With or Without You…

W.I.T.H – Welsh Institute for Therapeutic Horsemanship

It’s a well-known fact that getting back to nature can offer a healing balm to those minds and bodies disadvantaged by modern life. Jackie Williams has taken this concept a step further by introducing horses to help heal broken people. But what of the broken horses? Her rescue centre on Anglesey (a satellite centre to the main base in Portmadog) is home to a wide variety of equines: abused, neglected, misunderstood. It may sound ambitious and unlikely, but Williams is adept at bringing the right combination of horse and human together, to create new bonds of trust, hope, and mutual respect.

Don’t go looking for scientific evidence or hard facts as to why animal therapies work, they just do. Maybe it’s a sixth sense and only tenable if one is open to the idea. After all, communication is key to all forms of life. We do know that horses are a flight animal, reactionary to body language and more than capable of understanding what’s going on inside someone’s head and heart. Friend, or foe? Their survival instinct depends on being able to monitor situations and either look for a means of escape, or seek those beings who offer that safe harbour, a trusted leader. Trust. Once we have trust, we have the foundation to build good relationships, both human and equine. And rehabilitation can be all the richer for being a two-way journey.

I recently enjoyed a visit to Jackie’s centre, based on Anglesey, along with Sandra Roberts who was instrumental in saving the plight of a wild Carneddau pony she named Sapphire, down to her pale blue eyes. This pony had been ostracised by the main herds for a long time and was in a very poor condition. It’s something of a mystery why this mare was shunned, but we think her poor eyesight may have much to do with the herds’ strict list of criteria for survival. After a few months of basic nurturing, Saffy has been physically transformed, although she remains shy. Williams is keen to keep her ‘wildness’ and avoid over-familiarity, in order to add genuine authenticity to those therapy sessions.

And finally, so heartening that four more Carneddau colts have been rescued from the yearly Gathering; one of whom was badly beaten-up by the resident stallion and may well have come to a sad demise. These boys will be gelded and rehabilitated before beginning new careers as therapy ponies.

About the charity

WITH is a pioneering charity based in Portmadog, which aims to help disadvantaged individuals from North Wales and the wider community to improve their health and well-being through equine-assisted, educational and recreational activities. We work with individuals of all ages, many of whom face multiple disadvantages and might never have the opportunity to spend time around horses. Our unique method pairs clients with rescued horses for mutual gaining of trust and respect, and hope for a better future.

More information; book a course of sessions, sponsor a pony or become a volunteer: WWW.with.wales

Some programmes funded by Comic Relief and Children in Need.

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St Dwynwen’s Island

Nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness – St. Dwynwen

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The celebration of Dwynwen – the Welsh patron saint of lovers – takes place on January 25th. Not only does she command a unique day on the calendar, but Dwynwen surely lives on in cheerful spirit. Llanddwyn Island, the slim peninsular of land dedicated to her is so evocative, surely there has to be more than lava rock, saltmarsh and historic ruins here…

ImageGenOne of the 24 daughters of a Welsh prince, Dwynwen lived in the fifth century AD. She fell in love with a young man called Maelon but rejected his advances. This, depending on which story you read, was either because she wished to remain chaste and become a nun or because her father wished her to marry another. She prayed to be released from this unhappy situation and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However, the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and 3) that she should never again wish to be married. She then retreated to the solitude of Llanddwyn Island to follow the life of a hermit. Not so bad, then.

DSCN5479Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers, and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. It was said that the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of the eels that lived in the well. This was done by the woman first scattering breadcrumbs, then laying her handkerchief on the surface. If the eels disturbed it then her lover would be faithful. Visitors would leave offerings at this shrine, and so popular was this place of pilgrimage that it became the richest in the area during Tudor times. This funded a substantial chapel that was built in the 16th century. In 1879, a plain cross was erected in Dwynwen’s memory, followed by the Celtic cross in 1903.

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Beneath the Milky Way by Don Cardy. The ultimate Fantasy Island.

The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’

To see that church ablaze with candlelight against such a backdrop must have been beyond magical. But there is still magic to be found here.

