THE architecture of Aberaeron is Late Renaissance, 1702-1830, commonly described as Georgian, and follows a period when English architecture was mainly civic and domestic with much embellishment externally, influenced by the Italian school. The writer Pope was moved to write in satirical fashion a little ode concerning this period:
’tis very fine,
But where d’ye sleep and where d’ye dine ?
I find by all you have been telling,
That ’tis a house, but not a dwelling.
A general increase in wealth, a rise in the standard of comfort, improved social conditions, small as they appear measured by today’s standards, are all seen in the large number of plain yet comfortable houses which line the streets of many of our country towns, including Aberaeron. Internally, the layout is simple, hall and staircase occupying the central position with rooms compactly disposed on either side.
The Design of Houses
The design of the houses and the layout of the street system in Aberaeron has frequently been attributed to the distinguished architect Nash. As far as I know, there is no proof that Nash had anything to do with the town’s architecture, but suffice it to say that whether he had or not, it is one of the best examples of a planned township of small scale in Wales.
There is a wonderful sense of dignified urbanity here which appeals to me very much. I have frequently wandered through some of our newer towns and have noted how the designers have tried, quite unsuccessfully, to capture this sense. Alban Square is a very fine example of a planned square there is a wonderful sense of enclosure and intimacy with a most definite punctuation of terraces by larger buildings at both ends and in the centre. This square overlooks a large open space, another feature of Georgian layout where open areas gave dignity and scale to the houses. In Market Street, just outside this building, the inner harbour or safe anchorage is overlooked on two sides by houses. Again we have the open space, in this case with some fine mature trees. Quay Parade, which overlooks the outer or main harbour, is another fine tall terrace terminated by the Harbourmaster Hotel, which was the house of the harbourmaster when the port flourished.
Almost all the buildings in the central area or main part of the town are listed as being of architectural importance. In almost all cases, listing has been due to what is called the group value of houses. You will note the most interesting relationships of roof lines, particularly in Market Street and Quay Parade where the taller houses still integrate most successfully with the smaller houses even though their scale is not similar. This wonderful achievement of uniformity without losing individuality is a fine feature not only here but in other towns which were Georgian inspired. These houses are all good neighbours, something which I regret is lacking in the present-day approach to the design of dwellings, particularly groups. Because of this dignity and good neighbourliness there are few outstanding houses in the town. Personally, Portland House appeals to me very much. This is a fine house of magnificent proportions, three storeys high and in a dominant position at the end of a terrace leading out of the town. During our inspection we shall note the way in which the designer, whoever it was, introduced in the most subtle fashion a different size of window on the ground, first, and second floors yet keeping the proportion, or relationship of solid to void, perfectly. This is a gem of a house much photographed by visitors to the town.
Before the original sash windows were removed the Harbourmaster Hotel was a fine building, of proportion similar to Portland House, but with a most inappropriate porch. My own house, Milford House, recently featured on a postage stamp, is of pleasing proportion with an extension over a narrow road called Drury Lane which provides a most attractive vista to the sea from Cadwgan Place. We shall see very little good detailing though there are some quite exquisite entrance porches with pediments. On the whole, detailing is rather crude, which lends support to the theory expressed by Miss Elisabeth Beazley, a well-known architect and writer, that the town developed in the mid-nineteenth century through an assiduous and intelligent interpretation by local craftsmen of the same type of building and layout depicted in magazines of that era, and the inspiration of the founder of the town, the Reverend Alban Thomas Jones Gwynne. In my view, its principal charm is the fenestration or window treatment. The close-paned design, so much a feature of Georgian architecture, knits the terraces together and provides this wonderful integration even though the windows themselves frequently vary in size and proportion.
Most of this work was completed by 1875. Since then, and rather unfortunately, the style of architecture did not follow the Georgian tradition so that the town is virtually divided into two periods. This is quite evident in South Road and Belle Vue Terrace where half the terrace is Georgian and the other half a mixture of styles based on the Victorian. Present-day building is somewhat nondescript, I regret what we have endeavoured to do as a Planning Authority is to try to ensure that materials are at least in harmony with traditional colouring and also to prevent building from taking place in inappropriate locations so that the silhouette of the town, which is extremely attractive, is not marred. To this end we have prevented building on the slopes which surround the town on its eastern and southern perimeters. These slopes provide a most attractive backcloth to the town which nestles beneath and could, if built upon, completely destroy its character.
