Aberystwyth is a remote coastal town in West Wales. Founded over 700 years ago to serve the 13th century English castle the ruins of which still stand in the town. The area, however, has a much older history and there is evidence of occupation on Pendinas, the hill above the town, going back at least 300BC/BCE.
Nestled between three hills (and the Irish Sea) Pendinas, with its chimney like monument to the Duke of Wellington and Iron age Hill fort, Constitution Hill which has a recreation of a Victorian “Camera Obscurer” and a funicular Railway and Penglais. On Penglais hill are the main campus of the University, the local major Hospital (Bronglais) and the National Library of Wales, one of the UKs larger libraries holding many historical artifacts.
In recent generations, the town has become known as a place of healing for many people after personal crises. The safety and welcome of “Aber” as it is known have provided many with sanctuary. People feel safe in the town. Aber is not perfect, and I will hold back from sounding too much like a tourist board video, but it simply is a more welcoming place to be than so many other locations. The town does have its own issues. In fact, 2020 has, as the video highlights, been a rough year for the town in terms of being its welcoming reputation. One of those who provided feedback to this project reminded me that only in February a Taiwanese stall holder was ‘asked to leave’ the market (BBC News, 2020). This was caused by fear of the Pandemic which was at that time mainly centred in China and Italy. This materialised as racism towards someone who simply happened to be from a country near China.
Cadw’s report on the urban character of the town highlights that ‘historic character lies at the heart of local distinctiveness and sense of place. No two places share a history, so every place has a unique historic character’ (Cadw, Aberystwyth: Understanding Urban Character, 2013). The huge concentration of historic buildings within the town gives it a sense of charm and is one of the things that lead so many to fall in love with the place. Yes, if you want a big fancy city or town, “Aber” is not for you, but if you want a town where you can feel at home and at peace then Aber could be the sanctuary required. The healing atmosphere appears to have helped many who have come “Aber.” I talk both from personal experience and from that of friends and respondents to the survey, but to many they will not know how much they need this town until they experience it!
Whilst this video is not intended to be direct publicity for the University it is important that people understand its significance as it is this institution that draws many people to the town.
The University is the oldest in Wales, founded by the Welsh people for the Welsh people in 1872. Aberystwyth University has a long and complex history, which has left a significant impact on Higher education as well as international relations. The importance of the “Interpol” department (as it became known) being confirmed by hosting a League of nations conference in 1926 It also founded the world’s first department of International Politics as well as the world’s first department of Geography and department of Agricultural. The University even hosted the League of Nations conference in 1926 in which Germany was admitted as a member.
The University draws in thousands of students from across the UK and World, many of them finding something truly special in this hub of activity, the student community regarded for its active and varied student societies and support provided for student wellbeing (which the university considers especially important with international students away from their support networks). Having a number of Aberystwyth graduates in my family (Including my parents who met here) as well as studying at the University myself. Those who come to the town for study or work, often build an attachment to the place, that I have not personally found with anywhere else I have lived. Some of those who responded to my survey have not stayed but that have retained an attachment to a place that draws them back, be that on holidays, retirement or simply returning to visit the area after moving away.
Over the years this region of Wales has been a refuge for many people, with everyone from Belgium refugees fleeing the disruption of the first world war to Syrian refugees in more recent years. An organization (AberAid) has been founded in the town calling for Wales to accept more refugees, in stark contrast to some of the concerns in other rural European regions. Aberystwyth is a unique town that has provided a welcome for many people.
Speaking to people about their experience of Aberystwyth as well as being aware of the stories of many friends, it seems many people find Aber after relationship breakups, or at points where they feel lost in their lives and need to put down some sort of roots. I despite having family links to the town going back at least a generation only moved here in 2016, but found it was one of the best decisions I made. Whilst it’s not my intention to stay here permanently it is nice to have somewhere that feels like home that I can always return to!
It should be noted as well that it will be a very different experience for those who have grown up here, whilst a wonderful place to bring up children many who grow up here seem to move away many also come back. Understanding this town from the perspective of those born and brought up here is perhaps more complex and a sperate topic entirely. Many of those who have responded to the survey will have found the town as adults, so will therefore feel differently about the area.
Whilst there were many views expressed in the survey there were certain common threads and it is my hope that the significance of this town continues once we get into 2021, 2020 has certainly been a test for the town and its community, as it has been for everywhere. We hope to look forward to a positive future as the town faces some of its biggest tests yet!