The Vale of Clwyd – Denbigh and around

If Wrexham is post-industrial and a bit run-down, the Vale of Clwyd, not far to the west, is redolent of old money and older history. I also find it very beautiful – there’s just something about the line of the Clwydian Hills looking down to the east, even though they’re not particularly high or dramatic. This area was disputed by the Welsh and English in medieval times, but as soon as Wales was properly united with England in 1536 the leading citizens of Ruthin and Denbigh took advantage of new opportunities and became wealthy merchants, MPs and even Mayor of London. They built fine houses and enhanced existing churches by building a second nave alongside the original one, something that is a local speciality (although hardly unique – there are more around Llandeilo in Carmarthenshire, and in Cornwall, for instance). Denbighshire now puts out some wonderfully detailed tourist info, full of nuggets that thrill history geeks like me. In particular, the churches of Denbigh tell an interesting story – the town’s first church (and still its official parish church) was St Marcella’s, in the country to the east of town (see below), then in the thirteenth century St Hilary’s was built just outside the castle. In 1578 Queen Elizabeth’s favourite Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, began building a new Puritan church that was abandoned after his death in 1588 and is still known as Leicester’s Folly. St Hilary’s fell out of use after the large Victorian church of St Mary’s was built in 1874 and was demolished in 1923, apart from the tower which you can still see. There’s also the usual astonishing number of Nonconformist chapels.

The church of St Marcella in Llanfarchell (aka Whitchurch), a mile or so east of Denbigh (open daily 9am-4pm), is a fine example, with a magnificent 15th-century hammerbeam roof over both naves, and houses memorials to many of them, most notably John Salusbury (died 1578) and his wife Dame Joan (née Myddelton – see below), their recumbent effigies lying on an alabaster table-top monument in the south chancel. In the north chancel the memorial to Humphrey Llwyd (1527-68) sits between those to Robert Salusbury (died 1774) and a brass commemorating Richard Myddelton (c.1508-75 – see below). There’s also a sign outside to the tomb of the Welsh poet Twm o’r Nant (Thomas Edwards), who died in 1810.

Humphrey Llwyd was an alderman then MP for Denbigh, in 1563 steering through the House of Commons the bill to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer into Welsh (which turned out to be crucial to the survival of the Welsh language), and produced a map of Wales which was published by Ortelius in his groundbreaking world atlas of 1573. The Salusbury/Salesbury family was the most powerful in Denbigh, and William Salesbury (c.1520-c.1584) was a humanist scholar who supported Llwyd and Richard Davies (c.1505-81) and William Morgan (1545-1604), both Bishops of St Asaph, in their efforts to translate the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer – Morgan did much of the work in 1578-87 when he was vicar of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant, southwest of Llangollen. Another supporter was Gabriel Goodman (1528-1601) from Ruthin, who became Dean of Westminster and helped manage the printing of the Bible in London – the buildings he funded in Ruthin are mentioned in the Rough Guide.

Richard Myddelton was MP for Denbigh and governor of Denbigh Castle; his son Sir Thomas made a lot of money in London, becoming Lord Mayor in 1613, while his younger brother Sir Hugh (1560-1631) was a business partner of Sir Walter Raleigh in his explorations of the New World, and promoter-engineer of the New River, which brought water from Hertfordshire to the booming (and unhealthy) city of London. Sir Thomas bought Chirk Castle (well covered in the Rough Guide), and financed Y Beibl Bach (the Little Bible), the first easily affordable Welsh bible (1630), and his son Sir Thomas Myddelton II became a parliamentarian general, besieging Holt Castle among other exploits.

The church of Llanrhaeadr (strictly speaking Llanrhaeadr-yng-Nghinmeirch), midway between Ruthin and Denbigh, is in the Rough Guide because of its wonderful 16th-century Jesse Window, perhaps the finest stained glass in Wales. However there are many other fascinating little churches in the Ruthin area, such as Llanrhydd, a mile east of Ruthin, which houses an early sixteenth-century rood screen, a seventeenth-century altar table and a Georgian choir gallery; Efenechtyd, two miles southwest of Ruthin, a tiny church with an unusual carved-oak font and a fourteenth-century East window; Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, two miles south of Ruthin, with fine medieval glass and part of a rood screen; Llanelidan, five miles south of Ruthin, with a Jacobean pulpit and box pews, and fine memorials; and Llanynys, three miles north of Ruthin, with a Tudor porch and Tudor panels from the house of Colonel William Salesbury, an altar dating from 1637, and a great fifteenth-century wall painting of St Christopher facing the door.

