Packing to stay at Ruthin Castle Hotel, my plan was to write a piece about the history of that building, and the medieval castle ruins in the grounds. As history goes, it packs a punch: the ‘modern’ castle, built in 1828, was owned by the Cornwallis-West family who entertained Lady Randolph Churchill and Edward VII, who in turn entertained his mistresses, including Lilly Langtry and Patsy Cornwallis-West, the chatelaine, whose daughter married the Duke of Westminster.
Outside, the crumbling walls of the original castle bear testament to the onslaught of Owain Glyndwr in 1400. Created originally by Dafydd, brother of the last native prince of Wales, (and who was executed in 1282, the first high-profile recipient of Edward I’s hanging drawing and quartering), the castle was granted to Reginald de Grey, ancestor of Lady Jane Grey.
In 1923 Ruthin Castle opened a clinic for “Internal Diseases” run by the wonderfully named Dr Sir Edmund Ivens Spriggs.
So far, so interesting. But stepping through the archway that takes you on a short walk to the market square, I found a beautiful street with astonishing architecture.
And on almost every house, there was a plaque. I hadn’t initially realised, because the first house caught my eye only because it was for sale (alas, well out of my reach.)
The house belonged to Sir John Trefor, one-time speaker of the House of Commons. It seems that Sir John lost his position after an accusation of bribery, but my admittedly limited research points to some aspect of decidedly unfair play on the part of his accusers.
I walked on, thinking little more than how lovely and quaint this street was.
But at the end of Strydd Castell (Castle Street) are the buildings that make up the outline of Ruthin Square. Here I found the old court house, now a bank. At first glance, it is notable for having been the first building subjected to attack by Glyndwr. But a plaque on the wall told me a little bit more about its history:Here, it seems, a Franciscan Friar, Charles Mahoney, was hanged from the gibbet in 1679. Why was a Friar hanged? I discovered that he had been on his way home to Ireland having been preaching in Europe when he was shipwrecked off Milford Haven and tried to make his way north on foot, in hope of finding passage back to Ireland. Alas, he was arrested, charged with being a catholic priest and hung, drawn and quartered.
He’d had the misfortune to be caught at a time when Titus Oates was having success with his anti-catholic ‘smear campaign’, the Popish Plot.
On the other side of the square is another building (also now a bank).
Outside this bank is a stone where King Arthur reputedly slew Huail, the brother of Gildas the historian. According to the life of St. Gildas, written in the 12thc by Caradoc of Llancarfan, when Gildas heard the news of his brother’s death, he came from Ireland and was able to kiss Arthur and forgive him.
Walking back towards the castle on the other side of the street, I came upon the ‘oldest timber-framed building in Wales’. Nantclwyd y Dre dates from 1435/6 and belonged originally to a wealthy weaver named Goronwy ap Madog. The house was extended throughout the centuries and each room inside is decorated to show the different periods during which the house was inhabited.
Work will begin next year to extend the Tudor garden, to which I was allowed access, even though the house was shut for the winter.
This section of Strydd Castell is a tenth of a mile and by the time you get to Nantclywd y Dre you are almost back at the castle gateway. One last building brings us almost up to date, though. For this is the home occupied until recently by Cynthia Lennon, wife of John. She ran a restaurant in the town for a number of years.
I spoke to a local estate agent who pointed out that Ruthin is practically unique, in that one can drive straight from the countryside into a medieval town centre – there is no modern ‘urban sprawl’.
On other streets in Ruthin you will find Siop Nain, a grade II listed building which, as a print shop in 1850, was used to print the Welsh national anthem, for the first time, in Welsh. In the square is a house which was bought by Hugh Myddleton in 1595. He, apparently, provided London with its first clean water supply. Further down the hill is Ruthin Gaol, the ‘only purpose-built Pentonville style prison open to the public as a heritage attraction’ (Ruthin Gaol official website.)
Should you wish to venture a little further away from Ruthin, the abbey of Valle Crucis is unusual in having an upper floor dormitory complete with roof and partially remaining inner walls. At Llangollen is the famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct, an example of the work of engineer Thomas Telford. If you can manage the climb you can ascend 1818 ft up Moel Famau to see the – alas, never completed – Jubilee Tower, planned in honour of George III’s golden jubilee in 1810
I’m never surprised by the wealth of history and historical sites in Wales, but for me, there was a joyous astonishment to discover how much history is contained within that short walk between Ruthin Castle and the town square. 528 ft only, but 16 centuries. I came looking for a medieval castle; I found so much more.
All photos taken by and copyright of the author.
[This article first appeared on the EHFA Blog on 25th October, 2015]