DSCN5466The history behind these scattered ruins across a relatively small area of land, seems all the more poignant for their close proximity … a concentration of beauty and legend, history and romance. There’s a sense of shivery danger too when you learn that at certain high tides, the island is completely cut off from the mainland. And yet there’s a quaint coziness in the row of empty cottages – given over to a small maritime museum – the lighthouse and the boats. I was walking into a children’s adventure one moment, a grisly crime scene or a romantic mystery, the next. (Only in my imagination). And I was on a natural history tour too, scanning the coves for seals, cormorants, sandpipers and turnstones. DSCN5470The rock formations are pillow lava, formed by undersea volcanic eruptions; as the hot molten rock met the cold seawater a balloon-like skin was formed, which then filled with more lava, forming the characteristic pillow shape. These extend down much of the length of Llanddwyn Island, giving it its interesting rolling topography along the beach. These secret coves of washed sand, one after the other nestled into the cliffs were virtually undisturbed, even on a busy day. Combined with the two crosses set against the sky, the solitude lends the place a special peace, a mesmerising natural sanctuary.

DSCN5475No surprise then that the island has been used for various film sets. The lighthouse was built in 1845 in a style similar to Anglesey’s windmills. In 2004, it became a location for filming romantic thriller Half Light. From here there are fabulous views stretching to the misty hills and mountains of the Llyn Peninsula and Snowdonia.

According to Dwynwen nothing won the heart like cheerfulness.  Where else can a writer, photographer, artist, nature lover, bird-watcher, walker or historian find such concentrated richness? I was left contemplating that historical novel, no, wait, I need to write a time-slip historical fantasy. Or the next Enid Blyton? Whatever the outcome, Llanddwyn certainly won my heart.

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Words and photography by Jan Ruth apart from *by Don Cardy.

Watch & Walk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=s27z_gBHqek

Wild, Dark, and Silent.

Wild, Dark and Silent: A testimony to the Welsh Hills…

Wild Water Cover MEDIUM WEBWild Water is the story of Jack Redman, the wronged alpha male who’s trying to make the best decisions for his family but more often than not, gets kicked in the teeth. How often we read novels in the contemporary genres which consistently root for the female character – nothing wrong with a strong woman, of course – but no one seemed to be telling these stories from the male viewpoint, at least not twenty years ago when I began my quest. Divorce still seems heavily weighted towards the partner with the children, and the mother is usually awarded custody unless there are extenuating circumstances which can be proved. Most of the time this is all well and good, but there are a great number of cases where our ancient system is fully exploited. Sadly, a lot of the initial storyline was prompted by real-life experience but there’s no better starting point than this for fiction in the family-saga genre. Jack Redman is a victim not only of the court system injustices but of its inability to deal with the speed and complications of contemporary family life.

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The Wild Water series is strongly rooted in Conwy, a medieval town in North Wales. In the main I’ve used real places, and I do love the mix of historical buildings as a backdrop to a modern tale. Links to Welsh history and heritage are unavoidable in Wales and it’s the visible remains of quarries, castles and farmsteads which give the area a strong sense of the past. And there’s richness in the landscape here which has certainly inspired my writing. St. Celynnin’s 12th century church in the hills for example, is an evocative piece of living history and a landmark which is included throughout the series. It’s exactly the sort of place Anna, with her natural spiritualism, might seek sanctuary. Nestled in the hills 927 feet above the sea, it’s pretty inaccessible and best approached on foot, but this is no great hardship.

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Some of the area is chocolate-box pretty, a lot of it isn’t. The struggle to make a living in this community is mostly based on farming or tourism, although the mussel industry is alive and well. Since I know little about these subjects, Jack Redman emerged as an estate-agent. I like to be slightly unconventional with my characters because another great killer of readability is sameness, and cliche.

It was both daunting, and a pleasure to write the follow-up, Dark Water.

Dark Water Cover MEDIUM WEBThe story picks up three years after the end of Wild Water and Jack is in for another bumpy ride. Dark Water is, as the title might suggest, a darker story partly because my writing style has changed over twenty years, but also because I introduced an element of crime. It’s too easy to become lazy with a sequel and repeat much of what has gone before. The resurgence of Simon Banks created plenty of tension, and a fresh challenge for me to write some of the story from his perspective. New characters such as Clarissa Harrison-Smith and Peter Claymore, breathed new life into the original cast. When I brought Claymore into the story, he had to have a purpose and a passion, and his persona took root in one of the most fascinating buildings in Conwy – sadly in a state of disrepair – but the real life situation fitted perfectly with what I had in mind for the plot.

