Sugar Loaf Mountain, two miles north-west of Abergavenny Picture credit: National Trust/Suzannah Duggan

LAUDED BY The Sunday Times as “a gastronomic haven surrounded by mountains, the hearty market town is great outdoors and just as good in”, Abergavenny certainly has a lot going for it.

This community in Momouthshire is promoted as a Gateway to Wales, situated as it is on the A40 trunk road and the A465 Heads of the Valleys road, approximately six miles from the border with England, and boasts a town centre packed with independent shops, restaurants and cafes.

Originally the site of a Roman fort, Gobannium, it became a medieval walled town within the Welsh Marches. The town contains the remains of a medieval stone castle built soon after the Norman conquest of Wales.

Abergavenny is situated at the confluence of the River Usk and a tributary stream, the Gavenny. It is almost entirely surrounded by mountains and hills: the Blorenge (559m, 1,834ft), the Sugar Loaf (596m, 1,955ft), Ysgyryd Fawr (Great Skirrid), Ysgyryd Fach (Little Skirrid), Deri, Rholben and Mynydd Llanwenarth, known locally as ‘Llanwenarth Breast’.

The town provides access to the nearby Black Mountains and the Brecon Beacons National Park. The Marches Way and Beacons Way pass through Abergavenny whilst the Offa’s Dyke Path passes through Pandy five miles to the north and the Usk Valley Walk passes through nearby Llanfoist.

In the UK 2011 census, the six relevant wards (Lansdown, Grofield, Castle, Croesonen, Cantref and Priory) collectively listed Abergavenny’s population as 12,515.

The town, which hosted the 2016 National Eisteddfod of Wales, popped up once again on The Sunday Times’ shortlist for Best Places to Live in the UK 2020.

“A glimpse of the pointy Sugar Loaf heralds the good news that you’re home in Abergavenny, and it’s a worthy symbol of this thriving market town on the edge of the Brecon Beacons,” enthused the national newspaper.

“Life here is all about two things: getting out and tucking in. Sugar Loaf, Skirrid and Blorenge, the three peaks that share sentry duty over the ancient town, offer hikes and glorious views from their summits.

“If that sounds too strenuous, or if the dog needs more exercise than you do, there are flatter but still scenic walks along the canal or past the cows in the Castle Meadows.”

Looking back, the town was frequently embroiled in the border warfare and power play of the 12th and 13th centuries in the Welsh Marches.

Owain Glyndŵr attacked Abergavenny in 1404. According to popular legend, his raiders gained access to the walled town with the aid of a local woman who sympathised with the rebellion, letting a small party in via the Market Street gate at midnight.

They were able to open the gate and allow a much larger party who set fire to the town and plundered its churches and homes leaving Abergavenny Castle intact. Market Street has been referred to as ‘Traitors’ Lane’ thereafter.

The right to hold two weekly markets and three yearly fairs, beginning in the 13th Century, was held ever since as confirmed in 1657. Abergavenny was celebrated for the production of Welsh flannel, and also for the manufacture, whilst the fashion prevailed, of goats’ hair periwigs.

The Abergavenny Food Festival is traditionally held in the second week of September each year, while The Steam, Veteran and Vintage Rally takes place in May. A Country and Western Music Festival has attracted enthusiasts of country music and has featured acts including Ben Thompson and LA Country.

The Abergavenny Writing Festival began in April 2016 and is a celebration of writing and the written word, while The Abergavenny Arts Festival, first held in 2018, celebrates arts in their broadest sense and has showcased amateur and professional artists from the vibrant local arts scene together with some from further afield.

On the sporting front, Glamorgan County Cricket Club have played some of their games at Abergavenny Cricket Club, which celebrated the 175th anniversary of its foundation in 2009.

Abergavenny Town Football Club plays in the Welsh League at the Pen-y-pound Stadium, and Abergavenny RFC, a rugby union club founded in 1875, play at Bailey Park.

Abergavenny Tennis Club also play at Pen-y-Pound and the club was crowned Tennis Wales’ Club of the Year in 2010. Abergavenny is also the home to a Hockey Club, while the town hosted the British National Cycling Championships in 2007, 2009 and 2014, as part of its Festival of Cycling.

Becky James, racing cyclist, double gold medallist at the 2013 UCI Track Cycling World Championships and double silver medallist at the 2016 Summer Olympics, was born and grew up in Abergavenny.

Abergavenny Castle is located strategically just south of the town centre overlooking the River Usk. It was built in about 1067 by the Norman baron Hamelin de Ballon to guard against incursions by the Welsh from the hills to the north and west. All that remains is defensive ditches and the ruins of the stone keep, towers, and part of the curtain wall. It is a Grade I listed building.

The Church in Wales church of the Holy Trinity is in the Diocese of Monmouth. Holy Trinity Church was consecrated by the Bishop of Llandaff on November 6, 1840. It was originally built as a chapel to serve the adjacent almshouses and the nearby school. It has been Grade II listed since January 1974.

Other listed buildings in the town include the parish Priory Church of St Mary, a medieval and Victorian building that was originally the church of the Benedictine priory founded in Abergavenny before 1100; the 16th Century tithe barn near St Mary’s; the Victorian Church of the Holy Trinity; the Grade II listed St John’s Masonic Lodge; the Museum; the Public Library; the Town Hall; and the remains of Abergavenny town walls behind Neville Street.

Various markets are held in the Market Hall, including a retail market, flea market, farmers’ market, antiques fair and craft fair.

From 1851, the Monmouthshire lunatic asylum, later Pen-y-Fal Hospital, a psychiatric hospital, stood on the outskirts of Abergavenny. Between 1851 and 1950, over 3,000 patients died at the hospital.

A memorial plaque for the deceased has now been placed at the site. After closure in the 1990s, its buildings and grounds were redeveloped as a luxury housing development comprising houses as well as apartments.

Some psychiatric services are now administered from Maindiff Court Hospital on the outskirts of the town, close to the foot of the Skirrid mountain. The hospital is housed in historic buildings, and is known for its links to Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler’s deputy, who was kept there under escort during the Second World War after his flight to Britain.