystwyth remarkably equable - the variation in the average temperature between summer and winter is less than 10°C. (Plynlimon, just 15km east of Aberystwyth, is the wettest place in Britain and an area close by has been given planning permission to for one of Europe's largest windfarms.) Even if it's snowing just a km inland, the warming effect of the sea make snow and frost rare in Aberystwyth. What's gained in warm air is lost in wind-chill and the public litter bins around town tend to be jammed with 'dead' umbrellas even after mild storms. Aberystwyth has long been promoted for its clean, fresh and bracing air. The storms of Autumn and Winter start to break up with the changeable weather of Spring leading warmer and dryer spells of Summer.