All about the Conwy Valley, Life in North Wales

The history of the Conwy Valley

Historically the Conwy Valley is a place of contrast and beauty. The Conwy River flows through the valley down to the estuary at Conwy, from where it flows into Liverpool Bay. The lower Conwy River was in the past navigable up to a point just below Llanrwst. Boats carried slate and materials from the mines down river, with cargo consisting mainly of coal, salt, and provisions being brought up stream.

The river starts it journey through tributary streams high in the desolate Migneint Moors. This high moorland area, inhabited by sheep in summer, was formed in the Silurian period some 420 million years ago. The area is covered in the most part by thin acid soils where mainly moor grass grows. The waters entering the river in this area tend to be acidic in nature. As the river flows north it is joined by the tributaries of the Machno and Lledr rivers. On reaching Betws y Coed it is joined by the Llugwy.

To the west of the valley, lies the more craggy and majestic scenery of the mountains of Northern Snowdonia (Carneddau). This area is underlined by rock of the Cambrian period, formed some 500 million years ago. From here rivers and waterfalls cascade down often steep rocky outcrops into the River Conwy.

Historically there is evidence of human settlements throughout the valley, some dating back to the Stone Age. On the high western sides of the valley there is much evidence of Neolithic settlements and a number of burial chambers (Cromlech). A particularly fine example of a Cromlech can be seen in the hills above Rowen known as Maen y Bardd (Stone of the Bard). About 500mts from this Cromlech is a standing stone, reputed to date from the 2nd century BC.

The Romans conquest of Wales is well documented, and remains of their mining activities, are scattered throughout the Valley. Their main fortress was near Caerhun, which the Romans called Kanovium. Situated on the western side of the River Conwy, the fort was established to control the river crossing, which was on the main route between the garrisons of Chester and Caernarfon (Segontium). The Caernarfon garrison was built to protect the western sea routes, and mining interests on Angelsey.

In the hills above the valley there are many Hafods (summer dwellings). These were built in later centuries, for stockmen to live in during the summer, whilst their animals grazed these upper pastures.

Throughout the higher reaches of the valley around Betws y Coed and Llanrwst, are many abandoned mining sites. These were major centers for the mining of copper, lead, and silver. Some of these mines date back to Roman times. Many of these sites can be identified by the remains of old engine houses, and waste tips.

The Vale of Conwy Mine and Mill.

High up in the Gwdyr Forest lies the remains of the Vale of Conwy Mine and Mill. The mine operated from 1876 to 1886. The miners worked the lead sulphide ore known as galena. The ores are found in underground veins within local rock, and were loosened by drilling, blasting, and picking.

The miners were often local people who would work their smallholding’s when not employed by the mine. They worked a system of bargains, vying for potentially profitable parts of the mine in which to work, and were responsible for paying for part or all of the tools required to do the job. The ore was carried from the mine in small wagons to ore bins or chutes where it was broken into smaller pieces using hammers, a process known as handbuckling. The crudely processed ore was then carried on another tramway to the Mill. This was a two storey building which housed a roller crusher powered by a Water Mill. The ore was fed into the crusher via a hopper on the upper floor. The resulting finely crushed ore and rock was collected from the ground floor, and taken to the Jiggers which separated the heavier lead particles from the waste rock.

The partially separated ore was mixed with water and poured into the buddle pit, which further graded the mixture according to the weight of the ore particles. The processed ore was taken to Trefriw by cart, from where it was shipped down the River Conwy to be smelted in Flintshire or South Wales

Betws y Coed is the main tourist destination in the valley. It was founded around a monastery in the 6th century AD, and grew further with the lead mining industry. Its main disadvantage for further expansion, was the lack of a river crossing, the nearest being at Llanrwst. This all changed in 1815 with the opening of Thomas Telfords Waterloo Bridge. Following completion of the bridge, Betws y Coed became a major staging post for the London to Holyhead Mail Coach. This led to further developments with the building of hostels and inns.

The valley bottom widens out below Betws y Coed, and this is where the more fertile land lies. This fine, flat, fertile soil was formed by vast amounts of alluvium, washed down off the high ground by rain after the glaciers receded. This more fertile land is mainly grazed by sheep, and dairy herds.

Llanrwst is a typical small market town. It takes its name from the 5th-6th century Saint Grwst, and the original church Cae Llan, which was replaced with the later church in the 12th century. The town grew around, wool, agricultural interests, and harp manufacturing. Its prominence continued to grow with its proximity to the mines working in the surrounding valley. It was for a period one of the most populated towns in Wales, helped by the location of a river crossing in the town, and a small harbour on the northern end of the town. The river bridge (Pont Fawr) is reputed to have been built by Inigo Jones around 1636. The harbour served some quiet large shipping for its day, with voyages to Europe and North America. Over the years silting of the river became a danger to shipping and the importance of river trade gradually died.

