North Wales Borderlands, where two cultures meet

Leonard Lea Frazer

St. Hilary’s Church in Erbistock.
St. Hilary’s Church in Erbistock.
For centuries travelers from England have ventured into the Northern Welsh Borderlands.
They came for a holiday; they came for walking excursions; they came to ponder and absorb their neighbour’s culture. These were the first tourists in that part of Wales and included poet William Wordsworth, English novelist, poet and official of the East India Company, Thomas Love Peacock, famous evolution scientist Charles Darwin, poet Alfred Lord Tennyson, and author Elizabeth Gaskell. These were the thinkers of their time and they knew that interesting things happen where two cultures meet. In the Borderlands and beyond, they found their insight.

Wordsworth spent nearly four months in 1791 with Robert Jones’ family at Plas-yn-Llannear near Ruthin. He dedicated his poem ‘Descriptive Sketches’ to Jones. During that time William and his youthful friend Robert traveled near to the base of Mount Snowdon. They stayed in the inn at Beddgelert which they left at night to see the sunrise from Snowdon. They took a guide who lived in a cottage at the foot of the mountain and saw the moon rise on their way up. Wordsworth described an ‘Ascent of Snowdon’ in his book, Prelude, published in 1805.

Downtown Wrexham, one block from St. Giles Parish church.
Downtown Wrexham, one block from St. Giles Parish church.
Writer Thomas Love Peacock was in Wales from 1810 – 1811. In his novel ‘Headlong Hall’ he describes the landscape of places in North Wales. Peacock, who did lots of walking and climbing during his visit, wrote a letter from Maentwrog in January of 1811 ‘a delightful spot, enchanting even in the gloom of winter: in summer it must be a terrestrial paradise.’

In his autobiography Charles Darwin wrote, ‘during the summer vacation of 1826, [when he was seventeen year old] I took a long walking tour with two friends with knapsacks through North Wales. We walked 30 miles most days, including one day the ascent of Snowdon.’ In 1827 he relates that, ‘I also went with my sister a riding tour in North Wales, a servant with saddle bags carrying our clothes.’ (Darwin’s family lived in the English town of Shrewsbury near the Welsh border).

The poet, Tennyson, toured the Wrexham area and other parts of Wales in 1839.

Steam engine of the Llangollen-Corwen Heritage Railway.
Steam engine of the Llangollen-Corwen Heritage Railway.
Author Elizabeth Gaskell vacationed in Wales numerous times by herself and with her family, from 1821 – 1846 and drew many of her story inspirations for her published books from the Welsh people and places she visited.

The ‘North Wales Borderlands’ today is one of the twelve geographical areas of the country that includes a large portion of Northern Wales. The major towns of Wrexham, Llangollen, Mold, Ruthin, Holywell and Denbigh are all within this region.

The abundance of accommodation at all levels, the amount of educational and entertaining attractions, opportunities for recreation, and the historical and cultural mix, make the Borderlands a favourite destination.

In Hanmer, ‘Magpie Cottage,’ an excellent example of a thatched residence.
In Hanmer, ‘Magpie Cottage,’ an excellent example of a thatched residence.
Ruins of castles and churches, including Valle Crucis Abbey, Castel Dina Bran, the fortress of Chirk Castle and the most northern portion of the 177 mile long ‘Offa’s Dyke National Trail’ (originally build during the reign of Offa, the Anglo-Saxon king of Mercia sometime during 757-796 AD) all draw visitors from England and the world.

The tiny farming villages and hamlets that lie within the North Wales Borderlands offer many welcomed surprises. Like the Pontcysylit Aqueduct by the village of Taevor. This magnificent stone and mortar structure is today a World Heritage Site, built by Thomas Telford in 1905. The 126 foot high and 1,007 foot long “stream in the sky” helps keep the eleven miles of canal between Gledrid and Llantisylio running smoothly. Also included in the World Heritage Site is the aqueduct at Chirk, two viaducts, two tunnels and the unique Horseshoe Falls near Llangollen.

During a driving tour of the southeast corner of the Borderlands I found the flat plains of Cheshire, England giving way to the Welsh hills of Marford. The landscape was dissected by the ever-winding River Dee. I would later discover, to the south, the meadows and hills of the Vale of Llangollen just before the climb into Snowdonia. My quest to find certain Welsh churches in the area opened the doors for my own exploration. I was looking for the ‘Seven Wonders of Wales,’ all located in North Wales. There were so many interesting distractions along the way.

