Paxton’s Tower: the fabulous folly far above the Tywi commemorating prospects lost

©Luke Waterson

Protruding out of the wood-carpeted line of hills south of the River Tywi in bizarre neo-Gothic splendour, Paxton’s Tower is no retiring violet from the public eye – indeed it is among Carmarthenshire’s most distinctive landmarks – but its sheer comic oddness renders it the sort of spot we at Undiscovered Wales absolutely love.

The surrounding parish of Llanarthne has, since 2000, become one of the county’s most intriguing destinations. Since then it has acquired the National Botanic Garden of Wales, along with two ridiculously brilliant places to eat in stylishly casual bistro-deli Wrights Food Emporium and rustic chic pub-restaurant Y Polyn. But Paxton’s Tower has been hanging out, ostentatiously garnishing the hillside here since the beginning of the 19th century. Not that its relative venerability makes it look in any way a blended-in part of the landscape: there was nothing subtle about the caprices of its creator William Paxton.

And now for the back-story that makes Paxton’s Tower so, ahem, quirky. After a chequered career as a privateer for the East India Company and Master of the Mint of Bengal (modern-day south-eastern India and Bangladesh), Mr Paxton purchased the Middleton Hall Estate (now the afore-mentioned National Botanic Garden of Wales) in 1789 and transformed it into one of Wales’ most lavish country estates, with state-of-the-art piped running water, water closets and an eye-popping series of water gardens all achieved through raised reservoirs dotted about the property – the like was almost unknown in Wales at the time. Paxton’s residence became renowned for its spectacular shindigs, too – but the man was only just getting started. At the 1802 General Election Paxton stood for the Whig party to represent Carmarthenshire with almost no experience of politics but a great deal of cash to finance his campaign. This he spent, liberally, blatantly buying votes to a total tune of over £15,000 (a vast sum at the time) but lost narrowly.

Despite being made Mayor of Carmarthen a couple of months later, and, as you do, developing a seaside resort (that would be Tenby in Pembrokeshire), Paxton is thought to have been a little nettled at his defeat at the polls. And this is one of the theories behind the construction of Paxton’s Tower: to remind voters of everything they could have had (although of course, technically, they did have one rather lasting thing, a weird-but-kind-of-wonderful castellated thing, sitting conspicuously on a rise above one of the main thoroughfares to Carmarthen). Another school of thought says Paxton’s Tower was built to commemorate the death of Nelson at Trafalgar – who Paxton may or may not have met – and whilst this may be the official reason stated in the commemorative plaques once fixed above the entranceway, the truth reason behind the construction is likely to have been more complex.

In any case, Paxton would perhaps have been satisfied by his eccentric edifice’s continued appeal. Now under the auspices of the National Trust, it has been going strong since at least 1810 and is unlikely not to be a talking point as one drives along the A40 or B4300 west towards Carmarthen. It looks all the funnier for standing in a valley with rather stiff competition where towers are concerned – the rugged battlements of both Dinefwr Castle and Dryslwyn Castle can be descried from outside its front door. It is out-of-the-blue, to say the least, after miles of livestock-grazed Carmarthenshire pasture.

View from the top ©Luke Waterson

And after all that, after you negotiate the tiny twisting lanes above Llanarthne, following the drunkenly-leaning signposts, after you pass through what looks like the garden gateway of the adjacent cottage and walk through a field of cows to arrive there, the tower or folly or neo-Gothic flight of fancy or whatever you wish to term it –  can only be enjoyed from ground level. The banqueting room and the ‘prospect room’ above cannot be clambered up to. Some people come, see the closed-off staircase, and leave a moment later looking slightly miffed. But of course there is more to Paxton’s Tower than just a tower. Of course there is.

What to do

There are the trio of other attractions mentioned in paragraph two. But there are also the extraordinary views of a scenic sinuous stretch of the Tywi Valley, from Llandeilo and Dinefwr Castle in one direction to almost Carmarthen in the other. You can see chunks of the Brecon Beacons National Park, too. An ethereal mist often blankets pockets of the river floodplain, making this a view reminiscent of a 19th-century oil painting, all hazy, dreamy idealised rusticity. The hedges edging the field have some of the best blackberrying in Carmarthenshire, too. And if you descend, continuing away from the car park, beyond the tower to the bottom corner of the field, you will spy a gate through which you can squeeze into a steep sector of woodland where there are often penny buns to be found. Or you can proceed on a gorgeous walk east along the lane from Paxton’s Tower, following the top of the ridge of this chain of hills on a leg-stretch to Dryslwyn Castle – the direct opposite of the hike we describe here in our post on Dryslwyn Castle (scroll down to What to do/hiking).

NEXT ON THE JOURNEY: 10 miles southeast of Paxton’s Tower you can taste some of the finest coffee in South Wales at hip Coaltown Coffee Roasters.

Another view from the top ©Kerry Walker

At a glance

How to get there: From Carmarthen, take the B4300 9 miles east to Llanarthne. Pass Wrights Food Emporium on the left and take the second right-hand turn on a lane which starts to climb and reaches the steep, narrow left-hand turn up to Paxton’s Tower after about a mile. The tower is about half a mile up this lane.

Parking: Yes, a gravelled space on the left is more than sufficient to the handful of cars that ever choose to visit.

Refreshments: Wrights Food Emporium, down in Llanarthne, under two miles away – exquisite.

Best time to visit: Any time of year, although spring or summer (or at least a suggestion of sun) is good if you are combining this with the nearby National Botanic Garden of Wales (not an undiscovered attraction but nevertheless a very worthwhile one). But if we have to pick one time? Early October, a sharp early or afternoon light in the sky, no immediate promise of rain: when the abundance of autumnal fruits can best be relished.

Opening Times: Always open