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Clwyd Coastal Survey

Welsh Coastal Heritage

The spectacular coast of Wales has attracted settlers for thousands of years - from prehistoric hunter-gatherers to Victorian industrialists - leaving an indelible mark on the coastline. But evidence is often fragile and protection and preservation of our historic environment should be reflected in the policies and actions of private, public, local and national organisations.


Right: Wreck of a coastal vessel. This view shows the wreck of a 20th-century timber coastal vessel registered at Peterhead, Scotland. She now lies aground next to a substantial timber landing stage on north-east bank of the River Dee, at Hawarden Bridge, near Shotton Steelworks. © CPAT CS96/16/20

To help our understanding, Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments (with the support of the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales), funded the four Welsh Archaeological Trusts to complete a rapid archaeological survey of the entire Welsh coastline.

Objectives and Study Areas

The objective of the survey was to identify areas of threat, like coastal erosion, industrial development, housing and pressure from increasing visitor numbers. The survey concentrated on the intertidal zone (between high and low watermark) and a land strip that extended for about 150m inland, as well as the lower reaches of the main river estuaries. Early records, maps and other documentary sources were studied followed by a rapid field survey, achieved by walking the entire coastline to visit sites and identify additional features.

About the Coastal Strip

The sections of the Welsh coast studied by CPAT have undergone many changes and are very diverse. Since the last Ice Age, general sea levels have risen some 60 metres, flooding previous lowland plains and valleys. However, later reclamation and natural deposition have forced the sea back in places, sometimes by several miles, resulting in a complex sequence of deposits and buried archaeological features. By careful study, field survey, core sampling and open area excavation it is possible to identify these changes, although today, the archaeological sites themselves can sometimes look strangely out of context.

The Irish Sea coastal margin is mostly composed of rocky forelands, sandy beaches and sand-dunes, inlet with occasional small river estuaries and harbours. The River Dee estuary on the other hand is characterised by extensive mudflats, saltings and marsh (some of which is a marine nature reserve) and numerous small harbours. Upstream from Connah's Quay though, as far as Chester, the river is canalised and runs through low-lying reclaimed land. Just inland of this coastal strip are a wealth of small towns and villages, holiday developments and caravan parks, active and abandoned industrial land, derelict buildings, farmland and wasteland - a patchwork of settlement, industry, agriculture and nature.

Archaeology and the Natural Environment

The earliest evidence on the coast of human activity comes from over 70 prehistoric objects said to have been found from the upstanding peat beds and estuarine clays on the Rhyl foreshore over the years, including an antler mattock now dated to 6,550 years ago.

These peats and clays are the remains of a much older landscape, buried by later material deposited over the millennia and inundated by rising sea levels. Beneath our feet, and out there, under the waves lies a drowned landscape of potential prehistoric sites and finds dating to the end of the last Ice Age or just after, down to the time of the first farmers 5,000 years ago. Flint flakes, fragments of bone and antler tools, food remains, tree stumps and even entrapped pollen and insects in the deposits can tell us much about this lost prehistoric environment. The point is, that archaeology is not always where you might think it is, and not always about obvious 'monuments' like castles, stone circles and burial mounds!

Fishing, Coastal Trade, Lighthouses and Wrecks


Left: Point of Ayr Lighthouse and Pillbox. This lighthouse was built in 1776 on piles driven into the sand. In the foreground is a World War Two pillbox, obviously displaced, made from concrete, with six gun slits, and originally had a brick domed roof, now lost. © CPAT CS95/60/12

As you might expect, fishing, boats and harbours have figured prominently in the lives of people on the coast throughout time. Frustratingly though, the beaching of small boats and ephemeral fishing equipment does not leave much in the way of surviving evidence in the archaeological record, although later, more substantial, harbour works do.

The survey discovered evidence of medieval fishing in the form of two substantial stone and timber fishing weirs, or 'goradau', marked by boulders and stakes on the beach at Rhos-on-Sea. These were once common features of the north Wales coast, and worked by trapping fish in artificial pools as the tide fell. Remarkable evidence of an even earlier exploitation of coastal resources was found in the form of Mesolithic (6,000 year old) shell middens (the accumulations of waste shell), found some way inland at Prestatyn.

Plenty of evidence of ports and quays survive, such as those that developed at Foryd Harbour on the Irish Sea coast, and Talacre Harbour and Mostyn Docks on the lower Dee Estuary. Many of these 18th and 19th-century developments were originally constructed to serve, or came to serve, nearby ironworks, steelworks, collieries, and the local lead industries, including those at Point of Ayr, Bettisfield, Llannerch-y-mor, Greenfield, Bagillt, and Flint. Further up the Dee, on reclaimed salt marshes, many smaller jetties and landing stages were built to serve specific industries at Connah's Quay, Queensferry, Aston Quay and Sandycroft Quay. In fact, virtually every inlet along the Dee seems to have been utilised as a quay, although most are now silted and disused. Mostyn Docks is the only one to remain in use as a major port.

Although no visible trace survives, Roman ports have been suggested at Prestatyn Gutter and Flint, serving known industrial and settlement sites there. There was almost certainly some form of port at Flint during medieval times, possibly created during the construction of the castle in the 13th century but later coming to serve the town.


