'Nauseating ales' and 'filthy inns'
The accounts of tours of Wales undertaken by well-to-do Englishmen in the late 18th and early 19th centuries have always been a major source of information for studying early modern Wales. The descriptions of towns and antiquities, regional costumes, customs, industries and the state of communications can prove very helpful and informative. The nature of the inns and hostelries encountered on the travels is yet another aspect full of interesting detail.
A warm Welsh welcome
When J.T. Barber published details of his tour of south Wales in 1803, among the inns at which he and his friend stayed was the Green Dragon at Carmarthen. It was described as 'comfortable', as was the Bridgewater Arms at Pontypridd and the Red Lion at Llanrhystud, which was a 'tolerably decent alehouse'.
However, not all the inns encountered by Barber and his companion provided pleasant memories. On reaching Carew, having got lost, the first inn he tried had no decent accommodation, nor stable for the horses. The second inn had even less, so the travellers returned to the first inn where at least a bed could be had.
The interior was discoloured, the landlord and his wife looked care-worn, and the meal consisted of hard barley bread and salt butter with 'nauseating ale'. The bed consisted of a bag of straw in a recess in a room the travellers shared with two of the landlord's children. The sheets were very damp, and the exhausted travellers found they were also sharing the room with fleas and rats.
Some of the inns on the main routes taken by the English tourist were excellent, particularly the one at Pile built by the Talbots of Margam. Barber's opinion of this inn was that it 'might be mistaken for a nobleman's seat', and that it catered well for all tourists. Henry Skrine's account of his tours in Wales, published in 1798, also mentions the inn at Pile, stating that it 'rather resembles a palace than an inn'.
The Reverend W. Bingley's account of his 1798 tour of north Wales mentions the inn at Caernarfon built by the Earl of Uxbridge, stating that it had good views from its premises and excellent accommodation, and that few establishments in England could rival it.
A guide to the area published in 1827 confirms that this inn, the Uxbridge Arms, was 'large, handsome, and commodious', meeting all the needs of travellers at a reasonable cost. Bingley also refers to the Eagles Inn at Llanrwst as being comfortable and the only place there where post horses were kept. The disadvantage of the inn was that it was too popular, summer tourists making the atmosphere crowded and unpleasant.
It is apparent that the main hostelries on the tourist routes in Wales were, or had become out of necessity, suitable places to stay, notably those on the roads used by travellers heading for Ireland, such as The Hand in Llangollen, described by Bingley as tolerable, but too crowded and with an uncivil landlord. The Reverend G. J. Freeman who toured in the 1820s noticed the considerable changes The Hand had undergone since he had first visited Llangollen a year before Bingley.
Exceptions, such as the inn at Carew, were usually those where the tourist would not be expected to stop; for instance, the town of Tenby would have had the necessary hotels for this area of south-west Wales. However, there were occasions when travellers visiting towns were disappointed in the accommodation that they found.
E. D. Clarke visited Haverfordwest in 1791 and commented that he had 'never felt more disposed to quit any place than Haverford', a feeling exacerbated by the filthy state of the inn.
He compared his room to a sty. The sheets were damp, and as the bed had not been changed since the last visitors it was full of sand from people's feet! Worse was to follow, for in the morning Clarke found that his carriage had four horses attached to it, not the two he had requested. He had no alternative but to take all four — 'Any inconvenience was better than staying with Pharaoh and all his host'.
Clarke was not alone in his experience of Haverfordwest, for Henry Penruddocke Wyndham tells a similar tale in his account of his travels made in the 1770s.