Porthmadog came into existence after William Madocks built a sea wall, the Cob, in 1810 to reclaim a large proportion of Traeth Mawr from the sea for agricultural use. The diversion of the Afon Glaslyn caused it to scour out a new natural harbour which had a deep enough draught for small ocean-going sailing ships, and the first public wharves were built in 1825. Individual quarry companies followed, building a series of wharves along the shore almost as far as Borth-y-Gest, and slate was carted from Ffestiniog down to the quays along the Afon Dwyryd, then boated to Porthmadog for transfer to seagoing vessels.
In the second half of the 19th century Porthmadog was a flourishing port, its population expanding from 885 in 1821 to over 3,000 by 1861. The rapidly expanding cities of England needed high quality roofing slate, which was transported to the new port by tramway from the quarries in Ffestiniog and Llanfrothen. The Ffestiniog Railway opened in 1836, followed by the Croesor Tramway in 1864 and the Gorseddau Tramway in 1856, and by 1873 over 116,000 tons (117,800 t) were exported through Porthmadog in more than a thousand ships.
A number of shipbuilders were active at this time, and were particularly well known for the three-masted schooners known as Western Ocean Yachts, the last of which was built in 1913.
By 1841 the trackway across the reclaimed land had been straightened out and was to be developed as Stryd Fawr, the main commercial street of the town. Along this street were a range of shops and public houses and a post office, with the open green retained. A mineral railway to Tremadog ran along what was to become Heol Madog. To the north was an industrial area where foundries, timber saw mills, slate works, a flour mill, soda-pop plant and gasworks were constructed.
Porthmadog's role as a commercial port, already reduced by the opening of the Aberystwyth and Welsh Coast Railway in 1867, was effectively ended by the First World War, when the lucrative German market for slate disappeared. The 19th century wharves still survive, but the slate warehouses have been replaced by holiday apartments, and the harbour is used by leisure yachts.
The earliest documented references to the name "Port Madoc" are in the 1830s, coinciding with the opening of the Ffestiniog Railway and the subsequent growth of the town. The first Ordnance Survey map to use the name was published in 1838. The name derives from the founder William Madocks, though there is a belief that it is named after the folklore character Madog ab Owain Gwynedd who also gives his name to "Ynys Fadog" (English: "Madog island"). The town was officially called "Portmadoc" until 1974, when it was renamed with the Welsh spelling.
Ynyscynhaiarn was a civil parish in the cantref of Eifionydd. In 1858 a local board of health was established under the provisions of the Public Health Act 1848, and from 1889 this formed a second tier of local government in Caernarfonshire. Under the Local Government Act 1894 the local board became an urban district, which by 1902 had changed its name to Portmadoc. In 1934 part of the area was transferred to Dolbenmaen, and a smaller area was taken in from Treflys, which had been abolished. Porthmadog Urban District was abolished in 1974, and the town became part of Dwyfor District in the new county of Gwynedd, though it retained limited powers as a community. Dwyfor itself was abolished when Gwynedd became a unitary authority in 1996.
The town now forms three electoral divisions of Cyngor Gwynedd, each electing one councillor. In 2012 Jason Humphreys, representing Llais Gwynedd, was elected in Porthmadog East. Selwyn Griffiths of Plaid Cymru, retained his seat in Porthmadog West, unelected. Tremadog is included in the Porthmadog-Tremadog division, which also includes Beddgelert and part of Dolbenmaen. In 2012 Alwyn Gruffydd, for Llais Gwynedd, retained the seat.
Porthmadog Town Council has 16 elected members. In the 2008 elections 12 councillors were elected unopposed: seven Independents, four for Plaid Cymru and one representing Llais Gwynedd. There were four unfilled seats. The town is divided into six wards: Gest, Morfa Bychan, Porthmadog East, Porthmadog West, Tremadog and Ynys Galch.
