You could say Wrexham has an A-list aura about it at the moment. This Welsh border conurbation used to be North Wales’s largest town until the Queen gave it city status as part of her Platinum Jubilee celebrations in June 2022.
Lying thirteen miles south of Chester, the larger administrative area of Wrexham County Borough covers 193 square miles, stretching from the Clwydian Hills and Berwyn mountains in the west, through to the lowlands of the Dee Valley and Cheshire Plain to the east.
I’m approaching Wrexham through these lush Dee Valley lowlands, which are known locally as Maelor Country.
Maelor is an old Welsh word that comes from mael, which means prince, and llawr, the word for low ground or region. So, Maelor Country means the lowland of the prince.
And I’m greeted by a right royal sight when I enter the village of Overton-on-Dee, just six short miles from Wrexham’s new city centre.
Surrounding St Mary’s Church are twenty-one enormous yew trees, the oldest of which is somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 years old. Unsurprisingly, some of its branches need a little support to stay upright!
The Overton Yews are known as one of the Seven Wonders of Wales, part of a rhyme reputedly created in the 18th century by an English tourist, who wrote:
Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon’s mountain without its people,
Overton yew trees, St Winefride wells,
Llangollen bridge and Gresford bells.
So huge are Overton’s yews, most of them are older than 1,300 years, which means they predate the stone church building standing before me today.
The road from Overton brings me right into the heart of Wrexham, to a car park at the foot of another of Wales’s wonders. In the rhyme, it’s referred to as the Wrexham steeple. However, strictly speaking, this wonder of Wales is not a steeple but the tower of St Giles’ Church.
A steeple has a spire on top of a tower, but St Giles’s only has a tower. The original blew down in gales in 1330, and they did not complete this replacement until 1506.
It might not have a spire on top, but it still towers 135 feet into the sky. Anyone with a head for heights can climb the 149 spiral steps to the top.
This Grade 1 listed building is one of the largest and greatest parish churches in Wales. Its cathedral-like interior houses some amazing sights.
“If you look up above the east wall arch,” says my guide, “you can make out the faded colours of the Doom Painting.” She points to a section of wall between the top of the arch and the roof. “Dating from the 16th century,” she continues, “it depicts the Day of Judgement, with people rising from their coffins to meet God.”
For something that’s over five hundred years old, I’m amazed at how much detail I can still make out.
There’s also a stunning stained-glass window in the north aisle commemorating the Royal Welch Fusiliers regiment.
“I thought the regiment was called the Royal Welsh Fusiliers,” I queried.
She smiles. “Historically, the Welch spelling is correct, but during the 18th century, they used the English spelling of Welsh instead. However, in 1920, the War Office officially recognised the Welch spelling, which is how we refer to the regiment today.”
Just outside the church, near the south-west corner of St Giles’s tower, my guide introduces me to someone who was also a Wrexham’s A-list celebrity in his day.
We stand beside a large chest tomb where Elihu Yale was laid to rest in 1721.
“Yale was born in America, served as President of the East India Company and, after scandal and accusations of corruption, came to Britain in 1699,” my guide explains. “Once here, he split his time between properties in London and at Plas Grono, on the outskirts of Wrexham.”
“Three years before his death,” she continues, “Cotton Mather was an American looking for money to construct a new building at the Collegiate School of Connecticut. He approached Elihu Yale.”
“Yale agreed to help, and his contribution made him the school’s largest financial beneficiary at the time. So they renamed their establishment in his honour. And that’s how America’s Yale University got its name.”
From my vantage point here, I spy the Soames Brewery Chimney. It’s not as tall as St Giles’s tower, but at 120-feet it still dominates Wrexham’s skyline.
It was built in 1894, when Arthur Soames acquired the site next to the Nag’s Head pub, which had been brewing ale for many years. All that remains of the brewery today is the chimney, although the Nag’s Head continues to trade.
Arthur’s son, Frederic, was the brewery manager, but he also had other interests. He owned the Racecourse football ground, home of Wrexham Football Club, since 1872.
The football club was formed in 1864 in the adjacent pub, now called The Turf, and shared the ground with the local cricket club. They also held horse races here, during Victorian times, hence the ground’s name.
