The Castle on the River

I’ve sped past Gwydir Castle many times and, because it’s local, tend to fall into the trap of thinking I can go anytime I wish. But then one never finds the right time. When a friend lent me Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air – an account of the restoration of Gwydir – I quickly became hooked. And I had to see for myself the result of many years of struggle to bring Gwydir back to medieval life. Passing beyond the boundary wall is stepping back into history, and there’s an instant cloistered atmosphere. The property is described as ‘… an irregularly planned house in late Perpendicular Gothic style with some late 16th century Renaissance detailing. It is of roughly J-shaped plan, constructed of slate-stone blocks with sandstone dressings and slate roofs. Many of the building materials came from Maenan Abbey.’

In 1994 Peter and Judy left London to search for a house to restore. Drawn to North Wales, partly because Judy grew up there and partly down to Hiraeth – the Welsh word for homesickness – there was already a powerful magnet along with an affinity to rain, the mountains, and ancient Welsh history. They discovered a crumbling 16th century stone mansion hovering on the periphery of the flood plains in Llanrwst. Gwydir wasn’t your average ‘doer upper’. Regarded as one of the finest Tudor houses in Wales, the derelict castle was formerly the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family. Having fallen foul of previous attempts to ‘modernise’ it, the building had lost its majestic identity to a hideous nightclub along with a makeshift recording studio. Despite this, Peter and Judy’s dream of owning such a place had them pursue a sale, and soon they were sharing the marginally less squalid floor space with rats, bats, and a ghost.

The story related by Judy is one of unwavering obsession, and how the sheer size and magnitude of the task they had undertaken almost emotionally and financially defeated them, in part down to a period of ghostly possession in the name of Lady Margaret Cave – the most compelling and convincing account of a haunting I’ve ever read. And this sets a theme for living in Gwydir, where the constantly blurred edge of real and imaginary, past and present, becomes the norm.

In 1921 some of Gwydir’s historic contents – including two panelled rooms – were sold. The Dining Room was purchased by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (of Citizen Kane fame). Hearst was after purchasing historic interiors to furnish his mock castle in California. The fireplaces, panelling and door cases from Gwydir were crated up and shipped to America. In 1995 Judy and Peter discovered Gwydir’s lost Dining Room in a warehouse belonging to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Following lengthy negotiations, they were able to purchase the 17th century panelling, fireplace and door case, and all were finally returned to Gwydir – six tons of it, in fourteen giant packing crates – after a seventy-five-year American exile. I love how Judy describes this homecoming in her book, the way the very essence of Gwydir seemed to fill the air the moment the lids were eased off the crates…

The restored Dining Room wing, with its reinstated panelling and folded leather frieze was opened by HRH Prince Charles in the summer of 1998. The search continues for the Oak Parlour… Inconceivable then that these treasures should be at risk of flooding, and yet the Conwy River is prone to bursting its banks and Gwydir has fallen foul on more than one occasion. But plenty of locals are willing to pitch in and a band of volunteers are helping to build a sandbank wall.

If you’d like to get involved: https://www.facebook.com/GwydirCastle/

Over the Hill: 6

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.

