Camping in the British Summer – not all is ‘tickety-boo’

It had been many years since my last camping trip. It involved hours of trying to set up a tent, many tangled tent poles, food out of tins, lots of mosquitoes, campsite fires, lots of laughter and a whole in the ground as a toilet (it was in France). It wasn’t altogether terrible but something I’ve been less inclined to do the older I get.
But when two friends from Germany approached me and said they would do a tour around “my island”, intending to stay in Wales for a while and if I’d liked to join them for a weekend, I jumped at the opportunity. Because this would be “first class camping” – they own a motorhome.

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Myn-Y-Don Caravan Park

So one Friday after work they picked me up and we made our way to a beautiful caravan park right underneath Harlech Castle (And the poshest one I’ve ever been to, too. No holes in grounds on this one, I can tell you.) The sun was shining, although being a British summer it was not really warm, we had a formidable corner plot, the views were stunning and our neighbours were quite pleasant too. I learned how to fill up the fresh water tank, connect the electricity, dump grey water and most important of all, how to operate the steps at the door because otherwise it is a really long way down or up. And you quickly get accustomed to the motorhome swaying from side to side like a boat every time somebody enters it or turns around in their sleep at night. But that was fine.

We set up our table and chairs, started a BBQ and with a glass of wine (or two) had a lovely evening.

The next morning we started to have “little episodes” (“Episödchen” for you German speaking readers). That’s what we called the short rain showers that were occurring. So we stayed put until the sun came out and then made our way to Harlech Castle. The castle is a medieval fortification and sits atop a rock. The sea originally came right up to the bottom of the rock but now the shoreline is a short walk away. It was built by Edward I during his invasion of Wales in the late 13th century. It is an impressive sight to behold.

Unfortunately for us, our “little episode” had a come back and turned into quite a substantial one. To make things even worse it was accompanied by quite strong winds. We tried to hide within the walls but gave up after a while and returned to our motorhome. Obviously, half way down the hill, it stopped raining and the sun greeted us with all its might. After some drying off, a cuppa and a short nap (we’re not getting any younger) we went for a pleasant walk along the beach. The views and the light were spectacular and you could see for miles.

But that was all the summer we were getting. During the night it started raining in earnest accompanied by an unrelenting wind. My friends weren’t too impressed, given the fact that the whole previous week hadn’t been too glorious. So they did the one thing you can easily do with a motorhome – they rebooked their ferry, packed up, checked out, dropped me off at home, did some washing at my place and departed for France. They were enjoying ‘proper’ summer sunshine 24 hours later.

This was my adventure with ‘camping’ in Britain. Not sure I will repeat this anytime soon unless it is in the comfort of a motorhome or caravan.

The one thing I can recommend though is Harlech and the Myn-Y-Don caravan park. Having been in Harlech for the last time 10 years ago, I was relieved to see that the village hasn’t lost its charme and the castle entrance and visitor centre are much improved. The castle setting is one of the finest in North Wales and the beautiful village of Portmeirion and the busy beaches of Barmouth are not far away.

A medieval castle, a chestnut tree and Hercules

Chirk Castle is a magnificent medieval castle not far from where I live and I like to go there for a stroll around the garden and park. With its rounded towers it has a very distinct shape which reminds of Beaumaris Castle, another of the famous castles of Edward I along the north Wales coastline.

Chirk Castle was built by Robert Mortimer de Chirk between 1295 and 1310 to guard the Dee and Ceiriog valleys and as the local administrative centre. It has changed hands many times in the beginning with some of its owners being very important men of their age and recognised for their services to the crown. Even a future king – Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later King Richard III) – once owned it. But there is also another side to it. During the medieval period five of its owners were executed for treason, their estates seized by the Crown – caught up in wars that rumbled on for centuries.

Chirk Castle is the only Edward I marcher fortress that is still inhabited today and has been in the hands of the Myddleton family since 1595.

The gardens offer just the right mix of formality and lush flower borders with stunning views across the valley and the surrounding area. Actually the Hercules statue has probably the best view and he got here in a very ‘posh’ way – he was flown in by helicopter from his previous place in the lower woods. You will see a picture with a lonely plinth further down which used to be where he was positioned.

But it is worth to look beyond this and have a walk around the adjoining parkland. Various trails offer an insight into some interesting facts about the castle and the area and you might even see some wildlife and (almost) wild ponies.

And don’t miss the magnificent chestnut which has supposedly been here since the time of Henry VIII.

