Random notes on the travels of a Welshman who has been allowed out to play after finishing his chores. OK so I don't travel with my Aunt, but I am usually under the adult supervision of my long suffering wife.
Brecon town nestles in the shadow of the iconic Pen-y-Fan, the highest point in South Wales. The Welsh name is Aberhonddu, and is the meeting point of the rivers Honddu and Usk. Now it’s not a large town by many standard with a population of just over 8000 worthy souls. But it is an old town, and like many old towns it is full of surprises. Recognising it’s strategic position the Romans built a fort near here. Then the Normans followed almost a 1000 years later and continued to dominate the area with a castle.
Not only does it have history, a fantastic view of the Brecon Beacons, a canal but also a cathedral. One thing we do. well in Wales is having Hugh cathedrals in small towns hidden from the world. But we weren’t here for teh history this time but to sample Brecon Jazz Festival. This has been a long time coming, as we’ve been saying for the past 25 plus years “We must go the the festival this year”, but never made it. We stayed just outside Brecon, and the walk along the canal into the town set the scene well.
Now I do have a small confession to make. We were too tight to pay the almost £100 for the festival tickets themselves, especially as we are not big fans of jazz. Yes, I know it may be a difficult to thing for some to confess, but at least I do have a couple of Miles Davis albums, including A Kind of Blue (which I do like). The festival started in 1984 when Jed Williams, owner of The Four Bars Inn organised a series of gigs. George Melly, who had a house close by, performed on the first weekend. After that it took off big time, and many of the biggest names have played in this small, out of the way town. And despite funding challenges a couple of years ago in the depression it continues to attract large audiences.
So, if we didn’t attend the main festival what did we do? Well, the whole town is given over to music for the weekend, and there is a whole fringe element going on. There is a main stage in the centre of the town where jazz ensembles share the stage with local choirs. But more importantly all the pubs have a full program of groups and solo artists to singing everything from folk, rock, pop and wells as jazz. A perfect excuse for visitin a few drinking houses. I like that idea!
The pubs weren’t the only places where you could hear and feel the vibe. Around every corner you’d come across another surprise.
Not to be outdone the cathedral choir were also sing their hearts out, though this was a practice for a formal service performance.
But outside in the priory gardens the jazz performances continued. It was difficult to avoid music, but why would you. The eclectic mix meant that it would be difficult not to find something you’d like.
I like Breacon as a town, and there is always something that surprises me around one of the corners. The small group of houses, just below the cathedral, seems to have been left behind in time almost.
And of course, we have to remember that Brecon is a country town, surrounded by rich farmland. Therefore is obligatory to have a tractor driving down the street. Not only one but two.
If you ever have the chance, visit Brecon, but try to do it during the Festival weekend. We be going back to the festival.
The caravan had it’s first outing of the year, though we didn’t travel far, but then we didn’t need to. The forecast was for wall to wall sunshine and we stopped at Llengennech just outside Llanelli for a walk along the Loughor Estuary. Not many words this time – thank goodness for that say some. Just some pictures which I hope conveys the beauty of estuaries and the life giving force of Spring.
We started the walk on the east bank of the estuary near the road bridge crossing over from Loughor. We knew we had joined the walk as we crossed over a wooden bridge to the path that follows the bank of the estuary flanked on both sides with sea marsh. Though the northerly wind was strong, and didn’t let up, the sunshine signalled spring has arrived. The hedgerows was sparkling with the pure white small flowers of the Backthorn.
The marshlands, though not pretty are beautiful in their own way. the flat expanse provide a wide horizon, emphasising that although this are is close to Llanelli and the industrial might of the old tinworks, nature can quickly reclaim control. As along much of South Wales, and in common with any estuary the tide range is impressive. When the tide goes out, it goes out a long way!
Almost everywhere we looked we came across Greylag Geese feeding on the grass just above the high water mark.
The warmth of the sun had also brought out the Bumble Bees. We saw a queen Buff-tailed Bumblebee, Bombus terrestris, searching out potential nesting sites. And a Tree Bumblebee, Bombus hypnorum foraging among the Salix flowers now emerging. This is relatively new immigrant and is spreading northwards throughout the UK. But one of my favourites remains the Common Carder Bee, Bombus pascuorum, which come sin a variety of browns and ginger colours. You are likely to find this in your garden.
