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Wales A Nostalgic Return to North Wales


1000+ Posts
By Eleanor from UK, Summer 2013
Four days spent revisiting old haunts in Gwynedd.

This trip report was originally posted on SlowTrav.


We love the LLyn Peninsula and for 25 years used to spend two weeks there every Easter, self catering on a farm near Nefyn. It was a great place for a family holiday with castles, narrow gauge railways, beaches and plenty of walking.

It is about 10 years since we were last there. Withdrawal symptoms were setting in and knowing we had nearly four days free of grandparent responsibilities it seemed too good a chance to miss. We booked three nights at the Travelodge in Porthmadog, found out the maps and began to plan.

We decided to visit the Rug Chapel near Corwen with its glorious painted and carved interior, on the way across and Bodnant Gardens near Llandudno on the way home. Both of these have been on the ‘to do’ list for many years and were rewarding visits. 

 Top of the list was a trip on the Ffestiniog Railway followed by the Welsh Highland Railway. We also wanted to spend a day revisiting old haunts in the peninsula. Porthmadog would be a good base and the Travelodge provided clean, no-frills accommodation.

Porthmadog has benefitted from having a bypass, which keeps through traffic out of the town centre. The arrival of Tesco, Lidl and Aldi on the edge of town doesn’t seem to have had much effect on the high street, which is busy and many old names are still trading. Harbour Station is the terminus for both the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways.

Criccieth has hardly changed at all and many of the family run shops have been there for fifty years. It has retained its ambience as a Victorian holiday town with its castle high above on a hill. We had forgotten how steep the climb was up to it.

Aberdaron at the end of the peninsula looks unchanged. The church has had a lot of money spent on it and although it may be more comfortable for worshippers, has lost a lot of its character. The soft boulder clay cliffs are subject to erosion and the sea wall has been strengthened. To our delight the small baker on the road into the village was still there although they had sold out of scones and we had to make do with Welsh Cakes. We couldn’t sit on the church wall to eat them either as this now has railings along the top.

We drove up to the coastguard hut on Mynydd Mawr at the end of the peninsula for the views across to Bardsey Island. There is glorious walking here but my dodgy knees and a strong wind meant that walking along the cliff path and over Anelog to Porth Oer were out, especially after a particularly strong gust of wind blew Michael over into a gorse bush...

Porth Oer is still my favourite beach with its rock pools at low tide and National Trust Cafe.

Nefyn on the other hand has been hit badly by the years. The garage and petrol station have gone and Spar and the chemist have moved in here. The only shops left in the village are the electrical shop, Post Office and Fish and Chip shop. There are many empty shops which give it a rundown feel. Morfa Nefyn has managed to retain its shop as has Edern and the butcher in Chwilog is still there.

Over the years many of the small family farms have disappeared and field boundaries have been grubbed out. In-comers with horses have bought some. Others are now holiday accommodation. The increase in number of caravan sites throughout the peninsula struck us. Many farmers are finding this a valuable source of income. There are fewer sheep and cows in the fields although South Caernarfonshire Dairies at Y Ffor has grown in size.

We had forgotten how narrow some of the sunken lanes were and how slow they were to drive with their blind corners and poor visibility. It was also strange to see the trees in full leaf and they did restrict views in places. At Easter the leaves were only just beginning to appear. Bluebells were still flowering on the banks, although there was less gorse around than we remembered.

We visited the old medieval hall of Penarth Fawr, now licensed for weddings and followed the pilgrim route to Bardsey Island visiting the churches at Pistyll, Llangwynnadl and Aberdaron as well as the tiny church at Llanfealrhys. The Friends of Friendless Churches now care for the redundant church at Penllech and it was nice to see it has been sympathetically restored.

We didn’t have time to visit Portmeirion but did go to Plas Brodanw Gardens, designed by Clough Williams Ellis using the same architectural gimmicks used at Portmeirion but with trees rather than buildings.

We also visited to Plas Yn Rhiw, a small 17thC manor house lovingly restored by the Keating Sisters and untouched since their death. Set high on the hillside it has delightful secret gardens. The only sounds were the crows in the tall trees.

The weather wasn’t as kind as it could have been and low mist often obscured the tops of the hills. We had to sit out a couple of heavy rain storms but the sun did manage to appear at times. In Early June it was still relatively quiet with mainly older visitors although there were a few families with young children.

It was a nostalgic visit to old haunts. The Ffestiniog Railway is still my all time favourite although I have to admit that the newly reopened Welsh Highland Railway does run it a close second. Some places were as evocative as ever. Others hadn’t changed for the better. Over the years we have climbed all the hills and walked much of the coastal footpath. Now we sat and remembered previous holidays and happy days.


Criccieth and the hills of Snowdonia
Rug Chapel

We have driven past here many times on the way to North Wales but never stopped. It was time to remedy that. Signed off the A494 to the west of Corwen, the chapel is hidden among trees. From the outside it is a very plain small dark stone building with a single bell cote, the only decoration being small carvings at the base of the door arch and the base of the bell cote. Nothing prepares you for the magnificence of the interior where every available bit of wood is carved and every surface painted.

The chapel was built as a private chapel for Colonel William Salesbury in 1637. He was a staunch Royalist and scorned Puritan simplicity and wanted a chapel full of high church decoration and that is what he got. It is a rare survivor of a chapel from this time.