P1000024-1The distant drone of farm machinery. The fragrance of recently cut hay mingles with fly repellant and hoof oil. Blackberry bushes are flowering, adding a creamy pink foam to the overgrown hedges, and I push aside long, waving brambles. It’s warm at eight in the morning but other than butterflies and biting insects, the lanes are blissfully empty without school traffic and before holidaymakers emerge. Nearing the crossroads by Crows Nest I hear the intermittent parp of brass instruments – not an oompah band in full flow, more like a practice session – and it has the pony stop, ears pricked, head and neck fully extended, eyes on stalks. After long minutes Storm decides that a baritone tuba and 76 trombones are not a precursor to monsters, and we trot on. A middle-aged man on a Power Rangers skateboard comes zooming down the hill but slows and grins, slightly embarrassed to be caught in the moment. I tell him he’s too old for kid’s toys and he takes in My Little Pony and my pink riding hat cover, and tells me much the same thing. Touché!
We make it as far as the riding school and cadge a comfort break. That’s hay and water for Storm and tea and gossip for me. The pony club have taken over the yard and Storm gets plenty of attention. I suggest maybe Storm and I could join in their activities for the morning and a deadly silence ensues as they scrutinise my face. I believe a mature child with a sense of humour is a wondrous thing, and if I ever see skateboard man again, I shall tell him so.
In Parc Mawr Woods the cool shade is welcome, if not the impossible incline. I dismount for a while and Storm follows me like an obedient dog until the greenery proves too much of a temptation and I have to chivvy him along. He still manages to steal snatches of grass and Rosebay Willowherb at every turn, and soon looks to be carrying a bouquet. Earlier in the week I spotted a badger on this same path in full daylight, but no such luck today. I continue to walk for a while – the oppressive heat between the narrow banks and the steep rocky going is more than enough for my friend to deal with, and he stops to drink at every watery trickle – up to the 6th century church on the old coffin route, part of the Pilgrim’s Way. When the church comes into view, we rejoin forces and canter for a short distance on the dry grass, before slipping through the church gate. The entrance isn’t made for horses and it’s narrow and awkward but poses no problem for a pony used to going through garden gates and other mildly unauthorised spaces. Storm immediately drops his muzzle to the ground and for a while the only sounds are of tearing grass, sheep, and the plaintive cry of a buzzard. I take a look at the well dedicated to St Celynin – reputed to hold great healing powers for children, and decide to take the long route home.
On the open mountain the sky is a stunning canopy of clear blue. It’s mostly downhill to Conwy and the elevation means there’s a breeze. Probably down to the fresher climate and the homeward trail but maybe my tuneless singing (Johnny Marr) also adds to Storm’s sense of urgency and he suddenly picks up the pace where the ground levels out. I egg him on and we fly over the ditches, scattering sheep. I guess I’ll always be an ancient little girl at heart.

More about St Celynin’s Church: https://janruth.com/2015/06/15/st-celynnins-church-in-the-hills/

 

Over the Hill: 5

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1Summer brings unwanted elements to our rides. Flies, youths on scramblers, moorland fires, speeding ice cream vans… if Mr Cool passes me again at that speed, his 99’s may well be shoved somewhere unpleasant… but the Welsh heather is beginning to flower, foxgloves stand like sentinels in the now profuse bracken and swallows dip and dive above the land like miniature kites. Our typically unsettled weather creates horizontal rainbows down to the strange mix of humidity, mist, drizzle, and intense sun. We canter up the track alongside the road at Pensychnant House, its bone-dry surface pitted by the movement of sheep and ponies. Storm runs out of puff halfway up and we trundle to the top with us both swatting flies, before gradually dropping back down to the Sychnant Pass; and a section of the road which winds between ancient walls covered in moss.
38218251_2002084286483178_3871159813224267776_nThe walls mark the boundaries of the Pensychnant Estate, now a nature reserve covering almost 150 acres. It was created in Victorian times around the country house of Abraham Stott, famous for his association with the Lancashire cotton mills. Since Storm’s visit to Pensychnant House for afternoon tea the previous summer, I still imagine Storm and Lady (aka His Little Lordship and Her Little Ladyship) rudely scoffing a selection of meadow-sweet, dandelions, and clover, served by grooms in silver buckets. The ponies are still an item. They groom each other with gentle nibbles, sometimes increasing the bite until one of them squeals and they break apart. But Her Ladyship doesn’t get away with as much bossing these days and will politely wait until His Lordship has finished eating before moving in to hoover up his scraps.
P1000311Along the road, the enormous variety of trees bordering the walls form a dense golden green canopy. I don’t often ride along here as it feels enclosed and narrow. Approaching traffic can be scary if it’s big and fast, especially motorbikes and farm machinery, since the engine noise creates a thunderous echo. Today the road feels quiet and inviting and I make a last-minute decision to trot on. Thanks to the absence of traffic, the old walls, the sound of Storm’s hooves, the birdsong, and the sun dappling through the trees easily transports me back a hundred years. It’s less than a mile to where the road opens out again at the base of Conwy Mountain, and then it twists and turns rapidly downhill towards Dwygyfylchi and the coast.
I jump off here and scramble up to the gate leading onto the Pensychnant bridleway, just as a tanker roars past and spoils all the imagery. Once on the other side of the gate, it’s the most lovely amble up through the estate onto the open Carneddau. We canter where the grass tracks even out before facing the temperamental iron gate at the top. I jump off, loop the reins around my arm. At the point of dragging the gate open, Storm makes a sudden lunge for some grass and I almost stumble into a sea of stinging nettles. But he stands patiently for me to remount, chewing furiously, and is forgiven. A moderately fresh, full-on wind has us turning sharp left, before ambling down towards the lake at Gwern Engen. (I set my first novel here, Wild Water, and called my imaginary property Gwern Farm.) Lots of Carneddau mares and foals are grazing or sunbathing by the water, and Storm stands like a rock when a mare and two curious foals come within nose-touching distance.
Despite my mottled hand and the lack of Victorian manners, summer brings some beautiful elements to our rides.

