St. Winefride’s Chapel and Well, Holywell

A mile up the hill from Basingwerk Abbey, on the B5121 and close to the small town of Holywell, is St. Winefride’s Chapel and Well, a Grade l listed building and Scheduled Ancient Monument known to many as ‘The Lourdes of Wales’. The only such place in Britain with a continuous history of public pilgrimage for over 13 centuries, the well itself is attributed to a legend dating back to the 7th century.
Winefride (Gwenfrewi in Welsh) was of noble birth, a young niece of St. Beuno, and in the 7th century lived with her family in the place now known as Holywell. According to legend, when she spurned the advances of Caradoc, a prince’s son, he drew his sword in anger and severed her head which rolled a short way down the hill, and where it came to rest water began to flow from a spring. When Beuno heard the news he interrupted a service in the nearby church, retrieved Gwenfrewi’s severed head, placed it beside her body and prayed. His prayers were answered and Gwenfrewi returned to life, though forever after she bore a thin white scar around her neck.
There are a few different versions of the legend, probably told by several different people over the years and further embellished with each telling, so predictably the tale has long been dismissed as far-fetched but Winefride herself was a real person rather than a legendary one. Devout even before her supposed martyrdom she became entirely devoted to a holy life and later entered the nunnery at Gwytherin, eventually becoming the Abbess there. On her death she was buried in the grounds of the nunnery and lay there until her bones were exhumed and relocated to Shrewsbury Abbey in 1138. Her enduring personality meant that she was revered as a saint from the moment of her death and her well at Holywell became a place of pilgrimage and healing.
In the late 11th century the well came into wider recognition when the Earls of Chester granted its ownership to the recently founded St. Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester. Ownership of the well stayed with St. Werburgh’s until 1132 when it was granted to the newly founded Basingwerk Abbey, but by 1157 it had been returned to St. Werburgh’s by Hugh II, the son of Ranulph de Gernon, Basingwerk’s founder. In 1240 however, ownership of the well was once more back with the Cistercians at Basingwerk, gifted to them by Dafydd Llywelyn, son of Llywelyn the Great, and it remained with them until the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536.
The original shrine and its church were relatively simple affairs but by the middle of the 12th century they had become more than a local landmark. In 1189 Richard I of England (Richard the Lionheart) made a pilgrimage to Holywell to pray for the success of his forthcoming crusade – he was the first known monarch to make the journey, which was a sure sign of how important the shrine had become.
Although the shrine itself escaped unscathed during the Welsh/English wars of the late 13th century the church did sustain some damage, for which King Edward I paid compensation of just over 13 shillings on November 3rd 1284, the day marked as St. Winefride’s feast day. The well and its shrine may have been spared from damage during any subsequent battles but general wear and tear eventually took their toll and in 1427 the Basingwerk Cistercians sought permission from Pope Martin V to repair and renovate the site.
The shrine and its chapel which can be seen today date from around 1500. After Henry Tudor’s victory at Bosworth in 1485 and his subsequent elevation to the throne, becoming King Henry VII, the Tudors became generous benefactors of St. Winefride’s shrine, mainly through Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother and wife of Thomas Stanley, and it’s probable that her generosity was behind the building of the new chapel and its well chamber. The work was supervised by Thomas Pennant, Abbot of Basingwerk between 1481 and 1523, and the quality of the workmanship, including a frieze of animals and the badges of Thomas Stanley (Margaret Beaufort’s third husband) round the building’s exterior suggests that royal masons may have been employed.
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In April 1637, after many attempts over the years by various people, including Elizabeth I at the turn of the 17th century, to suppress the many pilgrims and their use of the shrine, Sir John Bridgeman, the Chief Justice of Chester, ordered the removal of the iron posts used to support the infirm when entering the waters and the shrine to be mutilated. On demanding an update six months later he was told that the posts had indeed been removed and the statue of Winefride had been whitewashed. The following year the death of Bridgeman himself, the stroke suffered by one of his wardens responsible for the desecration of the shrine, and the burning down of the house of another were seen as a divine punishment for their actions.
During the Civil Wars of 1642-49 the chapel and shrine were badly damaged and the whitewashed statue of Winefride was completely destroyed. In August 1686 James II and his wife, Mary of Modena, visited the shrine to pray for the gift of a son and heir and while there Mary gave £30 towards the building’s restoration. This money was put to good use, the chapel and shrine were substantially restored and a stone, dated 1687, was incorporated into the well basin, though it wasn’t until two centuries later, in 1886, that a new statue of St. Winefride was commissioned to replace the one which had been destroyed.
In 1723 the chapel, which had for so long provided unbroken service to pilgrims and the faithful, was taken over by the authorities and turned into a day school for the education of poor children, being substantially altered by the addition of various walls and rendering it unusable as a place of worship, although pilgrims still continued to visit the shrine below. It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that steps were taken to restore the chapel to its original state.
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The only shrine in Britain to have survived the 16th century Reformation, the two storey architecturally unique building is set into the hillside, with the chapel immediately above the well, and it’s one of the most perfect examples of Late Gothic perpendicular architecture in Wales. The chapel itself has a north aisle, a nave and an apsidal chancel with one large stained glass window, while the three bays of the aisle mirror the three arcades of the vault in the shrine below, although the outer stone stairs linking the two floors are now blocked.
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In the shrine the spring rises in a central basin in the shape of a truncated eight-pointed star, with steps at the front for access. The basin is enclosed by a low wall with columns rising to form part of an elaborately ornamented vault of unusually complex design, while the water flows beneath the surrounding walkway into a rectangular outdoor bathing pool. Around ninety sculptured bosses sit at the intersections of the vaulting ribs, these include angels, the green man, the arms of the Stanley family, and patterns incorporating foliage and strange beasts. In the centre, a pendant boss has six scenes from the life of St Winefride and Beuno and a corbel by the entrance portrays a pilgrim carrying another on his back, acting as a reminder of the importance of the well as a place of pilgrimage and healing.
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The 1886 replacement statue of St. Winefride

