Sunday, May 8, 2016

Harddwych Gogledd Cymru - The Beauty of North Wales Part III

By Annie Whitehead

In the first two parts of this tour around North Wales, we looked at Castles, Palaces and Churches. But there are many domestic dwellings of less majestic proportions to be seen, that have neither crenelation nor spire.

Close to Pwllheli, and down a track which looks like it's the ultimate road to nowhere, is the medieval house known as Penarth Fawr. A fifteenth century hall-house, it is beautifully preserved and maintained by CADW, if sparsely presented. I've been twice, and both times there was not another soul around. There is no information about who lived here, but one can get a sense of how they lived. CADW's approach to such buildings is to maintain and preserve them, without much fanfare or adornment. No furniture has been added to this property, but its emptiness and the silence of the setting triggers the imagination, even so.

Maintained by another organisation, this time the National Trust, Ty Mawr Wybrnant is a sixteenth century stone-built farmhouse and is famous for having been the birthplace of Bishop William Morgan, who first translated the Bible into Welsh.

Some houses of the early modern age are much grander. Gwydir Castle near Llanrwst was the home of the prosperous Wynn family, whose fortunes were at their zenith in the Tudor and Stuart era. The castle was rebuilt following the Wars of the Roses by Meredith ap Ieuan ap Robert, founder of the Wynn dynasty and a supporter of Henry VII. Gwydir claims links with the Babington Plot of 1586, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Charles I, and the aforementioned Bishop Morgan. We were lucky enough to visit after the current owners had bought back and refitted the wood panelling in the dining room which had been stripped in the 1920s and purchased by William Randolph Hearst.

commons attribution: Dara Jasumani

Gwydir is reputedly haunted, as is Plas yn Rhiw, on the tip of the Llyn Peninsula. The tourism literature focuses on the restoration work of the Sisters Keating, who moved there in 1939. But the house dates back to the seventeenth century. (For a while it was leased to the owners of Sizergh Castle just down the road from where I live in the Lake District.) It is suggested that Rhodri Mawr (the Great) who ruled in the 9th century, built a house near this site, and it is not unusual to find Tudor and Jacobean buildings on the sites of previous houses. Here though, no trace remains of earlier occupancy, and visitors are drawn to the gardens, and the ruined watermill therein, and the woodlands surrounding the property.

In Conwy, there are two examples of domestic dwellings. The first is Quay House, known as the smallest house in Britain, and which dates from the sixteenth century, while the second is Plas Mawr (Mawr meaning 'large' or 'great'). This was also owned by the Wynn family of Gwydir. Take a tour of the interior, which is furnished according to an inventory of 1665. Herbs hanging in the kitchen and the ornate plasterwork give a real 'feel' for how the place would have been in its heyday.

Conwy is also famous for its castle, but alongside that is the feat of Telford's engineering, the Conwy Suspension Bridge. Modern day visitors to this area wishing to traverse the Menai Strait have a choice of bridge: The Menai Bridge was also built by Thomas Telford, while the Britannia Bridge was built by Robert Stephenson, son of George.

And so we move to the Industrial era. Grand 'castles' were built by industrialists, who grew rich from the proceeds of  Jamaican sugar and local Slate (Penrhyn - pictured below left) and lead mining (Bodelwyddan)

Sadly the Clogau gold mine in Bontddu near Barmouth is no longer accessible, but it is possible to visit the Inigo Jones slate works near Caernarfon which gives a full history of the slate industry and a chance to try slate carving for yourself (harder than it looks!) Take a trip to Blaenau Ffestiniog (you can go by train from Caernarfon) and witness the legacy of slate mining in the area. Or visit Parys Mountain near Amlwch on the northern coast of Anglesey to discover the history of copper mining (my own photo, below.)

A reminder of gentler industry takes the form of Melin Llynon which is a restored and fully working windmill in the centre of Anglesey (my photo, below.)

Before we leave the island at the end of this three-part tour round the area, mention should be made of Plas Newydd, a slightly grander building than the homes we began this section with. It was the home of the first Marquess of Anglesey, who famously lost a leg at Waterloo. Inside there are photographs of the original family home at Beaudesert in Staffordshire, destroyed by fire. Last time I visited, the current Marquess had recently died, and had never visited Beaudesert, which the family still call home, because it would have 'broken his heart', yet the staff all go on an annual trip there, paid for by the family.

Trips and days out remain popular and the Victorians liked them too. On this tour we've already been to Trefiw, favourite of Llewelyn Fawr in the thirteenth century, but it became popular in the nineteenth, too, when the famous spa was excavated and the benefits of drinking the iron-rich water brought health-seeking gentlefolk to the area.

I apologise for any omissions; over three posts I've barely strayed beyond the confines of this map, and yet the places mentioned do not constitute an exhaustive list.

I've not had time to look at Iron Age hill forts or Roman remains, but whichever period of history you are interested in, North Wales will have something for you. Do go, if you can.

To read the previous parts of this tour:
Part I is HERE
Part II is HERE

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. Penarth Fawr would inspire me to imagine who might have lived there. Fascinating tour. I hope to visit northern Wales later this year.

  2. I've just come back from a few days in a different part of Wales, equally rich in history from all periods. It really is a wonderful place. Penarth Fawr is so out of the way of 'civilisation' that it allows your imagination to wander back in time.

  3. Fascinating trio of posts with many places in the area where I live. Now I just need to visit a few more before we leave in September. Sadly some are inaccessible as I'm in a wheelchair - but next best things are posts like yours.

  4. I'm glad you've enjoyed these posts - you must be so sorry to be leaving the area - Harlech, if I recall - but I wish you all the best for the future


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