River Conwy Traditions

River Conwy Traditions – A Talk by James Berry

At the September 2017 meeting Mrs. Elan Rivers introduced James Berry of Glan Conwy who she had worked with in the past, praising his knowledge of local history.

A large appreciative audience enjoyed James’s splendid illustrated talk about the history and traditions of the River Conwy when he explained that it was not always the quiet rural valley we see today. It had rather been a conduit to support the local industries of North Wales before the Industrial Revolution took over the mass production of cheaper goods. In the 18th and 19th centuries before the advent of the railway and the A470 main road along the valley floor, the river was a busy route used to deliver goods for the many bustling industries along its banks.  At 50 miles in length it was a major watershed which effectively became the boundary between Welsh speaking Wales on the west bank and anglicised east bank of the river.

People had been living by the river for thousands of years and adapted the crafts they used according to the conditions that prevailed along its length.  James showed a delightful old painting featuring a Conwy Valley sloop, a large, shallow drafted cargo sailing boat.  The river would have been full of fishermen and sloops carrying goods to and from the villages and wharves on the river.

Whaite, Henry Clarence; Just Arrived by the Sloop; Manchester Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/just-arrived-by-the-sloop-206389

Whaite, Henry Clarence; Just Arrived by the Sloop; Manchester Art Gallery;

Glan Conwy was widely known for its boat-building industry with simple construction methods reminiscent of the style currently used in Bangladesh.  During this period, the deep river channel went close to Glan Conwy until Thomas Telford’s road suspension bridge (1822-26) involved the building of an embankment known as the Cob,

Porth Llansanffraidd - Glan Conwy port .

Porth Llansanffraidd – Glan Conwy port .

across the estuary which diverted the deep channel to the opposite side of the river and away from the village.

James then moved on to talk about Bodnant and he explained the significance of the names Furnace Farm and Furnace Wood.

Furnace farm tea rooms Bodnant

Furnace farm tea rooms Bodnant


The woods were coppiced and harvested for considerable quantities of charcoal which in turn was used in the early iron smelting furnace at Bodnant which serviced the agricultural, boat building and many other industries up and down the reach of the river.   Rope was made in Llanrwst and pictures were shown of the machinery used to stretch and twist the strands together.  These were just a fraction of the industries that exploited the transport advantages of the Conwy river. Along both sides of the river it is likely there would have been towpaths and lots of barges to-ing and fro-ing.  Small docks can still be seen where slate-loading would have been a daily occurrence. Further upriver locals were quick to exploit the salmon harvest using coracles – small, one person, hide-covered circular rowing boats which worked in pairs across shallow slow-moving stretches where the salmon rested.  The fish were sold to the local gentry and well-to-do visitors.  A coracle was found at Llanrwst.

James explained how many of the place-names along the river were disappearing.  He gave us some examples of wonderful, descriptive names that reflected the area; such as Pensarn which was the End of the Causeway, Pen Trwyn yr Hen Gapel which meant Old Chapel on the Headland and Bys Penwaig y Cyntaf the First Herring’s Finger.

With the coming of centralized, industrial processes and improved transport links Nature has largely reclaimed and reshaped the river in the 20th century.  Nobody needs the river for work today apart from pleasure craft and a few fishing boats. 

James’s talk brought the area to life and various questions and comments from the audience provided some more fascinating facts. It was both a pleasure and a privilege to be in the audience.

Pam Hill

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