Back in early July, which seems ages ago now, the warm sunny weather and long hours of daylight prompted me to take myself off on a bit of a weekend adventure, staying overnight completely off-grid at Glasson Dock on the Lune estuary. Now I’ve stayed at a few quite basic sites over the twenty five years I’ve been camping but this wasn’t even a site, it was a lay-by at the side of a lane, though I’d previously been assured by someone ‘in the know’ that it would be okay to stay there overnight.
The lay-by was apparently quite a popular spot for people to park up and go for a walk or just sit and chill out so several cars were already there when I arrived just after 2pm, however I found a place towards the bottom end and with a brew made on the camping stove I spent some time taking in the views in front of me. Across the estuary and over to my left was Sunderland Point with its rows of old cottages facing the water and in the distance the huge bulk of Heysham power station, while in front of me was Bazil Point, an area I’d walked round in May.
Back in the early years Glasson was just a very small farming and fishing community known as Old Glasson but because of the increasing difficulty for ships navigating up the Lune to Lancaster docks the Lancaster Port Commission decided to build a new dock on a sheltered bend in the river and closer to the sea. Land at Glasson was purchased in 1780 and construction was started, with the dock finally being completed and opened in 1787, and with the need to house the many workers building it an adjacent village began to grow. The dock was a well equipped place capable of holding up to 25 merchant ships, and following its completion a small lighthouse was built on the east side; currently used for storage there seems to be very little information about it but it became Grade ll listed in March 1985.
Before the growth of the village there were originally only two buildings in the dock area itself. One was Pier Hall, owned by a Mr Salisbury and which eventually became an inn, and the other was The Old Ship House, the beached hulk of an old West Indiaman merchant sailing ship with holes for doors cut into the bulwarks and rooms built inside. The Old Ship House was an inn from around 1783 until 1790 and was the predecessor to the Victoria Inn, built around 1800 and which still stands on roughly the same site. Fast forward to today’s modern times and the Victoria closed down in 2015 due to lack of business; various plans to revamp the once attractive historic building have so far come to nothing and sadly it remains empty and derelict.
With the construction of the Lancaster Canal between 1792 and 1800 thought was given to making a connection between it and the sea, although the original plans weren’t actioned. Those plans were revived in 1819 and after additional finance was raised construction of a canal branch, later known as the Glasson Arm, was started in 1823 and opened in 1826, with a large canal basin behind the dock. Over its two-and-a-half mile length from Galgate to Glasson the branch canal dropped through 52ft, and while the main canal had been built lock-free for the whole of its 42-mile length the Glasson branch was constructed with six locks between Galgate and the Glasson Basin, with a seventh lock between the basin and the dock itself.
In 1834 a shipyard and Customs House were built at the dock, followed by a watch house in 1836 and a dry dock in 1841. The quay was connected by a branch line to the railway network in 1883, operating passenger services until 1930 then continuing with goods services until its final closure in 1964. The shipyards, which had been mainly concerned with ship repair rather than ship building, eventually closed in 1968 with the dry dock being filled in a year later. A limited amount of commercial shipping still uses the dock to this day, with outgoing shipments including coal for the Isle of Man and Scotland’s Western Isles and incoming cargoes of fertiliser and animal feeds.
Since the shipyards closed in the late 1960s the canal basin has developed over the years into a large marina for pleasure craft, currently with a wide range of boating services and mooring facilities for 220 boats, and in more recent years the trackbed of the disused railway line has become a very pleasant pedestrian path and cycleway which is part of the Lune Estuary Footpath and also one end of the 81-mile Bay Cycleway established in 2015.
Down the hill from my parking place was a small industrial area behind the dock and set back in a corner was the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse factory shop. Originally established on the quay at Lancaster around 50 years ago the family run business moved to Glasson in 2008 and still uses many of the traditional methods of preparing and curing fish, meats and cheeses of all kinds.
Passing the back of the nearby Dalton Arms pub a narrow street of terraced stone cottages took me to the road through the village, with the marina at the far side. Across the swing bridge and on the corner was the Lock Keeper’s Rest, a large former static caravan turned into a snack bar/takeaway popular with bikers, walkers and cyclists, and on a small raised cobbled area was the Bi-Centenary Anchor, placed there in May 1987 to celebrate the bi-centenary of the dock’s opening. At one time that corner was nothing much to write home about but it seems to have undergone a fairly recent transformation with a greatly extended seating area and plenty of picnic tables – overlooking the marina and with lots of greenery and colourful plants in tubs it certainly looked a lot more attractive than it once did.
Across the road was the bowling green with the start of the cycleway at the far side, which was also the start of the circular walk I’d planned to do. The level path ran between the road and the estuary for quite a distance then veered off on a raised bank across the saltmarsh before a bridge took me over the little River Conder, a tributary of the Lune, to the small hamlet of Conder Green. There was nothing really there only a dozen houses, some farm buildings and The Stork pub; my intention had been to take a photo of The Stork but the late afternoon sun was in the wrong direction and the building was in shade so I headed off along the road back towards Glasson.
I’d walked for quite a distance when I saw something obviously very dead lying in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was a baby squirrel but on closer inspection it turned out to be a weasel, and going off its small size it was still quite a young one. Externally there wasn’t a mark on it so not wanting it to get squashed by the next car which came along I picked it up to leave it somewhere out of the way, but never having seen a weasel before other than in books or on the tv I took a quick photo before dropping it into the long grass over the other side of the roadside crash barrier, where hopefully it would be out of the way of anything which might see it and peck it to bits.
Continuing along the road I passed a static caravan park, a couple of houses and a group of farm buildings then turned left for a short distance to a slope which took me off the road and down onto the canal towpath. A short way along was Christ Church, designed by Lancaster architect Edmund Sharpe and built in 1839-40. The churchyard, which contains the war graves of two soldiers from WWl and one from WWll, was extended in 1905 when land was granted on provision that a burial plot was available in perpetuity for members of the Dalton family who owned most of the land in the area, though only two male members of the family have ever been buried there, with the female members laid to rest at Lancaster Cemetery.
Walking along the side of the marina I couldn’t miss the brightly painted canal boat moored at one of the pontoons. With my liking for multi-coloured abstract street art it was just my ‘thing’ and I couldn’t help wondering if the owners were also street art fans or if they had painted the boat like that just to be different. Back across the swing bridge I called in at the shop to get some cake for a treat later on then made my way back to the lay-by and my ‘pitch’ for the night, finding when I got there that anyone else previously parked there had gone and I now had the place to myself.
After a simple meal, a brew and a couple of slices of cake I whiled away the time with a few chapters of my book then with the late evening light fading I took Snowy and Poppie for their last walk of the day. Down at the marina various lights had come on in different places and with the stiff breeze of earlier on having dropped the now calm water produced some nice reflections.
Being completely alone in the lay-by overnight didn’t worry me, in fact I rather enjoyed the solitary peace and quiet, and as I settled down to sleep I had my fingers metaphorically crossed that I would wake the following morning to some more of the lovely weather I’d had that day.
During my recent August bank holiday search for new street art in the city centre I took the opportunity to visit Castlefield Viaduct, the very new and recently opened ‘garden in the sky’, a project developed by the National Trust and four local partner organisations to transform the Grade II listed disused railway viaduct into an urban green space.