At the back of the church is an octagonal font with a wooden cover with a large metal cross and an inscription in Welsh round the rim. There are simple wooden benches in the nave with a single rail as a back support. The seats are carefully dovetailed into a long piece of wood along the nave which forms a ‘door step’ into the pew - or a trip hazard for the unwary. This has a series of animal carvings under the pew benches. Wooden panelling, which has four scrolls with a flower motif along the top, covers the lower part of the nave walls.

Separating nave and chancel is a rood screen. Beyond is a banister altar rail with a wooden altar. This has a painting of an angel on the front with an inscription. On either side are large ‘four poster’ style choir stalls with a canopy above them. These have carved fronts and painted panels. A beam over the east window is dated 1637.

The wooden beam ceiling has carved and painted beams with scrolls of red or white roses with foliage. Between the beams the nave ceiling has a painted abstract swirl pattern. The chancel ceiling is painted blue with images of cherub heads and stars. In the corners of the choir are cut out figures of angels and there are more on the beam ends in the nave. These have either red and blue robes or yellow and green. Their wings are yellow with red and blue horizontal stripes at the bottom.

Around the top of the walls is a frieze with carved panels with green, red and grey scrolls of abstract style foliage and different carved animals in the centre. Hanging from the ceiling is a wooden chandelier with candles and more angels on the top.

There are memorial slabs on the walls and a splendid painted monument on the north wall of a skeleton and a skull set in a portico with pillars. With a Welsh inscription, it reminds the congregation of their own mortality.

The stained glass windows are 19thC. The large east window features Christ in Glory with saints, kings and bishops around him and angels above. The double window in the south wall of the chancel has a scene of the nativity and one of the risen Christ surrounded by Roman soldiers. Another window has images of angels and beneath is written “Rock of Ages Cleft for me.”

The nave floor is tiled with a geometric pattern in red, beige and black tiles. The tiles in the choir are more elaborate with a white pelican on a blue background, plucking her breast to feed her young. In medieval allegory this represents Christ shedding his blood to save sinners.


Rug Chapel, interior
Ffestiniog Railway

It is over fifty years since I made my first trip on the Ffestiniog Railway. It had only just been reopened by a band of enthusiastic volunteers and the train wheezed its way from Porthmadog to Tan-y-Bwlch and back. I fell in love with the line which seemed to come out of a fairy story book. The love affair has lasted and over the years I have made many trips and watched the line gradually reopen back to Blaenau Ffestiniog.

Things are very different now. Locomotives and carriages have either been carefully restored or new ones built. Carriages are comfortable, with a buffet service and the track is no longer bumpy. Locos work hard and are certainly not wheezy. Station buildings and gardens have been de-tattified. The Railway takes great pride in its appearance. Buildings are kept painted and gardens planted out with bulbs, shrubs and flowers.

The railway was built in the 1830s to carry slate from the quarries in the hills above Blaenau Ffestiniog to the wharves at Porthmadog. It was carefully graded so that the loaded slate wagons would run down by gravity and would then be pulled back up by horses. Eventually horses were no longer able to cope with the numbers of wagons and in 1863 the first steam engines arrived on the railway. It wasn’t long before the railway was running passenger services. Increasing traffic meant that more powerful engines were needed. The solution was the unique double Fairlie engine with a single firebox but two boilers mounted on their own set of bogies. This enabled to locos to negotiate the tight curves on the railway.

Passenger services stopped in 1939 although slate was still carried until 1946 when the line closed. The Act of Parliament needed to establish the railway had no provision for its closure, so everything was left where it stood. The legend of the Ffestiniog runs deep and a group of supporters decided the line should be preserved and reopened. The first trains ran in 1955 from Porthmadog to Boston Lodge. By 1958 the line had been cleared as far as Tan y Bwlch. Plans to extend the line back to Blaenau hit a problem as a pumped storage reservoir and power station had been built at Tanygrisiau which drowned a section of the line. The solution was a spiral from Ddualt which would take the railway above the level of the dam. Known as the Deviation, volunteer labour built this using the same techniques as the railway navvies of 100 years ago. The line eventually reached Blaenau in 1982.

History is very important and the Ffestiniog Railway has been a pioneer in railway development. Not only is it the oldest surviving railway company in the world, it was the first to use steam locomotives on a narrow gauge railway. Before then this was thought to be impracticable. It was the first to use bogies on passenger carriages. They are the only railway still using double Fairlie engines. The design was exported round the world and there is a double Fairlie loco outside the museum at Dunedin, New Zealand. It is the site of the only railway spiral in the UK. They also introduced computerized ticketing before British Rail.

As well as its history, it is a superb run and must rank among the best railway journeys in the world. It is best done from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The line climbs steadily along the Vale of Ffestiniog and the experience of being behind a double Fairlie working flat out pulling a fully loaded train of ten coaches is exhilarating.

We were on a tight time schedule this holiday and were only able to do a half ride, choosing the Tan y Bwlch to Blaenau Ffestiniog leg as scenically we think this is the better. Although the views across the cob are some of the best in Wales, for long stretches the line runs through coniferous or deciduous woodland and in summer when the leaves are on the trees, views are restricted.

It had been a long drive that morning from Scunthorpe and traffic had been bad with slow moving lorries, ditherers and a campervan towing a car. We thought we would never make it to Tan Y Bwlch station set high on the hillside among the trees in time for the train.

We arrived, parked the car and just had time to buy a cup of tea from the cafe. The cakes looked very good and we regretted just having finished our picnic lunch. The up train does a big loop round the side of the valley round Whistling Curve. We could hear the whistles of the train echoing round the hillside long before she was due to arrive. Then there was the unmistakable sound of a double Fairlie exhaust beat before Merddin Emrys steamed into view. At the same time, the Earl of Merioneth silently glided downhill into the station.

