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 A Celebrity so they may become part of a future post.
***All photos are my own unless otherwise stated.
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.
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.
Weather-wise the morning wasn’t too good, it was raining, so my intended visit to Conwy was put on hold and as indoor photography didn’t depend on sunshine I went back to the Marble Church, arriving just before the advertised opening time of 10am. The quiet road along by the church seemed to be quite a popular parking spot and as I sat in the van I watched various cars pulling up, thinking that the next one must surely be someone arriving to open up the church but it never was. By the time 11.30 had been and gone it was obvious that the place wasn’t going to be open that day so I gave up waiting and set off for Colwyn Bay to find the building society I needed.
Down on the coast the weather was completely different to that of 11 miles inland – blue sky, sunshine and not a hint of rain anywhere, and although there was still quite an amount of cloud around the afternoon got better as time went on. Once I’d found the building society and got some cash on production of my i/d I decided to stay in the area and have a good look round as I’d never been to Colwyn Bay’s town centre before; I found there was more to it than I expected and the mix of independent shops was quite interesting. I also found a dog watching the world go by from an upstairs side window above a shop, some quirky creatures on a window decoration, and in the Parrot Rescue charity shop I found four mouse ornaments. I already had three of them but at just £1 each I wasn’t leaving these ones behind.
As I wandered round the streets I unexpectedly found some street art stretching across the timber hoardings surrounding a vacant plot of land, while nearby was The Picture House, a former cinema. Built in 1914 the Princess Picture House had neo-Egyptian embellishments added to its architecture in 1932 and when it eventually ceased operating as a cinema it became a bingo hall and social club. It was Grade ll listed in July 1994 and was converted into a Wetherspoons pub/restaurant in 1998, though apparently most of the original Art Deco interior still survives.
From the shopping centre I drove round and down to the seafront and went just into the Rhos-on-Sea part of the promenade where parking is free, though I had to park on the embankment road as the promenade itself was closed off for the ongoing coastal defence project. Out on the beach a bright yellow excavator was ripping up one of the stone groynes and loading the rocks into an equally bright yellow dump truck while not far away was the end of a 3,200ft pipe which stretched almost to Colwyn Bay pier and which would be used to import a million tonnes of sand onto the beach.
At the start of the Colwyn Bay part of the promenade I found some more of the pavement ‘postcards’ which I photographed in February, and being a fan of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus tv programme back in the day it was interesting to learn that a member of the Python team had been born in Colwyn Bay. Opposite the pier was the railway underpass leading towards the town and on the far side of it was some more street art which I’d spotted as I drove away from the shopping centre.
Along the promenade was the Porth Eirias water sports centre and on the wall bordering the car park I found a tiled mosaic picture depicting various aspects of Colwyn Bay. Across the road was The Dingle, a wooded area leading steeply uphill to Eirias Park. I remember going there with my parents while on holiday in the area when I was a child and thinking the park was boring but as an adult I’d never been so it would be interesting to see what it was like.
It now seemed to be a park heavily focused on sport as there was a tennis centre with outdoor courts, a football pitch, a stadium with its running track and various buildings, and a leisure centre. Ignoring the buildings it was a pleasant enough place with a couple of bowling greens, a play area and lots of green space with a small lake but there were no gardens or flowers beds to provide any colour or interest so unfortunately my adult opinion is very much the same as my childhood one.
Back down on the promenade I walked up the flagged slope, interspersed with its native plants and grasses, to the roof of the water sports centre where I spent a few minutes just taking in the view before going down the other side and heading back along the promenade to the van. At one point a large patch of fine sand, which may or may not have been part of the coastal defence project, looked like a mini Sahara desert in contrast to the rest of the flat and level beach.
Back at the camp site I reflected on my day. With the morning rain and the closed church it hadn’t been the best of starts but the later sunshine and blue sky had more than made up for it. Even though I hadn’t gone too many miles from the site it had been good to explore a bit more of Colwyn Bay and now with the van problems finally behind me I could look forward to really enjoying the rest of the holiday.