Wrexham FC is the oldest football club in Wales and the third oldest in the world.
Frederic Soames might not be a celebrity name many people will know, but the football club’s newest owners certainly are. You don’t get much more celebrity A-list than the Hollywood film stars Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney.
They bought the football club in 2021 and have visited the ground, much to the joy of local fans.
I can’t see them about today. I suppose they’re back in Hollywood filming their next blockbuster movies.
From the football ground, it’s two miles to the outskirts of Wrexham and the hamlet of Bersham. In the 18th century, this small hamlet attracted John Wilkinson to the area. He became one of the Industrial Revolution’s celebrities, thanks to its coal reserves. Known as Iron Mad Wilkinson, he opened Bersham Ironworks in 1762.
Although locals had been working iron here for a century before his arrival, Wilkinson’s Bersham Ironworks perfected the art of making cannons.
Before this, cannons frequently contained faults, causing them to explode when cannon balls became stuck inside.
John Wilkinson’s Bersham Ironworks could create smooth bore cannons of various sizes, and these were far safer and more reliable.
In 1774, the Board of Ordnance tested Wilkinson’s cannons and were so impressed, they ordered all cannons to be built this way. The British Army used the cannons built here in the American War of Independence.
During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy expanded its fleet, and John Wilkinson provided most of the cannons for the Navy’s new vessels.
It’s difficult to imagine this small hamlet being a hive of such industrial activity and noise, when all I can hear is soulful songs of birds in the surrounding trees and the gentle hum of the Wrexham bypass a few hundred metres away.
Bersham was perfectly located for ironworking. The coal mines were only two miles away, limestone came from the nearby Minera Lead Mines, and the River Clywedog beside his ironworks provided the power.
There’s a glorious tree-lined riverside trail along the River Clywedog to Minera’s Lead Mines, perfect for today’s sunny weather.
Local people have worked Minera’s lead mines for over 8,000 years, but the industry boomed during the 18th and 19th centuries, thanks in part to John Wilkinson at Bersham.
Lead veins are found in limestone, but where there’s limestone, there’s often water, which meant the mines were prone to flooding.
Wilkinson built steam engines to pump out the water. These were so successful they made the mines profitable. In 1864, the mines generated a profit of £60,000.
Their demise came at the turn of the 20th century when the pumping engines became too expensive to run, and lead mining stopped in 1914. Today, they form part of a 53-acre country park.
I follow the River Clywedog a few miles downstream to the Erddig estate, right on Wrexham’s edge. The 1200-acre parkland is popular with Wrexham locals, as is the large 17th-century house, which was expanded several times despite many family fortunes being lost. Some of Erddig’s male heirs resolved this by marrying well!
It was Bersham’s coal mine that led to Erddig’s demise when tunnelling caused severe subsidence in the house. At one point, the kitchen roof had to be supported with heavy iron girders, and the newly nationalised Coal Board had to pay compensation.
Erddig is now managed by the National Trust, which has restored the landscaped gardens to their former glory. I think the best view is of the house perfectly reflected in the canal pond.
As I explore the gardens, I’m also walking in the footsteps of Fiona Bruce and Eric Knowles, who filmed here for the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow in 2018.
It seems there’s a celebrity connection wherever I turn in Wrexham. Trust me to visit when none of them are around! Next time, I’ll have to bring my autograph book with me.
- Although Wrexham FC is the oldest football club in Wales, they’ve always played in the English football league.
- On 21st November 2012, typewriter manufacturer Brother made its last ever British typewriter in its Wrexham factory.
- Wrexham’s Industrial Estate is the second largest business park in the UK and the fifth largest in Europe.
- Yale University campus has a replica of St Giles’ Tower. It appeared briefly in the film Indiana Jones: Raiders of the Lost Ark.
- The World’s first Miss World, Rosemarie Frankland, was born in the Wrexham village of Rhosllanerchrugog.
Wrexham lies 13 miles south of Chester on the A483, and is served daily by trains on the Chester to Shrewsbury railway line.
Want To Know More?
Wrexham Information Centre, Lambpit Street, Wrexham, LL11 1AY
Tel: 01978 292015
© Simon Whaley