Corwen Churchyard Cross


The writings of Elias Owen is where it all started for me. I'd followed my soon-to-be wife to be to the north east of Wales, and was startled to find how very similar it was to the north of England - all coal and steel. It seemed to me, that really the only difference was the accent. But here's the rub. As northern as I was, and my background is as northern an Englishman can be before he becomes a Scot, the industry - the coal and the steel were of little interest to me. I spent my hours wandering woods and fields, messing about by rivers and, joy of joys, scrambling over the fallen walls of Roche Abbey - long before English Heritage (bless them) moved in and tidied the place up. Coal and steel were in my background, but not my blood, I think.

So, moving to north east Wales was a bit like coming home. And I did what I did when I ten - I went a wandering. I'm not sure when or how I first came across the writings of Elias Owen, but I'm tremendously glad I did. I felt an immediate connection - with his enthusiasm and more than anything, his heartfelt connection to the land and the people - their interests, concerns, ideas, thoughts and feelings, and how they made sense of their landscape. His work showed such love and empathy, I was quite moved. And it served to settle me here.


Owen's Old Stone Crosses of the Vale of Clwyd (1886) is a work of wonder. Not a page is without fascination. A joyous read. And I was determined to visit each and every one of the crosses so brilliantly spoken of and illustrated. The first visited was Corwen Churchyard Cross - and one I've been back to see on many occasions since.

Owen believed it to be Norman in date, and he is quite correct - as he often is. In fact, the cross is believed to be the earliest post-Conquest cross in north east Wales, probably early 12th century. While there is plenty remaining, much has been lost, of course. Its always something of a miracle that anything survives, other than as a basestone or sundial. The headstone is missing and lost, now, but we have a fascinating drawing of the cross from 1789, a drawing by Richard Gough in illustrating a 18th century edition of Camden's 'Britannia'. It shows a really rather striking octagonal cap. Searches of the churchyard, and within the church, even in the town about have found nothing that we can identify with the lost headstone - pieces of sepulchral slabs, certainly but nothing of the headstone.

And, a comparison of the two images above will show another distinction. Gough's drawing shows the 'rude stones' upon which the cross rests, also mentioned by Thomas Pennant, writing at the end of the 18th century. By the time of Professor Westwood's visit in 1835, the cap and 'rude stones' had gone, although he is said to have discovered what was possibly a fragment of the headstone by the font within the church - since lost.

Pennant was of the opinion that the stones were 'formed in imitation of, and in veneration of th sacred Cromlechs of very early time.' This is fascinating, since there is an ongoing debate as to the possibility that both the church and churchyard were raised on the site of a Bronze Age burial site, possibly something even older. The curious and rather fabulous Carreg y Big yn y fach Rewlyd, a prehistoric monolith once stood by the north wall and was later incorporated into the porch. And then what of Owen's belief that the basestone of the cross had within it, Neolithic cup marks?

Intrigued yet? I certainly was, and still am of course, since answers are somewhat unforthcoming. And I'll let you into a little secret - I rather like the fact that we're unlikely to ever really know the truth. There's a void there that thought can work within. A mystery that rails against the urge to explain all and everything.

Owen drew his own rendering of the cross as he saw it at the end of the 19th century. While absolutely recognisable as the Cross of Gough and Pennant, much had changed quite obviously in the hundred years between them. I adore Owen's drawings - they sing. The beautiful Latin cross on the east facing side of the Cross is stunning, and predictably attributed to that son of Corwen, Owain Glyndwr. The similarity to a dagger is obvious. There is another within what is now the lintel above the entrance of the Priests door, spied through a protective grid and said to have been caused by Glyndwr, in a rage, hurling his dagger from the lofty heights of the Berwyn's looming above the town.

Corwen was where I first felt I was following in Elias Owen's footsteps, marveling at the same wonders as he, walking where he walked. This is what I love most about history - to know that where I am, others have been, have asked the same questions, felt the same frisson of connection with others - thousands of years of questions and wonder.

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There was rain in the air, and the winds did blow, but after two weeks of Covid related isolation, nothing was going to stop me - Lord no, so it I was away, following a genuine curiosity.

You may have gathered, that my head is in the past - and when I say past, I mean millennia past. But, here's a thing. While I was burying myself in OS maps of the mid 19th century Caerwys and Holywell area, I came across Holywell Racecourse. A quick shufty on Google Earth and there it was still, clear enough to be seen, clear enough to visit. A look at a modern OS map, and would you believe it. much of it is still traceable by footath and, irony of ironies, brideways. Now, that had to be visited...

At two miles and a furlong, it wasn't the longest of courses (although a smidge longer than the much older Chester Racecourse. Laid down in the 1760s by the racing fanatical Mostyns, the first race was on 9th November 1769, and run in the October of every year after until 1836, when it seems to have come to an end. It was run once more in 1852, but then seems to have died a death for good.

There are a few tales surrounding the races, possibly apocryphal, but possibly not. Richard Grosvenor, the 2nd Marquis of Westminster is said to have lost his temper when he found that one of the rooms in the White Lion in Holywell, an establishment he was in the habit of booking in its entirety during the Holywell Races for his guests, had been taken by a commercial traveller who refused to leave. Grosvenor is said to have never returned to the White Lion, and instead built Halkyn Castle for himself and his guests.

Another, is how Lord Mostyn was so happy with a win at one of the Holywell Races, he gave an inn at nearby Caerwys to the jockey - an inn that is to this day, still named after the horse - The Piccadilly Inn.

Today, other than the Racecourse itself, much of which is still there to be walked, the ghostly remains of the grandstand and starters tower remain - scattered masonary amongst a field of turnips - winter feed for the sheep.

The starters tower today...

...and what it used to look like.

The grandstand today...

...and how it used to look, a few years after the end of the races in 1852.

All in all, a rather wonderful day.

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Days scanning the reports of upcoming weather. Days stuck indoors with nothing beyond the windows but unseasonally temperate drizzle. Woe. When will it end, when will the brown skies break, the rain cease and allow me to move..? Well, today as it happens.

And so out, up to Rhewl, breath catchingly lovely Rhewl, and up into the Llantysilio Mountains. A hike, in truth, and away with the post Christmas blues, the Covid related news and the indescribably filthy weather...

Passing Coed y Gadfa, the Wood of the Battle - the scene, it is said, of the destruction of Llywelyn's ap Gruffudd's army by the forces of Henry III, and rife with the unquiet ghosts of the slain. Cae Llywelyn is next, the field within which the Prince of Gwynedd camped before making to escape across the Rhiw Goch.

And ever upwards into the Llantysilio Mountains - to Moel y Gaer, commanding the ridge between Moel Morfydd and Moel y Gamelin. Blessed sun, wind...and snow showers, all 500m above meh level.

Inspired, invigorated and aware, the creeping, crawling ennui dispelled...

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