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Welsh Rarebit by the River

Bridge over River Conwy, Llanrwst, North Wales
Bridge over River Conwy, Llanrwst, North Wales

by David Bigwood

“Welsh Rarebit, please and a pot of tea.” After all, when in Rome etcetera and when in the tea room of Tu Hwnt I’r Bont (Beyond the Bridge) on the banks of the River Conwy in Llanrwst then Welsh Rarebit — or Welsh Rabbit as it has been called — seemed to be the way to go. However, whether this cheese dish is originally Welsh seems unclear although the Welsh apparently have had a taste for cheese going back many centuries. In fact, in 1542 the first record of cheese being cooked does come from the Principality. My cousin, a one time resident of North Wales, assured me that the dish was tasty and was certainly not rabbit.

Having settled on my lunch it was time to survey my surroundings. I was intrigued to see several marks on a post near our table which showed the river levels reached by various floods. Had I been sitting where I was when the water came in I would have been, depending on which year it was, wet to the knees, soaked to halfway up my chest or having difficulty keeping my head above water.

It was a sobering thought that the Conwy, at present a sleepy, shallow river far below us and well within its appointed course could turn into a raging torrent submerging all in its path when the rains tumble down in the hills at its upper reaches.

But then, the flooding was one of the few things I could remember of my last visit to this historic Welsh town when I was five. The others were of the distinctive bridge across the river and of seeing what I remember as an army lorry with a wheel stuck in a large pothole on the bridge.

It is strange what impresses a child’s mind — a bridge, a lorry, a flood but no remembrances of the different language that everybody seemed to be speaking.

And, they are still speaking it and displaying it and being very rightly proud of it. And, as I found out that night in the bar of the Eagles Hotel which stands grandly on the banks of the River Conwy near the bridge I had remembered, they are also very proud of the history of their town and are actively working to ensure that it is kept alive. I met a group from the local Historical Society and was fired by their enthusiasm to find out more about their town.

I started the following morning by visiting the renovated almshouses that had been established in 1610 by Sir John Wynne of Gwydir as The Jesus Hospital to house 12 men over the age of 65 for the rest of their lives. During its sometimes turbulent existence the building has survived an attempt by the descendants of Sir John to avoid paying for its upkeep, a re-organisation in 1851 as the St Paul’s Almshouses, the re-naming as the Hospital of Sir John Wynne of Gwydir in 1927, the condemnation as unfit for human habitation when the last inmate died in 1976, a hurricane in 1987 which brought down the roof, and a threat of demolition until at last its future was secured when in 1996, its renovation began.

The Sir John Wynne Charity and the Llanrwst Almshouses Trust under guidance from the Llanrwst Town Council and with the help of Lottery Grants began to carefully restore the old building until in April 2002, after six years concentrated effort, the building was opened as a museum to which 10,000 visitors came in the first eighteen months.

Llanrwst, cradled by the surrounding hills that rise from the Conwy Valley, is a market town and has also been a major cultural influence in the area with its clock and harp making. It grew beside a crossing of the River Conwy where the famous bridge, reputedly designed by Inigo Jones to replace an earlier structure, was built in 1636. That it is, after almost 370 years, still carrying modern traffic is a tribute to the designer although the first attempt at constructing it failed as the workers managed to insert the keystone upside down after apparently partaking of the ale in the local hostelry at lunchtime. The bridge collapsed but, with the builders restricted to buttermilk, the second attempt was successful.

The bridge has only a single lane and because of its steepness, drivers cannot see if there is another vehicle on the far side so much reversing takes place. My cousin told me, “The local rule is that whichever vehicle gets its front wheels over the crown of the bridge first has right of way.” It seems to work rather well.

The Romans knew the Conwy Valley as they tramped the hills prospecting for minerals. One of their legacies to us is the spa at Trefriw, a village close to Llanrwst, where the iron laden water that percolates through the hill is packaged and distributed world-wide. I was fascinated by the ageless drip, drip of the water from the stalactites into clear pools during my tour of the spa.

Nearby are the Trefriw Woollen Mills where cloth is woven from the fleece of local sheep. Some is much like Harris Tweed in character and my cousin was loud in her praise of the enduring qualities of this Welsh cloth. A tour of the mills is available.

Other places in or near Llanrwst worth visiting include Gwydir Castle on the Caernarfonshire side of the Conwy, the home of Sir John Wynne, the founder of the almshouses. It dates from the 16th Century and is open to the public and has a magnificent 17th century dining room the carved and gilded panelling of which was restored in 1998 when it was returned from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where it had been in storage since being bequeathed to the museum on the death of William Randolph Hearst who had bought the panels at an auction in 1921.

On the same side of the river near the bridge is the 15th century Tu Hwnt I’r Bont where I had my lunch — I do recommend their Welsh Rarebit. This cottage with its winding staircase to the upper storey and dormer windows that look out over the river to the town beyond, was used in its early days as a court house and has also been a private residence before its conversion to a tea room. It is closed between the end of November and Easter.

In the town, near the Almshouses, is the church of St Grwst and its Gwydir Chapel in which is the stone coffin of Llywelyn the Great and many memorabilia of the Wynne family. The church was originally a thatched building built in the 12th century and re-built after its destruction by fire in 1470.

The Wynnes of Gwydir had much influence on the shape of Llanrwst including the building of the Eagles Hotel in which I stayed. The story goes that Sir John did not much like his in-laws so to avoid their staying with him in his castle, he built them this dwelling on the other side of the river.

Llanrwst is ideally suited as a touring base with its proximity to its more famous neighbour, Betws-y-Coed, the coast at Llandudno, Snowdonia, the Ffestiniog Railway and much more. But, do visit the Almshouses Museum and learn about the history of this Welsh market town and admire the enthusiasm of the locals who have rescued a derelict building and turned it into not only a museum but also a meeting place for community groups so that it is a living memorial to the days gone by.

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