We watched the down train leave and then there was a whistle and we were away, enjoying a glimpse down to Llyn Mair in the valley below. Over the years many of the conifers have been felled and are being replanted with deciduous trees. This has opened up the views. The National Park has had a campaign to eradicate Rhododendron ponticum from the woodlands. This has been very successful and the woodlands are much more open with the ground vegetation recovering. The natural oak woodland between Tan y Bwlch and Coed y Bleddiau is part of the Merionydd Oakwoods Nature Reserve. The old house at Coed y Bleddiau is no longer lived in and beginning to look forlorn as the tiles are beginning to fall off the roof. The previously lovingly tended gardens are now a wilderness.

A footpath from the road by Llyn Mair climbs up through the woodlands to Coed y Bleddiau and then follows the line of the railway to Ddualt. It makes an excellent walk with the added thrill of seeing the trains.

Beyond Campbell’s Platform, the small private halt for the Elizabethan Manor house of Plas Ddualt, the line runs through open pasture land with sheep before arriving at Ddualt. With no road access, this is the most isolated station on the line. The station house, Roslyn, hasn’t been lived in since before the line closed. Built between the station and a wet marshy area with a pond it must have been a desolate place, especially in winter. We could understand stories of the station master going mad from isolation. Ddualt is a request stop and unless you are wanting to walk, the only reasons to stop are to find the deviation stone marking the point where work started on the spiral or to climb to the top of the small hill above the station to the orientation table with its views of the Welsh mountains. For an impression of what the railway looked like in the early stages of restoration, visit Ddualt.

From Ddualt, the line of the old track-bed can be followed on foot to the mouth of the old Moelwyn tunnel. The new line climbs up through the trees above it. Once through Moelwyn Tunnel, it is a top coat cooler. This is real mountainous country with bare rocks and steep hillsides with waterfalls tumbling down them after rain. The remains of old quarry inclines can be seen; these brought slate down from quarries high in the hills to the Ffestiniog Railway. The most impressive is the Wrysgan incline with a tunnel at the top. Brave souls do walk down this. We stood at the top once and looked down. The incline falls away steeply below your feet, much too steep for us.

The Reservoir was very full, completely flooding the old track-bed and the other entrance to the old Moelwyn tunnel. The line passes behind the back of the Power Station before crossing two automatic level crossings into Tanygrisiau station, another request halt, although engines may stop for the fireman to exchange single line tokens. The line passes the remains of the old goods shed showing how much higher than the original line you still are.

Back on the original track-bed, coming into Blaenau Ffestiniog, the massive slate tips dominate the town. Little grows on these apart from a few bushes of Rhododendron ponticum. This also spreads up the hillsides and in June pink flowers cover it. The line follows the River Barlwyd which is a milky grey color from the slate.

The train has about 20-30 minutes at Blaenau Ffestiniog while the loco runs round and takes water. We didn’t have chance to visit Blaenau Ffestiniog but did admire the new slate ‘Gateway’ to the town. A lot of money has been spent over the last few years to improve the town. The Ffestiniog Railway shares a station with the main line and there was a Conwy Valley line train waiting to leave. We relaxed back into our seats for the return journey, always a leisurely trip once the train is over the summit near the power station. The exhaust beat changes as the loco is no longer working hard. We got off at Tan y Bwlch and watched the train disappear from view and listened to her whistles round Whistling curve. Everyone had gone and Tan y Bwlch returned to its sleepy state between trains.


Merdynn Emrys at Blaenau Ffestiniog
Welsh Highland Railway

The railway runs from Caernarfon to Portmadog along the track bed of a narrow gauge line that closed in the late 1930s. The Ffestiniog Railway acquired the track bed from the Official Receiver and after years of legal arguments, a High Court Hearing and three public enquiries they were eventually given permission to rebuild the line starting from Caernarfon. It took nearly 20 years before they reached Porthmadog, using volunteer and paid labour.

At 26 miles, it is the longest of the Welsh Narrow Gauge Railways and runs through Snowdonia National Park. Gradients are steep and Beyer Garrett locos, bought from South African Railways as these are the only narrow gauge steam locos powerful enough to pull ten coaches on these gradients, pull the trains.

We did the short section from Dinas to Caenarfon soon after it opened. This is probably the least scenic part of the line. In the past we have walked long sections of the track bed including through the Aberglaslyn Pass and much of Beddgelert Forest. It was time to do it on the train.

The complete return journey takes nearly six hours which is a long time to be sitting. We decided to just do the section between Porthmadog and Rhydd Ddu. Trains cross here and the return trip would take three hours. This section would take us through Aberglaslyn Pass and into part of Snowdonia National Park.

We arrived at Porthmadog station on a dull rather damp morning with cloud swirling around the hills, not the best of days to see the scenery. A long train of coaches was waiting in the station. The coaches near the entrance were full with a coach party, so we headed down the platform, ignoring the open coach and eventually settled on a coach near the end of the train in the hope that it might be quieter and that we would get good views down the train to the loco. In fact curves are so tight on the line that you need to sit much closer to the loco if you want to see it.

The cob is being widened to build an additional platform. At the moment, WHR coaches have to be pulled down the cob by a diesel (Vale of Ffestiniog when we visited) and the Garrett then couples onto the front of the train just before it is due to leave.