As we continued along the path towards Llanelli the landscape began to change and we left behind the Marsha and mudbanks and the estuary opened up before up exposing a wide expanse of sand. Somewhere out there, beyond the Whiteford Point Lighthouse, is the sea!
Almost every step we made reconfirmed that Spring had arrived. Growing through the shingle just above the strand line was a large colony of Colt’s Foot, Tussilago farfara. This is easy to recognise as they dazzle with their bright yellow Dandelion like flowers before the leaves emerge.
Even the seemingly empty tidal shore seemed to want to get into the act. The small, tower like casts of Ragworm (Hediste diversicolor) had created a temporary city scape while the tide was out. This will be wiped out by the next tide, only to be rebuilt time and time again.
While we were happily munching our way through our lunch on the beach a flash of colour caught my eye and there was a Peacock Butterfly (Inachis io) basking on the sand next to us. Yet another confirmation of spring.
Ok so we didn’t cover too much of the path at 5 miles, but to be fair as we walked 5 miles there and 5 miles back it wasn’t too bad. And then to cap it all after seeing Little Egrets in the distance throughput the day, all too far to photograph, the rising tide was pushing all the waders up the shore and I got a reasonable photograph.
All in all a good day out, and culminated in an ice cream. What better way way is there to finish a walk?
Well what is there to do on a dark, misty and wet day at the end of October? The cloud base was so low even the hill tops were shrouded in a white mist, leaving only the valley floor clear. The weather was certainly not conducive to an outdoor adventure, staying at home was not an option or I would have been coerced into decorating. SOmething inside it had to be, and Aunty had an idea of an indoor and wet excursion. The last time we had been to Dan yr Ogof was over 14 years ago when Number One Daughter was younger, so time to revisit. Dan yr Ogof, in it’s literal translation is “Under the Cave“. So you need to be careful and not call it Dan yr Ogof Caves, or you’d be repeating yourself. The cave system was discovered, or more accurately rediscoved in 1912 when Jeff and Ashwell Morgan undertook an exploration beyond the cave entrance where the Afon Lllynfell emerges from the hillside. The Morgan Brothers found a small passage that led up to the dry cave above. They named the cave Dan Yr Ogof after their farm that sat below the cave. The cave was explored up to the start of the lakes by use of a coracle to pass some of the pools on the way. Very different to the more sophisticated approach with modern equipment today.
The cave system behind the entrance is known to stretch over over 17km, but estimates place the whole system as double this. Much of the complex is only accessible to fully decked out covers, but for the less intrepid of us wetsuits, torches and hard hats are not required. Ive been caving once at Natgarw, and this experience demonstrated that I am not the right size for caving. I’ll take the easier option every time! As a visitor there is access to three main caves: the longer cave system called Dan yr Ogof with the entrance just above the Afon Llynfell, the Bone Cave and the spectacular Cathedral Cave. There’s a great interactive website that shows the extent of the explored areas of the complex along with photos at ogof.org.uk.
We went into the main complex first, and this is made up of occasionally narrow and low caves carved out of teh living rock by the actions of the underground rivers. The place was heaving with people and kids when we arrived. Far more than we anticipated, until we realised that the caves had been decked out for Halloween. As we walked through the caves there were squeals and screams from the kids. Aunty had to make sure that nothing was going to jump out at her before agreeing to pose for a photo. It’s not possible to take a tri-pod into the caves so the photos are not as sharp as I would have liked, made even worse when I realised I had switched off the image stabiliser. Duh!
The caves at Dan-yr-Ogof are made of carboniferous limestone, formed some 315 million years ago, when the area lay to the south of the equator and was covered by a warm shallow tropical sea. Shellfish corals and numerous small creatures lived in these waters. When they died their shells and skeletons sank to the sea floor. They were the source of calcium carbonate, the raw material for limestone rock. Over millions of years these calcium carbonate muds and sands have been deeply buried and transformed into limestones. Plate tectonics have moved this part of teh earth’s crust to it’s present position north of the equator, and subsequent ice ages have eroded the mountains away.
