Encompassing swathes of Wales’ stunning rural heartland and the Brecon Beacons National Park, Powys is a lush land filled with mountains and valleys, winding caves, quirky towns and quaint villages. By far the biggest county in Wales, it is a place of contrasts: on the eastern side, few speak Welsh, whereas on the west, most do.
These contrasts extend to the historic sites in the area, with locations such as the striking Greek-revival-style Powis Castle standing alongside locations such as Dyfi Furnace, which, as the best-preserved industrial building of its type in Wales, offers a fascinating insight into the country’s industrial past. Yet more ancient than any man-made historical site are the stunning National Showcaves, which offer winding walks, cascading waterfalls and vast, cathedral-like cave spaces to gaze at in wonder.
Here’s our pick of 5 of the best historic sites in Powys.
1. Glansevern Hall and Gardens
The Owen family are one of the most ancient and powerful in Wales, and can trace their family to at least 1165. In 1801, Sir Arthur Davies Owen commissioned architect Joseph Bromfield to create an elaborate mansion for him on the banks of the River Sever. He created the stunning Glansevern Hall, a stunning example of the Greek revival style. The gardens were started in 1805, at the same time that the house was being built, and consist of terraces that cover the ground as it sweeps down to the river below.
Today, the house, which is open to visitors, retains many of its original features such as the 18th century Chinese wallpaper and medieval panelling that was brought from nearby churches in Llangurig and Montgomery. Other features today include a rock garden, fantasy grotto, walled kitchen garden, folly and orangery.
2. Talgarth Mill
Talgarth Mill in the heart of the town of Talgarth dates to 18th century and belonged to the Earl of Ashburnham, a major landowner in the area. Initially a weaving mill, it was also used to grind corn, generate electricity and produce feed for farm animals. After his death, the estate was sold off at an auction in 1913. The mill was then bought by a tenant, George J. Lewis. It finally halted production in 1946.
However, by 2010 the mill had fallen into disrepair, but won a Big Lottery Village SOS grant towards its restoration, a process which was filmed by the BBC. A new oak axle was installed for the mill wheel, while a new building which incorporates elements of the old style was added as a café and bakery. The building is run by volunteers from the local community and is open for tours.
Powis Castle was built around 1200 by the Welsh prince Gwenwynwyn ap Owain. The castle changed ownership several times over the following centuries. In 1587 Sir Edward Herbert, the son of the Earl of Pembroke and Ann Parr (sister to Catherine Parr), purchased the castle and estate. Generations of Herberts transformed Powis from a fortress into an elegant manor house. The changes reflected the character of the family with each generation adding to the magnificent collection of paintings, sculptures, furniture and tapestries. The castle was occupied by Parliamentary forces in 1644 during the Civil War. In 1784, Henrietta Herbert married Edward Clive, son of Robert Clive, known as ‘Clive of India’.
The castle has been under the care of the National Trust since 1952 and it was also used as a private home up until 1988. The castle is a major attraction in Wales and displays a large array of paintings, sculpture, furniture and tapestries. The collection of treasures from India within the Clive Museum includes textiles, armour, weapons, bronzes, silver pieces, jade, ivory and a formal tent, all amassed by the Clives in the 18th century.
4. The National Showcaves Centre for Wales
Situated in the heart of the beautiful Brecon Beacons, the National Showcaves Centre for Wales is an award-winning complex of twisting passageways and large caverns that are open to the public. The three different caves – Dan-yr-Ogof, Cathedral Cave and Bone Cave – offer three different experiences. The first, Dan-yr-Ogof, offers a beautiful kilometre-long walk through enormous caverns that were carved out millions of years ago, and a walk behind 40-ft high waterfalls in the ‘Dome of St. Paul’s’. In Bone Cave, visitors can learn why 42 human skeletons were once buried there, and how our ancestors once lived in the caves themselves.
Another highlight is the Dinosaur Park, which is home to over 200 life-sized dinosaur models, making them amongst the largest collection of life-sized dinosaurs in the world.
5. Montgomery Castle
Situated on a steep crag above the scenic Georgian town of Montgomery, Castle Montgomery was first commenced on the orders of Henry III in response to the growing power of Welsh native prince Llwelyn ap Iorwerth (Llwelyn the Great) as a replacement for a nearby wooden fort called Hen Domen. Castle Montgomery boasted a stone inner ward, deep defensive ditches, well, drawbridges and walled town.
It remained in use for centuries, surviving attacks by the aforementioned Llwelyn in 1228 and 1231 and his son Dafydd in 1245. However, the castle was ultimately destroyed during the Civil War when it fell to the Parliamentarians and was slighted in 1649. Today, the crumbling towers and low walls that remain are a popular visitor attraction.
6. Dyfi Furnace
Built in around 1755, Dyfi Furnace was a charcoal-fired blast furnace used for the smelting or iron ore. Today, it is one of the best-preserved industrial buildings of its type in Britain. Harnessing the power of the River Einion, the furnace’s wheel drove a vast set of bellows, which puffed compressed air into the furnace in order to create the scorching temperatures needed to process the ore into pig iron, which was then sent to forges in the Midlands.
However, the furnace only operated for some 50 years before it was abandoned: the blast furnace went out of use in 1810. Excavation work in the 1980s revealed that the furnace was possibly built on the site of a 17th century silver and lead works. It is also thought that Aberystwyth Castle’s Royal Mint was secretly switched to the Furnace site during the Civil War from 1642-48. Today, the furnace has been largely restored and is open to the public.
7. Llanfyllin Workhouse
Llanfyllin Workhouse was completed in 1840. Designed by Thomas Penson of the Penson family, who designed many of Wales’ public buildings and strucures, it was intended to hold 250 people. It was built following the 1834 Poor Law. which ensured the poor were housed, fed and clothed. Four wings branch off from the central Master’s House, which enabled segregation and control between men, women, boys and girls. Over 140 years, the workhouse evolved into an old people’s home before eventually being closed in 1982. Locally, it is known as Y Dolydd, an alternative name given to it to alleviate the shame of being born there.
Today, Llanfyllin Workhouse is almost unique as an example of a classic workhouse design and is the only one which still survives in Wales. Derelict by 2004, a gradual program of repair and renovation means that it now houses a visitor centre which runs workshops, a venue, gallery and bunkhouse, and plays films about workhouse life and poverty in the 19th century. It is free to visit and open daily.
8. Hay Castle
A castle was erected in Hay as part of Norman efforts to invade Wales after 1066. The original ringwork castle was located near to St Mary’s Church and the motte, known as Hay Tump, remains visible today. The castle that can be visited today was built in stone in the early 1200s and is associated with the de Braose family. In the 17th century, a Jacobean mansion house was built alongside the medieval keep and the property was lived in as a private home. Severe fires fro 1939 to 1977 gutted the castle, and despite repair attempts in the 1980s, by the 21st century much of it was derelict.
Since 2011, the castle has been owned by the Hay Castle Trust who have restored the property as a centre of arts, literature and learning. Following a National Lottery Grant of more than £5m, the castle re-opened to the public on 26 May 2022.