Saturday, 30 April 2016
A weekend with the prisoner in Frongoch
and ‘The Prisoner’ in Portmeirion
I am in Wales for the weekend, staying at the Castle Court Hotel in Beaumaris, a former royal borough and once the county town of Anglesey.
It is some time since I have stayed in Wales. I stayed in Saint Michaels’s College in Llandaff, near Cardiff in south Wales, in 2007, when I was visiting theological colleges in England and Wales, and I was in north Wales in 2004 when I led a retreat in Loreto House.
But I have to be honest and admit that while I have travelled through Wales quite often since my teens, I seem to have treated as a corridor between Dublin and the English Midlands, never giving myself a real opportunity to know this country.
I have arrived here this morning on the ferry between Dublin and Holyhead, and Beaumaris is still on the island of Anglesey, at the eastern entrance to the Menai Strait, the waterway that separates Anglesey from the coast of North Wales.
Castle Court, on Castle Square, where I am staying is a 19th-century hotel facing mediaeval Beaumaris Castle and a two-minute walk from the beach and Beaumaris Pier.
Beaumaris is a small town with a population of about 2,000. This was originally a Viking settlement known as Porth y Wygyr, or Port of the Vikings. To the north, the village of Llanfaes was occupied by Anglo-Saxons in 818 but was later retaken by Merfyn Frych, King of Gwynedd.
But the town only began to develop in 1295. After Edward I of England conquered Wales, he commissioned the building of Beaumaris Castle as part of a chain of fortifications along the coast of North Wales. The other castles include Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech.
Beaumaris Castle was built on a marsh from which it takes its name – the French builders called it beaux marais or “beautiful marshes.” French and English masons were brought in to build the castle and a walled town. The castle was designed by James of St George, a master mason from Savoy, and is considered a perfect example of a concentric castle.
The Welsh residents of Llanfaes were moved forcibly as one group to Rhosyr in the west of Anglesey, and a new settlement grew up around the castle. This new town was named “Newborough” by King Edward. In the royal charter, only the English and Norman-French residents were given full civic rights, while any remaining Welsh residents were largely disqualified from any civic office, carrying any weapon, and holding assemblies. The charter also prohibited Jews from living in Beaumaris.
Beaumaris became the main commercial centre of Anglesey and the port of registration for all vessels in north-west Wales.
As well as the castle, the town’s notable buildings include Saint Mary’s, the 14th century parish church, the 14th-century Tudor Rose, one of the oldest, original timber-framed buildings in Britain, and the Bull’s Head Inn, which was built in 1472.
During the Siege of Beaumaris in 1648, during the second English Civil War, General Thomas Mytton had his headquarters at the Bull’s Head Inn. The hill leading north from the town is named Red Hill from the blood spilled in that conflict.
Two of us are using Beaumaris as a base this weekend. Among the places we hope to visit this weekend include nearby Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, which is just 10 km away and is known as the place on these islands with the longest place name:
We may also get to see the cathedral at Bangor, the sea at Lladudno, the mountains of Snowdonia, and the castles at Conwy, Caernarfon and Harlech.
But the first place to see is the former prison camp at Frongoch, which is about 60 km from here. Barbara’s grandfather, Sergeant Joe Doyle of the Irish Citizen Army, was held in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Rising in 1916. It seems appropriate to visit this site 100 years after he was a prisoner there.
Then tomorrow, we plan to visit Portmeirion, which is about 50 km from Beaumaris. This coastal village was designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 in the style of an Italian village, and is now owned by a charitable trust. Portmeirion has been the location for many films and television shows, and was ‘The Village’ in the 1960s television series The Prisoner.
So from the prisoner in Frongoch to the The Prisoner in Portmeirion, this should be an interesting weekend in Wales.