Day 3 arrived with glorious early morning sunshine and after spending the previous day on site I was looking forward to getting out and about but unfortunately the sunshine didn’t last. By the time I’d taken the dogs out and had breakfast grey clouds had rolled in from all sides and the blue sky had vanished, effectively putting paid to my plans. Okay, I could still go out but grey clouds wouldn’t show the planned location at its best so I had to have a rethink.
Eventually I decided on an alternative but actually going there was a different matter, in fact I couldn’t even get the van off my pitch – it was well and truly stuck there. Somehow, and I don’t know how, I’d got a flat battery – it was as if something had drained it overnight but that was impossible as the key hadn’t been left in the ignition and I had the site electric supply for lights and everything else so there was nothing in the van which could have been left on. So I called the RAC – and that’s when my troubles really began.
Trying to actually speak to a living human being was a nightmare – first the automated reporting system wouldn’t recognise my surname, then it wouldn’t recognise my home postcode, then it wouldn’t even recognise my reg number which it previously had recognised. I was getting more frustrated by the minute so in desperation and on the fourth attempt I rang the sales line, finally speaking to someone who took my details and said someone would come out to me. The guy who eventually arrived started the van no problem, checked everything over and said the battery was low on power so it might be advisable to get a new one or I could end up with the same problem in another day or two.
A battery of the size and power I needed wouldn’t be cheap, in fact it was darned expensive and an unforeseen amount I didn’t really want to pay but I didn’t want to risk being stuck again or having to go through the RAC’s stupid automated system a second time so I agreed to have a new one. The guy didn’t have one on his van though so he rang someone else and arranged for a re-attend the following morning to supply and fit a new one, stressing that it must be no later than 10am as I had said I had plans to go out and didn’t wanting to be waiting around on the camp site.
By the time the RAC guy had gone it was too late to really go anywhere and it was still cloudy anyway so I just drove the seven miles to Tesco in Abergele to get some supplies then stopped off at Asda for another couple of things. On the way back to the camp site I passed the friendly neighbourhood giraffe and noticed he was still wearing his Jubilee crown so of course I had to stop and take a couple of photos – regardless of what he’s wearing he makes me smile every time I see him.
With the cloud continuing through the late afternoon and into the evening I spent the rest of the day on the camp site and went to bed that night with fingers metaphorically crossed that once the RAC had fitted a new battery on the van the following morning I would finally be able to go out somewhere, however more unwanted aggravation was to come.
If ever there was a holiday when a catalogue of things conspired against me this one was it, and though I don’t believe in fate or ‘things happening for a reason’ it didn’t bode well for my break when two days before travelling I got a head cold. The weather on the first day was abysmal, it rained steadily from home all the way to North Wales and effectively stopped me from visiting the two places I’d planned to go to en route, though a slight change of plan saw me calling to see Eileen and her hubby that afternoon instead of waiting until the evening and a very pleasant couple of hours was spent in the company of two lovely friends and Tilly the cockapoo.
The rain had stopped by the time I left Eileen’s and went to the camp site but halfway through setting up the tent it started again and by the time I’d got everything sorted out I was ever-so-slightly damp. A change of clothes and a chill out evening followed and by the time I was ready for taking the dogs for their bedtime walk later on it had been fine for a while so thankfully I didn’t get wet again.
The following day was a mixture of sunshine and cloud and not being too fussed about going anywhere I decided to just spend the day on the site, which I had all to myself as there was no-one else there. Prior to the start of the holiday I’d ordered online a couple of large waterproof fleece picnic rugs to use as carpets in the tent, and knowing they would be delivered while I was away I’d asked Eileen if they could be sent to her so I could collect them and put them to use straight away. They weren’t due until the following day but I got a message from Eileen later that morning to say they had already arrived and she and her hubby would bring them over to me later on.
Entertaining guests at my tent isn’t something I would normally do so this was different. It was nice to sit outside in the sunshine and chat over a brew and Tilly was really good – Eileen liked my tent set-up and given the chance I think Tilly would enjoy the camping life. The picnic rugs were much larger and nicer than I expected – I put them down in the tent later on and they looked great so I was really pleased with them.
After my guests had gone the rest of the afternoon and evening were spent relaxing with a book and watching a bit of tv, with an earlier than normal bedtime, though as I settled down for the night I had no idea of the frustrating things to come over the next couple of days.
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.
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.
