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!

St Winifred’s Well: Welsh 100- No 45

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.

The main well where the water enters the shrine.

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. 

The pool where people bath. water enters the pool from the well head in the shrine.

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.

Detail showing the complicated dome over the well head, supporting thechapel above.

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.

The healing waters of St Winifred’s (Winifride) Holy Well have attracted pilgrims for over 1300 years and the crypt in which the well lies was stacked with crutches left by the cured invalids until some time in the 1960’s, though can still be seen on display.

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). 

References

  1. Early British Kingdoms. http://www.earlybritishkingdoms.com/bios/winifred.html. Accessed 2016.07.06
  2. BBC News (2012) http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-18058646

St Seiriol’s Well

Penmon at the eastern end of the Menai Strait of Angelsy is small, compact but has a great deal of history. As well as the Trwyn Du Lighthouse there is an ancient well linked to one of Welsh Saints dating back to the 6th Century. St. Seiriol’s Well survives near the Penmon Priory and may have its origins going back to the monastery’s earliest period or even earlier. The Bronze and Iron Age peoples often revered water edges and places. The number of site that have revealed votive offerings in the form of gold, valuables and broken weaponry is a testimony to the fact that water was an important aspect of their lives. So it makes sense of the early church to build on this reverence and subsume it into their teachings and places of worship. The concept of “adopt and adapt” is always a powerful means of change. The well was built by the monks of Penmon and was believed to have healing powers by some people visiting it.  


The earliest churches in Wales were connected with the cells or abodes of hermits. The foundations of of a circular building next to the well may be St Seiriol’s, but it would be very difficult to prove this now. Attached to the cell on level ground in front of the well was a small primitive building in which the surrounding inhabitants assembled for the purpose of prayer, but again the original date is unknowable. If only we had a time machine! According to legend, Seiriol regularly used to meet St Cybi of Holyhead at Clorach Well near Llannerch-y-medd, 17 miles away. Seiriol travelling with his back to the sun in the morning and returning with his face to the east in the afternoon, became known as Seiriol the Pale, the other, Cybi the Tanned. Whether this is true is open to debate, but it could equally be a play on a parable between light and dark. St Seiriol was buried on nearby Puffin Island.

The entrance to the well.
The Holy Well is a spring emerging from a cliff behind the church. It is reached by a path on the left just beyond the car park, which skirts the monastic fish pond. The crystal clear spring is surrounded by a slab floor with stone benches around the sides. However, on the day that Aunty and I visited the well was dry, someone must have left the plug out. The waters were thought to have healing powers and were visited by the sick and infirm in the hope of a cure. Although it is the source of water for the monastery, the structures are relatively modern. The roofed inner chamber around the pool is of brick and dates from 1710. The lower courses and lower antechamber with seats on either side may be somewhat earlier, but no medieval finds were made during recent excavations. The so-called ‘cell’ beneath the cliff on the left is of uncertain date and purpose. It has been suggested that these may be the remains of the original cell or church. If so, this would make it the oldest remaining Christian building in Wales.
The remains of a circular structure are clearly vidible to the left of the well. Could this really be St Seiriol’s cell?
A lesser known legend concerns Seiriol’s brothers, kings of nearby Rhos and Llŷn. Apparently they decided that the monk’s humble cell was far too lowly for a royal, so they founded a monastery nearby and made Seiriol the first Abbot of Penmon Priory.
Inside the well, showing the water basin and the seating around the walls.

Trwyn Du and Ynys Seriol

On the 17th August, 1831 the steamer Rothsay Castle left Liverpool at 11am on her regular journey to the Menai Straights. However, the rough weather made the sailing difficult and she made very little headway. The passengers became worried and asked the Captain to turn back, but he refused. By midnight he had still no made land, and an hour later the Rothsay Castle struck Dutchman Bank, then out of control struck a sand bank off Penmon. Of the 150 passengers on board, 130 lost their lives. This hastened the decision by Trinity House to build a lighthouse to guide ships on the Eastern tip of Angelsey. Work commenced in 1837 to build the black and white stone tower on a reef between Trwyn Du and Puffin Island. The light was lit in 1838.