During the Ice Ages polar ice caps and glaciations in the mountainous regions locked up vast quantities of water on land, reducing sea level dramatically when compared with today. Over the millennia rivers cut deep into the rocks forming gorges and waterfalls. The rivers running underground in the caves cut new passages at lower levels and abandoned the higher levels. Cathedral cave is an abandoned higher level. The show cave of Dan yr Ogof is formed in one of these lower levels and the river is still cutting its way down to form even lower cave passages.
Above ground teh ice came and went, but below ground the melt water continued to carve dep into the rock. Creating level upon level of caves. As water dripped from teh roofs, and flowed down teh walls stalactites and stalagmites were formed. Today we can now wonder at the seemingly ageless process that is still going on today. My small mind certainly struggle to comprehend the years that have passed, nor can it appreciate the slow but relentless creation of the fantastic shapes we now see in the caves.
After wondering around the winding narrow chamber of the Dan yr Ogof caves we next visited the Bone Cave. Even today this is not easy to access, requiring you to don a safety helmet and walk along a narrow path protected from rock falls by tin roofs. How the ancients used this place is difficult to image. But compared to the other caves, this one is dry, but maybe doesn’t come with all mod cons that we would expect today. The Bone Cave is so called because over 42 human skeletons have so far been found here, with many of the bones dating back over 3,000 years to the Bronze Age. The oldest bone to have been found in this cave is of a red deer, over 7,000 years old. More recent traces of human occupation have also been discovered here, from the second and fourth centuries A.D. The finds include early and late Roman pottery, iron, bronze and silver rings, bone pins, a brooch and some coins. The nearest Roman camp to Dan yr Ogof was at Coelren, while another camp was situated at Y Gaer, just outside Brecon.
Then it was on to the main show piece – the Cathedral Cave. This is entered lower down the hillside from the Bone Cave, but higher than Dan yr Ogof. Once you’ve got past the false cave paintings near the entrance the wide gallery like procession into the Cathedral itself is still impressive. All around you the incessant sound of running water reminds you of the true architect that has been working here for thousands of years. Look carefully and see if you find the water surface in the photo below – no prizes.
The Cathedral Cave is the terminus for this section and is too large to get into a decent photo. Right at the end is small cage where it is possible to get married as Dan yr Ogof is a registered site for marriage. Not sure about births and deaths though. Also not sure about the symbolism of teh cage where the couple and registrar conduct the ceremony. The circular hall creates a dome high above you, creating a sense of space. At regular spaces just below the roof water falls pour out continuous streams to crash on the cave floor below. The noise is constant, but only adds the majesty of the scene before you as you gaze in wonder at the simple power of water to create such a space.
One of the fantastic things about Dan yr Ogof is the eclectic nature of the place. You wonder through caves and chambers that have been carved out of living rock over countless years by nothing more than running water. Then as you come out of the Cathedral Cave and look down into the valley below, you are confronted by dinosaurs. It could be tacky, but from some kitsch reason it seems to work. Last time we were here there were only a few, but Jurassic Park has been transported from a mythical island to the centre of Wales. If you get the chance please visit it. there are things for grown ups, kids and adult kids here.
August Bank Holiday seems so long ago now, but only two months have passed. We have a tradition in the UK that the weather on a bank holiday can always be guaranteed to be worse than the day before, and certainly colder and wetter than the day you go back to work! This August was not so bad, and the long weekend found the intrepid duo in the far west of Wales at Whitesands. The Saturday was fantastic, the sun was shining and we had the perfect walk along the sea cliffs.Sunday though was a little different with a thick fog and no visibility. Walking didn’t hold much appeal, but we had come to Whitesands to poke our toes in the water as a recci. One of the Welsh 100 challenges is to surf at Whitesands. The beach is a great place for messing about in the sand and water, with a broad sandy bay, and the place was packed even though the weather wasn’t prefect. Not only that but the architecture was also a cut above the usual sand castles with a mini replica of Stone Henge. Fitting really considering that the Bluestones in the original henge came from down the road.
