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.

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