North West Wales: beauty, culture and Rev R S Thomas

We decided to visit North Wales to increase our understanding of Welsh scenery, people, culture and language. We often watch the Eisteddfod via satellite TV and Paolo is learning Welsh using a very effective internet course “Say Something in Welsh”.


North West Wales forms an approximate triangle from Bangor to Holyhead to Harlech and back. Within the triangle, lies an abundance of riches: artistic, geographical, marine, sporting, horticultural, linguistic and cultural. The only things we missed were picturebook villages, medieval churches and a regional exotic “dish”. Nevertheless, local Welsh lamb is full of flavour and, as an exception, the lovely village of Beddleggert offers a medieval priory church and lovely granite houses.

 Those familiar with the high Alps and Lake Como, would find North West Wales comparable in its scenic beauty. Wales also offers modern, creative artists and a Christian heritage dating back to the earliest missionaries in Roman Briton times, since the Welsh are descendants of the ancient Britons. Though subject to general decline, as elsewhere in Europe, the Christian faith continues to flourish in many Welsh and English-speaking congregations.

General Description

Artistically, the border between Snowdonia and the seacoast is “pale” in aspect. The wide backdrop of pale Snowdonia peaks distantly appear the blue of fading hydrangeas above sandy pale yellow estuaries. The salt sea stretches from Cardigan Bay, with the coast of Ireland visible in the distance, around the mystical “finger” peninsula of Llyn ("shin")

This “finger” of land is rich with steeply dropping cliffs, perfect gardens, ancient Christian buildings and the holy island of Bardsey. From there, the coast runs north-east Caernarfon and Roman Segontium and then the shining and glamorous Menai Straits ending at the lovely wide views of Beaumaris.

Within that “arc” are four of the world’s finest medieval castles: Harlech, Criccieth, Caernarfon and Beaumaris, known as the “iron ring” . These were built after the Normans found they were unable to quell the second rebellion in 1282. They were “the final solution” since building four imposing castles was cheaper than waging an ongoing war with the remote Welsh. There was no question of the Norman nobles of offering the Welsh freedom. 

At Caernarfon Castle, it stated that the Welsh made a mistake about the determination of Edward 1st to crush the Welsh. All the castles were built as Bastide towns, built by English or their mercenaries as a combination of town and a castle. The Welsh were prevented from living in them as trading posts or entering them armed. The still forbidding “Prison Tower” at Harlech speaks of “the iron fist”.

Keeping a balance with nature 

On land, this area is a mixture of deciduous trees and pines, grasses, wild foxgloves, rich green mossed rocks, white sheep like tiny lost pearls feeding on high pastures, the clearest mountain streams, empty chapels and small granite houses.

In terms of energy, the area is already in balance with nature due to its hydroelectric reservoir, many solar panels on social housing, remote wind turbines, and on Angelsey, Wylfa, the atomic power station. 

Within this natural balance, conservationists, artists, singers, translators and linguists have been inspired, encouraged and strengthened to defend rural Wales. Nature here appears to have truimphed over poet R S Thomas’s hated “Machine” - science, industry, capitalism, the urban life (possibly a symbol of England). This has made Snowdonia a vast nature reserve, and the whole area a stronghold of Welsh language, culture and Welsh and Anglo-Welsh art.

We were soon investigating the local Anglo-Welsh poet R S Thomas and found his burial place, relishing the home of Welsh opera singer, Bryn Terfel who was born in Pant Glas and who still owns properties near Caernarfon. We loved Rex Whistler’s vision of the Menai Straits as Lake Como as expressed in his great mural at Plas Nywydd, the home of the Marquis of Anglesey. The pale local colours of Snowdonia surely inspired R S Thomas’s artist wife, Elsie Eldridge to paint in pale pastels. This area’s gardens are the lifeworks of its horticultural artists, Elsie Eldridge, the three unmarried Keating sisters and Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, local landowner and saviour of fallen buildings, who also created the delightful Italianate village or “folly”: Portmeirion.

Portmeirion and Plas Brondanw - The legacy of Clough Williams-Ellis

Portmeirion is the charming private village created by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis from the 1920s onwards, from unwanted buildings, such as a Jacobean town hall, arranged around an Italianate piazza. The "Williams-Ellis" colour for woodwork is a kind of light blue (see photo below) which beautifully matches granite.

