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 !

A wander around Ruthin

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After we’d looked around the exhibition at the Ruthin Craft Centre, we decided to walk the short distance into the small town and have a look around.

There’s been a town here since the 13th century when, during t his consolidation of the conquest of North Wales, Edward I had a castle constructed in this strategic location. There’ not much left of the castle today and it’s now part of a hotel, set in it’s own grounds. Apparently  Prince Charles stayed here for the night before his investiture as Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle in 1969. As was usually the case, a community developed around the castle, so the town was probably originally a bastide, populated with English settlers. But these days it’s very Welsh!

Probably the most notable event in the town’s history occurred during the Welsh revolt 1400–1415 led by Owain Glyndŵr. The revolt was sparked when Reginald de Grey, Lord of Ruthin, who was a big mate of the king, Henry IV, allegedly stole some land claimed by Glyndŵr . His response was to attack Ruthin with several hundred men, looting and burning down most of the buildings in the town. This was the start of the rebellion, during which Glyndŵr  was proclaimed Prince of Wales.

Being rather out on a limb away from the main industrial centres, Ruthin is rather frozen in time and, as a consequence, there’s a significant number of interesting old buildings. It’s a small town centre, only a few streets, so it didn’t take long to look around.

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The Old Court House was built in 1421 after the original court house building was burned down by Owain Glyndŵr ‘s men. It’s a Grade II* Listed building and until 2017 housed a branch of the National Westminster Bank.

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The Old Court House

Nantclwyd House in Castle Street is a Grade I listed timber-framed mansion and the oldest building in Ruthin dating from 1314.

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Nantclwyd House

Today, it’s a museum. Unfortunately we didn’t have time to visit.

There’s some “newer” buildings, too, a number from the Georgian period

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Exmewe Hall, on St Peter’s Square, it looks like a Tudor timber framed building, but was actually reconstructed during the 20th century to mimic the black and white town mansion, built around 1550, that originally stood on the site.

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Exmewe Hall

I enjoyed looking at the old buildings, but before we headed back to the car to set off for Anglesey, we had to go to prison!

Basketry in Ruthin

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Last week we were in North Wales where we’d booked an apartment in Anglesey, on the coast between Menai Bridge and Beaumaris for a family holiday. It’s only a couple of hours drive from home (or a bit longer during holiday times as the A55 gets chocker with traffic at the weekend) and we couldn’t get into the apartment before 4 o’clock, so we decided to break the journey by visiting the historic town of Ruthin, in the Vale of Clwyd. We parked up by the Ruthin Craft centre where we had a bite to eat in the excellent little cafe before taking a look round the current exhibition.

The Craft Centre is something of a hidden gem. Located in a modern building on the outskirts of the town centre (on what used to be the site of the railway station before the line was closed back in the 1960’s) it has craft studios, gallery exhibition spaces, restaurant, craft library and, of course, a shop. Most of the craft studios seemed to be unoccupied (due to economic factors, no doubt) so it’s not really a place to see craftspeople at work. But it has a good, airy display space and they always seem to pull together a good programme of exhibitions which straddle the border between “craft” and “art”

The latest exhibition – Basketry: Function & Ornament with works on display by 30 “creators”, had opened the day of our visit and was a good example of how “craft” and “art” are not necessarily different categories, but part of a continuum. The Craft Centre’s website tells us that the exhibition

brings together functional vernacular work from various parts of the country, alongside pieces that are sculptural and ornamental. It is a survey of a craft that has been somewhat sidelined in times of great technological advances, yet offers a sustainable answer to so much of our modern day throw-away habits.

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Some of the works were traditional baskets and the like, all beautifully made,

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Baskets by Mandy Coates
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Baskets by Mandy Coates

but many of the works were artistic, sculptural forms that were decorative rather than utilitarian. There were some exquisite pieces – works of art created using traditional craft techniques.

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Piece made of willow by Lizzie Farley
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Piece made of willow by Lizzie Farley
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Piece made of willow by Lizzie Farley
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Three pieces by Mary Butcher
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Burden baskets made of carbon steel wire by Stella Harding
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Nests made by Joe Hogan

Rafael Perez in Ruthin

I was in North Wales for a brief work related visit to a factory on Tuesday. I was done just before midday so decided to pop into nearby Ruthin. For a while I’d been intending to visit the Ruthin Craft Centre and so this was a good opportunity to do so.
The craft centre has a number of workshops used by artists, but also has three galleries where they hold exhibitions, a shop and a cafe.
One of the current exhibitions features the work of a Spanish ceramic artist, Rafael Perez. He’s not exactly a traditional potter, producing abstract ceramic sculptures rather than utilitarian pots.

He uses black earthenware and white porcelain clays which behave differently in the kiln, the earthenware expanding and giving off gases, distorting and producing complex forms. In some cases pigments are applied which result in brightly coloured sections. He has a good understanding of his materials and how they behave in the kiln and uses these properties in a controled manner

“I have developed various clays at a medium temperature (around 1150 degrees) that have the quality of expanding upon firing. By combining these with other inert clays (sometimes red Spanish clay but generally porcelain with a low melting point and a melting agent in their composition) I make my sculptures.” (Interview on Contemporary Ceramics blog)

Interviewed by Ceramics Now Magazine Rafael reveals that

“My work is about surprising myself and the audience, using white porcelain and black earthenware clay, fired at high temperature. The black earthenware expands, thus creating a volcanic landscape. It is not just a natural landscape, because it is directed by me. I have created the cuttings from the beginning, but still the aspect of surprise is always present, because what happens in the kiln is unpredictable.” Rafael Pérez

Some of the pieces on display looked as if they were solidified molten rock
While others were much more geometric and structured.
rafa also produces works on paper and ceramic “wallworks” such as this

I know that his work will not be to everyone’s taste, but I found them fascinating and very interesting.