The Final Wonders

We have been looking at the places mentioned in the 18th century anonymous poem that was probably written to attract tourists to north-east Wales.

Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon’s mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winifred’s Well,
Llangollen’s Bridge and Gresford’s bells.”

The links on the poem will take you to the other posts in the series.

For the sake of completeness here are the final two locations.

Wrexham steeple refers to St Giles church, Wrexham, another Grade 1 listed building and a notable landmark visible from afar. The 135ft tower dates from 1506 and is richly decorated with medieval carvings.

Gresford’s bells are located within the tower of All Saints, Gresford, a few miles north of Wrexham.

Included for their purity and tone, you can hear for yourself via this link.

To round off this series, I have prepared a map of the locations of the original seven wonders of Wales, which I will be emailing out to those of you who have signed up. Take another look at the candidates from the updated seven wonders survey and add your favourites to the map. Or maybe you know of a gem that no one else has thought of. Do comment below.

Snowdon

Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon’s mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winifred’s Well,
Llangollen’s Bridge and Gresford’s bells.”

At 1085 metres, Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales and it is also higher than any peak in England. Not surprisingly it attracts many visitors: around ½ million a year.

There’s the promise of extensive views, with Ireland, Scotland, England and the Isle of Man visible on a good day. But you need to time it right. 5100mm of rain falls on Snowdon’s slopes each year, so it is often covered in cloud.

There are many routes to the summit, approaching from all directions.


The lake side Miner’s Track stays low for as long as possible. The ridge walk over Crib Goch does much of its climbing early on. The middle route here is the Pyg Track.


Another route is over Y Lliwedd, here seen from the Pyg Track.

But the easiest route is this one!


The railway to the summit of Snowdon opened in 1896.


The same route, from Llanberis, was previously used to carry tourists to the summit by pony but now you could just catch the train. Visitors increased and as an extra incentive the railway company built a new café on the summit, alongside the existing building, put up by an enterprising miner in 1838. A brand new summit building was opened in 2009.

So you are very unlikely to find Snowdon without people at the top but it is still a wonderful mountain. We will be returning here in a future series to take a closer look at some of its shapely landforms.

St Winefried’s Well

St Winefried’s well is located at Treffynnon. Tref = settlement; ffynnon = well or spring, so that makes sense. However, the town’s English name, Holywell, shows the reason for its inclusion as one of the seven wonders of Wales.

The spring is said to have risen where St Beuno restored to life his niece, St Winefried, after she was beheaded by a rejected suitor. As such it became a site of pilgrimage, for healing, with many notable visitors, including royalty.

The 15th century building straddles the spring. The lower, open crypt contains the well.

Above is a chapel, which from the other side is at ground level, because of the way it is built against the hillside.

Originally the spring flowed out and away down the valley. The statue stands where the stream once flowed.

Today the water is directed into a bathing pool.

The outflow was measured in the 18th century to be 7.6 million gallons of water per day. So not only was there a tourist industry, based on the pilgrimage site, but there was also thriving manufacturing industry in the short 1½ mile valley from the spring to the sea, with the stream being dammed several times to control its flow.

Close to the fresh spring, St Winefried’s brewery operated until 1930, and further downstream there were up to 19 factories. Metalworking and textiles were the main industries. There was so much activity that a railway branch line was opened in 1869.

The flow of visitors grew through the 19th century. Perhaps the poem was an effective tourist advert. However, at the same time the flow of the stream started to decrease and in 1917 it dried up completely.

This happened because mining, in the hills above the town, had changed the route of the underground stream, directing it away from the spring. Of course it couldn’t be left dry – Holywell’s thriving tourist industry would have vanished too. So another underground stream was channeled in to restore the flow.

Today you can visit the pilgrimage site in Holywell, and further down the valley the industrial site is now a 70 acre country park, the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park.

Llangollen Bridge

Next in my Wonders of Wales series is the bridge in Llangollen.

Nestled within the Dee valley, the town of Llangollen grew up at a point where it was possible to bridge the River Dee.

The rocky river bed at this point channels the river and makes for good foundations.

The river was probably first bridged here in the 12th century, giving access to the site that was to become Valle Crucis Abbey.

The first stone bridge was built in 1282. It was rebuilt several times over the years but some of the bridge of today dates from the 16th century, resulting in its status as a Grade I listed building and scheduled ancient monument.

There have been a number of modifications over the years. In the 1860’s a railway was built along the north bank of the river and the bridge was extended with an extra arch to cross the railway line.

Originally traffic consisted of the packhorse. However traffic increased, both in terms of size and amount. Thus the bridge was widened both in 1873 and again in 1968. They did this by reconstructing the upstream side of the bridge. Today’s bridge is nearly three times the width of the original 16th century construction.

Here’s a picture of each side. You can see the differences in the stonework.

Stonework on downstream side
Stonework on upstream side

Llangollen Bridge is still an important routeway. It carries a major road and much traffic across the Afon Dyfrdwy, (River Dee) to join the A5, London to Holyhead road, which follows the valley on the southern side.

