A day in…Ruthin

By | Category: Travel destinations
Ruth gaol cook

a “cook” at Ruthin gaol. the “cook” may not tell you much but the guides weave a great story.

Back in 2009, a booklet was published about the town called Slow Walks Round Ruthin. A new edition keeps the same title. Why “slow walks?” Because the author, Derek Jones – and I agree – think that is a lot more to see than you might imagine in this small rather sleepy town in North Wales. With just an hours flying visit, you’ll miss a lot. Some parts of Ruthin you will need to hunt out.

The old castle for example. Incorporated into the Castle House Hotel, you will need to wander around the gardens to see the castle that predates the Victorian homage to an earlier age. The old castle has tunnels (you can’t usually get in these) and stone work still surviving in odd parts of the gardens. Look at the building and you will see where parts have been added over the centuries. With a flying visit you’ll just imagine that it’s a nice hotel, set in pleasant gardens.

Ruthin has to be explored, not just seen.

One of the oldest houses – Nantclwyd – in the town was built in 1435, 580 years ago, during the reign of Henry VI. To put it into perspective, that’s about 130 years before the birth of Shakespeare; Chaucer had been dead for just 36 years and the Battle of Agincourt was only 20 years previously. Joan of Arc had been at the stake only four years before this. There was no printing press yet, the bible hadn’t been translated into English let alone Welsh and the Wars of the Roses were still in the future.

Nantclwyd y dre

Nantclwyd y dre. Next year the restored gardens will open

Today, Nanclwyd isn’t a memory of a mediaeval house; it’s a mirror of how Ruthin has changed through the ages. One room is largely unchanged from the fifteenth century but another is how a Georgian bedroom might have been and another as it was at the beginning of the twentieth century.  In all, seven different scenes are presented within the house. From the gardens you can see across the Vale to the Clwydian mountains but the house isn’t open every day. Check before you visit.

The house is on Castle Street which leads you to the natural centre of the town, St Peter’s Square. But as you walk along this street and the others in the centre, look at almost each and every house. There are plaques on some which will tell more about the house than many guidebooks will tell you. There’s the house of Sir Hugh Myddleton who provided fresh drinking water to London and any array of more modern buildings, those from the Tudor period! Incidentally, all the houses on Castle Street are listed by Cadw – the Welsh heritage organisation. There cannot be that many streets that can claim that reputation.

When you get to the square, a plaque on the National Westminster Bank will tell you that it was the old court house. Don’t just move on but go inside and look at the layout of the building. There are still the galleries from which onlookers gazed down at miscreants. Outside is the remains of a gibbet from which the last person was executed in 1674 From the courthouse, others more fortunate than those sentenced to death might have been sent to the old gaol which is open to the public. Parts go back earlier but the main wing is Victorian and looks like many prisons do. You can wander inside the cells but the key part is the enthusiasm of the guides as they take you around and telling stories such as that of John Jones who became quite the local hero for his ability to escape, once even walking out whilst the prison officials ate dinner.

old coart house, Ruthin

Inside Natwest; the old court house complete with wooden beams

Across from the Natwest is a stone outside yet another bank, Barclays which is supposedly linked with King Arthur who beheaded Huail, the brother of Gildas Cambrensis, the historian, who was supposedly his rival in love. There is even a spot of red colour on the stone for dramatic effect. As to the historical truth? Still it makes a good story for the town’s tourism guides.

Gaze from the stone across to the other side of the square and you will see what the locals call the “Seven eyes of Ruthin.” Built Sir Richard Clough, a successful Elizabethan entrepreneur and spy for the queen, he spent much of his time in the Netherlands which is why the house looks so continental. The seven eyes are windows that emerge from the roof.  Today the building is a restaurant.

As a place to base yourself whilst exploring, the surrounding countryside, Ruthin fits the bill for not only are there many hotels and guesthouses to suit almost everyone’s taste, there are enough restaurants and local shops to keep anyone occupied for half a day.

margaret Carter - the lady with the VW. and the pate and the terrine and the chocolate and...

Margaret Carter – the lady with the VW. and the pate and the terrine and the chocolate and…

One place you might not be able to visit, though, is a food manufacturer on a local industrial estate. But if you can’t visit, you’ll see the owner – Margaret Carter  – and her distinctive VW Camper Van as she drives into the square most days to visit the bank. This larger-than-life, South American born lady has built a thriving business making pate. The Patchwork Traditional Food Company has over seventy product lines, and not just pate anymore!  Some products are traditional and some redolent of a lady who doesn’t fit the bill of a shy and retiring grandmother. How about a chicken liver and horseradish vodka pate for example?  Or a bourbon soaked blueberry with a bourbon caramel ice cream?  Or a chocolate cointreau terrine?  She – and the company – remains as ebullient as the vehicle she drives.

But that fits Ruthin. It might look a little old-fashioned and trade on its past but in many ways it’s very modern. Down at the Ruthin Craft Centre, you’ll find potters, artists and craftsmen producing the sort of work smart London galleries yearn for and charge exorbitant prices. Here you can get it cheaper and meet the creator to boot.

As you walk down to the centre you’ll spy holes in the buildings and walls as you go by which is part of the Ruthin Art Trail.

a section of Castle Street - all Cadw listed

a section of Castle Street – all Cadw listed

There are ten in all and in each there is a sight to see and a little story to read. It is part of the art trail in the town which also includes 22 “Ruthin figures” although I only managed to spot 15. You see, I told you this was a town you needed to explore and not just visist. Obviously I didn’t explore it for long enough to dind the other 7!

For more about Ruthin, click here.

For more about this area of North Wales, click here.


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