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18th century ‘graffiti’ – two of the many names left on the walls by grateful pilgrims

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In a separate small building to one side of the bathing pool is the Gatehouse Chapel where pilgrims and visitors can light a candle in prayer or in memory of loved ones. This simple little chapel contains a replica of “The Virgin with the Laughing Child”, an original statuette which was made around 1465 and attributed to the prominent Florentine sculptor Antonio Gambarelli Rossellino, although some believe it was actually created by Leonardo da Vinci. Although there’s no information on when this replica was actually made it was presented to St. Winefred’s shrine in 1996 by Fr Bernard Lordan (Parish Priest 1988-98) and was restored in 2018.
St. Winefride’s and St. Bueno’s window, Gatehouse Chapel

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“The Virgin with the Laughing Child”

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Moving forward into the 20th century, in 1917 disaster struck the shrine when underground mining on Halkyn Mountain cut the stream which fed the well spring. Not only did this lead to the well running dry, it also led to a decline in the Greenfield Valley industry which relied on the waters of the stream, but eventually another source was found not far from the original and the flow to the well was restored although much reduced. Strangely though – or maybe not – the fact that Winefride’s original miraculous flow now surfaces some distance away at Bagillt seems to be completely ignored.
In 1930 the Victorian St. Winefride’s Mill and Brewery were acquired and turned into the well gardens and custodian’s house which is now the museum we see today, and after the 18th century school room amendments had been removed work on restoring the chapel to its original state had been completed by 1976. Still in use to this day, Holy Mass is celebrated each Sunday at 5pm during the summer season until the end of September and an annual pilgrimage is held on June 22nd (or the following Sunday if the 22nd is a weekday) as this is the anniversary of Winefride’s death and miraculous return to life.

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The chapel and well are in the ownership of the Church in Wales and maintained by Cadw, and there are three half-hourly bathing sessions each day. Open to everyone, whether devout or just curious, Protestant or Catholic, or anyone of any faith who wishes to visit, whether the legend is believable or not St. Winefride’s is without doubt an amazing, unique and very special place.