Aunty has never been body boarding let alone surfing, but I grew up 200m from the sea and much of my teenage years were spent on the beach. Maybe not exactly surfing, but messing about in the sea. In those days the water seemed to be so much warmer than it is now, and reaching the “Ooh zone” as you wade into the water didn’t seem to have the traumatic effect it does now. So It was agreed unanimously that wet suits were absolutely necessary. Renting a suit each didn’t appeal to either of us – personal hygiene and all that (but we’ll leave the description out). So we spent an hour squeezing into and peeling off suits of different sizes until we found a suit each that fitted in all the right places, and a few wrong ones as well.
We didn’t go the whole hog and buy a board, but we rented a body board for a couple of hours and hit the surf. Why we have never bought a wet suit before now I can’t imagine. Aunty went straight into the water without a single girly squeal and hit the first wave perfectly. It took a while to persuade her to let me have a go! I spent most of the time trying to look the cool surfer dude, but only managing the beached whale look. I’m anticipating a call any day now for the next remake of Moby Dick.
I’d like to think that my baldness gives me a certain streamline effect in the water, but I missed most of the waves. But that said it was great fun. The wet suits made all the difference, and there is even talk from some quarters that we need to buy our own body board. And I’m sure I heard Aunty singing Beach Boys songs recently.
On the banks of the River Elwy is a small city. It has a population of 3,355 souls. Now how on earth can such a small place be called a city. Surely this is nothing more than a village? Well St Asaph, Llanelwy, is a city, and an old one at that. But Wales seems to have a tendency towards small cities. Llanelwy, the Welshname for St Asaph, means the sacred religious enclosure on the banks of the River Elwy.
Legend and tradition are confusingly mixed regarding the origination of the settlement and there is no archaeological evidence or written record before the twelfth century. The legend of the founding of the church and monastery between the year c.560 and c.573 is to be found in ‘The life of St Kentigern’ written by Jocelyn, a monk of Furness Abbey c.1180. St Kentigern was the bishop of Strathclyde but he was driven into exile and founded a monastery at Llanelwy. Nearly a thousand monks (it is said) gathered round this charismatic figure, also known by his childhood nickname ‘Mungo’ (‘most dear’) as patron saint of Glasgow. When he returned there, he consigned his Welsh monastery to his favourite pupil, a local man named Asaph St Asaph replaced him as abbot-bishop until he died in 596.
The Cathedral is small and it is only 182 feet long, smaller for example than the church of Valle Crucis. It could be argued that geographically this was not the best place to build a major place of religion because St Asaph has suffered from its proximity to the main invasion route into North Wales. During the turbulent period after 1066 when the Normans repeatedly invaded Wales trying to gain control the town was hit time and again. The present building was begun in about 1239, but was destroyed by Henry II troops in 1245. It was attacked and burnt by Edward I’s English soldiers in 1282; substantially rebuilt between 1284 and 1381. Then in 1402 it was the Welsh who burnt it down, during by Owain Glyndwr’s rebellion. Two hundred and fifty years later, during the Civil War period the building was used to house farm animals – pigs, cattle and horses. Although repaired in the late 15th century what we see today is essentially only the shell from this period because the building was remodelled by the Victorian architect Gilbert Scott in 1867 -75.
A handsome memorial stands in the Cathedral grounds dedicated to those instrumental in translating the Bible into Welsh during the 16th century. Today all Welsh schoolchildren will know about William Morgan (later to become Bishop of St. Asaph from 1601 to 1604) who took a crucial part in ensuring the survival of the written Welsh language. In 1563 an Act of Parliament was passed allowing the translation of the Bible and the Book of Prayer into Welsh “because the English tongue is not understood of the most and greatest number of all her majesty’s most living and obedient subject inhabiting Wales”. This shows that it was the vitality of the Welsh language, not its weakness which called for a Welsh Bible. The New Testament and Book of Common Prayer had been translated and published by Bishop Richard Davies and Williams Salesbury had translated and published the New Testament and Book of Common Prayer. However, by 1578, Davies and Salesbury had fallen out over their work and William Morgan, by now Rector of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in the Tanat Valley, was encouraged to undertake the work by the Bishops of St. Asaph and Bangor. In 1587 he went to London to supervise the printing of the first Welsh Bible. This consisted of his own translation of the Old Testament and a revised version of Salesbury’s New Testament. The cost of publishing was paid for by Archbishop Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury.