 

Dinorwic Quarry and Llyn Padarn

A circular walk of 6.5 miles including 950 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: car parks on the A4086 by Llyn Padarn, near Llanberis, Caernarfon, LL55. Map References: SH 5723 6130  Lat/Long: 53.12969971 -4.13530846 

adult-blur-boots-1452784Llanberis lies at the foot of Snowdon alongside one of the largest natural lakes in Snowdonia. The area is steeped in historical interest, from 13th century Dolbadarn Castle to Dinowic Quarry, the Lakeside railway, and the miner’s hospital. The earliest activity at the quarry is dated 1787 and Dinorwic developed into one of the biggest quarries in the world, finally closing in 1969. The workings are extensive – spread over some 700 acres. Brave explorers scaling the heights of these galleries and tramways have found miners boots and clothing in some of the abandoned buildings at the top. The miner’s hospital, largely maintained by the quarry workers contributions, housed one of the first x-ray machines in North Wales. Surrounded by some of the biggest summits in Snowdonia Dinorwic remains a deeply evocative place.

The route

  1. From the car park turn left to walk south-east. Keep left along the service road then walk a short distance along the main road before a finger post directs you to Padarn Country Park. Take up the path by the lakeside and continue to the bridge at the end. Access to the miner’s hospital is just ahead; for the lakeside railway and the slate museum turn left.
  2. To continue the walk, turn right. At the small roundabout turn left, and look for the footpath to Dinorwic Quarry, set between slate walls. Take this steep path and follow the obvious route, taking care over the iron bridge by the old winding gear. Look for the quarrymen’s cottages on the right, opposite a yellow and blue marker post.
  3. Walk between the rows of cottages and turn left up the long slope which used to carry the slate trucks, up towards a shed housing more winding gear. Bear left to pass around the shed then continue up the track towards the top, where it passes between tall slate heaps.
  4. At the top, turn left. There are extensive views here, especially from the viewpoint, which is another optional detour to the left. Otherwise, pass the old Telegraph building and the slate sheds to pick up a wide track, which drops down to the road by Ger y Coed.
  5. Pass through the gate and go straight across the road and through the gate to walk along the driveway to Ger y Coed – a colourful smallholding – then pick up the footpath to the right of the property as it continues to wind through the trees. At the fork, turn right.
  6. At the next fork in the path keep right, and bear right again at a yellow and blue marker post to continue the route through an oak wood. Pass through the old iron gate – the boundary to Padarn Country Park – then turn left and drop downhill towards the lake, following the yellow marker posts. Go over the bridge at a small waterfall.
  7. Pass through the kissing-gate, then turn right up the stony track which turns into a single-track lane. Follow this lane for some distance, until it begins to bear sharp right. Take the footpath to the left, up to a set of stone steps by a white marker post. Turn left on the road
  8. Follow the road down towards Brynrefail and continue over the stone bridge as the road swings left around the lake. Keep left, and go through the kissing gate to walk along the short service road. Great views of Llyn Padarn, Snowdon, and the ruins of Dolbadarn Castle from here. Pass through two further gates onto the main road and keep left for a short distance until a break in the wall reveals a footpath.
  9. Go down the steps to a walkway alongside the shore of Llyn Padarn and continue for around a mile to arrive back at the car park. IMG_3023The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.

