It was another dull morning with lots of grey cloud around and the wind still blowing a hooley but with one or two patches of blue sky showing through there was a chance it would brighten up later on. I was nearing the end of the holiday though and I didn’t want to waste the day by staying on site so I took myself off to visit Gwrych Castle in Abergele.
The fascinating history of Gwrych Castle and its long line of owners dates back to 1485 and the Lloyds, a family with impressive ancestry and whose seat was Gwrych House, Abergele. Three hundred years later Frances Lloyd, heiress to the Gwrych estate, married Robert Bamford-Hesketh of Chester in 1786 and in 1788 their first son, Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh, was born. Frances died in 1797 when Lloyd was only nine years old and his father Robert subsequently rented out Gwrych House and moved the family to Chester, though he and Lloyd eventually moved back to the house in 1809.
From a very early age Lloyd had been fascinated by castles and after developing an interest in medieval architecture he made it his ambition to create a castle on the hillside behind the house as a monument to his mother and his Welsh ancestors. In December 1814 he embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe during which he made sketches of the architecture in some of the towns and villages he passed through but his travels were cut short in 1815 when his father died. Inheriting the whole of the Gwrych estates, which stretched across North Wales into north west England, meant inheriting a great responsibility so any plans to create a castle were put on hold and it wasn’t until December that Lloyd’s attention returned to building his new family seat.
Having sketched several designs of his own for his proposed vision Lloyd wasn’t confident enough to use them to turn his ideas into reality so he commissioned Charles Augustus Busby to produce a plan and sketch of a castellated mansion. Although Lloyd initially liked Busby’s design he felt it was too plain and nothing like the Gothic Revival castle he envisioned so in 1816, after drastically altering Busby’s plan with ideas of his own, he employed Liverpool-based architect Thomas Rickman, an authority on medieval architecture, to advise on Gothic window design. Rickman submitted several designs for cast iron windows though rather than choose one particular window pattern Lloyd picked elements of each design to create a new pattern which would be to his own taste and unique to Gwrych.
During 1818 the final plan for Gwrych was formulated, influenced by both Busby and Rickman, but it was Lloyd’s own ideas which produced the final development – without his direction and intense involvement in every step of the process Gwrych would probably have been just like any other Regency castellated mansion which can be seen throughout Wales and the rest of the UK. Work on the castle and outbuildings began in 1819, with the ‘official’ foundation stone being laid for the main house on June 13th that year. By 1822 most of the work was complete and Lloyd began furnishing the interiors and laying out the gardens, though over the next thirty years he also added towers, walls and battlements to the property, enlarging and developing what eventually became the largest built structure in Europe until the Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition in 1851.
In 1825 Lloyd had married Lady Emily Esther Ann Lygon, youngest daughter of the 1st Earl of Beauchamp, with their eldest son Robert Bamford-Hesketh, named after Lloyd’s father, being born at Gwrych a year later. At the age of 25 Robert married Ellen Jones-Bateman of Pentre Mawr, Abergele, in 1851, thus uniting two gentry families, and in 1859 Winifred, their only surviving child, was born. Lloyd died in 1861 at the age of 73 with Robert subsequently inheriting Gwrych Castle and its estate, and over the years he and Ellen planted much of the present gardens with their enormous monkey puzzle and yew trees.
In 1878, at the age of 19, Winifred had an arranged marriage to Lieutenant General Douglas Cochrane, and in 1880 the first of their five children, Lady Grizel Cochrane, was born and brought to Gwrych Castle. Sadly the marriage wasn’t entirely a happy one and as a consequence Douglas spent much of his time either in Scotland or away fighting wars whilst his wife and subsequent children remained in her Welsh homeland, meaning that the two led increasingly separate lives. In 1885 Douglas became the 12th Earl of Dundonald when his father died, with Winifred becoming Countess of Dundonald, then in 1894 her own father Robert died at the age of 68 followed by her mother Ellen in 1902, with Gwrych Castle and its estates passing to Winifred.
Robert had provided in Winifred’s marriage settlement that the family’s wealth and land was hers alone to use or dispose of however she wished so following in her father’s footsteps after his death she chose to run her inherited estates herself with the help of an agent, resulting in her husband having little, if anything, to do with her affairs. By 1904 the two were virtually estranged and by 1906 the marriage was over, and though Winifred stopped short of divorce the Earl was banned from Gwrych, a fact which was to become significant in later years.
