Route 6 - North-East Wales
St Hilary’s Tower
St Winefride's Well, Holywell
This route explores one of the more overlooked ‘chain of castles' at Denbigh, the typically Cistercian abbey at Basingwerk, the pilgrimage site at the Holy Well of St Winefride, takes a detour to visit the first of the ‘chain of castles' at Flint, and finishes at Rhuddlan Castle where Llewelyn the Last surrendered to the English King.
St Hilary's Chapel
The Holy Well of St Winefride
St Bridget's Church
Twt Hill Castle
St Mary's Church
Start Point: Betws-y-Coed
Along the way: To reach Denbigh, you will drive over Denbigh Moors. Denbigh Moor is a rare surviving part of an immense grouse moor and shooting estate. Most dramatic of all on the moor, is the ruined hunting lodge Gwylfa Hiraethog, which was built for the first Viscount of Devonport in 1908 and was once the highest occupied building in Wales. Look out for Buzzards along the way, a bird of prey you will have a good chance of seeing.
“Denbigh was a formidable presence, set upon a high hill, the chief jewel in Davydd's crown. Smoke curled up from chimneys, lights flickered at the upper windows of the apsidal towers, and armed men patrolled the walkways of the outer curtain walls. … the drawbridge was coming down, the barbican going up” - from 'The Reckoning'
Denbigh Castle is built on the site of the stronghold of Dafydd ap Gruffydd. The current Castle was started in 1282 following Dafydd's capture and was erected as part of Edward I's campaign against the Welsh; the town walls were also started during this period. The building of the castle was interrupted in 1294 when it was held by the Welsh, led by Madoc ap Llewelyn, for a time. The later building works are easily identifiable by the thicker curtain walls. The square church tower seen from Denbigh Castle is also of this period; the rest of St Hilary's Chapel was demolished in 1923 but the tower remains. The Town Walls can be walked in season (April – September) but the castle is open all year.
Denbigh Friary was a late thirteenth century Carmelite order. The remains consist of the choir and part of the nave of the original church dated about 1300; there are possible remains of the southern claustral range incorporated in Abbey Cottage.
Moving on: Basingwerk Abbey is within a heritage centre called the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park.
Along the way: Be grateful for the Geneva Convention! There was very little mercy given to so-called enemies at the time. It was normal for the Welsh to maim or even kill their prisoners. At one stage, King Edward offered a shilling for the head of every Welsh insurgent. After the uprising in 1294, 500 Welshmen were killed in their sleep.
“Edward set up his headquarters at the abbey of the Blessed Virgin Mary in mid-July , and at once began construction of a castle at the mouth of the River Dee.” - from 'The Reckoning'
“Llewelyn ab Iorwerth and his son David, who were great benefactors to [Basingwerk Abbey], in their respective charters recite that they give and confirm the several donations to God, St. Mary, the monastery of Basingwerk, and the monks, which had been bestowed on the monks by their predecessors, for the salvation of their souls.” [From: Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1849)].
Basingwerk Abbey is believed to have been founded in 1131 but it may have originally been 3 miles down the coast. The monastery was probably on this site by 1157. During the 13th Century, the Abbey's sympathies lay with the English and they provided the chaplain for Flint Castle. The layout at Basingwerk Abbey is typically Cistercian and much that is visible today is the refurbishment and extensions made during the 13th Century.
Architecture of the Cistercians was simple, functional and stripped of any ornamentation that would take the mind away from prayer. Basingwerk Abbey is a typical cruciform construction, with small chapels in the North and South transepts, and the claustral buildings assembled around the Cloister on the southern side of the Nave. The two fine arches of the extended Chapter House, and their supporting column, have survived remarkably well compared with the rest of the decaying monastic structure.
Moving on: From the Abbey, there is a footpath leading through the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park to the Holy Well of St Winefride, which has further items of interest along the way.
