Penarth to Barry – Cliffs, dinosaurs, wireless and coal.

The guidebook for the Wales Coast Path claims the total length is 896 miles. Quite a distance in anyone’s book, and probably one we won’t manage in it’s entirety, but Aunty and I are plugging away with determination. Early September is always a good time for a walk, especially if it’s not raining. This stretch of our undertaking was a fairly long walk from Penarth to Barry, a total of 12.6 miles (20.3km), and for once we were organised and took the train from home to Penarth. After passing through Cardiff it was all new train territory for us, passing through the litany of stations I’d heard over the station announcer’s tannoy for years: Grange Town, Coban, Dingle Road and finally Penarth. From the station is was down hill all the way to see the pier. And who can’t resist a walk to the end of a pier in the sunshine.

Apple Photos Document
Looking towards Cardiff Docks from Penarth Pier
This gentle seaside town was created the rich who had made their money from coal, where they built large houses overlooking the Bristol Channel, clinging to the steep hill side plunging down to the shore. It feels different to Cardiff, and is far enough by road and train to be different, but when you stand on the promenade you can almost touch Cardiff Bay and the Barrage just around the corner. A short walk under the cliffs at low tide and within 5 minutes you can be standing on the Barrage.

Old Penarth Photo
Penarth Pier cica 1900
Like many aspiring Victorian seaside towns Penarth has a pier. But unlike many other towns today, this pier is in good nick. Standing proud from the shore out into the Bristol Channel, it makes a fine spectacle in the sun. So much so that in 2014 it was voted Pier of the Year by the National Piers Society (it never ceases to amaze me that these sort of organisations exist). The pier was opened in 1898 after an earlier failed attempt when the contractors were bankrupted. It was intended as a landing stage for regular ferry boats to accommodate increasing number of visitors from Cardiff. Up until then the ferry boats were hauled up onto the beach. Originally it was primarily a wooden pier for the pleasure cruise ships, but in 1907 a small wooden concert hall was built on the end. During World War One, it was used as a base for mine sweepers, which over the years damaged the landing stage. The insurance payment form the MoD didn’t cover the cost of repair and eventually after a period of decline the pier was sold to Penarth Borough Council in 1929. Just after this the Art Deco pavilion was completed – in concrete so it wouldn’t burn down!

Penarth Pier
Penarth Pier – It was early and the pier was empty.
Even though the Pier looks in good condition today, there has been excitement in it’s history. In 1931 the wooden theatre caught fire, eventually burning itself out after three days. £3157 later the pier was rebuilt. Then in 1947 the SS Port Royal Park hit the pier during a gale cause a fair amount of damage, which took 3 years to repair. It was hit again in 1966 by the pleasure steamer PS Bristol Queen causing £25000 of damage. The last pleasure cruise from the pier was in 1982. A serious restoration project started in 1994, and the pier was opened again to the public in 1998. Through grants by the National Lottery we can again walk out over the sea – a job well done I think.

Penarth Pier from beach
Penarth Pier today.
The sea was mill pond smooth, a sight not often encountered on the Severn Estuary. From the pier it was a pleasant walk along the seafront up the hill and along the cliff tops towards Lavernock point. As soon as we left Penarth proper there were few people abroad and we had the path to ourselves. The sun was shining, it was warm and a fantastic walk. The hedgerows this year are full of fruit, and present a real picture against the blue skies.

Flatholm & Steepholm
Flatholm and Steepholm seen from Penarth.
A surprise along the way included stumbling across St Lawrence Church at Lavernock. The early history of the church is a little uncertain, but it’s thought to be a 12th century parish church. Like many small churches St Lawrence didn’t escape ‘improvement’ during by the Victorians. Little used today, except for a small number of services throughout the year, it appears to be isolated today with only a couple of houses nearby.

Lavernock Church
St Lawrence Church, Lavernock.
But Lavernock has other surprises in store. Least of which is it’s part in the history of wireless communication. Marconi and his assistants from the Post Office used Lavernock to transmit the first wireless communication transmission across water. On 13 May 1897 the first “Hello. Hello.” Was sent over the airways from Lavernock Point to Flatholm Island.  Kemp, a Cardiff man and a Post Office engineer who assisted Marconi, recorded the following in his diary.

Flatholm Island – the site of the first wireless transmission over water.
Mr Marconi’s apparatus was set up on the cliff at Lavernock Point, which is about twenty yards above sea-level. Here we erected a pole, 30 yards (27 m) high, on the top of which was a cylindrical cap of zinc, 2 yards (1.8 m) long and 1-yard (0.91 m) diameter.