Some lovely weekend weather just recently gave me the opportunity to head off to the village of Overton on the Lune estuary for a walk round Bazil Point, a place I hadn’t previously been to. Turning off the main road leading to Heysham port I took a minor road running alongside the river and I hadn’t gone very far when I spotted a dead cat at the side of the road. Now I hate to see road kill of any sort, especially someone’s pet, but with no houses in the vicinity there was no clue where the cat could have come from, anyway I wasn’t going to leave it there to possibly get squashed so I stopped the van and went back to deal with it, picking it up and laying it gently in the long grass under a nearby tree.
A mile or so along the road I passed half a dozen ponies grazing by the riverside then came to a small and very pleasant looking residential static caravan park and the Golden Ball Hotel, also known as Snatchems. Closed two years ago at the start of the pandemic, surrounded by steel barriers and overgrown gardens, the place looked a bit of a mess but chatting to a lady from the caravan park who was walking her dog I was told that it’s due to re-open in a couple of months time.
A pleasant 3-mile drive round the country lanes took me to Overton where I parked not far from what would be the end of my route round Bazil Point then walked through the village to my starting point near to St. Helen’s Church. Across the street from the church and just by a garden gate was a stall with a few plants and various hand crafted items on display along with a price list and honesty box, though as the street was a bit ‘out of the way’ I did wonder if whoever lived there actually ever sold anything. Also on top of a nearby gate post was a rather strange looking dragon/goblin/hobbit thing which seemed to be either sucking its thumb or trying to decide what to do next.
A gravel lane led from the street corner and past a handful of bungalows to a farm track across a vast field and at the far end I came to the first gate of the walk, with a narrow path leading between high hedgerows to a second gate and a bench overlooking the estuary and Glasson Dock across the far side. I don’t know who Butler was but there was certainly a good view from his bench and it was from there that I spotted a heron out on a sandbank.
A bit further on I came to a small stone-built shed tucked into the surrounding trees; a bit of an odd place for a garden shed but maybe it was used to store kayaks or something similar. Just past the shed was the washed up remains of a huge tree stump, though looking at the calm waters of the estuary with the tide already receding it was hard to imagine the water coming up so close to the boundary wall and tree line, but it obviously does as not far away huge boulders were piled up against the land to prevent tidal erosion.
Round the end of the point the stony/rocky ground gave way to grass and there was a good view across the mouth of a nearby creek and the marshes to Heysham power station in the distance. Eventually the path turned slightly inland and took me through the last named gate onto a raised bank with a view across the fields to the outskirts of Overton village.
Curving round above the marshes the path brought me to a stile which, with two dogs, proved to be a difficult one to negotiate. Poppie wanted to go under it while Snowy was trying to climb up and through the middle of it, and I’ve long since come to the conclusion that the people who build these things don’t consider those with shorter legs. We got there eventually though and the path dropped back down to the edge of the marsh where, in the rough scrub just in front of me I saw a peacock butterfly which stayed still just long enough for me to snap a quick photo.
From there the path followed the edge of the marsh for quite a distance, gradually widening out and ending in a small parking area set back near the beginning of the tidal road to Sunderland Point and village. Not far away was the larger parking area where I’d left the van and a nearby sign gave a clear pictorial warning to anyone not aware of the tide times but the water had been receding for a while and I’d already noticed a couple of cars crossing the causeway so I knew it would be safe for me to drive over to the village.
Not far along the road I was happy to see that the next warning sign was completely free of water although some sections of the narrow causeway were very muddy, and with not many passing places I was just hoping I wouldn’t meet something coming the other way. I reached the far end with no problems though and found another warning sign which was a variation of the first one. I couldn’t remember having seen either of them before and talking to one of the locals it seems that they had been installed since my previous visit in an effort to reduce the number of people needing to be rescued after getting themselves and/or their vehicles stranded by the tide.
Walking along First Terrace something white out in the estuary caught my eye and when I zoomed in with the camera I saw it was an egret stalking along through the shallows, presumably looking for his lunch. At the end of the terrace I turned up The Lane and followed the fragrant scent of the hawthorn hedges along the path to Sambo’s grave then retraced my steps for a walk along Second Terrace to Sunderland Hall at the end before making my way back along the beach to the van.
