Conwy Town Walls

Conwy was built as a bastide, a fortified settler town, surrounded by high masonry walls, built at the same time as the castle. The new town was populated by settlers who’d moved from England, probably from nearby counties such as Cheshire and the walls would have encouraged immigrants to settle there as they would have helped protect them from incursions by Welsh locals. The walls are extremely well preserved, running for three quarters of a mile, with 21 towers and three original gateways.

It’s possible to walk on top of them for a good proportion of their length. Who could resist?

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Looking over the southern section of the walls from the Castle

The towers, constructed at roughly regular intervals, are D shaped and “gap-backed”, which means that they didn’t have walls on the inside. They originally had removable wooden bridges to allow sections of the walls to be sealed off from attackers

There were great views from the walls across the town to the castle, harbour and nearby Carneddau mountains

Looking over the harbour towards the castle for the spur wall
a view of the castle over the rooftops from the southern section of the town walls

Parys Mountain and the Copper Kingdom

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In my line of work you almost inevitably become something of a nerd, unable to resist an industrial site, especially a historical one, even when on holiday. So the last day of our stay in Anglesey we drove over to the north east of the island toward the small port of Amlwch , which at one time was the site of a major copper mine.

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Copper has probably been extracted in the area since the Bronze Age, 4000 years ago, but most activity took place from 1768 after The Great Discovery when Roland Pugh a local miner stumbled on a large deposit of copper ore at Parys Mountain,  a couple miles from the small port. His reward was a bottle of whisky and a rent-free house for the rest of his life. That would have seemed like a great deal at the time, no doubt, but it pales into insignificance compared with the amount of money made by owners of what became, for a while, the biggest copper mine in the world.

We parked up in Amlwch and walked over to The Copper Kingdom Centre, in a converted copper ore store on the quayside. This small museum told the story of copper mining in the area. The high point of the industry in the area occurred during the 1780’s when it dominated copper production in the UK. The copper from the mine was used to “copper bottom” the Admiralty’s wooden ships of war, to prevent the growth of seaweed and barnacles and to protect the wood from attack by shipworms.

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Originally the ore was extracted from surface pits and shallow shafts, then by open cast mining, from underground adits. The ore was broken into small lumps by hand, the and shipped to Lancashire or to the Lower Swansea valley in South Wales. The ore was sorted by women – the Copper ladies – which sounded similar to the Pit Brow Lasses who used to be employed in coal mines, particularly in the Lancashire coalfield.

The small harbour expanded due to the need to export the ore Other industries grew up in Amlwch alongside the mining – chemical processing and ship building and repair. The small port becoming a hive of industrial activity. Inevitably the mine became worked out and the other industries also declined, so Amlwch is today a quiet backwater. However, there is thought to be a reserve of about 6 million tonnes beneath the old mine workings. There’s been some thoughts about working the reserves but it’s not currently economic.

After looking round the museum we had a stroll around the harbourside, visited the small maritime museum and had a brew in the cafe, both in the old Sail Loft building. Then it was back to the car to drive the few miles over to Parys Mountain where we were able to wander around the old mine workings. There’s a guided trail, but we didn’t follow it, preferring to wander round on our own.

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It’s a desolate industrial wasteland, and due to the high level of soil contamination, little life can survive here. But it has it’s own strange beauty. With a range of colours it was rather like a 3 dimensional abstract painting.

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the old ruinded windmill standing on top of the wasteland
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Caernarfon Castle

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After a grey day on Wednesday, Thursday was forecast to be a scorcher, and so it transpired. We’d decided to drive over the Menai Straits and make use of our Cadw memberships by visiting Caernarfon Castle. This is probably the most impressive of all the castles that Edward I had built following his subjugation of Wales. It was built to intimidate, impress and also to act as the main administrative centre for North Wales. Some say it was meant to look like the walls of Constantinople with bands of different coloured stone and multi-sided, rather than round, towers. Like Beaumaris and the other main castles in North Wales it was built by the sea to make it easy to reach and supply. A bastide was also constructed, surrounded by walls that even today are pretty much complete.

Edward’s son was born here and he had him crowned as Prince of Wales, again as a mark of authority and to consolidate his rule over the conquered territory. Two other Princes have been invested there, In 1911 and again in 1969.

Having navigated our way through the old town, we parked up in the quayside car park which is right under the massive walls of the south side of the castle.

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We walked round to the entry on the north side, flashed our Cadw cards and entered the courtyard. Unlike Beaumaris with it’s double ring of curtain walls Caernarfon has only perimeter wall. But there were still lots of towers to climb (up spiral staircases) – nine in all not counting the gatehouses with their barbicans – rooms and passages to explore and battlements to walk around.

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This is the Eagle Tower, the fanciest of all of them, with its triple cluster of turrets (you can only see 2 of them in my photo as the third is obscured by one of the others). 