They seem to like grand monuments in Denbigh – the most obvious is the Dr Evan Pierce Memorial Garden, really just a setting for the 72-ft-high column that Pierce (1808-95) set up on Vale St in 1872 so he could see a statue of himself from his front door. In 1832, the year he qualified as a doctor, he helped bring a cholera outbreak in Denbigh under control, then went on to become a JP, alderman and mayor (1866-70).  Not satisfied with the column, in 1890 he built a memorial hall on Station Rd, now the town’s theatre. Fantastic as he was, there’s no space for him in the Rough Guide, alas.

I’d also like to explore the whole western part of Denbighshire and say at least something about it in the Rough Guide – it’s a remote and empty area, the precursor to the mountains of Snowdonia, and there are some interesting trails around the artificial lake of Llyn Brenig. This area was a sacred space to the people of the Bronze Age and there are cairn fields and burial mounds dotted (but not randomly) around the landscape. There’s a visitor centre and café (open daily) by the dam on the B4501 road.

Denbigh also has a small museum, open only on Mondays and Thursdays from 1.30 to 4pm (or by appointment on 01745 814323 or gwynethk@hotmail.com), but it has plenty of keen volunteers and if it gets its Lottery Heritage Foundation grant it will be able to create modern displays and open normal hours – the best of luck to them!

Corwen, to the west of Llangollen, has recently opened a museum (daily except Tues and Thurs 10.30am-3.30pm; donations welcomed) and it’s quite impressive (I will try to squeeze it in to the new Rough Guide). There’s good coverage of Owain Glyndwr’s revolt (which started here), farming and droving (moving herds of livestock to the English markets) and transport – the town more or less came into being when Thomas Telford built what is now the A5, a new highway to carry the Irish mails to Holyhead. Soon afterwards, the railways arrived and Corwen became the busiest junction in North Wales. The railway closed a century later in 1965 (although it was effectively abandoned after flooding at the end of 1964) and Corwen fell asleep; now it is being revitalised by the recent extension of the Llangollen Railway (a mostly steam-hauled heritage railway), along the Dee from Llangollen, to the east.

Northeast Wales – Wrexham and around

Hull. Wrexham. I go to the most glamorous and exotic parts of Britain. On the surface, Wrexham is a  rather run-down post-industrial town where far too many people smoke, women have the longest false eyelashes I’ve ever seen, boy racers cruise in souped-up Ford Escorts, and there’s no visible recycling. No surprise then that Britain’s newest super-prison opened there (on the Industrial Estate!) in March 2017.

But, just like Hull (Britain’s City of Culture 2017), it turns out to have hidden depths. Wrexham County Borough (which covers a surprisingly wide area) also has a remarkably frequent and affordable bus system and a reasonably useful cycle network, including some routes on former railway lines out into the surrounding villages. In fact many of these so-called villages seem more like self-contained towns, built around coal mines or steelworks that have now vanished – there’s a lot of industrial heritage here, and strong local pride in it. Some is described in the Rough Guide to Wales (which I’m updating part of) but not all, for instance King’s Mill, at the eastern end of the Clywedog Valley Trail.

It’s virtually impossible to add anything new to the Rough Guide due to space constraints, but I had to take a look at Wrexham Cemetery (on the Ruabon Road), because a friend helped arrange a Lottery Heritage Fund grant to start restoring it – it’s a fine example of a Victorian garden cemetery, with lawns and trees rather than serried ranks of tombstones. The chapel, designed by a former mayor of Wrexham, William Turner, and the cemetery gates are listed as Grade II.

My friends actually live in England, in Farndon, just across the Dee from the village of Holt which, partly because it’s right on the edge of Wales, tends not to feature in guidebooks. However its castle, built between 1283 and 1311 on an unusual pentagonal plan, was once very important. Guarding a bridge built c.1340 and still in use, the castle was captured by the Parliamentarians in 1647, after an eleven-month siege, and largely demolished. Much of its stone was in fact taken in the 1670s to build Eaton Hall, the seat of the Dukes of Westminster, just to the north. Just recently excavations have taken place and new information signs have been erected – it’s a lovely riverside site, but there’s not a great deal to see beyond a few grassy mounds. There’s even less to see of the Roman tile works of Bovium, just north of Holt, which was busiest between AD 87 and 135 when it supplied roofing tiles by barge to the legionary fort under construction at Deva (now Chester).