The tomb of Elihu Yale (1648 – 1721) The benefactor that helped to fund the building of Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut (founded in 1701 and named after Elihu Yale in 1718.)
The tomb of Elihu Yale (1648 – 1721) The benefactor that helped to fund the building of Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut (founded in 1701 and named after Elihu Yale in 1718.)
In the village of Hanmer I found Saint Chad’s Church and the nearby ‘Magpie Cottage,’ an excellent example of a thatched residence. Just up the road, at Penley I located the parish church, which was built on the site of a timber church from about 1538, and a brick structure from 1793. The new stone church was consecrated in 1902. Still further on down the road I found the small town of Overton-on-Dee. Here there is a fine collection of 18th and 19th century buildings. Apparently, even the old telephone box has been “listed” as a building of historical interest. St. Mary the Virgin Church, on the main street, had twenty-one very ancient yew trees growing on the church property. Twenty-two, if you count the one that Queen Elizabeth planted there in 1992 when the Village of Overton celebrated the 700th anniversary of the granting of a Royal Charter to Overton by King Edward I in 1292. The old yew trees, between 1,500 to 2,000 years old, predate the church. The trees were one of the Seven Wonders.

A short detour off the main road brought me to the Village of Erbistock, also on the River Dee, where I found the famous 17th century Boat Inn. This is a very active pub that, locally, goes by the name, “The Boat.” The inn takes its name from the hand-operated chain ferry which once crossed the river at this point. With its stone walls, split level floors and solid oak beams, ‘The Boat’ attracts visitors from all over the world. Also near the river is St. Hillary’s Church whose churchyard was being invaded by a small herd of cattle as I stepped out of the car to take photos. St. Hillary’s was built in 1860 on the site of an earlier timber-framed chapel and contained elaborate stained glass windows. The dark interior of the church provided an opportunity for stained glass photos.

Turning back in the direction of Wrexham, I passed Eyton and continued on to Bangor-on-Dee. Here, a five-arched stone bridge that dates from about 1660 crossed the river. Nearby was the 1903 suspension bridge constructed by David Rowell & Co. I also saw St. Dunawd’s Church. It was built in about 1300 on the site of a monastery that had been established in 560 AD by St. Dunawd, the first Abbott of the monastery. Renovations in 1723, 1832, 1868, 1877 and 1913 have kept the brick and stone church open.

Today, Bangor-on-Dee is known for a horse racetrack that hosts racing events throughout the year. I also discovered that there are 23 holiday cottages that are available for rent in the immediate area, all excellent accommodation, in restored historical buildings. The range in rent runs from 234 to 944 Pound Sterling per seven days booking. The cottages have names that hint at an area once reliant on farming; The Stable, The Dairy, Hen Cottage, The Potting Shed, Butler’s flat and The Hay Barn. Anyone of these restored buildings would make an excellent home base for exploring the North Wales Borderlands on easy day trips.

The attractions in the North Wales Borderlands include: White Water Rafting on the River Dee, rock climbing during Llangollen Climbing Taster Sessions, a walking tour of St. Giles Parish Church in Wrexham, golfing at the Passey, Clays and Wrexham golf courses, discovering the industrial past of the area at the 600 year old Minera Lead Mines, a ride on the Llangollen-Corwen Heritage Railway and a visit to the Ruthin Craft Centre.

Hey, and don’t forget the castles! Wales has a total of 641 castles; more per square mile than anywhere on earth. Local area castles include Deganwy, Chester, Hawarden, Flint, Ruthin, Dyserth, Rhuddlan and Denbigh.

At Wrexham I checked out St. Giles Parish Church that was built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Foundations for the great west tower were laid in 1506 and it was completed in 1525. That massive rock tower, an excellent example of gothic architecture, is also one the ‘Seven Wonders of Wales,’ and can be seen from almost any vantage point in Wrexham.

Now, I was ready to drive on to the Village of Gresford to see the church there. You may have guessed it! But it was not the church that was on my ‘Seven Wonders’ list, it was the church bells.

From Gresford I headed over to Ruthin where I was staying for the night. Everyone I met along the way had shown me great kindness. As a visitor, I felt humbled. And, I think it’s true what my tour guide said, “In Wales we pride ourselves on a warm Welsh welcome.”

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