Basingwerk Abbey, Greenfield

Not far from the A548 coast road at Greenfield, Flintshire, is the peaceful site of Basingwerk Abbey, founded in 1132 by Ranulf de Gernon, the fourth Earl of Chester, who brought the Benedictine monks from the Savigny monastery in southern Normandy to North Wales. The abbey became part of the Cistercian order in 1147 and ten years later became affiliated to the Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire, thanks to which the Basingwerk Cistercians received significant salaries and lands in the English county of Derbyshire. In that same year Owain Gwynedd, Prince of Wales, encamped at Basingwerk with his army before facing the forces of Henry II at the Battle of Ewloe. The abbey suited him for its strategic location as it blocked the route Henry had to take to reach Twthill Castle near Rhuddlan, and in the fights which followed the English were defeated near Ewloe.
In the first half of the 13th century the abbey was under the patronage of Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd. His son Dafydd Llywelyn gifted to the monastery St. Winefred’s Well with its pilgrimage chapel and the monks used the nearby Holywell stream to run a corn mill and process the wool from their sheep. In the latter part of that century the abbey suffered considerable damage during the Welsh/English wars and for that reason, in 1284, King Edward I paid compensation of £100 but by the end of the century the monastery’s revenues had become very low, though the situation was improved by permits obtained from Edward for weekly markets and annual fairs.
During the 15th century the monks benefitted greatly from the pilgrimage movement and the abbey wasn’t without its royal visitors. In 1416 King Henry V arrived on foot having made a pilgrimage from Shrewsbury to Holywell and in 1461 the abbey was visited by Edward IV. It was during that century that disputes occurred over the appointment of the abbots. In 1430 the monastery was occupied by Henry Wirral, a self-appointed abbot who ruled until 1454 when he was arrested for various offences; another dispute flared up soon afterwards between one Richard Kirby, previously a monk of Aberconwy, and Edmund Thornbar and though Edmund received the support of the general chapter Richard held office until 1476. The disputes were only brought to an end by the rule of the abbey’s first Welsh abbot Thomas Pennant between 1481 and 1523, a man greatly respected and adored for his generosity, high education and love of music and poetry.
In 1536, at the start of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the abbey was dissolved, its lands were granted to various non-religious owners and by the spring of 1537 all monastic life had terminated. Most of the buildings were dismantled, with some of the lead being used to repair Holt Castle near Wrexham and some being taken to Ireland for use in Dublin Castle, while the impressive roof truss went to the church in Cilcain near Mold and some of the stained glass was taken to Llanasa Parish Church just a few miles away. Eventually Basingwerk Abbey fell into ruin and it’s these ruins which can be seen today.
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The original abbey church had a central nave and two aisles and at only 50 metres long it was among the smallest Cistercian churches in Wales. From the 13th century the plan of the abbey came into line with the rule of the Cistercian Order and various parts were built, rebuilt, added to and extended over the years.
The church’s southern transept was adjacent to a narrow sacristy just 1.8 meters wide behind which the chapter house was located within the ground floor of the east wing; initially a square shape, at the beginning of the 13th century it was rebuilt and extended eastwards. On its south side was a narrow parlour where the monks could talk freely without fear of breaking vows and the extension ended with a day room, above which was a dormitory on the first floor; this was connected by ‘night stairs’ to the church’s south transept to allow monks to quickly reach night masses.
In the mid-13th century a refectory 20 meters x 8 metres was built on the south wing, and typical of Cistercian abbeys it projected beyond the outline of the monastery buildings. In the 14th century new Gothic cloisters were created and the buildings on the south east side were enlarged, though these were rebuilt again towards the end of the century. By the end of the 15th century the abbey had been roofed with lead and decorated with stained glass windows, and new rooms had been built for guests on the south-east side. Of the ruins which can be seen today the 13th century refectory building is the one which has survived in the best condition, along with the western wall of the church’s southern transept, fragments of the east wing and the guest rooms on the south east side. 
Abbey ruins, south side
South side showing monks’ refectory
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Guest accommodation, south east side
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Monks’ day room, east side
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Remains of the Chapter House
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Remains of mid 13th century warming house
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Monks’ refectory, west wall
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South transept
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Remains of a south transept wall
Following the abbey’s dissolution in 1536 the site was leased in May 1537 to Hugh Starkey who retained custody until 1540 when it was sold for just over £28 to Henry, the son of Harry of Llanasa, and Peter Mutton of Meliden. In later years the site was sold to the Mostyns of Talacre and it stayed within the family through the generations until 1923 when Miss Clementina Mostyn passed it into the care of the Welsh Office, through which it then passed into the care of Cadw in 1984.
Since August 1991 Basingwerk has been Grade l listed as an important example of a Welsh Cistercian abbey and is also classed as a Scheduled Ancient Monument. Now part of the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park the abbey is still a significant religious site and is the starting point of the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, a long-distance walking route stretching over 80 miles south to Bardsey, the ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’ off the Llyn Peninsula.
Apart from New Year’s Day and three days over Christmas the abbey and its grounds are open daily, free to visit and dog friendly. The ancient remains have a fascinating history and through its wonderful architectural features it’s still possible to gain a sense of the dignity and grandeur of this once proud Cistercian abbey.