Overton’s Yew Trees

Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon’s mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winifred’s Well,
Llangollen’s Bridge and Gresford’s bells.”

Today we are going to look at another of the 18th century tourist attractions that were the “Wonders of Wales“.

The Yew tree is found in western, central and southern Europe and Britain has many fine examples. The churchyard of St Mary the Virgin, Overton contains a notable collection of them.

The big daddy of them all is this fine specimen.

It is believed to be between 1500 and 2000 years old but age is difficult to determine since the boughs become hollow as the tree gets older. You can’t just count the rings because there is unlikely to be any wood that is as old as the whole tree.

Yews are known for their longevity. When the boughs get too heavy the tree can split without succumbing to disease in the fracture. Here the natural processes have been halted by supporting the tree with props.

Yew trees are often associated with churchyards, though the reason is far from clear. The oldest specimens often pre-date the church as is the case in Overton.

If you want to find your own example, the nearest churchyard might be a good place to start. This is what you are looking for. Please note that yews, particularly the needles, are poisonous.

If you fancy hunting down a giant, ancient specimen they are surprisingly common. Follow this link to an interactive map, where you can home in on your locality.

Pistyll Rhaeadr

The stream known as Afon Disgynfa rises on the slopes of the Berwyn mountains. It goes from a highland stream to a valley river (Afon Rhaeadr) in seconds, with a drop of over 70m, at Pistyll Rhaeadr.

 

It is undoubtedly a tourist attraction, though it clearly isn’t Britain’s tallest single drop waterfall, as it drops down in several stages.

 

There is a natural rock bridge across the stream, between one part and the next.

 

At the bottom of each vertical drop the water crashes to a halt. The impact, both of the water and of any rocks that are being carried, gouges out the rock immediately below the waterfall, creating a plunge pool.

 

“Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon’s mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winifred’s Well,
Llangollen’s Bridge and Gresford’s bells.”

Is Pistyll Rhaeadr worthy of its seven wonders status?

The Wonders of Wales

The original seven wonders of the ancient world, the “must see” attractions of their time, were all man-made constructions of some kind. Since this original list, the concept of “seven wonders” has been adapted and used in many places, usually retaining the idea of having seven of them, but often including “must sees” from the natural world.

This Welsh list of attractions focuses on north-east Wales, and comes from an anonymous poem of the 18th century, which was probably written to encourage tourism:

“Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon’s mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winifred’s Well,
Llangollen’s Bridge and Gresford’s bells.”

It includes a waterfall,


a mountain,


and some ancient trees


as well as man-made constructions, so Blog About Britain is going to take a closer look next week.

But what about the rest of Wales and some of the more modern wonders that weren’t even thought of in the 18th century. Western Mail readers were given a list of 48 from which to choose an updated seven wonders. The winner was the Great Glasshouse at the Botanic Garden of Wales, with Snowdon in second place.

Here you can view the 48 photos that represented these places.
Which would you choose?

The Reunion

Last week we left Gwawl trapped in a bag…

The assembled guests jumped to their feet in outrage and dismay, apart from Rhiannon, who looked into the eyes of her hero, who was, after all, like every other human, not perfect.

It only lasted a moment. Pwyll blew the hunting horn around his neck, and his men came pouring in from every door. Man to man, they took Gwawl’s men prisoner.

Pwyll threw off his rags, and, when the shouting had stopped, called, “Lord Gwawl, do you hear me?”

There was no answer, so Pwyll continued, “I am Pwyll. As you outwitted me, so I have outwitted you. You will stay in that bag until you agree to give up Rhiannon.”

“Lord,” said Gwawl finally, “it does not become a nobleman like me to be shut up in a bag.”

“He speaks the truth, lord.” Hefeydd, Rhiannon’s father, chimed in.

“Well,” said Pwyll, looking at Rhiannon, “I will do what you suggest.”

Rhiannon rose and came to stand beside Pwyll, “Well, Gwawl, do you give me up?”

No answer.

Rhiannon raised her voice, “Do you give me up?!”

A muttered “Yes,” came from the bag.

“And swear you will not take revenge for what has been done to you.”

“I swear it,” Gwawl said through gritted teeth.

“Then I accept that,” said Pwyll.

He undid the sack and Gwawl, looking furious, was helped out of the bag by two of Pwyll’s men. But he managed to restrain his tongue.

“Lord,” he said, “I would ask your permission to retire.”   And with that he gathered together what remained of his dignity and departed, stringy bits of meat hanging from his hair.

When he had gone, Pwyll turned to the lady beside him, who was trying to maintain a dignified pose, but she couldn’t help beaming at him. They hugged joyously.

“Set the hall in order,” Hefeydd commanded from the high table. “Bring in more food!”

“Are you going to send me home again?” Pwyll whispered to Rhiannon.

“No,” she smiled, “We shouldn’t wait any longer, and besides, who knows what Gwawl could plan in a year.”