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This house was built in 1589 by the vicar of Conwy. Since then it’s been a pub, a tearoom and an antique shop. It’s full of spooky atmosphere with cellars, trapdoors and secret passages, and apparently there used to be an escape tunnel which led to the quay. Haunted? Most certainly!

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It’s exactly the sort of place someone like Claymore would want to renovate and bring to life, and the perfect setting for Anna to develop in her own right as a serious artist. Her portrait of Llewellyn the Great is the centrepiece of her launch but of course, this is fiction and nothing goes to plan! The comedy and tragedy of Jack’s life rumbles on. In his own words: ‘Raping and pillaging is still rife, even in the modern world.’

Wild Water Box Set

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Castle of the Crows

Relics of kings, wreck of forgotten wars, to the winds abandoned and the prying stars. Wordsworth, describing his visit to Castell Dinas Bran.

DSCN5428Castell Dinas Bran translates to English as: The Castle of the City of Crows. Perched on a conical hill above Llangollen, it enjoys aerial views and despite its dilapidated state, commands not only a strong historical presence, but also one of love, legend and fairytale. But don’t be fooled by the romance of it all, epic battles and crimes against king and country have plundered across these soils for centuries. If this was a walk through fiction, we could expect every genre under the sun. The name Llangollen is derived from the sacred enclosure of St Collen, who made a name for himself in the 7th century – both here, and on look-a-like Glastonbury Tor – for sorting out fairies gone bad, so I think we’re deep into fantasy before we even start to climb.

dbranThe castle’s first literary appearance is in a 12th-century historical document entitled ‘The Romance of Fulk FitzWarin.’ In this tale the castle is already referred to as a ruin during the early years of the Norman Conquest. It tells of an arrogant Norman knight, Payne Peveril. On hearing that no one had courage enough to stay overnight inside the castle ruins for fear of evil spirits, Peveril decided to take up the challenge, with 15 ‘knightly followers’. A storm blows up and a mace-wielding giant called Gogmagog, appears. Peveril defends his men against the attacks of the giant with his shield and cross, then stabs Gogmagog with his sword. 11755746_750490475060404_7646873740635895243_nAs the giant is dying they hear the story of King Bran and his building of the castle in order to defeat the giant. Despite King Bran’s attempts against Gogmagog, the King had been forced to flee and since then the giant had terrorised all the land around for many years. In his final words, Gogmagog revealed that a great treasury of idols was buried at Dinas Bran which included swans, peacocks, horses and a huge golden ox, but in the true tradition of folklore … he died without revealing their location.

DSCN5435Dinas Bran wasn’t always a castle. The origins of this site go back to a Bronze Age fort, which was destroyed in some bloody battle, followed possibly by a wooden castle … which was also burnt down. This was followed by the 13th century stone version, until Edward 1st invaded in 1277 and it was destroyed again in another bloody battle, i.e: it was burnt down. Sadly, it was never repaired to full glory although the beautiful Myfanwy Fychan resided here in the 14th century. DSCN5437Her admirer, the poet Hywel ap Einion, wrote verse in praise of her, up in an oak tree on the slope of this hill. The final owner, Sir William Stanley from Chirk Castle was executed for his part in the rebellion against Henry 7th, and after his demise the castle’s only recorded inhabitant, was a fierce eagle.

One thing which hasn’t changed throughout the centuries: the view. It’s truly spectacular, a full 360° window across Wales, reaching out all the way towards the Shropshire Plain to the East and into Snowdonia to the West. We didn’t find the hidden treasures of Dinas Bran although according to legend you need a boy, and a white dog with a silver eye to have any sort of success rate. And it was so warm the day we made the climb, once atop we were content to sit and stare, rather than start digging. Even our Yorkies had turned to liquid (that’s the chocolate kind, not the small dogs). Unless … unless those fairies were up to some sort of Celtic mischief …

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Words and photography by Jan Ruth

Watch:http://www.clwydianrangeanddeevalleyaonb.org.uk/castell-dinas-bran/

St Rhychwyn’s Church in the Forest

Beautiful is the large church, with stately arch and steeple. Neighbourly is the small church with groups of friendly people.
Reverent is the old church with centuries of grace, and a wooden church or a stone church can hold an altar place. And whether it be a rich church, or a poor church anywhere, truly it is a great church if God is worshipped there.

