The residents of Conwy keeping their heritage alive

Joanne Tunstall and Sam Jeavons at The Knight Shop

Joanne Tunstall and Sam Jeavons at The Knight Shop - Credit: Archant

Conwy’s current residents are keeping their town relevant and attractive by looking back to the past

Llewelyn the Great overlooks Lancaster Square.

Llewelyn the Great overlooks Lancaster Square. - Credit: Archant

The Mediaeval walled World Heritage town of Conwy, dominated by its magnificent 13th Century castle, is steeped in history - but from the staging of 700-year-old Charter Fairs to the re-enactment of buccaneering derring-do, its a history that the modern-day townsfolk are determined to keep alive.

All summer long - and indeed throughout the year - a programme of fairs, festivals and feasts draws visitors in their thousands to this gem of North Wales, heritage, set beside the River Conwy’s spectacularly scenic estuary.

You might say that Conwy is buzzing, for it is the town’s Bee Keepers’ Association that has, since 1999, organised the Seed Fair and the Honey Fair, the two surviving Royal Charter fairs dating from the reign of King Edward I, who ordered the building of the castle between 1283 and 1289. Now major events, both fairs are staged in Conwy’s High Street and Lancaster Square, the former on March 26th, the latter on September 13th.

Conwy Beekeepers’ Association - which currently has about 160 members - also floated the idea of a food festival following the success of the 2003 Honey Fair. The idea met with approval and generous funding from the Welsh Development Agency, The Cooperative Group Wales, and many local businesses. The first Gwledd Conwy Feast, held in October 2004 in various venues in Conwy to celebrate the wide variety of local food and drink, attracted more than 8,000 visitors. Last year almost 25,000 people flocked to the event, now the biggest of its kind in North Wales.

Toby Tunstall, Chairman of the Chamber of Trade, at his Knight Shop

Toby Tunstall, Chairman of the Chamber of Trade, at his Knight Shop - Credit: Archant

This year’s Feast, on October 24-26th, will again feature music and the arts as well as more than 150 food and drink stalls and demonstrations by top chefs including ‘North Wales’ most famous culinary export’, Denbigh-born Bryn Williams, chef-patron at Odette’s in London’s Primrose Hill.

Conwy’s Chamber of Trade, rejuvenated four years ago, is heavily involved in organising fun events that are attracting increasing numbers of visitors to the town, including Living History Weekends in May and July and the swashbuckling Pirate Weekend in June. The former brings early Mediaeval history to life when re-enactors from the local Historia Normannis group set up a Norman camp on the quayside. They will live in the camp over the weekend, sleeping in medieval style tents and cooking on open fires using the utensils of the period. The ladies of the settlement will carry on their daily life; the warriors will settle their arguments with sword, shield and spear.

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Chamber chairman Toby Tunstall said: ‘The first event we organised was ‘Late Knight Shopping’ at Christmas featuring about 30 people dressed in Mediaeval costume and a parade through the town with eight flaming torches. Last Christmas we had 120 people in costume and 80 torches! In fact some of the events have grown so much that we can’t manage them ourselves so we’ll be working with HTC Entertainments this year.’

Bizarrely, the idea for the Pirate Weekend, which has become very popular, arose when one of the ‘Vikings’ taking part in Living History suggested dressing up in pirate costume. Toby said: ‘We try to be as historically accurate with the festivals as we can, so I did some research and discovered that the North Wales coast was notorious for pirates in the 17th and 18th Centuries.

’Sailing without the Jolly Roger, but with a high degree of skill and competitiveness, will draw the crowds for the Conwy River Festival and Quay Day from August 9 - 17th and in September, the town will stage a Mediaeval Jesters’ Weekend.

From Aberconwy House, Wales’ oldest dated townhouse at one end, to St Mary’s parish church - incorporating remnants of 12th Century Aberconwy Abbey - close to the other, Conwy’s short High Street must be, yard for yard, one of the most fascinating in Britain.

Aside from its landmarks, including magnificently preserved Plas Mawr, the Elizabethan townhouse built for the Wynn family before the Spanish Armada set sail, and the historic, haunted Castle Hotel, stone-paved High Street boasts a fine collection of independent shops including two whose renown spreads far beyond the town’s Plantagenet walls.

Edwards’ of Conwy, traditional master butcher’s that’s been a foodie Mecca for decades, was established by Conwy Valley farmer’s son Ieuan Edwards at the age of just 20 after serving his apprenticeship in Llanrwst and completing courses in Holland and Switzerland. He now employs more than 45 staff.

The multi award-winning business’ general manager Dave Malloy has been working with Ieuan for 30 years, 20 of them since Edwards’ moved into its landmark shop, a former bank building, in High Street. Like a mini-version of Harrods’ food hall or Fortnum & Mason, the counters are crammed not only with prime cuts of locally raised meat, but innovative culinary creations, famous sausages, superb pies and award-winning products from the in-store bakery team.

Dave proudly points out the pork, egg and black pudding pie that scooped a top UK Diamond Award in the Q Guild’s Smithfield Awards, amongst the most coveted in the industry. “Everything is produced here on the premises,” said Dave, who was presented with the award by broadcaster and leading food critic Jay Rayner, “and we’re all thrilled and proud to be recognised by so many awards.”

Just down the hill, Yesteryears is another of Conwy’s best known shops, visited by people from far and wide looking for traditional toys and collectables. Mike and Georgina Pattinson’s shop is an Aladdin’s cave of treats from puppets to dolls’ houses and rocking horses to castles, retro toys, tin toys, collectables, games from your childhood and novelties that delight everyone from young children to their grandparents.

Said Georgina, “We came here from Beaumaris 15 years ago after looking to start a toyshop with accommodation above. This place had been empty for about 18 months and we made up our minds to take the plunge in a nearby fish and chip shop. People thought we were mad but the shop took off like a sky rocket.”

Georgina is a regular visitor to toy fairs worldwide, especially in Nuremberg in Germany, where she sources many of the speciality traditional toys. ‘Our principle, is to stock toys you can’t get from the superstores who more and more rely on merchandise linked to film and television programmes. If we went down that route we wouldn’t last five minutes.” Mike added: “When people ask us what the new Christmas lines are we say ‘same as all year round - but more of them’.”

Both are avid collectors - Mike started when he was given a Dan Dare rocket ship when he was nine - and both covet a collection of rare teddy bears by the German manufacturer Bing.

Meanwhile, opposite the Castle, Chamber of Trade chairman Toby Tunstall helps to run another unique Conwy retail institution - the Knight Shop - started by his son Bryan as a business offering to take photographs of clients in Mediaeval costume. “He was 21,” said Toby, “you can imagine what I thought.”

But the business is now the biggest supplier or period arms and armour in Europe, numbering the royal palaces, the National Trust, English Heritage, historical re-enactment groups, the Dr Who TV series..and even Disney amongst its customers.

Said Toby: “We supplied to the producers of Disney’s new film Melificent starring Angelina Jolie, which is due for release at the end of May.”

What on earth would King Edward I have made of that?