It looks like a typical picture postcard scene from a British Winter. On a cold November day the River Dee rushes down from Snowdonia, heading busily seaward through the arches of the famous seventeenth century bridge at Bangor Is-y-coed. Built around 1660, almost certainly by Inigo Jones, the charming but extremely narrow structure boasts five arches, each with parapets allowing for triangular shelters for foot passengers.
Whilst perfectly adequate for horse-drawn vehicles, farm carts and pedestrians, the coming of the motor car put phenomenal strains on this little bridge, which had been in need of constant repair for centuries. Traffic lights were installed, and weight restrictions imposed, but the bridge was by this time a serious bottleneck on what had become a major holiday and commercial transport route.
In 1978, however, a new by-pass and bridge was finally put in place, and today Bangor’s historic bridge only sees occasional local and commuter use, leaving the small village of some 1,200 inhabitants to enjoy their quiet rural surroundings once again.
In the background of this picture you can also just see St Dunawd’s parish church, which began life around 1300AD as a simple red sandstone structure. Only the chancel from this original church remains, the remainder of the current building having been constructed in various stages of expansion from 1723 onwards.
For most visitors or passers-by the sleepy little hamlet nestling on the English-Welsh border is charming, but of little significance. Few would know that somewhere on the south side of the Rive Dee this village was once home to one of the finest and grandest monasteries in Britain, allegedly divided into seven distinct parts, each with its own bishop and a cohort of more than 300 men.
It was said to have been founded in 180AD by King Lucius of Britain and had become an important religious centre by the fifth and sixth centuries. The monastery was destroyed around 613AD by the Anglo-Saxon king Æthelfrith of Northumbria after he defeated the Welsh armies at the Battle of Chester, which probably took place nearby.
Before the battle, legend has it that monks from the monastery had fasted for three days and then climbed a hill to witness the fight and pray for the success of the Welsh; they were massacred on the orders of Æthelfrith for their sins. The Venerable Bede wrote that 1,200 monks were slaughtered and only 50 escaped.
(More than a millennium later, the massacre was recounted in a poem entitled The Monks of Bangor’s March by Walter Scott, and put to music by Ludwig van Beethoven.)
I said that the monastery complex was located ‘somewhere’ close to the River Dee because today absolutely no trace of the monastery remains, and even its actual site is uncertain. Seemingly it has been lost completely, not least because of dramatic changes in the flow of the river, and it’s fiercely erosive power.
As early as 1539 John Leland, Library Keeper to Henry VIII and later King’s Antiquary, visited Bangor and declared that the course of the river had moved more than a mile from its original course, though he noted that local farmers were still said to “plough up
bones of the monks and in remembrance [i.e. in living memory] were dug up pieces of their clothes in sepulchres.”
More recent research has revealed that in fact the loss of the structural remains of the monastery is more likely to have been due to a six feet drop in the land surrounding the riverbanks due to erosion, rather than any change in its direction. However, it has also been suggested that the exact location of the complex is well known to certain archeologists, but it has been kept secret for fear of interference with the site, which remains in a vulnerable, rural location.
Sadly, we are all familiar with the plundering of our ecclesiastical buildings for materials such as lead and copper, that command high market prices, but there is also a fast-growing demand for all manner of historical artefacts, with British history high on the wanted list.
English Heritage has reported that our historic buildings are being hit by as many as 200 crimes per day, from direct thefts to damage done by anti-social behaviour, vandalism and illegal metal detecting.
(In one year alone, for instance, damage to those iconic red listed telephone boxes cost BT more than £120,000.)
In north Wales and other similar rural areas of Britain, even the remotest historic sites are increasingly coming under threat from highly organised, and highly motivated gangs of ‘relic hunters’, who go to quite extraordinary lengths to remove artefacts to sell online, or dump them into lucrative overseas markets.
One case in point has been the site of the remains of Mosquito LR412 of RAF 540 photo-reconnaissance unit, which crashed into the higher slopes of Aran Fawddwy in Snowdonia on February 9, 1944, killing both crewmen. The plane had been flying out of RAF Benson in Oxfordshire, testing new flaps, and no clear reason was ever found for the accident, the aircraft being highly proven, the crew very experienced, and the weather reasonably good.
Aran Fawddwy is no easy place to get to – it is a remote mountainside some miles from the nearest lane or mountain track yet, over recent years, the remains of this aircraft, and its many
components scattered around the hillside, have slowly diminished, leaving little more than one extremely heavy propellor set
and mounting.
With the nearest regularly staffed police station being some 20 miles away, sites such as Aran Fawddy are highly vulnerable.
Of all the artefacts from World War II, aircraft actually represent the largest composite artefact classification, with a production total of nearly one million units. Despite these large numbers, less than five per cent of operational aircraft remain, and most of these only as wrecks such as found at Aran Fawddwy.
For most people these sites, even if rarely visited, are cherished war graves and their disturbance – particularly by looters – is deeply distressing, especially when site artefacts turn up at auction.
In some quarters it’s being acknowledged now that these relics and historic sites are not really ‘undisturbed time capsules’ at all, but rather artefacts that have been heavily disturbed and modified – by the weather, by natural decay and by human intervention.
Increasingly such remains are being removed professionally and sensitively whilst there’s still time – to museums and more permanent structures where their story can be studied and interpreted.
Contracts to design, house and display the relics of our more recent past and heritage are becoming ever more commonplace.
If you thought that such poignant and sensitive relics could never function sensitively inside a museum, or couldn’t be interpreted effectively if removed from their context, do pay a visit to architect Daniel Libeskind’s stunning Imperial War Museum North in Manchester.
It’s current centrepiece is a block of mangled wreckage from the September 11 attacks on New York’s World Trade Center – twisted iron girders melted curiously into the shape of a cross that silently conveys countless messages about the day that tragedy struck.
Back in Bangor Is-y-coed there are no such easy ways to protect and preserve the remains of its once great monastery, if indeed they have been located. Building a visitor or interpretation centre is very costly, and a solid structure can only come after years of excavation and research have a story to tell, and artefacts to present.
It would also be a very challenging build in a rural location with an unstable, fast flowing river basin that’s always at risk of flooding.
For now it seems the best guardian of history here … is silence.