Sunday, March 20, 2016

Harddwch Gogledd Cymru - The Beauty of North Wales Part I

By Annie Whitehead

A friend recently described her homeland (Canada) as having history, but not many historical sites. Wales, and North Wales in particular, has both. When I began making notes for this blog piece, they ran into three pages of place names, of sites to visit, of towns where every other building has a plaque on it. So I thought it best to categorise and this must be, of necessity, a whistle-stop tour. (And I apologise for omissions - of which there will be many.)

I'm not going to take you anywhere that I haven't been myself, but some of those visits were pre-digital camera and of a time when my kids featured in every shot, so not all the pictures are mine. But let's start with some very early history and travel across the Menai Strait to Penmon Priory,  originally a 10th century establishment but rebuilt in the 12th.

Wiki commons - attribution: Robin Drayton

Two crosses survive from the 10th century - also known as St Sereiol's, the church was attacked by Vikings in 971 - and the smaller of these two crosses looks as if it bears testament to this attack, but in fact its arm was broken off and used as a lintel for the refectory windows.

Attribution: Bencherlite

Back on the mainland in a little village called Clynnog Fawr, where I've holidayed many times, stands the church of St Bueno. He was an abbott in the 7th century, and this church (a monastery then) was a stopping off point for pilgrims on their way to Bardsey Island, (more of which later.) St Beuno's has an ancient wooden chest used to contain alms donated by pilgrims, and outside there is a sundial which dates from somewhere between the 10th and 12th centuries. Clynnog Fawr itself is the site of several battles: Aelfhere of Mercia is recorded as having been there in 978 when Vikings attacked the monastery, the Battle of Bron yr Erw was fought in 1075, and in 1255 Llywelyn ap Gruffudd defeated his brothers to become undisputed prince of Gwynedd.

Author's own photo
The subject of royalty leads us back out onto the island of Anglesey, where the church at Llangadwaladr is reputed to be an ancient royal burial ground. There is an inscribed stone which names a 7th century king, Catamanus, and Charles Thomas has published a fascinating little book about his detective work, deciphering the real meaning and possible true 'author' of the words on the inscription.

Still in the 7th century, if we move a little further along the coast, we can walk out from Aberffraw to the church of St Cwyfan, although the building here dates only from the 12th century. St Cwyfan was a disciple of Beuno and he built a Christian missionary here. He is also associated with Glendalough in Co. Wicklow in Eire, although over there he is referred to as St Kevin. When I visited Glendalough in 2010 it took me a while to  'join up the dots'.

Glendalough -author's photo
Talking of early saints, we can go further back in time and walk along the beautiful sands at Newborough beach and onto Llanddwyn Island (actually a peninsular except at all but the highest tides) and learn about St Dwynwyn, who died around AD460. Her father was King Brychan Brycheiniog and stories vary but essentially she was unlucky in love until prayers rescued her and she devoted her life to God, healing, and prayer, and built her church on the island which now bears her name. She is the Welsh patron saint of lovers and her Saint's day is celebrated on January 25th, the Welsh equivalent of St Valentine's Day.

On another island, this time off the tip of the Llyn peninsular at Aberdaron, is Bardsey. Out here there are the remains of neolithic huts, but the island is mainly known for its Christian associations. In around AD516, Saint Cadfan (a Breton) founded the abbey of St Mary's which became a place of pilgrimage. Those who had rested at St Beuno's at Clynnog Fawr were making their way to Bardsey; three pilgrimages here were worth one to Rome. (Some sources say it was only two.) As with so many early medieval buildings, the original monastery has gone, and only the ruins of the 13th century tower remain.

Commons attribution: David Medcalf
Also on Bardsey island there is an apple tree, which was reputed to have been the only survivor of the monks' orchard. Tests in 1998 conducted by the experts at the National Fruit Collection confirmed that this tree did indeed produce a previously unrecorded variety of apple.

The church at Aberdaron is associated with a story about Gruffudd ap Cynan, who sought sanctuary there in AD1094 before fleeing in a boat to Ireland. Y Gegin Fawr [the big kitchen] is a 13th century building, now a tearoom, where pilgrims could eat before their final journey over to Bardsey.

Attribution: Noel Walley
Neolithic reminders are evident over on the limestone headland jutting out from Llandudno - the promontory known as the Great Orme, where Bronze Age copper mines have been excavated to reveal that the Romans re-opened the mines first worked before 600BC.  Guided tours of the mines are available and after a helter-skelter drive from the car park at the top of the Orme you can call in to the church of St Tudno, (12th century,) and at the 'bottom' of the Orme the 13th century remains of the palace of the bishops of Bangor are fenced off but still visible. The name 'Orme' is most likely a Norse reference to the shape of the headland, and derived from the ON word 'urm' meaning 'sea serpent'.

Parys Mountain at Amlwych on the northern coast of Anglesey was also mined for copper ore during the Bronze Age, but I will revisit Parys Mountain in a later instalment of this tour when we move into the industrial age.  But before we get there, we still have to visit the houses, churches and castles associated with the Princes of Gwynedd and Edward I, walk in the footsteps of Owain Glyndwr, discover Tudor buildings, and the marks left on the landscape by the industrial age. Join me for Part II of this tour on April 10th.

I recently wrote a piece for this blog about the incredible history of just one street in Ruthin, where every other house has a plaque on the wall testifying to its historical significance. (Link below)
I don't know if it's true that this area has more history than the rest of Britain, or whether the Welsh just like to flag it up, point it out, show it off. But whatever the truth, I know that after 10 years of visiting the area at least once a year, and sometimes 3, I can say that I still haven't run out of places to discover. If you haven't been, go. Whatever your interest in history, you will not be disappointed. And the first Welsh word you'll see is the sign that says Croeso (Welcome) - and they mean it.


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate who now works as an Early Years music teacher. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now, and is the story of one man’s battle to keep the monarchy strong and the country at peace, when successive kings die young. Protagonists in both novels have close associations with the Welsh. A frequent visitor to Wales, Annie also spends time attempting, and mostly failing, to speak the language.


  1. What a fascinating post, beautiful photos.

    1. Thanks Angela, glad you enjoyed it. Part 2 has more lovely photos of castles and churches and gorgeous landscape ...

  2. Great post about some fascinating places, thank you. I'm looking forward to the next one!

  3. Fascinating post. Looking forward to Part 2, especially as I live in Harlech above the castle, and with views of Snowdon and the Llyn Peninsula. Realise how much there is to see before my wife and I move away in the autumn.

    1. I'm very envious Roland - it is a very beautiful part of the world. And Harlech does indeed feature in Part II of this tour ...

  4. Replies
    1. It took just one visit for me to fall in love! I'm lucky, it's less than a three hour drive for me to get to the north coast of Anglesey. I felt at home the minute I got there and I've made some great friends over the years, too. You can barely turn round without stepping into some historical site - and all with that spectacular backdrop :)


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