Originally manned by two keepers, it was automated in 1922 and the keepers were withdrawn. In 1996 the light was converted to solar power. As we were walking around the shore we heard a bell being tolled on a regular basis. But I couldn’t see why or decide exactly where the ringing was coming from. The explanation comes from a further modification carried out in 1996 when a unique mechanism was installed to sound a 178 Kg bell every sixty seconds to act as a fog signal.
As well as the reef marked by the lighthouse, the small strait between Trwyn Du and Puffin Island has another rocky outcrop dangerous to shipping. This is marked by a large red beacon.


Puffin Island or Ynys Seiriol, refers to Saint Seriol. The son of Owain Ddantgwyn, a 5th-century ruler of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, and the brother of Saint Einion Frenin, a 5th- or 6th-century king in the Llŷn Peninsula, Seiriol founded and governed a clas (ecclesiastical settlement) at Penmon on the Anglesey. In later life, he abandoned his responsibilities there to establish a hermitage on the nearby island, where his remains are thought to rest.


King Cadwallon ap Cadfan of Gwynedd is said to have sheltered here in around 630 when fleeing an invasion from the Kingdom of Northumbria. A monastery existed on the island in the late 12th century and was mentioned by Gerald of Wales who visited the area in 1188. He claimed that, whenever there was strife within the community of monks, a plague of mice would devour all their food. The ecclesiastical emails still exist on the island. Puffin Island is now privately owned, and has been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and it’s not possible to land unfortunately, so this will have to remain an unattainable island for now.

Saint Dwynwen – The Welsh St Valentine: Welsh 100 No 44

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.  

Aunty striding along the beach towards Llandwyn Island.

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.

The remains of Llandwyn Chusrch, with the Twr Mawr Lighthouse behind.

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!

Two Lighthouse & Two Pauls

During our trip to Grassholm we visited two lighthouses. Both of which I never thought I get the chance to see let alone photograph – South Bishop and The Smalls Lighthouse. As we passed Ramsey Island on out way to Grassholm we had a view of South Bishop, but only a distant view. I hope to go back there another day.


Smalls Lighthouse stands on the largest of a group of wave-washed basalt and dolerite rocks known as The Smalls. It is the most remote of the lighthouses around the UK and is approximately 20 miles (32 km) west of Marloes Peninsula in Pembrokeshire, Wales, and 8 miles (13 km) west of Grassholm. There has been a lighthouse here since 1776, the present one having been built in 1861 to replace the original wooden structure. I have often wondered what it would be like to be a lighthouse keeper, but to be isolated on a wooden structure built on a rock 20 miles from the mainland, exposed to the full force of the weather and seas hurtling in from the Atlanic must have required a very specific type of person. That that type of person is certainly not me!   

A drawing of the original wood lighthouse. Not a place for the faint hearted!

Having left the Gannets at Grassholm we headed further out to sea towards what seemed like an empty horizon. The sea was dead calm, with very little swell despite the current caused by the tidal rush. then in the distance we were able to make out the misty outline of the Smalls Lighthouse. After serious storms during December 1777 repairs and alterations became necessary, but Phillips had no funds to carry them out. He discharged the keepers and extinguished the light and made over his interest to a Committee of Liverpool Traders. In 1778 Trinity House obtained an Act of Parliament authorised the repair, rebuilding and maintain the lighthouse and to collect and levy reasonable dues. In view of Phillips’ services and his financial losses, they granted him a lease on 3 June 1778 for 99 years at a rent of £5.