The main port on the river in the 19th century was Trefriw, handling some four hundred craft a year in its hey day. It is recorded that one merchant was shipping 42 tons of Dolwyddelan slate down the river regularly, with ships up to eighty tons visiting the port. In the second part of the eighteenth century boat building also took place on the river at Trefriw. In 1833 the old Roman mineral caves were excavated, in an attempt to attract people to Trefriw as a Spa. Trefriw prospered with people coming in great numbers, with many houses being built. By 1910 it had become a very popular Edwardian resort, but the Spa boom died following the First World War, and Trefriw became a place of residence and retirement.

Dolgarrog has the reputation of being the industrial centre of the valley, with its Aluminum Works, recently closed, and Hydro Electric Power Station built in 1908. To the east lies the River Conwy, and to the west the land rises steeply into the mountains of Northern Snowdonia. To serve the Aluminum Works and the Hydro Electric Power Station, a dam was built high up in the hills in Cwm Eigiau. The dam was constructed in the normal way for the period, with deep concrete foundations, and a concrete and stone wall built above. The foundations where not however excavated down to the bedrock. The waters from here were allowed under a controlled flow, down to a second dam built in 1922 at Llyn Coedty.

This system worked well until the 2nd November 1925. In the previous days heavy rain had fallen, leaving fast running deep rivers feeding into the Cwm Eigiau reservoir. With the reservoir full and no open sluices, the water started to filter through the sub soil below the foundations. As the water filtered through it took the soil with it, forming a large void below the concrete foundations. Ever increasing amounts of water flowed under the dam, leading to a torrent entering Llyn Coedty. The flow soon filled LLyn Coedty and under the pressure the dam burst. The torrent ripped down the cwm taking all before it, trees, boulders, and mud, The small village of Porth-llwyd above Dolgarrog was wiped out as the torrent swept down through Dollgarrog towards the River Conwy.

Its journey can be seen today just opposite the Royal British Legion, where boulders thrust down on the torrent lay between the birch trees. Incredibly, only sixteen people died as most of the residence were attending a traveling cinema at the village hall. A memorial to those who lost their lives can be seen just off the road opposite the Royal British Legion

The Dolgarrog disaster led to changes in the design and building of dams for the future.

Rowen is one of the most attractive villages in the valley. The neat stone cottages with their well tended gardens has led to the village winning The Wales in Bloom competition on a number of occasions. Due to transport problems at the time the houses were constructed, people sought local materials to build their homes. Most of the houses are built of local stone, and the majority of this stone was formed in the Ordarician period. Because of the difficulty in splitting and dressing the stones, many large stones can be seen in the construction of these cottages. The road that rises steeply out of the village towards the Youth Hostel, follows the old road that runs below the southern shoulder of Tal y Fan, and past the Cromlech known as Maen y Bardd.

High up above the valley, near the village of Hendre, nestled under the peak of Tal y Fan, is a church called Llangelynin. This church would have originally been on the main route from the Conwy Valley across to Penmaenmawr, and westward to Angelsey and Caernarfon. Near the gate to the churchyard are the footings of an ancient inn, which would have been used by travelers and drovers in centuries past. Standing in the peace and tranquility of this isolated spot you can visualize those times past. The oldest part of the church dates before the 15th century at which time the nave was added. Further parts were added in later centuries, and the church has remained essentially unchanged since the 17th century.

In the left hand corner of the churchyard is a small rectangular pool. This is the Holy Well of St Cleynin, a saint believed to have lived in the 6th century AD. It is reputed to have healing powers particularly for children.

On the other side of the valley just across the river lies Tal y Cafn. There was a harbour and ferry operating from this location for many centuries before it was replaced by the present bridge in 1872. The Conwy Valley Railway runs alongside the river here. This was an important location at the time of freight movements on the railway with a freight depot situated here. The freight depot no longer exists, but the station remains with a manually operated level crossing just outside the station. Crossing the A470 here, is a lane that runs to the village of Eglwysbach. This road used to be a main route from Conwy to Chester, through Denbigh, Llansannan, and LLangernyw. Following this road takes you down to Nant Hiraethlyn, if you carry on over the river bridge and along the old road you come to a cross roads. Turning left here brings you to one of the most beautiful gardens in Britain, Bodnant Garden. Set on the eastern side of the valley, looking across to the mountains of Northern Snowdonia, the gardens are renown for their displays of Rhododendrons, Camellias, Azaleas, and the Laburnum Arch.