Friday, 28 February 2014

St David's Day Fun in Bala

The Bala Tourist Association has a whole load of fun events planned to celebrate St David's Day tomorrow. You can find more information at their website.

Among the events is a guided walk around Bala's points of historical interest, taking place at 11am and 3pm. Ring 01678 520036 for more information.

The Clean Up Begins!

The storms rain and flooding that occurred during the winter have wreaked havoc on parts of the Welsh Coast and brought a lot of rubbish in along the shore line. All around the coast of Wales there are now volunteers clubbing together to clear this up.

Nathalie Harrison, Chair of the Aberdaron Tourist Link Group.
There are lots of volunteer groups in Wales, and you can find details of them on the Keep Wales Tidy website - In Aberdaron, the Tourist Link Group organise their own clean up with support from Gwynedd Council. It was fun on a sunny day, and enjoyed by all.

The whole gang.

The kids especially enjoyed themselves.
As you can see, it's a big beach to clean!

Where can you see Offa's Dyke?

We all know that King Offa of Mercia built a large earthwork in 870 in order to mark the borders of his kingdom and to demonstrate his power and also, in part, to make sure that the Welsh didn't run off with all the cattle in a hurry. Over the years this dyke has fallen into disrepair and has been completely removed in many places. Offa's Dyke path doesn't even follow the dyke in large parts of North Wales. However, when you do come across it, it is quite startling.

I was researching a lane walk at Chirk, and here is the Dyke in good condition on the left as it runs through woodland, but completely removed on the right.

Here it is intersected by an old lane.
The bank reappears a little further north.

As it progresses towards Llangollen it becomes a wooded field boundary.

Preaching cross and rood screen at Derwen

I was out researching lane walks in Hiraethog, and came across this wonderful view stretching back towards Llangollen. The lanes here abouts tend to be heavily banked and fairly busy, so I did not develop a walk in my wet weather series. However, I did come across an interesting church at Derwen which contains an excellent preaching cross and a rood screen. This is a redundant church in the centre of the village under the care of those modern angels, The Friends of Friendless Churches. The churchyard is circular, so the foundation was probably very ancient

This is the view from near the church

This is the church house on the west side of the church yard. It is likely that this was a hearse house or lych gate. The upper story is approached by external stairs and was originally a parish room or vestry. 

The Preaching Cross. This is a 15th Century relic and would have been used as the focus of open air sermons by travelling friars and other visiting preachers. Its carved octagonal shaft supports a box-like head with canopied figures.

This shows the crucifiction.

This is a 15th or early 16th century rood screen, complete with its rood loft, and is unusual in this respect - only a dozen or so left in Wales. Most were destroyed during the protestant reformation because their main purpose was to display a large painted rood - an old English word meaning crucifix - which reformers condemned as idolatrous. 

The Davies Gates

The exceptional thing about the North Wales landscape is undoubtedly its natural beauty. However, the more I travel and read about North Wales, the more I realise the impact of man in taming the landscape, and I've written many blogs about houses and canals and roads and field systems. But recently I've become more aware of the contribution made by exceptional individuals - the founding Celtic saints, Thomas Telford, the Wynn Family etc, and not to mention Edward the First.

Last week I visited Chirk and came across these wonderful gates, and have been reading up about them. These were made by the Davies Family who were active in the 18th Century. They were smiths, experts in wrought iron. They worked in Croesfoel forge in Bursham near Wrexham. They had links with French smiths and Robert Bakewell of Derby. Much of their work survives in the great houses around the borders, the work at Leeswood Hall Flintshire, and these at Chirk being amongst the best. There are many others and I shall look out for them from now on.

The Davies' work at Chirk Castle. Not bad for a garden gate! They were painted black during the war, but have recently been restored to their original colours.

Davies wrought iron gates at Hanmer church.

Magic in the skies

What were you doing at 9:45 pm last night? Peter was, regrettably, sitting through another episode of Inspector George Gently, but the more intepid of you may have stepped outside and seen this magnificent display of the Northern Lights above the north Wales coast. According to Tracey Snelus of Astronomy for Fun, who was interviewed by the Daily Post, it is very rare for the lights to be seen this far south. I will definitely be taking a look outside tonight in the hopes of another display. How about you?

The Northern Lights above Penmon, Anglesey. Taken by Tracey Snelus
The sky above Prestatyn by Garry Owens

A Treasure House in Chirk

There is some good walking to be had around Chirk, and I heartily recommend the walk along the canal with the tunnel and the two aqueducts, Offa's Dyke passes close by and there are some magnificent walks in woodland around Chirk Castle. A good place to set out from is the car park at the Hand Hotel, which also serves a cracking lunch. Close by, for extra intellectual interest, is the parish church of St. Mary's. What a treasure house this turned out to be!

