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Seven Wonders of Wales
Gresford Bells

It is but a scant few miles by road from Chester (and even fewer from Wrexham) to the village of Gresford, the home of our seventh wonder, the bells of the Parish Church of All Saints. Not only are the peal of bells of note, listed it is said for the purity of their tone, but the Church itself is remarkable for its size, its beauty, its interior monuments, and its yew-filled churchyard.

Though the present edifice was built in the late 13th Century by a Welsh patron with the wonderful name of Trahaearn ap Ithel ap Eunydd (and his five brothers), additions and improvements in the 14th and 15th centuries obscure much of the original building. The very size of All Saints meant that it was probably a place of pilgrimage for centuries, housing a relic or stature of a saint that has since disappeared. A niche in the Lady Chapel is thought to have held this artifact, probably a statue of the Virgin (a modern statue now occupies the space). Some of the stained glass windows in the church came from the dissolved abbey at Basingwerk on the banks of the Dee below Holywell. The church was also richly endowed by Thomas Stanley, Earl of Derby, whose intervention at the Battle of Bosworth helped Henry Tudor overcome Richard III in his successful quest for the throne of Britain.

The earliest record of the peal of Gresford bells dates back only to 1714. An apparatus was installed in the belfry in 1877 so that all eight bells could be chimed by one person. The tenor bell is 1.2 tonnes (compare with Britain's largest, the Great Paul in London at 16 tonnes and the largest bell in a ringing peal, the emanuel at Liverpool Cathedral at 4 tonnes). The bells are rung regularly for church services, and the old custom of ringing on November 5th is still continued, though it is unclear whether this is to commemorate the successful landing of William of Orange in 1688, or the Gunpowder Plot of Guy Fawkes to blow up Parliament in 1605. During World War II, the custom of tolling the passing bell was discontinued, as was the practice of signifying the curfew. During the last War, the bells were to be rung only as an invasion warning.

Inside the impressive church, one of the most remarkable finds was discovered in 1907 by workmen, the Gresford Stone. This is a Roman altar that was hidden for centuries, being used as a stone block in the rebuilding of the medieval church. The altar has four carved sides and a decorative depression at the top, used for the placement of offerings to the goddess Nemesis (or Atropos) depicted on one side. She is holding a pair of shears to cut short the thread of a person's life. The altar was probably part of a Romano-Celtic shrine dating back to 100 to 350 A.D.

The wonders of the Church that itself houses the wondrous bells are many, and.a guide book or a personal, guided tour is necessary in order to find them. One item of particular interest is found In a basement or crypt, under lock and key, and carefully guarded in its glass case. It is the large lump of coal that was the very last piece hewn out of the Gresford Colliery before the great disaster of 1934.

During the first half of the 20th century, the work force at the United Wrexham and Westminster Colliery Company, with mines in the Gresford area, reached 2200 men. Alas, in the frantic rush to exploit the newly-discovered coal seams of the region, a whole array of safety procedures and rescue systems was conveniently ignored by the pit owners and managers. A number of totally unqualified junior officials were also put in charge of safety procedures at the Dennis section at the Gresford Colliery, where.their interest lay in simply increasing coal output than in the safety or working conditions of the miners. Shot-firing rules were not observed, and no emergency drills were carried out. We can only imagine the dreadful scene that took place on the twenty-second of September, 1934.

The bells of Gresford solemnly announced to the world that one of the greatest tragedies in the history of Welsh coal mining had taken place that morning when an explosion and fire ripped through the Dennis section of the mine. Apart from the lucky six men who escaped the blast, along with a few men at the pit bottom, all the men working that day were killed -- a total of 266 miners. Such was the force of the explosion and the immensity of the following fire, that the pit was sealed off and the dead miners entombed forever where they lay. Over 160 widows were left in the surrounding villages to provide for over 200 children.

Following the disaster, a court of enquiry was held from October 1934 until July 1936. The miners' families were represented by Sir Stafford Cripps (of later fame as a wartime Cabinet Minister under Attlee), who charged the owners and mine officials with 43 offences of negligence. It is sad to relate that, despite the expertise of Sir Stafford, only six offenses were proved, with ludicrously minor fines imposed. Relieved at their undeserved good fortune, the owners continued to operate the rest of the mine until 1973, with a few mountainous slag heaps still remaining today to show that the area was once a centre of the coal industry.

In 1982 a memorial to the dead miners was erected in the form of the wheel from the old pit head winding gear. On the 6Oth anniversary of the disaster, a memorial painting in Gresford Church was unveiled by the Archbishop of Wales that shows various scenes and people at the colliery the day of the explosion.

The Church is surrounded by a grove of Yews, some of which equal in size and age those of Overton listed in our seven wonders. Twenty-five of these were planted in 1726, but one growing near the south gate is a great deal older. Though its age has been difficult to establish, it is thought to be about 1400 to 1500 years old. It was already an ancient tree at the time of Richard II's proclamation that ordered the general planting of yews to support the army.

We have now viewed all seven wonders of Wales and their attendant attractions and places of interest. It is time to return to the hustle and bustle of Chester's medieval streets in order to contemplate all that we have seen and experienced. Ironically enough, though we do not expect to find much Welsh spoken in Wrexham any more, if we are lucky, we may hear the Welsh language spoken in Chester, for many Welshmen and women live or worship in the city, and many more commute each day to work there. And thus we arrive at our eighth wonder of Wale -- its unique and colorful language.

Next Stop: The 8th Wonder of Wales

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