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View along the northern defenses of Caerhun Roman fort
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Within the lychgate is this reconstruction of the Roman fort

The final stop on my tour with Katy ‘Bones Don’t Lie’ Meyers and Cara Meyers was to show them a Roman fort. Thus, on our way back from Anglesey we stopped to look around Caerhun.

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The heritage signboard outside Caerhun church

Probably built originally during Agricola’s campaigns, c. AD 77, it was extended during the mid-second century when the fort received stone walls. The location is striking, built upon a plateau beside the River Conwy. This situation was about communication via land and water: located as it was at the uppermost tidal extent of the river at the first fording point  allowed access to seaborne vessels for supplies and reinforcement as well as via the Roman road system.

Parking at the church, one can see the earthworks of the fort preserved beneath farmland. At the church there is a heritage signboard as well as further plans of the excavations and an artist’s reconstruction, most of it based on early 20th-century digs (1926-29).

Below the fort, near the river, traces of a dock were found. Also in this direction on a terrace above the river was a bath-house serving the fort’s occupants. Cremation burials have been identified north and south of the fort but no extensive cemeteries have been identified.

I am intrigued by the southern annexe that produced no traces of Roman buildings: might this have been a post-Roman addition?

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Plan from the excavations
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Caerhun church
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Caerhun church from south

This is precisely the kind of site that was subsequently favoured for early church sites. As well as the practical and ideological significance of the ruins of a Roman fort, this was a site valued for early churches because of its association with water as a symbolic resource but also an artery of maritime communication. Inside the north-east corner of the Roman fort, at some time in the early medieval period, a church was built. The current structure dates back to only the 13th century but one might speculate a far earlier origin by analogy with churches built inside Roman forts elsewhere. All it will take is the discovery of one piece of early medieval sculpture to support such an argument…

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Cara and Katy Meyers with the Caerhun tombs, the River Conwy in the background

The churchyard has a fine collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century memorials, both English and Welsh and I took pleasure in exploring the messages and medium.

As you know dear readers, I don’t believe in spiritual essences in the physical landscape. Still, I must say that Caerhun gives off a great buzz (as Dougal McGuire would say). The isolated location away from a contemporary settlement, the fields with the earthworks, the views over the river, hills to the east and mountains to the west, and the well-maintained and varied memorials of the churchyard, together make for a place I would strongly recommend to anyone touring North Wales.

Sadly, the visitor is not allowed permission to explore the earthworks of the fort; these are on private land. Moreover, the church does not appear to be regularly open for visitors: a great pity. I went inside last  year and I can assure potential visitors that it is definitely worth exploring should you be lucky enough to find it open.

Information about the fort presented here derives from Frances Lynch’s Gwynedd guidebook.

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