Merely meerkats

It all started with Baby Oleg.
After having a ‘hands on’ meerkat experience at a Norfolk zoo about ten years ago I really fell in love with the cute little creatures so when a certain insurance comparison site brought out their meerkat adverts I was hooked, though as I never get any insurance through them the chance of ever getting one of their meerkat toys was absolutely zilch. Three years ago however, I saw a Baby Oleg in the window of a local animal charity shop; he was new, boxed, and a very good price so I couldn’t resist. I brought him home and he’s been sitting on top of the bookcase in my study ever since.
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Just prior to my most recent weekend in North Wales I was mooching round a town centre charity shop when I spotted Sergei for sale at a ridiculously low price – a bargain not to be missed, though as I was paying for him the guy behind the counter said “His mate’s up there if you want him as well” and up on the very top shelf was Aleksandr. So they both came home with me and joined Baby Oleg on top of the bookcase.
Sergei and Aleksandr
Now I don’t know how it came about but while I was recently visiting Eileen and her hubby the meerkat toys were mentioned and it turned out that they had several duplicates which they were willing to let me have if I wanted them – so I ended up with the other four from the original seven plus a couple of extras. The one I really liked though – Ayana as Elsa from “Frozen” – wasn’t a duplicate but I was more than happy with the ones I’d been given.
Following that weekend away I searched the internet for Ayana and found her, new, boxed, with her certificate and at a reasonable price, so I sent for her and a week later she joined the rest of the meerkat family, although they aren’t all on top of the bookcase.
Yakov and Vassily
Maiya and Bogdan
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Safari Oleg and Ayana as Elsa
Although when I originally got Baby Oleg three years ago I had no intention of making a collection the meerkat family has recently multiplied very quickly thanks mainly to Eileen and her hubby, but this is where it must stop – although if I can find Ayana as Belle from “Beauty and the Beast” at a reasonable price I might be persuaded to add just one more meerkat to the family.

February mini break – day 3

After two really lovely days the weather decided to let me down on the last morning. Grey sky and fine drizzly rain which showed no sign of clearing up meant that the dog walk down by the beach was kept fairly short and my plans to explore somewhere new on the way home were completely screwed up; it did mean, however, that I was able to spend a bit longer with Eileen and her hubby on my second visit.
I’d previously mentioned that I would like to see Jasmine, the horse which lives in a local field and which Eileen regularly visits while walking Tilly, so armed with a couple of carrots we set out on the short walk with Snowy and Poppie, though Tilly wasn’t happy at being left behind. At the far side of one small field a couple of Jacob sheep were taking it easy while in the field across the lane were a couple of ponies and a black and white cow just beyond the wire fence.
Jasmine was on her own at the far side of another small field but she came over when Eileen called; she looked a bit scruffy but at least she was well rugged up against the winter weather. We gave her the carrots, though Snowy wasn’t impressed as she thought she was missing out on something, then we meandered back to Eileen’s by a slightly different route.
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It was still raining when I left Eileen’s later on so as there was no point driving along the coast road I headed straight for the A55 which was the quickest way home, and the further north I got the more it was raining. It was a shame the weather had let me down on the third day but I couldn’t really complain – I’d had two really lovely days, discovered some new places, revisited others, visited some lovely friends and got some good photos, so in the words of the Meatloaf song ‘two out of three ain’t bad’.

