The southern Snowdonia market town of Bala was home to the Romans, medieval princes and famous poets. Here’s a quick glimpse at the town’s long and fascinating history.
Bala is a market town in Southern Snowdonia which, although having a rich and fascinating history stretching back at least to Roman times, is possibly best known these days as a centre for the many watersports which take place on Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake, in English), on the outskirts of town.
Llyn Tegid – the largest natural lake in Wales – was formed, according to our ancient and rather imaginative mythology, when a cruel and wicked prince, Tegid, held a party to celebrate the birth of his grandson. Present at the party were all of Tegid’s wickedest subjects. The best harpist in the land was summoned to play at the party, and during his performance he was distracted by a little bird whispering in his ear, telling him to flee. So the harpist escaped that night while the court slept, and went off to sleep on a nearby mountainside. When he awoke in the morning, the town had disappeared, and Llyn Tegid was there in its place.
While these fairytales of Bala’s and Llyn Tegid’s origins are entertaining, the truth is still very interesting. We know, for example, that there was definitely Roman activity in the area. The remains of at least two Roman forts, the best-known of these being Llanfor and Caergai, have been found and explored, although part of Caergai was damaged accidentally during the building of a manor house and farm buildings, centuries ago. This manor house, incidentally, was the home of a famous Welsh poet, Tudur Penllyn (1420-1490).
One of the earliest remaining structures in Bala is Tomen y Bala, the remains of a Norman “motte and bailey” castle mound which in its heyday would have been surrounded by a moat. It is believed that Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, a great medieval prince of Gwynedd, commandeered Tomen y Bala in the early 13th century. Today, the mound remains, though its buildings (which were wooden) have long gone; you can walk to the top of the mound and enjoy fantastic views of the town and surrounding countryside.
Bala as we know it today was founded by royal charter in about 1310, by Roger de Mortimer of Chirk Castle. The medieval street layout marked out a series of square courts, which is where the markets were held; and even today these, along with the high street, or Stryd Fawr, form the main civic focus of the town, whose street layout has changed very little since the charter was granted.
In the 18th century, Bala was at the centre of the knitting industry and one of the leading centres for production of gloves, stockings, flannel and hosiery. There was a special ‘knitters market’ in the town, and at the peak of this industry almost everyone in Bala knitted to earn their living.
A late 18th and early 19th century Bala ‘celebrity’ was the Reverend Thomas Charles, a renowned theological writer who played an important role in the creation of the British and Foreign Bible Society, which was founded to ensure that people who wanted to own a bible would always be able to do so. This came about after a young girl, Mary Jones, saved her money for six years then walked 25 miles from her home to Rev Charles’ house in Bala, in order to buy a bible. You can now follow Mary’s route on what is today called The Mary Jones Walk – although, unlike poor Mary, you won’t have to do it barefoot!
In the mid-19th century another famous Bala resident, Michael D Jones, disillusioned with the state of religion and society in Wales, put together plans for repatriating Welsh people in Patagonia. Over 150 people left Wales for the Chubut Valley and this tightly-knit South American community is still going strong today, with Welsh and Spanish spoken side-by-side.
More recently – 90 years ago this year, in fact – another well-known Bala inhabitant, Ifan ab Owen Edwards, founded Urdd Gobaith Cymru (the Welsh League of Youth). The Urdd was created in order to help young Welsh speakers keep the language alive, through outdoor activities and eisteddfods. The Urdd’s outdoor education and activities centre – Glan-llyn – is based at the edge of Llyn Tegid, where everyone is welcome to join in the fun.
As we’ve seen, there’s a lot more to Bala than the weekly market and the high street. Bala is a welcoming town with a long and fascinating history. Next time you visit Snowdonia, try to make some time to stop off in Bala; it may be a little town, but it certainly has a big past!