Even though I visit the house every time I’m there, I didn’t take any photographs as it is quite dark and my camera often struggles with these conditions. Best thing is to go there and explore it yourself. Chirk Castle is managed by the National Trust.

The lesser known castles of Wales

Having almost too many castles in one country can pose a bit of a dilemma: which ones do you promote for tourists to visit? What are the criteria? Was it once a real castle or just the architectural vision of a rich family in later centuries?

Considering it was once a proper castle, I suppose you could say there are three main criteria for fame:

  1. Does it look good – obviously if it is almost complete with rooms and gardens etc  (like Chirk Castle or Powys Castle) it is a definite must. And if the walls still stand in the shape of a castle that allow visitors to go around it, climb towers and explore the castle grounds, that’s good too. The visitor needs to be impressed by the craftmanship of the time.
  2. Location, location, location – if the location is right then some walls, gates and towers are more than enough. Spectacular views, strategic position and easy to reach by car ensures it to be an attraction for young and old. Put it on the top of a hill with spectacular views across the Dee valley (Castle Dinas Bran – though you have to climb a hill) or on top of a former cliff (Harlech Castle) and a mention in various leaflets is guaranteed.
  3. Historic importance – if the castle played an important part in the history of Wales or British monarchs, a lack in substance and prime location can be forgiven. But it needs to have some big names or events attached to it. A mention in a Shakespeare play doesn’t hurt either.

If you look at all the castles that fit into at least one of these categories you’ve got a lot covered, especially along the north Wales coast line. But there are the odd ones out – barely there ruins in a not very scenic, easy to reach location where nothing truly important ever happened. These are usually ruins popular with locals who like to go there for a Sunday family stroll. One thing I noticed, while visiting these places, is that they seem to be mostly typical Welsh castles whereas their famous counterparts are usually built by the English to keep the Welsh in check. This might be a result of the Welsh being defeated in many battles over the centuries and the Welsh castles being neglected, abandoned or even torn down afterwards.

But I think it’s time to take a closer look at some of these.

Located in Wrepre Park in a corner of the woods is Ewloe Castle of which you can find a more detailed post here. The castle, which was one of the last fortifications to be built by the sovereign Princes of Wales, was abandoned at the beginning of the invasion of Wales by Edward I in 1277 and given little military value, allowed to fall into ruin.

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Ewloe Castle is tucked away in the corner of the woods

Tucked away on the top of a hill in Caergwrle is Caergwrle Castle which I have visited several times before. Built by Dafydd ap Gruffydd, it was the final castle to be built by Welsh rulers before the loss of independence. But when Dafydd’s forces rebelled against Edward I, the king sent forces to take the castle andDafydd retreated and sabotaged the structure. It was rebuilt and Edward gave it to his wife but abandoned after a fire broke out. Never being reubilt again it was then just passed down the royal line until nothing much was left.

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Caergwrle Castle is set on top of a hill with stunning views but unfortunately not in a tourist attracting area

And then there is Holt Castle. This is probably the one castle that left myself the least impressed so far. It looks more like someone forgot a couple of stairs, windows and buttresses on top of a rock. Shows you how spoiled I am already when it comes to castles.

Holt Castle was a medieval castle built on the Welsh-English border on the banks of the river Dee in the town of Holt. The castle, which was constructed between 1277 and 1311, was shaped like a pentagon and had towers at each corner. It was built from local sandstone on top of a 12 metres high promontory but today only the base remains.

This is just the beginning really, there are many more “forgotten” castles, not only in north Wales but even along the Welsh-English border. After all somebody had to keep the Welsh in check….

But that’s something for another time.

A canal and a castle

I smiled that day.

Now you might think “So what?” or “Sad if she has to write about it.” but it wasn’t just any smile (trust me, I do smile a lot). It’s the kind of smile I get every now and again whilst driving through some especially beautiful scenery, just being happy I’m there. Or, as in this instance, I smile because there are finally more green leaves on the trees than bare twigs and spring is taking over. I just love life in these situations.

It was St George’s Day and I was making my way to the Shropshire Union Canal in Waverton, having planned a walk to Beeston Castle and back, when I realised it was spring and everything covered in a light green of fresh foliage.

It was the perfect day for a walk: the sun was shining (though there was a chilly breeze), birds chirping away, bumble bees buzzing around, butterflies enjoying a warm sun bath, the canal floating along slowly and, well, quite a distinct smell of cow manure in the air.

