Sooner or later, many writers are faced with a dilemma. You’re invited to write about a ‘secret, unspoiled’ corner of the world … and you know that, as soon as you’ve put pen to paper, it’s going to be a ‘secret’ no more.
Such a place is the Welsh market town of Ruthin. It lies in the beautiful Vale of Clwyd. Clwyd means ‘gateway’, and this is the gateway to Wales, which most folk dash through horse-blinkered, on their way to Snowdonia or the seaside resorts on the North Wales coast.
Ruthin Castle stands on a ridge overlooking the town. It was the castle that gave the town its name, for it’s a corruption of Welsh words meaning ‘red fort’, referring to the sandstone from which it was built. The castle, which was built in 1277, is in ruins now, but in its grounds is the Ruthin Castle Hotel, built in 1830 as a grand house in the Victorian Gothic style, with battlements and crenellations to recall a more romantic age.
The castle ruins are still worth exploration, but once you’ve finished, and ventured out into the town itself, you’re almost immediately confronted by Nantclwyd y Dre, This was built in the 16th Century, and is believed to be one of the oldest town houses in North Wales. It’s open to the public at weekends in summer; see see www.nantclwydydre.co.uk for details.
There are older houses than this, though. Turning into Well Street, you’ll pass the quirky Siop Nain, a hundred years older than Nantclwyd y Dre, where, in 1860, the Welsh National Anthem was first printed. Sometimes, it seems every other house in the centre of Ruthin bears a plaque saying someone famous either lived or stayed there, or a notable event took place. Only a few paces away, the timber-framed Wynnstay Arms was host to George Borrow, the author of Wild Wales, one of the earliest guide books, in 1854.
The County Assize Court, in Record Street is an imposing Palladian style building raised in 1785. It’s a court no longer, though. In 1970, it became the Public Library … and, from outside, it has the air of yesteryear, when talking above a hushed whisper would earn you an icy glare from the ‘book dragon’. But, once inside, all is light and friendly.
The best of the old buildings are in St. Peter’s Square, at the top of the hill. One of the first things that struck me about Ruthin is how businesses of all kinds have adapted those old houses to their purposes without wrecking their ambience. They have kept, for instance, the stone outside Barclays Bank, where King Arthur is reputed to have beheaded a rival in love.
Another bank, the National Westminster, is housed in the Old Courthouse, a lovely old building erected in 1401; only a year after Owain Glendower razed the town, and left only three buildings standing. If you look carefully, you’ll see the beam where they used to hang convicted criminals; the last person to be so treated was a Catholic priest in 1679.
One particular building that catches the eye in St Peter’s Square is the Myddleton Arms. It was built by Richard Clough in the 16th Century, based upon designs he’d seen in the Low Countries’ when he lived in Antwerp.It’s the earliest red brick building in Wales … although the red brick is now whitewashed,
Its most striking feature, however, is the ‘Seven Eyes’ or the ‘Eyes of Ruthin’ … seven dormer windows, arranged in three storeys in the roof.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the quirky and unusual buildings to be seen in Ruthin. If you go, and are the slightest bit interested in architecture, be prepared to spend a lot of time there. And, take plenty of memory cards!