THE HOLY WELL OF ST WINEFRIDE
[Ellen] “There is a holy well in North Wales, close by Basingwerk Abbey. It is dedicated to a Welsh saint, Gwenfrewi, and its waters are said to have wondrous healing powers, especially for women unable to conceive. Upon my return home, I shall make a pilgrimage to her well … beseech St Gwenfrewi to heed my prayers, that I may give Llewelyn a son.” - from 'The Reckoning'
“the most powerful springs in the island, which issues from a rock just below the town, and has been celebrated for many ages for the miraculous efficacy traditionally related to have been imparted to its waters by St. Winifred, to whose memory, after her decease, the fountain was dedicated. … [the] son of a neighbouring king, enamoured of the beauty of St. Winifred, and enraged at her disdainful repulses, struck off her head with his sword, as she was endeavouring to escape from his pursuit; that the severed head, after rolling down the side of the hill, stopped near the church of St. Beuno, and that a spring of prodigious force burst forth with impetuosity from the spot on which it rested. The moss on the sides of this spring is said to have diffused a fragrant odour; and the stones, which were discoloured with her blood, to have assumed, on the anniversary of her decollation, a colour not possessed by them at other times.” [From: Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Wales (1849)]
The Holy Well stands within a 16th century Shrine building and is still a major place of Catholic pilgrimage. There is an Interpretative Exhibition and a museum. It is also still possible for pilgrims to bathe at the Well at certain times.
If you have time, explore:
Basingwerk Castle (The Castle is uphill from the Well, on the east side of the footpath through the Greenfield Valley Heritage Park but is well hidden by trees and foliage. You would probably have trouble finding it and there is very little to see.)
“Edward set up his headquarters at the abbey of the Blessed Virgin Mary in mid-July , and at once began construction of a castle at the mouth of the River Dee. As soldiers stood guard, workmen began to dig a deep, defensive ditch. Others were dispatched to build a road along the Welsh coast. By month's end, more than two thousand axemen, carpenters, masons, blacksmiths, quarrymen, hod-carriers, and charcoal-burners were labouring on the King's behalf, and, as they hacked and burned their way through the ancient oak forests that had for so many centuries repelled foreign invaders, it was as if the very landscape of Wales was under assault” - from 'The Reckoning'
The castle changed hands several times during the territorial struggles that took place between Welsh princes and Norman rulers, before being eclipsed by larger stone castles that were more difficult to besiege. In 1241 Basingwerk Castle was given by Dafydd ap Llewelyn to Henry III, along with many of the possessions that had been gained by Llewelyn Fawr, as part of a peace treaty agreed with Henry II. The eroded earthworks are badly overgrown.
Along the way: Driving along the coast road, the span of water is the River Dee and the peninsula on the other side is the Wirral. The River Dee rises in Snowdonia just to the north of Dolgellau and passes via the reservoir at Bala, over Denbigh Moor and onto Chester.
If you have time, explore:
- Flint Castle
“Many of Edward's workmen and men-at-arms were camped three miles away, at the site of the new castle, already christened ‘Flynt' by Edward …” - from 'The Reckoning'
Flint Castle was the first of Edward I's ‘chain of castles' built to crush Llewelyn the Last and mediaeval Welsh independence. The ‘chain of castles' were designed to be one day's march apart, Flint being the first in the chain as it was one day's march from Chester. The castle was positioned like all Edward's strongholds to be supplied by sea. An attacker from the land would have to breach the town's defences first; then cross a wide ditch originally filled with seawater at high tide; then a walled and gatehoused outer bailey; followed by a second inner moat. Only then would the attacker reach the high walls of the castle itself. Although the top storey has disappeared, the castle is remarkably intact. The castle had its own chapel, bedchambers, latrines and two storey well, arranged around a central open space or light well, and supported by a circular basement gallery.
Moving on: When you enter Dyserth, follow the signs for the Waterfall as the Waterfall is next to the Church.
Along the way: Llewelyn the Last was never a rich man. He needed substantial sums of money in order to pay the sums demanded by the English King and also to fund his campaigns. Between 1267 and 1272 he had to pay the King £11,500. In order to raise the money, he had to tax his people quite heavily; at the time the majority of people would have paid their ‘taxes' by means of goods rather than money.
If you have time, explore:
The church, dedicated to St Bridget, is a small neat edifice without either tower or spire, but embellished with a fine window of painted glass, removed from Basingwerk Abbey … at the time of the dissolution. … In the churchyard … are two singular tombstones, with a bow sculptured upon each, and an ancient pillar or weeping-stone, from which the primitive chiefs and princes are said to have dispensed their judgments. …[From Lewis's Topographical Dictionary of Wales 1845]
The earliest parts of St Bridget's Church are 13th Century and the window above the altar came from Basingwerk Abbey at the dissolution. The tombstones mentioned by Lewis are still there but the Clywd-Powys Archeological Trust believe they are from the 17th Century. Is it another myth about the princes dispensing their judgments on the tombstones or were their earlier ones?