By this time I was feeling more than a little peckish and as there’s no shop in the village or in Overton I drove the three miles round the country lanes to Middleton Sands where I parked up on the edge of the salt marsh and got myself a sandwich, chocolate bar and can of Coke from the shop in the nearby caravan site. This was the coastal side of the Sunderland peninsula with the village itself just over a mile away along the marsh; out at the water’s edge and quite a distance away a family of four were playing with a dog and the sun shining from that direction made them look like silhouettes against the background of a silvery sea.
After all my walking it was nice just to sit in the van with my ‘picnic’ and chill for a while, in fact I stayed far longer than I intended but eventually it was time to head for home. Driving back round the country lanes I made another brief stop near the Golden Ball Hotel and my final two shots were of the river with a much reduced water level than when I was there earlier in the day.
The walk round Bazil Point at Overton had shown me some scenery and views which I hadn’t previously seen and it’s a walk I may very well do again sometime. It had been nice to revisit Sunderland village too and the pleasant drive home in the late afternoon sunshine just ended the day nicely.
A gloriously sunny morning greeted me on the final day of my break and with the other handful of campers having left the previous day and no-one occupying the white campervan parked near the entrance I’d had the site all to myself since getting back from the zoo the day before. Eventually though it was time for me to leave too and as living and sleeping in the van meant that things had been kept to a minimum it didn’t take long to pack up and get on the road.
First was a stop at Asda where I did something I’ve been meaning to do for a while. Less than a hundred yards away was the beach and a long promenade/cycleway which I hadn’t been along before so leaving the van in Asda’s car park I set out to see what I could find. At the far side of a pay-and-display car park four kiosks were set back off the promenade and on the back walls of two of them were a couple of bright and colourful artworks.
On the beach four anglers were fishing near the water’s edge and further along at Horton’s Nose nature reserve I came across a couple of washed up tree stumps – the second one was huge and its shape and position reminded me of the bow of a ship. Across the harbour bridge and two main roads I came to Marine Lake, another place I’d not yet managed to get to, so the next part of the day was the one mile circuit all the way round it.
Opened on May 24th 1895, the day of Queen Victoria’s 76th birthday, and built on land adjacent to the River Clwyd estuary Marine Lake is North Wales’ only saltwater lake. The land had previously been known locally as the ‘mud hole’ as it would be flooded by the river at high tide then turn into a muddy bog when the tide receded. The local council bought the land for £1,050 from the Commissioners of Woods and Forests and the design and construction of the lake, the island, and its surrounding grounds cost a further £10,200. Designed by Baldwin Latham and constructed by contractor George Law of Kidderminster the whole lot was completed in less than six months.
On the day of the lake’s official opening the culvert close to the nearby railway bridge was opened in the morning to start the flow of water into the lake then in the evening the culvert near the road bridge was also opened. A regatta, aquatic fete and gala were held on July 6th and described in the local press as one of the most successful days in the town’s history. At 4ft deep and covering an area of 40 acres the lake became home to Rhyl Swimming Club in 1896 and was also used for sailing, rowing and yachting.
In 1908 a showman set up a high water chute in an enclosed part of the lake and this was supplemented by various fairgound attractions including a roller coaster. In 1910 The Rhyl Amusement Company took over Marine Lake, with the company’s main owners being the Butler family whose steel foundry in Leeds had supplied the water chute. In June 1914 Alfred John Nightingale, a visitor from Bala, was killed in an accident on the water chute – the mechanism which raised the boats malfunctioned and 27-year old Alfred fell to his death.
The miniature railway around the lake opened on May 1st 1911 and was acquired by Rhyl Amusements in 1912; the original steam engine was a ‘Little Giant’ built at the Bassett-Lowke works in Northampton but during the 1920s engineer Albert Barnes, the amusement park’s manager, built a series of new bigger locomotives for the railway at the Albion Works in Rhyl.
During the 1930s Rhyl became a popular destination for holidaymakers from all over the North West, especially during the summer factory closure weeks. Families would arrive by train to stay at the holiday camps along the coast and visit the Marine Lake attractions, with the area enjoying annual visitor numbers on a scale which is difficult to imagine now.
