Take a step back in time to the kingdom of Wales and one of my favourite castles. Dolwyddelan is reputed to be the birthplace of Prince Llwellyn the Great but it also held great strategic importance, guarding a mountain pass through the Vale of Conwy. So much happened here during the Welsh struggle against an aggressive neighbour. It didn’t end well…
Eventually it was captured by King Edward, and garrisoned by an English army. Lewellyn ap Gruffydd, grandson of the prince, was murdered in the mountains nearby, bringing the Welsh dream for independence to an end. But the magic still remains as the wind whistles around the ruins of a magnificent castle.
Fancy a slice of yeasty, buttery goodness, enriched with tea-soaked dried fruit, spices and warmed marmalade? Just out of the little market town of Llanwryst on the edge of the Snowdonia National Park, you’ll find a gem of a tea house, nestled beside an old stone bridge on the edge of the River Conwy. Once a residence – later a courthouse and now managed by National Trust, it is a perfect place to relax and indulge in a home-made Welsh treat – Bara Brith or “speckled bread”. My idea of heaven!
Include an ancient chapel, a short wander way, and you have the perfect day! For inside the musty confines of St Gwrst, there lies a stone sarcophagus, thought to be the coffin of Llewelyn the Great – perhaps just a little hard to believe given the treatment dished out by the English to the abbey where he was buried further north – but who knows? Add some intriguing carvings, and I’m a happy traveller, wandering the misty by ways of history….
This area of Wales on the edge of the Snowdonia National park is breath-takingly beautiful, and it is no wonder its native people fought so hard to keep its heritage, ancient culture and language intact. But the Welsh princes were weakened by internal division – royal sons fighting amongst themselves for a share of lands and patrimony – and the external might of the Plantagenet kings, succumbing eventually to King Edward 1st whose stone castles stand testament today to those brutal times.
Llanwryst, too, is a pleasing place to wander about, owing its quiet, steady, well-to-do air to a trade in wool, clocks and harps…
Back over the bridge and the briskly flowing Conwy, the tea house is a quiet spot – just the place to reflect on Wales’ shadowy, violent past whilst enjoying a slice of its peaceful rural heritage.
The northern borderlands of England and Scotland proved a bloody ground for its inhabitants. Once a part of early Scotland, a village at Warkworth grew up around a motte and bailey timber castle after the Norman invasion. By the 12th century, its keep and walls were built of stone and the fortress stood watch over a strategic loop of the River Coquet. The powerful Percy earls, enemies of The Bruce, received the gift of the castle and surrounding lands and played host to King Edward 1 in 1292. With the Scottish Wars of Independence in full swing in the early 1300’s, vain attempts to force a political settlement saw the lands of Northumberland and Yorkshire set ablaze. By virtue of its location, Warkworth experienced the horror of being placed under siege, twice, by the forces of Robert the Bruce. And with the arrival of Sir Jamie Douglas and his raiding war parties, the villagers must have run for their lives from those hard-bitten warriors on their sturdy ponies.
But when the Scottish and English crowns were joined, there was less demand for such strategic strongholds in the north, and the great fortesses of Bamburgh, Dunstanburgh, and Alnwick knew a measure of peace from the Scots. Still the land was not at rest whilst alliances grew and tumbled with the Wars of The Roses.
It is hard to imagine the ordinariness of family life in a castle but Warkworth Castle’s smaller size apparently made it more suitable for a domestic residence leading the Percy earls to prefer it as a family home rather than the stiff grandeur of Alnwick Castle. In more recent times, the earls of Northumbria gained possession. Now the castle is in the care of English Heritage and its picturesqe ruined structures hold only memories.
So if you are travelling through the awesome countryside of Yorkshire and Nothumberland, stop off at Warkworth’s pretty village just a short distance from the coast. Enjoy its beauty and peace but spare a thought for the families, now long-gone, who must have endured immense hardship trying to survive the political and social upheavals of the times.
Fancy a visit to a tiny Welsh town on the Island of Anglesey? Back in the late 13th century, King Edward I, that all-powerful English king, chanced to build a castle there, his last as it happens in his efforts to subjugate the Welsh. Fortunately he was strapped for cash, probably due to those pesky Scots in the north and his endless warring with the French.
Sited on the Menai Straits, Edward knew any troops besieged at Beaumaris could be sustained with supplies from his ships. The castle was constructed to refute any land-based attack as well with its moat and state of the art concentric castle-within-a-castle technology. Edward’s legacy of massive stone castles in Wales is a stark reminder of the man’s energy and determination… dark days indeed.
For the modern traveller, especially for the history lover, there is much to see in the area and the town which has grown up around the castle. It’s some time since I was there last but my memory is of a clean, quiet village. Having not long read Sharon Penman’s fantastic series on the medieval Welsh princes, I was keen to retrace elements of that period and had been looking for the Priory of Llanfreas where Prince Llewelyn had imprisoned his wife, after her affair with the ill-fated William de Braose, a Norman Marcher lord. He was hanged for his treasonable act; Joan and her prince eventually reconciled until her death a few years later. Given such a layered, complex relationship – of love, a very public betrayal and retribution, and reconciliation – Llwellyn was inconsolable. Joan’s sarcophagus was reputed to lie in one of the churches though her remains had disappeared and the stone vessel used as a horse watering trough. Today, as so often happens, doubt has been cast upon this legend. The priory which existed to the north of the town was destroyed in the dissolution of the monasteries and Joan’s remains with it. Where she lies remains a mystery.