St Asaph was the birth place of two brothers Felix and George Powell who wrote the words and tune of the popular First World War song Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-bag. After finishing school the brothers formed a band with their wives and others and toured the music halls. In 1915 the brothers entered a music publisher’s song competition. Their song, Pack Up Your Troubles, won in the category for marching songs and rapidly became a morale-booster sung by troops. The band broke up when Felix formed a new group to tour trenches on the Western Front. George, a pacifist, declined to go. The brothers re-united as performers between the wars in Sussex, where Felix joined the Home Guard in the Second World War. He deliberately shot himself in 1942 and soon died in hospital in Brighton.
Down by the river is an intriguing metal sculpture dedicated to Henry Stanley of Dr Livingstone fame. Stanley was born as John Rowlands to unmarried parents in Denbigh in 1841 and was raised at the Union Workhouse in St Asaph. The workhouse building, by Upper Denbigh Road, still stands. It was the HM Stanley Hospital for many decades. John Rowlands travelled to the USA in 1859, where a merchant called Henry Stanley helped him find his feet. Rowlands took has friend’s name, and later served – on both sides – in the American Civil War. He had been working as the New York Herald’s special correspondent for two years when, in 1869, the editor dispatched him to Africa to interview the Scottish missionary David Livingstone, who had not communicated with the outside world for two years. In November 1871 Stanley met him near Lake Tanganyika. On finding him, looking pale and “wearied”, Stanley claimed simply to have lifted his hat and uttered the words: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?”. His next adventure by today’s standards was perhaps not the most ethical. He continued to explore the continent and hatched a plan to exploit the Congo’s natural resources. He enlisted Belgium’s support and began constructing roads, using forced labour. He was said at the time to shoot African people “as if they were monkeys”.
It’s a great little town with more going on than meets the eye on first look. I’ve driven past it so many times over the years, but never visited. However, like many small towns the road now bypassed it and business seems to be suffering somewhat. All the banks are closed and in various states of disrepair. But it is still worth a visit.
South Wales is known for coal mining. North Wales is known for slate quarries. Everywhere you go in North West Wales you will almost certainly find an abandoned slate quarry. Some never became commercial. But others made their owners huge fortunes, and the aftermath of the quarries are difficult to miss. The main centres were Blaenau Festiniog, Corris and Bethesda. But other existed, smaller and now almost forgotten. But the fact remains there where hundreds of quarries and slate mines scattered across the region. Now all are now closed, but the hollowed out maintains and scarred mountain sides remain. A testimony to the labour, sweat, tears and often blood of the quarry men making fortunes for the few and hardship for the many. These industrial ruins have to survive somehow, and now a number of these are Tolkiensien landscapes are now visitor centres interpreting the last, but also provide others with an adventurous spirit with an adrenalin fix. None more so than Bethesda Quarry, home to the longest zip wire ride in Europe.
So what else is there to do with the Challmonkmoore annual get together – we had to try fly for a mile at 100mph along a little wire 500 foot above hard rock! The whole day needed organisation. And there’s one thing we are all,good at and that is organising things – but not necessarily together. Before we even got anywhere near a wire we had to have a briefing. What we were allowed to do – not much! What we were not allowed to do – a lot! Then much to Number One Daughter’s chagrine we had to dress up in shapeless one piece jump suits and be fitted with harnesses. Even for a fashion clueless Charlie like me I could see this as not a good look.
We were then walked to a test zip wire that was designed to test our metal and be sure we were up to the “Big Zipper”. The Little Zipper has a maximum speed of 65km/hr and starts at 195m before dropping a total of 27m. Aha we laugh in the face of danger! Though Aunty was not so sure as she was left hanging in midair looking down the wire towards then end. I think my name was used in association with a few curses at this point.