This part of the canal is not quite as popular as the other direction towards Chester, so I had the path mostly to myself. I could see Beeston Castle, my destination for the day, and Peckforton Castle in the distance and had some nice views across the Cheshire Plain.

Beeston Castle is quite a fascinating place. It is perched on a rocky sandstone crag 350 feet (107 m) above the Cheshire Plain and offers stunning views across 8 counties. The site of the castle may have been inhabited or used as a communal gathering place as early as the Neolithic period and there have been found remains of a Bronze Age community and of an Iron Age hill fort.

The castle itself was built in the 1220s by Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester on his return from the Crusades. The castle saw good and bad times and came back into service during the English Civil War in 1643. It was partly demolished in 1646, in accordance with Cromwell’s destruction order, to prevent its further use as a stronghold. During the 18th century the site was used as a quarry.

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View towards Wales

It is rumoured that a treasure belonging to Richard II lies undiscovered in the castle grounds, but no traces could be found so far. The castle is now in ruins and managed by English Heritage.

If you are interested in another ‘canal and castle walk’, you can walk a ‘Welsh version’ near Llangollen. Castle Dinas Bran offers some stunning views too.

 

A castle in the corner of the woods – Ewloe Castle

If you live in a country with as many castles as Wales, it comes as no surprise that not all of them are well known. If you are not a castle of magnificent beauty, exceptional location or great historical importance, the knowledge of your existence might be reduced to local citizens or those with a special interest in castles.

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The ruins of the keep can be seen on the left and the characteristic Welsh D-shaped tower on the right.

 

One of these examples is Ewloe Castle. Nobody is exactly sure why it was built and why, out of all places, in that corner of a wood. It is literally in the middle of a wood surrounded by high trees with the highest tower barely poking out and the castle compound hard to defend against attacks from the high ground just behind it. The only existing reference is that in 1257 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd built ‘a castle in the corner of the woods’. Nothing more.

But looking at what was happening in Wales at the time can give some clues. Llywelyn, Prince of Gwynedd, was destined to become Prince of Wales. He had defeated his brother in a battle to establish his power and pushed the English back to the border, retaking his family lands around Ewloe. So when he built the castle in 1257 it was more a statement of power. The castle, being a typical Welsh castle, follows the shape of the most convenient rocky outcrop, as part of its defences. This is one of the design rules all Welsh castles obey, another one having a characteristic D-shaped tower. So this might explain why Llywelyn chose this corner of the woods.

Unfortunately the upper ward was closed to visitors so I couldn’t take any pictures close up but it still gives you a first impression of the castle ruins.

The ruins are probably not the most spectacular you can find in north Wales but the location is unique and to get there you have to take a short stroll through Wepre Park which is really pretty. Be aware though it can be relatively busy with locals at peak times on weekends and parking can be a bit of a challenge.

Gwrych Castle – Hope for the future

Gwrych Castle

Gwrych Castle is quite a distinctive feature on the hill side and can be clearly seen from the A55.

Do you know these places? You see them from your car while passing the area, just far away enough so you can’t make out any details? And every time you wonder what they look up close? For me, Gwrych Castle was one of them until the recent open day.

Gwrych Castle is a story about a family’s vision, magnificent architecture and sad decline. Built between 1812 and 1822 it was built by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh as a memorial to his mother’s ancestors. It passed down the family and many important architects and designers left their mark on the castle and estate, like the famous theatrical Italian marble staircase and cast iron windows. But when the last sole heiress of the estate died and her request of bequeathing it to King George V and the Prince of Wales was declined, things changed dramatically.

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The main house can be seen on the left

During World War II Gwrych was requisitioned by the Government and housed two hundred Jewish refugees. In 1948 Gwrych was successfully opened to the public and attracted almost 10 million visitors in the next 20 years. After that the gradual decline began. Many owners, many different uses, unsuccessful hotel plans, weather, vandals and New-age travellers ravaged the buildings to the point of near dereliction.

Today, the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust and property developers are still hoping to convert this magnificent building into a five star hotel and restoring it to its former glory.

But enough history for now, lets take a tour.

Gwrych Castle Garden

There are walls, gates and rocks everywhere in the garden.

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One of the Yew Trees planted by Robert and Ellen in the formal gardens.

Gwrych Castle Ladys Walk

Lady’s Walk – the formal entrance into the gardens from the castle.

Gwrych Castle Conservatory

Window of the conservatory. Unfortunately there is not much left besides a wall with this window…

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…and the adjoining Gardener’s Tower.