The history of the Castlefield area and the viaduct dates back to 79 AD when Roman soldiers led by General Agricola chose the area as the site of a timber fort which they called Mamucium, later known as Mancunium. Protected by the Rivers Irwell and Medlock it was in a strategic position and well-located to guard important roads leading towards other larger forts. Over time the fort was repaired, enlarged, and eventually rebuilt in stone and a village was established nearby but once the Romans left around 410AD both the fort and the village declined and were eventually abandoned.
In 1086 a village called ‘Mamcester’ was recorded in the Domesday book as lying less than a mile north-east of the old fort. The village grew steadily, incorporating the site of the fort now known as Castlefield (Castle-in-the-field) and by the early 13th century it had become a town, though it wasn’t until the late 18th century that the area really became a significant part of an ever-expanding city.
The industrial heritage of Manchester began around 1758 when the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned James Brindley to construct one of Britain’s first canals, built to transport coal to the city from his mines at Worsley. The Bridgewater Canal proved to be a huge success, halving the price of coal and prompting a period of intensive canal-building across the country, and when the Rochdale Canal was completed in 1804 it joined the Bridgewater Canal at Castlefield, cutting through the site of the old Roman fort and making the area the hub of the city’s canal network.
By this time Manchester was the fastest growing city in the world thanks to the ever-increasing number of cotton mills creating jobs and bringing in trade and eventually it became clear that the canals alone couldn’t move goods fast enough. This led to the dawning of the railway age and in 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester railway opened, with the Castlefield area becoming the site of the world’s first inter-city passenger railway station, Manchester Liverpool Road, now part of today’s Science and Industry Museum.
Over the next several decades the area became recognised as the central hub for Manchester’s goods transportation network. Warehouses sprang up all over Castlefield to support the network and three railway viaducts were built over the canal basin, with the first one being opened in 1849. The second viaduct opened in 1877 and in the same year an elevated railway was constructed alongside it. In 1885 construction began on the Great Northern Warehouse, designed to be a three-way warehouse served by canal, road and rail, and in 1891 construction started on a fourth viaduct which would carry the railway line above the canal basin to both the warehouse and the adjacent Central Station.
This fourth Castlefield viaduct is a steel latticed girder construction 370yds long and 38ft wide and is an early example of using carbon steel for the girders, replacing the usual cast and wrought iron. Designed by engineer William George Scott it was manufactured and constructed by Heenan and Froude, the engineers behind the construction of the iconic Blackpool Tower, with M W Walmsley & Co. being the masonry contractors.
Supported on fifteen cast iron columns each 10ft 6ins in diameter the viaduct stands approximately 55ft above the canal basin, while the columns themselves are embedded in Portland cement, rest on solid rock some 20ft below ground, and are filled with masonry and cement. The total weight of steel and iron in the viaduct is over 7,000 tons and more than 6 million forged steel rivets were used in the construction. It was completed at a cost of £250,000 (about £20.5 million today) and in a small ceremony held on completion day a special copper rivet was fixed in the one remaining slot, though no-one these days knows exactly where it is.
For 77 years the viaduct carried heavy rail traffic in and out of the Castlefield area but along with Central Station, now a large convention centre, it closed in 1969 and has been disused ever since. It became Grade II listed on February 14th 1988 and over the years essential periodic repairs and maintenance to keep it safe have been undertaken by what is now Highways England.
Plans to convert the disused viaduct into an urban ‘sky park’ inspired by New York’s High Line were first proposed in 2012 but unfortunately fell through, however in 2021 a planning application by the National Trust received approval from Manchester City Council to transform around half the viaduct’s length into a temporary ‘garden in the sky’. Funded by private donations and support from local businesses and the People’s Postcode Lottery work began in March 2022 and the viaduct opened to the public in late July as a year-long ‘test and learn’ pilot scheme where visitors and locals can share their feedback and ideas for the structure’s long-term future.
After the very pleasant Welcome Area at the start of the viaduct a wide central path leads through an experimental planting area where hessian sand bags filled with peat-free compost are being used to encourage plant growth through the viaduct’s ballast. Following on from there is the main part of the garden with long specially designed and constructed planters separating four small partner plots set back off the path. Several of the plant species used, such as cotton grass, have connections to the local area and herbaceous perennials provide pretty splashes of colour among the densely planted ferns and grasses.
At the end of the garden is the events space, a light and airy building where visitors can leave their feedback and any ideas for the future of the viaduct. In the far wall a glass door and large windows look out onto the ‘naked viaduct’, the undeveloped section left untouched to provide a sense of how nature has reclaimed the space since the site was closed in 1969.
Visiting the viaduct is currently only by guided tour and though it’s completely free visitor numbers are limited to 100 per day with tickets having to be booked online – it was only the day after it opened that I’d tried to book but disappointingly I found it was ‘sold out’ right through August and with no dates showing in September. I’d almost put it out of my mind but during my recent search for street art in the city I decided to go to the viaduct on the chance that I might be allowed in and I was lucky – there was just one place left on the next guided tour. Not having known what to expect I was more than pleasantly surprised by what I saw and I really enjoyed my visit so (hopefully) if I can ever manage to book a ticket I’ll certainly go back another time.
A couple of visits to Manchester during the last few weeks didn’t produce as many new artworks as I expected so for this post I’ve combined the photos I took in July with those taken on the August bank holiday weekend. Following my usual route from Victoria station on both occasions my first two ‘finds’ were on the gable end walls used for advertising in Salmon Street; I really liked the bright colours of the first one although the bottom part was hidden by a fence, while round the corner a bunch of quirky animals were advertising Chester Zoo
The centre of Stevenson Square had undergone one of its regular makeovers, this time by the current artist in residence at Fred Aldous art and craft shop, though it still irks me slightly that the old toilet block is always surrounded by metal barriers and I can never get a clear and unobstructed photo of whatever is on the walls at the time.
Deserting the NQ on one occasion I meandered down to Castlefield – more of that in a later post – and found some more quirky artworks en route. A shutter with its decoration left over from the Jubilee weekend, colourful steps leading to a residential area, and outside a pub a board with the face of a rather sad looking dog which I just couldn’t resist.
Although on each of my two most recent visits to the city I didn’t find as many new artworks as I thought I would I was happy with those I did find, though by the time I’d walked a zig-zag route from the NQ all the way to Castlefield and back to Victoria Station I was certainly ready to relax for a while once I got home.
More glorious weather last weekend was just too good to waste so on the Sunday morning I headed off up the M6 to Gresgarth Hall and its garden just outside the Lancashire village of Caton. Gresgarth Hall is home to landscape designer Lady Arabella Lennox-Boyd and her husband Mark and the private garden is only open one Sunday each month between February and November. I’d only found out about it a couple of days previously and with the next open day being due it was a good opportunity for a few hours out.
Gresgarth Hall was originally founded around 1330, constructed as a fortified residence by Agnes and John Curwen. Successive generations of the Curwen family owned the Hall for the next 300 years then when the last Curwen died in 1633 the estate passed to the Morley family who eventually sold to the Girlingtons. The look of the house changed several times over the years, with the greatest change occurring between 1805 and 1810 when it was extensively remodelled and enlarged, softening its defensive characteristics and providing its current Gothic appearance. It then passed through several owners over the years until the late 20th century when the current owners purchased the estate in 1978, then after renovating the house Arabella Lennox-Boyd began designing the garden in 1980, developing it over the following years into that which can be seen today.
