In 1767, the Mostyn Estate bought a swathe of land between Pantasaph and Babell for £200 and began the careful process of laying down a racecourse. In fact, the course effectively bisected the route of what was once thought to be Offa’s Dyke, though it is thought now to be the earthwork known as Whitford Dyke. It’s not known in what condition the ancient earthwork was in when work began. There is also the small matter of a barrow within the site, connected to the dyke, though in truth it looks more like a causewayed henge – a fascinating aspect of what was an ancient landscape. It’s still there to be seen, if you have the eyes to see it with.
Sir Roger Mostyn, 5th Baronet (1734-1796) was a keen racehorse owner, and was of a mind to create his own race meeting. His interest was shared by many of the gentry of north east Wales, including Sir Richard Grosvenor (1731-1802), who had a deep and abiding love of racing, and had established studs both at Eaton Hall and Wallasey on the Wirral. The Holywell Hunt was thus established under the patronage of the local gentry of the Mostyns, Grosvenors, the Derby Family and Sir William Watkins-Wynn.
Sir Richard Grosvenor (1731-1802) - an avid racehorse owner and breeder.
The first meeting took place on 9th November 1769 and was, by all accounts, a spectacular event. The meeting opened with a 100 guinea race between Mr Maurice’s Guinea Pig and Lord Grosvenor’s Arabian, with Guinea Pig the winner. Arabian was possibly the subject of a George Stubb’s study of 1765. The signature event, The Holywell Cup was won by Brown George owned by Sir William Watkins-Wynn, 4th Baronet. The Holywell Stakes, ‘for Gentlemen riders’ was run on the same day, a prize of 140 guineas up for grabs, and was won by Midnight, owned by a Mr Jones and ridden by a Captain Fownes. It was said to have been well attended.
George Stubbs, ‘Lord Grosvenor's Arabian Stallion with a Groom’, c. 1765
The Holywell Hunt was an annual affair, run in the month of October and administered by the Mostyns. Various events were added to the race calendar at Holywell over the years after 1769, including, from 1807 the Mostyn Mile Championship, which was first won by Young Chariot, owned by a Mr C. Cholmondley, and ran each year for the next 29 years, with three of the last four races won by horses owned by the Mostyn Family. On one such occasion, so overjoyed was Mostyn at his horse, Piccadilly winning, that he gave an inn in nearby Caerwys to the jockey, who promptly renamed the place after the horse he had rode. In 1834, the noted thoroughbred Queen of Trumps, owned by Edward Lloyd-Mostyn won the Champagne Stakes at Holywell, before taking the Oaks and St Ledgers Stakes - the first horse to do so. It was quite the event, so much so that in 1819, Prince Leopold, later to be named as Leopold I King of the Belgians, visited the races in the company of Robert Grosvenor, 1st Marquess of Westminster. However, despite its popularity, after 1836, it seems the Holywell Hunt failed to meet, until it was briefly revived in 1852 - its final year, despite a grand turn out.
Most of the two mile and a furlong course can still be traced on foot.
It’s not clear what happened to the site after the demise of racing here. Today the area is largely of agricultural use, though the course is, ironically, a bridleway, and can be freely walked, tracing the route of the many races that were run here. At some point, although it is not clear when, a grandstand was raised, which was thought to have been warmed against the autumn chill winds with a sort of coal fired heating system, buckets of smouldering coals in the foundations, beneath the seating. There are no reports of a disastrous fire in the timber framed stand. A hexagonal starters tower was also built. Today, only some scattered but strangely moving masonry remains of the buildings remind us of this curious past.
Not much of the grandstand remains, though the starters tower, seen at the top of the page is clearer.
The grandstand, as it appeared sometime in the late 19th century...
...and in the late 1970s (pictures courtesy of Mike and Edward Parry-Jones) *
Not far from the racecourse, at Ffrith-y-garreg-wen was the training ground, where the horses were run and exercised before the races. There are thought to be at least two tumuli within the precinct, perhaps more, and between the racecourse and the training ground is the fascinating ancient enclosure, Bwrdd y Rhyfel, discussed elsewhere.
An image thought to show the starters tower, some small time after the racecourse fell into disuse.
Each year, during the race meetings, the town of Holywell was tremendously busy with spectators and horse owners. A tale as told, tells of how Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquis of Westminster (1795-1869) was apt to take all the rooms of the White Lion on the High Street in Holywell (which boasted of once hosting Princess, later Queen, Victoria in 1832) for the convenience of his guests. However, on one occasion, Grosvenor found to his irritation that one of the rooms at the inn had been taken by a commercial traveller, and no amount of cajolery could persuade the fellow to leave. Enraged, Grosvenor refused to ever return to the White Lion and instead built Halkyn Castle, where his guests could stay in some considerable luxury.
Should you visit the Google Maps link on the website, the Racecourse is clear to see, there upon the landscape, a ghostly scar in the earth.
*Special thanks to Mike and Edward Parry-Jones for the use of the fabulous pictures from the late 1970s, featured above.