Monday, 28 November 2016

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Monday, 21 November 2016

Ruthin - From King Arthur to the Beatles in 528 ft

Packing to stay at Ruthin Castle Hotel, my plan was to write a piece about the history of that building, and the medieval castle ruins in the grounds. As history goes, it packs a punch: the 'modern' castle, built in 1828, was owned by the Cornwallis-West family who entertained Lady Randolph Churchill and Edward VII, who in turn entertained his mistresses, including Lilly Langtry and Patsy Cornwallis-West, the chatelaine, whose daughter married the Duke of Westminster.

Outside, the crumbling walls of the original castle bear testament to the onslaught of Owain Glyndwr in 1400. Created originally by Dafydd, brother of the last native prince of Wales, (and who was executed in 1282, the first high-profile recipient of Edward I's hanging drawing and quartering), the castle was granted to Reginald de Grey, ancestor of Lady Jane Grey.

In 1923 Ruthin Castle opened a clinic for "Internal Diseases" run by the wonderfully named Dr Sir Edmund Ivens Spriggs.

So far, so interesting. But stepping through the archway that takes you on a short walk to the market square, I found a beautiful street with astonishing architecture.

And on almost every house, there was a plaque. I hadn't initially realised, because the first house caught my eye only because it was for sale (alas, well out of my reach.)

The house belonged to Sir John Trefor, one-time speaker of the House of Commons. It seems that Sir John lost his position after an accusation of bribery, but my admittedly limited research points to some aspect of decidedly unfair play on the part of his accusers.

I walked on, thinking little more than how lovely and quaint this street was.

But at the end of Strydd Castell (Castle Street) are the buildings that make up the outline of Ruthin Square. Here I found the old court house, now a bank. At first glance, it is notable for having been the first building subjected to attack by Glyndwr. But a plaque on the wall told me a little bit more about its history:

Here, it seems, a Franciscan Friar, Charles Mahoney, was hanged from the gibbet in 1679. Why was a Friar hanged? I discovered that he had been on his way home to Ireland having been preaching in Europe when he was shipwrecked off Milford Haven and tried to make his way north on foot, in hope of finding passage back to Ireland. Alas, he was arrested, charged with being a catholic priest and hung, drawn and quartered.

He'd had the misfortune to be caught at a time when Titus Oates was having success with his anti-catholic 'smear campaign', the Popish Plot.

On the other side of the square is another building (also now a bank).

Outside this bank is a stone where King Arthur reputedly slew Huail, the brother of Gildas the historian.

According to the life of St. Gildas, written in the 12thc by Caradoc of Llancarfan, when Gildas heard the news of his brother's death, he came from Ireland and was able to kiss Arthur and forgive him.

Walking back towards the castle on the other side of the street, I came upon the 'oldest timber-framed building in Wales'. Nantclwyd y Dre dates from 1435/6 and belonged originally to a wealthy weaver named Goronwy ap Madog. The house was extended throughout the centuries and each room inside is decorated to show the different periods during which the house was inhabited.

Work will begin next year to extend the Tudor garden, to which I was allowed access, even though the house was shut for the winter.*

This section of Strydd Castell is a tenth of a mile and by the time you get to Nantclywd y Dre you are almost back at the castle gateway. One last building brings us almost up to date, though. For this is the home occupied until recently by Cynthia Lennon, wife of John. She ran a restaurant in the town for a number of years.

I spoke to a local estate agent who pointed out that Ruthin is practically unique, in that one can drive straight from the countryside into a medieval town centre - there is no modern 'urban sprawl'.

On other streets in Ruthin you will find Siop Nain, a grade II listed building which, as a print shop in 1850, was used to print the Welsh national anthem, for the first time, in Welsh. In the square is a house which was bought by Hugh Myddleton in 1595. He, apparently, provided London with its first clean water supply.

Further down the hill is Ruthin Gaol, the 'only purpose-built Pentonville style prison open to the public as a heritage attraction' (Ruthin Gaol official website.)

Should you wish to venture a little further away from Ruthin, the abbey of Valle Crucis is unusual in having an upper floor dormitory complete with roof and partially remaining inner walls.

At Llangollen is the famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct, an example of the work of engineer Thomas Telford. If you can manage the climb you can ascend 1818 ft up Moel Famau to see the - alas, never completed - Jubilee Tower, planned in honour of George III's golden jubilee in 1810.

I'm never surprised by the wealth of history and historical sites in Wales, but for me, there was a joyous astonishment to discover how much history is contained within that short walk between Ruthin Castle and the town square. 528 ft only, but 16 centuries. I came looking for a medieval castle; I found so much more.