The name ‘Gresgarth’ is apparently Norse for ‘enclosure of wild boar’ and the sculpture of a wild boar greeted me on the formal lawn in front of the house – it was huge and it was ugly and not the sort of thing I would want to encounter on a dark night. From the front lawn box hedging bisected by several paths divided a large area into different garden rooms with a variety of beds and pretty herbaceous borders, and set in some of the paths were several cobble mosaic designs by Lancaster artist Maggie Howarth.
My wanderings eventually took me to the side of the lake and from there a path led up to the enclosed kitchen garden where an arched door set in the wall immediately made me think of the book and film The Secret Garden. More cobbled mosaics were set into the paths and against one wall was a stone seat with a carved panel set in the back of it although there was no information to say what, if anything, it represented.
A path from the back of the kitchen garden took me past some outbuildings to a ford across Artle Beck, a tributary of the River Lune, and though there were plenty of rocks around there was no way I could have got across without getting wet feet so I wandered down the path past the far side of the lake and crossed the river via the Chinese style bridge. Wavy box hedging lined both sides of a grassy avenue and at the end was rather a strange sculpture – or maybe it was a large lump of stone balanced on top of a smaller one, though there was nothing to say what it was supposed to be.
Back towards the bridge and in the shrubbery not far from the end a movement caught my eye and there, only just visible, was a young robin. It seemed quite happy to have its photo taken and sat there for several minutes while I took a few shots of it. Back across the bridge steps on the right took me down to a small but very pretty rear garden with a trellised and rose covered arbour overlooking the river, though I could only go so far before the garden itself became private.
Round the side of the house and overlooking the lake was a very pleasant terraced patio area with the lower level right by the water. A small dinghy, apparently much-photographed, floated at the water’s edge and two huge stone roaring lions lay within the colourful foliage though I had to walk quite a distance back round the lake before I could actually see them properly and take a couple of zoom shots.
At around 12 acres this garden is only just over the size of the walled garden at Bridgewater which I visited the week before but the two couldn’t be more diverse. At Gresgarth formal and informal planting blend seamlessly together with soft lines and curves and there are so many lovely areas and winding paths to explore in such a relatively small area. Although I knew I hadn’t seen everything the garden had to offer I decided after two hours that I’d had enough – it was a very hot day and with too many people around photography sometimes proved to be a bit frustrating but I loved the garden itself and as I drove away I knew I would be making another visit in the not-too-distant future.
Last weekend, wanting to go somewhere different but not too far away, I decided to visit the RHS Bridgewater Garden, a relatively easy 10-mile drive from home and somewhere I’d never previously been to. Developed on the site of the former Worsley New Hall and its lost historic grounds Bridgewater is the RHS’s fifth garden, and being under the impression that it had been established quite some time ago I was surprised when I later learned that it only started to be developed five years ago.
The history of Worsley New Hall dates back to the 19th century when it was built for Francis Egerton, 1st Earl of Ellesmere. Replacing an earlier classical-style building from the 1760s the New Hall was designed by architect Edward Blore, with the foundations being started in 1839 and the first stone laid in April 1840. An Elizabethan Gothic-style mansion, the building was completed by 1846 at a cost of just under £100,000, the equivalent of £6.7million today; the earlier building was demolished between December 1844 and August 1845 and a section of what is now the A572 runs over the former site of it.
Just as grand as the house, the magnificent gardens were landscaped over a 50-year period with landscape designer William Andrews Nesfield, one of the most sought-after of his profession at the time, being involved in the project from 1846. Over the years the sloping grounds to the south of the hall were developed into a formal terraced garden set off with ornate fountains and accessed by a series of steps and gravel paths, while beyond the terraces landscaped parkland extended to a lake with an island which was reached by a footbridge.
Worsley New Hall was visited by Queen Victoria twice, first in 1851 and again in 1857. For her first visit the Queen and her party travelled from Patricroft station to the Hall via the Bridgewater Canal on a Royal Barge commissioned by the Earl of Ellesmere, with a landing stage being specially built on the canal bank, and in honour of her visit the canal water was dyed blue. On her second visit, after attending an Art Treasures exhibition in Manchester, she planted a North American giant redwood tree in the Hall’s lawn in memory of the Duke of Wellington but sadly the redwood didn’t grow well in the British climate. In 1869 Edward, Prince of Wales, and Princess Alexandra visited the Hall then forty years later, after opening the Manchester Royal Infirmary, they made a second visit to inspect the Territorial Army’s East Lancashire division in the grounds of the Hall south of the Bridgewater Canal.
During the first World War John Egerton, 4th Earl of Ellesmere, lent Worsley New Hall to the British Red Cross and it became a hospital for injured soldiers. The grand spacious rooms were used as wards, food was provided by the kitchen gardens and the terraced gardens and parkland were used for recreation. The hospital closed in 1919 and the building was left unoccupied then in 1920, after incurring various death duties, the 4th Earl started auctioning off various items of furniture and fittings. Paintings and further items of furniture were relocated to other properties also owned by the Earl and the Hall’s library and surplus furniture were sold at auction in April 1921.
In 1923 the Worsley estate including the New Hall was sold to Bridgewater Estates Limited, a group of Lancashire businessmen, for £3.3 million. Several attempts were made by them to sell the property during the later 1920s and the early 1930s but sadly these all came to nothing and the Hall continued to lie empty, slipping slowly into decline. With the advent of World War II the War Office requisitioned parts of the building and the grounds and during 1939 and 1940 the site was occupied by the 2nd and 8th Battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers, with around 100 troops based there. In 1941 and 1942 the 42nd and 45th County of Lancaster Home Guard Battalions used the site, constructing storehouses for explosives in the grounds, while the lake and other parts of the grounds became Middlewood Scout Camp.
Sadly the existence of Worsley New Hall was soon to come to an end. Already weakened by dry rot and subsidence and damaged during the military occupation a fire in September 1943 badly damaged the top floor of the building, leading to calls for tenders to demolish it. Finally in 1944 it was sold to a scrap merchant for £2,500; demolition started in 1946 and by 1949 the hall had been razed to ground level, with debris used to fill in the basements. A footbridge which connected the New Hall with Worsley Old Hall estate at the far side of the road was demolished at the same time and 800 tonnes of stone from the New Hall was taken to be used in the construction of council houses in Southfield, Yorkshire.
In 1951 the War Office once again requisitioned part of the New Hall site and built a reinforced concrete bunker as an Anti-Aircraft Operations Room, along with two anti-aircraft radar masts, then in 1956 they actually purchased the site of the bunker and it was used by the Royal Navy as a food store. In 1961 it was sold to Salford Corporation and was used by both them and Lancashire County Council as a control centre then seven years later ownership passed to the Greater Manchester Fire Service who eventually leased it to a local gun club as a shooting range in 1985.
With the exception of the bunker the site of Worsley New Hall and its gardens remained in the ownership of Bridgewater Estates Ltd throughout the years until 1984 when the company was acquired by Peel Holdings, a property and investment group. Over the following years various ideas were put forward for the regeneration of the site but nothing ever came of them, then in 2011 an archaeological excavation of the site, funded by Peel and carried out by the University of Salford, revealed that some of the basement of the mansion and its foundations were still in existence.
In October 2015 it was announced that the Royal Horticultural Society would renovate the New Hall’s 154-acre garden and work started during the 2016/17 winter. Plans included the restoration of any remaining historic features, the reconstruction of the walled garden and the creation of completely new and contemporary features, with an eco-friendly light and airy Welcome Building housing a reception area, cafe, gift shop and attached garden centre, and Bridgewater Garden finally opened to the public on May 8th 2021.
