MY MOST recent walk was neither particularly long nor particularly coastal, involving as it did an amble alongside the River Dee as far as Chester, which is not on the coast. But what Chester lacks in coast it makes up for in being absolutely lovely and that was justification enough.
Train & Rain
I alighted from my train in Flint (Fflint) to find the sky clear and blue and the temperature if not balmy then at least not as eyeball-freezingly cold as the weather had hitherto been. A solitary raincloud loomed nearby disgorging half-hearted drizzle but it passed over quickly enough that it was more of a drive-by shooting than a sustained bombardment.
Castle Park Industrial Estate
Retracing my steps to where I had previously left the Wales Coast Path (Llwybr Arfordir Cymru), I rejoined it to traverse a lightly-wooded path beside a short muddy creek that looked to have once been a quayside. The path skirted the edge of an industrial estate on its landward side, while the other gave me views across the sands of the River Dee (Afon Dyfrdwy).
The Sands of Dee
The sands can be treacherous, with quicksand, mud and tides that all too easily cut you off on soon-to-be submerged islets. This became the theme of Charles Kingsley’s 1848 poem The Sands of Dee:
‘O Mary, go and call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
And call the cattle home,
Across the sands of Dee.’
The western wind was wild and dark with foam,
And all alone went she.
The western tide crept up along the sand,
And o’er and o’er the sand,
And round and round the sand,
As far as eye could see.
The rolling mist came down and hid the land:
And never home came she.
‘O is it weed, or fish, or floating hair—
A tress of golden hair,
A drownèd maiden's hair,
Above the nets at sea?’
Was never salmon yet that shone so fair
Among the stakes of Dee.
They row’d her in across the rolling foam,
The cruel crawling foam,
The cruel hungry foam,
To her grave beside the sea.
But still the boatmen hear her call the cattle home,
Across the sands of Dee.
The sands of Dee are growing as the river silts up and its tide limit moves ever further westwards. Salt marsh has developed along its margins and I soon found myself gazing upon a swathe of it while on the horizon the four chimneys of Connah’s Quay Power Station looked a lot further away than two and a half miles.
The path veered inland to take me past Flint Castle, at which point the raincloud caught up with me and gave a quick sprinkle for luck. It also topped up the salt marsh in case it wasn’t waterlogged enough.
Flint Castle (Castell y Fflint) was the first of Edward I of England’s ‘Iron Ring’ of castles, which encircled North Wales and ensured that his conquest of Gwynedd was not reversed. It was begun in 1277 under Richard L’Engenour — who nicely bookends my walk by also being Mayor of Chester in 1304 — but oversight was handed to the Savoyard architect James of St George in 1280.
A Significant Cost
It was completed in 1286 with an accompanying bastide: a fortified town to support the castle, populated by the English and from which the Welsh were barred. The town itself had no wall but was protected by a rampart, ditch and wooden palisade. Even so, castle and town cost a combined sum of £6,068, which was an enormous sum in those days. In fact, while a militarily successful occupation strategy, the Iron Ring would ultimately bankrupt Edward’s treasury.
Revolts of 1282 & 1294
Flint Castle was attacked in 1282 by Dafydd ap Gruffydd (brother of Llywelyn the Last and himself Prince of Wales for less than a year before Edward had him executed — he became the first person ever to be hanged, drawn and quartered for High Treason).
It was attacked again in 1294 by Dafydd’s distant relative, Madog ap Llywelyn and the castle’s constable set fire to it rather than surrender to the Welsh.
Just over a hundred years later, in 1399, Flint Castle was the scene of Richard II’s surrender to Henry Bolingbroke, the rebellious Earl of Derby, promising to abdicate if his life were spared (he was murdered in Pontefract Castle the following year).
English Civil War
Flint Castle’s glory days came to an end in the English Civil War when Parliament captured it in 1647. The castle was slighted, leaving only the ruins standing today. They offer no shelter from the rain.
Across the Marshes
Beyond the castle, the path, to my inexpressible joy and delight, ventured out onto the salt marsh. Initially it was just bouncy underfoot, with maybe just a slightly squishy quality. Pretty soon, it was properly waterlogged and then, oh what larks, the boardwalks started.
Now you might wonder why I object to some nice raised boards as an alternative to losing my boots in foul-smelling mud and the answer — obviously — is that I don’t, especially when they are crossing an actual stream. To object to that would be churlish. But these boards weren’t an alternative, they were a supplement.
Walking or Wading?