Roman Bridge to Betws-Y-Coed Linear

A linear walk of 8 miles including 900 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: Roman Bridge railway station, Dolwyddelan LL25 OJG. Map References: SH 7127 5140 Lat/Long: 53.04439926 -3.92163991 

adult-blur-boots-1452784An interesting, easy walk through the Lledr Valley from Roman Bridge to Betws – as the crow flies – and one which is full of ancient history. Begin with a train ride from the busy town of Betws-y-Coed to the request stop at Roman Bridge. If the train isn’t running along the Conwy Valley – which was the case at the time of walking and writing, due to the track being swept away in the floods of early 2019 – it’s easy to take the replacement bus.

The route of this walk incorporates much of Sarn Helen, the Roman road local to the area. Sarn Helen actually refers to several stretches of Roman road throughout Wales. The full 160 mile route follows a meandering course through central Wales, and connects Aberconwy in the north with Carmarthen in the west, although debate continues as to its precise course. Many sections are now used by the modern road network and there are sizeable stretches that have been lost and are unidentifiable.

It’s worth allowing time to take a look at Dolwyddelan Castle along the way, reputed to be the birthplace of Llywelyn the Great. Built in the early 13th century, the castle functioned as a guard post along the main route through North Wales. This straightforward, direct route – the Romans loved straight lines – gradually descends to the spectacular River Llugwy, and continues over the steep and striking Miners Bridge. This is likely the same spot the Romans used to cross the river many centuries ago on their way to invade Anglesey and conquer the Druid stronghold there. The name evolved during the nineteenth century when local quarrymen used the bridge to reach the lead and tin mines of Gwydir Forest.

The route

  1. From Roman Bridge station turn right and follow the single-track road as it winds downhill, and then sweeps to the right. Good views of Moel Siabod. Cross the stone bridge and continue up to a farmyard.
  2. Walk through the yard and turn right at the finger-post to join the Sarn Helen road. Where the track forks, keep right and continue walking until the castle comes into view. The track skirts the castle and continues to a metal gate. Go through the gate and walk to the end of the track to the main road.
  3. Turn left here, and walk a short distance along the road towards Dolwyddelan village. Turn right in the centre, along Church Street. Take the first left towards the station, passing the school to your left. Take the single-track road ahead.
  4. Follow the road to the end and pass through a metal gate into grazing land. Follow the track as it winds to the right beneath the railway line and then turn left to go through a gate. Continue along the driveway and turn left at the end onto a single-track road. Pass Pont-y-Pant station, then continue to cross the bridge onto the main road. Take the footpath opposite and turn left.
  5. Take the stile at the end to exit the path, and turn right along the single-track lane. The lane climbs steadily towards a metal gate – go through here and continue forwards along the rough track. At the fork bear right, then the way divides into three options. Ignore the righthand path, and ignore the lefthand path as it heads up towards a fir plantation. Take the less obvious middle path through the copse.
  6. Follow this route for about a mile until it passes through a gate at the end. Cross over the road at the junction to pick up a stony path as it heads downhill. Again, at the next junction go straight ahead on the track and continue downhill to a wooden bridge.
  7. Pass some large properties to the left and at the main road, cross over to take the footpath opposite through woodland down to the River Llugwy and the Miner’s Bridge. Turn right after crossing the bridge, and continue along the river bank into Betws-y-Coed.