Throughout her years at Gwrych Winifred made many changes, refurbishments and additions to the castle including a wide 52-step marble staircase designed by architect Detmar Blow and installed in 1914. She was a remarkable woman, being an advocate for both womens’ rights and animal rights, championing many causes and financing many projects including the building of Abergele drill hall and the village hall in nearby Llanddulas. She donated land to build Colwyn Bay Community Hospital and in 1916 set up a Prisoner of War camp at Llansannon and a military hospital in London. The First World War took its toll on her however – she developed diabetes and died suddenly from heart failure in 1924.
Gwrych Castle was bequeathed to the then Prince of Wales as a royal residence but the bequest was declined and the property passed to the Church in Wales, of which Winifred had been one of its founding members in 1920, however to spite his wife in death the castle was re-purchased in 1928 by the Earl of Dundonald who sold the contents to meet the £70,000 cost. He claimed that Winifred had gone mad before her death and declared that no member of the family would ever live there again – and none ever did. The Earl himself died seven years later at his home in Wimbledon in April 1935 aged 82 and was succeeded by his and Winifred’s elder son Thomas who then became the 13th Earl of Dundonald.
The sale of the castle contents in 1928 started a decline in Gwrych as it lay virtually empty for the next twenty years although in 1939 the Government did, as an emergency measure, requisition the property from Thomas, the 13th Earl, to house up to 300 Jewish refugee children brought to Britain as part of Operation Kindertransport after being separated from their families. The children left Gwrych at the end of the war when they had the chance of being reunited with their relatives and in 1946 the castle and estate were sold by Thomas to Robert Jesse Rennie for £12,000, meaning that for the first time in nearly 1,000 years the lands had not been owned by a member of the Lloyd family.
Following the sale the estate was broken up – at the castle itself trees were felled in the woodlands and the vast parkland became subdivided farmland in multiple ownership. Two years later the castle was sold again, this time to entrepreneur Leslie Salts who laid new paths and a car park alongside the lower drive. The main rooms were refurnished, the original stables were converted into a cafe, a miniature railway was laid and a childrens’ zoo developed. As the ‘Showplace of Wales’ Gwrych was one of the first country houses in Britain to be opened to the public as an attraction and for the next twenty years it continued as a very prosperous business employing over 200 people and attracting nearly ten million visitors. By the late 1960s however Leslie Salts felt that the expectations of the public were changing so in 1968 he decided to sell the castle and retire.
Gwrych was purchased by a London-based development company but with the estimated cost of restoring the castle to its former glory being well beyond the company’s budget it was decided to put little money into the fabric and as much as possible into the entertainment content. The formal gardens were cleared and structures bulldozed to make way for a medieval jousting arena, the ‘Knights of Gwrych’ were formed as a permanent entertainment troupe and the Principality of Gwrych was created. Between 1972 and 1987 jousting tournaments, medieval banquets, markets and a bar operated in and around the castle but nothing was paid into the preservation of the building and by December 1985 the venture was deemed to be a lost cause, with only the bar and jousts in operation. The last jousting tournament was held in 1987 and the castle closed to the public in 1988.
In 1989 Gwrych was sold to an American businessman for £750,000 but his plans to restore the castle were never realised; it fell victim to vandalism, looting and arson and was left to decay. In 1994 the site became an illegal encampment for ‘New Age Travellers’ who stripped the lead and slates from the roof, sold off internal fittings and burnt the floorboards on bonfires, while local dealers stole architectural items like fireplaces which ended up in reclamation yards. It was eighteen months before the travellers were evicted but by then the castle had been reduced to little more than a roofless shell. Further damage was caused to the grounds in 1996 when they were used as a film set by Constantine Films for the filming of Prince Valiant – much of the slope in front of the castle was excavated and though it was later re-landscaped and restored to grass it was nothing like the gentle slope constructed by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh 150 years earlier.
Heading into the present day Mark Baker, an 11-year old schoolboy who passed the castle daily and played around its walls, found its destruction so appalling that he decided to do something about it and in 1997, aged just 12, he founded the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust with the aim of restoring the castle and making it accessible to visitors once more. The condition of the castle was monitored by the Trust and in 2006 lobbying Conwy Council to compulsorily purchase the property put pressure on the absentee American owner to put it up for sale. It was bought for £850,000 by City Services Ltd, trading as Clayton Hotels, and in 2007 they proposed a £6m project to convert Gwrych into a 90-bedroom 5-star hotel; the project was subject to planning permission but had the support of the Trust.
Significant sums were spent by Clayton Hotels on plans and partially clearing the site but work was halted by the credit crunch in 2008 and in 2009 the company went into administration. The following year the castle was purchased by another development company and in 2012 planning permission was obtained for a 75-bed luxury hotel but with the company unable to secure the considerable funds needed to invest in such a major renovation the project never got off the ground.