Between the castle and the bridge, St Chad’s church is very fine and usually open to visitors. Rebuilt after 1287 and again around 1500, its nave arcades are in Decorated style with the rest in Perpendicular style. It’s pockmarked both inside and outside the main door by holes left by the musket-balls of the Royalist forces cornered in the church and the Roundheads who were besieging them. There’s a fine late 15th-century font bearing the arms of Richard III, donated by Sir William Stanley, who betrayed Richard by switching sides at the battle of Bosworth, and was then executed after backing a plot against Henry VII in 1495. (The castle then reverted to the crown, and the detailed inventory of its content provides invaluable historical information.)

There’s also a deli in the centre of Holt that was once a florist’s shop run by Paul Burrell, formerly butler to Diana, Princess of Wales – he’s now across the bridge in Farndon, and apparently it’s a pretty good flower shop if you like that kind of thing. HG Wells taught at Holt Academy until he had an accident playing football that persuaded him that writing novels was a safer option.

In Wrexham, the main conventional sight is St Giles’ church, with cast iron gates and screen (1719) in front by the Davies brothers of Bersham (they also created gate-screens for Ruthin church and Chirk Castle). Another friend (from Gresford, four miles north) always reminds me of the little jingle about ‘The Seven Wonders of Wales’, which is really a set of minor sights in northern Wales – ‘Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple, Snowdon’s mountain without its people, Overton yew trees, St Winefride Wells, Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells’. Well ok, Snowdon is not a minor sight, but Wrexham steeple, 135 feet high, is just a local landmark, and it is a tower, not a steeple (ie there’s no pointy bit on top). Begun in 1506, it’s richly decorated with fine medieval carvings. Gresford’s light and airy church, mostly rebuilt in the late 15th century, boasts a peal of eight bells (two added in 1623), as well as a Perpendicular font, stained glass from c1500, and some fine monuments.

Another nine miles north from Gresford (actually just west of Chester), Hawarden is famous mainly as the home of William Gladstone, Queen Victoria’s less-favourite prime minister. However far more dramatic and significant events occurred here on Palm Sunday eve of 1282 when Dafydd ap Gruffudd seized Hawarden’s Norman castle and captured its lord in his bed – Dafydd was an ally of the English against his brother Llywelyn, the last Prince of Wales (having betrayed him three times), and had been made Lord of Denbigh, Ruthin and Hope (the ruins of the castle he built at Hope or Caergwrle can be reached by a path from Caergwrle, on the Wrexham-Bidston railway). However his revolt in 1282 provoked Edward I’s decisive campaign to conquer Wales, and Dafydd was captured in 1283 and disembowelled and quartered in Shrewsbury. The castle ruins are in the park of Gladstone’s former home and can be visited on foot via an archway in the centre of the village. Hawarden church was burnt down in 1857 and rebuilt by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott; there’s an Arts & Crafts memorial to Gladstone in a later chapel by Sir William Richmond, and a nativity window by Burne-Jones.

Northeast Wales is one of the rare corners of the country that’s more interested in soccer than in rugby – Michael Owen and Gary Speed both grew up in Hawarden. However for me the most interesting find here (although there’s no space for it in the Rough Guide) was Gladstone’s Library, a small mansion that was bequeathed by Gladstone to the village of Hawarden and is now Britain’s only residential library, and the only British equivalent to the Presidential Libraries found in the United States. There’s perfectly decent accommodation and food here, where you’ll meet scholars of nineteenth-century literature and history, as well as some religious types interested in Gladstone’s brand of Evangelical Anglicanism; they run an interesting range of talks and courses, including Gladfest (‘Britain’s friendliest literary festival’), and it’s also the venue for singer Cerys Matthews’s Good Life Experience in September – not your usual music festival, but an opportunity to connect and to relish the good simple things in life.

Wales

I was born in Swansea, South Wales, lived in Pembrokeshire for a while as a young mother and in March will embark on a walk of the newly developed and marked Coast Path of the entire country – all 870 miles of it! Tim is also due to update one of his guidebooks there and so we’ll be posting fairly regularly about Wales from March onwards.

I’ve spent a lot of time in Cornwall as Tim hails from there, and am mindful that Pembrokeshire, whilst similar in many ways, has not developed as much and so mostly retains its original charm and beauty minus the crowds.  For this reason, and because my friend Freddie who lives there is anxious to protect this quality, we shan’t be reporting on all of our favourite spots. Also because for me a part of the pleasure is discovery – and I wouldn’t want to deny that by telling all. On the other hand, I’m keen to support enterprise which supports the local economy, particularly if it’s geared up to sustaining the traveller.