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Some views along the battlements

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Looking over the ward

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Views over the town towards the mountains

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And over the Menai Straits to Anglesey.

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A number of the towers had had floors restored, which is unusual , which gave a feel of what it was like to live in the castle.

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Inside a Garderobe

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Some of the exhibits in the towers

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After spending a few hours looking round the castle it was time to explore the old town. It was getting quite hot (this was the hottest day of the year so far and temperature records had been broken in the south of England – it was not quite as hot here) so some of us were starting to flag a little,

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so we stopped for a brew in this rather nice little deli / cafe.

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before wandering around the streets. There are a few interesting shops including an excellent independent bookshop (where we ended up treating ourselves to a few volumes) and a gift shop selling interesting artistic objects rather than the usual sort of tourist tat.

The old walls are still pretty much complete, but they can only be viewed from the ground.

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I wanted to get a shot of the castle and the best viewpoint is from over the other side of the river, which meant crossing over the swing bridge.

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As I was snapping my photos the bridge opened to allow a tour boat out of the harbour.

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After it had passed the bridge swung back round. But although it looked as if it had closed, it looked like something had gone wrong as the gates didn’t open. After a wait of several minutes the operator walked over and told the crowd waiting to cross that the gearbox had broken and that he had phoned somebody but it would be several hours before it would be fixed. Now it’s a major detour to the next crossing point – several miles – so especially as the bridge was to all intents closed (but not quite engaged) – there was, to say the least, something of an uproar. There were clearly no contingency plans to get people back across to the other side. So it was a case of “people power” as those able to do so climbed over the fence and walked over the bridge. There was nothing the operator could do to stop them. But some elderly people were stuck and would apparently have to wait in the hot sun until ether the bridge was fixed or arrangements were made to get them back over to the other side.

So, a little crisis to end what had been a good day in Caernarfon!

Return to Niwbwrch beach and Ynys Llanddwyn

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Last year during my short solo trip to Anglesey, I spent a few hours walking on the marvellous sandy beach at Niwbwrch (Newborough in English). I’d been a little strapped for time on that occasion, so always intended to return.The Tuesday of our holiday was forecast to be a hot and sunny day, so it seemed an ideal day for a trip to the seaside. It took about half an hour to drive across to Niwbwrch . This time I parked up in the main car park in the forest close to the middle of the long stretch of sand rather than at the Llyn Rhos Ddu Car Park which required a lengthy walk on soft sand through the pine forest to reach the beach.

It was a gorgeous day and the beach was busy (at least, the area near to the car park) when we arrived. Lots of other people had had the same idea as us so we’d had to queue for about 15 or 20 minutes in the car to pay the £5 toll to drive through the forest to park up, but we did manage to find a parking space. After climbing over the dunes to the beach we were greeted by views of a long stretch of fine sand, a blue sea and the mountains of Snowdonia and the Llyn peninsula in profile.

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I’m not one for lying sunbathing on a beach – I soon get bored and burn easily – but I do enjoy walking beside the sea. And there’s a good walk along the beach and on to Ynys Llanddwyn, also known as Ynys Y Bendigaid – “the Island of the Blessed” – which we could see over to the north. Being less pressed for time than during my previous visit, we planned to have a proper, more leisurely, look around the island.

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We set off towards the island, but rather than follow the route through the pine forest, we walked along the beach.

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Ynys Llanddwyn is, in reality, more of a peninsula than an island as it remains attached to the mainland except for during the highest tides. So although the tide was coming in, there was little risk that we would get stranded.

We crossed over to the island and followed the path along the cliffs

Looking back to Niwbwrch beach

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and Malltraeth Bay.

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The latter is to the north side of the island. It’s more exposed than Niwbwrch beach and so waves can be seen sweeping in.

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Rocks islets out in the sea

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Llanddwyn means “The church of St. Dwynwen“, named after the Welsh patron saint of lovers and at one time it was a popular site of pilgrimage. This is the legend of St Dwynwen from the Anglesey History website

Dwynwen lived during the 5th century AD and was one of 24 daughters of St. Brychan, a Welsh prince of Brycheiniog (Brecon). She fell in love with a young man named Maelon, but rejected his advances. This, depending on which story you read, was either because she wished to remain chaste and become a nun or because her father wished her to marry another. She prayed to be released from the unhappy love and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However, the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and 3) that she should never again wish to be married. She then retreated to the solitude of Llanddwyn Island to follow the life of a hermit.

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A Celtic cross, a memorial to the pilgrims, with the inscription “they lie around did living tread, this sacred ground now silent – dead“. *
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These are the remains of the old chapel.

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Pilgrimages stopped following the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII and the chapel was stripped of it lead and timber.

