During this week the previous year my phone rang just as I approached Llangelynin Church, a call to inform me that my mother had passed away. I knew the instant it rang. I don’t really believe my mother hovers along with me as I ride through life, saving me from falls on the hillside and keeping my feet in a position of safety at all times, but I do like the idea of it even if only in symbolic terms, because this is exactly what mothers do. And then there was an occasion the previous winter where I actually did lose a stirrup and found it again in the strangest of split-second circumstances, so I feel entitled to the odd whimsical thought during this time of summer rain, rainbows, and humid mist.
Mum was cremated more than 70 miles away, and it’s a place I don’t really wish to revisit for the sake of remembering her as that would feel not only a worthless chore, but insincere. I’m not sure riding to Llangelynin church with a bunch of hedgerow flowers on the anniversary of her passing is especially more apt, because towards the end of her life Mum’s feelings about religion were gradually worn down to an angry indifference. But consecrated places are not always about the constraints of religion. More importantly she loved Wales, and all things flowering, despite her absolute refusal – towards the end – to believe she was ever knowledgeable of plants and once upon a time cherished a large garden. Remembering her at this peaceful, historical spot in the Welsh hills is surely the greatest symbolism of freedom after years of suffering the emotional and mental prison of dementia. Those years when the shadow began to move across her memory until the disease finally swallowed it whole, were the hardest years of all. I realise that collecting flowers on the way to the church whilst astride Storm, might prove problematic. As well as a lot of dismounting I imagine His Lordship might presume I was collecting some of these delicacies on his behalf. So I gathered the bouquet a couple of days before, from the ancient, abundant hedgerows by the church. Before too long I had a small bouquet of natural beauties; Harebells, Foxgloves, Heather, Valerian, Cranesbill, Rosebay Willowherb, Campion; Bracken for greenery, and for fragrance, my own Lavender and Jasmine.
The day of the symbolic gesture – the day I choose to ride to Llangelynin with my bounty – is heavy with low cloud and drizzle. I tie the flowers to the saddle with a length of pink string. Storm is remarkably respectful and gives it only a cursory glance. Undeterred by the worsening weather, we set off at a smart pace, fired by the importance of our quest. On the small rise of Craigfedwen where the landscape would normally roll in front of us for as far as the eye could see, visibility is reduced to a thick wall of mist, and the only sounds are those of muffled bleating. I think about the song my brother and I chose for Mum’s service, by Enya: So I Could Find My Way. Before too long I admit defeat – I genuinely cannot find my way today. The heavens burst wide open and progress across the open mountain is made not impossible, but miserable and uncomfortable. Saturated, I turn for home. The pony gives me some tremendous heart-lifting canters through the wet bracken, raindrops and an array of petals flying in his mane. Does he know? As a symbol of freedom and a nod to the joy of wild Welsh foliage, I reckon we still completed our brief. And I suspect Mum had the last say.
Anna, as rector’s wife in a small rural village, attracts a clearly defined role. When Peter fails to gain promotion on the religious ladder to archdeacon, not only does he fall into bitter isolation but their marriage also begins to suffer, and money remains tight. Despite her willingness and capabilities, the male-dominated world of the church deems it not appropriate for Anna to be seen earning a living outside of church duties. Her first step of rebellion, not only to recover her self-worth but to support her family in their hour of need, is to take a part-time job in a supermarket. The small-minded politics of the village – an idyllic setting on the surface – hides a hornet’s nest of disquiet, desire, and disapproval.
Originally published in 1991. If you’re looking for big dramatic plot developments and action then this isn’t one for you. If, however you enjoy the careful consideration of the family dynamic and the internal struggles of a woman needing to be recognised as her own person – then well worth the read. Trollope’s insight into relationships as well as the expectations and restraints of the church within the village community and beyond, makes for a quietly compelling read.