With the time on my car park ticket almost up but still about three of hours of sunshine left I drove out of Conwy and a couple of miles along the Sychnant Pass to where, thanks to Google maps, I knew there was a small parking area just off the road. Half an hour’s wandering round that bit of Conwy Mountain got me a few nice photos then I went back down into Conwy itself; the lost dog had been on my mind and I couldn’t leave the town without trying to find out what happened to it. When I got back to the bowling green however there was no sign of the dog or the four young guys playing bowls so I could only hope that its owner turned up and it was okay.
On the way back to the camp site I stopped off at Rhos-on-Sea and from a chippy recommended by Eileen I got fish and peas which I ate in the van parked up on the promenade, and very good they were too. Finally back at the camp site my day was topped off nicely by a lovely sunset which cast a deep golden glow over the nearby fields.
Apart from not being able to reunite the lost dog with its owner, and missing out on the castle, which I can visit another time, I’d had a lovely day. I think Snowy and Poppie enjoyed it too, although they always do wherever I take them, and I can safely say all three of us slept well that night.
It was a bit of a strange morning weather-wise. Blue sky and bright sunshine one minute then all-over white cloud and hazy sunshine the next, with the best of the blue sky appearing in the direction of the coast a few miles away. It was dry and warm though and nice enough to have breakfast with the van door open, however I’d just settled down with my toast and marmalade when I was interrupted by the sound of a tractor and there in the next field, less than a hundred yards away, one of the farm workers was muck spreading. It didn’t smell too bad at first but by the time I was ready for going out the ‘perfume’ was much stronger although I wasn’t particularly bothered by it. Living within spitting distance of my own local countryside I’m quite familiar with various aromas drifting over from the nearest farm, and camping on a farm site the occasional farm smells are only to be expected.
For several years now, whenever I’ve been to Conwy, I’ve been intrigued by a pleasant looking steeply sloping gorse covered hillside above Deganwy across the estuary; when I found out a few weeks ago that it’s possible to walk up there to the remains of an old castle on a rocky outcrop it immediately went on my ‘to do’ list and this was the day I was going to go up there.
Deciding to take the route nearest to the outcrop I left the van in the car park near Deganwy station and set off uphill on a very pleasant residential street off the main road. Towards the top of the street a narrow path between two houses took me to the lower slopes of the outcrop and from there it was a steep and steady climb up and around until I got to the top. Now I don’t quite know what I was expecting to see when I got there but what I wasn’t expecting was a whole lot of not-very-much; a few bits of old wall here and there and that was it, although the views were good.
The history of Deganwy Castle goes back to the late 11th century although the site had been occupied at some point for centuries before that. In 1080 Robert of Rhuddlan, a Norman knight and important retainer of the Earl of Chester, was looking to expand his own lands so built a timber and earth castle on the hilltop at Deganwy. He was staying there in July 1093 when there was an invasion by armed men from three Welsh ships; he rode out to the attack but was killed in the subsequent skirmish, with the Welsh raiders allegedly sailing off with his severed head attached to the mast of one of their ships.
The history of the castle in the hundred years after Robert of Rhuddlan’s death is rather vague but by the end of the 12th century it was in the hands of the Welsh Prince of Gwynedd, Llywelyn the Great, and aided by the policy of King John it remained that way into the early 13th century. In 1210 however, Llywelyn turned against the King which prompted John to send an English army to invade the castle but it was pre-emptively destroyed by the Welsh to prevent it being used by the English. Unfortunately John was unable to sustain his army in Wales and Llywelyn was able to recapture the castle in 1213. He substantially rebuilt it in stone and it became one of his key facilities; in 1228 he even imprisoned one of his own sons there. Llywelyn died in 1240 and under the leadership of his son David the Welsh once again destroyed the castle to prevent its use by the English.
