The castle overlooking the Dee estuary at Flint was one of the first to be built by the English in Wales. Building started in 1277, during the campaign of English King Edward I against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last of the great Welsh leaders. Work was completed in 1284. Flint was one of the north Wales ‘iron ring’ of fortresses built by the English to conquer the Welsh. The castle included an unusual design feature, a solitary round ‘Donjon’ tower which stood apart from the rest of the inner ward but still within the outer wall, which is exceptionally thick.
Though only ruins remain, it is possible to get a sense of how substantial and dominating the structure would have appeared as it rose above the Dee estuary, pronouncing the might and supremacy of the English king.
Following directions from the little town of Holywell we pulled up on a very nondescript street with the castle ruins on one side and two council tower blocks and a few houses on the other. A little further ahead was an industrial estate; an interesting juxtaposition. I wondered what the King would have made of it all and hoped that the residents enjoyed and made the most of living in such a scenic beach location that only the very wealthy would be able to afford in many other parts of the UK.
Walking across what was obviously formerly the moat and then up the mound, we encountered another royal personage and a seriously big dog; just as well they were made of metal and both perfectly harmless. I rather liked this art work, depicting King Richard II, Edward I’s great, great grandson, and Mathe, his traitorous hound.
In 1399, Flint Castle was the site of the showdown between the King and Henry Bolinbroke, a contender for the throne, who went on to become King Henry IV. It is reported that the dog, Mathe, abandoned Richard and allied himself with Bolinbroke. Richard interpreted this apparent act of canine treachery as a sign that his reign was at an end, the dog choosing loyalty to crown, not master. Richard conceded defeat and was captured.
Shakespeare immortalised the scene in his play, Richard II:
‘What you will have, I’ll give, and willing too; For do we must what force will have us do
The greyhound maketh you cheer this day as king of England, as ye shall be; and I shall be deposed. The greyhound possesses this knowledge naturally’
There were a few other visitors like us, milling about with cameras and discussing the brick work and the scenery. A couple of benches had been positioned to provide a view over the beach and the estuary. A group of young people climbed the spiral metal staircase within what I assume to be the ‘Donjon’ tower, seeking to be kings of the castle for a few moments. I would have liked the view but not the climb. Several other groups – mainly families with children, picnics, balls and frisbees – cut through the structure to access the freedom of the beach.
Standing the test of time
Who would have thought that a wall could be so beautiful? Diverse in size and shape, colour and texture, some smooth and others eroded to honeycomb, the ancient stones appear as if placed haphazardly in the dense mortar bed. But this was a fortress, built to last, and not in the least haphazard in its design. I wonder if those tower blocks across the road will be there in 800 years’ time.
The holy well of St. Winefride – ‘Santes Gwenffrewi’ in her native language of Welsh – is just outside the eponymously named town of Holywell on the north Wales coast. The natural spring is said to have come forth from the earth in the 7th century, on the exact spot that St. Winefride was murdered and subsequently – and miraculously – brought back to life. In the centuries that followed, up to the present day, pilgrims have visited the shrine to benefit from the healing powers of the holy water. Quite apart from its reputed healing powers, the shrine is a very beautiful place, worth visiting to appreciate its history and character.
There are various tellings of St. Winefride’s story, and as this blog is about my own experiences of visiting places of interest rather than providing a detailed history of those places, I think the very concise version on the shrine’s website offers enough background to provide a context. The full history of the shrine is fascinating and well worth further reading for those who want to know more.
‘Winefride (Gwenfrewi) was the daughter of a local prince named Tewyth and his wife Gwenlo. Her uncle was St. Beuno. One day, around the year 630, Caradoc, a chieftain from Hawarden attempted to seduce Winefride. She ran from him towards the church which had been built by her uncle. Caradoc pursued her and cut off her head. In the place where her head fell, a spring of water came up. St. Beuno came out from the church, took up her head and placed it back on her body. He then prayed and raised her to life. A white scar encircled her neck, witness to her martyrdom. Caradoc sank to the ground and was never seen again. Winefride became a nun and …. joined a community at Gwtherin where she became the Abbess. She died there some 22 years later.
Pilgrimage to St Winefride’s Well has taken place throughout the 1,300 years since St Winefride was restored to life. It is of great historic significance that the crypt was not destroyed during the reformation of the middle ages and that pilgrims continued to come despite the threat of persecution which existed for those practising the Catholic faith.