The Great Orme is a limestone headland on the north coast of Wales, north-west of the town of Llandudno. The name is derived from the old Norse word for sea-serpent. A compact area for walking at just 2 miles long and a mile wide, the headland is often bathed in its own weather system and the geology, wildlife, archaeology and landscape is of such importance that much of the Orme has been designated an Area of Conservation, a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Heritage Coast. An especially scenic church, St. Tudno’s has been a site of Christian worship since the 6th century. Sermons can be open air during the summer, a tradition since 1857. Other services include Carols by Candlelight in December, and special celebrations on St. Tudno’s Day on 5 June. Far reaching and diverse views from the summit of the town and coastline, and the distant peaks of Snowdonia.
According to legend, Beddgelert is the resting place of Gelert, the faithful hound of the medieval Welsh Prince, Llewelyn the Great. Sadly, the story is not actually true. Although Llywelyn was a real prince, born in 1173, the dog was a fanciful addition and a masterstroke of marketing by a shrewd businessman. It can lay claim to being something of a photographers honeypot though, being blessed with churches, bridges, cottages, mountains, and the pretty river Glaslyn. The terrace of copper miner’s cottages date from around 1850. The nearby Sygun copper mine closed in 1903.
Beautiful is the large church, with stately arch and steeple. Neighbourly is the small church with groups of friendly people.
Reverent is the old church with centuries of grace, and a wooden church or a stone church can hold an altar place. And whether it be a rich church, or a poor church anywhere, truly it is a great church if God is worshipped there.
It’s a long, long climb from the village of Llanwrst but well worth the effort to scramble up through Gwydir Forest above the spa-town of Trefriw, to visit the oldest church in Wales, dated 11th century.
This remote location above the Conwy Valley may have been used for Christian worship since the 6th century. Rhychwyn, or Rhochwyn, was one of the 12 sons of Helig ap Glannog, who lost his court, known as Llys Helig, when the sea inundated it. As a result of this loss, the sons lived devout lives, some as monks. The church is also known as Llywelyn’s Old Church and the reference to age is perfectly justified. Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Joan – the illegitimate daughter of King John of England – worshipped here in the early 13th century when they stayed at their Trefriw hunting lodge at nearby Lake Geirionnydd.
Joan, also known by her Welsh name Siwan, complained that the walk to church was tiring; 2km uphill from Trefriw followed by 2km downhill. It’s said that Llywelyn founded St Mary’s Church in Trefriw to save her this effort. Since we chose to walk this route on a humid summer’s day, I could fully sympathise with her! At least the long trail through Gwydir Forest was shaded. We passed several warning signs about the old mine workings in amongst the bracken and the broken stone walls. The heyday of metal mining here was between 1850 and 1919. Both timber and metal was transported from the forest to the quay at neighbouring Trefriw, from where it was shipped downstream to the coast. This historical industry is blamed for the lack of fish in Geirionnydd today: the result of the poisoning of the waters from the metal mines?
Interesting that there are literary connections to this diocese too, the most notable being Taliesin – a 6th-century Welsh bard living on the shores of the lake – and the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose work has survived.
Once out of the forest, the climb continues past hill farms and uphill through twisted iron kissing-gates, into fields where only sheep manage to remain upright. Any sign of the original settlements here have long gone and the historical relevance becomes more pronounced. Once the past is delved into, these cruel and pretty surroundings give tremendous weight to their own stories and I couldn’t wait to get inside the church. Although we were surrounded by the magnificence of Snowdonia the immediate location of this lovely building is rather nondescript, not as pretty as St Mary’s church on the river, nor does it hold the charm of St Celynin’s church in the hills. It seems tucked away in a corner and hidden by trees, and rather strangely, the back of the church faces outward. But the sense of history here is both compelling and unique. The ancient wooden door, complete with wooden hinges, closes behind you with a thunk, and those thick walls block out every sound apart from the wind as it continues to find a way through the innumerable gaps and crannies of the building. It really does feel like you’re inside a time capsule. The roof beams are some 800 years old and the bell is reputedly from Maenan Abbey. The east window has coloured images of the Virgin Mary and of the Holy Trinity. Apparently, this type of colouring is rare, and this example is probably the oldest of its kind in Wales. There are a number of dusty Welsh bibles still open on the creaking pulpit, and services are still held here despite its lack of nearby road or level track. There’s something mystical and magical about buildings as old as this, so I can fully understand why someone would still choose to attend a service here and brave the incline.