A weekend afternoon and good weather meant that the place was very busy so my first port of call which seemed to have less people around was the Welcome Garden with its pleasant paths meandering round large informally planted areas close to a nearby lake, although I couldn’t get close enough to the water to take a decent photo. A well mown path past the lake led across a tree lined meadow but seemed to go on for quite a distance so I took a left and followed a path winding gently uphill through the Chinese Streamside Garden. On the rail of the bridge at the top I found a dragonfly sunning itself, it seemed to like having its photo taken as it stayed there for ages and never moved.
From the bridge steps and another path took me up past the Chinese Water Garden to Ellesmere Lake and though I could have walked all the way round I passed on that in favour of finding the more interesting parts of the garden. A long straight path led through Lower Middle Wood to the large events marquee and picnic area and halfway along I came to a very unusual exhibit in a glass case, Queen Cotton Fairy’s Crown.
In the 19th century and throughout Queen Victoria’s reign the production of cotton was instrumental in the rapid growth of Manchester as a city and the Cotton Fairy’s Crown is loosely based on the design of Victoria’s imperial state crown. Unfortunately there was no information on when this exhibit was made or who made it – looking at the crown itself and the state of the case it looks old, probably made around the time of Victoria’s visits to Worsley New Hall, but so far I’ve been unable to find out anything about it.
From the events marquee a long straight path led to the 11-acre walled garden and in the outer part were the original potting sheds, now used as an exhibition space, and The Bothy, the cottage where apprentice gardeners once lived and now repurposed for horticultural staff, while next to the cottage was the tall chimney which was once part of the heating system for the glasshouses which were nearby. Along the path was an enclosure with a few rare breed chickens then from there I went to explore the walled garden proper.
A section of one of the outer walls had been utilised as a backdrop to a handful of separate tiny gardens each with a different theme and my favourite of these was the Windrush Garden, a re-imagined tropical garden designed to cope with an unpredictable climate and the challenges of a shady inner city backyard. Inspired by stories of sunny days in Jamaica the design reflects the resilience of the Windrush generation who, having moved to the UK from the Caribbean, could start a new chapter of their lives while still retaining a sense of ‘back home’
The walled garden itself is one of the largest in the UK and at 11 acres is approximately the same size as the Chelsea Flower Show site. The inner walled garden is divided by a central wall into two halves, with the Paradise Garden occupying one half and the Kitchen Garden the other, and these are surrounded by a series of connecting gardens which are enclosed by a lower-level outer wall. With so many paths and ‘gardens within gardens’ it was easy to lose track of where I’d been and more than once, just when I thought I’d seen everything, I found another bit I hadn’t seen.
The layout of the kitchen garden’s pathways and beds was inspired by a network of local underground waterways starting in Worsley. The two Chelsea gold medal-winning designers discovered maps and drawings of these waterways dating back to the Industrial Revolution and overlaid these with an Ordnance Survey map of the area to create the garden’s layout. Water itself also features in the garden with four raised rectangular ‘infinity’ pools among the flower beds.
The contemporary Paradise Garden takes inspiration from the traditional paradise gardens of many years ago, cleverly blending Mediterranean, Asiatic and American plant species and with water as its key feature. At the heart of the garden is a 70sq metre lily pond fed by two shallow channels running east to west and with a smaller pond and fountain at each end.
Heading towards the exit my route took me past part of the Welcome Garden and the exit itself led onto a pleasant terrace overlooking Moon Bridge Water and with an outdoor seating area for the cafe. I did think about treating myself to cake and a drink until I saw the over-the-top prices – £4 for a small cupcake and £2 for a can of Coke is just ridiculous – so I gave up on that idea and waited until I got back home.
Aside from the cafe prices and the ridiculously expensive gift shop I was very impressed with Bridgewater Garden. There are other areas to explore yet so I’ll certainly make a return visit, especially as it’s not too far from home, though next time I’ll be taking a picnic.
It was another dull morning with lots of grey cloud around and the wind still blowing a hooley but with one or two patches of blue sky showing through there was a chance it would brighten up later on. I was nearing the end of the holiday though and I didn’t want to waste the day by staying on site so I took myself off to visit Gwrych Castle in Abergele.
The fascinating history of Gwrych Castle and its long line of owners dates back to 1485 and the Lloyds, a family with impressive ancestry and whose seat was Gwrych House, Abergele. Three hundred years later Frances Lloyd, heiress to the Gwrych estate, married Robert Bamford-Hesketh of Chester in 1786 and in 1788 their first son, Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh, was born. Frances died in 1797 when Lloyd was only nine years old and his father Robert subsequently rented out Gwrych House and moved the family to Chester, though he and Lloyd eventually moved back to the house in 1809.
From a very early age Lloyd had been fascinated by castles and after developing an interest in medieval architecture he made it his ambition to create a castle on the hillside behind the house as a monument to his mother and his Welsh ancestors. In December 1814 he embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe during which he made sketches of the architecture in some of the towns and villages he passed through but his travels were cut short in 1815 when his father died. Inheriting the whole of the Gwrych estates, which stretched across North Wales into north west England, meant inheriting a great responsibility so any plans to create a castle were put on hold and it wasn’t until December that Lloyd’s attention returned to building his new family seat.
Having sketched several designs of his own for his proposed vision Lloyd wasn’t confident enough to use them to turn his ideas into reality so he commissioned Charles Augustus Busby to produce a plan and sketch of a castellated mansion. Although Lloyd initially liked Busby’s design he felt it was too plain and nothing like the Gothic Revival castle he envisioned so in 1816, after drastically altering Busby’s plan with ideas of his own, he employed Liverpool-based architect Thomas Rickman, an authority on medieval architecture, to advise on Gothic window design. Rickman submitted several designs for cast iron windows though rather than choose one particular window pattern Lloyd picked elements of each design to create a new pattern which would be to his own taste and unique to Gwrych.
During 1818 the final plan for Gwrych was formulated, influenced by both Busby and Rickman, but it was Lloyd’s own ideas which produced the final development – without his direction and intense involvement in every step of the process Gwrych would probably have been just like any other Regency castellated mansion which can be seen throughout Wales and the rest of the UK. Work on the castle and outbuildings began in 1819, with the ‘official’ foundation stone being laid for the main house on June 13th that year. By 1822 most of the work was complete and Lloyd began furnishing the interiors and laying out the gardens, though over the next thirty years he also added towers, walls and battlements to the property, enlarging and developing what eventually became the largest built structure in Europe until the Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition in 1851.
In 1825 Lloyd had married Lady Emily Esther Ann Lygon, youngest daughter of the 1st Earl of Beauchamp, with their eldest son Robert Bamford-Hesketh, named after Lloyd’s father, being born at Gwrych a year later. At the age of 25 Robert married Ellen Jones-Bateman of Pentre Mawr, Abergele, in 1851, thus uniting two gentry families, and in 1859 Winifred, their only surviving child, was born. Lloyd died in 1861 at the age of 73 with Robert subsequently inheriting Gwrych Castle and its estate, and over the years he and Ellen planted much of the present gardens with their enormous monkey puzzle and yew trees.
In 1878, at the age of 19, Winifred had an arranged marriage to Lieutenant General Douglas Cochrane, and in 1880 the first of their five children, Lady Grizel Cochrane, was born and brought to Gwrych Castle. Sadly the marriage wasn’t entirely a happy one and as a consequence Douglas spent much of his time either in Scotland or away fighting wars whilst his wife and subsequent children remained in her Welsh homeland, meaning that the two led increasingly separate lives. In 1885 Douglas became the 12th Earl of Dundonald when his father died, with Winifred becoming Countess of Dundonald, then in 1894 her own father Robert died at the age of 68 followed by her mother Ellen in 1902, with Gwrych Castle and its estates passing to Winifred.
