Antiquarian Jaunt in Northern Wales

Here's a guest entry from my friend Professor Howard Williams of the University of Chester. He was my charming guide on an antiquarian road trip Sunday.

I met Martin at his luxurious guest accommodation on the main campus of the University of Chester and we got into my trusty VW. We left Chester, heading around the historic city and out on the Wrexham Road over the 18th-century Grosvenor Bridge over the River Dee and into Wales. Driving along the A55 along the spine of Flintshire, we stopped near Whitford to investigate two sites.

First, we visited the 3.4m-high early medieval cross-slab at Maen Achwyfan, Whitford, Flintshire. Its wheel-headed cross and ornamentation suggest a tenth-century date: the Viking period. On its lower eastern face is the figure of a male, possibly naked because his genitalia seem to be represented. He is holding a staff or spear in his right hand and an axe in his left. He is surrounded by a winding serpent. The cross demonstrates affinities with other tenth-century crosses found around the Irish Sea and shows that the region was fully exposed to the diaspora, trade and flow of ideas that marked this era. As evidence of ‘Viking’ settlement, however, the cross tells us nothing. The site will form a part of a new and soon-to-be-published third volume of the Corpus of Early Medieval Inscribed Stones and Stone Sculpture in Wales by Nancy Edwards. Geophysical survey conducted by Dr. David Griffiths of Oxford University revealed that the monument might be central to a circular enclosure, hinting that the cross once marked a shrine or chapel, possibly with a burial ground, rather than intended to be the isolated landmark it appears today.

Next, we jumped south of the A55 to a deserted medieval settlement known as Hen Caerwys, a site previously subject to excavation by a local society but largely unpublished. Here we explored a well-preserved relict system of medieval field boundaries, enclosures, house foundations and house platforms within a beautiful woodland pasture setting. New excavations by Clwyd Powys Archaeological Trust and Cadw are helping to place the earlier and unpublished excavations into context.

Moving further west along the Welsh cost, our third site was Rhuddlan. Here we stopped to explore the remains of three successive military installations in the history of this strategic site commanding the lowest ford over the River Clwyd. The Mercian kingdom under King Offa may have established a base here, claiming the coastal territory to the east as an Anglo-Saxon enclave: Englefield. Yet the first surviving traces of earthworks relate to the burh Cledemutha established at the site in AD 921 by the West Saxon ruler Edward the Elder as part of his military campaigns in the region. Archaeological excavations have revealed traces of tenth-century occupation within the earthworks. The earthworks themselves survive as heavily denuded banks.

Next we explored traces of the Norman presence at Rhuddlan. We walked up the impressive Twthill, an 18m-high motte towering over the River Clwyd. Traces of a small bailey are visible to the motte’s north. The Norman castle was established here in 1073, given by King William I to Robert ‘of Rhuddlan’. Traces of a borough have been suggested to the castle’s north. Both persisted through the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and en route to the castle we passed by the site of the mid-thirteenth century foundation of a Dominican priory: fragments of medieval sculpture now adorn the walls of the post-medieval farm buildings that occupy the site. Rhuddlan was dramatically transformed yet again during the campaigns of Edward I who built an impressive stone castle on a new site to the north of the Norman castle and borough between 1282 and c. 1286. A new borough was also established, to the north of the new castle and away from the older Norman town. The impressive Edwardian castle is closed to visitors over the winter period, so we could only peek over the hedges at its impressive moat, walls and turrets. We also encountered a modern archaeological site: numerous empty cans of lager strewn down-slope from a recent camp fire. We decided against a full archaeological survey and excavation.

We left the Vale of Clwyd, moving again to the west along the coast towards Llandudno. From the road we could see the Great Orme promontory: site of one of Europe’s largest Bronze Age copper mines. We then came to the castle and town of Conwy, besides the mouth of the River Conwy. Here, Edward I built a new castle and town between 1283 and 1287. Rather than continue to use the site of a Norman and subsequent Welsh castle at Degannwy which commanded the river-mouth’s eastern bank, Edward deliberately appropriated the site of the llys (court) and Cistercian monastery of Aberconwy on the west bank. The monks were kicked out and established a new monastery further up the valley to the south. This was a deliberate statement of English power, since the monastery had been founded by, and had served as a burial place for, the princes of Gwynedd. The castle subsequently saw action during the early fifteenth-century revolt led by Owain Glwyndŵr and the seventeenth-century Civil War. Today, the town and castle are a World Heritage Site and a popular tourist destination.