From Harbour Station, the train runs along the main street and over Britannia Bridge. This is still very much of a novelty and provided a great photo opportunity for a coach load of tourists waiting for the Ffestiniog Railway train after us.

The line then runs along the side of the River Glaslyn which has been tidied up with grass and picnic tables. The disused Snowdon Mill gradually becoming increasingly derelict, the rubbish tip and caravan park are less salubrious. It crosses the Cambrian Coast main line and runs alongside the track of the Welsh Highland Heritage Railway for about half a mile to their terminus at Pen y Mount where it connects into the WHR.

The line then runs across Traeth Mawr, the large area of flat arable land reclaimed from the sea when the Cob was built. This is now used for grazing cows and sheep. The first stop is Pont Croesor Halt on the River Aberglaslyn with the RSPB hide for watching the resident ospreys nearby.

The ground becomes increasingly poor and acid with a lot of rushes growing as the train begins to approach Nantmoor on the line of the old cliffs and the start of a good walk up Cwm Bychan to Llyn Dinas. The line now enters mixed deciduous woodland and begins to climb to the Pass of Aberglaslyn through two tunnels at the start of the Pass.

Before the railway was rebuilt, this was a popular public footpath. Armed with torches (i.e., flashlights) we walked through the tunnels many times. There was a slight bend and in the centre making it impossible to see daylight. We had forgotten how long they were. There is now a properly made footpath through the gorge below the railway line. It must surely rank as one of the best walks in the area.

After all the rain of the previous days, the river was in full spate and a splendid sight. All too soon we were out of the gorge and running across the flat valley of the Glaslyn. The remains of old tramways can be seen heading to Beddgelert including two stone pillars from a bridge that was never built. In the 19thC there were several abortive attempts to build a railway along here.

Through a narrow cutting, the train arrives at Beddgelert Station, built above the town. This is a popular spot with people getting off to visit the shops, cafe and Gelert’s Grave. It is a popular story, but a 19thC invention...

After Beddgelert, the line continues to climb through steep curves into Beddgelert Forest, managed by the Forestry Commission. Many of the conifers have been felled out over the years and replaced by attractive mixed deciduous woodland. There were still swathes of bluebells covering the ground. Fifteen to 25 years ago we used to regularly walk along sections of the track-bed through the forest. It has changed so much with felling and subsequent replanting that we had difficulty recognizing where we walked.

Coming up to Pitt’s Head Summit at 650ft, we made an unscheduled stop for the loco to build up steam before the final assault to the top. The line leaves the forest and enters open mountainous countryside. By now the cloud was beginning to lift and there were good views of Moel Hebbog and the Nantlle Ridge to the west. To the east was Yr Aran and the ridge up to Snowdon. In the valley bottom is Llyn Gadair with the remains of a quarry on the far side. On a sunny day this is bright blue.

We pulled into Rhyd Ddu station at the start of one of the footpaths up Snowdon. The train from Caernarfon was waiting to take us back to Portmadog. The loco crew swap tokens and the trains depart. There isn’t time to stop and admire the locos or take pictures.

Only doing the bottom end of the line meant we missed the run beside Llyn Cwellyn along the flanks of Snowdon which is supposed to be one of the best scenic bits. The line then drops down the Gwyrfai valley to Waunfar, Dinas and Caernarfon. We will have to come back another time to do this bit.


The red Garrett at Harbour Station
Criccieth Castle

Having grown up with Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories, this is just what I imagined Kirrin Castle to be like, except it isn’t on an island. 
 Set high above the town on a grassy mound between the two beaches at Criccieth, this was originally a Welsh Castle, built by Llywelyn the Great around 1230. Fifty years later, Edward I captured it. He refortified the castle by adding an extra storey on the gatehouse towers and adapted the Engine Tower for use by a trebuchet. At the beginning of the 15thC, Owain Glyndwr captured and burnt the castle. Left in ruins, it was never rebuilt.

The two massive gateway towers with a curtain wall enclose a small inner bailey. To the north, steps lead up to the Engine tower. To the south are the remains of the Prison Tower. 
 There isn’t a lot of the castle left but on a clear day there are superb views down the Llyn Peninsula to Llanbedrog and the headland beyond Abersoch. We could pick out and identify all the summits of the string of hills from Madryn, Boduan, Yr Eifl to Gyrn Ddu, all walked over at various times. Across the bay is Harlech although it can be difficult to pick out the castle against the houses of the town. Behind is the mass of Moel Ysgyfarnogod.

The long stretch of sand of Criccieth beach stretches to Black Rock Sands, overlooked by Moel y Gest with the bulk of Moel Hebbog looming to the side of it.

The visitor centre at the bottom has an exhibition on Welsh Castles and information about Gerald of Wales and the trip he made with Archbishop Baldwin through Wales in 1188. The 15 minute video is worth watching. Although originally aimed at kids, there is a lot of humour as well as solid fact.


Criccieth Castle
Plas Brondanw Gardens

This was the family home of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (CWE), the quirky architect of Portmeirion fame. He restored the house and created a unique and typically CWE garden landscape using the same architectural tricks seen in Pormeirion but using plants rather than buildings. He relied on stone walls, topiary and avenues of trees to frame vistas leading the eye to the distant mountain tops.

The 17thC house is private and is a tall dark stone building with a slate roof so characteristic of North Wales. The turquoise eagle on top of the roof and turquoise woodwork are pure CWE panache.