So we survived that one. We were then herded into the back of a flat bed truck and driven up to the top of e quarry. The views over the Carneddau and the shear expanse of e quarry areas were impressive. The drive took about 15-20 minutes in total, and exposed the shear rock faces blasted out of the living mountain. The scars are evident all over the hill side.
After another briefing we were harnessed attached to the Big Zipper. Now this is a completely different proposition to the Little Zipper. All of a sudden as you lie in your harness with only the good will and training of others you are attached to a little bit of wire, with nothing to stop you as you fly at 165km/hr over 1560m. Then add to that the ground is 152m below – the adrenaline starts to flow. Boy what a feeling!
Did Aunty and Number One Daughter enjoy it? You bet! When we met up at the end they wanted to do it again! So did everyone else. Next year maybe.
The rain this summer though unwelcome has filled the rivers in Wales almost to overflowing. Almost everywhere you look in the mountains there are thin ribbons of water weaving there way down the steep slopes. All this water if feeding the voracious appetite of the valley rivers so they grow and bloat to twice, three times their normal girth. As they met rocks, bends and drops the river turns into a thundering, boiling waterfall with unimaginable volumes of water thrashing and crashing over the rocks. We spend a day at Betws y Coed a small town crouching underneath the hulk of Moel Siabob. A Mecca for those who enjoying shops selling outdoor gear. I’m sure they’ve had a roaring trade this year in waterproofs.
Just south east of Betws-y-Coed on a junction with the A5 and the B406 we came across the The Conwy Falls Cafe, and so as a cup of tea beckoned we ambled in. It turns out this is the entrance to a walk along a steep sided valley leading to a fantastic waterfall. Yes – The Conwy Falls, you guessed it. We’d been to a number of the falls in the area before but had missed this one. And I think on the day we visited it is certainly the most impressive. The water is forced through a narrow cleft in the rocks to create a thunderous boiling torrent of foaming water. It’s here that two rivers converge, the Afon Machnojoins it’s big sister the Afon Conwy.
A short distance down stream from the Conwy Falls are the falls that we wanted to see on this trip, Fairy Glen. This is a narrow and secluded gorge where the river forces it’s way through. Getting here involves a short walk along a wooded and wet path, followed by a steep slope down to the river. Again the river put on a spectacular display for us, it’s just a shame that the sun didn’t put up a show as well. Despite it’s name there are no myths attached to the place, so I suspect this is a Victorian tourist invention, like so many others. However, there is a long standing story in the area of the Afangc which caused a lot of bother to the locals. The Afangc has been described as various things from different sources, namely a crocodile, beaver, dragon, demon and dwarf like creature, but it is in fact Welsh for Beaver. Regardless, it was a troublesome pest that would cause flooding to the local area. When all attempts to kill the beast had failed, it was decided to entice the creature from the pool and relocate it to another lake out of the way. They used a local girl as the bait, and made her sing near the lake. When the Afangc left the lake to get near to the girl, the local villagers captured it and bound it in chains.
It was decided to remove the Afangc to Llyn Ffynnon Las (Lake of the Blue Fountain, which is now called Llyn Glaslyn) and they used a pair of oxen to move the monster. The Afangc was taken through the Dolwyddelan parish and through the pass between Moel Siabod and Cribau, called Bwlch Rhiw yr Ychain (pass of the oxen’s slope). One of the oxen struggled so much that it lost an eye on the western slope, which was then called Gwaub Lygad yr Ych (Field of the ox’s eye) and its tears formed a pool – Pwll Lygad yr Ych, which never dries up although no stream flows into or out of it. The rest of the journey to Llyn Glaslyn had no more incidents, and it is said that the Afangc jumped into the lake upon arrival, and was then trapped there by the lake’s rocky banks.
To the east of Betws Y Coed on the Afon Llugwy is another water fall. This is the one on the Welsh 100 list. And Swallow Falls do not disappoint, especially when running as full as they were a few weeks ago after all the rain. It is thought that the English name arose from a mis-hearing of the Welsh word ewynnol as the similar-sounding y wennol (swallow). The original name was, and perhaps still is, Rhaeadr Ewynnol – Foaming Waterfall. And boy was it foaming while we were there.