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A second, plain cross – “Dwynwen“; “in the sixtieth year of Queen Victoria 1897 ” ; “in memory of St Dwynwen Jan 25th 1465“; and, “erected by the Hon F G Wynn owner of the isle“. *
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Due to it’s position close to what was a busy shipping lane when slate was shipped from ports along the nearby coast, a beacon, called Tŵr Bach, was built at the tip of the island to provide guidance to ships heading for the Menai Straits. Another more modern lighthouse, Tŵr Mawr, modelled on the windmills of Anglesey, was built nearby in 1845. Cottages were also built nearby for the pilots who guided ships into the Strait.

We walked over to the newer “lighthouse”, Tŵr Mawr (Great Tower) which marks the western entrance to the Menai Straits.

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There’s no light on top of this lighthouse. It may originally have been intended as an unlit marker that could be seen by ships and other vessels during the day, but a light was certainly installed later.

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After taking in the views, we walked over towards the older, smaller lighthouse, Tŵr Bach

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It’s been fitted with a new, modern navigation beacon, so is used today to guide shipping whereas the newer tower is defunct, other than as an attractive landmark.

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Looking back towards Tŵr Mawr . Both of the memorial crosses can be seen over to the right of the photo

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A short walk from the tower took us to the row of whitewashed houses that had been built for the pilots who used to guide ships through the straits. They also crewed the Llanddwyn lifeboat until it was withdrawn from service in 1903.

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We set off back down the island. Looking back:

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Through one of the attractive, carved wooden gates

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At the end of the island we crossed the causeway (the tide hadn’t cut us off – phew!) and then retraced our steps along the beach to the car park.

* text of inscriptions from the crosses obtained from https://newboroughanglesey.wordpress.com/2013/04/07/the-crosses-of-ynys-llanddwyn/

Beaumaris Castle

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After spending the first night in our holiday apartment, we decided that we’d visit Beaumaris and its castle. We’d signed up to Cadw (the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage) so wanted to take advantage of our membership.

Rather than drive, we decided to walk the 3 or 4 miles along the Anglesey coastal path, which passed the top of the drive and went over to Beamaris along quiet lanes and through fields. It was relatively easy going – the hardest part was a steep final descent into the town – and took us just over an hour. We arrived after midday so it was time to grab something to eat.

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Beaumaris is quite a small town. The reason for it’s existence is the castle which was the last of the fortresses built for Edward I in North Wales to keep control over the newly conquered territory.

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Starting in 1295, the castle was built on marsh land at a strategic position at the eastern entry to the Menai Straits. The name of the settlement comes from Norman-French beaux marais, which translates as “beautiful marshes”. As with Edward’s other Welsh castles, a fortified bastide was also built alongside the fortress. Nothing remains today of the town’s fortification, but the original, rectangular grid street pattern is still evident in the old part of the town.

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Bastides were populated by English settlers – the Welsh were permitted to visit during the day and were forbidden to trade. Locals from the nearby Welsh settlement of Llanfaes were forcibly removed miles away to  the west of Anglesey, and settled in a new town, appropriately named “Newborough”. 

Beaumaris was the last of Edward’s Welsh castles. It was designed as a “state of the art” fortress with a symmetrical concentric “walls within walls” design, with four successive lines of fortifications.

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It’s considered to be the most perfect example of a concentric castle. However, it was never completed as Edward was distracted by wars with the Scots and the builders ran out of money. So it looks rather squat as the towers were never built to their full height. Nevertheless, it is still a rather impressive structure today and must have been intimidating to the locals during the 13th Century .

Our Cadw membership meant we had free entry into the castle plus a 10% discount on the guide book. There’s plenty to see and it’s possible to walk around a substantial part of the battlements which have commanding views of the Menai Straits and the town and over to the mountains of Snowdonia. It was a warm day, but rather grey and windy. The light was rather “flat” so my photos don’t do full justice to the majesty of the castle and the views.

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When the castle was built, the sea would have come right up to the south gate (land has been reclaimed from the sea since then) so that it could be supplied by sea.

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The outer walls were surrounded by a moat, and this has been restored so visitors can gain an impression of how it would have originally looked.

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The castle is built from local stone – different types were used and laid out to give a chequerboard effect.

The huge turrets – 16 in total – are regularly spaced around the walls.

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There were massive fortified gate houses in the north and the south walls.

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The “inner ward” contained the domestic buildings and accommodation for the garrison.

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Very little of these “everyday” structures remain, although we were able to visit the chapel

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Very attractive modern stained glass windows have been installed in the chapel.

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A little research afterwards revealed that they were created for Cadw by two Welsh artists – Linda Norris and Rachel Phillips, working as the Creative Partnership, Studio Melyn. On her website, which includes some good photos of the glass, Linda tells us that

We used the plan of the castle, large in scale and centralized within the window layout, as an underlying structure for the windows into which areas of colour and detail was placed. The patterns and colours reference medieval manuscripts, musical notation, coinage, heraldry and the marks of the masons who built the castle.