The tower is 15th Century and holds a Joyce Clock and 6 ringing bells.
The interior is traditional and full of monuments, parish chests and other memorials.
This is the shield of arms, or "hatchment" of Lt. Colonel Myddleton who dies in 1988. He died before his wife so his arms, on the left, are shown against a black background, while those of his wife on on the right against a white background.
The hammer beam roof of the north aisle has 15th century carvings of old testament creatures and mythological beasts.
The Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Creed are emblazoned on the wall. Most churches had these, but have since removed them. 
This is the only reminder that the greatest Welsh poet of the 20th Century served here for 4 years as a curate.
The local gentry were rather better commemorated. There were two prominent families. The Myddletons were hugely successful merchants from London at the turn of the 16th Century. Sir Thomas purchased the Lordship of Chirk in 1595. His descendants were members of parliament and supporters of the arts. The Trevors of Brynkinalt have a long history as Welsh gentry and have lived at Brynkinalt since about 924 AD, and have had distinguished careers in the world of politics and the army ever since. The Duke of Wellington descends from this family.
The churchyard is full of interesting wildlife and some ancient yew trees. I came across this memorial to James Darlington (1854 - 1933) with the epitaph "Go and do thou likewise." I wonder what he meant?

Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Have you packed for Wales?

Visit Wales have announced a new 2014 marketing campaign for Wales. £4 million is to be invested on a campaign which will launch on St David's Day in the UK and Irish markets.

"Have you packed for Wales? tells consumers to come prepared for a trip to Wales. Whether it’s a three day break or a seven day stay, visitors need to come fully packed and ready for anything. However, packing the usual holiday gear isn’t enough.  This is Wales – people are reminded to pack an open mind, a sense of adventure, and an appetite for discovery.  This theme will run across all elements of the campaign...

Locations feature the New Bike Park Wales; Cadw monuments  - Caernarfon Castle and Bishop’s Palace, St Davids; Abersoch Beach; Dolphins in Cardigan Bay and Carreg y Defaid beach near Llanbedrog."

There is a TV advert featuring music by Ceris Matthews:

What do you think? 

Is this the Perfect Hotel?

The Sunday Telegraph for February the 16th asked this question of Plas Bodegroes, which is a lovely hotel near Pwllheli. The article, by Fiona Duncan can be seen here. Fiona justly plays tribute to the quality of the rooms, the service and the outstanding food. The hotel has been owned and run by Chris and Gunna Chown for 25 years and is a place that can be relied on for the warmth of its welcome and consistent quality.

Of course, the answer to the question is that there is no such thing as a perfect hotel. Fiona Duncan rates it out of 10 as an overall 9, broken down into the following categories:
Location 9.
Style 10.
Service 10.
Food and Drink 9.
Rooms 7.
Value for Money 8.
She does however put it into her Top 10 places to stay in the whole of the UK.

The Pontfadog Oak

Pontfadog, a small town in the Ceiriog Valley some 4 miles from Chirk, was in the news a couple of years ago for the sad loss of the Pontfadog Oak. Known as "The National Tree of Wales" - a Sessile Oak (Quercus petraea) which was estimated to be between 1,181 and 1,628 years old (in 1996).

The Pontfadog Oak shortly after being blown over.

The oak in better days.
Sadly the tree has now been removed altogether, and I could find no trace on a recent visit.

"The Total Annihilation of the Welsh Race."

On my walks around Chirk and the Ceiriog Valley I came across the site of the battle of Crogen where King Henry the 2nd of England came a nasty cropper in 1165. Stating that Henry was determined to "totally annihilate the Welsh race", the information board at the site qualifies this by explaining that Henry had raised a mighty army of 30,000 soldiers who were determined to bring the Welsh Princes to heel after a rebellion. At that time the Ceiriog Valley was heavily wooded and 2000 wood cutters were needed to make a path through the valley. At a place where the valley narrows, known as the Crogen, the army was ambushed. It was the perfect killing ground for Welsh archers and lightly armed soldiers. King Henry himself narrowly escaped death. One of his knights sacrificed his own life by taking an arrow intended for the king. The king's mounted soldiers could not manoeuvre as the Welsh foot soldiers attacked with bow, spear, sword and axe, and there were heavy losses on both sides. Eventually Henry forced his way through, only to fail in the wilds of the Berwyn mountains due to continued Welsh guerilla tactics. He never tried to conquer Wales again and Welsh independence survived nearly 120 years after this event. The Welsh buried the Anglo-Norman dead at a spot known to this day as Adwy'r Beddau - the gap of the graves.

The site of the Battle of Crogan (1165)
There are some lovely walks to be had on the hills overlooking the site of the battle. Offa's Dyke runs through the area and there are many permissive paths owned by the National Trust.

What A Find - a Heart Shrine!

I was walking around Chirk recently and had cause to go into the parish church. Amongst other things I discovered my first "Heart Shrine". What remains is a sort of gravestone which was found in the vicarage garden 100 years ago, and is now propped up at the back of the church. It shows a woman holding a heart and who appears to be standing on top of another body.

This stone is near the font.
Heart shrines were popular in the 13th Century when many members of the aristocracy went on military campaigns in Europe and to the Holy Land on crusade and were killed. It was impractical to embalm the whole body. So, often the heart would be taken out, embalmed, put in a casket and be returned home to be buried with a small gravestone, with perhaps a tomb effigy. The most famous of these was that of Robert the Bruce, whose heart is buried at Melrose Abbey. I had not thought to come across one in Wales, but here it is in St Mary's church in Chirk.