Deganwy Castle was eventually taken over by Henry III and in the years 1245-54 it was rebuilt into a substantial medieval fortification. The main part was constructed on the western summit of the hillside and crowned with a substantial round tower, while a secondary irregular-shaped structure known as Mansel’s Tower was built on a smaller eastern summit nearby, with a bailey established between the two hilltops. As Henry rebuilt the castle one of his noblemen wrote a letter home…
”His Majesty the King is staying with his army at Gannock (Deganwy) for the purpose of fortifying a castle which is now built in a most strong position there. We are dwelling round it in tents, employed in watchings, fastings and prayers, and amidst cold and nakedness. In watchings, through fear of the Welsh suddenly attacking us by night; in fastings, on account of a deficiency of provisions for a farthing loaf now costs five pence; in prayers that we may soon return home safe and uninjured. And we are oppressed by cold and nakedness because our houses are of canvas and we are without winter clothing.” From: Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora (thirteenth century)
A Royal Charter in 1252 had formally created a new borough adjacent to the site of the castle but over the subsequent decade this new settlement was subject to frequent Welsh attacks, culminating in the castle being besieged and captured by Llywelyn the Last in 1263. His territorial achievements were approved however when in 1267 Henry III sealed the Treaty of Montgomery, recognising Llywelyn as overlord of Wales.
In 1272 Edward I became King but relations with Llywelyn soon broke down, in particular over Llywelyn’s failure to pay homage to Edward. After the defeats of two Wars of Welsh Independence and the death of Llywelyn, killed in battle in 1282, the whole of North Wales, including Deganwy Castle, finally came under the control of the English. Five years earlier Edward had started to build his ‘iron ring’ of castles around North Wales but Deganwy Castle wasn’t suitable to be re-used; the 1263 siege had shown how vulnerable the hilltop location was so Conwy Castle across the river estuary was built as a direct replacement. Building materials were robbed from Deganwy Castle for the new structure and what remained of Deganwy was completely ruined. The ruins visible today belong mainly to Henry III’s castle though the bases of two D-shaped gatehouse towers and a section of the curtain wall hastily built by Edward I can still be recognized.
Heading back down to civilisation I took a route across the part of the hillside which has intrigued me for so long, eventually joining a path which brought me out into a small cul-de-sac of houses just up the hill from the road into Deganwy marina. From there it was just a short walk past the station to where I’d left the van, and finding the Tea Station Cafe open I called in for a much needed coffee and a snack before setting off to return to the camp site.
After the steep climb to the top of that rocky outcrop I’d been a bit disappointed to find there wasn’t a lot there but what it lacked in actual castle was more than made up for by the peace and quiet. I was the only one up there and it had been nice to sit for a while in solitude with the dogs and take in the views even if the sunshine was a bit hit-and-miss. And at least now, when I see that hillside from across the river in Conwy, I can finally say I know what’s up there.
Good Friday morning at 7.45am saw me on the road for yet another break in North Wales. This time I ignored both the A548 coast road and the A55 in favour of a B road off the A494 which took me to the first stop of the day, Ewloe Castle, hidden deep in woodland a short walk from a convenient roadside lay-by.
Situated on steeply sloping ground above a wooded valley and constructed of locally quarried sandstone Ewloe was one of the last fortifications built by the native Princes of Wales. Abandoned at the beginning of the invasion of Wales by Edward I in 1277, much of the castle’s dressed stonework from its curtain walls and keep was later removed for various constructions around Mold and Connah’s Quay and by the late medieval period the site was in ruins. More details and photos of the castle will be in a future follow-up post.
A couple of hundred yards along the road from the path to the castle was the Castle Cafe, situated in the grounds of a large and fairly new fishing site, and as I’d only had one piece of toast and a quick brew before leaving home it was time for something a bit more substantial. Looking at the menu the full breakfast seemed to be far more than I would eat so I settled on double scrambled eggs on toast with a mug of coffee, and very nice they were too. Chatting to the very friendly lady behind the counter she told me that one of the ducks on the nearest lake had recently gained a brood of nine tiny little ducklings so with breakfast over I went to find them and take a few photos round the lake.
From the cafe a drive along the B roads through the village of Northop Hall and some very pleasant countryside took me down to the A548 coast road close to Flint and a few miles further on I made my second stop near the village of Bagillt. I had to turn off the main road, go down a narrow track under the railway line and park close to a car scrap yard for this one – initially not the most attractive of places but it did have some quite interesting history to it.
The scrap yard occupied the site of the former Bettisfield Colliery with the last remaining colliery building, the engine house, standing close to the track. With no windows and holes in the roof where the slates were missing it looked rather worse for wear although it’s actually Grade I listed. Sunk in 1872 the colliery was owned by the Bettisfield Colliery Co. Ltd and by 1896 employed 538 men; with a working area of 4,000 acres and a yearly output of 150,000 tons Bettisfield was the largest and most important colliery in the Bagillt area.
