High on the hill above Barmouth is a huge church. But why is it known as the ‘Worcester Sauce Church’?
Have you ever tasted Lea and Perrins Worcester Sauce? It’s a bit like HP sauce or brown sauce, but it’s runny. You can pour it over chips to spice them up a bit or add it to food like Shepherd’s Pie to increase the flavour. But did you know that it was called ‘Lea and Perrins’ sauce because it was created, over 100 years ago, by two men - Mr Lea and Mr Perrins? It was so popular that it made them both quite rich.
After Mr Perrins died his widow, Mrs Sarah Perrins, inherited his money, and she moved to live in Barmouth. It was here that she heard of plans to build a bigger church on the hill because the one in town could not cope with all the people who wanted to go to church! The new church was going to cost a lot of money but Mrs Perrins offered to pay for most of it. Before the church was finished the tower collapsed, destroying much of what had already been built. But Mrs Perrins saved the day with another donation to build a new tower – and this time to do it properly! The church was finished in 1895 and was dedicated to St. John. But to Barmouth locals it will always be ‘the Worcester Sauce Church’!
It might seem odd to find a grave, high on the hill, of a French man, but August Guyard was no ordinary man. He lived in France at a time of great danger and his ideas were not popular with the authorities. Luckily his daughters, (both of them – one after the other!), had married young men from Barmouth, so in the end he fled to Wales and lived here. It must have been quite a shock to exchange the wide spaces of Paris for the narrow ledge of Old Town, but at least he was not lonely. He had a sheep dog, called Cara, and he would walk the hills around Barmouth dressed in a long grey coat and a red fez on his head. With his bright white hair he must have looked quite a sight! One summer he tamed a jackdaw and a hawk. Each night they would roost in the rafters of his attic. Whatever must the dog have thought?
When he died it was August’s wish that he be buried on the hill that he loved, looking down on the town that gave him a home. You can find his grave today high on the hill. It is number 3 on the Heritage Trail.
Almost everyone has heard of JRR Tolkien’s books, ‘The Hobbit’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings’. But did you know that Tolkien visited Barmouth and stayed in Old Town, or ‘The Rock’ as local people call it?
If you explore this area of Barmouth you may find that its windy streets and alleyways, its little cottages and, higher up, holes in the mountainside, remind you of a certain village in The Shire… Could Old Town be the inspiration for Hobbiton? But maybe Tolkien was inspired by more than Barmouth. There are a number of similarities between Tolkien’s map of The Shire and a map of the area around Barmouth, including some place names that have similar sounding names. Perhaps when you walk round here you should step quietly – hobbits scare easily!
A sailor’s life has always been filled with danger but the seas around the coast of Wales can be especially treacherous. There are hidden rocks and reefs, strong tides and currents and sandbanks waiting for an unwary ship… If you look under the railway bridge by Barmouth Quay you will see a strange sculpture. It is called ‘The Last Haul’ and it shows 3 generations of fishermen struggling to land a catch of fish. If you stroke the sculpture you might guess what it is made of – it is a very special type of marble called ‘Carrera’ from Italy. This particular block was recovered from a ship-wreck just a few miles from Barmouth. The ship sank over 300 years ago and the wreck, (and most of its cargo), still lies on the seabed.
If you walk along the quay towards the harbour there are benches for visitors to sit on. One of the benches is dedicated to the crew of a lifeboat who lost their lives whilst trying to help a ship in distress. Can you find the bench? The Lifeboat station on the main promenade in Barmouth reminds us of how dangerous the sea can be and how grateful we should be to those who risk their lives to help others.
One of the most famous disasters at sea was the sinking of the Titanic. If you walk to the Harbour Master’s Building at the end of the harbour you can find a plaque dedicated to Harold Lowe, the 5th Officer of the Titanic. He lived for many years in Barmouth and his bravery saved many lives on the night that the Titanic sunk.
Altogether now:“What shall we do with a drunken sailor?What shall we do with a drunken sailor?What shall we do with a drunken sailor Early in the morning?”
