Welshness is essential to the Aberystwyth experience: why I love ‘Aber’

<span>The Aberystwyth Cliff Railway takes visitors to the top of Constitution Hill – useful for coastal path walkers.</span><span>Photograph: Stephen McCorkell/Alamy</span>
The Aberystwyth Cliff Railway takes visitors to the top of Constitution Hill – useful for coastal path walkers.Photograph: Stephen McCorkell/Alamy

Along the promenade come the crowds: drag queens spouting one-liners, farmers gossiping in Welsh, a choir out of rehearsal but still singing, and a man who raps to himself and the heavens. There seem to be as many dogs as humans, and twice as many gulls, all eyeing the fish and chips. The funicular railway up the cliff has a queue of Hasidic Jewish families clutching ice-creams, and the pier is packed with good-humoured Brummies enjoying the snooker tables and push-penny machines, waiting for the nightclub, Pier Pressure, to open. By the ruined castle a party of Australian fans of TV crime series Hinterland are gazing around in bemusement: is this really a gritty murder capital? Behind the town rise the mountains of mid-Wales; out front is the sparkling sea. This is Aberystwyth on a sunny afternoon.

Far from large population centres, down a long slow railway line, and with a climate that strips paint faster than a Tom Jones audience used to remove its underwear, Aber, as locals call it, has taken some knocks. But that adversity has bred something unique among British seaside resorts: a place that is proudly cultured, often comedic and always quirky. There’s a university and a national library, but there may also be a muddy tractor with a straw-filled trailer parked outside the pub. After many visits, in all weathers, I’ve grown to love that independent spirit and eccentricity. (Those Hinterland fans might, however, get a little closer to the atmosphere they expect on a wet November Wednesday.)

In the days of sail, when ships from all points east pulled in here, halfway up Cardigan Bay, they would take on passengers and tip overboard a few tons of stone ballast. Some years later, beachcombers started to pick up semi-precious stones that had been carried in the ballast. Although the supply has dwindled, it is still possible to find treasures in the shingle.

Aberystwyth’s other gems are easier to locate. Take Ultracomida, a Spanish deli on Pier Street. Step inside and, Tardis-like, it becomes a fabulous cave of quesos, jamones and aceitunas that leads into a wine bar lined with all the artisanal and family-run vineyard bottles Iberia – and Wales – can produce. London would envy such a place. Nearby, in a similar vein, the Bottle and Barrel craft beer bar and shop hides behind an inconspicuous doorway. There’s also Little Devil’s Cafe for great breakfasts and, on another tack, my favourite secondhand bookshop, Llyfrau Ystwyth.

Aberystwyth has a fine promenade, swinging around two bays with a ruined castle on the headland between

Welshness is essential to the Aberystwyth experience, and opposite the spectacular glass front of the White Horse pub on Terrace Road is the Ceredigion Museum, a fine place to imbibe that essence. This former Edwardian theatre is a cornucopia of local life and history. Opened in 1905, it had state-of-the-art gaslights, on which students would fry kippers during the interval. David Lloyd George once spoke from the stage, which still hosts performances.

When it became a cinema in 1933, it was equally idiosyncratic: the projectionist would slope off to the White Horse after starting the film and only come back to change reels when the audience started stamping their feet. These days the gilded balconies hold a parade of Welsh hats, farm chairs, hand-knitted knickers, portraits of firebrand preachers and a complete, scary, 1950s dental surgery. It’s great fun, and threaded with stories and holiday memories.

Every self-respecting seaside resort needs a promenade, and Aberystwyth has a fine one, swinging around two bays, with a ruined castle on the headland between. Immediately behind this landmark, an impressive gravestone collection tells tales of death by consumption (lots of 19th century visitors came here for the restorative sea air), shipwreck and tautonymic tradition (Owen Owens, Lewis Lewis, etc). In true Aber style, the gravestones now stand around a patch local kids have turned into a football pitch, making it the spookiest sports ground in Britain.

Heading north, the coastal path winds up Constitution Hill – the funicular railway can take the strain here. It’s a lovely 2½-mile walk on the path to the shingle spit at Sarn Gynfelyn, which projects out to sea at low tide. In legend, this was the road to the lost flooded kingdom of Cantre’r Gwaelod. A further three miles brings you to Borth, where at low tide you can see the remnants of a submerged forest that disappeared thousands of years ago and is only now being revealed by storms. The dunes at Ynyslas, a couple of miles north, are a treasure trove for botanists, with several types of rare orchid. At Borth there is a railway station and you can ride back to Aberystwyth, or if you yearn for a wide sandy beach, head onwards to Aberdyfi (or Aberdovey), changing at Machynlleth or Dovey Junction, where ospreys breed.

One of Aberystwyth’s greatest treasures hides in plain sight, up on the hill, behind an imposing stone facade. It’s well worth the walk up to the National Library of Wales. It has permanent exhibitions of early Welsh literature, plus 4,000 framed paintings and a section of the holy grail, or so it once claimed. The elegant reading room is accessible with a reader’s ticket, but it’s worth just taking a peek at it from the doorway.

Related: When is the seaside at its very best? In the darkest days of winter | Alys Fowler

Aberystwyth’s seaside heritage is inextricably linked to the arrival of the railway in the 1860s, just as the age of sail faded and the port declined. In about 1900, one group of entrepreneurs decided to build a 12-mile narrow gauge line up to the Devil’s Bridge waterfalls in the Cambrian mountains, completing the line just as the lead mines closed. With admirable adaptability they switched to a tourist service, and so it has remained.

Bought in 1989 by rail enthusiast Peter Rampton, the Vale of Rheidol Railway is a swish production: the first-class carriage has a ceiling worthy of a doge’s dome, but the real stars are the original steam locos and the fabulous views as you climb through ancient forest above the River Rheidol. At the top is a cafe and a stunning Devil’s Bridge waterfall walk.

Back in town, my favourite destination lies past the southern end of the prom. On Tan-y-Bwlch beach, I sit on the long stone mole and gaze towards the Wicklow mountains in Ireland. With a bit of luck, as the sun dips into the Irish Sea, the Cardigan Bay dolphins will make an appearance.

The trip was provided by Mid Wales Tourism. Nanteos Mansion, on a leafy lane, has doubles from £150