DSCN5332It’s a long, long climb from the village of Llanwrst but well worth the effort to scramble up through Gwydir Forest above the spa-town of Trefriw, to visit the oldest church in Wales, dated 11th century.

This remote location above the Conwy Valley may have been used for Christian worship since the 6th century. Rhychwyn, or Rhochwyn, was one of the 12 sons of Helig ap Glannog, who lost his court, known as Llys Helig, when the sea inundated it. As a result of this loss, the sons lived devout lives, some as monks. The church is also known as Llywelyn’s Old Church and the reference to age is perfectly justified. Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Joan – the illegitimate daughter of King John of England – worshipped here in the early 13th century when they stayed at their Trefriw hunting lodge at nearby Lake Geirionnydd.

DSCN5328Joan, also known by her Welsh name Siwan, complained that the walk to church was tiring; 2km uphill from Trefriw followed by 2km downhill. It’s said that Llywelyn founded St Mary’s Church in Trefriw to save her this effort. Since we chose to walk this route on a humid summer’s day, I could fully sympathise with her! At least the long trail through Gwydir Forest was shaded. We passed several warning signs about the old mine workings in amongst the bracken and the broken stone walls. The heyday of metal mining here was between 1850 and 1919. Both timber and metal was transported from the forest to the quay at neighbouring Trefriw, from where it was shipped downstream to the coast. This historical industry is blamed for the lack of fish in Geirionnydd today: the result of the poisoning of the waters from the metal mines?

Interesting that there are literary connections to this diocese too, the most notable being Taliesin – a 6th-century Welsh bard living on the shores of the lake – and the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose work has survived.

DSCN5329Once out of the forest, the climb continues past hill farms and uphill through twisted iron kissing-gates, into fields where only sheep manage to remain upright. Any sign of the original settlements here have long gone and the historical relevance becomes more pronounced. Once the past is delved into, these cruel and pretty surroundings give tremendous weight to their own stories and I couldn’t wait to get inside the church. Although we were surrounded by the magnificence of Snowdonia the immediate location of this lovely building is rather nondescript, not as pretty as St Mary’s church on the river, nor does it hold the charm of St Celynin’s church in the hills. DSCN5334It seems tucked away in a corner and hidden by trees, and rather strangely, the back of the church faces outward. But the sense of history here is both compelling and unique. The ancient wooden door, complete with wooden hinges, closes behind you with a thunk, and those thick walls block out every sound apart from the wind as it continues to find a way through the innumerable gaps and crannies of the building. It really does feel like you’re inside a time capsule. DSCN5335The roof beams are some 800 years old and the bell is reputedly from Maenan Abbey. The east window has coloured images of the Virgin Mary and of the Holy Trinity. Apparently, this type of colouring is rare, and this example is probably the oldest of its kind in Wales. There are a number of dusty Welsh bibles still open on the creaking pulpit, and services are still held here despite its lack of nearby road or level track. There’s something mystical and magical about buildings as old as this, so I can fully understand why someone would still choose to attend a service here and brave the incline. 

I think I spent almost as much time wandering in the churchyard and reading the wonky gravestones, bordering the path like a set of crooked teeth. No point looking for Llywelyn here… DSCN5331The church in Llanrwst is now famous for containing his carved stone coffin, whilst his wife rests in Beaumaris church on Anglesey. Although this was an arranged marriage, it was clearly a love story too. In 1230 William de Braose, a young Marcher Lord was discovered with Siwan in Llywelyn’s bedchamber. De Braose was hung for adultery and Siwan was placed on house-arrest for 12 months. In time, though, he came to forgive her and Siwan was restored to favour. She gave birth to a daughter in 1231 and died at the royal home at Abergwyngregyn, on the north coast of Gwynedd, in 1237.

As for Taliesin, he is at the bottom of the lake…

Words and photography by Jan Ruth.

