Steve Goodier visits Denbigh and discovers that this ancient town has quite the history…
Denbigh is a busy town that is beautifully located in the dramatic and breathtaking Vale of Clwyd at a strategic point. It has a long and varied history and is a great place to base yourself to explore the likes of stunning Llyn Brenig Reservoir and the Denbigh Moors that surround it. It is also well positioned for enjoying walking in The Clwydian Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty that dramatically fills the skyline easterly above the town.
Denbigh always brings to mind warm sunny spring days when I think of it with white fluffy clouds drifting in a blue sky above the aforementioned Clwydian Hills. This is perhaps because on the occasions I have caravanned in the locality it has usually been during April or May and I’ve usually been very lucky with the weather!
At one time Denbigh was the County town of Denbighshire and its name (when translated from the Welsh) simply means ‘Little Fortress’ which refers to a stronghold that the Welsh princes held here previous to the castle.
The town of Denbigh literally grew up around the castle which dates from 1282 when construction on it began by order of King Edward 1. The site for the fortification was well chosen on a rocky and grassy mound that is elevated above the surrounding land and so was very easy to defend. Edward’s architects may have had some help here as it is highly likely that there were previous forts and structures on the mound that dated back many centuries before construction of the castle took place. It is certain, for instance, that the Welsh had a fortification here as early as the start of the 13th Century.
Having defeated and subdued the Welsh people, King Edward 1 set about keeping them from rebelling back against him by undertaking a long series of castle building projects to help him in this matter. Denbigh Castle was one of these and it was given (along with The Lordship) to Henry de Lacy, the Earl of Lincoln who was one of The Kings most successful military leaders. It was de Lacy who, along with master mason James St. George, designed the castle as we see it today. The castle was built in two phases along with over half a mile of town walls. The first phase saw the rapid building of the outer defences principally along the southern and western sides, and it was during this initial period that the town walls came into existence too. The second building phase continued into the 14th Century and saw the majority of the inner buildings being constructed. Between the two building periods the castle was captured during a rebellion led by Madog ap Llywelyn who overran it in November 1294. The castle was recaptured by Edward 1 in December of the same year.
The town of Denbigh, although growing up around the castle, had an equally turbulent history and was burnt to the ground in 1400 during the revolt of Owain Glyndwr.
It was largely destroyed again during the Wars of The Roses between 1455 -1487 and as a result of this, it moved from the position it had occupied around the castle to be more centred on what is the present town market.
During the English Civil War Denbigh was a refuge for a Royalist garrison which surrendered in 1646 after which the castle and walls slowly fell into ruins.
Today Denbigh Castle is a popular tourist attraction and is a steep climb from the environs of the town itself. You can wile a good morning away there and marvel at the famous triple towered ‘great gatehouse’ which is often referred to as one of ‘the seven wonders of Wales’. And to extend the day you can explore the line of the old town walls too as a visit to them merely involves borrowing a key from the castle or the town library. A small refundable deposit is required but the views are great although there are a few slippery steep steps and places to be negotiated.
There is more to the history of Denbigh than just battle and war and down the centuries it has been an important location for the agricultural trade. As well as this the textile industry became a mainstay of employment in the 1600’s with many specialist weavers, glovers, shoemakers, saddlers, furriers and tanners living and working here.
As a mark of the importance Denbigh was held in a Church was begun in 1579 by Robert Dudley the 1st Earl of Leicester and Baron of Denbigh. This Church was planned as a Cathedral and it was intended the title of ‘city’ be transferred from neighbouring St. Asaph to the town. The project was never completed as it simply ran out of money.
Modern day Denbigh is a pleasant location to spend time around and has a good selection of independent shops and a modern feel to it. There is a lively arts scene and plenty of pubs, restaurants and cafes where locals and visitors alike rub shoulders. The old town square is a great place to begin your explorations and a pleasant location to simply sit quietly and watch the hustle and bustle of the world go by.
There are secret gardens to discover and more listed buildings than any other town in Wales. A day spent exploring the castle followed by a nosey around the streets of the town is time well spent with new surprises appearing around most corners turned.
There are two designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest to seek out – Crest Mawr Wood which is adjoining Denbigh Golf Club to the north west of the town and the Tarmac Quarry which is where you will find an endangered and ancient deciduous woodland. Geographically Denbigh is well connected to surrounding areas by the A525, the A543, the B5382 and the B4501. There has been no rail connection to the town since 1962.
Probably the most famous person born in the town was the Welsh journalist and explorer Sir Henry Morton Stanley (in 1841). He was best known for his African search for the missionary and explorer David Livingstone and his famous quote when he found him: “Dr. Livingstone I presume?”
Denbigh is often viewed as town simply passed through on the way to Ruthin and maybe Wrexham beyond or somewhere glimpsed as you head for St. Asaph and perhaps the coast around Rhyl or Prestatyn further on.
This is a shame as the town is well worth at least day of your time – you’ll be surprised as what you find there if you decide to make it your destination next weekend! For the general tourist and lover of history it’s a great place to spend time and for the mountain biker or walker it’s not a bad place to base yourself either – there’s plenty of footpaths, hill country and quiet lanes all around to go and explore to your heart’s content.