Robert had provided in Winifred’s marriage settlement that the family’s wealth and land was hers alone to use or dispose of however she wished so following in her father’s footsteps after his death she chose to run her inherited estates herself with the help of an agent, resulting in her husband having little, if anything, to do with her affairs. By 1904 the two were virtually estranged and by 1906 the marriage was over, and though Winifred stopped short of divorce the Earl was banned from Gwrych, a fact which was to become significant in later years.
Throughout her years at Gwrych Winifred made many changes, refurbishments and additions to the castle including a wide 52-step marble staircase designed by architect Detmar Blow and installed in 1914. She was a remarkable woman, being an advocate for both womens’ rights and animal rights, championing many causes and financing many projects including the building of Abergele drill hall and the village hall in nearby Llanddulas. She donated land to build Colwyn Bay Community Hospital and in 1916 set up a Prisoner of War camp at Llansannon and a military hospital in London. The First World War took its toll on her however – she developed diabetes and died suddenly from heart failure in 1924.
Gwrych Castle was bequeathed to the then Prince of Wales as a royal residence but the bequest was declined and the property passed to the Church in Wales, of which Winifred had been one of its founding members in 1920, however to spite his wife in death the castle was re-purchased in 1928 by the Earl of Dundonald who sold the contents to meet the £70,000 cost. He claimed that Winifred had gone mad before her death and declared that no member of the family would ever live there again – and none ever did. The Earl himself died seven years later at his home in Wimbledon in April 1935 aged 82 and was succeeded by his and Winifred’s elder son Thomas who then became the 13th Earl of Dundonald.
The sale of the castle contents in 1928 started a decline in Gwrych as it lay virtually empty for the next twenty years although in 1939 the Government did, as an emergency measure, requisition the property from Thomas, the 13th Earl, to house up to 300 Jewish refugee children brought to Britain as part of Operation Kindertransport after being separated from their families. The children left Gwrych at the end of the war when they had the chance of being reunited with their relatives and in 1946 the castle and estate were sold by Thomas to Robert Jesse Rennie for £12,000, meaning that for the first time in nearly 1,000 years the lands had not been owned by a member of the Lloyd family.
Following the sale the estate was broken up – at the castle itself trees were felled in the woodlands and the vast parkland became subdivided farmland in multiple ownership. Two years later the castle was sold again, this time to entrepreneur Leslie Salts who laid new paths and a car park alongside the lower drive. The main rooms were refurnished, the original stables were converted into a cafe, a miniature railway was laid and a childrens’ zoo developed. As the ‘Showplace of Wales’ Gwrych was one of the first country houses in Britain to be opened to the public as an attraction and for the next twenty years it continued as a very prosperous business employing over 200 people and attracting nearly ten million visitors. By the late 1960s however Leslie Salts felt that the expectations of the public were changing so in 1968 he decided to sell the castle and retire.
Gwrych was purchased by a London-based development company but with the estimated cost of restoring the castle to its former glory being well beyond the company’s budget it was decided to put little money into the fabric and as much as possible into the entertainment content. The formal gardens were cleared and structures bulldozed to make way for a medieval jousting arena, the ‘Knights of Gwrych’ were formed as a permanent entertainment troupe and the Principality of Gwrych was created. Between 1972 and 1987 jousting tournaments, medieval banquets, markets and a bar operated in and around the castle but nothing was paid into the preservation of the building and by December 1985 the venture was deemed to be a lost cause, with only the bar and jousts in operation. The last jousting tournament was held in 1987 and the castle closed to the public in 1988.
In 1989 Gwrych was sold to an American businessman for £750,000 but his plans to restore the castle were never realised; it fell victim to vandalism, looting and arson and was left to decay. In 1994 the site became an illegal encampment for ‘New Age Travellers’ who stripped the lead and slates from the roof, sold off internal fittings and burnt the floorboards on bonfires, while local dealers stole architectural items like fireplaces which ended up in reclamation yards. It was eighteen months before the travellers were evicted but by then the castle had been reduced to little more than a roofless shell. Further damage was caused to the grounds in 1996 when they were used as a film set by Constantine Films for the filming of Prince Valiant – much of the slope in front of the castle was excavated and though it was later re-landscaped and restored to grass it was nothing like the gentle slope constructed by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh 150 years earlier.
Heading into the present day Mark Baker, an 11-year old schoolboy who passed the castle daily and played around its walls, found its destruction so appalling that he decided to do something about it and in 1997, aged just 12, he founded the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust with the aim of restoring the castle and making it accessible to visitors once more. The condition of the castle was monitored by the Trust and in 2006 lobbying Conwy Council to compulsorily purchase the property put pressure on the absentee American owner to put it up for sale. It was bought for £850,000 by City Services Ltd, trading as Clayton Hotels, and in 2007 they proposed a £6m project to convert Gwrych into a 90-bedroom 5-star hotel; the project was subject to planning permission but had the support of the Trust.
Significant sums were spent by Clayton Hotels on plans and partially clearing the site but work was halted by the credit crunch in 2008 and in 2009 the company went into administration. The following year the castle was purchased by another development company and in 2012 planning permission was obtained for a 75-bed luxury hotel but with the company unable to secure the considerable funds needed to invest in such a major renovation the project never got off the ground.
Although the future of the castle itself remained uncertain the Trust was eventually able to lease part of the site from the development company and the gardens and some of the outbuildings began to see a period of revival under the care of its members. In August 2016 a special open weekend was held to celebrate the life and achievements of world champion boxer Randolph Turpin who lived and trained at the castle in the early 1950s, then in 2017 the gardens were opened to the public on a daily basis. In June 2018 the castle and its immediate estate were sold to the Trust, it’s purchase enabled by a massive grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and its future was finally secure.
I visited the castle during the open weekend in 2016 then again in August 2017 but aside from the formal gardens, which were still very much in their infancy, there was very little to see as the main building was still a dangerous ruin and therefore closed to the public. Much has changed since then however and a lot of work has been done, helped along in no small part by the 2020 and 2021 series of the I’m A Celebrity tv programme. Advance preparations for both series included work to make parts of the premises usable and safe for the celebrities and the overall revenue from ITV put the castle renovations at least two years ahead of schedule. I was very impressed with what I saw this time and I’ll certainly be making another visit in the not-too-distant future to see what else has changed.
**I visited and photographed a few other areas of the castle but these were all connected to I’m ACelebrity so they may become part of a future post.
Back in April friend Eileen sent me a link to an online local news article about the friendly neighbourhood giraffe and one of the following comments mentioned another giraffe situated in the village of St. George, a mile or so off one of the roads into Abergele, and as I was going into the town anyway I decided to make a detour and go in search of it.
The giraffe was said to be in the garden of the village pub but when I got there I could see no sign of it anywhere and the pub wasn’t open so I couldn’t go in and ask. I was delighted to find that the church was open though so I went in to have look round and got chatting to a local couple who were just leaving. When I mentioned I was looking for the giraffe they said it had been moved to another garden just over a mile along the road and they very kindly told me where to find it.
