The largest prehistoric mine in the world

By now you’ve probably realised that Wales has three things aplenty: sheep, castles and mines.
Wales was famous for it’s coal mining throughout the 19th and early 20th century and had substantial slate mines but there had been small-scale mining in the country since the British Iron Age. Gold, copper and lead were mined in substantial quantities, zinc and silver not quite as much, until it wasn’t profitable any more.

I finally got to visit the Great Orme Copper Mines properly this year (with my parents in tow). Located half way up the Great Orme in Llandudno, it is the largest Bronze Age mine in the world and was uncovered in 1987 during a scheme to landscape an area of the Great Orme. Since then it has been an ongoing archaeological project of slowly uncovering bit by bit.

On the surface you can tour parts of the opencast mine which is over 4,000 years old and take a look down a deep Victorian mine shaft.


Walking through the 3,500 year old tunnels you get a feel for the harsh conditions copper mining involved in those days and it always dazzles me what the people of that age were able to accomplish using only stone hammers and bone.

The tunnels take you down to the second level which is approximately 60ft below the surface and it gets really cold and damp down there. If you feel claustrophobic easily this might not be the right place fore you. Only 3% of the tunnels are open to the public at the moment so some follow up visits might be required in the future.

And if you feel like you need some open air afterwards just make your way up to the top of the Great Orme with its stunning view.

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.

 

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.

Island of Lovers – Llanddwyn Island

In the 5th century AD a story of love and heartbreak was the reason for a young woman to retreat to Llanddwyn Island, a small tidal island off the coast of Anglesey, and follow the life of a hermit.

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The modern celtic cross commemorates the death of St Dwynwen in the year 465.

Dwynwen was the most beautiful of 24 daughters of King Brychan Brycheniog. She fell in love with a prince called Maelon Dafodrill but because she was already betrothed to another man, rejected his advances. Maelon was furious and attacked her and for this sin was frozen in a block of ice.

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The ruins of the church. In the background you can see another cross.

Her heart broken, Dwynwen ran away to pray when she was granted three wishes by an angel: 1. that Maelon be revived, 2. that she could help people who were unhappy in love and 3. she never wanted to be married. She then retreated to the solitude of Llanddwyn Island.

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Dwynwen’s Cross. It is inscribed ‘On the sixtieth year of Queen Victoria’.

Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. Legend says that the faithfulness of a lover could be predicted through the movements of some eels that lived in the well. Llanddwyn means “The church of Dwynwen” and the ruins of a church can still be seen. But there is more…

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Llanddwyn Island Lighthouse. The tower is from around 1873.

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The old lighthouse.

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Pilots cottages – this row of four cottages was built for the pilots who guided ships into the Menai Strait. From 1840 a lifeboat was stationed here and manned by the pilots as well as volunteers from Newborough. The cannon was used to summon the lifeboat crew

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Panorama of the island with the two lighthouses.

As this is such a magical place and named after the patron saint of lovers what better way to end the day than with a sunset.

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Unfortunately you can’t see the wind. It was freezing!

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Shortly afterwards the sun vanished behind some clouds.

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It really is a magical place.

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Dwynwen’s Cross and the lighthouse one last time.

As Dwynwen is the patron saint of lovers, she is the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine. Her Saint’s day is 25th January and is often celebrated with cards and flowers, it is after all the Welsh Valentine’s Day.

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Time to go home.

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