The fairground left the Marine Lake site in 1969 when Rhyl Amusements decided to concentrate on their larger Ocean Beach site nearby, which also led to the closure of the miniature railway and the removal of the track. Ownership of Marine Lake reverted to Rhyl Urban District Council who did introduce some amusements of their own including boat rides and a huge childrens’ slide. In 1978 the railway track was re-laid and the railway runs to this day; owned and operated by a charitable trust and still using the locomotives and stock from 100 years ago it’s now Britain’s oldest such railway.
In 1998 the land around Marine Lake was changed drastically by a huge construction scheme which included burying a storm water tank underneath the car park area as part of the local flood defences. A new railway building, Central Station, was opened in 2007 and the nearby Ocean Beach funfair closed that same year. Plans to build a retail, leisure and housing complex on the site, with construction due to start in May 2009, were delayed and ultimately scrapped, leading to the site becoming a derelict eyesore, then in 2015 plans for a smaller retail-only park called Marina Quay were approved. Stores began to open there in stages from 2017 and now include an Aldi, Farm Foods and The Range while the lake itself continues to host activities for local groups and visitors, including water skiing, wake-boarding and non-powered sailing.
With my circuit of the lake completed I crossed back over the road and the harbour bridge and with a few more snaps taken I retraced my steps along the promenade and back to the Asda car park, then it was only a few minutes drive from there to Eileen’s for my second visit before I set off for home.
It was another enjoyable couple of hours spent in the company of Eileen, her hubby and Tilly and though I could quite happily have stayed chatting all day if they let me I did have to get home and go to work. The sunshine stayed with me all the way back and with no delays on the motorways I was home in good time. It had been a great long weekend and needless to say I’ve already been planning my next North Wales break, which hopefully won’t be too far away.
My plans for the penultimate day of my break depended on sunshine and blue sky, neither of which were evident that morning. It looked okay over towards the coast but my intended destination was several miles inland and white sky with grey cloud wouldn’t be a good look on my photos. There was no real improvement by lunch time so after a trip to Asda to get some supplies I took myself off to the Welsh Mountain Zoo in the hills above Colwyn Bay; if I was photographing animals it didn’t really matter what the sky looked like.
In 1897 a Manchester surgeon, Dr. Walter Whitehead, purchased 37 acres of woodland above the new and expanding resort of Colwyn Bay with the intention of retiring there. The layout of the new estate was designed by Thomas Mawson, the renowned Victorian landscape architect, who based the project on idyllic woodland walks, herbaceous borders and formal rose gardens as well as homes for staff. After Dr. Whitehead’s death in 1913, the estate changed hands several times until the site was taken over by the Jackson family in 1962 and formally opened as a zoo the following year.
A short walk from the zoo car park a large grassed area had been roped off to form an arena and I was just in time to catch the last few minutes of the birds of prey flying display. The barn owl was lovely but the turkey buzzard was one of the ugliest creatures I’ve ever seen though I suppose someone must love it. Next came the penguin parade with the keeper walking round with a bucket of small fish which he continually threw to the Humboldt penguins following him, though the odd one or two wandered off to say hello to various visitors and a couple of them came close to me. A circuit of the arena and they went back into their enclosure then it was time for the sea lion display in the pool a few yards away.
After seeing the sea lions I wandered up, down and along various paths and steps from one exhibit to the next although not in any particular order. Unfortunately I missed quite a few things, including the snow leopard, brown bear and tigers; the zoo covers quite a large area and as I popped back to the van every so often to check that Snowy and Poppie were okay I completely forgot which sections I’d been to and which I hadn’t, also some of the animals themselves seemed to be hiding from view.
Just three days after my zoo visit there was a new arrival on April 21st, a foal called Khan, the first Przewalski’s Wild Horse to be born at the Welsh Mountain Zoo since 1995, and looking at my photo I rather think that could be his mother, Wendy. The Przewalski’s Wild Horse was completely extinct in the wild by 1966 but following a successful captive breeding programme they have since been reintroduced into their natural habitats among the reserves and national parks of Mongolia, meaning their conservation status has been reclassified from “extinct in the wild” to “endangered”.
The zoo isn’t just about animals though. The garden areas are made up of an ever-expanding collection of plants and seeds from around the world, some of which are considered rare and endangered and all of which grow well on the hillside site, with a host of other unusual tropical plants growing in the reptile and alligator houses.