If you ever sung this nursery rhyme you might remember the second verse which says ‘Put him the brig until he’s sober’. Well it might not have been sailors but nearly two hundred years ago Barmouth had a problem with certain people who got drunk and caused all sorts of problems. The townspeople decided to do something about this and they built a ‘brig’ – a prison – to put them in. Perhaps the problem was not that great because the prison, known as ‘Ty Crwn’, (“the round house”), is not very big. As its name suggests it is round and if you look closely you will find that it is split into two halves. This was so that both men and women could be locked up and kept apart, (it was not considered right that men and women should share a cell). You can look inside the cells but imagine how horrid it would have been to have been locked up there. No bathroom, no heating, no light. Would you like to spend a night in there?
Just off the Promenade along a concrete walkway are some sand dunes called Ynys y Brawd. If you walk out onto them you might find something surprising waiting for you. Look up to the right at the end of the walkway and there he is! Three meters high, he looks like an Easter Island Maoi man carved in wood, but where did he come from?
Local people will tell you that he just appeared one night in 2010. No one knows how or why he appeared, but there were rumours that he made his own way here to be in the shadow of The Sleeping Giant, a hill beneath Cadair Idris that looks like a giant’s head. If you stand on the beach you might be able to see it. Is that the truth do you think? Did the head really appear like that? And what is he thinking as he stares out to sea?
Maybe he is thinking of the people who drowned here. The dunes used to be an island, (‘Ynys y Brawd’ means ‘Island of the Brothers’). Standing on the dunes today it is hard to imagine, but where the concrete walkway is now was once a fierce stretch of open water with dangerous and powerful tides. The currents would draw boats to their doom and even a beacon that was erected on the island to warn approaching ships was destroyed in a storm. When the walkway was built it changed the flow of the sea and the river and helped create Barmouth Harbour. But Ynys y Brawd was no longer an island.
So an island that isn’t, and a head that appeared from nowhere. How strange!
Standing on the quay by the harbour you can see a great mountain rising behind the railway bridge across the estuary. This is Cadair Idris and it is a truly mystical mountain. Its name means ‘The Chair of Idris’ and local legend says that Idris was a wise giant who would sit in his ‘chair’ and gaze at the stars.. Three large stones which rest at the foot of the mountain are said to have been kicked down it by the giant in a fit of anger one day.
Another legend says that Cadair Idris was the hunting ground of the Ruler of the Otherworld, a fearsome being called Gwyn ap Nudd. He is said to have hunted the hillside with a pack of ghostly dogs called the Cwn Annwn in the Wild Hunt. The howling of these huge dogs foretold death to anyone who heard them, although according to Welsh folklore, their growling is loudest when they are at a distance, and as they draw nearer, it grows softer and softer! But their coming meant death, the pack sweeping up a person's soul and herding it into the underworld.
It is also said that the mountain is haunted. Strange lights are said to be seen during the first few days of a new year and it is widely believed that if you spend a night alone on the mountain you will wake up either a madman or a poet!
Maybe it is best simply to stand and gaze at the mountain from the safety of the harbour!
Most of Barmouth’s old buildings were built by the Victorians, but there are some that are much older – over 500 years old in fact. There are several of these houses around The Last Inn, easily identified by their small size.
So why was the pub called ‘The Last Inn’? Many visitors to Barmouth assume that it is because it is literally the last inn you pass as you head out of town. But if you are coming into town it is the first so maybe that is not the answer!
The building that is now The Last Inn was once the home of a cobbler – a maker of shoes - and every cobbler needs a tool to make those shoes. The tool can be made out of wood or metal but is shaped a bit like a foot and the cobbler would form the leather around it into the right shape to make shoes or boots. This tool is called a Cobblers Last, and it is this that gives The Last Inn its name.
Barmouth was built on a very narrow strip of land between the sea and the cliffs and many houses were built into the rock of the mountain-side. If you get someone to take you inside the Inn you may get an idea of what it was like to live in one of these old cottages with its low ceilings and dark rooms. The back wall of The Inn is the rough stone of the mountainside and there is even a well of fresh water that flows out of the rock and into a small indoor pond!