* Since this article first appeared on the EHFA Blog I have returned to the area, so please look out for a future article about Ruthin and the surrounding area.

[All photos taken by and copyright of the author.]

Sunderland Point - Cotton and Slaves

According to Wiki, Sunderland point is "a small village among the marshes, on a windswept peninsula on the mouth of the River Lune and Morecambe Bay". Hardly a description to pique one's interest. But come with me on a little tour of a place that stands immune to the passage of time, beyond the fact that the ships no longer dock here, and the warehouses are now domestic dwellings...

On this virtual tour, your feet will stay dry, but in reality Sunderland Point is only accessible via a single-lane track, which, much like the Island of Lindisfarne, is submerged at high tide. (Although unlike Lindisfarne, it is not an island and is unique in being on the British mainland and yet dependent on the tides for access. The name Sunderland is reputed to mean "sundered from the land").

Local places nearby named 'Catchems' and 'Snatchems' hint at a murky past of Press Gang operation in the area.

Developed as an 'outport' for Lancaster by a Quaker named Robert Lawson in the 18thc, in its heydey, Sunderland Point was rivalled only by London, Bristol and Liverpool. Reputedly, it was the place where the first bale of cotton landed in Britain. 

The stump of the Sunderland point cotton tree is preserved - According to legend, the Cotton Tree grew from a seed imported in a bale of cotton. Although the tree was not grown from a cotton seed, it might actually have come from the USA. It is not a tree normally found in this part of the country, and the female is relatively uncommon in England. It might have been brought as a cutting by one of the sea captains on a return voyage from America.The wood was also used for brake blocks, clogs and even arrows (a clutch was found in The Mary Rose.)

A short, circular walk from the end of the causeway takes you along 'First Terrace', from where you can turn and walk past Upsteps Cottage, where the 'slave Samboo (or Sambo) is said to have been lodging when he died there in 1736. The walk to his grave takes you past the chapel, where if you look closely at the sign you can see that services are 'subject to tides'.

The story goes that Samboo/Sambo was a slave. His grave is out on the middle of the point because as a non-Christian he had to be buried in non-consecrated ground. That much is probably true, but whether he died, as is rumoured, from a broken heart waiting for his master to return from sea, or whether he contracted an illness, is open to conjecture. It seems more likely that he was a crew member of a West Indian trading ship. Reverend James Watson's verse, written in 1796, is still visible on the grave, although the original plaque was, unfortunately, vandalised and had to be recast. It reads:

"Full many a Sand-bird chirps upon the Sod And many a moonlight Elfin round him trips Full many a Summer's sunbeam warms the Clod And many a teeming cloud upon his drips. But still he sleeps - - till the awakening Sounds Of the Archangels's Trump new life impart Then the GREAT JUDGE his approbation founds Not on man's COLOR but his worth of heart."

As you walk away from Sambo's grave, turn round and see a stark reminder of the current largest employer in the area: Heysham Power Station, looming on the horizon. 

Returning to the village you can see across to Glasson Dock, which eventually came to serve Lancaster as Sunderland Point fell into disuse. In 1728, Robert Lawson went bankrupt. By 1830, over 10,000 tons passed through Glasson Dock, most of it taken then to the Lancaster canal, construction of which had begun in 1792.

But reminders of Sunderland Point's heyday remain. Rounding the point, one catches sight of Sunderland Hall, a now slightly faded building of grandeur, dating originally from 1683, but with a 'Colonial' style fa├žade added at a later date.

Walking back along Second Terrace takes you past the old warehouses (pictured at the top of this page) and past walls and gateways that offer glimpses of otherwise hidden gardens. Many of the buildings here are Grade II listed, and the whole village is so untouched by modern building that it was used as a location for the television production of "Ruby in the Smoke".

A final reminder before we leave, is of the capricious nature of the elements. These elegant Georgian buildings testify to more than just their history; all have flood defences - modern technology which must surely be an improvement on the past.

But the village, still inhabited but with a large 'holiday home' population, remains quiet, undisturbed by modern development and has the air, especially 'out of season', of an abandoned film set. To walk here, especially on a quiet day, is to get a real sense of how it must have been centuries ago. But you must imagine the noise and bustle of the great days of the ships' cargo being unloaded into the warehouses. Today, an eerie silence is broken by the sound of seabirds calling, and the fishing boats seem to add to the air of abandonment.

[all photographs taken by and copyright of the author]