Cistercian Way – NE Wales

So there I was determinedly focussing on the south-east, then Roger Haggar from Ceredigion said ‘This links my Peaceful Places churches – can we work together?’. Ceredigion seems virtually done thanks to the County Council’s work on footpaths in the 2000s (see and Then I got emails from three people in north-east Wales and the border country saying ‘Can we volunteer to help with this’. One is an engineer with a passion for GPS. Another is an engineer who likes local history. The third teaches special needs in a FE college: she and volunteer 2 have done churchyard surveying in the past.

I had the statutory end-of-term bout of flu, coughed my way up Twmbarlwm on Good Friday and set off for north-east Wales on Easter Monday. Nest Price’s lovely little cottage at Plas Penucha was free. Organizing volunteers is just a bit like herding cats, and I failed to get them all together in the same place at the same time: but I met Engineer (1) and FE lecturer for coffee at Afonwen, had a good day’s walking with Engineer (1) and had tea with him and Engineer (2) at the tea shop next to St Winifred’s Well, then went walking with both of them the next day. I wasn’t really up to serious walking after the flu, but fortunately Engineer (1) was getting over a dreadful cold and Engineer (2) hadn’t done any walking this year so we were all minded to take it gently.

The first day’s walking was very productive. Engineer (1) had worked out an alternative route from Afonwen to Holywell, which he got from Peter Robins’s Walking Pilgrim site. Ideally it would have been nice to use Ogilby’s 1675 St Davids-Holywell route (for more on this see : light-hearted but very perceptive, and featuring me talking about St Winifred). We can use quite a lot of Ogilby’s route through the Vale of Clwyd but from Afonwen it’s all under tarmac, some of it on quite busy roads. In 2005 we walked through the woods round Ysceifiog lake: pretty but a bit roundabout and tricky to navigate. Engineer (1)’s alternative involved going across the fields from Afonwen to the Dol-uchaf nature reserve but keeping to the road a bit further along to Ysceifiog. This is a very quiet road, little more than a track. Ysceifiog has a pub and a pretty Victorian church with the stump of its medieval cross and the effigy of a medieval priest in the porch. At the road junction in the middle of the village, go straight on along the waymarked bridle path. This runs along the edge of the fields and crosses the lane to Pant-gwyn farm. When you reach the next lane (at OS SJ 162 722) take the bridle path ahead of you


but turn immediately left over a stone stile


bear right across the field and follow the line of waymarked stone stiles. At the third stile (SJ 165 727) the footpath divides: bear slightly left to the furthest part of the field (SJ 166 729) and continue on the same line. When you reach the farm yard at 167 733, there is a stile to the left of the sheep pens and gate. Go straight across the road and continue along the footpath with the hedge to your right until you reach the trees by the ruins of Calcot Hall. Here a footpath goes straight on but it involves a scramble and walking through the farmyard at Ty-coch. Probably better to turn right on a rutted track then take the bridleway to the left. Past Ty-coch this becomes a metalled lane. All around you is the disturbed ground of early lead mining. Bear left on a footpath in front of some houses then turn right on the minor road towards the golf course. Cross the road ahead of you and take the stony track through the golf course and across the footbridge over the A55 dual carriageway. The lane to Holywell goes to the right but it’s worth walking over Penyball Top. According to one version of the story, this is where St Winifred was beheaded by a disappointed suitor. The monument on the top commemorates the marriage, coronation and silver jubilee of George V; it also has an excellent view, from the Clwydian Range to the Dee estuary.

Bear left to walk down Pen-y-ball Top Hill, turn right onto the main road, and take the first left down to Holywell. Go through the shopping centre and down to cross the main road, then down Well Street and Greenfield Street to St Winifred’s Well.

Since we last walked the Cistercian Way in 2005, Clwyd Ramblers have inaugurated the North Wales Pilgrims Way from Holywell to Aberdaron and Ynys Enlli. It’s a pleasant route, meandering though the villages just inland from the coast, and it will probably replace the coast path as the low-level route for the Cistercian Way. It really has something of the feel of a medieval pilgrimage. Medieval people walking to Enlli wouldn’t have headed for the high summits: they would have taken the easy way, stayed near to settlements and diverted to pray at local churches. I would like to keep the high-level route via Brenig and the Denbighshire moors that we walked in 2005 but to be realistic we can’t expect local authorities (in these straitened times, we are all in this together, etc etc) to commit to maintaining a third promoted route. So the high-level route will remain as an alternative for those who want a bit more of a challenge and can cope with trackless moorland and the occasional blocked footpath.