These falls also have their own legend. This time associated with a real person, though not one that was held in high esteem by the locals, but a member of an avaricious family who desired power and money, often at the expense of others. Sir John Wynne was a member of Parliament for Caernarvon in 1596, as well being a member of the Council of the Marches of Wales. He was also notorious for his violence and suppression towards his tenants and others who got in his way. It is said that his ghost is doomed to linger for ever in the depths of the pool below the falls.
At Betws y Coed the Afon Llugwy joins the Afon Conway, which has already been swollen by the Afon Machnojoins four ther upstream.
The Rapids in Betws y Coed were also swollen and thundering their own tune to the beat of drums. In the Lee of of one of the rocks we saw a heron peering hopefully into the water. This was not a fruitless task as we then saw fish jumping the rapids to get up stream to spawn. With this volume of water it was a sight to be seen. You might be asking yourself “Should I go?”. Of course you should. All these water falls within a 5 mile radius, you’d be silly to miss it all.
A number of the visits we undertook during our holiday seemed to have developed an ecclesiastical theme. But this may not be a surprise when you remember that so many of the towns, villages and hamlets in Wales start with Llan. That said how about this for a miraculous tale and how the church has turned a mystery into a money making enterprise that continues today. Unlike many of the wells that we’ve visited or will visit in the future in Wales this is very much an organised enterprise. You can only access and exit the well through a gift shop, very reminiscent of so many Catholic shrines abroad.
First let’s go to the legend, and I love a story, some of which may be based on truth especially the most basic instincts involved, but the rest can only be an allegory for rebirth. The daughter of a local rich Nobel man, Gwenffrwd (St Winifred) had chosen to devote her life to the service of God. Caradoc, the son of a local chief, had long been attracted to her beauty, called to the house asking for water while her parents were out. But wanting more he pressed his attention on Gwenffrwd. However, having de opted herself to God she rejected his advances, angry at being turned down he attacked her and started to tear away her clothes. She fled towards her uncle’s (St Beuno) church, hoping that he would be able to aid her, but Prince Caradoc was quicker and caught her on a hillside. Winifred fought back, so Caradoc, in a fit of rage beheaded her with his sword (1).
St Beuno had been insider is church nearby church and came outside to find Winifred’s decapitated body and with Caradoc standing over her with his bloody sword. St Beuno cursed Caradoc, who immediately died and melted away. As St Beuno picked up her head in grief, a spring welled up from the ground at the spot where Winifred had fallen. St Beuno replaced St Winifreds head on her neck, and after a short prayer the wound was healed and the young woman was resurrected, leaving only a slight scar. Red marked stones at the bottom of the well are said to be stained with blood of St Winifred. She then went on be an influential figure in the early church in Wales.
St. Winifred was a local Welsh saint of little importance until her relics were translated, in 1136, to a magnificent shrine in Shrewsbury Abbey. Then two years later Prior Robert of Shrewsbury wrote a history of her life and devotion. Her original tomb was retained at Gwytherin and St. Winifred’s Well. The well has been a pilgrimage destination for centuries, including a number of monarchs. In 1189 Richard I, the Lionheart, made a pilgrimage to the Well. Then in 1416 Henry V paid a thanks giving visit following his victory at Agincourt, walk from Shresbury to St Winefride’s Well. According to the Welsh poet Tudor Aled, Edward IV came on pilgrimage in 1461 , when he placed a pinch of earth taken from beside the Well upon his crown. The believe and dedication continued when in 1686 James II and Queen Mary Beatrice came on pilgrimage to pray for an heir; according to Thomas Pennant the Jesuits then in charge of the Well presented the King with a present of the very shift worn by his Great Grand Mother Mary Stuart was wearing when she lost her head! Strange how they still had, and were then able to give back when James II visited.
Following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII visiting holy wells was actively discouraged, and many pilgrim wells disappeared. In 1579 Queen Elizabeth’s council issued a command to the Council of the Marches to “discover all Papist activities and recommend measures for suppressing them… to pay particular attention to the pilgrimages to St Winefride’s Well and in view of the claim that the water is medicinal to appoint two men to test its properties; if not medicinal the Well should be destroyed.”