Since 1950 Porthmadog has been part of Caernarfon parliamentary constituency, and has been represented by Hywel Williams of Plaid Cymru since 2001. In the National Assembly for Wales it has since 2007 formed part of Dwyfor-Meirionnydd constituency, represented by Dafydd Elis-Thomas, the Presiding Officer of the assembly, and also from Plaid Cymru. The constituency forms part of the electoral region of Mid and West Wales.
Porthmadog is located in Eifionydd on the estuary of the Afon Glaslyn where it runs into Tremadog Bay. The estuary, filled with sediment which was deposited by rivers emptying from the melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age, is a haven for migrating birds. Oystercatchers, redshanks and curlews are common and, in summer, there are flocks of sandwich terns. To the west looms Moel-y-Gest, which rises 863 feet (263 m) above the town. and is a Marilyn.
The town has a temperate maritime climate which is influenced by the Gulf Stream.
Borth-y-Gest, 1 mile (1.6 km) south of Porthmadog, is a village built in a shallow bowl which sweeps down to a sheltered bay, with hidden sandy coves and cliffs. Ships were built here before Porthmadog was established and houses, still known as "pilot houses", were built at the mouth of the harbour so that pilots could keep a watch for ships needing them. The village is formed by rows of Victorian houses and has retained much of its atmosphere and charm. Stryd Mersey leads up from the bay and is flanked by terraced cottages.
Before Porthmadog was developed, this was the starting point of a major crossing over the wide and dangerous Glaslyn estuary, and locals earned money by guiding travellers across the treacherous sands of Traeth Mawr to Harlech.
Parc y Borth is a local nature reserve set in deciduous woodland dominated by ancient Welsh oaks. Green woodpeckers, tawny owls and pied flycatchers can be seen among the branches.
On the shore is another nature reserve, Pen y Banc, which is a mixture of coastal rocks, secluded sandy coves and mixed woodland. Established in 1996, it is a good spot to see wading birds, and the beaches attract large numbers of visitors. The mild climate results in a wide variety of vegetation, from gorse and heather through to blackthorn, crab apple, and birch.
Morfa Bychan is 2.1 miles (3.4 km) south west of Porthmadog. It has a popular wide sandy beach, Black Rock Sands (Welsh: Traeth Morfa Bychan), with Graig Ddu, a rocky headland, at its western end. At low tide, rock pools and caverns are exposed. The beach is popular with windsurfers, and is unusual in allowing vehicles to be driven onto the sands.
Sand dunes lie behind the beach, forming part of Morfa Bychan and Greenacres Nature Reserve. Standing in a field is Cist Cerrig, a dolmen, near which are rocks containing cup marks.
In 1996 there were large protests, backed by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, against the building of 800 houses at Morfa Bychan. These followed a High Court decision that planning permission granted in 1964 remained valid. The owners of the site later entered a legal agreement with Cyngor Gwynedd which allowed a caravan site and nature reserve to be constructed on part of the site and ensured that the 1964 permission could no longer be implemented. The council also settled a compensation claim by the developers for the way the matter had been handled.
Tremadog, an exceptional example of a planned settlement, is 0.9 miles (1.4 km) north of Porthmadog. The village was built on land reclaimed from Traeth Mawr by William Madocks. In 1805 the first cottages were built in what Madocks called Pentre Gwaelod (English: Bottom village), which was designed to create the impression of a borough, with the Town Hall and Dancing Room at its centre. Industry was also included in the plan, with the Manufactory, the Loomery, a fulling mill and a corn mill, all worked by water power.
To the north of the village is Tan-yr-Allt, the property bought by Madocks in 1798 and transformed by him into the first Regency house in Gwynedd. The garden, on a steeply sloping site, consists mainly of lawns planted with trees and shrubs and contains a memorial to Percy Bysshe Shelley.
At the 2001 census, Porthmadog had a population of 4,187, of which 18.2 percent were below the age of 16, and 23.6 percent were over 65 years of age. 69.5 percent of households were owner occupied and 24.6 percent were in rented accommodation. Holiday homes accounted for 12.5 percent of dwellings.