Although the future of the castle itself remained uncertain the Trust was eventually able to lease part of the site from the development company and the gardens and some of the outbuildings began to see a period of revival under the care of its members. In August 2016 a special open weekend was held to celebrate the life and achievements of world champion boxer Randolph Turpin who lived and trained at the castle in the early 1950s, then in 2017 the gardens were opened to the public on a daily basis. In June 2018 the castle and its immediate estate were sold to the Trust, it’s purchase enabled by a massive grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and its future was finally secure.
I visited the castle during the open weekend in 2016 then again in August 2017 but aside from the formal gardens, which were still very much in their infancy, there was very little to see as the main building was still a dangerous ruin and therefore closed to the public. Much has changed since then however and a lot of work has been done, helped along in no small part by the 2020 and 2021 series of the I’m A Celebrity tv programme. Advance preparations for both series included work to make parts of the premises usable and safe for the celebrities and the overall revenue from ITV put the castle renovations at least two years ahead of schedule. I was very impressed with what I saw this time and I’ll certainly be making another visit in the not-too-distant future to see what else has changed.
**I visited and photographed a few other areas of the castle but these were all connected to I’m ACelebrity so they may become part of a future post.
Back in April friend Eileen sent me a link to an online local news article about the friendly neighbourhood giraffe and one of the following comments mentioned another giraffe situated in the village of St. George, a mile or so off one of the roads into Abergele, and as I was going into the town anyway I decided to make a detour and go in search of it.
The giraffe was said to be in the garden of the village pub but when I got there I could see no sign of it anywhere and the pub wasn’t open so I couldn’t go in and ask. I was delighted to find that the church was open though so I went in to have look round and got chatting to a local couple who were just leaving. When I mentioned I was looking for the giraffe they said it had been moved to another garden just over a mile along the road and they very kindly told me where to find it.
The Parish Church of St. George is Grade ll listed and was designed and built by C H M Mileham between 1887 and 1894, funded by Hugh R Hughes of Kinmel, a landowner and well known genealogist from a wealthy family. Constructed from local limestone with sandstone detailing and a single nave the church was built in the Perpendicular Gothic style, replacing an earlier double-naved church with medieval origins which had existed within the same churchyard.
Unfortunately, in spite of exploring several avenues of research I’ve only been able to find a few scant details of the church interior. The reredos and communion rail are oak, the octagonal font is limestone, and the oak chancel screen has a semi-octagonal lectern and pulpit built in. The south transept contains the organ and at the rear of the church is the Hughes family pew, upholstered and extending across the width of the building under a timber canopy. The stained glass east window is in memory of H R Hughes and and his wife Lady Florentia, given by their grandchildren in 1919.
Something which did puzzle me though was in a section of one of the stained glass windows – a tiny image of the windmill at Lytham on the Lancashire coast and a reference to Lytham’s Lowther College in connection to Bodelywyddan Castle. This was intriguing and deserved a bit of investigation.
Lowther College, a private girls’ school, was set up in 1896 in Lytham by Florence Lindley who was its first headmistress. In 1920 she leased Bodelwyddan Castle from its then owners and moved the college from Lytham to the castle, purchasing the property five years later and remaining as headmistress until 1927 when the college was sold to Allied Schools, an association of independent schools. She then moved a few miles away to Kinmel Hall where she converted the building into a ‘rheuma spa’ for the treatment of people with rheumatism. A well worn brass plaque below the window says it’s in memory of Florence, ”founder of Lowther College, Lytham St Annes and Bodelwyddan” so presumably this was the church she attended during and after her years at the castle.
At the bottom end of the churchyard was the Grade ll listed Gothic Revival style mausoleum, erected when the previous church still existed. Built of Derbyshire sandstone in 1835-6 by architect Thomas Jones of Chester it was commissioned for the Hughes family by William Lewis Hughes who was created first Baron Dinorben in 1831. Three of its sides have blind 4-light Perpendicular traceried windows while the front has a carved Hughes’ coat-of-arms combined with that of William’s first wife, Charlotte Margaret Grey.
With St. George only being a tiny place – more hamlet than proper village – there was nothing else to see once I’d looked round the church so I set off along the road in search of the giraffe. Thanks to the directions of the local couple it was easy enough to find and even from the end of the lane it was obvious that it was a much larger and taller creature than the other one. Made of wood it looked quite weathered in its appearance so must have existed for quite some time though I couldn’t see the significance of the flower stalk in its mouth.
Happy that I’d found the giraffe I followed the road down into Abergele, parked at Tesco and walked round to St. Michael’s church nearby. The first church building on the site was founded in the 8th century, the land having been granted by the Prince of North Wales to Elfod, Bishop of Bangor, for the purpose of establishing a place of worship on the banks of the River Gele. This early church was probably a group of timber domestic dwellings and a burial ground all enclosed by a fence, and worship would have been held in the open air.