The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.

Over the Hill: 4

My companion is Storm, an opinionated 12.2 hand British moorland pony. Our playground is the North Wales coast bordering Snowdonia National Park.
P1000024-1Signs of spring have all but disappeared. Lambs are sturdy and bleat less. Bracken springs up overnight and hides the smaller tracks in a maze of green fern. By way of compensation, the perfume of wild honeysuckle entwined through the hedgerows is divine, especially after a spell of rain. It’s been a cool, wet spring with flashes of brilliance. Through April and May I brushed out enough pony hair to furnish several bird nests to luxury standard, but now Storm is resplendent in his full summer coat of golden dapples – other than random patches of dark hair on both sides of his neck, like designer stubble.
The bridleway across Conwy Mountain is a steady climb until it reaches a plateau where a couple of long grassy tracks pose opportunities for a canter. Ahead, there are far-reaching views across the Pensychnant Estate and the Carneddau mountain range. We gather momentum alongside the perimeter of Pen Pyra, the only farm on the mountain, once the home of first world war hero John Edwards and although it’s still a working sheep farm, the house is currently a holiday let. 

 

Towards the end of this track as the the land falls away towards Dwygyfylchi – where Edwards is mentioned on the war memorial – the Irish Sea looms ahead. It’s not unusual to get blasted by the wind at this point, but today it’s relatively calm. A sharp left has the pony leaping to the top. There’s a pond here, frequented by Carneddau mares and foals and we stop awhile to watch them graze the plants at the water’s edge and paddle in the shallows. Ears pricked, Storm champs his bit in contemplative mood, like he’s chewing the end of a pipe.
Conwy Oakwood Park Hotel in 1911Skirting across the front of the farm we cross a small stream and since we’re facing home, Storm races up the short incline. As we slowly retrace our steps towards Conwy, the castle and the estuary hove into view. And as we amble lower down the stony track, more wild ponies, and a commanding black and white turreted building is glimpsed through the trees. Oakwood Park Hotel and Golf Course opened in 1898. In its heyday, Oakwood guests included George Bernard Shaw, David Lloyd George, Amy Johnson, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain. The hotel closed in 1940 and both the golf course and the hotel buildings fell into disrepair. After serving as a private school and a care home, the hotel was refurbished and divided into three private residences. As well as the main building the lovely old pavilion remains including the original railings along the lane, although the golf course is now returned to pasture and inhabited by two equine friends. Storm often draws to a halt here and stares at something I can’t see, oblivious to the leg and any other command. My friend says it’s like they’re seeing dead people when horses do this. I imagine there’s plenty of ghosts in this area, both human, and equine. In fact, reading about some of the history of Oakwood I came across the diaries of Isobel Lee, including her long visits to Oakwood Park Hotel; describing the parties, the golf, and the tennis she filled her days with – through to a more sombre existence doing voluntary work in a hospital. Her final diary entry was June 6th 1917. And her home address? Wilmslow, Cheshire. A little uncanny that I had also moved from Wilmslow to Conwy, and the date of my ride on this day was June 6th  hopefully not my last diary entry!

 

 

Llangollen

A circular walk of 9 miles including 1,000 feet of elevation overall (excluding Dinas Bran) Start Point: Panorama Walk, Llangollen LL20 8ED. Map References: SJ 2340243187 or Lat: 52.980530 Lon: -3.142302 

adult-blur-boots-1452784Llangollen is a small town in Denbighshire on the River Dee, and this walk takes in some of its major points of interest ie: the ruins of Castell Dinas Bran, the Llangollen canal with its horse-drawn barges, and the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (pronounced ‘pont-kur-suck-tay’). The town is known for its network of canals and no less than 21 locks. Built by Thomas Telford in 1805 the Pontcysyllte remains the longest and tallest aqueduct in Britain.