In front of the house is a massive evergreen oak tree with a metal seat painted turquoise. Iron railings and gates around the garden are painted turquoise and this color theme continues through all the estate buildings and can be seen on the Brodanw Arms and the terraced houses just down the road from the gardens.

The gardens are laid out with carefully trimmed yew hedges which are used to channel the eye to the different views. This is cleverly done to continue beyond the boundaries of the garden, making it seem larger than it is. The use of topiary adds extra interest as do stone pillars and statues.

The attention to detail means the stone planters are carved with images of a small girl holding fruit in her skirt and a small boy holding a basket of fruit.

At the end of a yew tree avenue is a circular garden planted with azaleas and rhododendrons with a small fountain. Elsewhere, yew tree hedges form secret gardens with statues or ponds. Foxgloves, yellow Welsh poppies, pink geraniums, hostas and ferns provide color and interest.

In a corner of the gardens is the Gardener’s Cottage, a typical CWE building. Another building with a white and turquoise cupola is now a small shop and tea room.

The gardens are carefully maintained with few weeds and many plants are labelled. There were two gardeners working the day we visited.

Don’t miss the delightful quarry garden on the opposite side of the road to the parking area, which CWE landscaped, with two ponds. On the hillside above it is Pentwr Tower, reached by a short walk. CWE built this using money given to him as a wedding present by his fellow officers just after the First World War. Apparently he suggested that silver might not be the most useful present...

At the road junction is another CWE folly, a mock gatehouse, and at Garreg a big decorative CWE pillar in the village.


Plas Brondanw gardens
Plas yn Rhiw and St Maelrhys Church

This is a delightful small 17thC stone manor house set high on the wooded hillside above Porth Neigl beach, hidden from the road by a stone wall and tall box hedge.

The three Keating sisters bought the house in 1938. They lovingly restored it from a ruinous condition and planted the garden. They donated the house to the National Trust and continued to live in it until their death.

The car park is just down the road from the house. The only sound was the crows in the trees above. We walked up the secret driveway through fuchsia, azaleas, camellias and ferns for our first glimpse of the house, a simple stone building with slate roof and slate veranda along the front.

There is a small lawn in front of the house with flower borders. The gardens drop down the hillside in a series of terraces with paths and neatly trimmed box hedges. Old fashioned roses scented the air. The gardens were a mass of color with irises, sisyrinchium, foxgloves, aquilegia, pink corydalis, geraniums, helebores, yellow Welsh poppies, allium... Lilac blooms of Wisteria covered the garage.

It is an interesting house inside as is a mix of late Georgian meets early 20thC, avoiding the over the top clutter of the Victorian age. It is left untouched since the last Keating sister died in 1981. My only criticism is that photography is not allowed inside the house.

Inside the door is a lovely late Georgian style living room with wooden posts supporting the ceiling. Furnished with dark wood furniture it has a gate leg table, chairs, chests, dresser with blue and white china, display of pewter, grandfather clock, spinning wheel, log fire place...

Behind it is the kitchen with beamed ceiling and stone floor with a peg rug. Facing north this must have been a cold and damp room once a small gas hob and oven replaced the open fire. There was a stone sink but no water supply to the kitchen. In the centre is a large table set for a meal with blue and white china. Under the window is a scrubbed work table with rolling pin, mixing bowls, lemon squeezer. Next to it is a folding tea table with an old electric kettle, toaster vintage 1920s, biscuit tins. On either side of the fire place are two wooden chairs. One has a small wood footstool to keep the feet off the cold stone floor.

On the other side of the doorway is a room with huge fireplace with iron cauldron and remains of spits. There is an old pantry built into the thickness of the wall. This was later used as a sitting room and now has a drop top desk, tables, chairs, gramophone, small sewing table with a lift off top containing reels of thread.

Stone and wooden steps with a grandfather clock lead to the first floor. The room at the back was used as a small office and is lined with books and has a desk with inkstand and typewriter.

There is another sitting room at the front of the house with easy chairs, bookcase, drop leaf desk, radio and wooden corner cupboard. There is a chest of drawers inlaid with two lions holding round shields. In the corner of the wall above the pantry is a stone spiral staircase to the floor above.

Next to it is a small single bedroom with a patchwork quilt on the bed and a hand knitted bed jacket. There is a fur coat hanging up and handbag casually discarded on an easy chair. The dressing table set is inlaid with mother of pearl and there are hat pins stuck in a cushion, glove stretchers, shoe horn and oil lamp. Over the bed is a rather risqué print of St George rescuing a damsel.

Stairs with water colours painted by the Keating sisters lead up to the second floor. This has another single bed with a patchwork quilt cover, furnished with a large cupboard doubling up as wardrobe and shelf space as well as a chest of drawers, small settee and two easy chairs.

The Keating sisters are buried in the churchyard at St Maelrhys Church in Llanfaelrhys a short distance away. This is a small, timeless Llyn stone church in the midst of glorious scenery above Porth Ysgo with just a few isolated settlements around it.

Inside it is light and airy and the east window has a glorious view of the rocks above Rhiw. There are box pews for the gentry and simple benches for the rest.

At the back is a 15thC font of white washed stone with a carved cross on the front. On the west wall are 19thC engraved brass shields serving as memorial badges.


Plas yn Rhiw
Penarth Fawr

It always rains when we visit Penarth Fawr and today was no exception. Signed off the A470 a short distance east of Pwllheli, the junction has been improved since our last visit.

