ON A VISIT TO NORTH WALES, MICHAEL COWTON IS CAPTIVATED BY PROTECTED LANDSCAPES AND HISTORICAL TREASURES
Down in the valley something stirs. Is it a bird? Or perhaps a tractor? Well, yes, but it is also the refreshing trickle of tourism. I say trickle, because rubber traffic around these parts tends to bypass the spectacular Vale of Clwyd en route to Snowdonia and other magnetic draws of North Wales. Which is a shame, because those visitors are missing out on a spectacular area peppered with ancient buildings and castles, easily accessible walking trails, history and folklore.
Ruthin locals would have you believe, for example, that King Arthur chopped off a love rival’s head outside what is now Barclays Bank in St Peter’s Square. The ‘Maen Huail’ stone – no doubt a deposit from the Ice Age – is still in situ, and a plaque marking the ‘execution’ will have you pondering the myth. A good tale indeed, but then Denbighshire is full of them… and characters, too.
Take, for example, Margaret Carter, owner of The Patchwork Traditional Food Company (www.patchwork-pate.co.uk), a dream success story if ever there was one. It was over thirty years ago that this single parent of three children made her first paté at home on a Welsh hillside, using £9 that she had saved from her housekeeping budget. Following a taste test at a local restaurant, Margaret’s customer base grew so much that she was forced to move to a purpose equipped production site in Ruthin. Commercial success aside, Margaret has kept to her traditional roots, with produce made by hand in small batches, with no artificial colours, additives or preservatives.
And then there is Gareth Roberts, who produces yogurt with his family from their farmhouse at Llaeth y Llan (www.villagedairy.co.uk) – the ‘Village Dairy’. Running a 50-acre holding, Gareth and his wife Falmai attended courses to extend their knowledge of how to diversify farming through food and business. After experimenting with different products, the couple launched Llaeth y Llan yogurt in 1985, and today produce a range of low fat, probiotic yogurts for a growing list of customers. Conscious of the environment, Gareth hinted that he hopes the dairy will be fully sustainable within the next decade. The farmhouse has since been restored to 4-star guesthouse standard, with four immaculately furnished en-suite bedrooms. After a tour of the facilities and around his beautiful terraced garden, I asked Gareth whether he actually liked yogurt, to which he replied: “The word ‘organoleptic’ springs to mind.” This is concerned with testing the effects of a substance on the senses, and especially of taste and smell. Not exactly the answer I was seeking, but then the yogurts do tend to speak for themselves.
I spent my first evening at the magnificent Ruthin Castle Hotel, a former medieval fortress, which was rebuilt in 1830. A short stroll through the grounds boasting lofty trees and peacocks brought me to the gatehouse entrance and to Castle Street, an important part of the town centre conservation area due to its examples of fine period houses which range from the 16th to the 19th centuries. The impressive Grade I listed Nantclwyd y Dre is one of the oldest town houses in North Wales. Across the road and along Record Street lies the former County Assize Court, which was built in 1785. It has since been converted into a library. Next to it is the Police Station.
Turn left up Well Street and you come across Siop Nain. Dating from the 15th century, it is where the Welsh National Anthem was first printed in 1860.
Back in St Peter’s Square, I noted the National Westminster Bank, which was once the Old Courthouse. Here, prisoners were kept in cells below the beamed courtroom. In fact the beam, which still projects from the exterior northwest wall, was used as a gibbet. On that cheery note, I walked along Clwyd Street to Ruthin Gaol, where part of the building dates back to 1775. It is possible to tour the cells, including the Victorian block, which was built in 1866 and was based on the Pentonville system.
Ruthin is situated in the shadow of the Clwydian Range and Dee Valley AONB (www.clwydianrangeanddeevalleyaonb.org.uk), a dynamic landscape supporting a rich biological and cultural resource. The string of hills runs south from Prestatyn to the Nant y Garth pass, and from the Vale of Clwyd eastwards to the Dee Estuary. The area comprises a mix of open heather moorland, craggy limestone and lush green farmland, and it is hearabouts that skylarks and rare black grouse make their home. At 1818ft/554m, Moel Famau is the highest hill in the range, and upon it stands the iconic Jubilee Tower, a Georgian obelisk built to celebrate the jubilee of King George III. Sadly, the structure is a mere shadow of its former self, the upper part having collapsed after a fierce gale in 1862. However, upwards of 200,000 visitors a year still enjoy viewing the impressive stump. Stretch your legs to the tower and if the weather has been kind, you are rewarded with views to the Isle of Man, Liverpool and Blackpool Tower.
I headed next to Denbigh, where a mighty gatehouse guards the entrance to the castle, where seven towers once defended its thick perimeter walls. Started in 1282, the castle was an important link in Edward I’s chain of fortresses around the heartland of Wales. What remains of the town walls can be entered via a locked gate – you can borrow the keys from Denbigh Library – and provide a splendid walk.
Denbigh is home to the Wireless Museum (www.wirelessinwales.org.uk), which highlights the history of broadcasting in Wales. Visitors can browse through an impressive collection of old radio equipment, which will no doubt help stir a few memories.
Situated on the banks of the River Ystrad on the outskirts of Denbigh is Brookhouse Pottery & Malthouse Gallery (www.brookhousepottery.co.uk), where David and Margaret Frith established themselves in 1976. The Malthouse was an 18th century woollen mill, later used as a brewery, hence the name. From the workshop and showroom, a small wooden bridge leads to the clay storage and kiln sheds, where you will find several wood and gas kilns for the firings. David makes large pieces decorated with his personal style of hakeme, rope impress and waxed motifs under heavy reduction overglazes and combined with ashed surfaces. Margaret works in porcelain making personal pieces sometimes faceted, fluted or altered with decorative techniques of reduction glazes, carving sand brushwork. Their annual workshops are particularly popular, attracting students who can enjoy intensive tuition in delightful surroundings.
During my visit, I also took in Bodelwyddan Castle (www.bodelwyddan-castle.co.uk), an historic house set in 260 acres of parkland. The house showcases many historic artworks as a partner of the National Portrait Gallery.
I ended my journey back in Ruthin where, over lunch at On The Hill Bistro, housed in a 16th century building, I pondered that Denbighshire is indeed a celebration of architecture and history, and that around every corner of this delightful part of North Wales, a different story is waiting to unfold.
North Wales Tourism, 77 Conway Road, Colwyn Bay LL29 7LN
01492 531731, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.gonorthwales.co.uk
All images © Michael Cowton