Gwrych Castle Gardeners Tower

The Gardener’s Tower will be the first building to be restored on site. This room has already been done and offers great views towards the sea.

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Nant-Y-Bella Tower offers a viewing platform as well.

Gwrych Castle Gates

One of the many gates on my walk to the main buildings.

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Hesketh Tower. There are many towers at Gwrych Castle and most were copies of the medieval castles of North Wales.

Gwrych Castle Crest

Looks like a part of a family crest but I couldn’t find anything about it.

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Discovering all the buildings

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Even the stables had a tower.

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There was room for 6 horses in the stables. During the 1950s and 60s it was used as a cafe.

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Above the stables was accommodation for grooms and coachmen.

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Stable Court. The low arches on the left were used as dog kennels.

Gwrych Castle Tower

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Just loved this. Looks as old as the buildings.

Gwrych Castle Chapel

The chapel.

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You get magnificent views from up here.

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More towers.

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Gwrych Castle Main House

View of the main house.

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It must have looked beautiful in its heyday.

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Unfortunately the structure isn’t safe enough to allow us in.

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Probably the remains of the old family crest.

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Moreton Corbet Castle – A medieval stronghold and Elizabethan house

500 years of building history come together at the site of Moreton Corbet Castle in Shropshire. Around 1100 the Torets, a family of Saxon descent built the first castle here which passed by marriage into the Corbet family, who gave their name to the village and still own the castle today (although it’s managed by English Heritage now).

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When you approach the ruins today, the distinction between the medieval castle ruins and the remains of the later Elizabethan house is more than obvious.

Whereas the first castle buildings were built of timber, from 1200 on they were gradually replaced in stone. Many alterations were made until in the late 16th century Robert Corbet decided to build a new mansion, continued by his brothers after his death.

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16th century gatehouse, the entrance to the medieval building, with the remains of the great tower or keep on the right.

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Sir Andrew Corbet’s monogram above the date 1579 and the family crest

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Inner courtyard with the gatehouse

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Front of the later Elizabethan house

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Another monogram, probably Robert Corbet, on the Elizabethan mansion

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It’s amazing how much detail survived all those centuries

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Chimera on the west corner

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West front bathed in the evening sun. In the background are the ruins of the medieval castle’s former great hall. The fireplaces and doors to the latrines are clearly visible.

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View from the Tudor great hall towards the Elizabethan house

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East front and an overview of the whole size of the Elizabethan manor

The forgotten village – Rhiwddolion

So I got lost. Well not really, I knew where I was but had missed the start of my circular walk to the ‘forgotten village’ (so named by the Daily Post a couple of years ago) of Rhiwddolion.

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See, I knew exactly where I was, I just wasn’t supposed to be there.

Instead I was blessed with a lovely walk through some mysterious looking woods on my detour and I had all this bliss to myself.

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It felt like stepping into a fairytale.

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Not a soul in sight.

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Maybe it’s for the water spirits? After all I’m in the land of Myrddin Emrys (Merlin).

I had read about Rhiwddolion in an old newspaper article and got curious. Situated in a remote upland above Betws-y-Coed, Conwy, it was once a thriving quarrying community of about 150 inhabitants with its own chapel, school and accommodation for the quarrymen.

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‘Sarn Helen’, the old Roman road, was the main way in and out of the village. Makes your breath just go that little bit harder.

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In the north the route is believed to follow the western bank of the river Conwy.

The cottages were built on the Roman road ‘Sarn Helen’, which once ran for 160 mi (260 km) on a meandering course through central Wales, connecting Aberconwy in the north with Carmarthen in the west. The road was named after Saint Elen, a Celtic saint, whose story is told in the The Dream of Macsen Wledig part of the Welsh Mabinogion and who is said to have ordered the construction of roads in Wales during the late 4th century.

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Three cottages have been renovated and are now let as holiday cottages and managed by The Landmark Trust. To this day you can’t get there by car and have to walk the last stretch of your journey.

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Ty Coch, meaning ‘Red House’, is one of three Landmark houses. Ty Uchaf stands further up the hill at the head of the valley.

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Ty Capel was a school-cum chapel in the days of the slate quarry and sits beside the stream that flows down the valley.

Afterwards I explored the area and paid a visit to Llyn Elsi. It is a reservoir providing water for the village and was once two lakes before a dam was built.

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On my way down to Betws-y-Coed I came across another ruin which was just marked as ‘Garden’ on my OS map but I’m still none the wiser as there seems to be no information about it.

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Back in Betws-y-Coed.