I was in Haverfordwest recently and came across The Creative Common at 11 Goat Street, a fab co-working space (bookable by the hour/day if you need to catch up on work!) and café, with great coffee and also tea served with attention to detail. It came in a pot with diffuser and a timer to ensure correct brew time! The cakes are yummy too. It’s tucked away in a side street but well worth seeking out and only a hundred yards or so from the main drag. The young couple running it are super friendly and efficient.

Tim’s take – I’ve been writing about Haverfordwest for the last few years and one thing I’ve learnt is that this is a town that doesn’t support its restaurants. Interesting places open up and then close, usually just after I’ve put them into the new edition of the Rough Guide. I hope Creative Common does better!

Cambridge, my cultural centre

I love living in Cambridge (the one in England), certainly not for the scenery but for its good transport links and for its cultural life. I would always choose to live in a university town, but it has to be said that for quality theatre or opera an evening out in London is usually required. Nevertheless there’s plenty of good music to be heard, with half a dozen amateur orchestras appearing at the university’s West Road concert hall (which has lovely warm acoustics) and lots of lunchtime concerts in chapels across the town.

Cambridge’s art scene is even better, with a world-class collection of old and modern masters at the Fitzwilliam Museum (also owned by the university) and the quite wonderful Kettle’s Yard, now closed for refurbishment before its 50th anniversary in 2017. Once home to Jim Ede, a very influential curator at the Tate Gallery in the 1920s and 1930s who was friendly with all the most important British artists of the time, the house itself became his (and his wife Helen’s) artwork with his remarkable collection of works by Ben and Winifred Nicholson, Alfred Wallis, Christopher Wood, David Jones, Joan Miro, Constantin Brâncuşi, Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth displayed alongside perfectly chosen furniture, wall-hangings, plants and even arrangements of pebbles. Upstairs in an attic room there’s a superb collection of drawings and sculptures by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, a wonderful French artist who moved to London in 1910 and died in the trenches in 1915 aged just 23. Integrated into the house is a gallery (built in 1970) that hosts touring shows of contemporary art (usually too avant-garde for me, but I go anyway).

Just inside the entry to Downing College (on Regent Street), Edwardian stable buildings have been converted into the Heong Gallery, opened earlier in 2016. Small but perfectly connected (we’ve already had shows by Ai Weiwei and Richard Long), it’s open on Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday only (free).

The Heong Gallery

It’s also worth heading out to Huntingdon Road to track down the New Hall Art Collection, housed in Murray Edwards College (which was in fact known as New Hall until some wealthy donors acquired the naming rights in 2008). As a women’s college, they set out to build a collection of art by contemporary female artists. Most of it is hung in the public areas of the college and can be seen from 10am to 6pm daily. A Self-Guided Tour booklet is available from the Porter’s Lodge, and free tours take place on the first Tuesday of the month at 6pm, and the last Wednesday of the month at 1pm, lasting 45 minutes. I particularly like paintings by Maggi Hambling, Fiona Banner and Charlotte Hodes and ceramics by Claudia Clare; there’s a statue by Barbara Hepworth outside, and there are also paintings by other significant artists such as Ana Maria Pacheco, Gillian Ayres, Miriam Schapiro, Sonia Lawson and Eileen Cooper.

The New Hall Art Collection

 

Constellations by Charlotte Hodes (1992)

The Cambridge University Library is also (until March 2017) celebrating its 600th anniversary – it’s usually worth the short walk out west to see what’s on in its exhibition room, and while Kettle’s Yard is closed the library’s entrance hall is also one of the places where pieces from its collection are on display.

The Open Studios scheme offers a great opportunity over three weekends in July to visit artists in their studios, dotted around the city in ordinary houses that you would not otherwise know housed such creativity. Many are members of the Cambridge Drawing Society, which puts on shows twice a year (currently at the Leys School on Fen Causeway) – these show off the frankly amazing technical skills of Cambridge’s artists.

On a bit of a tangent, I should mention that the Old Divinity School (actually opened in 1879 – see below) has been lovingly restored by St John’s College; it’s across St John’s St from the college, and is used for concerts and other events. And for a dose of true Cambridge culture you could of course visit the three pubs that I own a share of – more on that in a future post!

The Old Divinity School

Hull – City of Culture 2017, its moment in the spotlight

I went to Hull in the spring of 2016 for no particular reason other than that it was the end-point of a two-day bike ride up from King’s Lynn, but I found it a very genuine and straightforward place with a strong sense of its own identity. It’s still a city where ’everyone knows everyone’, as relatively few people move in or out, and it hasn’t attracted many immigrants (unlike say Boston, which I passed through on my way to Hull). Having said that, while the city centre shops have some individuality, the new shopping centres by the station are as generic as those anywhere else in Britain.