February mini break day 2 – Deganwy & Conwy

From Colwyn Bay promenade I drove along the seafront through Rhos-on-Sea and Penrhyn Bay to Llandudno’s North Shore promenade then from there over to West Shore where I picked up the road going past the golf course and straight into Deganwy, parking near the station. A short walk from the station was the marina, a place I hadn’t been to for several years but it seemed that nothing had changed since my last visit.
The original harbour was built there by the London & North Western Railway and opened in 1885; it was equipped with both standard and narrow gauge railway tracks to facilitate the transport of Welsh roofing slates from the quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog via the Conwy Valley to Deganwy where they were loaded onto coastal steamers for export. Unfortunately the venture wasn’t a great success as the Ffestiniog Railway – now a major tourist attraction – provided a shorter route to the sea at Porthmadog.
In the mid-20th century the sidings were used to store old railway carriages which would be put into service for the crowds visiting North Wales each summer, though this practise stopped in the 1960s and the tracks were removed. In the 1970s the dock became a major area for leisure boat owners to moor, store and repair their vessels and was also home to various businesses. Unfortunately the tidal nature of the dock prevented boats going in or out at low tide, eventually leaving Deganwy’s mooring facilities unable to compete with the new facilities at Conwy Marina which opened in 1992 across the estuary. In 2002 work began on transforming the old dock into a new marina with constant water and this opened in 2004 along with the first phase of a new development of waterside homes, with the Quay Hotel opening in 2007.
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View towards the sea with Conwy Marina across the estuary
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Walking back past the station I crossed the railway line and headed along Marine Crescent, a quiet dead-end road with attractive garden-fronted houses facing the estuary. The first house in the road, No.1, was once the home of Commander Harold Lowe who, in April 1912, was serving as 5th Officer on board the RMS Titanic when it hit an iceberg on its maiden voyage and started to sink.
Although he was off watch at the time Commander Lowe took charge of loading passengers into several lifeboats before taking charge of lifeboat No.14. He gathered together four more lifeboats and transferred people from his own boat to the other four, then with a volunteer crew he set out to try to recover any survivors from among the wreckage and dead bodies. His boat picked up four male survivors, one of whom later died from injuries, and eventually they were all rescued by the RMS Carpathia. He married in 1913 and settled in Colwyn Bay, then in 1931 he retired from seafaring and moved to the house in Deganwy where he lived until his death in 1944.
Deganwy plaque
The far end of Marine Crescent led onto the pedestrian promenade and up ahead was the attractive Edwardian beach shelter, erected in 1904 as part of the Deganwy promenade development. In the winter of 2013/14 it was badly damaged by storms and after being declared unfit for public use it was cordoned off by its owners, Conwy County Borough Council.
Most of the promenade was washed away in the storms and though major repairs were carried out on the sea defences and the promenade itself the shelter was just left to deteriorate further. After various fund raising initiatives and grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Conwy Town Council and the County Borough Council the Deganwy & District Residents’ Association raised enough funds to repair and restore the shelter; work was started in March 2017 and the shelter was returned to public use in August that year.
Deganwy shelter
View towards Llandudno’s West Shore and Great Orme
Further along the promenade was a small kiosk-style cafe where I hoped I could get a coffee and a snack but being a Sunday and still early in the year the place was unfortunately closed, so I turned round and headed back towards the station for the second time. Not far from the level crossing was a small stretch of beach with a slipway and a long grassy area where a number of dinghies and colourful kayaks were pulled up, and the handles of a simple boat trailer made a good place to loop the dog leads while I took a quick photo of Snowy and Poppie.

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A hazy view of Conwy Castle and quay across the estuary

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At the other side of the level crossing, partially obscured by a wall and high hedges, was a large and attractive building which had once been a farmhouse called Treganwy, reputed to date from the 17th century. When the railway branch line to Llandudno was being constructed in the mid 1850s Treganwy’s then owner insisted – for reasons unknown – that he wanted it to run close to the house and the line does indeed run right past the boundary wall.

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When Deganwy station was opened in 1866 the building was still a private house but after several years of being home to a school called St. Oswald’s College it opened as the Deganwy Castle Hotel in 1882. Owned by the Tritton family and later on the Ferranti family it was reputed to be the first hotel in the area to have electricity. From being established in 1882 until 1935 the building was enlarged and remodelled several times, including the addition of the landmark four-storey tower.
In 1959 the hotel was acquired by musician Jess Yates and his new wife – Jess had grown up in Llandudno and began his career playing the organ in cinemas there and in Colwyn Bay though he became best known for his 1960s/70s tv show Stars On Sunday. After further changes of ownership the hotel closed in January 2010 and in 2012 it was converted into luxury apartments known as The Moorings, although the Deganwy Castle Hotel name is still painted on the boundary wall overlooking the railway line.