The present church is built of local limestone and sandstone with a slate roof and dates from the late 12th/early 13th century when it was dedicated to St. Michael. It was modified and partially rebuilt around 1400, at which time the tower was also built, then after a period of neglect the building was restored in 1663. During the 19th century the Victorians made various alterations to the church including adding to the height of the tower in 1861 and building a castellated wall around the top. The tower itself is home to a peal of six bells – two by Taylor’s of Loughborough dated 1887, two dated 1844, one dated 1895 and a sixth dated 1730 – plus a single Sanctus bell, the smallest and oldest dated 1723.
The church clock was maintained in Victorian times by the poet David Griffith, a clock maker by trade and famous as the first Archdruid of Wales, and shortly after his 83rd birthday in 1883 he gave the clock a complete restoration. During the Victorian renovations the porch was built in 1879, replacing a previous stone porch, and the lychgate was erected in 1887 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. The church interior and the lychgate were renovated in 2004.
Close to the inner door the octagonal font is set on two steps. Although the base is late medieval the bowl dates from 1663 and was given by vicar Henry Pugh to mark the church’s restoration and also to replace the original bowl which had at some point been destroyed. The bowl itself is lead lined and the cover is oak with a wrought iron handle. Set in the wall near the font are two Celtic Cross slabs dating from the 13th century and a stone coffin lid believed to date from the late 14th century after the time of the Black Death. Originally set in the tiled floor of the Chancery, probably sited there in Victorian times, it was moved to its current position in 2008.
The double nave is divided by an arcade of eight bays with octagonal columns and with the rood screen extending across both naves. Dating from the 15th century this screen is all that remains of the original rood screen and loft which were removed at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century.
The original organ was built by William Hill and installed on the south side of the St. Elfod Chapel after the 1879 renovation, then in 1924 it was completely renovated and rebuilt by Rushworth and Draper using pneumatic action and was moved to the north side of the chapel. In 1982 it was overhauled and moved to the west end of the north aisle but it was found to cause problems for the organist and choir who were now at opposite ends of the church, making the musical balance between them difficult. In 1999 the organ was moved back to the north side of the St. Elfod Chapel by organ builder and tuner Eric Newbound and the pneumatic action was replaced by electric action which provided a separate console.
Out in the churchyard and not far from the porch is the Penance Stone where those who had committed grievous sins would ask for forgiveness, and by the north wall is the memorial to the 33 victims of the 1868 Llanddulas railway disaster. Buried in an unmarked grave nearby are seven bodies which were washed ashore after the burning of the ”Ocean Monarch” ship in 1848 when 178 emigrants perished.
Also buried in the churchyard are the remains of the ‘Abergele Martyrs’, Alwyn Jones and George Taylor, members of the Free Wales Movement killed when their own home made bomb exploded prematurely on the day of Prince Charles’ investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon castle in 1969. Initially it was thought they had been planning to blow up the royal train as it passed the town but an inquest found their intention was to target Government buildings close to where Abergele library now stands. In 2019 plans to erect a plaque to mark the 50th anniversary of their deaths were turned down by local councilors.
Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to explore as much of the church’s interior as I would have liked as the lady vicar was getting ready to close the building but it’s such an interesting place with many more things to see so a return visit will certainly be on my list for the near future.
In contrast to the glorious sunshine and blue sky of the previous day the morning was cloudy, grey and miserable with the wind still blowing an absolute hooley. The tent was still standing, albeit a bit out of shape on the side where the wind hit it, but not wanting to go out and risk coming back to find that another disaster had occurred I spent quite some time re-pegging and double-pegging all the guy lines and anchor points, which were checked and re-checked during the course of the morning. By 1.30pm though I’d had enough of being ‘stuck indoors’ but with so much grey cloud around it wasn’t worth going to the next place I’d planned to visit so I decided to have a mooch along Rhyl promenade, somewhere I hadn’t yet been.
Parking at the harbour I crossed the modern footbridge over the river onto a short stretch of main road and from there onto the pedestrianised sea front where I walked along until I ran out of buildings then headed back along the main promenade, taking snaps of anything which looked marginally interesting including the colourful childrens’ fairground rides, although I missed out the clock tower – apparently erected in 1948 it was in the middle of a small roundabout and was square, plain, and intensely ugly.