Connected with this cap was an insulated copper wire leading to one side of the detector, the other side of which was connected to a wire led down the cliff and dipping into the sea. At Flat Holm Mr Preece’s apparatus was arranged, the Ruhmkorff coil also giving 20-inch (510 mm) sparks from an eight-cell battery.

On the 10th May experiments on Mr Preece’s electro-magnetic transmission method were repeated, and with perfect success.

The next few days were eventful ones in the history of Mr Marconi. On the 11th and 12th his experiments were unsatisfactory — worse still, they were failures — and the fate of his new system trembled in the balance.

An inspiration saved it. On the 13th May the apparatus was carried down to the beach at the foot of the cliff, and connected by another 20 yards (18 m) of wire to the pole above, thus making an aerial height of 50 yards (46 m) in all. Result, The instruments which for two days failed to record anything intelligible, now rang out the signals clear and unmistakable, and all by the addition of a few yards of wire!”

Sully Island
Sully Island peaking around the headland. This is a tidal island and currently has the highest number of Lifeboat call outs to rescue people caught out by the tide.
But this small piece of land butting out into the Severn Estuary has another secrets up it’s sleeve. In 1870 a gun battery was positioned here to protect the approach to the docks at Bristol and Cardiff. There is little to see today, but the remains of the coastal defences from the Second World War are still clearly visible along the edge of the Nature Reserve that now occupies the site. It would be too easy spend the day here, but we still had a long way to go. But not before I’d spent a few minutes watching a local game of cricket played next to the path.

Cricket Match Sully
The young bowler here took a catch directly from the batsman from this ball.
Aunty wanted to make a small detour to revisit one of our other Welsh 100 sites – the dinosaur footprints at The Bendricks ( The last time we came here the weather was cold and overcast. Then we had a challenge to find them, and it wasn’t much easier this time either. But they’re still there, despite someone having dug up a few and sold them in the USA. These are the footprints of some of the earliest dinosaurs in the world. At this time, 220 million years ago, dinosaurs had not long evolved from other crocodile-like reptiles and these ancestral animals were still present. They were soon to become extinct and leave the dinosaurs to dominate the land during the following Jurassic and Cretaceous Periods. Some of the footprints exposed here probably belong to some of these dinosaur ancestors.

Dinosaur Footprint
Guess which one is the dinosaur.
The next stage of the walk was a little unpleasant, and involved a 3 mile walk along a bury main road around the large chemical plant on the edge of Barry. One puzzling area caught my eye. There is a nature reserve on part of the old chemical works, but apparently there are dangerous things in there. So much so it warrants a keep out sign.

Chemical plant nature reserve
A chemical plant, a nature reserve and a “hazardous area” sign. I’ve seen those films where dangerous animals are breed from chemical experiments.
Eventually we arrived at Barry Docks. In 1871 Barry was just an ordinary village on the coast with a population of just 100 people. But how things change. By 1909 about 8,000 women and 10,000 men were employed in the docks alone. By 1913, Barry had out grown Cardiff as the premier coal exporting docks, and are even claimed to have been the busiest coal port in the world, exporting 11.05 million long tons (11,230,000 t; 12,380,000 short tons) at it’s peak.

Barry Dock Offices
Barry Docks Office stands on a prominent position overlooking the docks.
The docks were conceived by a group of local mine owners determined to break the hedgemony of Cardiff on coal exports and boy did they succeed. Today all that industry has vanished, leaving only empty pier and mooring points. The warehouses have been replaced by flats and housing developments. I’ll have to leave Barry a little short on words are there is so much to say. But perhaps we’ll return and have a wonder around here in the future.

Barry 170902




Come into the garden Maud – Welsh 100 No 54

The National Botanic Garden opened to visitors back in the year 2000. Aunty and I have visited here a couple of times now over the years and the gardens have developed a great deal in that time. Based on a Regency country house and garden there are new, old and unusual sights wherever you look. These include the worlds largest single span greenhouse, traditional walled gardens and a national nature reserve. 

The gardens are based upon the original house built in Llanarthne by the Middleton family sometime around 1650. The Middleton made their riches through the East India Company. The estate was sold in 1789 to William Paxton, who also made much of his wealth from the East India Company. Paxton commissioned a new hall from Samuel Pepys Cockerall, and gardens from Samuel Lapidge, apprentice and successor to Capability Brown. After Paxton death in 1824 the Estate is bought by Edward Adams, but falls into disrepair when family fortunes wane. Unfortunately the main house burnt down in 1931, before the estate was divided into 7 starter farm units for lease. 