Chocolate Erotica

Erotica: (from the Greek ἔρως, eros “desire”) is any artistic work that deals substantively with erotically stimulating subject matter. All forms of art may depict erotic content, including painting, sculpture, photography, drama, film, music or literature. Erotica has high-art aspirations, differentiating it from commercial pornography.

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How dark can you take it?

High art. Does this apply to chocolate? In my opinion, it applies more to chocolate than a lot of literature. And if chocolate was graded according to fiction then surely it would have to be erotica? Award Winning Cathryn Cariad Chocolates are most certainly the high-art end of chocolate creation, removing themselves from the crude porn of supermarket chocolate bars and divulging our senses of the most sophisticated chocolate experience.

1385363_482502991848463_161612903_nCathryn Cariad chocolates are not bound by the conventional selection box either. Be prepared to delve into several sub-genres and rest assured that chocolate dragons will be someone’s erotic fantasy, but as you may expect, romance takes the biggest bite. And not just the chick-lit love of chocolate shoes and Champagne bottles – but a diverse and satisfying array of fillings expertly coupled with either white, milk or dark. Where to begin? Clearly, all of this needed researching thoroughly!

220px-Cocoa_PodsChocolate has enjoyed longstanding stories of magical and mythical properties, so it’s only fitting that the name of the tree it comes from, Theobroma Cacao, means “food of the gods”. Ancient Mesoamerican art, depicting cacao gods and goddesses, rituals, and cacao in sacred caves and mountains, indicates the cacao tree may have been seen as connecting the gods and humans, heaven and earth. It seems perfectly fitting then that chocolate trees flourish only in the hot, steamy tropics; more specifically in a swathe roughly 20 degrees north and south of the Equator.

Mujer_vertiendo_chocolate_-_Codex_TudelaOf course, before the raw product arrives in Snowdonia the beans are harvested, fermented, roasted and graded according to quality. The process continues when the ‘nib’ is extracted and ground. This is called conching and produces cocoa and sugar particles smaller than the tongue can detect. The length of the conching process determines the smooth, sensuous quality of the finished product. After this, the chocolate can be liquefied, ready for blending and moulding, and the final seduction can begin.

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Recently, I had the very great pleasure of meeting Master Chocolatier Cathryn O’ Connell, the founder of the award winning cottage industry in the heart of Snowdonia: Cathryn Cariad Chocolates. The products are handmade in a rather beautiful setting overlooking the Moelwyn mountain range and within earshot of several vocal hens, and more than one cockerel (all of whom, for ease of identification are named Brian). The local steam train tooted and chugged across the mountain in much the same way it had done for over a hundred years, as we talked about Snowdonia, the history of Cathy’s amazing property, books and … chocolate. 

Ah, the chocolate room of pleasure! The full chocolate experience should start with light kissing: creamy white chocolates filled with lemon and Welsh lavender from Rhayader. Or maybe you’d rather explore the delicate laciness of wild elderflower. Too sweet? Progressing onto milk chocolate is a comfort zone enjoyed by many and the fillings are not quite so innocent and teasing. Homemade butter caramel and Welsh vanilla sea-salt. Purple Moose Ale, Brecon gin… Sooner or later, we arrive at the penultimate. The Dark. Warning: this strength of chocolate erotica is highly addictive. Rich, controlling, surprisingly diverse and not so sweet.

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Dinner party mystery game. Want to play? First, employ a silk blindfold to concentrate the taste buds and raise the selected truffle to nose, and then palate. Now, can you identify the exact combination? Is it sloe gin with a secret layer of raspberry jelly, or maybe the dragon-roasted coffee? 11188231_10204823515609570_1145162359249804135_nYou surely wouldn’t mistake Welsh Dragon chilies with cinnamon and nutmeg – rich, aromatic spices with a kick of heat from the chilies – just the way the Aztecs liked it, apparently. And for the more experienced or to confuse the senses of a seasoned taster, try innocent virginal white chocolate and Welsh honey from Arthog, ruthlessly coated in devilishly dark chocolate. The masked one! Without a doubt, Cathryn Cariad Chocolates are an imaginative selection box of mystery and fantasy. It can most certainly be romantic and erotic. It has historical roots and global appeal, but will only perform at its best when we understand the science fiction of it all.