On our tour we shall see some examples of the pride with which some inhabitants are imbued. This is revealed by the increase in the number of properties which have been painted since this decade started. Colour, as you all know, contributes so much to the appearance of any building, and here we have in Aberaeron the sort of design which is enhanced by colour. Some colours have been most delightfully selected, and quite suddenly there is revealed to the eye of the beholder a completely different facade. We shall also see areas where improvements could be made, areas which are very prominent and which are quite derelict. The treatment of open spaces in this and other towns is so vitally important because it complements the architectural treat- ment and vice-versa.
In 1967 a very important Act came into being, one that concerned the maintenance and preservation of towns which had a long architectural tradition. This Act, the Civic Amenities Act, made it an offence to alter a building listed as being of architectural or historic importance without the prior consent of the Planning Authority. Hitherto, certain works could be undertaken to listed buildings without permission and quite frequently these works, even though fairly modest, could alter the character of buildings if they were treated without sympathy. The Act was introduced primarily because of vandalistic treatment of ancient buildings in our larger towns and cities, where in some cases wholesale demolitions of quite delightful but out-of-date properties were effected. The Act has put an effective control on such happenings and made local authorities and private developers very conscious of the need to employ a sensitive approach to these problems. Following publication of the Act, the responsible authority was required to undertake a survey of towns and indeed villages within its area to determine which parts could be classified as being of special architectural or historic interest, the appearance of which it would be desirable to preserve or enhance. In Cardiganshire surveys have embraced Aberaeron, Aberystwyth, Lampeter, Cardigan, and New Quay and certain areas within these towns have been declared Conservation Areas’. Having designated these areas, it is the duty of the Authority to declare a policy for their preservation and enhancement. In this town, the task has not been too difficult due to the nature of its layout. In other towns, designation has not been too straightforward due to a difference in architectural styles, some of which are not particularly compatible with each other. Suffice it to say, however, that the designations I have referred to will go a long way toward the prevention of undue destruction of character, which I am sure will gladden the hearts of those present this afternoon. I am sorry in a way that we have chosen this time of year to look at the town. I say this because its appearance is visually disturbed by our friend and enemy, the motor car. Towards the end of the year, when the holidaymakers have long since departed, the town is seen at its best. Nevertheless, we have to cater for vehicles of all sizes and descriptions and it could well be that in future years the present impact on central areas or shopping and business streets will be lessened due to a gradual development of the shopping precinct which excludes vehicles and permits shopping to take place in comparative peace and calm. The declaration of Conservation Areas will enable authorities to plan for this approach, which is described as the en- hancement of an area. Whilst it would not be an easy task here with a trunk road dividing the town into two halves, some parts could be restricted to pedestrian traffic, and we are at present engaged in studies here and in the other towns I have mentioned to achieve this end. How delightful it would be to be able to walk through some of these streets without vehicular interruption, streets which would be townscaped, and by this I mean treated in such fashion that there would be paved areas where we now have macadam, seats for the older people to rest, and appropriate planting. How much better would we be able to appreciate the street architecture of a town like this which, when built so many years ago, saw little traffic other than the pedestrian for many many years.
In conclusion, I hope the tour will be of visual interest to you all. Mr. Gwilym Jones will show us the places of historic interest and I will be very pleased to point out those buildings which I consider to be architecturally satisfying, although I am sure in my own mind that we have an audience here this afternoon who are all perfectly capable of appreciating the architectural charm of the town and indeed of suggesting improvements to some areas which I personally feel to be needed. Thank you, Mr. Chairman, for allowing me to address a Society founded so long ago and still so actively concerned in the promotion of the cultural well-being of a most historic, interesting, and beautiful county.
J. E. GRIFFITHS County Planning Officer Aberaeron
Read the original document online: The Architecture of Aberaeron
*An address delivered to the Society at Aberaeron, 18 July 1970.