Where can you experience what it was like to be imprisoned in the Victorian era? See intriguing contemporary art and discover some of Wales’ finest craftsmanship? Find a fine example of Carrera Marble sculpture? View the only Prime Ministerial Library in the UK? In North East Wales. Here are five of my favourite places, each with a unique twist, in this beautiful part of the world.
Cae Dai 50s Museum, Denbigh
What connects Chuck Berry, a pink Cadillac, the Great Train Robbers, the infamous Kray Twins, Marilyn Monroe, Camp Coffee and fat pigs? They’re all quirky obsessions of Sparrow Harrison, musician, polymath and wondrously eccentric founder of the Cae Dai Trust, set up to provide support for adults who have difficulties relating to drugs, alcohol, depression and mental illness. and Cae Dai Museum. One of the most fascinating private museums I have ever visited, it’s hidden away in the backwoods of Denbigh; a pair of enormous pigs were slumbering in the Welsh sunshine when I found it. Cae Dai Museum is a huge collection of 1950s (and 60s) items including household objects, furniture, vehicles, clothes, records, toys, books, magazines, groceries, show biz and film memorabilia and LOADS more.
Sitting in the 50s Cafe, juke box playing, Sparrow told tales of his rackety life in 1960s London, singing with his Rhythm and Blues band, Sparrow and the Gossamers, and mixing with all sorts of dodgy characters, including the Kray Twins. He showed me round the Museum and explained that much of his original collection was lost in a fire in 2009, but that, with the generosity of many and his own collective genius, Cae Dai Museum is now bigger, better and even quirkier. As a child of the 50s and 60s the exhibits brought memories flooding back. I was most intrigued by the vast display of all things smoking-related, including hundreds of cigarette packets and lighters, myriad ashtrays and adverts extolling the virtues of smoking for all, including pregnant women. Oh, how times have changed … A definite MUST-SEE for visitors to North East Wales of all ages.
The pretty town of Ruthin is one of the treasures of North East Wales with plenty of attractions including Ruthin Castle, an excellent craft centre and a delightful park. The quirkiest, and most chilling, is Ruthin Gaol. It’s the only purpose-built Pentonville style prison open to the public in Wales. (The only other similar one that I know of in the UK, is Lancaster Castle Prison.) According to my guide book, the first House of Correction, or Bridewell, was built in 1654 to replace the Old Court House, where able-bodied idlers and the unemployed were sent to work. It was rebuilt and enlarged over the years to accommodate up to 100 prisoners. It was closed in 1916 and is now run as a museum by Denbighshire County Council; it’s also their Records Office.
You get a powerful feeling of what daily life would have been like in a Victorian prison. You can enter the cells, including the ‘dark’ cell and ‘condemned’ cell. Apparently only one person was actually here; William Hughes was hanged in 1903 for murdering his wife. The little kitchen area shows what they would have eaten (scouse anyone?) and there are rumours of ghostly hauntings to add to its spooky appeal.
Ruthin Craft Centre
She gazed out towards a triptych of naked mythological Greek figures, pink hair adorned with jewels, vibrant green dress decorated with giant orange swirls, toe nails painted black. This gorgeously OTT sculpture was set in the centre of the main gallery space of Ruthin Craft Centre, centre-piece of an exhibition called Cornucopia by Andrew Logan, He’s an English sculptor, performance artist, jewellery-maker and portraitist who’s has redefined the phrase quirky art.
Ruthin Craft Centre is a purpose-built centre for applied arts with three galleries, six artist studios, retail gallery, education and residency workshops, tourist information point and café with courtyard terrace. The exhibitions and displays change regularly and there’s always something new from the crafts people working there. It brings world-class applied art to North East Wales as well as showcasing the best of Welsh creativity.
The Marble Church at Bodelwyddan
It’s not marble. When I was a little girl we used to drive past this gleamingly beautiful church and Dad told us, ‘There’s the marble church. The marble came from Italy and a beautiful lady built it to remember her husband.’ The story seemed a bit like that of the Taj Mahal in India, constructed by Shah Jahan in memory of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. On a recent visit to North East Wales I discovered the real story.
Lady Margaret Willoughby de Broke, of the Williams family who owned Bodelwyddan Castle, commissioned St Margaret’s Church to be built in memory of her husband, Henry Peyto-Verney. It was built mainly from Anglesey limestone which glitters in the sunlight with a sheen that looks like marble to the untutored eye. The church gets its nickname from the variety of marble used inside. These include pillars made of Belgian Red marble, a nave entrance from Anglesey marble and shafts of Languedoc marble on the bases of Purbeck marble. The most poignant of these is the white Carrara marble font. It has carvings of the two young daughters of Sir Hugh Williams holding a large shell. In the churchyard you can see the graves of a number of Canadian soldiers who were stationed locally.
Gladstone’s Library, Hawarden
“This is Britain’s only Prime Ministerial Library. The collection was founded by William Gladstone. He donated 32 thousand books and papers and left money to build a place to house them. He died in 1898 and Gladstone’s Library was opened in 1906. We’ve created a national memorial to his life and work within this beautiful Grade I-listed building.” Amy Sumner, Marketing Manager of Gladstone’s Library in Hawarden, was explaining how the library came into existence and its life today. “Our collection of books, manuscripts and valuable documents has grown to 150,000 books and printed items. The impressive Reading Rooms offer the chance to study in silence and are available to our Reader or ReaderPLUS member, and also residential guests. We’ve got 26 bedrooms for visitors to stay and enjoy these unique facilities for overnight or longer.”
Gladstone’s Library is described as a meeting place dedicated to dialogue, debate and learning for open-minded individuals and groups, who are looking to explore pressing questions and to pursue study and research in an age of distraction and easy solutions. I went on a Glimpse, one of the short free tours they offer three times daily. We saw many books encased in magnificent library shelves on two levels, artefacts belonging to William Gladstone, including annotated books and his axe, and tried to be as quiet as mice so as not to disturb the readers.
Other things to see and do in North East Wales
The North East Wales coast is renowned for its holiday resorts and there’s plenty to do for all the family, from Flint to Prestatyn and Rhyl. I really enjoyed exploring the newly-refurbished Rhyl Harbour area, which has a good cycle path and great views along the coast. If you want a quieter place, search out Talacre Point in Flintshire. Its sand dunes are home to the natterjack toad and the lighthouse on the beach makes a great photo opportunity. If you love vintage furniture, collectibles, crafts, quirky gifts and a great food, search out Afonwen Craft and Antiques Centre near Mold in Flintshire.
During my stay in Ruthin, I visited Nantclywd y Dre, the oldest timbered town house in Wales, dating back to the 1430s. Converted into a living history museum, its displays demonstrate the changing fashions and the lives of the house’s residents under the theme of the Seven Ages of Nantclwyd y Dre. The large gardens, hidden away at the back of the house, are an absolute joy and an ideal place to relax amidst natural beauty. There are many castles in this area; read all about them here Castle Bagging in North East Wales.
Further Info on North East Wales
I visited the area courtesy of North East Wales Tourism. Their website North East Wales Tourism has got plenty of really useful information to help you plan your own trip to see these quirky sights and much more. You can follow them on social media channels on Twitter @NthEastWales, on Instagram and Facebook. Also check out websites Discover Flintshire – Explore Flintshire – Discover Denbighshire – This Wrexham – Visit Wales.