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Across the road was a long row of shops and a couple of cafes – hopefully I would be able to get a coffee at one of them but I was completely out of luck. The Tea Station looked like it was closed up for the winter and when I went in The Olive Grove they were in the process of closing so I couldn’t even get a coffee to take away. I did consider getting a can of Coke until I learned the OTT price they were charging, so I left with nothing, went back to the van and headed off to Conwy at the other side of the estuary.
Leaving the van in the same edge-of-town car park I used on my previous visit I went to a nearby newsagent’s/corner shop and got a bottle of sports drink for a third of the price of a can of Coke at Deganwy, and there was more in it too. For my next bit of exploration – walking the town walls – I had to leave the dogs behind but with the van parked under trees in a quiet corner they would be okay for a while. I’d walked the town’s high walls about nine years ago so I knew the route was rough underfoot, often steep and narrow, and with big gaps in the safety railings which an eager little dog like Snowy, even on a lead, could quite easily fall through, so I wasn’t taking any risks.
Unfortunately, by the time I got to the start of the walk the sun had decided to play hide and seek behind some banks of cloud which had accumulated so the light over the estuary wasn’t as bright as it would have been earlier, but on the occasions when the sun did reappear the views were good. Halfway into the walk however I suffered a disappointment when I came to a locked gate at the base of one of the towers – I could go no further so had to retrace my steps all the way back to where I started the walk.
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I did briefly consider rejoining the wall at the far end near the castle and walking back as far as I could from there but I’d had enough for one day so I decided to walk along the quay instead. Not far from the road was an old anchor which, according to the brief and ambiguous information on the plaque in front of it, was presented by Jack Williams M.B.E, Conwy’s Mayor in 1969/70.
The anchor, weighing about three tons and formed from a single piece of iron split to make the prongs, was discovered on the seabed near Llandudno when fishing nets got caught in it. The Conwy-based trawler Kilravock raised it from the seabed and brought it ashore where it was later mounted near the quay to commemorate the actions of the ship’s crew on May 6th 1968.
The coastal cruise ship St Trillo was ferrying 325 American passengers back to their luxury cruise liner Kungsholm, anchored 2km off-shore, after a coach trip to Snowdonia; also on board were about 50 local people who had taken a short trip out to sea to view the glamorous liner. Approaching the cruise liner St Trillo’s propeller became entangled in one of the liner’s mooring ropes and soon afterwards one of its engines broke down; in heavy seas and with a 35mph wind it began drifting towards Little Orme, the rocky headland east of Llandudno. The Llandudno lifeboat was launched and with coxswain Gordon Bellamy the crew managed to get a line to St Trillo, steadying the ship until other help arrived.
The crew of Kilravock were unloading their catch at Conwy quay when they heard radio messages suggesting that a disaster was about to happen nearby. The trawler, skippered by Jack Williams, immediately set out to sea with its fish still on board, clearing the estuary bar shortly before the tide was too low, and on reaching St Trillo proceeded to tow it and its passengers safely back to Llandudno pier, with the rescue being watched by hundreds of people on the shore. Kilravock was later sold to a Cornish fisherman, then found its way to Scotland where sadly it was eventually abandoned.
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Rusting and paint peeling – a Conwy trawler
Colourful sea fishing equipment stacked on the quayside
Resisting the temptation to get fish and peas from the chippy I’d been to in December I headed back to the van and on the way I spotted what was to be my last shot of the day, a house name on a gate. The kitten looked a bit indistinct and worse for wear but it was cute and still just about recognisable so it was worth the photo.
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When I got back to the van I found both dogs fast asleep; I don’t think they’d even missed me so I didn’t feel too guilty at having left them behind for once. As I drove out of Conwy to go back to the camp site the clouds decided to disappear, the sunshine came back and it turned into a lovely late afternoon which ended in an equally lovely sunset – a perfect end to what had, on the whole, been a great day.