Pilgrims have come to St Winefride’s Well throughout its history, to seek healing. Records dating back hundreds of years are testimony to the many cures from sickness and infirmity received through the intercession of St Winefride and the stories who have come in thanksgiving for healing for themselves or others.‘
The entrance or ‘Mynedfa’ in Welsh, leads into a shop/ information centre and very small exhibition centre. The original museum – also on site – is no longer open to the public but still stores a wealth of artefacts and historical documents. Entrance is just £1.
The tiny exhibition/information centre holds a small number of historical objects and offers a detailed history of the site.
The holy water from the well is piped to a tap for those pilgrims who don’t wish to bathe in the waters but still would like to benefit from its healing powers.
Although the spring is said to date back to around 630, the crypt within which it is enclosed was built in the early 16th century in the Late Perpendicular Gothic style. It is a grade 1 listed building and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.
It’s interesting that construction of the crypt is attributed to Margaret Beaufort, grandmother of Henry VIII, and the direct Tudor connection could explain why the site was not destroyed during the Reformation when saints, relics and pilgrimages fell out of favour.
The metal barriers around the outer bathing pool spoiled the effect somewhat, and I felt it was sad that it was judged necessary for them to be there. Perhaps the pool had been used inappropriately in the recent hot weather or, for health & safety reasons, access needed to be carefully controlled and monitored. The area is covered by CCTV and I witnessed the speedy arrival of one of the staff when two young people took the plunge an hour before the final access time of the day, scheduled for 3 pm. Two earlier 30 minute windows are scheduled for 11 am and 1 pm.
The inner pool – the site of the spring, the crypt and a tiny chapel make up the sanctuary. A changing area is connected to the chapel for the convenience of any visitors who wish to bathe in the outer pool.
The inner pool is architecturally splendid and looks quite oriental. It’s a very tranquil place, the spring bubbling continuously and the water absolutely clear.
The wonderful vaulted ceiling hosts some intriguing grotesques
The stone columns around the inner pool bear the engravings of pilgrims who have visited over the last 400 years. Some of the older inscriptions are too faded to make out but there are numerous testimonies to the curative powers of the sacred water.
The stone bed of the inner pool is littered with coins. I haven’t read anywhere that such offerings are customary – or welcomed – but neither is there a sign requesting that visitors refrain. Perhaps a member of staff periodically gathers up the offertory. It’s interesting to me that there is the connection to the lore of the wishing well, a merging of religion and folk tradition. A wish or a prayer; it’s a fine line that separates.
Whilst having no plan to bathe ourselves, we were content to sit on one of the wooden benches, enjoying the sunny afternoon and the peaceful, contemplative mood and surroundings. Shortly before 3 pm, people started to arrive , in pairs and small groups, some carrying towels and carrier bags. Some went into the changing room whilst others removed outer garments at the side of the pool. I had the impression that some of these were regulars who were focused and well-practised in this ritual. A few seemed less confident or were perhaps more self-conscious and took their time to build up to the immersion. Interestingly – and to my surprise – all were young, late teens to mid 40s. Three young women, seemingly not new to this, went into the water fully clothed. It’s just as well it was a hot day, though perhaps they would have done the same in the cold, their discomfort perhaps part of their petition.
Feeling slightly voyeuristic but completely intrigued, we watched the bathers in the pool. Most completed ‘laps’ of the perimeter, quietly uttering prayers and fingering rosary beads as they waded their way slowly through the chest-high water. Others, including what looked like a teenage boy and his father, took deep breaths before submerging themselves in the pool, emerging seemingly exhilarated. One woman seemed very emotional, which made me feel even more of a voyeur. Having accomplished their goal, some quickly towelled themselves down, returned to their cars and drove away, further adding to the impression that this was not an unusual activity for them. A few, possibly first-timers, remained in the grounds, apparently wanting to soak up more of the positive energy – or just the sunshine.
My visit showed how the well of St. Winefride clearly still has deep spiritual and personal significance in the 21st century; miracles are still real and obtainable to those who believe in them and in the associated rituals. It also made me mindful of the continuum of old beliefs, changing through the ages but essentially the same: sacred water coming up from the earth; springs devoted to the goddess and the divine feminine; wishes and prayers for healing, then as now. Maybe we haven’t changed that much after all.
The first day of March is the feast day of Saint David, the patron saint of Wales. Born in the sixth century, this one-time bishop and worker of miracles is usually depicted with a dove on his shoulder and standing on a hill as in this rather nice stained-glass window.
