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A Brief History of Porthmadog

Porthmadog Harbour

A Brief History of Porthmadog

Known locally as ‘Port,’ Porthmadog is situated on the edge of The Snowdonia National Park on the estuary of the Afon Glaslyn as it runs into Tremadog Bay. It’s one of the largest towns in Snowdonia with a population of around 4,200. It has a good selection of shops which make it a natural base for holidaymakers who want to explore Snowdonia and the coastline of the Llŷn Peninsula.

Carving of William Maddocks in Porthmadog
Carving of William Maddocks in Porthmadog

It’s one of the newest towns in Wales, only being created in 1810-1811 after William Madocks built a sea wall (The Cob) and reclaimed a 7,000 acres of Traeth Mawr (The Big Beach). The idea of reclaiming the Traeth was not a new one as it was broached as far back as 1625 when Sir John Wynn of Gwydir, in the Conwy Valley, wrote to Sir Hugh Myddelton, a London ‘Alderman’ (a council member) to ask for his assistance, but his idea was declined.

Although the land was originally reclaimed for agricultural use, it meant that the Afon Glaslyn river was diverted and this happened to create a new natural harbour deep enough for the small sailing ships. These ships started to appear in the new port around 1825 with the first appearance of the name ‘Port Madoc’ in 1830 when the Ffestiniog Railway opened. It developed as a famous port later in the nineteenth century when it began exporting the slate produced at the quarries in Ffestiniog and Llanfrothen to roof houses in the expanding towns and cities in England and all over the world including Hamburg, Buenos Aires and Boston. By 1873 more than a thousand ships carrying over 116,000 tons of slate left Porthmadog, some of these were Schooners that were built by local shipbuilders.

Due to the industry in the area, the towns population increased from 885 to over 3,000 in the forty years leading up to 1861. Porthmadog was hit hard by the opening of the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway in 1867 and the cheap slate imports ended the commercial side of the port in the 1910s.

The Railway and It’s Legacy

The tracks and locos left behind after the slate trade also make it one of the most popular tourist areas in Wales being the hub of the Ffestiniog Railway, The Welsh Highland Railway and the smaller Welsh Highland Heritage Railway. It’s also one of the stations on the Cambrian Coast main line which runs along the coast from Pwllheli on the Llŷn Peninsula to Machynlleth, there is goes on to Shrewsbury in the East or Aberystwyth in the South.

Ffestiniog Railway Leaving Tanygrisiau
Ffestiniog Railway Leaving Tanygrisiau


Portmeirion is another local visitor attraction that is famous the world-over due to the fact it was used as ‘The Village’ on ‘The Prisoner’ TV series in the 1960s. The Italianate village was created by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and his death in 1976 and it’s now one of Wales’ largest visitor attractions with 250,000 visitors every year. It has six cafes and restaurants, half a dozen shops, seventy acres of exotic woodlands with easy to follow woodland trails and coastal walks. The name lives on with the increasingly popular ‘Festival No.6’ annual music event held in the village every year. Clough lived at nearby Plas Brondanw and his beautiful landscaped gardens are also open to the public.


These three railways and Portmeirion are some of the finest tourist attractions in Wales and along with others including beautiful gardens, zip-wires, underground trampolines, mountain biking, walking and climbing, make Porthmadog a great base for exploring Snowdonia and the coast. Other places to visit include the historic castles at Harlech and Criccieth.