LIVING in a small, sheltered market town in Powys, miles from the nearest bus or railway station, the 2,000 or so residents of Crickhowell have grown accustomed to existing in their own self-sufficient bubble in the heart of the Welsh countryside.
Indeed, a town proud of its independent, family-owned businesses, with an accent on togetherness and community spirit, has every right to feel it is the centre of its very own idyllic Welsh universe.
But, whisper it gently, Crickhowell can no longer be regarded as one of those ‘hidden gems’ of Wales, nestling undiscovered in the Usk Valley – the secret is out!
Recent years have seen this bustling and thriving Georgian market town thrown into the national and international spotlight as its many charms and attractions which have brought Crickhowell recognition as the ‘best place to live in Wales’ and home to the ‘UK’s best high street’.
Knowledgeable tourists have been making their way to this picturesque settlement in growing numbers, attracted by stunning scenery, walks and activities that befit its position to the south of the Black Mountains, the eastern range of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
In fact, those in the know have been espousing the delights of Crickhowell since long before national judging panels thrust it under the modern-day microscope with their glitzy awards, author John Evans describing the town as the “Glittering Jewel of the Vale” in his 19th Century book, The Garden of Wales.
A settlement has existed here at least since iron-age settlers built a fort on the top of Crug Hywel, also called Table Mountain after its flat top. In the town a motte and bailey castle, remains of which still exist, was built by the Normans.
The remaining sections of the castle walls and motte stand on a spur where a tributary stream meets the River Usk, in a more elevated position than the rest of the town, which was planned around it. The motte is oval in shape and is still clearly visible, whilst the foundations of the shell keep are largely buried. Traces of the castle bailey have been identified in a nearby field.
A well known feature of Crickhowell is the 17th Century bridge spanning the River Usk. It is unusual in that when viewed from its eastern end you can see 13 arches, but when viewed from the western end of the bridge, there are only 12.
Another historic feature of the town is The Bear Hotel, a former coaching inn which retains its ‘post horses’ archway and original cobbles. The Bear was voted ‘Pub of the Year’ in 1999 and always retains a high standard. Just outside the town is the Nantyffinn Cider Mill Restaurant.
Cwrt y Gollen, a British Army training base, is near Crickhowell also.
Surrounding Crickhowell are the picturesque villages of Llangattock, Llanbedr, Llangenny, Glangrwyney, Tretower and Cwmdu, each with its own special character.
There is plenty to do in and around Crickhowell. The annual Art Trail of studios and galleries during the Spring Bank Holiday weekend gives access to a surprising number of artists in their studios. And the Walking Festival in February-March provides a range of walks for all levels of ability.
There are also excellent routes for cyclists, many opportunities for riding, and a variety of ‘adventure’ activities available locally. Fishing is available on the Usk, which is also well known amongst canoeists.
Crickhowell lies on the A40 Trunk road, providing easy access from the UK Motorway system, less than an hour from the Severn Bridge. A range of historic sites, such as Tretower Court and the Unesco World Heritage site at Blaenavon and Big Pit are easily accessible from here. To top it all, there’s an annual music festival, The Green Man, held just outside the town at Glanusk Park.
Crickhowell is approximately seven miles from Abergavenny, the nearest railway station, and 13 miles from the market town of Brecon. London is two hours away and Cardiff just 40 minutes.
Sir George Everest, after whom Mount Everest is named, is thought to have been born near Crickhowell. His father had an estate there called ‘Gwernvale Manor’. This is now a hotel, known simply as ‘The Manor’. There is also a street in Crickhowell named after him (Everest Drive).
Other famous sons of the area include Admiral Sir Walter ‘Tich’ Cowan, who saw service in both the first and second World Wars, landscape gardener Sir Roddy Llewellyn and a number of rugby notables.
The town boasts almost entirely independent (and excellent) shops, really good pubs and restaurants and award-winning cafes. The award-winning high street runs down to the idyllic river with it’s historic bridge over to the neighbouring village of Llangattock.
Crickhowell’s Market Hall (originally the Town Hall) on The Square dates from 1834, nowadays with market stalls on the ground floor and a cafe in the first floor old courtroom. The stone building, raised on twin doric columns, is Grade II listed.
In 2018, Crickhowell was the proud winner of the Best British High Street award, commended for its community-led initiatives and strong network of independent businesses.
The ‘Totally Locally Campaign’ brought over 100 local shops and businesses together to promote one another and run initiatives to both boost their businesses and provide the local community with vital services.
The campaign also inspired 267 people, passionate about the future of their high street, to collectively purchase and renovate a former high street pub – the Corn Exchange – into three new shops with three residential properties above.
Crickhowell High Street also boasts strong environmental credentials, being home to the first Zero Waste shop in Wales, whilst establishing Plastic Free Crickhowell – an initiative to reduce the use of plastic.
In 2019, Crickhowell was named ‘Best Place to Live in Wales’ by The Sunday Times. Judges assessed not only the high street, but a range of factors, including employment, schools, house prices and community spirit.
Emma Corfield-Walters, who owns the 2019 Best Bookshop in Wales – Book Ish – believes Crickhowell’s growing reputation is all about community.
“People take time to talk to each other here. Businesses work together, rather than compete, to make sure we all succeed,” she said.
“I work with about 34 other local suppliers, all delivering local produce, and other businesses have the same ethos. We are in a little bubble here – Crickhowell is almost self-sufficient.
“But this is not a new thing where people have jumped on the bandwagon. There are shops that have been in the same family for generations.”
Florist Debbie Davies, who owns Petals, said residents were “proud” of the town and loved living there.
She said: “It’s hard to put into words because it’s just a feeling you have living here. It’s a small town with a big heart.”