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Dolgelley Market Place 1878 Print

Dolgellau History

Dolgellau is a small market town, population 2,678 (2001 census) situated at the foot of the Cader Idris mountain range in southern Snowdonia. It began as a village in the twelfth century and Cymer Abbey in nearby Llanelltyd was founded in 1198. Owain Glyndŵr held the last Welsh Parliament here in 1404. It evolved into the county town of Meirionnydd in the late 19th century with its narrow streets linking together the various town squares. The present St. Mary’s Church dates back to 1716, but this was built on the remains of an earlier building from the twelfth century. There are even earlier remains by Ffynnon Mair (Mary’s Spring) which was thought to have had healing properties centuries ago. Roman coins were found there around two-hundred years ago.

The town’s development was due to its central part in the county’s woollen industry which reached its peak around 1800, but declined over the following century due to the birth of mechanical mills. During production, the wool was transported down the River Wnion, then the Mawddach before ending up in the port of Barmouth (about 10 miles away). From here it was shipped all around the world. This industry was celebrated every year in the local “Wool Race”.

Printing was an important industry in the the nineteenth century with the earliest press starting in 1798. The town and local area was also the main focal point for the development of the Quakers who were established here after a visit by George Fox in 1657. In 1686 Rowland Ellis (1650-1731), a prominent local Quaker, emigrated to Pennsylvania and founded “Bryn Mawr” the famous women’s college at the University in Pennsylvania (named after his home which is situated close to the town). One of the earliest Grammar Schools in Wales was also built in the town in 1665 endowed by Dr. John Ellis (who was a Rector in the town). The building was demolished in 1969.

Most people enter the town via the seven-arched bridge “Y Bont Fawr” (The Big Bridge) which spans the river Wnion. This was originally built in 1638 although it has had various modifications over the years; to accommodate the railway (which passed through the town from 1868 to 1964), the By-Pass (which opened in 1981) and restoration due to the flood damage of 1903. The Welsh gold rush of the 19th Century was centred on the area and T.H. Roberts Ironmongers was an important source of panning equipment. In fact, the gold and copper mines in the hills around the town employed over 500 miners towards the end of the Century.

Dolgellau Lithograph c.1850

About Dolgellau

Dolgellau is one of the most beautiful places in Snowdonia. It may not be one of the top towns people think of when they book their ‘staycation’ in North Wales, some just think all Snowdonia has to offer is Snowdon. Sometimes Southern Snowdonia gets a bit left out, but it’s just as stunning as the North. It’s not quite the ‘Riviera’ of Snowdonia, but obviously we are nearer the Equator!

It’s a fabulous base to explore Snowdonia. If you want mountain biking you have everything including the flat Mawddach Trail which follows the old railway bed to the lovely seaside town of Barmouth. If hurtling down hills on two wheels is your thing, then Dolgellau is the nearest town to Coed y Brenin Mountain Bike Centre and further north you have the rugged slate tracks of Antur Stiniog in Blaenau Ffestiniog.


The town is steeped in history and was formerly the county town of Merionethshire (now Gwynedd). Its main bridge over the Afon Wnion dates back to 1638 and the remains of historic Cymer Abbey, founded in 1198, can be seen in the nearby village of Llanelltyd. This is again within walking distance of the town (being around a mile and a half away) and the route to the Abbey also passes through the old nine-hole Golf Course.

Spend time walking around Dolgellau’s narrow streets and squares and you will soon spot signs of its past. Fancy houses to the south, winch-hoods high on the town buildings and the ruins of the old ‘Pandy’ fulling mills scattered along the Afon Aran are all remnants of its successful woollen industry.

The stone circle on the Marian (the local recreation field) is not ancient, but left over after the 1949 Eisteddfod.

The Quakers

The influential Quaker George Fox visited in 1657 which converted many locals to Quakerism with a handful of them among those who emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1686, under the leadership of Rowland Ellis who lived at Bryn Mawr, a farm in the hills to the south of the town. His house gave its name to a town in Pennsylvania which is home to a prestigious women’s arts college.

Stunning Walks On Your Doorstep

Many of the prettiest walks are only a few minutes drive away including Torrent Walk & Precipice Walk, both popular since Victorian and Edwardian Times. There are others including New Precipice Walk with stunning views of the Mawddach Estuary 800 feet below. This has one of the best views in the area, even better than the mountain views in my opinion.

Another very popular walk and bike trail starts by the town car park and runs nine miles along the old railway track bed to Barmouth on the coast. This is The Mawddach Trail (or Llwybr Mawddach in Welsh). This walk was featured on Julia Bradbury’s Railway Walks series on the BBC first broadcast in 2008. The walk is also popular with bird watchers as are the two Osprey nest sites about an hours drive away (one to the north at Glaslyn near Porthmadog and another one to the south by the River Dyfi, just past Machynlleth).

Why bother taking the train up Snowdon when you can spend a day walking up a mountain, or at least in the foothills of one. One of the finest mountains in Wales is Cader Idris (Cadair Idris), it may be a few hundred feet shorter, but it has stunning views with a variety of paths to the summit through ancient oak woodlands, glacial valleys to wide open vistas. As it’s not Snowdon, you can get a little peace and quiet with fewer walkers. A couple of hundred hardy people even race to the top from Dolgellau town centre and back every May.

Porthmadog and Beyond

Porthmadog maybe the hub of three Narrow Gauge Railways; The Ffestiniog, The Welsh Highland and the ‘fun size’ Welsh Highland Heritage, but base yourself just a forty minute drive away in Dolgellau and you have easier access to others including the popular Talyllyn and Bala Lake Railways, as well as lesser-known ones including the Corris Railway and the smaller Fairborne Railway which runs along the beach.

Watersports are catered for with a twenty-five minute drive away in Bala with the largest natural lake in Wales, some 1.75 square miles of it. It’s popular for sailing, canoeing and windsurfing as well as some lovely walks and cycle paths. If you like your seaside towns, then one of the best, Barmouth is only ten miles away, you also have Aberdovey/Aberdyfi and Tywyn.

All-in-all, there’s just about something for everyone.