The village is private - to keep the milling crowds away. The cost of £10 a ticket is effective. At night, Portmeirion closes and the Portmeirion Hotel’s guests can wander around, in romantic peace. We took free transport into its wood, where Monet-inspired ponds and bridges haunt the forest. R S Thomas lived for a time in Portmeirion's bell tower with his second wife in the 1990s.

Plas Brondanw (Historic Houses Association; sat nav LL48 6SW). Plas Brondanw is eccentric Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’s own home. His motto, which seems to have driven the creation of this garden and Portmeirion is impressive: “Cherish the past, enrich the present and shape the future”

The Plas Brondanw garden and cafe is open free (Historic Houses Association). The views and its deserted valley are as fine as any in Switzerland.

Harlech Castle

Its awesome, romantic and imposing outline is visible along the estuary on which Portmeirion stands. 
Built by Edward I, it was designed by an architect from Savoy, James of St George who also designed Caernarfon Castle. His reward was a house at Mostyn in Wales where he died.

The Lleyn Peninsula

This mystical place is about 30 miles long pointing out into Cardigan Bay from Porthmadog. It ends in the villages of Rhiw and Aberdaron which overlooks Bardsey Island. This is where medieval, Catholic pilgrims walked in order to die there and be buried. Bryn Terfel has taken a grand piano over and sung in its chapel (You Tube video).

Aberdaron and St Hywny’s Church

The minister of Aberdaron church was R S Thomas, the Anglo Welsh poet who wrote his biography in Welsh, which he learnt in his late 20s using "Welsh Made Easy". There is an exhibition of his work on permanent display at St Hywny’s Church. It is worth visiting the tiny medieval pilgrim kitchen at Aberdaron which belies its name “Y Gegin Fawr” which means “The Great Kitchen”. The word for kitchen in Welsh “gegin” like so many others has an Italianate root (cf “cucina”), as indeed does “kitchen”.

Cottage at Sarn y Plas

R S Thomas was born in the “triangle” (at Holyhead) and lived within it for fifty years. He and his ailing artist wife, Elsie Eldridge, when denied continued occupancy of the Aberdaron rectory (subsequently sold) by Bishop Gwillim of Bangor, went to live at Sarn y Plas on the Keating Sisters’ estate in a “neolithic barrow” cottage where reportedly, in winter, the temperature rarely rose above freezing. The Thomas’s had central heating installed then Elsie removed it considering it unsightly. 

Elsie loved his place and grew their vegetables in the garden. She died here in 1990. From Sarn, the artistic couple resisted what they called “The Machine”: vulgarity, science, greed, materialism, capitalism, journalism, industrialisation, industrial alienation from nature. From here, R S Thomas predicted that one day, the people who had believed the unfulfilled "promises" of the city (“The Machine”) would return to the values of the inner spirit and to the true God. Theodore Dalrymple says this about him

“R S Thomas struggled to find God to the end of his life, not in the happy-clappy born-again sense but as the search to find a meaning for existence”.

Read Dalrymple’s full article on R S Thomas here.

Thomas and his wife refused to have comforting machines in their homes, but finally accepted that a fridge was useful - and like the central heating at Sarn y Plas - then got rid of it.

Plas yn Rhiw (National Trust sat nav LL53 8AB) 

Their cottage at Sarn y Plas overlooks Hell’s Mouth, where many ships were wrecked. It belongs to the estate of ancient Plas yn Rhiw, the estate of the Keating sisters, who like their friend, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, supported the preservation of rural Wales. These sisters prevented a nuclear power station being sited on the Lleyn Peninsula - by buying up relevant coastal land.

They donated the “treasure” of Plas yn Rhiw - house, garden and estate- to the National Trust. The garden is strangely alluring: its first planting plan was by R S Thomas's wife Elsie. Most memorable is the profusion of wild geraniums set against granite, as adornment. Some of this enchanting garden is her legacy to this part of Wales. Sarn Cottage is now leased to Thomas’s son, but it probably belongs to the National Trust to which it will revert. I hope it is then dedicated to these two great, creative artists.