The Parish Church of St. George is Grade ll listed and was designed and built by C H M Mileham between 1887 and 1894, funded by Hugh R Hughes of Kinmel, a landowner and well known genealogist from a wealthy family. Constructed from local limestone with sandstone detailing and a single nave the church was built in the Perpendicular Gothic style, replacing an earlier double-naved church with medieval origins which had existed within the same churchyard.
Unfortunately, in spite of exploring several avenues of research I’ve only been able to find a few scant details of the church interior. The reredos and communion rail are oak, the octagonal font is limestone, and the oak chancel screen has a semi-octagonal lectern and pulpit built in. The south transept contains the organ and at the rear of the church is the Hughes family pew, upholstered and extending across the width of the building under a timber canopy. The stained glass east window is in memory of H R Hughes and and his wife Lady Florentia, given by their grandchildren in 1919.
Something which did puzzle me though was in a section of one of the stained glass windows – a tiny image of the windmill at Lytham on the Lancashire coast and a reference to Lytham’s Lowther College in connection to Bodelywyddan Castle. This was intriguing and deserved a bit of investigation.
Lowther College, a private girls’ school, was set up in 1896 in Lytham by Florence Lindley who was its first headmistress. In 1920 she leased Bodelwyddan Castle from its then owners and moved the college from Lytham to the castle, purchasing the property five years later and remaining as headmistress until 1927 when the college was sold to Allied Schools, an association of independent schools. She then moved a few miles away to Kinmel Hall where she converted the building into a ‘rheuma spa’ for the treatment of people with rheumatism. A well worn brass plaque below the window says it’s in memory of Florence, ”founder of Lowther College, Lytham St Annes and Bodelwyddan” so presumably this was the church she attended during and after her years at the castle.
At the bottom end of the churchyard was the Grade ll listed Gothic Revival style mausoleum, erected when the previous church still existed. Built of Derbyshire sandstone in 1835-6 by architect Thomas Jones of Chester it was commissioned for the Hughes family by William Lewis Hughes who was created first Baron Dinorben in 1831. Three of its sides have blind 4-light Perpendicular traceried windows while the front has a carved Hughes’ coat-of-arms combined with that of William’s first wife, Charlotte Margaret Grey.
With St. George only being a tiny place – more hamlet than proper village – there was nothing else to see once I’d looked round the church so I set off along the road in search of the giraffe. Thanks to the directions of the local couple it was easy enough to find and even from the end of the lane it was obvious that it was a much larger and taller creature than the other one. Made of wood it looked quite weathered in its appearance so must have existed for quite some time though I couldn’t see the significance of the flower stalk in its mouth.
Happy that I’d found the giraffe I followed the road down into Abergele, parked at Tesco and walked round to St. Michael’s church nearby. The first church building on the site was founded in the 8th century, the land having been granted by the Prince of North Wales to Elfod, Bishop of Bangor, for the purpose of establishing a place of worship on the banks of the River Gele. This early church was probably a group of timber domestic dwellings and a burial ground all enclosed by a fence, and worship would have been held in the open air.
The present church is built of local limestone and sandstone with a slate roof and dates from the late 12th/early 13th century when it was dedicated to St. Michael. It was modified and partially rebuilt around 1400, at which time the tower was also built, then after a period of neglect the building was restored in 1663. During the 19th century the Victorians made various alterations to the church including adding to the height of the tower in 1861 and building a castellated wall around the top. The tower itself is home to a peal of six bells – two by Taylor’s of Loughborough dated 1887, two dated 1844, one dated 1895 and a sixth dated 1730 – plus a single Sanctus bell, the smallest and oldest dated 1723.
The church clock was maintained in Victorian times by the poet David Griffith, a clock maker by trade and famous as the first Archdruid of Wales, and shortly after his 83rd birthday in 1883 he gave the clock a complete restoration. During the Victorian renovations the porch was built in 1879, replacing a previous stone porch, and the lychgate was erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The church interior and the lychgate were renovated in 2004.
Close to the inner door the octagonal font is set on two steps. Although the base is late medieval the bowl dates from 1663 and was given by vicar Henry Pugh to mark the church’s restoration and also to replace the original bowl which had at some point been destroyed. The bowl itself is lead lined and the cover is oak with a wrought iron handle. Set in the wall near the font are two Celtic Cross slabs dating from the 13th century and a stone coffin lid believed to date from the late 14th century after the time of the Black Death. Originally set in the tiled floor of the Chancery, probably sited there in Victorian times, it was moved to its current position in 2008.
The double nave is divided by an arcade of eight bays with octagonal columns and with the rood screen extending across both naves. Dating from the 15th century this screen is all that remains of the original rood screen and loft which were removed at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century.
The original organ was built by William Hill and installed on the south side of the St. Elfod Chapel after the 1879 renovation, then in 1924 it was completely renovated and rebuilt by Rushworth and Draper using pneumatic action and was moved to the north side of the chapel. In 1982 it was overhauled and moved to the west end of the north aisle but it was found to cause problems for the organist and choir who were now at opposite ends of the church, making the musical balance between them difficult. In 1999 the organ was moved back to the north side of the St. Elfod Chapel by organ builder and tuner Eric Newbound and the pneumatic action was replaced by electric action which provided a separate console.
Out in the churchyard and not far from the porch is the Penance Stone where those who had committed grievous sins would ask for forgiveness, and by the north wall is the memorial to the 33 victims of the 1868 Llanddulas railway disaster. Buried in an unmarked grave nearby are seven bodies which were washed ashore after the burning of the ”Ocean Monarch” ship in 1848 when 178 emigrants perished.
Also buried in the churchyard are the remains of the ‘Abergele Martyrs’, Alwyn Jones and George Taylor, members of the Free Wales Movement killed when their own home made bomb exploded prematurely on the day of Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon castle in 1969. Initially it was thought they had been planning to blow up the royal train as it passed the town but an inquest found their intention was to target Government buildings close to where Abergele library now stands. In 2019 plans to erect a plaque to mark the 50th anniversary of their deaths were turned down by local councilors.
Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to explore as much of the church’s interior as I would have liked as the lady vicar was getting ready to close the building but it’s such an interesting place with many more things to see so a return visit will certainly be on my list for the near future.
In contrast to the glorious sunshine and blue sky of the previous day the morning was cloudy, grey and miserable with the wind still blowing an absolute hooley. The tent was still standing, albeit a bit out of shape on the side where the wind hit it, but not wanting to go out and risk coming back to find that another disaster had occurred I spent quite some time re-pegging and double-pegging all the guy lines and anchor points, which were checked and re-checked during the course of the morning. By 1.30pm though I’d had enough of being ‘stuck indoors’ but with so much grey cloud around it wasn’t worth going to the next place I’d planned to visit so I decided to have a mooch along Rhyl promenade, somewhere I hadn’t yet been.
Parking at the harbour I crossed the modern footbridge over the river onto a short stretch of main road and from there onto the pedestrianised sea front where I walked along until I ran out of buildings then headed back along the main promenade, taking snaps of anything which looked marginally interesting including the colourful childrens’ fairground rides, although I missed out the clock tower – apparently erected in 1948 it was in the middle of a small roundabout and was square, plain, and intensely ugly.
By the time I’d got back to the van I was feeling more than a little peckish so decided to treat myself to a meal in The Harbour, one of the Hungry Horse chain of pub/restaurants where I knew I could get some decent food. I just fancied a chicken tikka masala but sod’s law said that was one of the three things on the menu which they hadn’t got so I settled for steak and ale pie instead. I was only in there for an hour but when I came out I was surprised to find that the grey clouds had cleared away and the sunshine and blue sky were back, although by then it was too late really to go anywhere else and I didn’t feel like repeating the long promenade walk just to get some better photos.