By the time I’d got back to the van I was feeling more than a little peckish so decided to treat myself to a meal in The Harbour, one of the Hungry Horse chain of pub/restaurants where I knew I could get some decent food. I just fancied a chicken tikka masala but sod’s law said that was one of the three things on the menu which they hadn’t got so I settled for steak and ale pie instead. I was only in there for an hour but when I came out I was surprised to find that the grey clouds had cleared away and the sunshine and blue sky were back, although by then it was too late really to go anywhere else and I didn’t feel like repeating the long promenade walk just to get some better photos.
Deciding to go and see Yasmine, the horse which Eileen often visits, I popped across the road and bought a small bag of carrots from Aldi as I didn’t want to go without taking a treat for her. On the way there I noticed that the friendly neighbourhood giraffe had swapped his jubilee crown for a sunshade so of course I had to stop to get another couple of photos of him.
Yasmine was in the far corner of her field when I got there but she ambled over slowly when I called her. She’s a very sweet horse and loves her treats but I only gave her three of the carrots, saving the rest for another couple of visits, then after making a fuss of her I set off back to the camp site to chill out for the rest of the day.
My walk along Rhyl promenade had been what could loosely be called ‘interesting’ – never having been there before it was good to see what the place had to offer but it was nothing to write home about, though I don’t think the dull grey day showed it at its best. Maybe it would look much better in the sunshine so who knows? – I might just do that walk again on a much brighter day in the future.
After a bit of a detour to get out of Conwy due to major roadworks at a crucial junction a short drive along the A55 got me to the A470 which took me to Bodnant Gardens. My last visit there was seven years ago and back then I’d had to leave my dogs Sophie and Sugar in the van but this time my visit was on one of the ‘dogs allowed’ days, although I still found a parking space in the shade of some trees.
The Bodnant estate was first established in 1792 when a Colonel Forbes built Bodnant Hall, a large mansion house which replaced an earlier house on the same land. Early records show that Bodnant, which in Welsh means ‘dwelling by a stream’, had been home to the Lloyd family from the reign of James I, passing by marriage to the Forbes family in the mid 1700s. With the building of the mansion Colonel Forbes then went on to develop the parkland around it in the English Landscape style.
On Colonel Forbes’ death in 1820 the estate passed by marriage to William Hanmer of Bettisfield Park in Flintshire and over the following years he made his own improvements, including building the present Old Mill between 1828 and 1837 and extending the garden around the mansion house. When Victorian industrialist Henry Davis Pochin bought Bodnant for £62,500 at auction in 1874 it was an estate with several farms, a walled garden, woods and plantations though it was his grand vision to turn it into something much greater.
Henry Pochin was born in Leicestershire in 1824 into a 200-year-old family firm. He trained as an industrial chemist and made his fortune from two big ideas, one of which was inventing a process which turned soap from the traditional brown into white. Living and working in Manchester he became an MP, Mayor of Salford, and the director of 22 companies, and also owned Haulfre Gardens in Llandudno between 1871 and 1876. After purchasing Bodnant Hall in 1874 he set about remodelling the house and enlisted the skills of well known landscape designer Edward Milner to redesign the land and the gardens around it.
Together they relandscaped the hillside and valley, planting American and Asian conifers on the banks of the river running through the land to create a woodland and water garden. Apple trees were taken from Haulfre Gardens and replanted at Bodnant, glasshouses were built in the upper garden to house exotic plants and 48 laburnums were planted to create the 180ft long Laburnum Arch, now believed to be the longest and oldest in the UK although today’s laburnums are from different stock. In 1883 the POEM (Place Of Eternal Memory) mausoleum was built in The Dell in memory of four of Henry’s children who had died in infancy, later becoming the resting place of Henry himself and other family members.
As a local landowner Henry Pochin was no less active, building cottages on the Bodnant estate and improving farming practices on the land. He also bought land at Prestatyn on the coast, where he supplied the seaside town with clean water and gas, built flood defences and developed a foreshore and promenade. He remained active in business throughout the 1880s but was overcome by ill health and died aged 71 in 1895, passing on the Bodnant estate and garden to his daughter Laura McLaren, married to Charles McLaren, 1st Baron Aberconway. A keen horticulturalist, she had already designed many gardens by the time her father died.
At the turn of the century Laura developed the wild garden at the ‘Far End’ and as a lover of herbaceous plants she also developed the upper formal gardens in the newly emerging Edwardian style with billowing flower borders. In 1901 she entrusted the care of the garden to her son Henry McLaren on his coming of age but maintained a keen interest and together they created the Skating Pond at the Far End and the stunning Italianate Terraces, built by hand using local labour in two phases, 1905-06 and 1912-14.
Using as a guide the highly popular book ‘The Art and Craft of Garden Making’ by Thomas Mawson other major developments continued, including the Lower Rose Terrace and the Lily Pool Terrace which was influenced by the Earl of Crawford from Fife, with Henry McLaren later adding several classical statues including the stone sphinxes on the Lower Rose Terrace.