I think I spent almost as much time wandering in the churchyard and reading the wonky gravestones, bordering the path like a set of crooked teeth. No point looking for Llywelyn here… The church in Llanrwst is now famous for containing his carved stone coffin, whilst his wife rests in Beaumaris church on Anglesey. Although this was an arranged marriage, it was clearly a love story too. In 1230 William de Braose, a young Marcher Lord was discovered with Siwan in Llywelyn’s bedchamber. De Braose was hung for adultery and Siwan was placed on house-arrest for 12 months. In time, though, he came to forgive her and Siwan was restored to favour. She gave birth to a daughter in 1231 and died at the royal home at Abergwyngregyn, on the north coast of Gwynedd, in 1237.
As for Taliesin, he is at the bottom of the lake…
Words and photography by Jan Ruth.
They delved in the meadow where the old stones lie, but deep in my bed, O safe, safe was I. For Christ He was slain where other regions trod, and I shall rise again from thy acre, God.
I have a fondness for local churches, and St. Mary’s at Caerhun has plenty of ingredients to satisfy my historical muse, especially since this particular church occupies the site of a Roman fort, that of Canovium. Even the name itself has a magical, filmic quality. Despite my well-oiled imagination it’s not easy to visualise some 500 Roman guards and over 100 mounted cavalry who were stationed here 2,000 years ago, in such present-day tranquility. Their job would have been protecting the mines and those important trade routes across Snowdonia, and to defend the river crossing as traders moved from Chester to Caernarfon. Scattered in the fields flanking the river are the remains of the ramparts, and a bath-house. The Romans abandoned the fort in the 4th century and thereafter, legend suggests it was occupied by Rhun ap Maelgwn, King of Gwynedd.
It’s presumed the original church here was built around the 13th century but the only datable material is the walls (partly red sandstone blocks which were part of the original fort) and the font. And it was most likely built by Cistercian monks, who had a penchant for dedicating all their churches to the Virgin Mary. It has a twin bell-cote with a date of 1657 inscribed along with the warden’s initials, but no evidence of there ever being a second bell. The lychgate is especially grand, designed to provide shelter for coffins before funerals: the seats at either side were for the pallbearers to sit whilst they waited for the priest. And I love the three yew trees in the grounds, dated at around 1,200 years old. In Christian symbolism yew trees are associated with The Resurrection but the main reason for their existence here was the harvesting of the wood to make longbows! Unfortunately, yew leaves are poisonous to cattle and sheep which is why these trees are usually enclosed within church grounds.
Today, St. Mary’s is a haven for history lovers, bird watchers, walkers and worshippers. And of course, sheep. The birds, the flora and fauna here are well-protected and documented. The church carries a full list of sightings, and from a writer’s point of view, I do like to be able to attach names to local birdsong, to add that all-important authenticity. Buzzards are common throughout Snowdonia, their distinctive circling and mewing always attracts attention, as do the red kites. It’s the smaller species which are more difficult to identify. Apparently, Caerhun is the most likely place in North Wales to see a hawfinch. The finches are attracted by the resident yew trees, along with the mistle thrush, fieldfare, redwing, pied wagtails and brambling. During April, swallows migrate from Africa and nest under the lychgate. These are easy to spot, catching insects on the wing. And down on the river there’s a whole host of waterfowl: egrets, herons, geese and the ever present herring gulls.
Is it a strange pastime to read gravestones? I did this a lot as a child. There was no creepy angle, I think it stemmed more from an interest in people and their lives. One headstone which makes for difficult reading though has been used as edging for the church roof. Apparently it belongs to Richard Hughes of Tal Y Cafn, dated 1702. When restoration work was carried out in 1970, human bones were found embedded into the walls along with a medieval stoup. No one knows if they were anything to do with poor Richard Hughes up on the roof or whether the bones belonged to an important family who needed to remain hidden, perhaps during The Reformation to avoid their destruction.
More conventionally, several victims of The Dolgarrog Dam Disaster in 1925 are buried here along with a 13th century chieftain, the Ferryman and the Nickson family who donated the stained glass window.