Deciding to go and see Yasmine, the horse which Eileen often visits, I popped across the road and bought a small bag of carrots from Aldi as I didn’t want to go without taking a treat for her. On the way there I noticed that the friendly neighbourhood giraffe had swapped his jubilee crown for a sunshade so of course I had to stop to get another couple of photos of him.
Yasmine was in the far corner of her field when I got there but she ambled over slowly when I called her. She’s a very sweet horse and loves her treats but I only gave her three of the carrots, saving the rest for another couple of visits, then after making a fuss of her I set off back to the camp site to chill out for the rest of the day.
My walk along Rhyl promenade had been what could loosely be called ‘interesting’ – never having been there before it was good to see what the place had to offer but it was nothing to write home about, though I don’t think the dull grey day showed it at its best. Maybe it would look much better in the sunshine so who knows? – I might just do that walk again on a much brighter day in the future.
After a bit of a detour to get out of Conwy due to major roadworks at a crucial junction a short drive along the A55 got me to the A470 which took me to Bodnant Gardens. My last visit there was seven years ago and back then I’d had to leave my dogs Sophie and Sugar in the van but this time my visit was on one of the ‘dogs allowed’ days, although I still found a parking space in the shade of some trees.
The Bodnant estate was first established in 1792 when a Colonel Forbes built Bodnant Hall, a large mansion house which replaced an earlier house on the same land. Early records show that Bodnant, which in Welsh means ‘dwelling by a stream’, had been home to the Lloyd family from the reign of James I, passing by marriage to the Forbes family in the mid 1700s. With the building of the mansion Colonel Forbes then went on to develop the parkland around it in the English Landscape style.
On Colonel Forbes’ death in 1820 the estate passed by marriage to William Hanmer of Bettisfield Park in Flintshire and over the following years he made his own improvements, including building the present Old Mill between 1828 and 1837 and extending the garden around the mansion house. When Victorian industrialist Henry Davis Pochin bought Bodnant for £62,500 at auction in 1874 it was an estate with several farms, a walled garden, woods and plantations though it was his grand vision to turn it into something much greater.
Henry Pochin was born in Leicestershire in 1824 into a 200-year-old family firm. He trained as an industrial chemist and made his fortune from two big ideas, one of which was inventing a process which turned soap from the traditional brown into white. Living and working in Manchester he became an MP, Mayor of Salford, and the director of 22 companies, and also owned Haulfre Gardens in Llandudno between 1871 and 1876. After purchasing Bodnant Hall in 1874 he set about remodelling the house and enlisted the skills of well known landscape designer Edward Milner to redesign the land and the gardens around it.
Together they relandscaped the hillside and valley, planting American and Asian conifers on the banks of the river running through the land to create a woodland and water garden. Apple trees were taken from Haulfre Gardens and replanted at Bodnant, glasshouses were built in the upper garden to house exotic plants and 48 laburnums were planted to create the 180ft long Laburnum Arch, now believed to be the longest and oldest in the UK although today’s laburnums are from different stock. In 1883 the POEM (Place Of Eternal Memory) mausoleum was built in The Dell in memory of four of Henry’s children who had died in infancy, later becoming the resting place of Henry himself and other family members.
As a local landowner Henry Pochin was no less active, building cottages on the Bodnant estate and improving farming practices on the land. He also bought land at Prestatyn on the coast, where he supplied the seaside town with clean water and gas, built flood defences and developed a foreshore and promenade. He remained active in business throughout the 1880s but was overcome by ill health and died aged 71 in 1895, passing on the Bodnant estate and garden to his daughter Laura McLaren, married to Charles McLaren, 1st Baron Aberconway. A keen horticulturalist, she had already designed many gardens by the time her father died.
At the turn of the century Laura developed the wild garden at the ‘Far End’ and as a lover of herbaceous plants she also developed the upper formal gardens in the newly emerging Edwardian style with billowing flower borders. In 1901 she entrusted the care of the garden to her son Henry McLaren on his coming of age but maintained a keen interest and together they created the Skating Pond at the Far End and the stunning Italianate Terraces, built by hand using local labour in two phases, 1905-06 and 1912-14.
Using as a guide the highly popular book ‘The Art and Craft of Garden Making’ by Thomas Mawson other major developments continued, including the Lower Rose Terrace and the Lily Pool Terrace which was influenced by the Earl of Crawford from Fife, with Henry McLaren later adding several classical statues including the stone sphinxes on the Lower Rose Terrace.
As well as overseeing the major developments of the gardens Henry, who had become an industrialist and a barrister and later 2nd Baron Aberconway, also sponsored the expeditions of plant hunters such as Ernest Wilson and George Forrest who brought back to Bodnant ‘exotic’ new Asian plants, notably magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons, and with his head gardener Frederick Puddle Henry himself bred many unique Bodnant hybrid rhododendrons.
In 1939 the Pin Mill, which dates from 1730, was rescued from decay by Henry who bought it for an undisclosed sum, had it dismantled and brought from Woodchester in Gloucestershire to Bodnant, and as a grand finishing touch to the terraces it was rebuilt brick by brick at the end of the Canal Terrace, where it remains the most recognised and photographed feature of the gardens.
In 1949 Henry, who had been president of the Royal Horticultural Society since 1931, handed over care of the gardens, but not the house, to the National Trust. It was the second estate to be acquired by the NT (the first being Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire) as Henry hadn’t wanted to be accused of using his position to have Bodnant become the first. After his death in 1953 his son Charles McLaren (3rd Baron Aberconway) continued to develop Bodnant Gardens with the NT by making further improvements, opening new vistas and adding new plants, and in 1961 he became president of the RHS.
After Charles’ death in 2003 his younger son Michael McLaren, a practising London barrister, inherited the Bodnant estate. He still remains keenly involved and as garden manager and director he maintains the family’s historic and creative links to Bodnant with new developments which, since 2012, have brought about the opening of previously private areas.
After my long morning walk to Conwy marina and back, a couple of hours looking round the castle and climbing four towers, plus almost the same length of time wandering round the main parts of the gardens I didn’t really feel like climbing down the steep paths and steps to the bottom of the valley and walking all the way up to the Skating Pond. It was inevitable that if I climbed down I would have to climb back up so I decided to give any features in that area a miss, get a coffee from the Pavilion tea room then head back to the camp site, though as I drove along the A55 I had no idea what awaited me when I got there.
What had originally started out as a pleasant breeze that morning had gained in strength during the course of the day until it was blowing an absolute hooley – something akin to Gale Force 109 if there is such a thing – and I arrived back at the site to find that one side of the tent had blown inwards and everything inside was upside down on the floor. Fortunately the tent itself was securely anchored so it couldn’t actually blow down but the central pole had bent out of shape a bit – thank goodness for carbon fibre flexibility, at least it hadn’t snapped. Luckily nothing inside the tent was broken and it was all easily picked up and put back in place, then after I’d checked all the guy lines and pegging points I was free to relax for the rest of the day.
**From October 1st to the end of March dogs (on leads) are welcome in the gardens every day, then from April 1st to September 30th on special ‘dog days’ – all day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and between 5pm and 8pm on Wednesdays.
