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.

myn y don

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.

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Hidden gems of the Llŷn Peninsula – Plas yn Rhiw and Pernarth Fawr

You have to be a bit determined to get here. Tucked away on the southern coast of the Llyn Peninsula and after a couple of miles on narrow lanes, you reach one of Wales’ prettiest manor houses – Plas yn Rhiw. The 17th century Tudor/Georgian style manor house and terraced garden overlook the beach of Porth Neigwl, Cardigan Bay and Llŷn Peninsula in Gwynned, northwestern Wales. The history of the estate goes back even further to neolithic times and today is under the care of the National Trust .

Now, when you hear manor house you might think of stately homes with columns at the front, lion flanked stairs leading up to an impressive entrance and big windows through which you can see rich paintings and chandeliers. A Welsh manor house in a location like this is somewhat smaller and more solid build but what it might lack in size and grandeur it sure gains in atmosphere and charm. Unfortunately, you are not allowed to take any photographs inside but let me show you around the grounds.

The 17th century house was built for a descended from a ninth-century King of Powys and from there passed through the family until 1874, when it was bought and occupied by a series of tenants.
After being abandoned it was finally acquired by the Keating Sisters in 1939 who restored the building and recreated the garden. Big supporters of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, they donated the surrounding land of the estate to the National Trust in 1946 and Yn the rest of the property in 1952.

After indulging in a cream tea we headed back home (I was travelling with my parents) when my dad said: “Oh, what’s this with a star on the map, shall we stop there?” (See, that’s one of the perks about travelling old-style with a map instead of a naviagation system, you notice things you otherwise wouldn’t.) It was Penarth Fawr, a medivial hall house with thick stone walls, high ceiling and beautiful timberwork. Today it is under the care of Cadw and was definitely worth our little detour.

 

Waun Y Llyn, Hope Mountain

The ‘mountains’ in Wales might not be the highest ones ever but they sure offer spectacular views. And Hope Mountain in Flintshire is no exception.

I started my circular walk in Coed Talon, trying to include some local industrial history along the way. From the Railway Inn, I followed the disused railway line towards Llanfynydd. What is now a quiet and peaceful wildlife corridor including Wood Pit, a wetland nature reserve, was once part of the Mold-Brymbo railway line and a very noisy and bustling place. The area was heavily mined and trucks transporting coal, oil and stone from the nearby works and mines used the tracks. A far cry from the sound of birds chirping away and woodpeckers that greet you now.

hope mountain railway

If it looks manmade, it probably is. The disused railway line.

A far cry from the sound of birds chirping away and woodpeckers that greet you now.

After leaving the old railway line it was uphill to the top and Waun Y Llyn Country Park.

Waun Y Llyn has always drawn people up here. The panoramic views over Snowdonia, Liverpool and far beyond are amazing especially on a sunny day like this.

People used to take a bracing walk up here from the fashionable spa in Caergwrle 100 years ago. Though it would have been less peaceful up here back then.

 

hope mountain stone stile

Love this kind of stile: hole on the left for dogs, steps on right for humans

 

In the 19th and early 20th century, the hard silica sandstone of Waun Y Llyn was quarried and taken down the hillside by tramway to Coed Talon where it was ground into silica powder, used in glass making. Millstone grit was also quarried from the mountain and used for buildings and millstones for mills int the Alyn Valley below.

 

hope mountain winding top

Remains of the stone base of the top winding house.

hope mountain winding house

Winding house at the bottom

 

Erddig Park and its castle

It’s funny how you tend to write about places you travel to but hardly about the ones right at your front door. While visiting Erddig Hall and the adjoining park for the annual apple festival this weekend I realised, I had never written anything about this beautiful place just outside of Wrexham even though I visit it several times a year.

Erddig Hall is one of the country’s finest stately homes and, as well as the park, managed by the National Trust. In Erddig Park you can find the ingenious Cup and Saucer and the lesser known Motte & Bailey Castle. This old castle mound seems to be one part of the park which is often overlooked and not so well known. Even on beautiful sunny days when the park is enjoyed by many, you can have the old motte-and-bailey castle all to yourself. One of my neighbours, who lived in this area for more than 30 years, didn’t even know it existed.

When visiting Erddig Hall I like to include a little stroll through the country park so why don’t you join me. And yes, the park is much bigger than what you will see right now.

Even though the park might look like it was created by nature, it is actually the work of landscape designer William Emes who worked at Erddig from 1768-1780. He planted many trees and manipulated the flow of water across the park. His most famous feature is the Cup and Saucer waterfall.

One of the lesser know features of the park is the Motte and Bailey Castle that was incorporated into Emes’ design. Built by the Normans in the 11th century, the Motte and Bailey Castle’s purpose was to enforce their control over the local area. All that is left today are some earthen mounds hiding between the trees but once the castle would have dominated the skyline. When Emes started his work 700 years after the castle’s originial construction he planted an avenue of trees on its summit named Cathedral Isle. Back then the avenue was leading to a spectacular view over the surrounding landscape but nowadays the trees are just too high to see much.

The park surrounds the hall and offers, apart from the beautiful woods, many meadows and a lake – Llyn Erddig. Also included in the park is a section of Wat’s Dyke, a 40 mile long defensive earthen dam built in the 8th century.

I will do a proper post on Erddig Hall soon but as I had mentioned I was going there, I have included some pictures of the house and garden. It was nice seeing it so busy for the apple festival and I’m sure I’ll be back around Christmas for some Victorian Christmas inspiration.

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.

Ewloe Castle 6

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.

Caergwrle Castle

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.

Weekly Photo Challenge: Pure

Snowdon Summit_Panorama small

A sunny November afternoon on top of Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales. Even though there are other people around it feels calm and breathtaking. Like being on top of the world (but not quite as high).  Pure happiness.