With the blue sky and sunshine having gradually increased while I was in the zoo and the dogs deserving a decent walk I decided to go down to Colwyn Bay’s seafront and walk along the promenade for a while. Being later in the afternoon there weren’t too many people around so it was a very pleasant walk which just rounded off the day nicely.
If I have one criticism about the zoo it’s the signs pointing to the different exhibits. Presumably in an effort to make it more interesting for children they are made up of small colourful pictures (not photos) of the animals in any particular area but I found some of them hard to distinguish, which is probably another reason why I missed several exhibits. Other than that it’s a very nice place and I may very well go back sometime in the future to try and find the things I missed this time.
Knowing that Conwy would be very busy my day started reasonably early this time – my plans meant that at some point I would have to leave the dogs in the van for a while so I wanted to be sure I could get a parking space in some shade. Just before 9am I pulled into the edge-of-town car park I usually use and bingo! – only three cars there and a space underneath a big tree which would provide shade all day long.
Heading down the road from the car park and in the direction of the river a short dead-end lane took me to Marine Walk. The pedestrian footpath/cycleway ran along by the waterside before turning inland alongside a tidal creek crossed by a blue/grey bridge which provided private access to a sports field for pupils of a nearby school. Past the end of the creek the path took me onto a minor road which crossed the busy A55 just west of the Conwy Tunnel which ran deep underneath the river estuary.
Opened by the Queen on October 5th 1991 the Conwy Tunnel was the first immersed tube road tunnel in the UK and Ireland. Designed for the Welsh Office by Travers Morgan & Partners and a joint construction venture between contractors Costain and Tarmac it took 1,000 workers five years to construct at a final cost of £144m.
At 1.09km long the tunnel is comprised of 300,000 tonnes of concrete and 10,500 tonnes of steel reinforcement, and carries two lanes of traffic in each direction, separated by a full-height dividing wall. The east and west approaches were constructed using a ‘cut-and-cover’ technique and the central immersed tube section was formed from six steel-reinforced concrete units, precast inside a basin on the west side of the Conwy estuary. Each unit was 118 metres long, 24 metres wide, 10.5 metres high and weighed 30,000 tonnes.
When construction of the units was complete they were made watertight by temporary steel bulkheads at each end, the casting basin was flooded and they were floated into the estuary, being towed into position by pontoons and sunk on a falling tide into a pre-excavated trench some 10-20 metres deep, where they were finally joined together underwater and the temporary bulkheads removed to complete the roadway. Sand was injected to fill the voids beneath the tube and graded backfill placed round its sides and top to fill the trench, finished off with a protective covering of rock armouring. The whole operation took a huge collaborative effort which included a team of 90 divers working 24-hour shifts and making approximately 7,000 dives.
Surplus granular material excavated from the casting basin and dredged from the tunnel trench was deposited upriver beyond the road and rail bridges and used to reclaim parts of a tidal area which is now the Glan Conwy Nature Reserve, while the basin itself was developed into Conwy Marina. Opened in 1992 and with 500 pontoon berths it’s the largest marina in Wales.
Today’s tunnel technology includes 36 giant fans in each bore, CCTV cameras monitored from a control room, emergency telephones, evacuation doors, incident detection and public address systems and a computerised lighting system with 2,600 58W single and twin fluorescent lights and 1,850 LED lamps which automatically adjust to visibility conditions, all supported by 4km of cabling and 3km of steelwork. Probably most people, myself included, will have driven through that tunnel without giving a moment’s thought for the planners, engineers and construction workers who made it a reality – maybe some don’t even realise they are driving under a river – but the technology and work undertaken to get it there is certainly pretty amazing.
At the far side of the A55 the minor road took me to a small private estate of modern houses and a car park and boat yard with Conwy Marina at the far side, overlooked by the terrace of the Mulberry pub/restaurant and a very attractive small square dotted with planters and seating. A pleasant pedestrian promenade led to the far end of the marina and the continuation of the minor road which ended in a rough surfaced car park with a slipway down to the water.
My original idea had been to walk along the beach for a while but not far from the slipway the sand gave way to rocks and with a high tide there was no beach to be seen so I walked along the dunes for a distance before turning round and retracing my steps. At one point I came across what seemed to be a memorial cairn of some sort but on closer inspection I found it was a crudely made hand carved signpost pointing one way to Conwy and the other to Sunset – as the only caravan site near there doesn’t have that name I can only assume it refers to a point at which you can get a good view of the sunset across the sea.
