The Seven Wonders of Wales

Leonard Lea Frazer

Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham Steeple,

Snowdon’s Mountain without its people,

Overton Yew Trees, St. Winefride’s Well,

Llangollen Bridge and Gresford Bells.      

(Author Unknown)

What do Charles Darwin, William Wordsworth and myself have in common? Well, the three of us, besides having English grandparents, have spent quality time in the small country, just west of England, called Wales. We also visited a place called “Plas Newydd” (New Hall), the home of two eccentric ladies.

Charles was just a wee lad when he travelled with his father to the northern Welsh village of Llangollen and, as guests of the two women, had been obligated to bring gifts of wood-carvings before being allowed to visit. Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, known throughout England and Wales as the “Ladies of Llangollen,” were visited by many national figures of the day. In 1824, on the grounds of Plas Newydd, Wordsworth composed a short poem referring to the women as “Sisters in Love.”

The Ladies of Llangollen helped to make the village a familiar name during the 19th Century in Britain. Over a 50-year period, they transformed the house and surrounding gardens into a magnetic attraction. When I toured Wales in 1993 I visited the grave of the Lady Butler and Sarah Ponsonby. I also saw their cottage, which boasts fascinating oak panels and curios.

Today, Llangollen welcomes the world to an annual event, The Llangollen Cultural Olympics, also known as the “International Musical Eisteddfod.” The weeklong event, held in July, features chamber choirs of the world, folk dancers and symphony orchestras. A new interna-tional arena was recently constructed to ensure the future of this rich celebration of peace and friendship.

My tour of North Wales started in the area known as Wrexham Maelor, or the Welsh Borderlands. The 19th Century rhyme, “Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham Steeple, Snowdon’s Mountain without its people, Overton Yew Trees, St. Winefride’s Well, Llangollen Bridge and Gresford Bells,” is part of the reason I planned my entrance into Wales at this particular point.

The early rhyme states there are “Seven Wonders of Wales.” Three Wonders are found within Wrexham Maelor: St. Giles’ in Wrexham, St. Mary of the Virgin in Overton, and All Saints Church in Gresford. The church building itself in Wrexham, the bells of the All Saints Parish Church and 21 yew trees planted in the churchyard at Overton are three of the Seven Wonders.

At the tourist information centre in Wrexham, Tourism Development Officer, Dawn Roberts, commented on Overton and its yew trees. “Because of the 700th Royal Charter Anniversary (held in 1992) they’ve done all sorts of activities in the village this year and one of them was to have an expert come and look at the yew trees and try and date them.” She went on to explain how one tree was thought to be over 2000 years old.

In the process of traveling in North Wales I discovered that there are indeed many more than just seven wondrous attractions.

On Day 2 of my Welsh travels I pho-tographed the famous Trefor Bridge, Wonder No. 4, at Llangollen, which crosses the River Dee. That morning I viewed the ruins of the 13th Century cas-tle, Dinas Bran, which looks down on the Vale of Llangollen and the local youth hostel where I was staying.

On my third morning in Wales I saw Ruthin Castle, originally built by Edward I in 1282, which has since incorporated 60 hotel rooms. Situated on 35 acres of gar-dens, the castle is the home of the original “Welsh medieval banquet,” where dinner guests feast on roast lamb and chicken using their fingers.

Ms. Roberts continued driving northwest on my private tour and we soon arrived at the ruins of Denbigh Castle. Another Edward I hilltop fortification, Denbigh was under construction for 29 years before its completion in 1311. As with most visits to English or Welsh castles, the traveller never seems to have enough time to have a thorough visit. Now, we headed southwest.

After a winding ride over the Denbigh Moors we arrived at Llyn (lake) Brenig for our tea break and by noon we were eating sandwiches in a Welsh pub at Cerrigyorudion and listening to four young musicians belting out a traditional Celtic tune on the fiddle, guitar, flute and drum. The music was great. The members of the group were just patrons who had stopped by for a pint. Next was Bala Lake and the site of the Bala Lake Railway, or as the Welsh would say, “Rheilffordd Llyn Tegid.” The narrow gauge steam train at Bala is one of eight similar railways in the “Great Little Trains of Wales” collection. Situated in various parts of Wales these steam train attractions offer travellers a scenic way to tour the country. The other narrow gauge railways include: Welshpool & Llanfair, Welsh Highland, Vale of Rheidol, Llanberris, Ffestiniog and Brecon Mountain railways.