At the 2001 census 44.3 percent of the population were in employment, with 11.5 percent self-employed. 5.3 percent were unemployed, and 20.4 percent were retired. Of those employed, 33.0 percent worked in the distribution, hotel and catering trades, and 23.5 percent in public administration, education and health.
Porthmadog expanded rapidly as a slate exporting port. Welsh slate was in high demand as a construction material in the English industrial cities, and was transported to the new port by horse-drawn tramways. The Ffestiniog Railway, opened in 1836 as a gravity railway, horses hauled the empty slate wagons back up to the quarries, was converted to steam operation in 1863, and trains ran straight onto the wharves. By 1873 116,000 tons (117,800 t) of slate were being shipped out of Porthmadog, and other trade was being developed. The Carnarvonshire and Merionethshire Steamship Company had been formed in 1864 and purchased the Rebecca to carry stores from Liverpool to supply the growing town. The First World War marked the end of Porthmadog's export trade. No new ships were built, several were sunk by enemy action, and most of the surviving fleet was sold. The arrival of the LNWR, in 1879, and the GWR, in 1883, at Blaenau Ffestiniog was responsible for the steady decline in the slate traffic carried by the Festiniog Railway and by Portmadoc shipping. Some slate had been carried via the Festiniog Railway, the Croesor & Portmadoc Railway and the Cambrian Railways after the latter's line had been opened between Barmouth and Pwllheli in 1867; this traffic was diverted to the exchange yard established between the Festiniog Railway and the Cambrian Railways at Minffordd in 1872. By 1925 less than five percent of Ffestiniog's slate output went out by sea. The final load of slate, delivered by rail, left by sea from Porthmadog in 1946 and two months later the railway ceased commercial operations.
Before the construction of the Cob in 1812, ships had been built at a number of locations around Traeth Mawr. As the town developed, a number of the shipbuilders from the Meirionnydd side moved to the new port, building brigs, schooners, barquentines and brigantines. After the arrival of the railway there was a reduction in trade, but a new type of ship, the Western Ocean Yacht, was developed for the salt cod industry in Newfoundland and Labrador. Shipbuilding came to an end in 1913, the last vessel to be built being the Gestiana, which was lost on its maiden voyage.
In the 19th century Porthmadog had at least three iron foundries. The Glaslyn Foundry was opened in 1848, and the Union Iron Works in 1869. The Britannia Foundry, opposite Porthmadog Harbour Railway Station, was established in 1851 and grew rapidly as the town's prosperity increased. The business produced slate working machinery and railway equipment, supplying goods to all but one of the slate quarries operating in England and Wales. A lucrative sideline was the production of large numbers of drains and manhole covers for Caernarfonshire's roads.
Porthmadog is a predominantly Welsh speaking community, 74.9 percent of the population speaking the language. The highest percentage of Welsh speakers is in the 10-14 age range, standing at 96.3 percent. Almost all community activities are held in the Welsh Language. Porthmadog hosted the National Eisteddfod in 1987.
Y Ganolfan on Stryd Fawr, built in 1975, is a venue for concerts, exhibitions and other community events, and has hosted televised wrestling matches.
Porthmadog Maritime Museum on Oakley Wharf is housed in an old slate shed and has displays about the schooners built in the town and the men who sailed in them.
The Cob is a substantial embankment built across the Glaslyn estuary in 1811 by William Madocks to reclaim land at Traeth Mawr for agriculture. The opening was marked by a four-day feast and Eisteddfod celebrating the roadway connecting Caernarfonshire to Meirionnydd and which figured in Madocks's plans for a road from London to his proposed port at Porthdinllaen. Three weeks later, however, the embankment was breached by high tides and Madocks's supporters were forced to drum up money and men from all around Caernarfonshire to repair the breach and strengthen the whole embankment. By 1814 it was open again, but Madocks's finances were in ruins. By 1836 the Ffestiniog Railway had opened its line across the embankment and it was to become the main route for Ffestiniog slate to reach the new port at Porthmadog. In 1927 the Cob was breached again, and took several months to repair. In 2012, 260 metres of the embankment were widened on the seaward side of the Porthmadog end to allow a second platform to be constructed at the Ffestiniog & Welsh Highland Railway's Harbour Station.