Back at the van after our long walk the dogs were settled in their beds with a chew each to keep them occupied for a while then I set out for the next part of the day. First was the suspension bridge and I was happy to see that after all the times I’ve found it closed this time it was open and I could walk across it.
The bridge is a Grade I-listed structure, one of the first road suspension bridges in the world and probably the only one anchored into the base of a medieval castle. Built by Thomas Telford between 1822 and 1826 the 99.5-metre-long (326 ft) bridge is in the same style as Telford’s Menai Suspension Bridge further down the coast, but with castellated towers created to complement the castle. Carrying what was once the main trunk road from Chester to Bangor it replaced the ferry which crossed the river at the same point and which was considered both inconvenient and dangerous. Opened to traffic on July 1st 1826 the first passengers waved from their carriages as they crossed the bridge and sang ‘God Save the King’ as loud as they could.
In 1896 the original wooden deck, 15ft above high water, was replaced by an iron roadway which still exists today and in 1903 the bridge was strengthened by adding wire cables above the original iron chains, then the following year a 6ft-wide walkway was added for pedestrians. Following a steady increase in traffic over the years the 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.
Following a local uproar in 1965 after the council proposed the demolition of the suspension bridge its ownership was transferred to the National Trust who continue to own and maintain it; in 1969 it was restored and in 1976 it was repainted to celebrate its 150th anniversary.
At the entrance to the bridge a toll house was built and during the 1890s toll keepers David and Maria Williams kept the bridge running 24 hours a day every day of the year including Christmas. During his time as toll keeper David created a vegetable garden to help feed his family of six and any surplus food was sold to people crossing the bridge, while Maria took in washing from residents of the town to make extra money to sustain the family. A sign above the toll house door details the toll charges from the 1890s, and though the National Trust did for many years charge a nominal fee for non-members to walk across the bridge this no longer applies, and the toll house itself is currently closed to visitors.
Next came a visit to the castle, which was one reason why I’d had to leave the dogs behind, but unfortunately this turned out to be a non-event. I’d (mistakenly) thought it was a National Trust property along with the bridge so I’d tucked my card into my pocket, only to find when I got there that it’s owned by Cadw and I would have to pay. I did have some money but not enough and as the van was quite some distance away I wasn’t walking all the way back there for the sake of getting another 60p so I abandoned the castle idea and went to take some photos down at a quiet riverside spot instead. And that’s when I found the dog…
Walking back up the lane from the riverside I noticed the medium sized dog trotting in my direction though he didn’t appear to be with anyone and he seemed to be unsure of where he was. He came to me when I called him and seemed very friendly, and though he had a collar on there was no tag and there was no-one around who seemed to be looking for him. There were some young guys playing bowls on the nearby bowling green though so I asked them if he was theirs – he wasn’t, nor had they had noticed anyone looking for a dog, however they said they would be there for at least another couple of hours so they would keep him with them in the enclosed space in case his owner came along.
Leaving the dog with them I went back into the town to see if I could find someone to help – enquiring at the visitor centre near the castle entrance it was suggested that I go to the tourist information centre across the road, however being Easter and also a Sunday the place was closed. Thinking that Eileen might be able to find the number of the local dog warden for me I rang her but unfortunately got no answer so reluctantly I had to accept there was nothing I could do other than hope the dog stayed with the young guys on the bowling green and was eventually found by his owner.
After all that it was time for the next part of the day, walking the section of the town walls starting from near the castle, which I didn’t do in February. This time though I could walk all the way round as the part which had been blocked off before was now open, although the views from the new-to-me section weren’t quite as good as those on my previous visit.
I ended the wall walk not far from the car park where I’d left the van so I went to retrieve the dogs and found them both curled up fast asleep – they must have been tired after our long walk earlier on and they obviously hadn’t missed me. Down on the quayside the tide was going out and I’d missed the last pleasure boat sailing so I walked to the far end and back again, spotting a quirky garden ornament behind the steel mesh barrier of a small fishing compound.