Although this new lighthouse was described in 1801 as a “raft of timber rudely put together” it survived for 80 years. Whiteside’s novel design of raising a superstructure on piles so that the sea could pass through them with “but little obstruction” has been adopted since for hundreds of sea structures. An incident at the lighthouse caused a change in policy dictating that off-shore lighthouses should have a minimum of three keepers. In 1801 Thomas Howell and Thomas Griffith were assigned ther period of duty in the lighthouse. The two men were known to argue, so when Griffith died in a freak accident, Thomas Howell feared he would be accused of murder if he buried the body at sea. Despite sending off a distress signal the weather prevented andy assistance being sent. As his colleagues body be an to decompose Howell built a makeshift coffin for the body and tied it to the outside of the lighthouse where, blown by the wind the box started to fall apart. The arm of Griffith fell out of the coffin and as the wind caught it, eerily waved at the window of the keepers hut. Howell kept the lamp lit but it is said that when he was relieved from duty, the experience of living with the decaying corpse of his colleague, left him unrecognisable. From that time, until the automation of lighthouses in the 1980s all teams were made up of three men.

The present lighthouse was built  The present lighthouse was built in 1861 under the supervision of Trinity House’s consultant engineer James Walker to a design based on Smeaton’s Eddystone tower, taking five years to build. It is 41m tall, and at high water 36m above the water level. The light can be seen over a range of 18 nautical miles, or 21 miles (33Km). In 1978 a helideck was erected above the lantern and the lighthouse was automated in 1987. In June 1997 the red and white stripes that had distinguished the tower were no longer considered necessary for navigation and the tower was grit blasted back to natural granite. In today’s world the need for a manned lighthouse is no longer necessary, and modern technology means that it is possible to control the lighthouse from a distance. In fact on the other side of the UK, at Trinity House’s Planning Centre in Harwich, Essex.

There was plenty of bird life out here. The top of the helipad seems to be a roost for cormorant and sea gulls, as were the rocks exposed by the low tide. After seeing so many Manx Shearwaters having been killed by Greater Black-backed Gulls on Skomer it was great to finally see one on the wing.

At last a live Manx Shearwater on the wing flying past the lighthouse.

Further Reading

The First and Last Letter to his wife: http://www.benybont.co.uk/moreword/smalls.htm

Trinity House Blog: https://trinityhousehistory.wordpress.com/2013/06/12/a-rock-and-a-hard-place-storms-death-and-madness-at-the-smalls-lighthouse/

Grassholm

Ramsey and Skomer Islands were our main wish list items on our week in West Wales, but we had a third island in our sights. Well not quite in our sights, we couldn’t see it from land as it’s a long way out. Aunty has never fancied an 8 mile trip in a small boat to a “rock in the middle of nowhere”. I think that captures her enthusiasm neatly. So it was down to the Two Pauls to become intrepid sailors for the day. But why go there? Well not only is it the most westernmost point in Wales, but it has a huge colony of Gannets. And who can resist a huge colony of screaming, smelly Gannets?

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The shine St David’s Lifeboat. Luckily not needed today.

We were booked on the morning trip, but the night before the booking agent phoned us to say that the trip would be delayed as fog was forecast, and would we mind changing our plans. And the forecast was right. We woke up to thick fog which quickly cleared by mid-morning. The morning was spent mooching around a local nature reserve until after after lunch when we made the short trip to St Justinian’s to catch the boat. This also gave the opportunity to have a mooch around the lifeboat station and see the immaculately kept life boat.

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The Cliffs on the South of Ramsey Island

The course to Grassholm took us through the Ramsey Sound and South West into the open sea. We quickly lost sight of the cliffs of St Justinian’s and 20 minutes later saw a white speck on the horizon.

Annual holiday with Paul Swain
Annual holiday with Paul Swain

As we neared Grassholm we started seeing more birds, Gannets, Razorbills, Guillemots and small rafts or Puffins. Then suddenly we were there under the white slopes of Grassholm. White because the rocks are covered in guano. I was expecting a rather pungent aroma to greet us, but nothing bothered my olfactory nerves. Probably best now that I think about it. A group of gannets has many collective nouns, including a “company”, “gannetry”, and a “plunging” of gannets. Reflecting on the images of Grassholm I think a Company of Gannets is about right.