Despite extending under the Dee estuary water was never reported as a problem and only two small 15-inch cylinder pumps were ever needed. By 1908 the colliery was in the hands of the Bagillt Coal Co. Ltd and employed 641 men but by 1918 ownership had reverted to the Bettisfield Colliery Co. with a workforce reduced to 450. By 1923 the workforce totalled 502 but the colliery couldn’t survive the Depression and the miners’ strikes of the 1920s and early 1930s and it closed in December 1933 with the loss of 415 jobs. The colliery hadn’t been without its accidents though and many lives were lost during its years of operation.
At the corner of the small parking area was a wooden sculpture, The Miner, also known as Bettisfield Bob, and a gate took me to a footpath leading up an incline across the fields towards the foreshore. Not far along the path was a modern working sundial sculpture designed and made by local blacksmith and artist Peter Carlyle and unveiled in July 2021 by Lady Hanmer of Bettisfield on the North Wales/Shropshire border, whose family opened Bettisfield Colliery in the 19th century. Part of a local community group’s project to develop and enhance the natural and historic heritage of the area it was a memorial to all those miners who lost their lives while working at the colliery.
Along the path and overlooking the estuary was what I’d originally set out to see, the Bagillt Beacon, one of a number of beacons placed along the Flintshire coast to celebrate the opening of the Wales Coast Path on May 5th 2012. Standing on a stone plinth built by local stonemason Paul Evans the Bagillt Beacon, in the shape of a Welsh dragon, was designed and made from mild steel plate by Peter Carlyle and was first lit on June 4th 2012 to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
From the beacon I walked round the perimeter of the small headland and down to the nearby creek known by the rather unattractive name of Dee Banks Gutter, then taking advantage of the tide still being reasonably well in I drove the short distance along to Greenfield Dock for another quick photo stop. By this time the sky had clouded over considerably so rather than go anywhere else I made my way from there straight to the camp site.
Expecting the site to be reasonably busy I was quite surprised to see hardly anyone there – just one caravan, a 4 x 4 vehicle with a fold-out tent on top and two small tents on the far side. Booking in at the campervan which served as a reception office I was told I could choose my own pitch so I opted for No. 8, the fourth from the end, and once I was settled in I spent the rest of the afternoon in chill out mode before phoning friend Eileen and arranging to call over to see her and hubby a while later.
It was a lovely evening spent in the company of two good friends and Tilly the cockapoo but it was when I was driving back to the site that I encountered a slight problem. I’d set out in daylight but completely forgotten that the road passing the site was unlit – it was dark, and to make matters worse the sign at the corner of the farm track to the camp site wasn’t very prominent so I’d gone past it before I realised it was there.
With a couple of cars behind me I couldn’t just stop suddenly and turn round so I went up to the nearby crossroads and turned round there, but couldn’t believe it when I missed the sign again going back the other way! This time I had to go almost into the next village before I could turn round safely and fortunately it was third time lucky – with nothing behind me at the crucial point I was able to slow down enough to see the sign and make the sharp 90 degree turn into the farm track.
Finally back on my pitch I took Snowy and Poppie for a quick torchlight walk round the perimeter of the site then made a brew and settled in for the night, vowing that the next time I leave the site in an evening I must be back before it goes dark!
The TSS Duke of Lancaster was built in 1955/6 by Harland & Wolff in Belfast and was the sister ship to the TSS Duke of Rothsay and TSS Duke of Argyll. Of steel construction and 376ft long it was designed not only as a passenger ferry operating on the Heysham-Belfast route but also as a cruise ship sailing around the Scottish islands and further afield to Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway and Spain. Initially owned by British Railways it was transferred to Sealink ownership in 1963.
With the advent of car ferries in the mid 1960s the Duke of Lancaster eventually became redundant so it was decided to undertake a programme of part conversion. The main deck was rebuilt to accommodate vehicles via a door at the stern and as a result the ship no longer served its secondary role as a cruise ship. Passenger capacity was reduced from 1800 to 1200, which included cabin accommodation for 400, and with space available for 105 cars the ship returned to service on April 25th 1970 as a car ferry, once again serving the Heysham-Belfast route.
On April 5th 1975 service on the Heysham-Belfast route was withdrawn and the Duke of Lancaster was transferred briefly onto the Fishguard-Rosslare crossing before becoming the regular relief ship on the Holyhead-Dun Laoghaire route, then in November 1978 it was taken out of service completely and docked at Barrow-in-Furness.