The former tollhouse at the north western end of the Cob has slate-clad walls and is one of the few buildings which preserves the interlocking slate ridge-tiles devised by Moses Kellow, manager of Croesor Quarry. The toll was abolished in 2003 when the Welsh Assembly Government bought the Cob.
Pen Cei, to the west of the harbour was the centre of the harbour's commercial activities. Boats were built and repaired and there were slate wharves for each quarry company, with tracks connecting to the railway. Bron Guallt, built in 1895, was the Oakeley Quarry shipping agent's house. Grisiau Mawr (English: Big Steps) connected the quay to Garth and the houses built to house the ship owners and sea captains, and it was here that the School of Navigation was built.
Melin Yr Wyddfa (English: Snowdon Mill) on Heol Y Wyddfa is a former flour mill built in 1862, where a scheme of renovation and conversion to luxury flats was started, but has not yet reached completion.
Welsh Highland Heritage Railway not to be confused with Welsh Highland Railway, is a ¾ mile heritage railway, with award winning miniature railway and heritage centre. There is a shop with a wide range of bechman and bigjigs. There is also a cafe.
Kerfoots, located in a Victorian building on Stryd Fawr, is a small department store established in 1874 and contains a unique spiral staircase, chandeliers and slender cast iron columns which support the upper floors. The Millennium Dome, constructed by local craftsmen in 1999 to celebrate the store's 125th anniversary, is made of stained glass and depicts scenes from Porthmadog in 1874.
The Royal Sportsman Hotel (Welsh: Gwesty'r Heliwr) on Stryd Fawr was built in 1862 to be a staging post on the turnpike road to Porthdinllaen. The arrival of the railway five years later brought increasing numbers of tourists, and the hotel soon became famous for its liveried carriage and horses, which transported guests to local sightseeing spots. The building was constructed using Ffestiniog slate, and the original stone and slate fireplaces are still in position.
The War Memorial stands on top of Ynys Galch, one of the former islands reclaimed from Traeth Mawr. In the form of a Celtic cross and standing 16 feet (4.9 m) high, it was fashioned from Trefor granite and unveiled "in memory of ninety-seven fallen war heroes of Madoc Vale" in 1922.
On Moel-y-Gest is an iron age stone walled hillfort.
Primary education is provided at three local schools. Ysgol Eifion Wyn on Stryd Fawr, named after the bardic name of local poet Eliseus Williams, has 204 pupils. It is a bilingual school which moved into a new building in 2003. There are units for children with special educational needs and for those with language difficulties. At the last school inspection by Estyn in 2004 nine percent of pupils were entitled to free school meals and 72 percent came from homes where Welsh was the main spoken language.
Ysgol Borth-y-Gest on Stryd Mersey in Borth-y-Gest is the smallest of the local schools with 70 pupils. In 2009 Cyngor Gwynedd adopted a report, Excellent Primary Education For Children In Gwynedd, which sets out the future for primary schools in the county. The future of the school, built in 1880, had previously been put in doubt. In 2006, at the last inspection by Estyn, three percent of pupils were entitled to free school meals and 20 percent came from homes where Welsh was the main spoken language.
Ysgol y Gorlan in Tremadog has 122 pupils. When Estyn last inspected the school in 2008, ten percent of pupils were entitled to free school meals and around 50 percent came from homes where Welsh was the main spoken language.
Ysgol Eifionydd on Stryd Fawr is a bilingual comprehensive school for ages 11 to 16, which was established circa 1900. It has 484 pupils. In 2006, at the time of the last Estyn inspection, eight percent of pupils were entitled to free school meals and Welsh was the main spoken language in the home for about 50 percent. One percent of pupils were from ethnic minority backgrounds.
Porthmadog lies on the A487, the Fishguard to Bangor trunk road. The A498 runs north from Porthmadog to Beddgelert, giving access to Snowdonia. The A497 runs west through the southern Llŷn Peninsula to Criccieth and Pwllheli. In 2008 the Welsh Assembly Government published plans for the A487 Porthmadog, Minffordd and Tremadog Bypass, which would reduce the amount of through traffic in the town of Porthmadog. The completed bypass was officially opened on 17 October 2011.
