Picture the scene – pink roses rambling around the cottage door, local residents on the way to church, timber framed shops lining once-medieval streets. Sounds like the picture postcard perfect English town scene doesn’t it? Only this town is in Wales. Welcome to Presteigne.
Presteigne is in modern-day Powys, but literally straddles the England – Wales border. The town sits on the South bank of the River Lugg, and as you cross the 17th C Lugg Bridge out of town you can stand with one foot in Wales and one in England.
In a roundabout way Presteigne owes its status as county town to a terrible murder. In the 1530s a judge was murdered by a group of bandits while on his way to preside at the Great Sessions in Rhayader. It was decided it was far too dangerous to continue holding the court in Rhayader, so the proceedings were transferred to Presteigne. A lot of the beautiful buildings you can see in the town today owe their existence to the wealth and status generated by business associated with the courts.
The main tourist attraction, and the jewel in the crown that is Presteigne, is the Judges Lodging. Formerly the Shire Hall where both the Assizes and Quarter Sessions were held, it is now an award-winning museum. It has been restored to look like how it would have been in the 1870s.
I visited the Judges Lodging first thing on a Sunday morning, and was lucky (if not a little spooked) to have the place to myself. The first thing that hits you when you open the door into the main part of the building is the smell – the building still has its original gas lighting system. Gas was first used here in 1860, for the servant’s quarters in the basement. They were basically used as guinea pigs to try the potentially risky new technology.
The tour is by audio guide (cue 90s retro cassette players – I kid you not) and takes you through all levels of the house. Usually, I’m not a fan of audio guides – I just find them a bit cumbersome and the level of information supplied not that helpful. However, I really enjoyed the audio interpretation at the Judges Lodging. It was full of well-researched and interesting detail – including how one time the Judge turned up for the Quarter Sessions but there was no one to try as no serious crimes had been committed in the county! You finish the tour by leaving the cells and taking the route the prisoners would have taken up into the dock in the actual court room – it really is quite effective.
In fact, I loved the museum so much it made it into my Welsh History Travel Guide.
St Andrews Church
St Andrew’s Church in Presteigne is a large 13th-century building incorporating remains of earlier Saxon and Norman building material. St Andrew’s falls under the remit of the Church of England, even though the church itself is in Wales, reflecting the hybrid nature of this part of the world.
The church contains a true treasure – a 16th Century Flemish tapestry, one of only two pre-reformation tapestries to be found in a church in Britain. The tapestry portays Jesus’ entrance into Jerusalem. (Apologies for the terrible picture – the tapestry itself is protected behind a plastic frame, which reflects terribly when you try to take a picture of it. This picture was taken from a postcard. I really recommend you google the tapestry to get a good look at what is an absolute beauty!)
Also keep an eye out for for the memorial to memorial to Joseph Baker, after whom Mount Baker in Washington, USA is named.
Outside in the graveyard is the headstone of 17-year-old Mary Morgan, who was sentenced to death in 1805 for killing her newborn baby. She was the last women in Wales to be publically executed, and her story is a tragic one. Mary worked as an undercook at Maesllwch Castle, the seat of Walter Wilkins, the Member of Parliament for the county of Radnorshire. One day she went to bed ill, and when the housekeeper and cook visited her later in the day they made a gruesome discovery – the mutilated body of a newborn baby half-concealed in the mattress.
For some time after the execution, it was claimed the father of the murdered child was Walter Wilkins Jr., the son of her employer and the “young squire” of Maesllwch. If this rumour was true, it was a particularly cruel twist of fate that Wilkins was a member of the jury which found Morgan guilty.
Its such a sad story especially when you consider that, while frowned upon, illegitimate children were not that uncommon (especially in Radnorshire, where the level of children born outside of marriage was commented upon). Also, the average sentence for ‘concealing a birth’ around this time was a mere two years – no one had been hung for the same crime in Wales since 1739! The law had actually been changed only two years earlier to accommodate juries’ almost routine refusal to convict such women of murder.
Another interesting gravestone is that belonging to two governors of the county jail in the town, James Evans and his son-in-law William Paytoe. William was a former prize-fighter who went by the name ‘Young Broome’, and once fought Tom King aka The Fighting Sailor, the future champion of all England. I find it quite ironic the future governor of Presteigne Jail participated in an illegal and covert activity such as prize fighting!
Other Notable Buildings
Due to the historic nature of the town, there is a plethora of beautiful buildings to admire – many with connections to notable names from history. If you have the time, I highly recommend the town trail to make sure you don’t miss anything. Here’s a selection of the buildings that caught my eye;
The Radnorshire Arms
Unfortunately, this drinking establishment is currently closed. It dates from the 16th Century, despite the 1616 above the door, and is said to have a number of secret passages and priest holes.
The house originally belonged to Sir Christopher Hatton, one of Elizabeth I’s courtiers. He rose to become Lord Chancellor of England. He became a favourite of Elizabeth on account of his good looks and intelligence – the two were so close Mary, Queen of Scots accused them of being lovers. Sir Christopher also gave his name to Hatton Garden, London’s jewellery quarter.
The house eventually passed on to the Bradshaw family. They included John Bradshaw, who was Lord President of the High Court of Justice that presided over the trial and execution of Charles I. His was the first signature on the death warrant. The house became an inn in 1792.
The Duke’s Arms
Another pub, named after the Duke of Chandos, and a candidate for Radnorshire’s oldest inn. It was home to the last (and longest routed) mail coach in the UK. Now in need of a bit of a facelift in my opinion.
The Radnor Buildings
You cannot help but stop and gawp at the spectacular Radnor Building on the main town square, with its Art and Craft style applied timbers with ornate plasterwork and mosaic. Simply stunning.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I have completely and utterly fallen for picture perfect Presteigne. As well as more buildings of historical interest than you can shake a stick at, it has some lovely places to eat for a small town. Definitely one for a day trip!