Try a dark, dark salted caramel and wait for the full sensory experience, or a creamy milk truffle filled with blackberry brandy… go on. It would be criminal not to.

Web: http://www.cathryncariad.com/

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St Mary’s Church on the River

They delved in the meadow where the old stones lie, but deep in my bed, O safe, safe was I. For Christ He was slain where other regions trod, and I shall rise again from thy acre, God.

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I have a fondness for local churches, and St. Mary’s at Caerhun has plenty of ingredients to satisfy my historical muse, especially since this particular church occupies the site of a Roman fort, that of Canovium. Even the name itself has a magical, filmic quality. Despite my well-oiled imagination it’s not easy to visualise some 500 Roman guards and over 100 mounted cavalry who were stationed here 2,000 years ago, in such present-day tranquility. Their job would have been protecting the mines and those important trade routes across Snowdonia, and to defend the river crossing as traders moved from Chester to Caernarfon. Scattered in the fields flanking the river are the remains of the ramparts, and a bath-house. The Romans abandoned the fort in the 4th century and thereafter, legend suggests it was occupied by Rhun ap Maelgwn, King of Gwynedd.

It’s presumed the original church here was built around the 13th century but the only datable material is the walls (partly red sandstone blocks which were part of the original fort) and the font. 264421_481539608597021_2046608805_nAnd it was most likely built by Cistercian monks, who had a penchant for dedicating all their churches to the Virgin Mary. It has a twin bell-cote with a date of 1657 inscribed along with the warden’s initials, but no evidence of there ever being a second bell. The lychgate is especially grand, designed to provide shelter for coffins before funerals: the seats at either side were for the pallbearers to sit whilst they waited for the priest. And I love the three yew trees in the grounds, dated at around 1,200 years old. In Christian symbolism yew trees are associated with The Resurrection but the main reason for their existence here was the harvesting of the wood to make longbows! Unfortunately, yew leaves are poisonous to cattle and sheep which is why these trees are usually enclosed within church grounds.

DSCN5327Today, St. Mary’s is a haven for history lovers, bird watchers, walkers and worshippers. And of course, sheep. The birds, the flora and fauna here are well-protected and documented. The church carries a full list of sightings, and from a writer’s point of view, I do like to be able to attach names to local birdsong, to add that all-important authenticity. Buzzards are common throughout Snowdonia, their distinctive circling and mewing always attracts attention, as do the red kites. It’s the smaller species which are more difficult to identify. Apparently, Caerhun is the most likely place in North Wales to see a hawfinch. DSCN5300The finches are attracted by the resident yew trees, along with the mistle thrush, fieldfare, redwing, pied wagtails and brambling. During April, swallows migrate from Africa and nest under the lychgate. These are easy to spot, catching insects on the wing. And down on the river there’s a whole host of waterfowl: egrets, herons, geese and the ever present herring gulls.

Is it a strange pastime to read gravestones? I did this a lot as a child. There was no creepy angle, I think it stemmed more from an interest in people and their lives. One headstone which makes for difficult reading though has been used as edging for the church roof. Apparently it belongs to Richard Hughes of Tal Y Cafn, dated 1702. When restoration work was carried out in 1970, human bones were found embedded into the walls along with a medieval stoup. No one knows if they were anything to do with poor Richard Hughes up on the roof or whether the bones belonged to an important family who needed to remain hidden, perhaps during The Reformation to avoid their destruction.

More conventionally, several victims of The Dolgarrog Dam Disaster in 1925 are buried here along with a 13th century chieftain, the Ferryman and the Nickson family who donated the stained glass window.

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Other notables are two Liverpool businessmen, a cotton merchant and a copper-mill owner. Two servants, Jacques Anrioud and Jane Jones married in Paris in 1873 but are both buried here. I’d love to know their story…

Maybe I should write it anyway and it could be a historical time-slip novel, a pulling together of the present and the past. Dashing, romantic Jaques from Paris and a scandalous affair with local Welsh maid, plain Jane from Caerhun.

Watch: http://www.barksy.tv/videos/canovium-roman-fort/

Words and photography by Jan Ruth.