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/

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.

Llangollen: 1

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.

The Big Picture

The 2018 Annual Gathering of the Carneddau Ponies

IMG_4696-1Picture this. An early Sunday morning in November on the Carneddau Mountains and a small convoy of assorted vehicles heads up into the clouds. This vast coastal area is mostly inhabited by sheep, and features bogs, boulders, ditches, deep ravines, and rough tracks. Celtic standing stones and burial mounds are scattered across remote hillsides, amid miles and miles of undulating heather and gorse. When the sea fog creeps in with the tide, visibility can be reduced from poor to, well… zero.

The mission: to find in the region of 200 Carneddau ponies and shepherd them down to a single hill farm at the top of Llanfairfechan. Mission impossible?

The bleak, often cruel beauty of the Carneddau is a double-edged sword because the land here has supported these ponies since Celtic times, with little human interference. And although they’ve likely had connections to the more well-known Welsh Mountain Pony variants somewhere in their past, the Carneddau have been scientifically proven to have the most inexplainable DNA – a kind of unique, indestructible set of genes which sets them apart from not only other domestic ponies, but from other wild native breeds as well. And one has to appreciate that the kinder, more temperate habitats of our native Exmoor, Dartmoor, and New Forest ponies are also controlled and managed more selectively, whereas the Carneddau are isolated in all senses of the word. These ponies shape the land, and the land shapes them…

IMG_3246

In essence, the Carneddau ponies are a product of pure wildness…

45359008_1977224559028511_3745455930175651840_n-1Susanne Shultz (Senior Research Fellow at Manchester University) has spent many years studying the herds and logging their movements, understanding their social groupings, taking samples and analysing their lives to an astonishing level of detail. One item which did stand out was that the ponies’ social groups were paramount in maintaining health, especially as they aged – and this was a big factor in underpinning their physical fitness. Ponies (and people) with good social interactions generally enjoy a better quality of life. Of course, there will always be some individuals who fall by the wayside or just prefer to be loners, as evident in our own social structure. Interestingly, stress levels in the ponies during the gathering were not especially high – the levels only rose when the ponies were returned to the hills and endeavoured to re-establish their social groups.

Susanne goes so far as to suggest that this wild gene pool might be introduced to strengthen the breeding lines of domestic ponies who’ve fallen foul of various commercial and domestic traps such as sustained inbreeding. Small, domestic ponies are often prone to laminitis and a whole list of other ailments which clearly don’t affect the Carneddau ponies. Occasionally there are ponies on the hills with skeletal abnormalities and defects such as locking stifles, something which may have crept in due to the breed being watered down by the dumping of domestic horses on the mountains, or simply it’s the weaker ones falling foul of the brutal climate – or a combination of unfortunate circumstances. What is clear is that in order to protect their natural selection process (i.e. their breeding and social grouping) questions have to asked about our level of interference, because their way has seen them adapt to survive on this land for centuries. Essentially, these ponies enjoy a freedom denied to the majority of equines.

IMG_4278Standing in the mist-wreathed landscape, boots slowly sinking into a wet mattress of heather, the noise of the wind and the rumble of a distant quad broken only by the occasional whinny, was slightly eerie. And the ponies are well camouflaged; the colours of bracken and stone, rainclouds and earth. Occasionally we’d glimpse a small herd, moving easily across the landscape in a seamless line. The high-stepping speed with which they cover the ground is challenging for the following drivers, often risking life and limb over the unforgiving terrain.

An entirely voluntary exercise, the annual gathering is deeply rooted in Welsh tradition and reaches back several generations to a time when entire villages were involved – either on foot, or on horseback. A time when communities pulled together to ensure that the future of these herds were protected and managed to the best of their abilities. But these are modern times and although lots of people have strong opinions about the ponies, sadly, few people are interested enough to offer time and practical help. Given the depleted manpower available it’s doubtful the gatherings could continue without the use of quads, scramblers, and 4X4 vehicles. Helpers prepared to walk, line-out across the hills forming a human barrier to deter the ponies from chasing back uphill; while the vehicles traverse the Carneddau, circling as far as Tal Y Fan and out towards Conwy, driving the ponies down towards Llanfairfechan. 

IMG_4737Today, the same seven local farming families who continue to graze sheep on the Carneddau, retain the rights of guardianship as the Carneddau Pony Society. Gareth Wyn Jones, spokesman for the society, owns just 7 of these ponies while his uncle and father (still incredibly active on the farm at the age of 82) lay claim to around 80. After some five hours, around 150 ponies moved in a long, colourful caterpillar along the single-track lane to Tyn Llwyfan. An emotive sight; some cautious, some bold, some distinctly flighty, many of them vocal! The ponies were segregated into ownership groups – no mean feat. The individual families then make decisions as to which colts and young stallions need to be held off the mountain, along with the old and sick – on this occasion watched over in an advisory capacity by veterinary surgeon, Ellie Salisbury. Obviously, there are no predators on the Carneddau and so numbers need to be managed in order to allow the available grazing to support the existing ponies, and the resident sheep.

The vast majority of the ponies removed at these yearly gatherings are re-homed; thanks to various successful schemes working with the society such as conservation grazing – headed-up by Hilary Keyhoe (PONT coordinator and North Wales Regional Development Officer),or simply as companions to solo horses on private yards. The society even received a request for a matching pair of colts to be brought on as driving ponies, and many more have been taken on for rehoming and rehabilitating by Jackie Williams (Bryn Gaseg, Anglesey).

At times it seems a thankless task, managing 200 wild ponies which are worth nothing in monetary terms, and it’s a job which can occasionally attract negative press. Essentially, the Carneddau Pony Society is up against a balancing act between conservation issues, the rigours of a farming livelihood, and those who are perhaps misunderstanding of the ethos. But one has to look objectively at the roots of life on the Carneddau in order to appreciate the most effective way to co-exist, and it’s clear how much can be achieved if ideas, opinions, and resources are pooled. Looking at the big picture is an essential part of survival and exists at the heart of every successful community – both human, and equine.