Undeterred, the town of Beaumaris and its castle proved a fine consolation….just a short walk from the castle, I was happy to wander the ancient streets admiring a fine range of quirky buildings, even stopping for a dram along the way.
The foreshore was a dog walker’s paradise and a picturesque spot to absorb the beauty of the mountains across the waters of the Straits. Not for the first time I wondered at Joan’s imprisonment within sight of, but so far from, her home.
Of course, King Edward’s plans for his castle had not even been thought of then and the town of Beaumaris didn’t exist.
Poor Wales – all that darkness and destruction came much, much later.
With all there was to see, I missed the puffins… maybe next time! Perhaps I’ll see you then?
One of my favourite reads, ‘All the Light You Cannot See’, is set in the ancient French port city of Saint Malo. The Author, Anthony Doer, charts the impact of the war on a six-year-old blind girl, Marie-Laure, and Werther, a young German lad. The story so poignantly drawn, made me want to walk the streets of St Malo which were destroyed by Allied bombing in 1944 and took decades to reconstruct.
So, one morning earlier this year, I left our hotel to wander the streets of this stunning town. You could almost sense residents stretching, yawning, awaiting their café au lait and croissants. Beams of sunlight slid down the tall elegant buildings, chasing away the shadows of the narrow-cobbled streets. Shutters clanged. Dogs sniffed at tell-tale signs of activity from the previous night.
From the walls of the Citadel – solid, stalwart battlements of granite, I watched the tide depart, exposing sandy stretches of beach, connecting this spit of land to nearby islands. The cathedral dedicated to St Vincent remained closed as did the many cafes and restaurants that feed the many French and English visitors, who come to enjoy this delightful city.
Over in the port, ferries deposit folk from the nearby Channel Islands of Guernsey and Jersey. These islands share, in part, Saint Malo’s history – links with early Roman invaders from the first century, and the Celts who slipped across the Channel to escape the early Saxon and Viking incursions.
Saint Malo became home to bands of corsairs, who sheltered their vessels in the nearby riverine estuaries. During the medieval and late medieval periods, French kings endorsed piracy and raiding, particularly against the English whose ships were made to pay tolls for using the waters of the Channel.
From its port, explorers set sail. One of its famous sons, Jacques Cartier, sailed the St Lawrence river and charted new territories, naming Canada as a French province. Around 1590, Saint Malo even declared its independence from France and Brittany, and saw its fair share of internal strife before control was resumed under the French royal flag.
The city is full of surprises: one of the interesting buildings I came across was the International House of Poets and Writers in Rue de Pelicot. Established in 1990, under the auspices of UNESCO, writers of all nationalities, known and unknown, are welcome to attend the organization’s literary programmes to support creative endeavours.
One writer, whom I could imagine attending, might have been Jules Verne whose grand tale ‘Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea’ comes to life in Anthony Doer’s novel. It plays a thematic role allowing the children to escape for a brief time from the horrors of war. Though Verne was a Breton native from Nantes, the city of Saint Malo seems to have welcomed him as a second son. Indeed, his exploits may have resonated with the resilient and adventurous Malouins.
With this in mind, we were pleased to be able to stay at The Hotel Nautilus – one of the few buildings which escaped the bombing in WWII: the Allies believed the city to be filled with enemy soldiers when in fact, only a few hundred remained to man the Anti-Aircraft facilities. Today there are no signs of the devastation and the exquisite reconstruction is a testament to the proud people of St Malo, both past and present.
Of course it is not all about the past and galleries display a quirky sense of fun with their art works, adding another layer to this fascinating city with its unique history. Sadly, my visit to Saint Malo was all too brief but I thoroughly enjoyed my time there and look forward to going back one day.
Come on a journey with me…a short trip by ferry from Poole in southern England; the journey – back in time, to one of the larger islands within the English Channel – its layers of history will amaze and delight. The islands’ situation, so near to both Britain and France, has resulted in a unique blending of cultures and, at times, a shared history.
Guernsey’s position close to the shores of Brittany and Normandy in France made it a strategic stronghold luring traders and settlers from as early as the Iron Age period. Dolmens and strange statue menhirs dot the island. Beneath the harbour waters of the main settlement at St Peters Port, a Roman trading vessel rests. Early Britons, Celts and Christian missionaries, escaping Saxon raiding parties, soon called it home. Viking raiders followed and, when Normandy passed into the hands of the Northmen, the islands were annexed by the Duchy of Normandy. Since then, ownership of the islands has been held as a possession of England. However, in the 13th century, King John lost his Angevin lands in Normandy, whilst somehow retaining the Channel Islands. From around 1259, the islands have been governed – as possessions of the English crown but were never absorbed into the Kingdom of England.