Castell y Bere – A native Welsh castle

Wales has been referred to as the “castle capital of the world” as it has more castles per head than anywhere else in the world, but what many don’t realise is that not all of them are Welsh. Especially the well known and magnificent castles along the north coast, like Beaumaris, Caernarfon or Conwy, are in fact English and built to oppress the Welsh and keep a lid on rebellious activities.

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A magical autumn day

This weekend I set out to take a closer look at one of the native Welsh castles, Castell y Bere. Built by Llewelyn the Great in 1221, the castle sits high on a steep flat topped rock and looks out over the beautiful Dysynni Valley in Gwynedd, near Cader Idris.

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The castle sits on this rock near one end of the valley

Castell y Bere was a remote outpost on Llywelyn’s southern frontier, but it was vital to his security, guarded his cattle range and a major trade route through the nearby mountains, protected the homeland of Gwynedd and dominated the neighbouring lordship of Meirionnydd.

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Cattle was currency in medieval times and where better to keep it than in this imposing valley

It was one of the last fortresses in which Dafydd ap Gruffudd held out against the advance of Edward I after the death of his brother, Llywelyn the Last, in 1282. The castle fell to the army of Edward I, whilst Dafydd escaped, and was refortified because of its strategic importance. The English held the castle until 1294 when it was abandoned.

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Making my way up to the ruins

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Not many walls are still standing but it must have been a magnificent sight in its days.

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Looking towards one end of the valley. I “photobombed” this one, can you spot me?

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Leading to a non-existent next upper level.

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Looking out over the Dysynni Valley.

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The castle must be one of the most atmospheric ruins in Wales.

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Welsh castles usually followed the shape of the land they were built on using the existing natural rock instead of building expensive stone walls.

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The tower took the typical Welsh D-shaped design and was part of the royal residence for the most powerful Welshman of his time.

Nearby St Michael’s Church commemorates the life of Mary Jones who was christened there. The story goes that 16 year old Mary walked to Bala to buy a Welsh Bible in 1800 and thereby helped the founding of The British and Foreign Bible Society in 1804. Mary’s Welsh Bible is now part of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth.

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St Michael’s Church. There has been a church on this site since the 13th century.

Unfortunately daylight is a luxury here in autumn so it was soon time to go home.

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It’s not a lake by the way, just a reminder of the heavy rain we had.

Spotted this on my way as well, in a way the essence of Wales – beautiful mountains, caravans (although many prefer proper static caravans) and sheep.

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Sorry, just couldn’t resist

Brymbo’s Industrial Heritage

24 years today, on 27th September 1990, the last furnace at Brymbo Steelworks had been tapped and by chance there was a Brymbo Heritage Project Open Day today that provided a good opportunity to have a look around the former site and learn more about the past of this area.

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The original No. 1 furnace built by John Wilkinson

When someone mentions Brymbo most people think of steel but you can also find 300 million year old fossilised, still upright, trees here and coal had been worked on these hills since the 1400s. But when the industrialist John Wilkinson, who owned nearby Bersham Ironworks, purchased Brymbo Hall in 1792 and founded Brymbo Ironworks, that’s when it really took off. By 1796 Wilkinson had erected the first blast furnace and ever since iron and later on steel had been produced on this site until September 1990.

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The Machine Shop dates from 1920 and is one of later steelwork buildings

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Inside the Machine Shop

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A lot of things to discover

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Heavy machinery

Today some of the buildings still stand, including the original Wilkinson No. 1 furnace, and Brymbo Heritage Group offered free Guided Walks and 4×4 Tours around the works. Some buildings have suffered severly during the heavy snow fall last March and their roofs collapsed but repair works have already started.

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Overview – you can clearly see the collapsed roofs

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The old workshop I believe. The roof has been taken off already.

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Imposing

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Agent’s House – Wilkinson turned these cottages into offices in the late 1700s.

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Not originally from here, I think, but they had some like this one as well

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You really get an idea of the size of things

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These were basically just tipped over to unload

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I really like it when you can get close to things and even touch them

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More buildings reclaimed by nature

For safety reasons we weren’t allowed in all the buildings but you could still look inside. Also some of the remaining details on the buildings are intriguing.
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My special thanks go to Colin and Keith who walked us around the site and offered some interesting facts and anecdotes. I should have taken notes really but what I remember was a comment on the D Furnace about its size and power “She was an animal. She was a beast.” I think that says it all.

For more information and how to support Brymbo Heritage Group visit
www.brymboheritage.co.uk