Other notables are two Liverpool businessmen, a cotton merchant and a copper-mill owner. Two servants, Jacques Anrioud and Jane Jones married in Paris in 1873 but are both buried here. I’d love to know their story…
Maybe I should write it anyway and it could be a historical time-slip novel, a pulling together of the present and the past. Dashing, romantic Jaques from Paris and a scandalous affair with local Welsh maid, plain Jane from Caerhun.
Words and photography by Jan Ruth.
A circular walk of 10 miles including 1,500 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: The wildlife reserve car park at Trwyn yr Wylfa, Cemaes Bay, Anglesey. LL67 ODH. Map References: SH: 35619-93789 or Lat: 53.415189 Lon: -4.474820
A circular route utilising much of the Anglesey coastal path. Spectacular scenery – on a sunny day the area takes on a Mediterranean feel with bright turquoise seascapes, coloured rocks, soaring white gulls, and if you’re lucky – seals and porpoises. Worth noting that it’s possible to shorten this route by making the start point at Cemaes Bay village at point 3 and reducing the overall mileage by approx 4 miles, without missing the most scenic parts of the walk.
There’s plenty of historical points of interest in this area too, and the best place to see the Gwna Melange – an unusual combination of ancient rocks created by an underwater landslip. In fact, the whole of the island is a designated European Geopark so a veritable playground for those interested in geology, including White Lady’s Rock; a triangular-shaped slab of rock which once formed part of an arch but was quarried extensively in Victorian times for its quartz. Only ruins remain of Porth Llanlleiana, used for the production of china clay, and further on, evidence of the area’s industrial heritage in the form of winding gear which was used to lower quartzite, used in the production of bricks, down to the works at Porth Wen. Production ceased at the start of WW1 but the site is still an evocative piece of history in a breathtaking setting.
Take the footpath by two brick pillars and pass through a metal kissing-gate, walking up through a small copse onto the headland. The way may seem indistinct here as planning for a second phase of the power station has altered the landscape. Walk towards the sea and head to the right, passing through several wooden gates whilst following the blue coastal path markers – towards a small cove and the outskirts of Cemaes village.
The route continues close to several coastal properties. Still following the blue coastal markers, take a gravelled path to the right, turning right again at the finger-post sign. Walk between the stone walls then turn left down a slope to the shore. The blue markers are set into the pavement here and lead up through the village.
In the centre of Cemaes village, turn left at Bridge Street, opposite Ye Olde Vigour pub. Bear left at the next finger-post towards the harbour, and a short promenade. Turn left at the National Trust finger-post signed for Llanbadrig and Penrhyn Mawr, and follow the steep track up between blackberry bushes, passing through a wooden gate onto the headland.
Go through the next wooden gate to the right, which leads down a dip and back up the other side, passing an old kiln set into the hillside. Continue to follow the track until you reach White Lady’s Rock. Turn right here towards a wooden gate, arriving on a single-track road.
Turn left on the road and walk a short distance to reach Llanbadrig Church: the oldest Christian site in Wales. Locate a stone stile consisting of steps set into the boundary wall of the church and climb over this – turning right – to pick up the coastal path again along the headland.
From here, it’s a straightforward walk along the cliffs, the route eventually dropping down towards Porth Llanileiana via steep steps. Climb the zigzag path back up the other side to reach the top of Dinas Cynfor and the ruins of a hill fort, and a watchtower. Distant views reveal the Skerries, Middle Mouse, Point Lynas, East Mouse, and on a clear day, the Isle of Man.
From the watchtower, follow the headland again, the route dropping down towards Hell’s Mouth – a deep inlet – and back up the other side. Cross a wooden stile and climb a steep winding track to the top of the hill. From here, follow a wide, grassy track as it heads towards Porth Wen bay.
The brickworks come into view on the left – if you don’t mind exploring uneven ground it’s worth scrambling down to take a look – otherwise, continue along the grassy track, passing through a gate and following the route as it bears right and then left, eventually ending at a single-track road. Turn right. Walk for almost a mile, then on a right-hand bend look for a footpath on the left.