St Mary's on Chirk high street.
Does anybody know of any others in Wales?

Monday, 24 February 2014

Two activities for the price of one.

The Trefriw Walking Festival is fast approaching, and one of the more unusual activities taking place on the 18th of May is a walk from Trefriw to Llyn Geirionydd, followed by a swim in the lake. The session is being run by Gabby Dickenson and Dan Graham from Gone Swimming, a company that provides tuition in "Wild Swimming" safely in some of North Wales' many beautiful lakes and rivers. If you would like to book, please contact Gabby or Dan at

Wild Swimming Taster Walk

The walk will leave from Trefriw, and climb up towards Llyn Geirionydd. The steep climb through the forest should have us working up a good sweat – and make us look forward to a lovely refreshing dip in the lake.
Upon reaching the lake, you can change (discreetly, using the Robie Robes
provided) into your swimwear (or wetsuit, provided), and load up your waterproof bag (also provided). You will then slip into the calm waters of the lake and swim as much or as little as you like. The swim is part of the journey and at journeys end you will be met with the Gone Swimming traditional hot drinks and post-swim cakes.
You must be able to swim confidently but speed and distance is variable. Please bring warm clothes including hat and gloves. Flip-flops/Crocs are useful for managing stony ground.
Duration: 2 - 3 hours
Distance: 2km / 1.5mile walk, swimming distance optional (less than 1km / 1mile)
Morning session: Meet at 8.45am, for a 9.00am start, Village Hall, Trefriw
Afternoon session: Meet at 12.45pm for a 1.00pm start, Village Hall, Trefriw
Transport is provided back to the Trefriw Village Hall from Llyn Geirionydd.
Bookings: Gabby Dickenson 07547 652 821 / Dan Graham 07941 038 56

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The most interesting graveyard in Wales?

There will be many candidates for this prize. I was travelling from Market Overton to Whitchurch recently and, knowing that RS Thomas had been a curate in Hanmer from 1940-42, I set aside a couple of hours to explore this little village. I couldn't find a trace of RS, but the setting of the village around the lake and the beauty of the church and churchyard was ample compensation.

This lake was formed in the last Ice Age and it's presence is reflected in the village name Hanmer - which is a corruption of Handmere - mere, meaning the lake of a Mercian lord called Hand.

The original church was founded by St. Chad in about 670 AD, and still bears his name. The original mediaeval church was greatly damaged by fire in 1463, but the clustered pillars of the knave arcading were rebuilt and restored in their original 12th century style after this fire and a subsequent fire in 1889. 
This is said to be the tomb of the architect of the church. It is known as the founder's tomb as tradition records that the architect fell from the tower and was killed in a tragic accident at exactly this spot.
Set in front of some fabulous 500 year old yew trees, this ancient preaching cross stands tall. It was knocked down during the Civil War, but reinstated in 1739.
Here is a view of St Chad's from the lakeside, framed by two giant Cedar trees planted in 1881. The burial ground is extensive and contains large areas given over to encourage wild-flowers and insects.
A fine example of a weeping ash to the north of the church.
There are two 1918 military graves which appear to have been recently replaced, a mark of the respect shown to graves in this churchyard.
This is the lake from the porch of the church. The village is on the Maelor Way, so there is good walking to be had in both directions.

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Chirk Aqueduct Walk

We have all heard of the Thomas Telford aqueduct at Poncysyllte, the "Stream in the Sky", that enabled the canal to cross the Dee Valley in 1801. However, Thomas Telford built another aqueduct to cross the Ceiriog Valley at the same time and, though this is not of the same height or length, it is still a very impressive sight and proves to be a really good walk. You can park in Chirk village, where there is much to see including the National Trust Castle and a fine church.

This is the view from above the tunnel on the north side

There is a decent walkway along one side of the canal. If you have vertigo, don't come.
Just immediately west of the canal is the main railway line, connecting Shrewsbury to Chester. It is much higher than the canal and the suggestion is that this was deliberately so built to prove the superiority of rail over canal - a ridiculous idea.

There are fine views through the arches to the valley bottom below.
At the north end the canal disappears into a tunnel. You can continue your walk through the tunnel and all the way to Pontcysyllte and then to Llangollen.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Light at the end of the Tunnel

This is the view from half way along the Chirk Tunnel. This tunnel was created in 1805 so that the new canal could approach the Ceiriog Valley at a reasonable height. This tunnel is 421m long. At the centre of the tunnel you can just make out that there is light at both ends. It is pitch black but there is a walkway with a handrail that goes alongside the canal. Not in itself an entirely pleasant experience, but at least it wasn't raining! Having walked the tunnel one way, you may then be reluctant to return. If you scramble up the bank then you can return by road, but it is a long way round.

Looking south along the tunnel from the centre.

Looking north from the same point.

This is the entrance to the tunnel from the south, just across the Welsh border.

This is where the canal emerges into the light at the north end.