February mini break day 2 – Colwyn Bay

The second morning of the weekend arrived gloriously sunny and perfect for my intended day out. The main destination this time was Colwyn Bay, less than four miles down the coast, and the main objective was to see for myself the ridiculously short pier which Eileen and her hubby had told me about, though first was a walk from the camp site and along by the nearby beach.
Not far from the site and near the beach car park was Llanddulas railway viaduct, constructed in 1879 after the original viaduct collapsed during a storm in August that year. With round-the-clock working facilitated by one of the first uses of electric lighting on a construction site work progressed rapidly and the new bridge was opened to rail traffic just one month later, though the current bridge deck is more modern and dates from 1974.
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My walk took me along the coast path for about a mile, past the point where the River Dulas runs into the sea, to Tides cafe bistro at The Beach caravan park; this was the place where I’d had my first taste of the fruit cake version of bara brith several years ago, and very nice it was too. Since my walk along there in December I’d learned that this was also the area where, on August 20th 1868, what was then the worst railway disaster in Britain occurred.
A goods train was being shunted into sidings and half a dozen wagons loaded with paraffin were left temporarily on the main line, held only by the brakes of the brake van even though they were parked on an incline. The two brakesmen had both dismounted to take part in the shunting operations but when the engine backed onto the wagons the jolt caused the brake van to release its own brakes, sending the wagons rolling down the line into the path of the approaching Holyhead-bound Irish Mail express train.The force of the collision derailed the Irish Mail engine, its tender and the leading guard’s van; the engine ran on for about 30 yards then overturned to the left while the tender overturned to the right, completely fouling up the other track.
The heavy loss of life resulting from the accident was actually caused less by the impact itself and more by the load of two of the runaway wagons. Some of the barrels of paraffin broke up in the collision and their contents caught fire and exploded; the Irish Mail engine, tender, guard’s van and the first three passenger carriages were instantly enveloped in dense smoke and flames which soon spread to the fourth carriage and the leading post office van. This prevented any immediate rescue attempt and the occupants of the first four carriages all died, together with the guard in the front guard’s van and the locomotive’s fireman. The engine driver had managed to jump clear just before the collision and though he was wounded by flying splinters he was able to uncouple the last six carriages of the train, which were moved away before the fire could reach them. He died two months later from a pre-existing condition though an inquest concluded that his death had been hastened by the injuries he sustained in the accident.
On legal advice the two brakesmen of the goods train didn’t give evidence at the inquest and the coroner’s jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against them. They were tried at Ruthin assizes the following spring but were acquitted after the jury returned a verdict of ‘Not Guilty’ following the judge’s instruction that they should consider if the two men were, or should have been, under the supervision of a superior officer, ie the Llanddulas stationmaster.
A total of 33 people died in that accident, with the victims being burned beyond recognition, though three of them were later identified by their personal effects. The final official tally was 10 males, 13 females, and 10 gender unknown, and all the remains were buried on August 25th 1868 in a mass grave at St. Michael’s Church, Abergele, where a memorial to them still stands. Walking along the pleasant path in the sunshine of a quiet morning it was hard to believe that such an accident had occurred near there more than a century earlier.
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The drive from the camp site to Colwyn Bay took less than ten minutes and I parked at the far end of the promenade not far from Rhos-on-Sea. Set in the pavement every few yards were a series of granite ‘postcards’ depicting various points in Colwyn Bay’s timeline as part of the Waterfront Project, a recent upgrade and enhancement of the promenade area. Local architect Sydney Colwyn Foulkes (1884-1971) was responsible for the design of many of Colwyn Bay’s most lovely buildings and the elephant featured was mechanical rather than a live one.
Designed and patented by Frank Smith of Morecambe in the late 1940s after visiting a zoo, the Colwyn Bay mechanical elephant ran on wheels powered by a small belt-driven two-stroke petrol engine. Children sat sideways on benches which ran the length of the creature’s back and the fare for a ride was 6d each (six old pence). The elephant travelled at about 2mph and the ‘keeper’, who had to have a driving licence, walked alongside it.
Rhos-on-Sea from Colwyn Bay promenade
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The centrepiece of the newly upgraded promenade was the word ‘Colwyn’ designed by an architecture student at Wrexham University. The letters, each two metres tall, were formed from a precast concrete mix containing a dye to give them a unique coppery-orange colouring, then to complete the finish they were chiselled with an attractive design to depict either waves rolling onto the beach or hills and sand dunes.
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And then there was the pier – and yes, it was short. The original pier, which opened in June 1900, had suffered from years of neglect and decay and on February 1st 2017 the seaward end partially collapsed into the sea. This was followed by a further collapse on the 23rd of the month during Storm Doris and following a lot of discussion among the powers-that-be it was decided to remove the pier completely, with dismantling taking place between February and May 2018. All the salvageable parts were stored safely and after restoration the construction of the new but much shortened pier began in 2019, with the pier itself finally being opened to the public on July 14th 2021.
Now I have to admit that personally I think the new pier does look nice – the restored and repainted ironwork and the replica lamp columns are lovely – but it also looks a bit pointless. A few nice benches along each side would really complete the look but as it is now it’s just a wide empty boardwalk with fancy sides, no character and no real purpose.
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Across from the pier a pedestrian underpass led under the nearby railway line towards the town and on each corner wall I found some great street art, with all the murals featuring something pertaining to Colwyn Bay in years gone by. A bit further along the promenade I came to another art installation, a family of life-size silhouetted figures made from cast steel and overlooking the beach, then a short distance away was a series of contemporary seats and benches of different shapes and sizes, although none of them looked particularly comfortable to sit or lie on.
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Further on still was the Porth Eirias Waterfront Complex, a modern building housing a watersports centre, bike shop, childrens’ play area and a (very expensive) Bryn Williams bistro, and at the front of the building was The Cormorant, another art installation.
The Little Orme headland, less than four miles along the coast, has one of the largest Cormorant colonies in the UK and the birds are a frequent sighting on the Colwyn Bay coastline. The idea for the installation came from a student concept and the initial frame was created from welded steel rods with wings formed from old shelving panels. The feet are an unwanted pair of swim flippers while the feathers were made from old bicycle tyres and a tractor inner tube. The wing peaks and chest are from fly-tipped quad bike mud guards, the tail and lower belly were made from an old plastic garden chair and the beak was made from a discarded flexible yellow plastic tub. Black land drainage pipe made the neck and the plastic bottles in the belly highlight the issue of plastic pollution in the sea and the detrimental affect it can have on marine wildlife.
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At the back of the building a grass covered slope with a zigzag path and steps up the side led up to the roof. The slope looked rather untidy but according to the nearby information board these plants and grasses are native to the British coastline and in that particular location they contribute to the building’s low environmental impact. Up on the roof there was a great view across the beach in both directions and looking down the grass covered slope was much nicer than looking up it, in fact I thought the view could quite easily have been somewhere abroad.
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Although I knew there were other parts of Colwyn Bay to see there was also somewhere else I wanted to go to and I had quite a distance to walk to get back to the van so I made that my last photo and headed back along the promenade. I’d never been to Colwyn Bay before so I don’t know what it was like in previous years but I was very impressed with the promenade and the lovely beach so it’s definitely a place I’ll return to in the not-too-distant future.