The work on restoring the gardens is impressive. The main walled gardens create microclimates where fruit and flowers can be shown off to the best advantage. The servants quarters and stables provide conference, lecture and visitor facilities ensuring the buildings have been rescued. 

But the main WOW factor comes from the huge single span greenhouse that provides a fantastic display of plants from around the world. These are arranged in regional displays, allowing us to gawp at the beutiful flowers from California sitting next to from from Australia. A display not to be forgotten in a hurry.

Now just a few photographs of the flowers and gardens to whet your appetite and encourage you to visits yourselves.

A Day At The Races – Welsh 100 No 53

Strata Florida Map
You have to love Wales! There are so many unexpected things to do and see in such a small country. Aunty and I went racing at the weekend. Not your normal racing mind. This was racing with a difference, but chariot racing. Well Trotting to be accurate. Not quite Celts hollering and screaming, but still exciting. Was it at a big race course, with a large spectator stand? No it was in a field in the middle of the most sparsely populated counties in Wales, with the nearest village about 5 miles away, and the nearest town 10 miles away (neither of which   could boast more than 1000 souls living there). This made it even more exciting.

Tregaron Races 170826

All the expected aspects of racing were there, horses, riders, bookies, a drinks tent, food outlets – well a burger van, and an ice cream van. And the field was full, with plenty of people milling around, eating, drinking and betting, loosing money and generally having fun. The weather helped of course – the sun was shining and the hills gave it all a fantastic feel.


Tregaron Races 170826

Now Aunty and I know nothing about horses, other than they are big and smelly (well that’s my take on them anyway. We know even less about racing, and less than nothing about trotting. It seems its a highly technical sport, with the horses having to run in a specific manner. But I’m afraid you’ll have to look for explanations elsewhere if you’re interested, as it’s all too complicated for a man who can barely run in a straight line, let alone ride a horse.


So the first point of business was to buy the race card. This turns out not to be a card, but a book. 20 minutes later we had deciphered the abbreviations, names of the horses and drivers, and were ready to make a guess on which one would win. Serious study was required and we both made our choices for the first three races. Karen came out as the winner, with 2 third paces and a winner.

Tregaron Races 170826

None of my horse were placed. So a change in strategy was required. The studying of past form was abandoned, and I went for names that I liked and the colours of the riders. this worked in the next few races I picked a winner and had two second places. Now don’t think we were rolling in the money after this – both winers were the favourites and so at odds of 2 to 1 and 5 to 2, millionaires we were not. In total we managed to pick three winners, but one of them was disqualified for galloping and not trotting. We may not be able to retire and buy the yacht yet, but it was fun.

Tregaron Races 170826

Brecon Jazz Festival – Welsh 100 No 52

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.

Peacocks on the Beach.

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.

Loughor Estuary 170325

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!

Loughor Estuary 170325

Almost everywhere we looked we came across Greylag Geese feeding on the grass just above the high water mark.

Greylag Goose 170325

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.

Common Carder Bee

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!

Loughor Estuary 170325

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.

Colt's Foot 170325

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?


Dan yr Ogof: Welsh 100 No 51

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 

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.

When the Morgan brothers came across this structure they named it The Angle. And it’s easy to see why.
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.

Hitting the Surf at Whitesands: Welsh 100 – No 50

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.

St Asaph Cathedral – Welsh 100 no 49

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 choir stalls

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. 

Translators Monmument on the Cathedral Green

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. 

A sneaky photo of Bishop Morgans Bible

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. 

The house where the Powell Brothers were born, situated directly opposite tjhe Cathedral,

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”. 

The Stanley Monument – adorned with woolen scarves after having been knitting bombed.

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.

Flying across the quarry: Welsh 100 No 48

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. 

Not sure that red is my best 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. 

the end of the zip wire is way down there on the plateau above the lake!

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!

Number One Daughter posing as usual!

And Aunty is launched into space!

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.

Swallow Falls: Welsh 100 – No 47

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. 

Conwy Falls

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.

Conwy Falls
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.

Afon Conwy pushing through the narrow gorge at Fairy Glen.
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.

Fairy Glen may not have a spectacular water fall but the volume of water rsuhing through this narrow gap is worth seeing.
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.

Swallow Falls. Not a swallow in sight.
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.
Somewhere in this turmoil is the spirit of Sir John Wynn

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.
There’s got to be something in there to eat!