There were several stretches of board and the spaces between them were every bit as submerged as the spaces beneath them. Where exposed, the mud was, as Terry Pratchett described his fictional River Ankh, ‘too stiff to drink, too runny to plough.’
Such are the challenges of walking in December despite all the objections of common sense. Well, I say ‘walking’, ‘wading’ might be more appropriate.
Not for the first time, I was very thankful for waterproof boots. Although the protection afforded by the boots only went so far; the lower legs of my trousers were bespattered with mud. Actually, so were the rest of them. In fact, most of me. It looked like I’d been sprayed with mud through a collander. I have no idea how I manage that; it’s probably a knack.
Now that I looked like a very amateur bog-snorkeller, the path had done its marshy duty and returned me to civilisation. This took the form of the A548 as it passed through the village of Oakenholt.
An Ancient Village
Oakenholt’s name comes from Old English and means ‘copse of oak trees’ but people were living and working there long before the Anglo-Saxons arrived. Builders working on a new housing development last year discovered the remains of a Roman road and lead works.
Somewhat newer but still impressively old is Oakenholt Farm, a small sheep farm whose grade II listed farmhouse dates back to 1450.
Unlike many Welsh villages, tiny Oakenholt has also managed to hold onto some industry into modern times. Not the lead processing of its Roman incarnation but its Victorian paper mill. Opened in 1870 as a subsidiary of the Liverpool-based paper-makers McCorquodale, the North Wales Paper Company Ltd was nicely situated for both the river and the railway.
The mill has seen both good times and bad but made it intact to the new millennium, when it was bought by Swedish company SCA Hygeine. Today it makes tissues and toilet rolls.
The A-Road Again
The A548 was my companion as I left Oakenholt, a role that caused it to swell with pride and become a busy dual carriageway. This was fairly unpleasant to walk beside but I did not need to do so for long as I soon found myself taking a small side road next to the access road for Connah’s Quay Power Station.
This is a gas-fired affair, generating 1,420 MW and completed in 1996; it gets its gas via an eighteen mile pipeline from the Point of Ayr Gas Terminal. The power station stands on the site of a coal-fired predecessor, which was opened in 1954 and closed thirty years later. It has several chimneys.
The side road turned out to run alongside the power station, before directing the path under a junction on the A-road onto the A548’s old course through Connah’s Quay (Cei Connah), now the B5129.
The A548 meanwhile, veered off to cross the Dee via the Flintshire Bridge, which was opened in 1998 and cost £55m to build. It was intended to divert traffic from driving through the centre of Connah’s Quay and was planned to meet up with a new Flint bypass with access to the A55.
The bypass was never built and, since the bridge doesn’t really go anywhere immediately useful, a lot of the traffic still goes down the old route. The locals mockingly call it ‘the bridge to nowhere’.
Deeside Power Station
The two-chimney Deeside Power Station was built in 1994 at a cost of £200m, compared to which the bridge is cheap as chips. Like Connah’s Quay power station it is gas fired and it generates about 500 MW.
The road upon which I now found myself was urban in character as I passed through Connah’s Quay, which swallowed the hamlet of Kelsterton in the mid to late twentieth century.
Indeed, Connah’s Quay has somewhat exploded since its eighteenth century founding in what was then empty fields; it is now the largest town in Flintshire, dwarfing nearby Flint.
Created to replace the port of Chester, which had silted up so badly as to be unusable, the town’s original name was New Quay (for a given value of ‘original’).
This led to potential confusion with New Quay in Cardiganshire or Newquay in Cornwall and so it was changed in 1860, prompting a whole new set of confusion as no one now knows with any certainty who Connah was. The town council favours the theory that he was the landlord of a pub on the quay but there are several other competing theories.
Its Welsh translation — Cei Connah — is used by approximately no one at all and was concocted purely for bilingual road signs as Welsh doesn’t use the letter Q.
By the 1950s Connah’s Quay had befallen the same fate as Chester, with its two docks long since silted up. Its industry faltered and died and its railway station was closed but, even so, Connah’s Quay grew at an impressive rate. These days it is mostly a dormitory town for a steelworks across the Dee.
At some point, the slightly run-down urban sprawl that I was traversing stopped being Connah’s Quay and turned into Shotton, not that one could tell much difference. Shotton is a great deal older though, having been founded by the Anglo-Saxons; its name comes from Old English Sceot + tun, meaning ‘farmstead on a steep slope’ (where ‘sceot’ is cognate with modern English ‘shoot’).