There are some other photos on the Studio Melyn website.

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Nyth y Fran

After we left Ruthin we drove down the Vale of Clwyd to St Asaph where we picked up the A55. The holiday traffic had died down by then so it took less than an hour driving down the coast road and over the Britannia bridge onto Anglesey. It was only a short drive then over to our apartment which was about half way between Menai Bridge and Beaumaris.

Nyth y Fran (Welsh for bird’s nest) was on the very top floor of Bryn Mel Manor, a large house that had been built in the late 19th century for William Imrie of the White Star Shipping Company (owners of the Titanic).

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We’d chosen well. The house is sited on top of the hill overlooking the Menai Straits and being on the top floor we had particularly good views over the water towards Bangor and its Victorian pier with the mountains of Snowdonia stretched out behind.

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Our apartment occupied the left hand half of the top floor (effectively in the attic) and the windows from the living room, kitchen both bedrooms and the en-suite bathroom all looked over the water and the mountains.

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I never tired of the view which changed with the weather and the time of day.

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The apartment was beautifully fitted out with all mod cons – you just had to be careful not to bang your head where, being in the roof, the ceiling sloped down.

We had two very hot, sunny days during our stay, otherwise it was cloudy and, sometimes, quite windy. But we didn’t really have any rain. So we were able to get out and about. Although we filled our time, there was a lot more we could have seen and done. A week really wasn’t long enough.

Ruthin Gaol

So, after having a look around the small town of Ruthin, it was time to go to gaol (or is that jail?)

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Fortunately, it wasn’t going to be an extended stay as Ruthin Gaol, which is at the bottom of the hill on Clwyd street, is now a popular tourist attraction. There’s been a gaol here since 1654 – previously prisoners were kept in the Old Court House on the town square. The current building is a Pentonville style prison built in 1878 , although there are some remnants of the older building from 1775.

The Gaol ceased to be a prison in 1916 when the prisoners and guards were transferred to Shrewsbury. The County Council bought the buildings in 1926 and used part of them for offices, the county archives, and the town library. During the Second World War the buildings were used as a munitions factory. It opened as a museum in 2004.

The tour is self guided with one of those audio guide thingies that you point at electronic labels located at various points of interest. Rules of entry were quite clear.

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We started in the cook house, where we learned about the diet of the prisoners – not very appetising!

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Then it was down into the cells down in the basement. We were able to look inside various cells and learn about life in the prison.

It was bathtime once a week and the prisoners had to take their turn in the same bath water. Don’t think I’d like to have been at the back of the queue!

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The gaol originally housed both male and female offenders, jailed for various offences, some quite petty and sometimes simply due to poverty. Prisoners had to work to earn their keep – men picking oakum and women sewing an knitting. Prisoners may also have had to break up boulders or walk on the treadmill . If they were badly behaved they may be put in the punishment cell where they would be in the pitch black, or in a padded cell if they were violent. I think our new Home Secretary would approve. She’s probably working out how to re-introduce these practices (for those she doesn’t send to the noose!)

After looking round the basement we took the steps upstairs into the newer building.

The Prisons Act of 1865 set new standards for the design of prisons, which the old gaol, not surprisingly, didn’t meet, so a new four-storey wing was built in the style of London’s Pentonville Prison. It had a familiar look as we’d previously stayed in a similar style (but larger) prison in Oxford (not as inmates – it’s now a fancy hotel!).

A good part of the building is used by the Denbighshire County archives, but we were able to look inside a number of the cells.

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The cells were a little more spacious and the building was a lot more hygienic, with natural ventilation, a water supply in every cell and gas lighting.

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Life wasn’t exactly cushy, though. The food consisted of thin gruel, bread and scouse.

Capital punishment was still legal, but there was only one execution at Ruthin. William Hughes. a miner from Wrexham was hanged in the prison in 1903 having been convicted of the murder of his wife.

We also learned about a local Dick Turpin character (i.e. a criminal who won some public celebrity for his exploits) John Jones, also known as Coch Bach y Bala (the little redhead from Bala) who escaped three times, from Caernarfon and Ruthin Gaols. He escaped from Ruthin by burrowing through his cell wall and climbing down a rope made from his bedclothes! The authorities caught up with him after only 5 days when he was shot in the leg, and subsequently died of shock and haemorrhaging due to his injury.

We spent over an hour looking around the prison but, unlike Coch y Bala, we didn’t have to burrow our way out!

It was time to make our way back to the car for the drive over the Anglesey. Only about an hour away and the time spent in Ruthin meant that the traffic had died down so it was a relatively easy run down to St Asaph and then the along the A55 and over the bridge to Ynys Môn !