Annual holiday with Paul Swain
Annual holiday with Paul Swain

Grassholm has been owned since 1947 by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and is one of its oldest reserves. It reaches 42 metres (138 feet). It is the third most important site for gannets in the world, after two sites in Scotland; St Kilda and Bass Rock. During the summer is is home and breeding site for 39,000 pairs of the birds, and supports around 10 percent of the world population. Impressive for a small rock 8 miles from the mainland. Even though the sea was calm the small boat still rocked backwards and forwards making photography a real challenge. Many of my shots included tails or blue sky only.

Smalls Lighthouse 2016-06-08
Gannet, one of hundreds flying overhead

As we sailed around the rock hundreds of Gannets were flying over head, either returning to their nest and leaving to go fishing. Dotted among the serried ranks of Gannet nests were Razorbill and Guillemots, who nest among the noisy confusion as the larger gannets provide protection from predation by Black-backed Gulls.

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As you look at the Gannets arranged all over the rock it seems that there must be some organisation as the nests look to be arranged in lines. In fact each nest is just far enough away from it’s neighbour that it can’t be reached while the parents are sitting on the eggs to prevent conflict. But it does seem to give a sense of town planning – but I must avoid anthropomorphising.

Annual holiday with Paul Swain
Annual holiday with Paul Swain

The turbulent sea around Grassholm also provides good feeding ground for porpoises and bottlenose dolphins. No dolphins this time, but we did see a Porpoise. The cetaceans are smaller and shyer than Dolphins. The seas today were unusually calm, even Aunty would have enjoyed the trip.

The trip then got even better. A little further out we came across two Minke Whales. they circled the boat for 10 minutes inspecting us closely. Even the guide and boatman were excited.

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One of the Minke Whales have a good look at us.

Grassholm has been identified with Gwales, an island featured in the Mabinogion. In the Second Branch of the Mabinogi, Gwales is the site of a fabulous castle where the severed head of Bran the Blessed is kept miraculously alive for eighty years while his companions feast in blissful forgetfulness. Maybe more on this in another post.

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Would I go again? Yes! And so should you.

Ramsey Island

So leaving Aunty at home, the Pembroke coast became a boys playground for a week. My old mucker Paul, from here on known as Caulkhead (his preference for a moniker in the blog- he comes from The Isle of Wight which explains a lot) took the caravan to St Davids for the week. One of our targets was the fourth largest island off Wales, Ramsey Island, but in Welsh it is known as Ynys Dewi, but more on names later. It lies about 1km off the western tip of the Pembroke peninsula on the northern side of St Brides Bay. It’s not a large island, but Wales is not a large country. Size is not everything.

The lifeboat stations at St Justinian’s with Ramsey Island across the water.

Not surprisingly with a relatively narrow channel between the mainland and the island the tides and currents can be a challenge to navigate. As the waters rush through the channel as the tides change the turbulence can be witnessed standing on the safety of land. The speed of the water flow can be as high as 3.8m/s – now that’s impressive! So much so that an experimental water turbine installation was planned for a number of years, and finally installed in December 2015. It’s hoped this will generate up to 400 kW when it is finally connected. We landed after the short boat trip from St Justinians with it’s three life boat stations, the first a stone built building dated 1886 through to the brand new station currently being built.

Approaching the landing stage below the farm, now accomodation for the permanent wardens and volunteers.
I’m not sure what I was expecting to find on the island, but what we did find was a delight. The island was alive with drifts of flowers, Red Campions, Sea Campions and Thrift painted the landscape with subtly shades of pink and white. The weather was perfect. After landing we were greeted by the wardens and given an introduction to the island, but also the opportunity to buy a cup of coffee – always welcome.  

The twin peaks of Carn Ysgubor and Carn Llundain give Ramsey a distinctive outline and we climbed each of them in turn as we wandered around the island. It was a landmark for early seafaring pilgrims on their way to St Davids.  

Ramsey has a fair number of breeding Choughss, an uncommon member of the crow family. WIth its clacking call and bright legs and bill it is unmistakable.
The name Ramsey is thought to come from the Norse personal name Hrafn. But in Welsh the island is Ynys Dewi, which means “St David’s island”. The island served as the hermitage of St Justinian, who was St David’s confessor. He was martyred by three of his servants who had been possessed by demons. The servants were driven mad and refused to obey their master, who was entreating them to work and not to lead an idle life. The servants then threw him to the ground and cut off his head. The murderers of the saint were struck with leprosy, and recognised that this was God’s vengeance on them. They lived by a rock still called “lepers’ rock”, and after loading their bodies with heavy penances were counted worthy of forgiveness through the prayers of St. Justinian. Mind you have to ask how much of a hermitage this was if Justinian had three servants! 