At the entrance to the harbour of St Peters Port lies the medieval Castle Cornet which saw off an invasion by the French in 1338.
Edward III granted a charter confirming customs and laws and allegiance to the English crown. Richard II confirmed the charter which gave exemption from English tolls, customs and duties. Much later, during the wars between royalist and parliamentarian forces, battles and sieges took place, and the loyal islanders benefited from the confirmed economic rewards of freedom from external taxation.
n 1483, a Papal bull decreed the islands would be neutral during times of war and this neutrality allowed the islands to trade with both England and France up until the 17th century when it was abolished. The Channel Islands were caught up in the religious wars of both England and France. In 1556, three women were burnt at the stake for their religious beliefs, one even giving birth to a baby boy in the flames. Later a frenzy of witch trials and persecutions took place.
In the 1640’s, Charles II, exiled in Jersey, gave George Carteret, Bailiff and governor, a large grant in the American colonies, later named New Jersey. Exhibiting their strong entrepreneurial spirit, many of the islanders acquired business interests in the North American colonies as well as fishing rights in the rich Newfoundland waters. By the late 18th century, the islands gave refuge to wealthy French emigres fleeing the French Revolution. Aspects of French culture remain, particularly on Jersey.
Today, on Guernsey, those battles of old are commemorated with the daily ritual of a midday firing of a cannon by volunteers in ceremonial dress.
We enjoyed our time in the busy, elegant town of St Peters Port. A short walk along the harbour walls takes you to the castle and a delicious lunch. I loved the tomato soup – tomatoes being a major crop on the island.
Not too far away, a local museum explores the troubles experienced by the islanders in more recent times with the islands having been the only British territory occupied by the forces of Nazi Germany between 1940 and 1945.
Prior to the landing of enemy troops on 30 June 1940 after some indiscriminate bombing, young men hurried to leave the islands to join the Allied armed forces. Many children and women were evacuated to England and Scotland. Later, 2000 islanders – some of whom were Jewish or those involved in the local resistance movement – were deported to Germany by the enemy command. Alderney, one of the smaller islands was the only Nazi concentration camp on British soil. With the islands blockaded, and thousands of slave labourers brought in to build underground tunnels and buildings, hunger brought the local population to its knees, requiring ingenuity to survive the privations.
Eventually, a Red Cross ship made it to Guernsey relieving the dire strictures. For those left behind, the Guernsey shore still held many dangers. Post-war bomb disposal engineers dismantled some 69,000 mines. Even to this day, reminders of the war remain – huge concrete anti-aircraft structures still dot the landscape.
On 9/5/1945, the islands were liberated. After three years of separation, many of the evacuees returned but had difficulty reconnecting with families.
More recent history holds an interesting Scottish connection, when one of the major marmalade producers, moved their production to the Channel Islands for economic reasons. Once the sugar tax was removed, production returned to Britain.
Today, the Channel Islands benefit from its historical economic status, being part of, but separate from the United Kingdom. We were fascinated by the use of the donkey as a symbol of Guernsey – only to learn that it represented the people’s hardy, stubborn spirit.
I have just scratched the surface of this fascinating place. There is so much more to learn…
And now for something completely different… some snippets from our recent visit to the city of Singapore, a modern but very ancient part of south east Asia. For many Australians, it is a stopover, breaking the long journey to Europe, as it was for us – a brief but memorable visit. However, with its layered past – so much older than much of continental European civilisation, its diverse cultural mix, and artistic and architectural delights, it merits a visit in its own right.
During the war years, my grandfather was interned in Changi prison so a visit to the prison’s museum was a must: a terribly sad place filled with memories of hardship, survival and comradery – a tribute to the human spirit against all odds. I wouldn’t have lasted a week…the heat alone would have done me in. But my granddad was one of the ‘lucky’ ones: he came home, but lost a leg to a tropical ulcer and endured Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome for the rest of his life. I wondered what he would have made of today’s Singapore.
Back to the present day… here are some of the sights, among many, worth seeing. Singapore has many different cultural areas. We chose to stay in the Arab area near Hadji Lane with its grand Mosque, old shopping precincts, eateries and markets.
Nearby was the neo Gothic building – Parkview Towers, recently built, home to a number of consulates. A surprising array of Dali sculptures lined its courtyard – an unexpected delight to be sure, but Singapore is like that. Next time, I plan to dine out at the Parkview Café, superbly decorated in art deco style. Way to go!
With a night to spare, we headed down to the river, crossed over the delightfully quirky Helix Bridge and found our way to the Gardens by the Bay. If you like shiny things, this is the place for you!
The forest of man-made trees is lit up at night. Watching the colours change on the Super Tree structures to the booming Star Wars soundtrack added drama and texture to the futuristic nature of the park, with its great Skywalk and massive greenhouses. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see C3PO or R2D2 slide by….
Refreshed and ready for the long flight ahead, we left Singapore with fond memories of the distinctively different sights, heartened by the warmest of welcomes from the local people.
There is so much more to see. I can’t wait to go back.