Right: Flint Quay. This former quay lies on an inlet of the Dee Estuary. Several timbers are visible along the north-west side of the inlet, including remains of a wrecked wooden hulk buried in the mud. The majority of the vessel is now buried, with only some of its timbers and mast protruding on the west side of the dock. © CPAT CS96/16/32

Other maritime features recorded for the survey include Point of Ayr Lighthouse and lifeboat slipway, and lifeboat stations at Gronant and Llanddulas.

A total of nine wreck sites were recorded, eight of which are still visible and probably all of late 19th and early 20th-century coastal vessels or barges. Within Foryd Harbour, near Rhyl, at least three wrecks were identified, and several more upstream on the River Dee.

Settlements and Worship

Most of the settlements along the coast fall outside this study area - and those inside it are mostly modern, holiday-related developments such as caravan parks and chalet-villages. Evidence of earlier settlement is either slight, or has been destroyed by later changes. Tantalisingly, a number of Roman coins have been found at Rhyl, perhaps suggesting a settlement nearby.

Similarly, the only place of worship noted within the study area was St Trillo's Chapel at Rhos-on-Sea. This is a small, single cell structure constructed of stone boulders, dating to somewhere between the 6th and 16th centuries AD, and may originally have been built for other purposes.

Coastal Protection and Farming

Reclaimed former salt marsh and their subsequent protection from the sea has greatly affected the nature of much of the coastline too. This is particularly true around Abergele, Towyn and Prestatyn on the Irish Sea, and the whole of the upper River Dee Estuary. Many of the seabanks built for this purpose still survive, in some cases continuing their function of coastal defence. Of the 19 recorded boundary markers of the late 18th-century River Dee Company, only three were known to survive. As a result of this survey, a further two were identified at Connah's Quay.

Much of this reclaimed low-lying land, when not used for transport, harbours or industry, is farmland - pasture for cattle and sheep or meadowland for fodder, or used for horticulture.

Bridges, Ferries and Land Transport

Until the later 19th century the lowest bridging point across the River Dee was at Chester, with ferry crossings providing a service lower down at Higher King's Ferry and Queensferry (formerly Lower King's Ferry). These ferries were sited near earlier fords in use before the Dee was canalised in 1737. Today, the ferries are also gone, superseded by modern road and rail bridges.


Medieval Flint Castle, started in 1277 is, of course, well known, but there is little other evidence of military activity along the coast, such as Roman sites, although these undoubtedly once existed. The survey did, however, highlight remains of more recent military activity like World War Two 'pillboxes' (anti-invasion defensive structures), that are now becoming engulfed by sand on Point of Ayr beach and overgrown along the banks of the River Dee at Mostyn Docks, Connah's Quay and Sandycroft. Point of Ayr beach was also used as a military training ground during World War Two, as can be seen by remains of anti-glider defence poles.

Earlier this century, a substantial gun-cotton factory was built at Queensferry, which continued in use during World War Two. During this latter conflict, a munitions factory was also established further upstream at Sandycroft.


The most significant industrial sites are related to the extractive industries of the coastal hinterland, namely lead and coal. There were lead works at Bagillt, Llannerch-y-mor and Flint, and collieries at Point of Ayr, Mostyn, Hanmer and Bettisfield, ironworks at Darwen and Mostyn, and a huge steelworks at Shotton - all with their associated quays. Alkali works developed at Prestatyn and Flint, while two foundries were located along the west bank of the River Clwyd near Rhuddlan, along with a tannery. Earlier, there were Roman lead workings near Flint, as already mentioned.


Left: Ffynnongroyw Boundary Stone. One of the few survivors of a series of markers along the Dee Estuary identifying the boundary of the River Dee Company holdings. The stone is engraved on the seaward side with the initials RDC and a date of 1785, with other letters, possibly NH, above the date. © CPAT CS96/01/02


Most of the Clwyd coastline is stable, largely due to extensive artificial coastal protection schemes, but some is still low lying or even below the high water mark. Rising sea levels could have a serious impact on this landscape and its archaeology, as has the development of both light industry and tourism.

Documentary research revealed 49 sites, and desk based and field surveys a further 129 (all now added to the Regional Sites and Monuments Record). All but one of the new sites are of post-medieval or modern date, just over a quarter of which are industrial sites, ports or harbours. The low number of earlier archaeological sites may be due to the relatively recent emergence of the present coastline.

Although the nature of this study is that of a rapid survey, it has been successful in identifying new sites and recording the nature of the coastline with an assessment of the perceived threat to the archaeology from erosion and modern development. Along the Dee Estuary, industry poses a serious threat to the archaeology and the remains of historic industrial and port sites.

Thanks to funding by Cadw: Welsh Historic Monuments, this CPAT survey, like the coastal surveys completed by the other Welsh Archaeological Trusts, has been an important step in furthering the protection of the diverse archaeology and heritage within the coastal margins of Wales.

Jones, N and Silvester, R - 1996, Clwyd Coastal Survey, CPAT Report no. 194

Cadw:Welsh Historic Monuments/Welsh Archaeological Trusts - 1999, Caring for Coastal Heritage, illustrated booklet

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