The Old Bell Museum is a former 16th-century inn, converted into a museum and run by volunteers from the Montgomery Civic Society of Powys. The half-timbered building contains eleven rooms of various local exhibits, including information on the architecture of the building itself. The building was originally opened as the Old Bell Hotel, and was a temperance hotel fashioned for teetotal visitors visiting Montgomery.
Starting as a trickle from a spring on the slopes of Plynlimon the River Severn gains strength as it winds eastwards through Mid Wales towards England. Close to the border, in an area called the Marches, its flow is supplemented by two important tributaries, the River Camlad and the River Rhiew. The lowest point which can regularly be forded is a little way upstream from the mouth of the Camlad and is known as Rhydwhiman. This historic ford was at one time the traditional meeting place between the Welsh and English and has always been regarded as of great strategic importance. As far back as Neolithic times it was guarded by a fort which was later greatly extended by Iron Age man. This huge camp, now known as Ffridd Faldwyn, stands high on a hill overlooking the ford. The Romans built a camp on the valley floor within a few hundred metres of Rhydwhiman which was occupied for nearly four hundred years.
Following the Norman Conquest, one of Duke William's vassals, who had been left behind with the Duchess as Joint Regent during the invasion, was rewarded for his loyalty. His name was Roger, Seigneur of Montgomery in the Pays d'Auge in Normandy. He was created an Earl, with vast properties in Sussex and Shropshire. Among the lands granted to him was a tract of "hunting ground in the wilderness" in the hundred of Chirbury close to Rhydwhiman. Roger built a Motte and Bailey Castle on the ridge overlooking the ford and, as an indication of the importance he attached to it, named it Montgomery after his native home in Normandy. The Domesday Book records the building of the castle thus:- "Ipse comes construxit castrum muntgumery vocatum" (The earl himself has built a castle called MONTGOMERY) - the first recorded mention of Montgomery. This earth and timber castle was occupied for about 150 years during which it was stormed and burnt by the Welsh on more than one occasion. In 1223 the young Henry III visited Montgomery with his advisers after raising the siege at Builth. He was shown the great rock which overlooks the present town and gave orders for a stone castle to be built there. Although the new site did not overlook the ford it was quite possible to have an outpost at the old motte and bailey castle which could easily signal back to the modern stone castle. The new stone castle was huge and the military garrison it housed would have required a sizeable community with a large variety of skills to service it. Very soon a walled town was established below the rock. This was a typical 'medieval new town' in which the streets were laid out in a grid pattern and one of the sectors given to the church. By 1227 Montgomery had been granted a Royal charter to enable it to hold fairs and markets and to build a wall and a ditch for protection. The street plan has changed little over the seven and a half centuries since then.
The military importance of the castle gradually lessened and by the time of the Civil War it was in a poor state of repair, so much so that a brick built mansion had been erected in the middle ward. Following the Battle of Montgomery in 1644, when the Parliamentarian forces defeated the Royalists, orders were given for the demolition of the Castle. The town however prospered and developed into a busy market town. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries many houses were given Georgian frontages and the new Town Hall replaced the old Market hall which had stood in the middle of the main street. By then Montgomery was the county town of Montgomeryshire and the Assize courts were held in the Town hall. From the time of the first charter the town was governed by two Bailiffs and the hereditary burgesses, but changes took place in 1885 when the government was invested in an elected Mayor and Corporation. Further changes in local government in 1974 resulted in the town losing its borough status but retaining its Town Council.
Because of its geographical position, on the slope of the hill below the castle and some way from the Severn valley, the canal and later the railway were too far away from the town to influence its development. The neighbouring towns of Welshpool and Newtown became much larger whilst Montgomery remained much the same size as it had been for hundreds of years. It is still a largely unspoilt small Georgian market town nestling comfortably into the hillside under the ruins of the castle. Visitors are able to learn its history from the informative plaques on many buildings. The beautiful parish church dates from 1225 and contains the magnificent Elizabethan canopied tomb of Richard Herbert of Montgomery Castle. He was the father of two famous sons, Edward 1st Lord Herbert of Chirbury and George Herbert the poet and divine. The castle is open, free of charge, all the year around and is cared for by CADW. Access is either via a steep footpath from Arthur Street or from the small car park near the Old Castle Farm. There are some interesting shops in the town including Bunner's the ironmongers and a good choice of eating places ranging from tea shops to a Michelin starred restaurant. It is a good starting point for walkers and parking is easy and free.
The Old Bell, a 16th century inn, has been converted into a local history museum by Montgomery Civic Society. Eleven rooms house displays illustrating the long social and civic history of the ancient County Town of Montgomeryshire. There are permanent exhibitions relating to the medieval and Norman castles and their archaeological excavations with excellent scale models of both. Two rooms are devoted to the Workhouse and the Cambrian Railways. A small room in the museum has been restored to demonstrate the various methods of construction in this half timbered building. Group visits to the museum are most welcome. These can also be arranged outside the normal opening times by prior arrangement. Access to the museum is also available to individuals outside of normal opening times by prior arrangement. Assistance dogs are welcome. Unlimited free parking is in the street and there are toilets behind the Town Hall. They regret that access for the disabled is limited in this ancient building, but the town is fascinating. Montgomery Civic Society members conduct guided tours of the town and museum by prior arrangement. Charge: £1.50 per person.
Location : The Old Bell Museum, Arthur St, Montgomery SY15 6RA
Transport : Welshpool (National Rail) then bus (81). Bus Routes : 81 and 558 stop near by
Opening Times : 1st April (or Easter) to 30th September, 13.30pm - 17.00 Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday (daily in August); 10:30 - 17.00 Saturdays & Bank Holidays
Tickets : Adults £1.00; Children (under 16) £0.50
Tel : 01686 668313