Between Aberdaron and Caernarfon

Nant Gwrtheyrn Welsh Language Centre (sat nav LL53 6NL)

The centre has recently been opened here, since the Llyn peninsula is the heart of Welsh language speaking. It lies at the bottom of an almost vertical 600 foot cliff which anyone who does not like roads at 45 degree angle, would be well advised to walk up and down. We used Nordic walking poles to make the steep ascent (taking 40 minutes) effortlessly. Without them, we would not have made it. The centre is a fascinating spot, once a quarry. Its has a fine cafe with cosy chairs overlooking the remote sea views and a reconstruction of a quarryman’s cottage. This is a great day out for a rainy day: walk down, have lunch and walk back up - but only using Nordic walking poles.

St Beuno’s Clynnog

Further east, along the Lleyn Peninsula is St Beuno’s Church, Clynnog to which the pilgrims to Bardsey stopped. Today, still large, plain medieval and worth seeing, its previous usefulness has been long outlived.

Caernarfon and its Castle

One must take lunch in Caernarfon, which is an attractive town, at “The Black Boy Inn”. Its interior is rich and warm. It apparently takes it name from the Royalists who supported the swarthy “black boy”, future Charles II. The fine, famous castle of Caernarfon, where Princes of Wales are invested, was ordered to be demolished by Cromwell in 1660, but the command  was thankfully never followed.

The film at Caernarfon Castle clearly views it to have been “a mistake of judgement” not to see in advance the determination of Edward 1st to crush the Welsh.

Today, those historic struggles are not overt here. Due to the ideas of British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, who was born and is buried on the Llyn Peninsula, Caernarfon Castle centres on the slate investiture site of the Princes of Wales. It offers an interesting and moving film on the history of Wales - about how the spirit of the dragon (Celtic/Brythonic) and the spirit of the eagle (Romans) lives on in this part of Wales.

Fascinatingly, we saw an RAF yellow rescue helicopter above us on Lleyn possibly piloted by the future Prince of Wales. Prince William, would be invested at Caernarfon Castle and he may have viewed the very spot - from above.

Segontium (National Trust -free entry)

Above Caernarfon, its museum now closed, are the ruins of the Roman camp of Segontium which stood at the end of the Roman road to Chester. From here Romans ventured forth. A map in Rome seems to show that their empire did not reach beyond Porthmadog, so the local Welsh like to think that they were “never conquered by the Romans".

Menai Straits

Prince William and his wife, Catherine, live near Plas Newydd, Anglesey, the home of the Marquis of Anglesey. The Marquis, now in his 90s, lives in a flat about the house, possibly still writing his military histories. One can imagine that with an outboard motorboat one would spend a very delightful weekend, chugging up and down the Menai Strait below Telford’s imposing bridge. We happened to shop in the Menai Straits Waitrose where Catherine has been spotted shopping for food.

Plas Newydd (National Trust sat nav LL61 6DQ) 

The house of the Marquis of Anglesey has a fine garden, which we did not see, but also a wonderful secondhand bookshop next to the cafeteria which is a delight. It also boasts one unmissable art work: Rex Whistler’s massive mural in the dining room. Rex Whistler, who was in love with the present Marquis’s sister, created this fine fantasy, mixing Wales and Italy, as Portmeirion does before he was killed in action in a tank in Normandy in 1944. It is quite a legacy.

Beaumaris on Anglesey

Beyond the Telford Bridge is Beaumaris, with its wide view out to sea and across the Straits to Bangor. The Georgian buildings were designed by the maker of the Hansom cab in London and endure - in their English elegance. The shops and town are a delight. There is a feeling at Beaumaris, which also has a castle, of the colonial English “retreat”. The Menai Strait is a kind of Riviera, with garages at the top and luxury bungalows and houses built down the cliff with views over the straits.


Bangor has two interesting things, from our point of view: the R S Thomas Study Centre at Bangor University and modest but medieval Bangor Cathedral. The ordinary modern town seems poorly sited to enjoy views of the sea and straits. We located the unmarked tomb of Reformed Bishop Lewis Bayly of Bangor in the Cathedral who wrote “The Practice of Piety”, translated into other languages but not stocked in the bookstall. The staff seemed more interested in the Mostyn Christ than in the books associated with their Reformation Bishop.