Shotton was a tiny farming village surrounded by marsh until the eighteenth century when coal mining and the steel industry provided wealth and land reclamation provided land that sheep could actually stand on.
Two railway lines pass through Shotton at ninety degrees to each other and it was when I saw the railway bridge crossing the high street that I knew I’d missed the turn-off for the coast path a mile and a half back. Fortunately, missing the turn off wasn’t too terrible a disaster, it just meant that I’d kept walking down the B5129 when I could have been walking alongside the Dee.
Between Connah’s Quay and Chester the Dee is narrow and flows in straight lines, having been canalised in the 1730s. A footpath returned me to its banks beside Hawarden Bridge (Pont Penarlâg), a railway swing bridge built in 1889.
With shipping no longer navigating the heavily-silted Dee, the bridge no longer needs to open and thus, to save on maintenance costs, the bridge was welded shut in the 1960s.
Although Hawarden Bridge has a footpath, the Wales Coast Path didn’t cross the Dee upon it but instead continued along the south bank until it reached Jubilee Bridge about a mile downstream. I considered my options.
John Summers Building
I crossed Hawarden Bridge, noting as I did so the magnificent red brick building of John Summers & Sons, iron and steel producers, built in 1907-8.
John Summers was a clogger in the early nineteenth century who bought himself a nail-making machine at the 1851 Great Exhibition for use in his clog manufacture. Nail-making expanded into more general iron and steel production and his sons took over the company when he died in 1876. They built a steelworks next to Hawarden Bridge and by the time they added this office building, John Summers & Sons was the UK’s largest manufacturer of galvanised steel.
Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain
In 1951, the steel industry was nationalised by Clement Attlee’s Labour government and John Summers became part of the Iron and Steel Corporation of Great Britain, which is the sort of unnecessarily long brand name to make marketing people cry. It also made the Tories cry, since they opposed nationalisation, and so, having won the 1951 General Election, Winston Churchill’s Conservative government promptly privatised the steel industry in 1952; John Summers & Sons was promptly sold off again.
This kind of unseemly to-ing and fro-ing is always a risk with democratic party politics. Which is why, in 1967, Harold Wilson’s Labour government re-nationalised the steel industry, this time choosing the altogether snappier title of British Steel for the enormous, outdated and woefully inefficient monster that it created.
British Steel was privatised again in 1988, this time as a single company, British Steel plc, which merged with Dutch firm Koninklijke Hoogovens in 1999 to form Corus Group plc, the world’s third largest steel producer.
Tata Steel Europe
In 2007, Corus was taken over by India’s Tata Steel Ltd and is now a wholly-owned subsidiary of that company under the name Tata Steel Europe. They still operate the Shotton steel plant next to Hawarden Bridge.
Diversion by the Dee
Having crossed Hawarden Bridge, I now discovered that the footpath along the north bank of the Dee was closed for repairs. There was a diversion — along Tata Steel’s private access road — which ran parallel to the river.
The road was straight and about a mile long and singularly lacked in excitement. In particular, it being a Saturday, it lacked the terrifyingly dangerous excitement of speeding steel lorries, their drivers confident that no pedestrians would be striding down their private road. Sometimes dullness is a virtue.
I returned to the riverside path at a point directly opposite the town of Queensferry and next to its Jubilee Bridge.
Originally the site of a hand-operated ferry, which replaced a ford when the Dee was canalised in the 1730s, Queensferry used to simply be known as Lower Ferry and still is in Welsh (Y Fferi Isaf).
In 1820, it was renamed in English to Kingsferry in honour of the coronation of George IV and when George’s niece became Queen Victoria in 1837 the town renamed itself again and this time the name stuck.
A steam ferry was in operation by 1861 but a retractable bridge replaced the ferry in 1897 (Victoria’s diamond jubilee year) and its name also stuck so that when a replacement bridge was opened in 1927, it was also called the Jubilee Bridge.
If the bridge were capable of sadness, one possible reason might be that it was built as a bascule bridge, raising up like a drawbridge to allow shipping to pass. This no longer happens as the lifting mechanism was removed in the 1960s (at about the same time as Hawarden Bridge was welded shut). It is a grade II listed building.
A494 Dee Bridge
Right next to the Jubilee Bridge is a 1960s fixed arch steel and concrete road bridge, built because the Jubilee Bridge could not handle the volume of traffic trying to use it. Of course the ‘Blue Bridge’ was built because the original Jubilee bridge could not handle the volume of traffic in the 1920s and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if that was built because the ferry couldn’t cope.