The house is a rare survival of a stone built aisled truss hall house. It was thought to have been built by Madoc of Penarth in 1416. It is unusual as it was built in stone rather than timber. It is a small rectangular building with massive stone walls made from large boulders and a tiled roof. It is set in a walled area with a huge ash tree, rhododendrons and laurels making photography of the outside difficult.

A small wooden doorway under a round arch leads into the central corridor with the pantry and buttery on the right with a wooden stairway to a floor above. The cellar and steps down into it are later additions. On the left were the private quarters which would have had a moveable screen to stop draughts. This would originally have been heated by a central hearth and the smoke vent is still visible in the roof. The large fireplace with a carved stone shield above it was added in the 17thC. The large window is a later addition.

The kitchens would have been in a separate building behind to reduce the chance of fire.

There is a stone slab floor and the walls are covered with plaster which has been recently whitewashed. Above is a sturdy wood truss roof.

We thought Penart Fawr was open daylight hours but that has now changed and it is open 10-6. We sat outside in the small layby waiting for the house to open. Although in the care of CADW, the freehold belongs to the owner of the adjacent Penarth Fawr Farmhouse who is the key-holder. We'd only been inside a few minutes before he appeared. We aren't sure whether he was checking up on us or seeing if we were a potential customer. He didn't appreciate my joke about the weather.

The building is now licensed for weddings (a fact the owner was very proud of) and has rather out of place candlesticks scattered around. A large display board advertising the sale of the adjacent farmhouse, tea room and Curio shop on the grounds as well as information about weddings and the owner did rather destroy the ambiance of what used to be a delightfully unspoiled building.


Penarth Fawr
The Pilgrim Route to Bardsey Island - St Bueno's Church, Pistyll

During medieval times, three pilgrimages to Bardsey Island were regarded as the equivalent of one pilgrimage to Rome. Pilgrims used to stop at a series of churches along the north coast of Wales. Many date back to the 6thC and have links with the Celtic saints. We visited four during our break.

There has been a church at Pistyll since the 6thC when St Beuno, a Celtic saint, retreated here for peace and quiet, away from the bustle of the Collegiate Church of Clynnog Fawr. All that remains of the early church is a large corner stone at the south east corner. The present building is thought to be 12thC and lies in a grassy hollow beside a stream and close to the sea. This is a typical site of many Welsh churches that relied on the sea for transport and water for healing and nourishment.

Built of the local dark stone with a slate roof, it is a very simple building with a single small bell cote. Originally it would have been built without windows in the nave as the congregation was illiterate and didn’t need to see. Entry is through the old round top wooden door at the west end.

Inside are rough cast stone walls and a very old wooden beam ceiling. Plaster used to cover the walls. On the north wall, in a surround of yew branches, is the remains of the medieval plaster with a crude red ochre wall painting, thought to be St Christopher, the patron saint of travellers.

The floor is strewn with rushes, hiding the modern concrete floor.

At the back of the church is a round stone font thought to be 12thC. It has a Celtic swirl pattern round the bowl.

The oak pews are a recent addition. Originally the congregation would have stood. The altar rail is modern and there is a simple altar covered with a cloth and a sheet of polythese. Beside it are two tall modern candlesticks which do feel out of place here. Above is a square window with a board above with the inscription Glodforwch Yr Arglwydd Canys Da Yw (Thanks unto the Lord for he is good).

There is a lepers' squint in the north wall by the altar. Lepers visited the church in the Middle Ages and were housed in a hospice at Cae Hosbis Pennia, well away from the main body of pilgrims. During mass they stood outside the north west corner of the church and viewed the service through the squint. Many medicinal plants still grow wild in the surrounding valley.

The remains of the mill pond above the church is thought to originally have been the site of a fish pond.

This is a delightful small church, untouched by time and still preserving the spirit of the old Celtic Christianity. When we first visited thirty years ago, the church was decorated with huge branches of laurel, gorse and yew. At Easter there were moss, flowers and eggs on the window ledges, round the font and on the altar. It had an almost pagan feel to it. Now the decoration is limited to small yew branches on either side of the altar and round the medieval wall painting, rushes on the floor and the remains of moss on the window ledges. There isn’t the same sense of mystery and superstition, but it is still worth visiting.

There is a small car park at the top of the road and this is the start of a lovely way marked walk over National Trust land.


St Bueno's Church
The Pilgrim Route to Bardsey Island - St Mary's Church, Penllech

This is a typical small Llyn church set in a farmyard just off the B4417 between Tudweiliog and Llangynnadl. The road is unsigned and we nearly missed the turn as coniferous trees have been planted along the sides of this road since we last visited 15 years ago. It is a delightful setting on top of a ridge with views across the flat farmland to the sea at Traeth Penllech.

The church is no longer used and Friends of Friendless Churches look after it, carefully and sympathetically restoring it since we last visited.

A church was first mentioned on the site in 1254 but was rebuilt in 1840. Parts of the original building survive in the lower parts of the north wall. It is a timeless rectangular building with slate roof and tiny bell cote.

The inside of the church avoided the Victorian makeover suffered by so many churches and still retains its light, airy Georgian interior with whitewashed walls, large plain glass windows, beige woodwork and strut beam roof. The rail along the nave walls would have had pegs to hold hats during the service.

The simple bench pews have a candlestick in the centre for light. Near the front are box pews for the gentry.

Two steps lead up to the chancel with a tiny altar which is completely dwarfed by the large three-deck pulpit with candle holders and sounding board above with an eight ray sunburst on the underside. In front of the pulpit is a pew type enclosure with a bench cupboard.

