Llansteffan: a brief history
People visit Llansteffan nowadays for its tranquil beauty, but for centuries it was a hive of activity. It lies between the estuaries of the Tywi and the Tâf, facing the expanse of Carmarthen Bay. Over the years, its inhabitants would have watched a variety of ships waiting for the tide to take them up the river Tywi to Carmarthen, once the most important port and town in Wales.
They would have seen Roman galleys, Viking warships, ships bringing soldiers, civil servants and supplies to the King’s castle in Carmarthen, boats conveying monks and friars to Carmarthen priory and friary, and merchant vessels carrying everything from coal to fine wines. Coastal craft plied their trade to and from Llansteffan’s own sheltered harbour, which was also the terminus of two ferries: one across the Tywi from Kidwelly and another across the Tâf to Laugharne, vital links on a route used by pilgrims going to St Davids, by the King’s armies marching to Ireland, by traders, and by those who travelled for reasons known only to them and those who awaited them.
Llansteffan (until the 1970s spelt Llanstephan) was named after the 6th century founder of the church, Ystyffan ap Mawn ap Cyngen ap Cadell Ddyrnllug. However, people had lived in the area long before then, leaving traces of occupation from the Stone Age onwards in the way of burial chambers, standing stones, hill forts and hut circles. A medieval castle was built on the site of a late Bronze Age hill fort and it was an obvious target for the 12th century Norman invaders. The native Welsh princes fought long and hard to regain control of it, but they were no match for the Anglo-Normans.
The wooden castle was rebuilt in stone and extended from time to time, forming an impressive symbol of domination. Llansteffan, because of its strategic position became a port of some consequence and was also granted coveted borough status, with all the attendant trade privileges, though significantly the burgesses were Anglo-Norman settlers. Llansteffan was indeed a place of importance in the Middle Ages, but, as elsewhere in Wales, it was periodically afflicted by warfare, the vagaries of the weather and outbreaks of plague. The accession of Henry VII to the throne brought an end to the Wars of the Roses and not long afterwards Llansteffan castle was abandoned as a fortress and a residence. What had been a borough reverted into a rural backwater, with agriculture and fishing, and local marine trading as the main means of subsistence.
In the early 18th century, the village had a new lease of life. With a ruined castle, picturesque scenery and easy access by ferry, Llansteffan was on the tour trail for antiquaries and artists. One of the many artists who painted views of the area was Turner. They were soon followed by gentry and prosperous middle-classes who could not longer go abroad because of the European wars.
A fashion for sea-bathing brought another category of visitors, a category that was swelled dramatically after 1852, when the railway reached Carmarthen. Ferry boats would meet the trains at Ferryside, which had replaced Kidwelly as a ferry terminus, and convey them to purpose-built landing-stages on Llansteffan shore.
The advent of tourism provided another welcome source of income to many in a village that had relied heavily on cockling and fishing to supplement incomes.
Whole terraces of houses were built with a view to catering for visitors. For a hundred years, Llanstephan was thronged with visitors during the summer, especially in August, when families from the South Wales mining valleys arrived for ‘miners’ fortnight.’ The place was also popular for day trips, especially after the advent of motorised charabancs in the 1920s.
The visitors entertained themselves with picnics and games on the beach, swimming, paddling in rock-pools, walking, bird-watching, fishing. They held concerts, eisteddfodau and dances. The highlight of the holiday was the Mock Mayor ceremony, held in the woodland known as the Sticks, where a platform was erected and basic seating provided. Shelters were built on the Green and on the cliff-top.
Please see seperate page for History of Mayor Making TBA
The village itself was virtually self-sufficient, with shops of all kinds, craftsmen for every need, and a good selection of public houses! It had a corn-mill, woollen mills, and during the first half of the 20th century the firm of Thomas Bros., operating a fleet of lorries and buses. People had a choice of places of worship, the Church or one of the chapels: Moriah (Calvinistic Methodist), Bethany (Baptist) or Bethel (Independent). A Wesleyan Methodist Chapel closed c.1900.
But then everything changed. By the 1960s car-ownership and cheap foreign holidays had widened people’s horizons, and the charms of a simple seaside holiday paled before more sophisticated means of entertainment. Although the number of visitors declined somewhat many still came. There are always people around who appreciate peaceful, unspoilt scenery and the unique atmosphere of Llansteffan. Not surprisingly, artists and writers find the atmosphere inspirational.
Llansteffan has always attracted artists and litterateurs. The artist Christopher Williams often stayed with relatives in the village. He painted a portrait of a tenant of Plas Llanstephan, Sir John Williams, renowned as the doctor who delivered several of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren and as the bibliophile whose books and manuscripts formed the foundation collection of the National Library of Wales. Stanley Lewis, Principal of the Carmarthen School of Art, lived in one of Llansteffan’s gentry houses, Orchard House.
Dylan Thomas knew Llansteffan well; he not only had family connections in the area, but he also used to cross the Laugharne ferry to patronise the local pubs or call on his friends Keidrych Rhys and Lynette Roberts living in Llanybri.
Please see separate page for Dylan Thomas’ connections with Llansteffan.
Keidrych Rhys was the Editor of the periodical Wales and in the 1940s virtually every contemporary Anglo-Welsh author visited him in Llanybri. Glyn Jones loved Llansteffan so much that he chose for his remains to be buried in the Church. Famed husband and wife artists John and Kusha Petts lived in the village for nigh on 40 years, and John’s stained-glass window may be seen in the Church. Also in the Church is a Madonna, the work of the sculptor John Taulbut, who lived for while in the Petts’ former home, Cambrian House. The village can still boast of a remarkable number of artists and writers among its residents past and present including Islwyn Ffowc Elis and the Anglo Welsh poet Raymond Garlick.
Llansteffan has seen many social changes over the years, but it has never lost its charm. Once visited, it draws people back again and again, and of course as we speak, Llansteffan and it’s present day residents are still creating an unique history for the fascination of countless visitors of the future, in exactly the same way that the Llansteffan of yesteryear still fascinates us today.