Go over the stile into fields, passing over a stream via a wooden bridge. The footpath is clearly marked and continues through a section of private garden then once through the next gate, keep right along the lower footpath. Continue until this path ends at a single-track road. Turn right then at the T junction, turn left and after approx a mile, you’ll be back at the harbour in Cemaes. Retrace your steps back to the car park.
The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.
The only historical event I can remember with any accuracy is good old 1066 and The Battle of Hastings. At school I was hopeless at dates, in fact anything to do with numbers, but I used to love history because sooner or later it usually involved writing essays. Now though, I suspect there may be more to it. The longer I live and the more places I visit in the world, the more connected I feel to my roots, or more specifically my spiritual home, Snowdonia.
Twenty years ago we moved from Cheshire to North Wales. Although Cheshire has its history and pretty rural surroundings aplenty, Wales is far more extreme in both aspects. The castles and the rugged hillsides strewn with stone settlements, druid circles and Roman roads bring out the historical muse in me. To think that I am treading the same path as someone who lived in the Iron Age, is both fascinating and humbling. Snowdonia kick-started my stalled obsession with writing in a very positive way.
All this whimsical talk of the past makes me sound as if I write historical-based fiction. Far from it. Much as I admire many other genres I tend to be very much rooted in current times and my work reflects a lot of my own life experiences. But this is where I find the two ideas merge a little because I am most certainly inspired by this Ice Age landscape. What has gone before certainly shapes what we see today, but does it shape what we feel, too?
There’s no doubt I’m in my creative comfort zone tramping up the hills on a moody day. There’s no better way of busting that plot. Dedicated to a 6th century prince, this tiny church is a great find for historians, spiritualists, all kinds of artists, and a certain weary walking writer. This church is mentioned in the Wild Water series and I’ve spent many an hour soaking up the atmosphere. It’s quite a climb, some 900 feet above the village of Henryd, but sheltered from the Irish Sea by the comfortable bulk of Tal-Y-Fan. It proclaims to be the most remote church in Wales and due to its location on the Pilgrim’s Way, it is actually better accessed on foot or on horseback, but that’s just me wearing my whimsical hat again. I guess you could ride a quad bike or get a 4×4 along the green lane (originally the coffin path) up from the village, but that would spoil the experience considerably. The centuries of men’s hands on the same stones put the feeling into a place. I can relate to this and there’s no better way of making that connection than scrambling over those very same walls and finding a way across the hills. Even the names of the mountains are laced with enough magic to fuel the effort.
A small and simple building, Llangelynnin church probably dates from the 12th century (although some sources cite the 13th century), and was likely pre-dated by an earlier church of timber, or wattle and daub construction. Llangelynnin is also the name of the former parish, the primary school in nearby Henryd (Ysgol Llangelynnin). Celynin’s name is also carried by Craig Celynin, a mountain ridge adjacent to the church. Inside the building, there are inscriptions on the white-washed walls of The Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer, and strangely enough a skull and crossbones. The Welsh language, being the oldest (still spoken) language in the world, lends so much more romance and intrigue to any story, even though I don’t understand all the words. One of the well-preserved benches is dated from 1629 and dedicated to Reverend Owen Bulkeley, former rector. Oh, I’d love to go back to those times just for a few hours, to maybe listen to the man reading his sermon and sit with the congregation. Instead, we have to be content with mere historical recordings and the remnants of those times, in whatever form they take.
Close by are the remains of an inn and a cock-fighting pit – if you know what to look for. Easier to see is St Celynin’s Holy Well. Sick children were often brought to these holy waters for a diagnosis whereby an item of the patient’s clothing would be flung into the water. If the clothing floated, then the child would recover…
I love the way ancient history here is often blurred by myths and legends, shape-shifters and superstitions. Rich then, in history and romance and easy enough to blend both, with a touch of fantasy and suspense. Especially so when the winter sun is low in the sky, sending out early shadows to creep across the crooked stones of derelict homesteads and graves. And late sunsets in summer, when the scudding clouds floating in a fiery sky take on the shape of dragons and rearing horses. Or maybe, when the druid’s circle is shrouded in mist and… can you hear something? Like the clink of marching armour and the clash of swords…there’s something moving out there, or is it just my imagination?
Words and photography by Jan Ruth