At the back is a medieval rough stone font on a whitewashed support. Propped up against the wall are two coffin biers.

The church is set in a small graveyard with a blackthorn hedge round it and red clover, bluebells, buttercups, wild carrot, speedwell, plantains and grasses. Judging by the height of the grass, few people visit the church.

It is a delightful spot, untouched by time.


St Mary's Church
The Pilgrim Route to Bardsey Island - St Gwynhoedl's Church, Llangwnnadl

This is another timeless church set in trees above the stream at a bend in the road. There is no other habitation in sight but it is at the centre of the disperse settlement of Llangwynnadl. Like Pistyll there has been a church here since the 6thC. Gwynhoedl is reputed to be one of the sons of the Welsh Chieftain called Seith enyn, who, in his folly, was responsible for the drowning of the township of Cantre'r Gwaelod, which is now submerged in Cardigan Bay. He is thought to be buried here and a large stone in the south wall of the church with a carved Celtic cross with traces of red paint dating from 600AD is reputed to be his tombstone.

During the Middle Ages, the shrine of Gwynhoedl became popular and was one of the main halts on the pilgrim route. In 1520, the church was enlarged and the north aisle built. Shortly after the south aisle was added.

The church is surrounded by a well cared for churchyard with a stone wall round it. Entry is through a metal gate with a wrought iron Celtic cross in the centre and the inscription Ty Dduw, (the House of God) which was made by the Aberdaron blacksmith in 1963.

Built of dark stone with a slate roof, there is a single bell cote above the central aisle and small stone crosses at both ends of the side aisles. Entry is through the small round topped south door.

Steps lead down into the church, which has three equal sizes aisles. These have a simple wood beam roof supported on stone corbels with supporting struts. Two pillars with low pointed arches separate the aisles. The two pillars in the north aisle have a Latin inscription carved on them.

The church has a light and airy feel being lit by large, decorated style plain glass windows. There are two small altars at the ends of the side aisles with a white cloth with a gold cross. In the north aisle is a small pulpit/reading desk with a Bible. Steps lead up to the chancel in the centre aisle. The floor has black and white diamond tiles with a red carpet down the centre.

Pews are simple wooden open back benches with embroidered kneelers.

At the back of the church is an octagonal stone font with carved sides. According to the information leaflet in the church, the crowned figure is supposed to be Henry VIII. The mitred head is that of Bishop Skeffington of Bangor who took a keen interest in the church. Other carvings include a fleur de lys and a shield with a cross.

This is a delightful church, carefully restored to maintain its character and feels well loved, used and cared for.


St Gwynhoedl’s Church
The Pilgrim Route to Bardsey Island - St Hywyn's Church, Aberdaron

St Hywyn was a 6thC Celtic saint who is thought to have established a small oratory on this site. The present church dates from 1137 when Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, replaced the earlier wooden structure with a stone building. The north aisle and west doorway date from this time. It became a sanctuary church where disputes could be settled and fugitives could not be ejected for 40 days and nights.

The church was the final stop on the pilgrim route to Bardsey Island and was enlarged in the 15thC when the south aisle was added. By the late 18thC the church had fallen into a bad state of repair and a new church was built high above the village. This had problems with dampness and was abandoned and the old church restored and used again.

In an idyllic setting above the beach, surrounded by the graveyard, this is a low two aisle stone building with a single bell cote. Constant erosion by the sea means this is protected by a substantial sea wall which now has metal railings along the top, no doubt a response to health and safety legislation. It can be exposed here and the slate roof is held down by stone slabs along the ends.

Entry is through the Norman doorway at the west end which has three eroded round arches.

Inside it is a simple building with octagonal pillars with low round arches separating the two aisles which have a wooden truss roof. There is an octagonal stone font between the pillars and an organ on the north wall. At the back is a book and card shop.

There are simple altars at the ends of the aisles and a beautifully carved dark wood pulpit/reading desk. Chairs now replace the pews in the south aisle although there are some highly restored dark wood benches arranged in a semi-circle in the north aisle.

At the back of the church is a small exhibition about the poet R.S. Thomas who was vicar of the parish from 1967 to 1978.

A lot of money has been spent on the church since we last visited. The plaster has been removed from the walls exposing the stonework. Problems with damp have been addressed and the church feels warm. Modern embroidered banners hang from the walls.

I have always loved this church but unfortunately for us, this has resulted in the church losing its character. We appreciate it will be a lot more comfortable for the congregation, but still felt disappointed.


St Hywyn’s Church
Aberdaron and the Surrounding Area

It is fifty plus years since I first went to Aberdaron and I still feel the same tingle of excitement as we drive down the hill. In many ways it hasn’t changed. It has avoided the holiday atmosphere of Pwllheli and the boating fraternity of Abersoch. It has grown over the years but the whitewashed houses with their slate roofs have mellowed to become part of the scenery.

The old settlement around the old church of St Hywyn snuggles along the stream above the beach. This was the last stop on the medieval pilgrim route to Bardsey island. Y Gegin Fawr, in the centre of the village dates from the 13thC and was a communal kitchen where pilgrims could claim a meal on their way to Bardsey Island. It still serves teas and meals to weary travellers. The fish bar is still there. The New Inn above the beach has glorious views across the sea. Across the road is the Ship Inn.

The Spar shop now has the post office since it moved from the stylish Clough Williams-Ellis building with the slate plate with GVIR on it many years ago. This has a small butchers counter with some of the best hung meat we’ve seen for a long time.