According to legend these rocks, known as The Bitches, were hewn by St Justinian as he separated the island from the mainland.

The excitement didn’t stop there either. St. Justinian’s decapitated body rose and took the head in its arms and descended to the sea shore. Walking across the water, it came to the port named after the saint, which is today a lifeboat station, and to the church now dedicated in his name: Llanstinian, near Fishguard 

dotted around the island hidden amongst the growing grass are small clumps of Spring Squill, Scilla verna

By the 13th century Ramsey was owned by the Bishops of St Davids, and for over 600 years the island was farmed with varying degrees of success. Butter, cheese and wool were all produced here and sold on the mainland, and in later years corn and other crops were grown. Ramsey was last farmed in the late 1960s and is now a nature reserve owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. 
This Meadow Pipt was very obliging as I crept closer to take this photo.

This summer may be a good year for Painted Ladies – no not the female kind, but a beautiful orange butterfly that is a migrant from Europe. We saw the first of many of the island this day, as well as a Wall on the summit of Carn Llundain. Again a butterfly version, not a stone wall! 

Wall butterfly, Lasiommata megera

Llandovery or Llanymddyfri

For a recent series of adventures that saw us tie off another two items on the Welsh 100 list we stayed just outside Llandovery, or Llanymddyfri, in the old county of Carmarthenshire. It is an area we not explored much, having bypassed it by going further west to the coast. But that changed this weekend as we drove along the old drovers road and  the Abergwesyn Pass to Tregaron and scrambled up to Ogof Twm Sion Cati.

Llandovery isa corruption of ‘ Llanymddyfri’, meaning ‘Llan ymlith y dyfroedd’ or in English ‘Church enclosure amidst the waters’. Two rivers, the Afon Tywi and Afon Bran, meet just outside town. It is a small town with a population less than 300. But it must once have had the highest ratio of pubs to population of anywhere in Wales. We counted at least 10 pubs, not all still open as pubs having been converted in cafes or restaurants. After saying here a couple of days, it is now one of our favourite little towns. The town is centred on the town square that housed a small market place, town hall and at one time the town goal.

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The Town Hall (1857-8) was designed by the architect Richard Kyke Penson. It fairly unusual for Wales, which tend to have very functional artitectrure. It has a courtroom over an open market, in an Italianate style. The building has two storeys with open arcades.

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At the rear are police cells with iron grilles and entry to the courtroom (now used as a library) under a clock tower.

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The town has a long history stretching back to when the Romans built a fort here between AD50 and 60 as support for their incursion and settlement of this part of Wales. A little further up the road is the only Roman gold mine in the UK – more on this in a letter post.The Normans moved in many years later to try and control the important routes through the valleys to the north and west, when in1116, the Norman Richard Fitz Pons began construction of the motte and bailey, then known as the “castle of Cantref Bychan.” Very soon afterwards Gruffydd ap Rhys, attacked and destroyed the outer bailey. Then followed a period of capture and loss between the Welsh and English.

Llandovery  151004 9-2-HDRHowever,with the interceine manner that the Welsh managed their affairs control of Llandovery Castle not only alternated between the Welsh and the English, but the heirs of the Lord Rhys (including Rhys Gryg and Maelgwyn) also fought each other for command of their father’s possessions. Edward I finally gained control of the castle in 1277, and the English continued to control the stronghold until its demise, with the brief exception of a few months in 1282 when Llewelyn Olaf captured the castle.