In 1979 the ship was sold to Liverpool-based company Empirewise Ltd and in August that year was towed by tug to a permanent dock at Llannerch-y-Mor on the Dee estuary in North Wales, to be used as a dry-docked leisure and retail complex. Opened to the public in 1980 as The Fun Ship, attractions included market stalls, a café, amusement arcade and a children’s play area. There were also grand plans for a hotel conversion but these came to nothing and after several long-standing legal disputes with the local council the ship closed for business in 1984. In 1985 it was used briefly as a clothing warehouse for a company with the same business address as Empirewise but after more legal disputes any further plans were abandoned.
In February 1990 the dock and the ship itself suffered severe damage during freak storms and high sea levels, setting back any new plans for the venture, but by 1994 the Fun Ship was ready to re-open to the public once more. The council however had other ideas and served the owners with an injunction forcing them to close the ship before it had even re-opened. After another 2-year legal fight against a very corrupt council, in 1996 the owners were advised by their lawyers to withdraw from the case; although reluctant to do so they agreed but had to pay the council’s costs in excess of £200.000
After lying almost unloved for so many years the Duke of Lancaster was featured in an episode of the BBC2 series ‘Coast’ in 2011 which showed that in spite of much of the ship’s exterior being covered in rust the interior was in surprisingly good condition, with most features just as they were in the 1970s and early 80s.
In early 2012 a group of arcade game enthusiasts made a deal with the ship’s owners and were able to purchase most of the retro coin-operated gaming machines left behind when the Fun Ship closed in 1984; more than 50 machines were removed from the ship, with cranes and other heavy lifting equipment being used to get them out.
Also in 2012, after being contacted by a group of European street artists, the owners allowed them to transform the ship’s exterior into an open air ‘art gallery’. The first phase of the project saw Latvian graffiti artist ‘Kiwie’ and other European artists paint murals on the ship between August and November that year and the second phase, starting at the end of March 2013, featured the work of British-based artists including Dan Kitchener and Dale Grimshaw. One of the artworks was a picture of the ship’s first captain, John ‘Jack’ Irwin but in 2017, for reasons currently unknown, both sides of the ship were painted black.
I first became aware of the Duke of Lancaster in 2016 when I saw a couple of photos of it on another blog. It looked and sounded intriguing so I decided that the next time I went down to North Wales I would forgo my usual route down the A55 and take the new-to-me A548 coast road so I could find the ship and see it for myself.
Having checked out the location on Google maps I knew there was a large car park just off the main road and not far from the ship, and through a gate in the corner I came to a footpath – part of the North Wales Coast Path – which took me along the side of a narrow creek and under a low railway bridge, though I hadn’t gone far when I came to locked steel gates and a high metal fence preventing access to the dock. The path went round to the left of the fence and ran along the top of a bank towards the shore, and though I couldn’t get as close to the ship as I wanted to be I was able to get a few photos looking over the top of the nearby hedge.
Now I have no doubt that when all the artwork was first done it looked really good but four years later, with much of the ship sides covered in rust, it all looked a bit of a mess. I was to learn later that every one of those murals contained a hidden message pertaining to the corrupt council which blocked every attempt to set up the ship as a permanent tourist attraction.
To see the other side of the ship I had to go right back along the path to the main road, cross the end of the creek and go down the path on the far side. In the sunshine, and with not as much artwork on that side, it did look marginally better – with all the rust cleaned off and a decent paint job it could have looked quite smart.
I didn’t visit the ship again until five years later in October 2021 after I learned that it had been painted black just a year after my previous visit. This time it wasn’t as easy to see from the path as the hedges were much taller than before, and though from a distance it did look like the whole of the hull had been painted black a close-up view showed me otherwise. The bow had indeed been painted and it looked good but the rest of the hull was a black of a different sort; the artworks were all gone although traces of some of them were still visible, and in places it looked like it had been on fire, although maybe it had just been stripped back prior to more painting which hasn’t yet happened.
According to various internet sources (if true) it seems that during the last six months a couple of events have taken place on the quayside next to the ship in an effort to raise money towards the cost of ongoing restorations, and other fundraising events are being planned. There’s far more to this story than I could possibly write on here but there’s a more detailed account from a few years ago here – best watched with the sound off though.
It remains to be seen whether the owner, who is now 71 years old, will ever achieve his dream of the ship becoming a proper tourist attraction – if not, then the Duke of Lancaster is destined to forever remain a ship frozen in time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.