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.