As well as overseeing the major developments of the gardens Henry, who had become an industrialist and a barrister and later 2nd Baron Aberconway, also sponsored the expeditions of plant hunters such as Ernest Wilson and George Forrest who brought back to Bodnant ‘exotic’ new Asian plants, notably magnolias, camellias and rhododendrons, and with his head gardener Frederick Puddle Henry himself bred many unique Bodnant hybrid rhododendrons.
In 1939 the Pin Mill, which dates from 1730, was rescued from decay by Henry who bought it for an undisclosed sum, had it dismantled and brought from Woodchester in Gloucestershire to Bodnant, and as a grand finishing touch to the terraces it was rebuilt brick by brick at the end of the Canal Terrace, where it remains the most recognised and photographed feature of the gardens.
In 1949 Henry, who had been president of the Royal Horticultural Society since 1931, handed over care of the gardens, but not the house, to the National Trust. It was the second estate to be acquired by the NT (the first being Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire) as Henry hadn’t wanted to be accused of using his position to have Bodnant become the first. After his death in 1953 his son Charles McLaren (3rd Baron Aberconway) continued to develop Bodnant Gardens with the NT by making further improvements, opening new vistas and adding new plants, and in 1961 he became president of the RHS.
After Charles’ death in 2003 his younger son Michael McLaren, a practising London barrister, inherited the Bodnant estate. He still remains keenly involved and as garden manager and director he maintains the family’s historic and creative links to Bodnant with new developments which, since 2012, have brought about the opening of previously private areas.
After my long morning walk to Conwy marina and back, a couple of hours looking round the castle and climbing four towers, plus almost the same length of time wandering round the main parts of the gardens I didn’t really feel like climbing down the steep paths and steps to the bottom of the valley and walking all the way up to the Skating Pond. It was inevitable that if I climbed down I would have to climb back up so I decided to give any features in that area a miss, get a coffee from the Pavilion tea room then head back to the camp site, though as I drove along the A55 I had no idea what awaited me when I got there.
What had originally started out as a pleasant breeze that morning had gained in strength during the course of the day until it was blowing an absolute hooley – something akin to Gale Force 109 if there is such a thing – and I arrived back at the site to find that one side of the tent had blown inwards and everything inside was upside down on the floor. Fortunately the tent itself was securely anchored so it couldn’t actually blow down but the central pole had bent out of shape a bit – thank goodness for carbon fibre flexibility, at least it hadn’t snapped. Luckily nothing inside the tent was broken and it was all easily picked up and put back in place, then after I’d checked all the guy lines and pegging points I was free to relax for the rest of the day.
**From October 1st to the end of March dogs (on leads) are welcome in the gardens every day, then from April 1st to September 30th on special ‘dog days’ – all day on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays and between 5pm and 8pm on Wednesdays.
It was encouraging to see widespread blue sky, sunshine and not too much cloud that morning and with two places in mind to visit I made sure I was in Conwy not long after 9am so I could hopefully get a shady space in the edge-of-town car park I prefer to use. I got lucky, there was a vacant space right underneath the big tree where I parked at Easter, and first thing was a long walk to the marina and back so I knew that Snowy and Poppie would be settled and quiet in the van while I was looking round the castle.
Conwy Castle was one of Edward I’s ‘iron ring’ of castles around North Wales and was built over a 4-year period between 1283 and 1287. Before his invasion of North Wales the site of the castle and its walled town was occupied by Aberconwy Abbey, a Cistercian monastery favoured by the Welsh princes; when Edward captured Aberconwy in March 1283 he decided that the location would form the centre of a new county and he would relocate the abbey to a new site eight miles away at Maenan near Llanrwst, building a new English castle and walled town on the monastery’s site.
Work began on the castle within days of Edward’s decision, it was controlled by Sir John Bonvillars and overseen by Edward’s architect, master mason James of St. George who had also worked on the castles at Flint and Rhuddlan. More than 1,500 craftsmen and labourers were recruited from across England for the task and the first phase of work between 1283 and 1284 focused on creating the exterior curtain walls and towers. In the second phase, from 1284 to 1286, the interior buildings were erected while work began on the walls for the neighbouring town and by 1287 the castle was complete. Edward’s accountants didn’t separate the cost of building the town walls from that of building the castle so the total cost of the two projects together came to around £15,000, a huge sum of money for that period.
