‘The Romans took advantage of this elevated situation and placed on its summit a Pharos, to conduct the navigators to and from Deva, along the difficult channel of the Seteia Portus’.
Thomas Pennant, ‘The History of the Parishes of Whitewell and Holywell’ (1796)
Standing at the highest point in the parish, its height clear of the overgrowth of the woods about it, Mynedd y Garreg Tower is a mystery. The tower, restored at the end of the 19th century, was believed by Thomas Pennant to have been a Roman pharos, or lighthouse, guiding shipping into Deva, modern day Chester, of course, through the treacherous mudflats on the Dee Estuary, some 1600 years before the building of the Talacre Lighthouse.
As tempting a proposition as this may be, and it would make good sense to site a lighthouse here or hereabouts, there is unfortunately little actual evidence, other than Pennant’s enthusiastic assertions that the Romans built a pharos here. Having said that, they certainly had a considerable presence in Flintshire, including the coastal areas from which the lead they mined from the hills around and smelted locally was shipped out, to Chester as well as further afield. But it’s curious that neither Camden or Lhuyd make mention of such a considerable Roman remain. It is in fact Pennant who first mentions the tower, and our first image of the would-be pharos is from Moses Griffith, working in his service.
An original drawing by Moses Griffith in Pennant's ‘The History of the Parishes of Whitewell and Holywell’ (1796)
Current thinking is that it was actually built by Sir Roger Mostyn (1568-1642), who’s land the tower sits on, in the early 17th century as a watchtower, to give warning of pirate activity in the Dee Estuary, perhaps even Catholic invasion out of Ireland. If so, it would have served as part of a network of beacons which would have included those at Abergele, Deganwy and Llandrillo-yn-Rhos, all in Conwy County. There is a history of watchtowers and beacons in Flintshire. It is thought that at nearby Gwespyr the Saxons built a watchtower, mindful of Norse raids out of Ireland and the Isle of Man. At Moel y Gaer hillfort at Rhosemor, a Napoleonic beacon was raised in 1815. The Garreg Tower is marked as a maritime beacon in 1766, but curiously on an earlier estate map of 1732, it is marked as a windmill - might it have served as both?
Surrounded by vegetation, the view from the Tower is much obscured, but its inherent mystery is retained.
Part of the reason for the persistence of the pharos theory is the commemorative stone that was built into the tower above the doorway on completion of the restoration works, reading,
‘This Roman pharos was restored by Llewelyn Baron Mostyn in commemoration of the 60th year of the glorious reign of Victoria, Queen and Empress, June 20th 1897’.
Thus the tower became something of a Victorian folly.
There is no access into the remains of the tower, and the view of the estuary at ground level is entirely obscured by trees and scrub - this is a shame, since without the overgrowth, the views would be stunning. Still, it is a fascinating site, if for no other reason then because no-one is entirely sure when and why it was built. I find that strangely reassuring.