The lovely old market town of Brecon nestles in the shadow of the majestic Beacons at the confluence of the Rivers Usk and Honddu, the latter providing the town’s Welsh name, Aberhonddu.
The prelude to the history of the town itself can be of interest to Visitors, because this area of Breconshire is generally regarded as one of the most historic locations of settlements in Wales. For example, on the perimeter of the present town, at Slwch Tump and Pen-y-Crug are the remains of Iron Age forts, where Celtic immigrants left evidence of their settlement. Farther west, at Y Gaer, are the remains of an 8-acre Roman fort, built to house a garrison of 500 cavalry, in about A.D. 80. This site can be visited, and exhibits of excavation materials are on display in Brecknock Museum and Art Gallery.
The name of our town, Brecon, is traced by scholars from legendary 5thC Brychan through Latinised spelling such as Breconia to Anglo-French Brecon. And that is the key to understanding much about the origin of the town, developing gradually after victory by the Norman Bernard de Neufmarche at the end of the 11th century. Dominated by the Castle, which was also the administrative centre, Brecon gradually took the form of a fairly typical Norman walled town. Oval in outline, on the narrow level ground between the hills, there were gates at strategic points. The outline can still be traced on the current Town map, and Visitors can see the evidence at the Castle and along the wall site at the Captain’s Walk.
Situated in the March border land between Wales and England, Brecon is steeped in history. The town was granted its borough charter in 1276 by Humphrey de Bohun, Earl of Hereford and Essex, Constable of England and Lord of Brecknock. In 1411, the Borough of Brecknock received a Charter from King Henry IV, who was already Lord of Brecknock through his marriage to Mary de Bohun.
By the middle of the 16th century, Brecon had become one of the most important towns in Wales because of its position on the main route across Southern Wales from London to the coast. It was named in the “Act of Union” in 1536 as one of four “local capitals” for Wales. Later, in 1542, Henry VIII set up a Chancery here and installed an Exchequer in the Castle.
Brecon’s first Royal Charter was granted by Philip and Mary in 1556, and is seen as important and influential for many years in the political and commercial life of the borough. Reminders of the developments during Tudor, Elizabethan and subsequent periods can be seen in Buckingham House and Havard House (1556) in Glamorgan Street, at Newtown (1582), and in the date 1589 above a shop in the Bulwark. The Guildhall site (1624, noted below) signified the movement of power away from the Castle to the Town.
Brecon’s strategic position was important in the turbulent years before the Civil War, and King Charles visited the town in quest of support in 1645. Staying overnight at Priory House, he wrote the letter to his eldest son, advising that he should, in ultimate necessity, convey himself “into France”. The cobbled “King’s Steps” in the Struet mark his route of exit to Gwernyfed. By the end of the war, the Town’s defence walls had been partially dismantled by the citizens.
By the early 18th century, Brecon was developing into one of the leading towns in Wales, ranking with Carmarthen and Caernarvon. Together with its long ecclesiastical and military influence, it was now an important administrative centre. It was an Assize town, the location for Quarter Sessions and twice-yearly Grant Sessions, then held at the Guildhall. Brecon, as the county town and Parliamentary Borough, was an evolving social organism. The first direct commercial coach route from London into Wales was announced in September 1756. The terminus of this 44 hour journey via Oxford, Gloucester and Monmouth was the Golden Lion Inn at Brecon, the site of the present Bethel Square. Other inns such as The George, The Bell and later The Castle provided accommodation for the early stages of tourism.
Fine Georgian-style houses in the High Street, Glamorgan Street, Lion Street and the Bulwark, Struet and Watton are evidence of prosperity to which a military presence and commercial interests contributed. A covered Market building and a busy canal encouraged trade. Both today are Visitor attractions, but little trace remains now of the network of railway development. The gentry, whose fine houses ringed the town, regarded Brecon as a social centre for balls, play-going, and latterly, horse racing.
Some evidence for the 19th century phase of fine Chapel buildings is still clear today, particularly in Lion Street and Kensington, though Bethel Chapel and the Dr Coke Methodist Chapel in Lion Street have been converted for commercial purposes.
This outline gives a view of Brecon’s varied and interesting past. Perhaps it offers a challenge to Brecon’s future!
BRECON AS A GARRISON TOWN
The Brecon Barracks currently houses the Administrative Headquarters for the Army in Wales, called 160 (Wales) Brigade. The Brigade was originally formed in 1915 as part of the 53rd Welsh Division. Units of the Brigade, many of them Territorial Army, are spread as far afield as Haverfordwest in the South West to Wrexham in the North East.
Located on the eastern edge of the town is Dering Lines. This camp has been completely rebuilt in recent years and is far removed from the hutted training camp where many Welsh soldiers trained for both World Wars. Dering Lines is now the Infantry Battle School and it is here that the British Army trains its junior officers and non-commissioned officers in battlefield tactics. Recently many foreign armies have been invited to use these world-class facilities. Just a few miles further West is the Sennybridge Army Camp and Training Area, one of the largest range and training centres in the UK. Many thousands of service personnel use these facilities each year training on the rugged Welsh Hills of Breconshire. Brecon still has very strong links with the services, many have seen the town as an ideal place to live and have settled in the area on completion of their service. Many are still employed by the Army as civilians and the Army is one of the biggest employers in the area.