The first constable of the castle, who also became Mayor of the new town of Conwy, was William de Cicon who had previously been the first constable of Rhuddlan Castle. He held the position at Conwy from its construction until his death in 1310 and during that time, for a yearly fee of £190 (equivalent to £200,000 today) he oversaw a castle garrison of 30 soldiers including 15 crossbowmen, supported by a carpenter, chaplain, blacksmith, engineer and a stonemason. During December 1294 and January 1295 Cicon held Conwy Castle alongside Edward whilst under siege during the rebellion of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant cousin of Llywelyn the Last; the castle was supplied only by sea before forces arrived to relieve Edward in February. For some years afterwards the castle formed the main residence for visiting senior figures and also hosted Edward’s own son, the future Edward II, when he visited the region in 1301.
Unfortunately Conwy Castle wasn’t particularly well maintained during the early 14th century. A survey in 1321 reported that it was poorly equipped, had limited stores and was suffering from roof leaks and rotten timbers, and by 1322 it was no longer fit to accommodate the king. These problems persisted through the years until Edward, the Black Prince, eldest son of Edward III, took over control of the castle in 1343. Sir John Weston, his chamberlain, conducted many repairs including building new stone support arches for the great hall and other parts of the castle, however after the death of the Black Prince in 1376 Conwy fell into neglect again.
In August 1399 the castle was used very briefly by Richard II as a refuge from the forces of his cousin and rival Henry Bolingbroke. After Richard’s abdication Henry IV’s reign began in 1400 but rebellion broke out in North Wales shortly afterwards under the leadership of Owain Glyndwr. In March 1401 two of Owain’s cousins undertook a surprise attack on the castle; pretending to be carpenters sent to do repairs they gained entry, killed the two watchmen on duty and took control of the fortress, with Welsh rebels attacking and capturing the rest of the walled town. The brothers held out for around three months before negotiating a surrender and as part of the agreement the pair were given a royal pardon by Henry.
In the 1520s and 30s Henry VIII conducted much restoration work on the castle, during which time it was being used as a prison, a depot and as a potential residence for visitors, but by the early 1600s it had fallen into disrepair once again. In 1626 Charles I sold the castle to Edward Conway, an English soldier and statesman and 1st Viscount Conway, for £100, then four years later Edward’s son, also called Edward, inherited the ruin. When the English Civil War broke out in 1642 the Archbishop of York, John Williams, took charge of the castle on behalf of the king and set about repairing and garrisoning it at his own expense but in 1645, Sir John Owen, a Welsh landowner, was appointed governor of the castle instead, leading to a bitter dispute between the two men.
Following a substantial siege in November 1646 Colonel John Carter was appointed governor of the castle and fresh repairs were carried out but in 1655 the Council of State appointed by Parliament ordered the castle to be deliberately damaged to render it beyond military use. Following the return of Charles II from exile in 1660 the castle was handed back to Edward, Earl of Conway but five years later, and despite opposition from the town’s leading citizens, he decided to strip the remaining iron and lead from the fortress and sell it off. Completed under the supervision of Edward’s overseer William Milward, it was work which finally turned the castle into a total ruin.
By the end of the 18th century the ruins were considered to be very picturesque and they began attracting visitors and several artists including J M W Turner. Between 1822 and 1826 Thomas Telford’s 326ft long suspension bridge was built across the River Conwy, with one end being anchored into the rock at the base of the castle, then in 1848 Robert Stephenson’s tubular railway bridge was built with the rail line into the town passing the rear of the castle.
In 1865 the castle passed from the Holland family, who had leased it from the descendants of the Conways, to the civic leadership of Conwy town and restoration began on the ruins, including the reconstruction of the Bakehouse Tower which had been deliberately damaged in 1655. In 1953 the castle was leased to the Ministry of Works and Arnold Taylor, a medieval historian and international expert on European castle building, undertook a wide range of repairs and extensive research into the castle’s history. Following a steady increase in traffic over the years the suspension bridge was superseded by a new road bridge which was built alongside it and completed in 1958. The suspension bridge closed to traffic on December 13th that year when the new bridge was opened and since then has only been used by pedestrians and cyclists.
Already protected as a Scheduled Monument, in 1986 the castle and its town walls were added to the World Heritage List as a historic site of outstanding universal value, and now in the 21st century it’s managed and maintained as a tourist attraction by Cadw, with a separate visitor centre which opened in 2012.
In the Great Hall invited guests would enjoy a feast of good food in front of the warming fire but those summoned there when the constable of the castle was doling out justice weren’t so lucky – they would find themselves on a short trip along the passage behind the fireplace to the Prison Tower, followed by a 12 foot drop into the dark, damp dungeon below.