It was encouraging to see widespread blue sky, sunshine and not too much cloud that morning and with two places in mind to visit I made sure I was in Conwy not long after 9am so I could hopefully get a shady space in the edge-of-town car park I prefer to use. I got lucky, there was a vacant space right underneath the big tree where I parked at Easter, and first thing was a long walk to the marina and back so I knew that Snowy and Poppie would be settled and quiet in the van while I was looking round the castle.
Conwy Castle was one of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of castles around North Wales and was built over a 4-year period between 1283 and 1287. Before his invasion of North Wales the site of the castle and its walled town was occupied by Aberconwy Abbey, a Cistercian monastery favoured by the Welsh princes; when Edward captured Aberconwy in March 1283 he decided that the location would form the centre of a new county and he would relocate the abbey to a new site eight miles away at Maenan near Llanrwst, building a new English castle and walled town on the monastery’s site.
Work began on the castle within days of Edward’s decision, it was controlled by Sir John Bonvillars and overseen by Edward’s architect, master mason James of St. George who had also worked on the castles at Flint and Rhuddlan. More than 1,500 craftsmen and labourers were recruited from across England for the task and the first phase of work between 1283 and 1284 focused on creating the exterior curtain walls and towers. In the second phase, from 1284 to 1286, the interior buildings were erected while work began on the walls for the neighbouring town and by 1287 the castle was complete. Edward’s accountants didn’t separate the cost of building the town walls from that of building the castle so the total cost of the two projects together came to around £15,000, a huge sum of money for that period.
The first constable of the castle, who also became Mayor of the new town of Conwy, was William de Cicon who had previously been the first constable of Rhuddlan Castle. He held the position at Conwy from its construction until his death in 1310 and during that time, for a yearly fee of £190 (equivalent to £200,000 today) he oversaw a castle garrison of 30 soldiers including 15 crossbowmen, supported by a carpenter, chaplain, blacksmith, engineer and a stonemason. During December 1294 and January 1295 Cicon held Conwy Castle alongside Edward whilst under siege during the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant cousin of Llywelyn the Last; the castle was supplied only by sea before forces arrived to relieve Edward in February. For some years afterwards the castle formed the main residence for visiting senior figures and also hosted Edward’s own son, the future Edward II, when he visited the region in 1301.
Unfortunately Conwy Castle wasn’t particularly well maintained during the early 14th century. A survey in 1321 reported that it was poorly equipped, had limited stores and was suffering from roof leaks and rotten timbers, and by 1322 it was no longer fit to accommodate the king. These problems persisted through the years until Edward, the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III, took over control of the castle in 1343. Sir John Weston, his chamberlain, conducted many repairs including building new stone support arches for the great hall and other parts of the castle, however after the death of the Black Prince in 1376 Conwy fell into neglect again.
In August 1399 the castle was used very briefly by Richard II as a refuge from the forces of his cousin and rival Henry Bolingbroke. After Richard’s abdication Henry IV’s reign began in 1400 but rebellion broke out in North Wales shortly afterwards under the leadership of Owain Glyndwr. In March 1401 two of Owain’s cousins undertook a surprise attack on the castle; pretending to be carpenters sent to do repairs they gained entry, killed the two watchmen on duty and took control of the fortress, with Welsh rebels attacking and capturing the rest of the walled town. The brothers held out for around three months before negotiating a surrender and as part of the agreement the pair were given a royal pardon by Henry.
In the 1520s and 30s Henry VIII conducted much restoration work on the castle, during which time it was being used as a prison, a depot and as a potential residence for visitors, but by the early 1600s it had fallen into disrepair once again. In 1626 Charles I sold the castle to Edward Conway, an English soldier and statesman and 1st Viscount Conway, for £100, then four years later Edward’s son, also called Edward, inherited the ruin. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642 the Archbishop of York, John Williams, took charge of the castle on behalf of the king and set about repairing and garrisoning it at his own expense but in 1645, Sir John Owen, a Welsh landowner, was appointed governor of the castle instead, leading to a bitter dispute between the two men.
Following a substantial siege in November 1646 Colonel John Carter was appointed governor of the castle and fresh repairs were carried out but in 1655 the Council of State appointed by Parliament ordered the castle to be deliberately damaged to render it beyond military use. Following the return of Charles II from exile in 1660 the castle was handed back to Edward, Earl of Conway but five years later, and despite opposition from the town’s leading citizens, he decided to strip the remaining iron and lead from the fortress and sell it off. Completed under the supervision of Edward’s overseer William Milward, it was work which finally turned the castle into a total ruin.
By the end of the 18th century the ruins were considered to be very picturesque and they began attracting visitors and several artists including J M W Turner. Between 1822 and 1826 Thomas Telford’s 326ft long suspension bridge was built across the River Conwy, with one end being anchored into the rock at the base of the castle, then in 1848 Robert Stephenson’s tubular railway bridge was built with the rail line into the town passing the rear of the castle.
In 1865 the castle passed from the Holland family, who had leased it from the descendants of the Conways, to the civic leadership of Conwy town and restoration began on the ruins, including the reconstruction of the Bakehouse Tower which had been deliberately damaged in 1655. In 1953 the castle was leased to the Ministry of Works and Arnold Taylor, a medieval historian and international expert on European castle building, undertook a wide range of repairs and extensive research into the castle’s history. Following a steady increase in traffic over the years the suspension bridge was superseded by a new road bridge which was built alongside it and completed in 1958. The suspension bridge closed to traffic on December 13th that year when the new bridge was opened and since then has only been used by pedestrians and cyclists.
Already protected as a Scheduled Monument, in 1986 the castle and its town walls were added to the World Heritage List as a historic site of outstanding universal value, and now in the 21st century it’s managed and maintained as a tourist attraction by Cadw, with a separate visitor centre which opened in 2012.
In the Great Hall invited guests would enjoy a feast of good food in front of the warming fire but those summoned there when the constable of the castle was doling out justice weren’t so lucky – they would find themselves on a short trip along the passage behind the fireplace to the Prison Tower, followed by a 12 foot drop into the dark, damp dungeon below.
A lovely and very unexpected surprise greeted me when I climbed the spiral stairs of the Chapel Tower. On the first floor was the tiny Royal Chapel and with its vaulted recess forming the chancel and three narrow stained glass windows it’s the single most beautiful surviving feature in the castle. Flanking the chancel were two much smaller rooms, one which would have been the sacristy and the other the vestry, for which two locks were bought for its door in 1535. In the centre of the small room was a modern wooden bench engraved with words by Welsh poet and author Damian Walford Davies – ”At the altar they heard estuary birds cry over the kiss of salt and river water” – words which I thought were quite sweet.
While I’d been wandering round I’d heard a couple of trains going past the castle so back down from the Royal Chapel I went to sit in a window recess in the Queen’s Chamber overlooking the rail line; I knew if I waited long enough I would see a train and sure enough, ten minutes later, one came past on its way to Llandudno Junction.
Having climbed four of the eight towers I drew the line at climbing the other four right to the top so I was happy just to walk round the castle’s upper walls and take photos wherever I could, especially of the views over the estuary. Needless to say, I took so many I couldn’t possibly put them all on here.
I really enjoyed looking round the castle and I could have stayed much longer but I had to get back to the dogs. Having bought the guide book after I came back out (I’d wanted to keep my hands free for taking photos) I knew there were several parts which I hadn’t seen so maybe a second visit will be planned in the future. Snowy and Poppie were curled up fast asleep when I got back to the van and I don’t think they’d missed me but they were happy to see me, and as I headed off to the next place to visit I knew that this time I could take them with me.