Around Snowdonia

Bedleggert - charming village. Bedleggert in the heart of Snowdonia National Park whose ownership ensures that speculative builders cannot snap up any plots with gorgeous views. This is a very pretty village with connections to the ancient Welsh Princes and their hunting dogs. It boasts a former priory abbey Church.

Swallow Falls (sat nav LL24 OOW)

Near beautiful lake, Llyn Gwyant, are a dramatic sets of waterfalls on the River Conwy near attractive Betwys-y-Coed . There are places to eat lunch but one might want to explore the latter village and eat lunch there instead.

Ty Mawr Wybrynant - (National Trust sat nav LL25 OHT) 

Ty Mawr Wybrynant is the the home of the Welsh Bible and William Morgan who translated it in 1588. There are two routes to this remote spot, one seemingly across farms on a farm track through the lovely Gwydyr Forest Park. 

This is great fun if your are ready to get out and open and shut farm gates as it follows the ancient “drovers’ route” to London from North Wales which passed directly past William Morgan’s now remote home. Thus, it was easy to get news from London and get his newly translated Bible to London for the final stamp of approval by Elizabeth 1st, who spoke Welsh, due to her beloved Welsh nanny, Mistress Parry.

R S Thomas’s ashes

We wanted to locate R S Thomas’s ashes. We finally them in St John’s Church, Porthmadog, the gateway to the Lleyn Peninsula on which R S Thomas spent his last thirty years. We had trouble finding any plaques and had to ask a woman who had been visiting the place. Finally, we found his ashes and plaque with all the other ashes by the church wall, with a good view over the neighbouring valley. His plaque is tiny and already fast grassing over. There is no indication that he was one of the greatest poets of the second half of the twentieth century, or a minister in the Church of Wales. He had burnt his cassock on the beach at Aberdaron, in protest that the Church did not finally look after them in their old age (as he had expected).

As I stood by his ashes, I thought about the romantic love poetry he wrote his wife, Elsie Eldridge who in her youth had won the Prix de Rome: in the 1930s she had been part of the London art “elite”, a long-faced, dark beauty who after marrying an unknown Welsh country clergyman (R S Thomas) became an extreme recluse, living very close to nature, producing food for them both “like a bird foraging”.

They had so little money, as Church of Wales clergy were poor, that she regarded her old age pension as riches. Happily, her pale and beautiful mural called “The Dance of Life” is now being preserved in Wales. Her mural speaks of:

“the lost traditions of mankind, with young women at harvest singing to bees...then the lurking mortality, loss of innocence and the destruction wrought by society and science as mankind and machines show what they have done to this world and, finally, to the need to repair this destruction”
(“The Man who went to the West” p142 - see footnote).

She did a lot of work illustrating "Medici Cards" for a small income. Although this mutually creative married pair rarely seemed to speak, their ideas enriched each others, for over fifty years. R S Thomas’s poem “A Marriage” about her passing is utterly moving. Here is another as a “taster” of R S Thomas's sublime love poetry:

“I never thought in this poor world to find,
Another who had loved the things I love,
The wind, the trees, the cloud-swept sky above,
One who was beautiful and grave and kind
Who struck no discord in my dreaming mind....”
R S Thomas to his wife, Elsie Estridge

I am delighted to find that all R S Thomas’s late Christian poetry has been collected. I would highly recommend his Christian poems, “The Chapel” about conversions in the old Welsh chapels now being left to rot and "When we are Weak" about how God works in and through weakness.

Powis Castle (National Trust)

A visit to the castles of north and mid-Wales would not be complete without a visit to Powis Castle near Welshpool, belonging to the Herberts, related to George Herbert - another Christian poet. There is a spectacular garden, with its herbaceous borders in full bloom in July - and a wonderful Elizabethan long gallery.


We returned deeply enriched by these romantic open spaces, beautiful gardens, majestic coastline, mountains, art, poetry, Welsh culture and words, nature and the sense of remoteness.

Deep and life-giving feelings are stirred by these remote places and the art of people who have lived, loved, created and left their mark here.

There is, one senses, something increasingly relevant in the messages and poetry drawing on the music of Welsh (which R S Thomas perceived). Such poetry is surely also inspired by this unspoilt corner of Wales.

  • High quality, well positioned, self-catering accommodation for this tour is: this house with welcoming bilingual hosts Siriol and Dewi. There are more photos of it here

Select Bibliography and information

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