The town is served by three railway stations. Porthmadog Railway Station is on the Cambrian Coast Line between Pwllheli and Machynlleth. Trains, operated by Arriva Trains Wales, run through to Shrewsbury, Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
Porthmadog Harbour Railway Station at the southern end of the Stryd Fawr has been the terminus of the Ffestiniog Railway from Blaenau Ffestiniog since passenger services started in 1865. From 2011 it is also the southern terminus of the rebuilt Welsh Highland Railway from Caernarfon.
The Welsh Highland Heritage Railway has its main station and visitor centre near the northern end of Stryd Fawr on the former Cambrian Railways sidings opposite to the main line station. From here trains run to Pen-y-Mount.
Buses are operated by Arriva Buses Wales, Berwyn Coaches, Caelloi Motors, Express Motors and Williams Porthmadog serving Aberystwyth, Bangor, Beddgelert, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Caernarfon, Criccieth, Dolgellau, Machynlleth, Morfa Bychan, Penrhyndeudraeth, Pen-y-Pass, Portmeirion, Pwllheli, Rhyd and Tremadog. National Express Coaches has a service from Pwllheli to Birmingham and London.
Local artist and painter Rob Piercy, was named Welsh Artist of the Year in 2002. Porthmadog-born painter Elfyn Lewis won the National Eisteddfod of Wales Gold Medal for fine art in 2009 and the Welsh Artist of the Year prize in 2010.
Three members of hip-hop band Genod Droog were from Porthmadog; Welsh singer Duffy shot her first video Rockferry in the town; Supergrass have filmed a video at Morfa Bychan. Part of the movie Macbeth (1971) was filmed at Black Rock Sands.
Morfa Bychan, is renowned as the home of David Owen, an 18th-century blind harpist and composer. He died at the age of 29 in 1741, and tradition has it that as he lay on his death bed he called for his harp and composed the air Dafydd y Garreg Wen. Words were added nearly 100 years later by the poet John Ceiriog Hughes. The Welsh-language poet William Ambrose (bardic name Emrys, 1813–1873) was minister of the Independent chapel in the town until his death.
The ashes of the poet R. S. Thomas (1913–2000) are buried in the churchyard of St John's Church on Ffordd Penamser.
Thomas Edward Lawrence, better known as Lawrence of Arabia, was born at what is now Lawrence House in Tremadog in 1888. He became an object of fascination throughout the world, renowned for his role in the Arab Revolt of 1916 and for his vivid writings about his experiences.
In order to finance the construction and repairs to the Cob, William Madocks let out his own house in Tremadog. His first tenant was the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who antagonised locals by criticising their production of sheep for consumption, and by running up debts with local merchants. Shelley made a hasty departure after an alleged attempt on his life by a nocturnal intruder, without paying his rent or contributing to the fund established to support Madocks. During his tenancy, Shelley had written Queen Mab.
Local Aled Jones Williams, writing mainly in Welsh, has produced plays dealing with the cultural divide between the English and Welsh, incest and domestic violence. In 2008 he turned his attention to religious fundamentalists with Iesu!, the story of a female Jesus who comes back to the modern world and hates what she sees. The play received its premiere at the National Eisteddfod, staged by Theatr Genedlaethol Cymru.
The Spooner family contributed a major amount towards the development of railways in the area over a period of more than 70 years in the 19th century.
WWE Wrestler Mason Ryan real name Barri Griffiths is from the area.