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On the slopes of the castle is a fantastic 16-foot (4.9 m) high stainless steel statue to Llewelyn ap Gruffudd Fychan. Over 600 years ago he had led the army of King Henry IV on ‘a wild goose chase’ under the pretence of leading them to a secret rebel camp and an ambush of Owain Glyndŵr’s forces. English Kings were not known for their tolerance, especially when being led astray by a Welshman and King Henry lost patience with him, exposed the charade and had him half hanged, disemboweled in front of his own eyes, beheaded and quartered – the quarters salted and dispatched to other Welsh towns for public display.

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The streets are narrow, and many of the houses are painted brightly in different colours. I love this way of making the town different from the usual dark grey granite of the town further north.

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Although the streets can be little narrow in places, it can’t be said that parking is at such a premium that you have to park the car on the garage roof!Llandovery  151004 1

This area is a mecca for motorcyclists. One of the cafes attract bikers like a magnet. 30 minutes after taking the photo there were another 15 bikes parked outside. Aunty is just checking that their tax discs are in place!

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If you get the chance go and stay. We might even meet up on day.

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Ogof Twm Sion Cati – Welsh 100 No 36

Ogof Twm Sion CatiWhat to do on a Saturday afternoon? How about visiting a hide out of a Welsh rogue in the beautiful Welsh countryside. After driving up narrow glacial and river valleys on the usual single track roads we came to an RSPB nature reserve near Ystrad-ffin and Rhandir-mwyn. This is now my new favourite place. A small hill standing proud at the confluence of the Afon Tywi and Afon Pysgotwr. The hill side is covered in oak and birch, with all the diversity of a rain forest.

  
It is a very steep ascent or scramble to the cave which is surrounded by trees and boulders and it is necessary to crawl in once at the entrance. Part of the cave roof has collapsed but the cave itself has obviously been visited over many as the walls are covered in graffiti. Even so, it’s not that comfortable – I think I’ll stick to the caravan for tonight.

  
When I was in primary school we were told stories of Twm Sion Cati which made him out to be a bit of a rascal. But perhaps he was a little more than that. There are many myths about the man and it’s a challenge to really identify who he really was. Whilst the story insists that Jones was the illegitimate son of a local squire – Sir John Wynn of Gwydir, his father was actually John, son of David ap Madog ap Howel Motheu. His mother was Catherine, daughter of Meredydd ap Ieuen, which is where the ‘Cati’ part of his name came from.

  
In his early years, Jones developed a reputation as Twm Sion Cati, the highwayman, supposedly only robbing the rich, although there is little evidence of him regularly giving to the poor. In 1833, Samuel Lewis wrote, in his book ‘A Topographical Dictionary of Wales’ 1833 that, “he enjoyed, according to tradition, a less enviable distinction, from his practice of plundering his neighbours, being represented, as an expert and dexterous robber”.

 

the cave might be a bit drafty, but the view is superb.

 
One of the stories that I remember tells of Twm’s visit to an ironmonger’s in Llandovery to buy a porridge pot. The ironmonger brought out several pans and Twm on questioning the quality and costs of the pans was told that no better would be found in the kitchen of a king. Twm then held one of the pots up to the light and declared that he could see a hole in it. The ironmonger then held up the pot to examine it and Twm forced over his head and quipped that if there was not a hole in it how could such a large and stupid head have been caught inside!

  

 In 1557 Twm fled to Geneva to escape from the consequences of his adventures,, returning two years later to receive a Royal Pardon on 15th January, 1559, which excused all of his previous misdeeds and criminal activities. There is some that say in fact he received 5 pardons in all, each one relating to his many guises. Despite the romantic stories and myth, I think we should admit that this was a man who resorted to banditry, thieving and generally bring a right old pain to his neighbours.
 

the small church of St Paulinus. there was a church here in 1117, and rebuilt in 1821. The yew trees are over 500 years old.
 
The later years of Jones’s life were devoted to the study of Welsh history and literature. He appears to have been employed by the chief Welsh Gentry in Cardiganshire to draw up their pedigrees or family trees. Heraldry, was a little known science and seen as somewhat occult, often resulting in Jones being described as a powerful magician. The ability to research and produce pedigrees would have put him in an influential position, as a pedigree was a document of great importance for those families who wanted to prove their heritage and status.