The Eleri Stores still sells the same eclectic mix of magazines, cards, maps, sweets, wines and spirits as well as pharmaceuticals. Behind is the tourist gift shop with its buckets and spades, ice creams, shell ornaments and small pieces of pottery proclaiming Aberdaron.

The small shoe shop on the Uwchmyndd road has however gone as has the ladies hairdresser.

On the road into the village is the Islwyn Bakery, in the small corrugated iron shed. This was always our first port of call when we visited Aberdaron to buy scones which we would eat sitting on the churchyard wall. Calamity, the bakers had sold out of scones and we had to make do with Welsh Cakes. We couldn’t eat them on the churchyard wall either as this now has railings round it. The cliffs round here are boulder clay and unstable and subject to erosion by the sea. A new sea wall has been built along the top of the beach.

Aberdaron is popular with day tourists. The National Trust now owns a lot of land round the tip of the peninsula and part of the village, including self catering accommodations. The car park is owned by the National Trust and charged by the hour although is free for National Trust members. They are currently building a new Visitor Centre on part of the car park.

Locals used to park on the small area of land by the Spar shop but the enterprising owner now charges £1 per hour with an honesty box. Judging by the sign in the Spar shop this has led to comments and bad feeling among locals.

We drove to the old coastguard station at the end of the road at Mynydd Mawr with its views across to Bardsey Island and back down the peninsula. It was hazy so there were no distant views across Cardigan Bay. We could just make out the mass of Mynydd Rhiw, Mynydd Penarfynydd and Carn Fadryn. The headland is covered with low growing gorse and heather. It was very windy and there was little bird life around but we did see kittiwakes and heard choughs calling.

There is plenty of good walking up here to Pen y Cil and Aberdaron, or over Anelog to Porth Oer. This must be my favourite beach with clean white sand with dark coloured rocks with a small cave and rock pools full of sea anemones at low tide. Backed by grassy cliffs made of boulder clay, these can become unstable after a lot of rain and landslips are common leaving a brown gash in the grass. It is unwise to sit or lie immediately under the cliffs. Often referred to as Whistling Sands, the dry sand at the top of the beach squeaks if you shuffle your feet along it in rubber soled shoes. Apparently this is caused by the unique shape of the sand particles and there is only one other beach in Europe which also ‘whistles’. Another reason why the beach is special.

Over the years we have walked all the area but our days of serious walking are past and we sat and dreamt of past holidays.


Porth Oer beach
Bodnant Gardens

Bodnant Gardens are described as one of the most spectacular and admired gardens in Britain with their laburnum walk, so have a reputation to live up to. These have been on our list of places to visit for many years, so we were a bit concerned that they might not live up to all the hype...

Not only did they live up to the hype, they were even better than the pictures we’d seen on the web. The spectacular Laburnum walk was at its peak in early June (it had been a late spring in North Wales) and that alone would have been worth the visit.

Set on the hillside above the River Conwy with the River Hiraethlyn flowing through their grounds, they are just a few minutes' drive from the holiday centres of Conwy, Llandudno and Colwyn Bay. We arrived early and were waiting for the doors to open. We hot footed it to the Laburnum Walk with long hanging yellow flowers forming a dense canopy over our heads with the hum of bumble bees around the flowers. One of the most popular seats in the garden must be that at the start of the archway looking down the length of the walk.

Bodnant Hall built in 1792 is the residence of Lord Aberconway and not open. It is surrounded by the formal flower and water gardens. Around these is grassland with specimen trees and shrubs, especially azaleas and rhododendrons which were just past their best. These had been carefully planted to provide color and shape to the garden. They lead into the wild areas with longer grass with wild flowers. Beyond are the wilder gardens along the River Hiraethlyn with the Dell across the river.

We spent most of our time in the formal gardens and the herbaceous borders along the front of the house. The rose garden was only just beginning to come into flower but we enjoyed the clumps of purple campanulas growing out of the stone terrace wall above it. Steps drop down to the lily terrace with two splendid cedar trees at either end of the ornamental pond. The white water lilies were just coming into bloom.

More steps lead down to the white pergola planted with climbing roses and herbaceous plants along the Canal, a large rectangle of water with the Pin Mill at one end. After the Laburnum Walk this must be the second most popular photo taken of the gardens. The wind was ruffling the surface of the water causing the reflections to break up and the light was wrong for a photograph.

Informal gardens with trees and shrubs, particularly azaleas and rhododendrons drop down to the river. The area looked inviting with small paths to explore but unfortunately a tight time schedule didn’t allow this. Across the river is the Dell which in April/May is covered with bluebells.

We followed a path mown through the long grass to the Poem, which was built as a mausoleum for the family of the hall, before heading back up towards the house with the round garden with its small statue and purple irises and a final look at the laburnum walk which by now was busy with visitors.

We spent 90 minutes here and it would be very easy to spend several hours wandering round the gardens, particularly with the guide book. The gardens are beautifully kept and well looked after with few weeds growing. Many of the plants are labelled.

The Magnolia Tea Room in the gardens is run by the National Trust and serves a selection of hot and cold drinks with sandwiches and cakes. I succumbed to the lemon cake.

There is a small farm shop and also large plant centre. This sells a wide range of trees, shrubs and herbaceous plants all grown on the estate. Prices were very reasonable and I found a bright red oriental poppy which I have been wanting for years. This is now planted in the garden as a happy reminder of our visit.


The laburnum walk

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