You will be shocked and amazed then to learn that the A494 Dee Bridge struggles to deal with the volume of traffic and that plans have been mooted to build a second A494 bridge at Queensferry and divide the dual carriageway between them as part of a wider road-widening scheme. The whole scheme has come to naught however, having been cancelled in 2008 due to its complexity and cost.
Still, getting to your destination is more satisfying after a struggle with traffic, I expect.
The Canalised Dee
I passed underneath the road bridge, narrowly avoided death by cyclist and saw the canalised Dee stretching out ahead of me.
I ambled along the river at no urgent pace, enjoying the low winter sun and dodging the occasional cyclist (bombing past at breakneck speed).
Close to a Kestrel
At one point I caught movement on the very edge of my vision and turned to see a kestrel hovering at head height as it keenly scanned the river bank for prey. It was no more than a dozen yards away and I froze, lest I startle it. Carefully, I delved into my pocket for my camera, fully expecting it to soar off into the sky (practically all wildlife I see flees as I reach for my camera).
My camera left my pocket, The kestrel flapped once, adjusting its position, and hung in the air directly in front of my face. I raised my camera, moving slowly so as not to startle the bird. My camera also reached face height and the kestrel kept hovering. I looked through the viewfinder…
Whoosh! A cyclist barrelled past at umpty squidillion miles an hour. The kestrel shot up and away at about the same speed. I got an excellent photo of not much at all. The kestrel whirled around in the sky for a moment and then decided the far bank was safer by far. Damn.
When I had been plodding along beside the Dee for about three miles, I reached an ugly concrete footbridge linking a minor road to Chester on my side of the Dee with the town of Saltney on the other.
Saltney straddles the Anglo-Welsh border and used to be known as Upper Ferry (Y Fferi Uchaf). The footbridge, which looks just like the sort you might see over a motorway, replaced the ferry in the 1970s.
After the Upper Ferry Crossing, the Dee made two 45° turns to the north and aimed for the heart of Chester. It was on the second bend that I reached the Anglo-Welsh border and the end of the Wales Coast Path.
Crossing the Border
And thus, without fanfare (but possibly accompanied by a painfully tuneless rendition of Jerusalem), I returned to England’s green and pleasant land. I was now in the county of Cheshire.
I saw no cats, smiling or otherwise.
The sun was low in the sky (sunset was just before four) as I made my way up the final stretch of the Dee into Chester. The river touched its perimeter and then veered off in a series of meanders but I crossed Chester’s riverside Cop Park and made my way onto the city’s streets.
Shropshire Union Canal
As I did so, I crossed the mouth of the Shropshire Union Canal, which links the Dee to waterways between Liverpool and the West Midlands. It was built by Thomas Telford and completed in 1835 but the Chester section incorporated an older canal, built in 1772 to connect Chester and Nantwich.
Chester essentially means ‘fort’, that being what the Anglo-Saxons called it (from Latin castra). The Welsh form Caer means the same thing. This is of course because it was a Roman fort, although they called it Deva Victrix after the river on which it stands (then called Deva) and the Legio XX Valeria Victrix, which was based there.
The Roman army garrisoned the fort from about 79, when it was founded, to about 410, when the legions were withdrawn from the province of Britannia. Over the centuries, it has variously been part of Powys, Northumbria, Mercia and England. It is absolutely chock full of interesting things to look at.
The Water Tower
I was mildly tempted to try to see some of the sights but I knew I was on a hiding to nothing. The sun was already setting and I didn’t fancy sprinting about the city trying to see everything before I ran out of twilight. Instead, I followed the road up towards the Watergate:
Back when Chester was a flourishing mediaeval port and the river passed by the foot of the Water Tower, all goods entering the city from the port passed through a gate in the walls. This was known as the Watergate.
Four hundred years later, when the Dee was canalised in the 1730s, the river no longer flowed near the Watergate and, thanks to silting, was limited in the size of vessel it could take. A new port was built downstream at Connah’s Quay while, in 1788, the mediaeval Watergate was replaced by the brick arch shown above.
From the Watergate, I headed into the city centre, keen to find food, drink and toilets, though not necessarily in that order. Chester had its Christmas decorations up and was bustling with people and its narrow streets and joyful vibe felt positively Dickensian in character.
I later found some (mint) humbugs in a traditional sweet shop not far from the cathedral. I may or may not have been munching these as I, now fed and watered, made my way to the station and a fast train back to London.
This time: 11 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,873 miles