Friday, November 3, 2017

History Revealed: The Welsh Highland Railway

by Annie Whitehead

A trip on the Welsh Highland Railway reveals more than just its own history; it allows the traveller to learn about centuries of Welsh history.

My historical research often takes me into the pages of the Welsh annals. It's true that the Mercians of the English Midlands often fought the Welsh, but it's also true that they allied themselves frequently to the Welsh princes to unite against a common enemy.

In the seventh century, Penda, (a pagan) and Cadwallon of Gwynedd (a Christian) banded together to wage war on Northumbria.

In the ninth century, Anarawd of Gwynedd gave fealty to Alfred the Great and Welsh troops allied with Alfred's son-in-law,  Æthelred of Mercia, (husband of  Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians) helping the English to defeat the Danes at Buttington in 893.

Ælfhere of Mercia, (whom I called Alvar) was also an ally of the Welsh. As earl of Mercia, his job was to defend the marches from incursions by the Welsh, but the chronicles often noted him aiding the Welsh in their internecine struggles. He aided Hywel ap Ieuaf against his uncle in 974 and again in 978.

It's not just my research that takes me into Wales, but my travels, too. And once in Wales, it's impossible to encounter only one period of history. The story of the land is everywhere, and you can see much of it from the railway.

Public Domain Image

The Ffestiniog Railway had already proved its worth in the nineteenth century in carrying people and goods through the mountain region of Snowdonia. In 1872 Charles Spooner proposed a new line linking the main railway at Dinas with Rhyd Ddu at the foot of Snowdon. It was only partially completed when it opened in 1881, and was only fully laid southwards through Beddgelert and the Aberglasyn Pass to Porthmadog in 1923. But, as I said, a trip on the railway reveals more than just the industrial past of Wales.

Embarking at Caernarfon, one cannot help but be awed, as the station stands in the looming shadow of the castle, built by Edward I (known as Longshanks) in 1283, and designed as a symbol of oppression, echoing the walls of Constantinople and reminding the Welsh that their princes were no more, and that Edward was now their lord and master.

Caernarfon Castle, photographed by my late father

But not far away we can see occupation of Caernarfon from an earlier time, at the Roman fort of Segontium. The Romans arrived in North Wales in 60AD, over a century after Caesar's first invasion. Their main objective was Ynys Mon (Anglesey) where they set about subduing the druids there. (See my earlier post.) In around 77AD Suetonius Paulinus established a fort at Caernarfon. It was named Segontium, and housed around 800 men. It was a base well-located for keeping control of both Ynys Mon and the Llyn Peninsular.

Roman soldiers murdering druids and burning their groves
on Anglesey, as described by Tacitus

The train journey takes you through the valley of the Afon Gwyrfai and through the village of Waunfawr. As it crosses the bridge over the Afon Gwyrfai it passes the old church at Betws Garmon.

Saint Garmon was a Gallican bishop who arrived in Britain in the latter half of the fifth century. He was best known for establishing schools and it it thought that Betws was one of these. Clearly the church is more modern, and has been rebuilt many times. In 1634 a small four-leafed clover was inscribed on the font in the rebuilt church, but no one knows for sure when the previous church had been built. Saint Garmon was also known as Germanus, and his mission was to combat the influence of Pelagius, who has been the study of a recent EHFA blog post by Kim Rendfeld.

The railway arrives at the foot of Snowdon and begins to climb. Somewhere around this area, JMW Turner must have sat for a while as he drew a pencil watercolour entitled Llyn Cwellyn.

Full citation for image at bottom of this LINK

Offering views back down the valley towards Llyn Cwellin and Mynydd Mawr (Great Mountain), the line curves sharply as the train heads towards Rhyd Ddu (Black Ford). Rhyd Ddu is believed at one time to have formed the pasture lands of Llewlyn Fawr (of whom more in a moment.) It remained a farming community until the middle of the nineteenth century when the slate quarries and copper mines caused the population to double in size. The village became home to a blacksmith and a postmaster, as well as a coal merchant, a dressmaker and a publican. This Welsh-speaking settlement also boasted three shops, a school, and a woollen mill. The downturn came in the latter part of the century, and these days there are no shops, although there is still a pub, and with the loss of the industry, the community makes its living from farming.

From the stop at Rhyd Ddu, the view is a choice between the looking up to the summit of Snowdon, or towards Beddgelert.

Mount Snowdon, or Yr Wyddfa, is the highest peak in Wales. Its name means 'burial place' and there is a legend attached to it. A cairn at the top of the mountain is said to mark the grave of Rhita Fawr, a giant who wore a cloak fashioned from the beards of all the kings he had killed.

The mountain village of Beddgelert provides more insight into medieval Welsh history. The parish church of St Mary's was built on an earlier, sixth-century site, which eventually became the nucleus of an Augustinian priory in the thirteenth century. The priory was endowed by Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, also known as Llewelyn Fawr (Llewelyn the Great). He married the natural daughter of King John, and his grandson came to be known as Llewelyn the Last, fighting, and ultimately losing to, Longshanks. The priory prospered, and became an important centre. The building was destroyed by fire around 1283/4 and restored by Edward I. It is said that his munificent act was prompted by the fact that it was the carelessness of his own soldiers which had caused the fire in the first place. The later history of the priory is a familiar one, seeing it damaged again by fire in the early sixteenth century and then being allowed to fall into ruin on the orders of Henry VIII. Only the chapel was left standing.

St Mary's, Beddgelert - image attribution

Beddgelert is reputed to have been named after Gelert, the faithful hound of Llewelyn Fawr, who had a hunting lodge in the area, and it's possible to visit Gelert's 'grave'. The story goes that the faithful hound was left to guard the prince's baby, only to be discovered with bloodied mouth and the baby missing. Llewelyn drew his sword and killed the dog, whose yelp caused the baby to cry out. Seemingly, the dog had in fact protected the baby from a wolf. Full of remorse, Llewelyn buried the dog with great ceremony.

Gelert by Charles Burton Barber - Public Domain Image

Travelling on from Beddgelert the train crosses the Afon Glaslyn and along the Aberglasyn Pass. It then goes through the Aberglasyn tunnels. Between these tunnels, at Plas-y-Nant, the story of Wales is brought nearer to modern times, with the location of circular gun mounting blocks, built for World War II 'Blacker' Bombards, 20lb anti-tank mortars. There is also a pill box dating from around 1940.

Since I first travelled on the railway, the line has been opened up further and a team of enthusiasts works hard to keep the engines running.

Wherever I go in North Wales, I encounter history spanning the centuries. Here on the little mountain railway, the same is true. With monuments, sites and buildings stretching from Roman times to WWII, it really is the tale of centuries, incorporating a wonderful mix of fact and legend.


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
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  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Cryssa - the day we went was a wonderfully sunny day and my dad was the one who persuaded us all to go. I'd not expected to discover so much history along the way:-)

  2. Fascinating post and invaluable. In the middle of writing a novel - first draft - set in North Wales, and about to have a scene start in Porthmadog (where my glasses came from). Story may be modern but historical references such as ones to Llewelyn ap Iorwerth. Thanks.

    1. Thanks Roland, glad you enjoyed it. North Wales is a truly special place, with history from every period - as you say, your story is modern but has references to Llewelyn. There's no escaping it! :-)


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