Dominating the skyline of the small university town and seaside resort of Aberystwyth, Wales, the Old College began life in 1791 as an ornate Italianate holiday home called “Castle House,” built for the wife of a wealthy English landowner. A combination of fire, bankruptcy, and serendipity helped the evolution of this bizarre fairytale university building perched precariously on a sea wall.
By 1865, Aberystwyth had a new railway line bringing tourists in from the English Midlands. Entrepreneur Thomas Savin hired a gothic revival architect named John Seddon to turn the elaborate house into an even more elaborate hotel by building gothic extensions along the sea wall and furnishing it with turrets, crenellations, fake arrow slits, and ecclesiastical vaulted ceilings.
Unfortunately, a year into its construction, a grave recession left whimsical hotels in distant seaside resorts way down the list of Victorian priorities. Savin became bankrupt and the unfinished “Castle House Hotel” began to fall into ruin.
As luck would have it, at that time, a committee of London-based Welshmen were planning to start a university in Wales, the first to offer degrees in the Welsh language. The existence of an intriguing yet rotting hotel on the seafront of Aberystwyth caught their attention. The building certainly had the necessary architectural grandeur they craved to rival the ancient English colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. The consortium quickly agreed the failed hotel would make a fitting home for the new educational institution. They parted with £10,000 pounds for the decaying gothic shell and hired Seddon to once again work on the building and repurpose it into the most senior academic institution in Wales.
The University of Wales (which is known today as Aberystwyth University) began teaching in the building in 1872. Unfortunately, shortly afterward in 1885, a terrible fire broke out in the chemistry laboratory which killed three people and gutted the fledgling university campus. Seddon stepped into the breach again and took the opportunity to completely remodel the whole north wing in a slightly different style, finally giving the building the bizarre, anarchic fantasy appearance it retains today.
Not long after the fire, the college’s old chemistry professor died and was replaced by a new master of “potions,” one Professor Snape. This real Professor Snape, whose first name was Henry and not Severus, died in 1933. He was described as energetic, keen, and devoted in his obituary.
The Old College ceased to be the main focus of the university when a large new campus was constructed just on the edge of town in the 1960s. It continued to be the university’s administrative headquarters until relatively recently. It’s now destined to become the new postgraduate center.
There are also three notable gargoyle figures to keep a keen eye out for, they are all located on the eastern front side entrance. Two reptilian-like creatures are located on each side of the arched doorway. They are named “Error” and “Darkness,” symbolizing that science will triumph over the former and light will conquer the latter. The other is a depiction of a woman wearing a tall stovepipe hat, she is perched near the roof. It’s not clear if she was meant to represent any particular individual, but rather a homage to the traditional costume worn by Welsh women from a bygone era.
Update as of May 2022: The building is undergoing major renovation works.
Know Before You Go
The Old College is hard to miss as it dominates the town. The main entrance is on King Street, but it is worth taking in the whole building by walking along New Promenade and Pier Street. There is also a good view of the Old College from the ruined castle and war memorial grounds. As the college serves as a educational institution, it's possible to access the interior. The building is usually open 10 a.m.-3 p.m., closed on Sundays and observed holidays. The Old College, like much of Aberystwyth, is only a short walk from the train station.