February mini break – Day 1

After three named storms in less than a week and enough rain to turn my garden into something resembling a soggy sponge pudding last Saturday turned out to be glorious and 8.30 that morning saw me leaving home for another weekend in North Wales, with a pitch pre-booked at the holiday park where I stayed in December. With the weather being so nice I decided to take advantage of it and visit a couple of new-to-me places on the way there, and my first stop was at St. Winefred’s Chapel and Well near the small town of Holywell.
Although the chapel is open daily to visitors the door is actually kept locked so I had to get the key from the nearby visitor centre, and once in there I had the place to myself. Dating from the beginning of the 16th century, with a stone floor and just one stained glass window, the chapel was restored in 1976 and is very simply furnished with just an altar, lectern and a few rows of chairs.
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Expecting St. Winefred’s Well to be a small square hole in the ground with a flagstone surround, or maybe a small stone trough set in a wall, I was more than a little surprised when I saw it. Situated directly underneath the chapel water from a natural spring bubbled up into a large star-shaped stone basin beneath an elaborately vaulted ceiling and surrounded by carved stone columns. Believed for centuries to have healing properties water from the well flows into an outdoor pool where pilgrims can bathe, although it did look rather murky and according to the young couple who were actually in there it was also very cold.
At one side of the pool was an attractive little chapel and next door a couple of small changing rooms, while at the other side of the pool a nearby building housed a museum although this was temporarily closed. The whole place was quite fascinating and I could have spent much longer there so I may very well make a return later in the year.
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The next stop on my list was down the road at the ruined Basingwerk Abbey just off the A548 at Greenfield. Founded in 1131 and extensively remodelled in the 13th century Basingwerk is still a significant religious site and it’s also the starting point of the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way, a long-distance walking route stretching south all the way to Bardsey, the ‘Island of 20,000 Saints’ 2 miles off the Llyn Peninsula. More details and photos of Basingwerk Abbey and St. Winefred’s Well and Chapel will be on a couple of future dedicated posts.
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From Basingwerk it was only a short 2-mile drive to Llanerch-y-Mor and the derelict Duke of Lancaster, a ship taken out of service in 1979 and abandoned several years later. I’ve photographed it from one side on previous occasions so this time I wanted to see if I could get it from the other side but a high security fence and even higher hedges prevented any sort of a decent view.
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My fourth and final stop was made more by accident than planned. Friend Eileen had forewarned me that there were roadworks causing delays along part of the road I would be driving along to get to where I was staying so I made a detour to avoid them and realised I would be passing close to Dyserth Waterfall which I had never previously been to, so it was a good opportunity to go and see it.
The River Ffyddion rises 4.5 miles to the east of Dyserth village and is joined a mile away by water from a spring called Ffynnon Asa. After falling some 70 feet over the waterfall the river makes its way westwards and joins the River Clwyd to the west of Rhuddlan. A few yards from the main waterfall was a smaller one and between the two was a rather waterlogged cave cut into the rock; there was no clue to its significance though there was a ‘danger, keep out’ notice near the entrance.
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The spray from the main waterfall was quite substantial and with the sunshine it created quite a bright rainbow at one side of the bridge. Although their history is unknown the two massive walls to the left of the falls could be medieval and possibly built to support a water wheel which would have been driven by water diverted from above the waterfall. The steps between the walls were quite steep and led to an even steeper path which gave me a good view towards the sea and continued over the hill, taking me into woodland which invited more exploration, but I didn’t want to be too late getting to where I was staying so I retraced my steps back to the waterfall and the car park.
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Checking in at the camp site reception there seemed to be some confusion as to which pitch I was on. I’d booked the pitch I’d had on my previous stay but someone had allocated me the next one to it which was apparently occupied, however after much faffing about I was finally given the pitch I’d booked in the first place and I was free to go round and get parked up on it. Once I was settled in I rang Eileen and arranged to call round an hour or so later, and I spent a lovely evening until quite late in her company along with her hubby and Tilly the cockapoo, which just nicely rounded off what had been a really good day.