The city was in the throes of preparations for its rôle as Britain’s City of Culture 2017 (hull2017.co.uk), and in places it was virtually impossible to move in the centre, there were so many roadworks (see below). Alas, better cycling facilities seem to have been largely ignored in the pedestrianisation project. The focus seemed to be largely on infrastructure, but the projects are behind schedule. The expansion and refurbishment of the Hull New Theatre (new as in 1939, not 1379 as in my Oxford college) is running a year late, though it should still open at some point in 2017. Likewise, the Ferens Art Gallery closed in mid-2015 for refurbishment – re-opening has slipped from to early January 2017 to simply ‘early 2017’. Pietro Lorenzetti’s Christ Between Saints Paul and Peter (a masterpiece of the Sienese Renaissance, painted c1320 and acquired in 2013) will return to the Ferens after four years of conservation at the National Gallery, and the gallery will also host the 2017 Turner Prize exhibition and ceremony. Luckily, the excellent Hull Truck theatre company will be busy, with a programme including plays by Richard Bean and about the boxer ‘Battling’ Barbara Buttrick, both from Hull. Local musicians to be celebrated include Woody Woodmansey (drummer with Ziggy Stardust’s Spiders From Mars) and ambient music pioneer Basil Kirchin, and of course there’ll be an exhibition on poet Philip Larkin at the University of Hull’s library where he worked for 30 years (the library’s been refurbished, and houses the university’s fine collection of 20th-century British art). No doubt poet Andrew Marvell (born near Hull in 1621) will be remembered. There also be a tribute to film director Anthony Minghella, who studied at the university. No mention of Hull-born Maureen Lipman, alas (she talks the good talk about her love of her native Hull, but may possibly prefer life in North London). Hmmm – maybe they’re best off concentrating on infrastructure improvements.

In the meantime

In the meantime, the large Maritime Museum is strongly recommended – it’s in the city’s former Dock Offices, a triangular landmark built in 1871 and currently an island in a sea of roadworks; to its south is Prince’s Dock and to its north Queen’s Dock, created in 1778, is now Queen’s Gardens. Seafaring and overseas voyaging remain of course an enduring source of fascination to the British – the Ferriby Boats, dating from the Bronze Age (c1800BC) and found in a mudbank a short distance west of present-day Hull, are perhaps Britain’s oldest sea-going vessels. Hull (properly Kingston-upon-Hull) was founded in 1293 by Edward I as a port to supply his army in Scotland; from 1598 to 1869 it was a major whaling port, with ships sailing north towards Spitzbergen and then later to the Davis Strait and Baffin Bay; they hoped to be home each year for Hull Fair in October but risked being caught in ice – in all 66 of 186 ships were lost. The Wilson Line, founded in Hull in 1831, became the world’s largest private shipping line, and the arrival of the railway in 1840 allowed the city to become a major fishing port. In World War II only London suffered more bombing damage than Hull, and although the city was rebuilt in lovely grey concrete it entered a period of steady decline. It does still have scraps of its old town, with evocative street names such as Land of Green Ginger, and Holy Trinity church (mainly 14th-century), and some excellent old-style pubs.  The Humber is notoriously hard to navigate and is still surveyed every two weeks above Hull as five-knot tides cause the sandbanks to shift constantly. Pilots have been employed since 1512, and were made compulsory in 1541; the Spurn Point lighthouse, at the mouth of the Humber estuary, was in use by 1427, with a 90-foot tower built by John Smeaton in 1776 and the present 120-foot tower raised in 1895. There are still three lightships upstream from the Humber Bridge (opened in 1981 and unlikely to ever pay off its construction costs).

Holy Trinity church

Hull is largely bypassed by guidebooks, so I’ll just mention that Hull has more excellent museums, all free, with several in the newly dubbed Museums Quarter, just east by the River Hull, including Wilberforce House, with hard-hitting displays on slavery and its (partial) abolition. The Hull and East Riding Museum and the Streetlife Museum (covering history and transport, respectively) are also well worth a look; The Deep, at the mouth of the Hull, is a huge and family-friendly aquarium. The former Fruit Market by the river is seeing regeneration, with the new Humber Street Gallery, aiming to be a major centre for contemporary art, and the Yorkshire Brewing Company (actually a new microbrewery, but you can’t fault their ambition).

Wilberforce House