Porthmadog Football Club was founded in 1884, and is one of the oldest in Wales. Matches are played at Y Traeth. The club won the North Wales League in 1902/03 and reached the final of the Welsh Amateur Cup in 1905/06. They again won the league championship in 1937/38, and were Welsh Amateur Cup winners in 1955/56 and 1956/57. They were league champions for three successive seasons between 1966 and 1969, and in the 1970s were twice champions. In 1989/90 they topped the Welsh Alliance League and secured a place in the newly formed Cymru Alliance. The club became an inaugural member of the League of Wales in 1992, in the first season finishing ninth. The following year Porthmadog striker Dave Taylor was the highest scoring player in Europe. They nearly folded in 1995/96 due to serious financial trouble, and lost their place in the League of Wales in 1998. The club played the following year in the Cymru Alliance, winning the League Cup, but it wasn't until 2002/03, with a 19-point lead over their nearest rivals, that they won promotion again to the Welsh Premier League. The club was heavily fined and had points deducted by the Football Association of Wales in 2007 after a referee was racially abused by a supporter but, following an appeal to an independent tribunal, the fine was substantially reduced and the points reinstated. In the 2008/09 season Porthmadog narrowly avoided relegation, finishing sixteenth.
Clwb Rygbi Porthmadog, based at Clwb Chwaraeon Madog, play rugby union, competing in WRU Division 3 North organised by the Welsh Rugby Union. Having gained promotion from the Gwynedd league in the 2011-2012 season.
Porthmadog Golf Club at Morfa Bychan opened in 1906 on land rented from a local farmer. The original tenancy agreement stipulated that golfers must not take any game, hares, rabbits or wildfowl and must pay compensation for any sheep or cattle killed or injured by them. The landlord agreed not to turn on to the land any bull or savage cattle. Created by James Braid, five times winner of the British Open, the course is a mixture of heath and links. The first nine holes head inland over heathland. The final nine, heading back towards the sea, are pure links. The fourteenth hole, known as The Himalayas, is a 378 yards (346 m) par 4 with a huge natural bunker hiding the green from the tee.
Porthmadog Sailing Club was formed in 1958, initially operating from a marquee in a field. In 1964 the club amalgamated with Trawsfynydd Sailing Club and a clubhouse was built. Weekend dinghy racing is organised and facilities are also provided for cruisers.
Madoc Yacht Club, founded in 1970, is based in the former harbourmaster's office and has an extensive cruising and racing programme, including two races to Ireland. In 2001 a Celtic longboat was purchased and a sea rowing section formed.
Glaslyn Leisure Centre on Stryd y Llan includes a 25m swimming pool and sports hall. Badminton, squash and tennis courts are provided, and there is also a sauna, five-a-side football pitch and dance studio.
Sea angling is popular in the coastal villages. At Borth-y-Gest, flounders, bass, mullet, whiting and mackerel can all be caught. Morfa Bychan produces bass, flounders, eels, whiting and the occasional turbot. Bass, flounders and huge numbers of whiting are found at Black Rock Sands, along with thornback ray, mackerel and garfish. Bass, flatfish, eels and some very large mullet can be caught in Porthmadog Harbour, right in the heart of the town, though care must be taken to avoid taking the poisonous lesser weever.
Glaslyn Angling Association controls the fishing rights on virtually the whole length of the Afon Glaslyn up to Beddgelert. The river mainly produces sea trout, though salmon and brown trout can also be caught. Although the river has suffered in the past from acid rain and forestation, there has been a vast improvement in water quality in recent years. Glan Morfa Mawr Trout Fishery at Morfa Bychan is well stocked with rainbow trout
A cycle route now crosses the Cob, forming part of Lôn Las Cymru, the Welsh national cycle route. The route, from Holyhead in the north to either Cardiff or Chepstow in the south, is 250 miles (400 km) long and crosses three distinct mountain ranges.
Tremadog has good quality rock climbing which attracts climbers from all over the United Kingdom, the dolerite cliffs being often dry when it is too wet to climb in the mountains of Snowdonia. Craig Bwlch y Moch is considered one of the best crags in Wales.
A fell race, on the slopes of Moel y Gest, known as "Râs Moel y Gest", is held each year, starting in the town.
Bathing is popular at Black Rock Sands, which has an extensive sandy beach. The water quality prediction is "excellent". Borth-y-Gest has a sand and pebble beach where bathing is safe close inshore, but there are fast currents further out.