Dyserth Castle was built about 1245 by Henry III but Llewelyn the Last razed it to the ground – the site can be visited but you need a lot of imagination to interpret what little there is to see. On a nearby house there is a pair of round-headed windows typical of the era that have been built into the walls which it has been suggested may have come from the Castle.
Moving on: Check Rhuddlan Castle for opening times before going as it closes during the winter – generally October to March.
Along the way: The Welsh favoured longbows and crossbows as a means of attack. The longbow was fashioned from yew trees. However, to fire a longbow accurately took much practice and many years of training but it had the benefit of travelling long distances. The crossbow didn't have such a long range but the art of firing a crossbow could be mastered in about a week.
“Not only would the castle itself be the most formidable stronghold in all of North Wales, Edward even meant to divert the course of the River Clywd, meandering and shallow as it neared the sea. Davydd had listened, stunned, as Edward explained how he would dig a two-mile channel, deep enough for English ships. The garrison could never be starved out then, he said, could outlast any Welsh siege …” - from 'The Reckoning'
Rhuddlan Castle was erected circa 1277 to replace Twt Hill Castle. The long running border struggle was about to enter on its last phase, a phase in which Rhuddlan was to assume a new and increased importance. In August 1277 Edward I moved his headquarters to Rhuddlan. Llewelyn the Last's surrender in the following month brought the war to an unexpectedly speedy end, though it was not until November that hostilities were formally terminated by the submission of Llewelyn the Last to the King at Rhuddlan.
In 1283 Davydd ap Gruffydd, with his wife, two sons, and seven daughters, was brought prisoner to Rhuddlan and after being kept for some time a close prisoner in the castle, he was removed in chains to Shrewsbury, and was put to death as a traitor.
Twt Hill Castle was begun in about 1073 and as late as 1241-42 the defences at least in part were still of wood, and timber-framed buildings occupied the bailey. The site is now a grassed mound with impressive views demonstrating its strategic placement. Twt Hill Castle is believed to have been built on the site of an earlier castle of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn.
St Mary's Church in Rhuddlan had a charter granted in 1278 and was built about 1301. The south nave is original.
To complete the route, please return to the start point in Betws-y-Coed.
Along the way: Another castle? About half way down the A470 between Llandudno and Betws-y-Coed, there is a junction called the Tal-y-Cafn. The other side of the bridge is the site of Bryn-y-Castell, a medieval motte and bailey castle which is believed to have been built to guard the river crossing. The mound where the castle was can be seen from a distance but virtually nothing remains of the castle itself.
The location of the main points of interest are shown below. Use the 'Satellite' button to get an overhead photo of the locations (best if zoomed in first).
A - Betws-y-Coed
B - Denbigh Castle and St Hilary’s Chapel
C - Denbigh Friary
D - Basingwerk Abbey
E - The Holy Well of St Winefride
F - Flint Castle
G - St Bridget’s Church, Dyserth
H - Dyserth Castle
I - Rhuddlan Castle
J - Twt Hill Castle, Rhuddlan
K - St Mary’s Church, Rhuddlan
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List of all Driving Tours
Route 1 - Betws-y-Coed to Abergwyngregyn
Visit possibly the finest medieval fortifications in Britain at Conwy Castle and the home village of the Princes of Gwynedd at Abergwyngregyn.
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Route 2 - Betws-y-Coed, Llanrwst and Trefriw
A short route but perhaps the most evocative as you walk in Llewelyn Fawr’s footsteps.
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Route 3 - Anglesey
Visit the bread basket of North Wales with its atmospheric churches and the World Heritage site at Beaumaris Castle.
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Route 4 - Bangor, Caernarfon and Llanberis
From natural history at Swallow Falls to man-made history at Caernarfon Castle and Bangor Cathedral.
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Route 5 - Beddgelert, Criccieth and Dolwyddelan
Castles galore, including reputedly Llewelyn Fawr’s favourite at Dolwyddelan.
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Route 6 - North-East Wales
Let history speak to you as you explore the grim past of Rhuddlan castle. (You are on this page).
Content is copyright Betws-y-Coed & District Tourism Association, Betws-y-Coed, Snowdonia, North Wales, UK