For those wanting something a little more challenging, it’s easy to increase the elevation of this route by including the optional walk up and over Castell Dinas Bran, which adds around an extra 1,000 feet of climbing. Castell Dinas Bran translates to English as: The Castle of the City of Crows. Perched on a conical hill above Llangollen it enjoys fantastic aerial views and despite its dilapidated state, commands not only a strong historical presence, but also one of love, legend and fairytale. But don’t be fooled by the romance of it all, epic battles and crimes against king and country have plundered across these soils for centuries. If this was a walk through fiction, we could expect every genre under the sun.

More on the castle: https://janruth.com/2015/07/21/castle-of-the-crows/

  1. Park on Panorama Walk; a narrow elevated road with plenty of parking space and fantastic far-reaching views across the vale of Llangollen including the River Dee, the castle ruins, and the canal. Keeping this panorama to your left, walk towards Castell Dinas Bran, following the markers denoting the Offa’s Dyke Path. Turn Left over a cattle grid and walk a short distance along the narrow lane to locate a kissing-gate to the right, just beneath Castell Dinas Bran.
  2. The optional path to the summit is clear. Alternatively, bear right and head downhill on the pasture between the gorse. Ignore the vehicle track to the right and keep following the basin/dip in the land as it heads towards trees. The path becomes clearer as it skirts around the base of Castell Dinas Bran and heads into a wooded area, with farm buildings up on the right.
  3. Pass through a wooden kissing-gate and continue along the obvious path keeping the fence-line to the right. (If you’ve chosen to climb Dinas Bran, rejoin the route here by taking the path to the right of a small mound and this will join the alternative lower path.) Pass through the metal Kissing-gate and continue along the cobbled lane.
  4. Turn left at the crossroads and continue past a couple of dwellings into a wooded area. Go through the gate at the end and into pasture land, where the track follows the ridge and arrives at another gate onto a narrow road. Turn left here and go over the stile ahead into farmland. Keep right.
  5. Bear left across the second field to a stile, then turn left through the gate where a footpath marker confirms you’re on the ‘Community Miles Route.’ At the next marker post, turn right and go through a metal gate to cross a field to a stile by a farm track, at Llandyn Hall. Bear left here, and cross in front of a row of cottages.
  6. Take the gate on the right up by the finger-post and walk through pasture along the ridge towards the line of trees, and on to a wooden stile. Turn right along the lane, passing some cottages, then go through the metal gate and descend on a wooded footpath.
  7. Go straight on to the end of this track and once at the road, turn right, then cross the road and take the stile onto the canal towpath by the lay-by. Follow the towpath then for almost 3 miles, heading towards the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct.
  8. Leave the canal just after the fingerpost sign for the aqueduct at Trevor Basin via a long metal ramp. Cross the canal using the wooden bridge and continue onto the road at the top. Cross into Trevor Boat Yard for access to the aqueduct, pub, shop, cafe. It’s possible to walk across the aqueduct if you feel so inclined, but you do need a head for heights. Alternatively, head for the pub.
  9. Return along the same path back to the canal, but don’t cross over the wooden bridge and instead, continue towards a kissing-gate into a field. Walk to the next gate at the far side and turn left along an obvious footpath passing beneath the railway line. Turn right and begin following the Offa’s Dyke path markers as the path zig zags up to a set of stone steps and onto the road.
  10. Cross the road and turn left. After a short distance, take the first turning on the right along Trevor Hall Road. Where the road bends to the right, continue straight ahead on the private, unmade road signed for Offa’s Dyke. After a short distance, turn right into the trees at the footpath sign.
  11. Follow the ascending track as it eventually passes alongside grazing land and then into Trevor Hall Woods. At the fork in the path, take the higher path signed for Offa’s Dyke and continue to follow this route at the next fork where it indicates keep right.
  12. At the end of the trees pass through the wooden gate and turn sharp right to ascend the open hillside, keeping the drystone wall to your right. At the top, turn left and follow the driveway as it winds back up to Panorama Walk.

The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.