David’s best-known miracle was the raising up of a hill (as in the window) on the very spot where he stood, though it’s unclear why, in a land which boasts an abundance of hills, this should be his miracle of choice. He lived a very simple life and when he wasn’t working miracles the Saint was a great reader and scribe and enjoyed a humble meat-free diet. The leek was possibly his favourite vegetable, becoming first his personal emblem and later that of the Welsh nation.
Today being Saint David’s day got me thinking back to last summer and a rather memorable journey I made to north Wales. Whilst Cymru is a separate country it would be misleading of me to give the impression that my journey there was an epic trek. From my home in the north of England to my destination in north Wales is less than a hundred miles, or about 90 minutes by road.
This was to be my first trip there since being a teenager . I’d been on many occasions during childhood summers, but it hadn’t left an impression; I think it mostly rained. Having heard good things about the revamped sea front, off I went with mum to partake in a quintessentially British experience: the coach trip.
My mother is a coach trip expert, travelling the length and breadth of the Kingdom with her friend and fellow enthusiast, Phyllis. I have occasionally stepped in when Phyllis has been otherwise engaged, and my limited experience has led to the following observations about coach world:
The front seats which offer an unrestricted view through the windscreen are the most desirable and are snapped up about 5 years in advance
Coach folks always board with at least three carrier bags filled with foil-wrapped sandwiches, thermos flasks, and family packs of crisps and mini cheddar biscuits. Invariably, they get to work on their bounty within 10 minutes of setting off
Anybody boarding with no provisions looks under-burdened and therefore suspicious
Coach folks often bring an assortment of coats and cardigans in case of unpredictable weather. Any garments not required at the destination can be left on board to mark ownership of seats under the watchful eye of the driver
The driver, usually called Stan, Jim or Bill, is often well past retirement age and likes to treat his charges to a selection of Nashville Greats and Sixties compilation CDs, which are very well received by the coach audience
The sun shone for us on a glorious morning when mum and I set off for the land of dragons and daffodils, though we didn’t expect to see either of those on an average Wednesday in August. We found our seats, deposited our bags in the overhead luggage rack and got ourselves settled. We were amongst the first on board so by default became members of the welcoming party for those who joined at various stops over the next few miles. At this point I’ll explain a little about the complex but unspoken rules of coach trip etiquette. Geisha tea ceremonies seem like child’s play in comparison, and you must at all costs get it right if you want to avoid feeling an on-board coolness which won’t be coming from the air conditioning.
New arrivals greet those already seated, not the other way around. No exceptions.
A hearty ‘Good morning’ is the suggested salutation, but at the very least a smile and a nod are required, though this is a weak form of greeting and will provoke raised eye brows and possibly mutterings
If you are new to coaching, know your place! Most of these seasoned gallivanters will know each other from other trips. You are new.
If you are asked about other places you have travelled to, understand that this means on coaches and within the UK. Don’t talk about your Nordic river cruise or your wild nights in Marrakesh. They are of no interest to these good people, and you will be judged.
Fast forward through Cheshire and into north Wales, in and out of a nice but unnecessary pit stop, and onto the Welsh moors. Purple heather and sloping green hills (possibly raised by Saint David) in the distance made for a beautiful vista. Inside the coach sounds of appreciation rose as we wound our way along the serpentine roads. Being afflicted with the curse of travel sickness, I could not share in my fellow travellers’ pleasure here, and perhaps by some miracle I just about made it to our next stop, the village of Betws y coed.
Upon disembarking, our lively party headed off in little groups to the café, ice cream parlour or for fish and chips. Green around the gills and desperate to recover before getting back onto the coach I left mum to her battered haddock and went for a short stroll. We only had an hour at Betws y coed which, along with my delicate state, prevented me from exploring further, but I enjoyed watching the birds feed in the midday sun.
Back on board, and mercifully the rest of the journey to Llandudno was smooth. We arrived in fine spirits ready to walk along the promenade, paddle in the surf and relax in the sun’s warm rays. All signs of clouds had disappeared to reveal an expanse of azure sky.
Great Orme overlooked the pier and the vintage tour buses waited for their next passengers.
From time to time I spotted fellow travellers seated along the sea front or in a tea room window. There arises yet another coach trip etiquette minefield: to acknowledge or not to acknowledge? But that’s another story….