However attempts to suppress the well seemed to have the opposite effect and visitor numbers may have increased throughout the seventeenth century. In 1625 the Bishop of Bangor reported .“There is a great concourse of people at St Winefride’s Well, in an old church near a public Mass is said continually”
Early in the 20th century the well dried up due to mining on Halkyn Mountain as the water was diverted. The well today is fed by the local water utilities so it will not have the same mineral properties as the early pilgrims would have taken advantage of.
In order to effect cure for whatever ailment should be troubling you, the pilgrim should enter the water three times for the cure to be effective although even this process does not necessarily guarantee success. Now I only have a slightly dogy knee but the water was very cold and I only managed to tolerate entering the pool twice. When I say cold, believe me it was! I think I’ll stick to more pragmatic methods that will be more beneficial to me. Today around 3600 visitors have been recorded and the numbers have been said to be increasing significantly (2).
Aunty and I were on holiday recently for two weeks in North Wales, and would you believe it the weather is offering rain, gales and more rain! But we will not be daunted. On a small tidal island off the South West corner of Angelsey lies the ruins of an old church, Llandwyn. Even today it’s not easy to get to and requires a mile walk along the beach from the car park.
The island has a church dedicated to Dwynwen who lived during the 5th century AD and was one of 24 daughters of St. Brychan, a Welsh prince of Brycheiniog (Brecon). Legend has it she fell in love with young man named Maelon, but was forced to rejected his advances. Her father has decreed that she would marry someone else. Unhappy with her plight Dwynwen prayed to be released from the unhappy love and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However, the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and 3) that she should never again wish to be married.
After this she fled her home and went away with her sister Cain and brother Dyfnan around Wales, preaching and establishing many Christian churches. She founded a convent on Llanddwyn, where a well named after her became a place of pilgrimage after her death in 465AD.
Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. It was said that the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of eels that lived in the well. This was done by the woman first scattering breadcrumbs on the surface, then laying her handkerchief on the surface. If the eel disturbed it then her lover would be faithful. We looked hard for the well but couldn’t find it, but after 27 years of marriage we don’t have anything to prove to each other.
Visitors would leave offerings at her shrine, and so popular was this place of pilgrimage that it became the richest in the area during Tudor times. This funded a substantial chapel that was built in the 16th century on the site of Dwynwen’s original chapel. In fact donations from pilgrims provided over nine-tenths of the church’s income in 1535. This all came to an end after King Henry VIII’s split with the Catholic Church, which put an end to pilgrimages and cut off the church’s main source of income. The main porch survived until the mid 1700s. Locals used to light candles here on the 25th April as an offering to Dwynwen to watch over their cattle.
So when is St Dwynwen’s Day? On January 25th send your loved one a token of your love. Go on you know you want to!
Some of the Welsh 100 challenges are full of pain, but others are full of pleasure. This particular item on the list did turn out to be rather more of a challenge than you’d expect. Finding somewhere that would provide a breakfast with a Welsh twist was surprisingly difficult. It is easy to find breakfasts with eggs, bacon and sausages. But what about the additional and necessary laver bread and cockles? Now that is a very different matter!
It turned out that the very place to go for a Welsh Breakfast was Hayles Cafe slap bang in the centre of the Swansea Indoor Market. Aunty chickened out and only had a sausage bap. But this was a Welsh 100, and so I girded my loins and prepared for the battle to get through the plate heaped with goodies. It turned out that I received far more than that promised on the menu. But it would be churlish to complain. I am a determined chap, and tackled the task before me with valiant enthusiasm and gusto.
The laver bread and cockles added an unusual element to a cooked breakfast, but it was not unpleasant (though the sausages were a bit doubtful). The cockles and laver bread came straight from Carol Watts’ stall next door in the market. Each time a Welsh Breakfast is ordered the staff cross the 6 foot space between the cafe and the cockle stall. Pretty fresh! If given the choice I would probably repeat the experience – but only after a few months and not before I’ve worked off all those calories. And it all depends on if Aunty is supervising me of course.