Walking up to the castle we encountered a railway crane, part of former sidings and now left stranded. From the castle walls, we amused ourselves watching the behaviour of other visitors and criticising the heritage signboards and their mimicking of tabloid newspaper headlines. We could also view the town, the river, and the neo-medieval towers of the road and railway bridges crossing the river; icons of the industrial era and attesting to the importance of the route linking London with Dublin. Martin remarked on the detritus and shipwrecks revealed by low-tide and we watched the tide flow in against the river’s current; maritime phenomena alien to someone more familiar with the Baltic Sea.

We then found a nourishing Sunday lunch in one of the town’s cafés and experienced the standard British experience of good food but over-worked waitresses, meaning that the experience dragged out over an hour as we waited patiently for our pudding. En route to lunch we had walked past the late medieval Aberconwy House, and subsequent to midday gorging we encountered the ‘Smallest House in Wales’ abutting the city walls at the end of a row of terrace houses. As impressive as the castle might be, the town walls are easily its match. They were built as a single project with the castle itself and are judged the best surviving in Britain [much like Visby! /MR]. We completed a full tour of the castle walls before heading back to the car.

In the afternoon, we headed south, following the River Conwy up into the Welsh highlands. We came to the Roman auxiliary fort at Caerhun. Excavated in the 1920s, the earthworks can be viewed from the road and from the churchyard built within the fort’s north-eastern corner. Looking down to the river from the churchyard, we could see the earthworks of the Roman bath-house dug in the early nineteenth century. The church itself was worth viewing, with its striking L-shaped arrangement because topography prevented an easterly expansion of the chancel. We also explored the Welsh language memorials in the churchyard surrounded by snowdrops.

Dolwyddelan Castle was our next stop, an early thirteenth-century castle but this time one built by the Welsh princes and captured by the English in 1283. Occupied through the later medieval period, it was subject to nineteenth-century restoration. Getting up to the site was a steep walk, paying for entry at a farmhouse and offering close encounters with eerie moss-covered trees, sheep and sheep-dogs. The views from the battlements were superb and we encountered some nineteenth-and twentieth-century graffiti.

We then stopped by the nearby St Gwyddelan’s Church in the hope that it would be open; it is famous for an early medieval Welsh liturgical bell. Sadly it was shut, but again we explored the churchyard and its many slate tombstones. Opposite, the distinctive war memorial is worthy of note, within a small garden with a Millennium bench.

The final stop of the day was Capel Garmon Neolithic burial chamber, a rare northern outlier of a tomb-type known as ‘Cotswold-Severn chambered tomb’. They are best known from south-east Wales and southern England. This example is a ‘false portal’ tomb; an elaborate facade to the west did not allow access to the interior of the monument yet may have been the focus of ceremonies. The accessible passage instead enters from the south side, leading to a rectangular chamber with two circular chambers at either side. The cairn was excavated in 1925 but had previously been heavily disturbed. Other sites reveal that the chambers were the repositories of many dozens of graves and had long biographies of use during the later Neolithic and into the Early Bronze Age. My enthusiasm for the ‘afterlife’ of the Neolithic monument included enthusiasm for the nearby hedge, the moss-covered iron gate-post and the Ministry of Works signpost. I did my best to add to the biography of the monument by cracking my skull against the underside of the capstone. Fortunately, this important act of monument reuse left no trace on the monument but it did leave a dull ache to my head.

From Capel Garmon, we enjoyed amazing end-of-day views westwards over the mountains of Snowdonia, before heading back to the VW and following Thomas Telford’s A5 back eastwards via Corwen, Llangollen and thence back to Wrexham where Martin got to meet my family again. Martin’s beard was very well received by my children, as were the presents from him and Dr. Back Danielsson that he generously brought with him for my newborn twin daughters and their older siblings. After the little ones were asleep, we went out and enjoyed an evening meal at a New York-themed restaurant where we gorged to the sound of ‘50s hits. We speculated on the potential of incorporating doo-wop into academic conference presentations.

We reflected on our day. We had seen a Neolithic tomb, a Roman fort, a Viking-period cross and a West Saxon burh. From the high and later medieval periods, we had seen a deserted settlement and field system, churches, a Dominican friary, a town house, city walls, and four castles: a Norman motte-and-bailey, an early thirteenth-century castle of the Welsh princes, and two Edwardian masterpieces. Along the way we had encountered numerous traces of Wales’ post-medieval industrial heritage including slate grave-stones, farm houses, lead mines, railway viaducts and road bridges.

Martin headed back to Chester by train after a long day and much archaeology but only a taste of the rich archaeological heritage that north Wales has to offer any visitor.

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