Our next stop was at the Lanrhaeadr waterfall or “Pistyll Phaeadr”, Wonder No. 5, situated on the River Disgynfa. The falls offer visitors a magnificent display of cascading water and the opportunity to taste scones and Devonshire cream at an enchanting teahouse near the river.

The following week I explored the county of Gwynedd in the west corner of North Wales. Caernarfon Castle offered an excellent interpretive slide presentation that explains the history of the many cas-tles in Wales. From the castle I rode a bus to the base of Mount Snowdon, the Sixth Wonder of Wales. At Snowdon’s base there is a steam train that transports visi-tors to the top of the mountain. Several well-marked hiking routes are also avail-able.

Next, I spent two days touring the Llyn Peninsula, South Of Caernarfon. I stayed the first night on a dairy farm near Pwllheli and the second at a guesthouse in Abersoch.  The highlights from this area of Wales for me were a visit to The Welsh Language Centre, a backroads ride with Mrs. Jane Ellis, my dairy-farm hostess who delivered me to my guesthouse at Abersoch, and a late evening walk on the beach at Abersoch. The Llyn Peninsula is popular for its network of farm accommo-dations and coastal guesthouses.

The next stop was the Isle of Anglesey. There I had tea at the home of Ian Skidmore and his wife Celia. The couple has written two books on North Wales and along with artist, Kyffin Williams and sheep farmer Iolo Owen, were just the kind of folk who make Anglesey a unique location to visit. Williams’s palette-knifed paintings captured the island’s mood very well and Owen’s breeding process of “wool less sheep,” which he exports to Holland and Africa, was pioneered on Anglesey.

Along with Beaumarie Castle and the South Stack lighthouse, a tiny village with a long Welsh name was among the high-lights of my five days on Angelsey.  The village is called “Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychw-
yrnorobwllantysiliogogoch” (or Llanfair P.G. for short) which, translated from Welsh means, “St. Mary’s Church in the hollow of white hazel near a rapid whirlpool and the Church of St. Tysilio near the red cave.” The name is the longest in the British Isles and has been attracting visi-tors to the tiny community since the 19th Century.

To complete my “wonder checklist,” I visited Wonder No. 7, the “Well Chapel of St. Winefride” in Holywell. The sacred well has been a place of religious pilgrimage since the seventh century. The Legend of Winefride, daughter of a local Welsh prince, is worth re-telling even thought the tale itself was not originally writ-ten down until 500 years after her death.

So, please excuse any exaggerations. Here goes: One day, back in 660 A.D., the young vir-gin Winefride was being seduced by a local guy named Caradac. When Winefride refused his advances and ran to the safety of the nearby church, Caradac followed her. In a very enraged state of mind he whipped out his big sword and chopped off the girl’s head. A fountain of water sprang out of the ground where her head landed and, as Caradac was watching the new fountain, the earth opened where he was standing and swallowed him. Then a priest came by, and after placing the severed head next to the girl’s body prayed that she might be whole again. Lo and behold, the head recon-nected itself to the body and “Saint Winefride” stood up and was alive again. Around her entire neck, however, she now had a thin white scar.

Call it psychic-surgery; call it a miracle! Due to her particular obligation to the church, Winefride became a nun and lived for another 15 years before dying a natural death at the Gwytherin Convent. Later, a chapel and proper well were constructed on the site of the famous water fountain.

From Chester, England, I rode an express train back towards London with the memories of my Welsh journey still fresh on my mind. I needed more than just 12 days to absorb the northern Welsh cul-ture. The sound of the Celtic language, the friendly Welsh inhabitants and the scenic, sheep-dotted countryside are still calling me back. 

Morning mist rises from the silent water as swans drift down to the drawbridge.
Morning mist rises from the silent water as swans drift down to the drawbridge.
 
Pipe and fiddle players entertain on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales.
Pipe and fiddle players entertain on the Isle of Anglesey, Wales.


Sheep graze beside a lake in northern Wales with Mount Snowden in the background, one of the Seven Wonders of Wales. Today there are more sheep in Wales than people.
Sheep graze beside a lake in northern Wales with Mount Snowden in the background, one of the Seven Wonders of Wales. Today there are more sheep in Wales than people.
 
Ian Skidmore and his wife, Celia Lucas, at their home on the Isle of Anglesey. Ian was a famous radio broadcaster, colum­nist and author and Celia writes children’s books and also contributes to local Anglesey newspapers.
Ian Skidmore and his wife, Celia Lucas, at their home on the Isle of Anglesey. Ian was a famous radio broadcaster, colum­nist and author and Celia writes children’s books and also contributes to local Anglesey newspapers.