07 August 2010

The Myddeltons, the Red Hand Gang

Roger Mortimer built the earliest parts of Chirk Castle, overlooking the Ceiriog Valley, in 1295. One Thomas Myddelton bought Chirk in 1595 for £5,000; and the castle remained in the family's hands right through to 2004. The best approach is from the baroque iron gates of 1719-21, fabricated by Robert and John Davies of Croesfoel Forge, near Wrexham. These were originally placed between screen walls in front of the present castle entrance; and were relocated to their present position in 1888. The long drive up to the castle is lined with both mature (some with giant burls) and, pleasingly, young, oaks.

In the early nineteenth century the interior was breathed upon by Gothic Revivalist Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, whose extensive list of work includes the interior of Charles Barry's Palace of Westminster. Much of his work at Chirk was obliterated in the twentieth century. Pugin's luxuriously exotic, even erotic, richness of design can however be seen not far away, in Staffordshire, across which he built numerous churches, convents and schools for local patron, John Talbot, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.

01 August 2010

Mad Jacks Aplenty*

Atop Cym y Bwch, the 1995 sculpture Janus Horse, one head facing England and the other Wales, marks the site of Oswestry Old Racecourse, which saw an annual week of horse racing between the early 1700s and 1848. The course was a figure of eight, the crossing point a road separating the North and South Commons, turfed over for the duration of the races; and was last laid with Cumberland turf by French prisoners of the Napoleonic Wars.

The grandstand (remains pictured), built in 1804 near the finishing post, incorporated an umpire's box and refreshment facilities for those with the necessary funds. Race entry was a pricey two guineas, plus half a guinea to the Clerk of the Course, which limited attendance to the local aristocracy and gentlefolk. John 'Mad Jack' Mytton, of the same eccentric cast as John 'Mad Jack' Fuller, raced here. Interpretation boards put decline of the course down to increasing attendance by, and rowdiness of, the "lower classes;" and to growth of the railway network, which enabled mounts to be transported greater distances to larger meetings, such as those at Chester.

* Other 'Mad Jacks' include Lieutenant Colonel John Churchill, who fought during WWII with longbow and arrows and a claybeg; and Captain John Percival, US naval officer.