Fishguard, best-known to tourists for its links with Ireland via the Stena Line ferry, originated in the fishing and sea trading hamlet in the deep valley to the north of the modern town.
This is Lower Fishguard, or Lower Town to the locals, and is where the River Gwaun meets the sea, hence the Welsh name Abergwaun (mouth of the Gwaun), after flowing through the picturesque Gwaun Valley, a popular beauty spot.
The main town developed over the centuries around the parish church of St Mary’s, where the road to the north begins its steep, meandering descent into Lower Town.
The stone tidal quay and tall warehouse building, now the Headquarters of the local Sea Cadet unit, HMS Skirmisher, demonstrate the importance of the hamlet’s past as a fishing and coastal trading port. One of its staple industries in days gone by was the herring trade, which produced valuable revenue, which was augmented by the year round trade with Ireland, Bristol, Swansea and Liverpool. In the 18th century there were 50 coastal vessels operating from the port, exporting such cargoes as oats and salt herring, and importing house coal, timber, culm, bricks, limestone, fertilizer and general merchandise for local shopkeepers and traders. Its trade was not only coastwise, for the records show that there were occasioal distant cargoes of timber from Quebec and the Baltic. During its earlier history its sheltered situation made it a target for Viking attention. Indeed, its name is of Norse origin, derived from the word Fiskigardr meaning “Fish-catching enclosure,” It is believed the Vikings used it as a trading post in the 8th and 9th centuries, although there is no physical evidence that this was so. Commentators were not always complimentary about Fishguard. The 18th century traveller Malkin noted in 1803 that he found the town “so filthy, so ill-built and so uncivilised as to be interesting on those very accounts.” In fine weather some coastal trading ship’s masters landed their cargoes on nearby Goodwick beach to save on harbour tolls. The Vikings were not the only attackers. In 1779 the privateer Black Prince demanded a ransom of £1,000, and, when this was refused, he bombarded the town, causing damage to some buldings. As a result a small fort was built on the headland at the mouth of the harbour in 1781, and this was where the Pembrokeshire Yeomanry assembled in 1797 to thwart the abortive French invasion. This historic last invasion of Britain is commemorated every year and there is a colourful tapestry on display and open to tourists at Fishguard Square. A plaque on the seafront marks the spot where the treaty was signed to end the invasion.
The town’s economy was boosted in 1908 when the ferry service across the bay at Goodwick was transferred from Neyland by the GWR when the railway line was extended to the new harbour, where a short-lived trans-Atlantic liner disembarkation facility was established. It ws killed off by vested interests in large ports and the lack of funds to build a deep-water quay for liners.