A lovely and very unexpected surprise greeted me when I climbed the spiral stairs of the Chapel Tower. On the first floor was the tiny Royal Chapel and with its vaulted recess forming the chancel and three narrow stained glass windows it’s the single most beautiful surviving feature in the castle. Flanking the chancel were two much smaller rooms, one which would have been the sacristy and the other the vestry, for which two locks were bought for its door in 1535. In the centre of the small room was a modern wooden bench engraved with words by Welsh poet and author Damian Walford Davies – ”At the altar they heard estuary birds cry over the kiss of salt and river water” – words which I thought were quite sweet.
While I’d been wandering round I’d heard a couple of trains going past the castle so back down from the Royal Chapel I went to sit in a window recess in the Queen’s Chamber overlooking the rail line; I knew if I waited long enough I would see a train and sure enough, ten minutes later, one came past on its way to Llandudno Junction.
Having climbed four of the eight towers I drew the line at climbing the other four right to the top so I was happy just to walk round the castle’s upper walls and take photos wherever I could, especially of the views over the estuary. Needless to say, I took so many I couldn’t possibly put them all on here.
I really enjoyed looking round the castle and I could have stayed much longer but I had to get back to the dogs. Having bought the guide book after I came back out (I’d wanted to keep my hands free for taking photos) I knew there were several parts which I hadn’t seen so maybe a second visit will be planned in the future. Snowy and Poppie were curled up fast asleep when I got back to the van and I don’t think they’d missed me but they were happy to see me, and as I headed off to the next place to visit I knew that this time I could take them with me.
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.
I made sure I had breakfast in good time that morning as I didn’t want to be in the middle of a plate of toast and marmalade when the second RAC guy arrived with my new battery. This second visit was supposed to be before 10am, however that time came and went and there was no sign of an orange van anywhere. Okay, depending on where the guy was coming from he could have got stuck in traffic somewhere so I didn’t mind waiting a while longer but when it had gone past mid day and there was still no orange van I was getting more than a little fed up.
With no update from the RAC, either by text or phone call, I decided to try to contact them myself but that was an epic failure. Yet again the automated system wouldn’t recognise some of my details (which aren’t at all complicated) and trying to get through on the sales line resulted in me being cut off twice before I even got to speak to someone. I was getting nowhere fast, the day was creeping on and I’d achieved nothing so I decided to take matters into my own hands.
Luckily I’d discovered by accident that I could get internet access on the site – it wasn’t the best but it was adequate, especially if I went to the end of the site nearest the main house, so I googled for car accessory shops in the area and found one not far away in Abergele. Fortunately the van started okay with the current battery so a quick phone call ascertained that the shop had a battery in stock the same make and power though they wouldn’t put it on the van for me, however I had a word with one of the farm guys and he said he would do it.
It looked like I would finally get things sorted out without the help of the RAC but just before I left the site I realised I couldn’t find my bank card. It was nowhere – not in my bag, my holdall, jacket pockets or the glove box, it had completely disappeared although I couldn’t think how or where I could have lost it. Luckily I had just enough cash to pay for the new battery so I went to get that then called at Eileen’s on my way back to the site to ask if she knew where there was a branch of my building society. She and her hubby came up trumps and said there was one in Colwyn Bay, also she found the phone number to report my card as being lost, which I did straight away, then I went back to the site and the farm guy put the new battery on the van for me. Finally, and with no thanks to the RAC, I was properly mobile in the knowledge that the van wouldn’t give up the ghost again, and not wanting to waste any more of what had turned out to be a lovely afternoon I drove the few miles up to the Marble Church situated just off the A55 at Bodelwyddan.
The Marble Church, or to give its proper name St. Margaret’s, was built in the mid 19th century in the Decorated Gothic style and contains fourteen different varieties of marble. According to the church website it was supposed to be open to visitors daily between 10am and 4pm but when I got there I found it was very firmly closed, so I could do nothing other than take a few photos from the outside and hope it would be open the following day.
By the time I’d finished wandering round it had gone 4pm and I didn’t really feel like going anywhere else at that time so I just went back to the camp site and settled in for the rest of the day. It was 7.15 that evening when I got a phone call from an RAC guy to say that he would be with me in twenty minutes with a new battery; all day without an update from anyone and he rings me at this time?? He did give me an excuse about having the wrong phone number for me, which I didn’t believe for a minute, so I just politely told him to go back to where he came from and take the battery with him as I’d already sorted it out myself.
The following morning I got an email from the RAC inviting me to fill in a survey about my recent roadside experience so it could be used (quote) ”for the continuous improvement of our service to you, our valued customer”. Filling in the survey on my tablet wouldn’t be the easiest so I decided to wait until I got back home then I would let them have it with both barrells; after the appallingly diabolical service I did receive I certainly didn’t feel very ‘valued’, and needless to say I won’t be renewing my breakdown cover with them when it’s due.
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.