They sat down at the table, with a bridegroom swap yet again. Pwyll and Rhiannon talked as before, looking deeper and deeper into each other’s faces. No more separations, no more plots and doubts. They would be together now forever.

The Wedding Feast – Again

Last week we left Pwyll in despair, as he was tricked into giving up Rhiannon.

Another year passed, and it was a time of grieving, then bitter self-reflection on Pwyll’s part. He had been stupid. He had lost Rhiannon through his own thoughtlessness and naivety, because he sought to do the proper thing. There was no sight or sound of Rhiannon in Dyfed that year, and it was an exceptionally harsh winter.

But when the spring came, so did fresh hope, and it was a considerably older Pwyll who stood again on Gorsedd Arberth, at midsummer, with his nobles. As before, the birds appeared and led them to the Otherworld. This time, Pwyll was in disguise as a poor wandering peasant, but in his hand he carried the mysterious bag.

When they arrived at the house of Rhiannon, there were no loving arms to welcome him. Following her previous instructions, Pwyll’s men hid themselves in the orchard by the gate. Pwyll went up to the door alone, and gained admittance by wanting a favour from the lord.

Into the bright light he went. Gwawl sat in the high seat, with Rhiannon next to him, chatting and laughing. Pwyll died a little inside but went on bravely. He bent his knee humbly and greeted Gwawl in a rough countryman’s voice.

“May heaven make you prosperous,” Gwawl greeted him back.

At Gwawl’s words Pwyll rose. Keeping his face away from Rhiannon, he said, “May heaven reward you, I have an request.”

“Your request is welcome, and if your request is just, it shall be given to you.”

Gwawl was no fool then, Pwyll thought bitterly. He continued with the game.

“It is a just request, lord. I only ask because I am needy, and all I want is this small bag filled with meat.”

“That is within reason,” Gwawl nodded approvingly, “You shall have it gladly. Bring him food!”

So food was brought, and the bag started to be filled. Pwyll watched closely. If it worked right…yes, it did!  More and more meat was brought, but the bag grew no fuller.

Puzzled murmurings grew round the hall. Finally Gwawl broke in, “Friend, will the bag ever be full?”

Pwyll pretended a laugh, “No, it will not, unless,” he swept his gaze along the line of nobles, finally glaring at Gwawl, “a true nobleman, one with lands and territory, will put his feet into the bag, tread down the food, and declare, ‘Enough is enough!’”

The assembled company roared with laughter. Pwyll did not let his gaze waver from Gwawl, until it had hit home to him that when Pwyll had made the challenge, “a true nobleman,” Pwyll had meant Gwawl himself. If Gwawl refused to do this, he declared to all present that he was not a true nobleman.

Gwawl was not laughing, and Pwyll saw that he had understood correctly. Gwawl wavered on the edge of his seat.

Rhiannon spoke, for the first time, “O hero, rise up quickly!”

That did it. Gwawl jumped up, “I will!” He jumped the table and into the bag. Pwyll quickly pulled the bag up over his head and tied the end closed. The bag was still for one moment, then with an almighty roar of rage it began to squirm like an eel.

The Request

Last week we left Pwyll stunned as a complete stranger came to the wedding feast and demanded the bride for himself…

Pwyll sat frozen. All the company hardly dared to breath. Except for one young lady, who sneezed.

The everyday noise brought Pwyll to his senses, and he hung over the table as nausea swept down upon him. He had lost Rhiannon.

“Be silent as long as you like,” snapped a cold voice in his ear. “Never has a man made worse use of his wits than you have just done.”

Pwyll hardly dared look her in the eye. “I didn’t know who he was.”

“This is the man my father wanted to give me to. He is Gwawl, the son of Clud, a wealthy and powerful man. Since you have given your word, you must give me to him, to prevent dishonour to yourself.”

“I can’t do that. Never!” Pwyll protested. But what Rhiannon said was the truth. He would make an enemy of this man if he did not keep to his word.

“Give me to him,” Rhiannon insisted in a whisper, “and I will make sure he won’t have me.”

“How?” Pwyll asked, still in his melting-pot of shame.

“Before you go I will give you a little bag…” And she hastily whispered her plan in his ear.

Meanwhile, Gwawl was striding up and down the hall, getting many looks of admiration from the young ladies, “Lord,” he barked, coming to an abrupt stop in front of the high table, “It is high time I received an answer to my request.”

Pwyll gathered together what shreds of dignity were left to him, “You shall have as much of your request as I can give you.”

Rhiannon rose, and bestowed a dazzling smile on Gwawl, a smile that was like a dagger to Pwyll’s heart, even though he knew it was only for show. “Friend, I cannot give this feast to you, for I have already given it to the men of Dyfed. But, in a year’s time, I shall prepare a feast for you, my friend, and I will be your bride.”

The feast was over. Gwawl departed, a satisfied smile on his face, having got what he came for. Then Rhiannon silently pressed the bag into Pwyll’s hand, and summoned her birds. With a mute gesture, she indicated that Pwyll should follow them, and the men of Dyfed left the palace and stepped into the night.