I want the volunteers to:

  • rewalk what is on my web site (archived version still available at and thank goodness for the National Library of Wales’s web archiving programme because my own university has pulled the plug on it)
  • walk the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way as far as the Conwy valley and compare it with the route on my web site
  • suggest improvements
  • rewrite the descriptions as necessary and plot GPS way points which can go on the new web site
  • suggest content for the Places to Explore / Enjoy / Relax / Eat / Stay sections of the new web site

We made a start on this with the second day’s walking, doing the Pilgrim’s Way from Holywell to Maen Achwyfan. Tbh we couldn’t quite see why there was so much main road walking around Lloc and there were a few problems where the GPS points and the waymarks disagreed, but it was a good walk. Intriguing limetone formations in the woods at Coed y Garreg


and a ‘Roman pharos’ (actually a seventeenth-century watchtower to look out for pirates) at the top of the wood.


Here we are inspecting the enigmatic early medieval carved stone at Maen Achwyfan.


On Day 3 I went on my own from Maen Achwyfan to Llanasa and Trelawnyd and on towards Tremeirchion, though I eventually had to cut back to the car. Llanasa is a lovely little village. The church was open and has some stunning late medieval stained glass



(though I don’t for a moment believe the local tradition that it comes from Basingwerk. The head of the Virgin Mary in the Crucifixion scene


is virtually identical with the one at Cilcain and another at Mold. Obviously the same craftsman, or one using the same cartoon.)

Llanasa also has a bit of Victorian misidentification. The saints are medieval but the captions are nineteenth-century. This virgin martyr with the sword isn’t St Catherine but St Winifred. Look at her neck. She was beheaded but her tutor St Beuno healed her – but she bore the scar to the end of her days.


Llanasa has two medieval tomb stones: this little cross raguly under the credence table in the north chancel


and a heraldic stone commemorating a Gruffydd Fychan.


Local tradition identifies him as Gruffydd Fychan, lord of Glyndyfrdwy and Cynllaith and father of Owain Glyndwr. The style of the carving is about right for that Gruffydd’s date of death. But what would a lord of Powys Fadog be doing buried at Llanasa?

And it was here that I found a stamp to stamp your Pilgrim’s Way passport – not as meticulous as the Compostela, and no-one to check that you had actually got there under your own steam, but it’s an idea we could work on.

From Llanasa the Pilgrim’s Way goes south across the fields and west to climb Gop Hill (with a probable Neolithic burial cairn on the top) before descending to Trelawnyd. I missed the famous caves on the way down – at SJ 087 801. This may have been the home of Stone Age hunters: some mesolithic chert and flint tools were found there. There were also two groups of human remains. Some were in narrow crevices off the small cave where the mesolithic tools were found. Another group was in the main cave, along with some Neolithic pottery and flint and a jet belt fastener.

The church in Trelawnyd was locked but I had fun with the heraldic tombs in the churchyard.


Trelawnyd still has its medieval churchyard cross, battered and missing some of its carved figures


but theologically complex. On one side is the suffering Christ, hanging from the cross, with Mary on one side (John the Evangelist is missing).


On the other side is Christ the victor, on the cross but with arms outstretched in triumph.


This is a rather more old-fashioned take on the meaning of the Crucifixion story: the cross looks 14th century and by that date western Christianity was fixated on the physicality of Christ’s suffering. (There’s a very pertinent discussion of this by Giles Fraser at .)

At Trelawnyd the Pilgrim’s Way goes south to cross the A55 then west towards Tremeirchion. I had to leave it at the dual carriageway to walk back to the car. It’s well waymarked and the stiles and gates are well maintained. There was one very muddy section just south of Trelawnyd – but it has been a very wet winter. I’m waiting to hear from the volunteers but it does look as though the Pilgrim’s Way will be the recommended maintained route across north Wales with the high-level route as an alternative for those who feel up to it.


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