The final episode of this year’s Weatherman Walking airs this Friday, and I’m going for gold!
This week, Derek, Matt and I are in the Fairbourne area and, after meeting Derek at the start of his walk, I head for the hills in search for stories about the Welsh Gold Rush. Derek finds out about the future of Fairbourne’s sea defences, rides on the miniature railway, has a go in a canoe and follows the Mawddach Estuary inland. He also meets people who witnessed a tragic disaster further up the river, and hears all about their very emotional story and acts of heroism.
Derek and I meet up again at the end of the programme to hear about our adventures. Behind the scenes, this is where little Poppy (and hubby Rhodri) met Derek and the crew. As she was still so young at this time, they were able to travel with me as I couldn’t leave her overnight at home. It was so lovely that they got to see me at work, and meet the fab crew who are always so friendly, welcoming and dedicated.
I had heard of Welsh Gold – I’m lucky enough to have a couple of pieces myself – but had never really thought about the origins of it, or how long ago it had first been discovered. Many of us will have heard of the Californian and Australian gold rushes, but who knew there had been one in Wales too, around the same time, 150 years ago?
The use of gold in Wales has ancient origins – just take a look at the Mold Gold Cape. The Mold Gold Cape was discovered by quarry workers digging for stones in an old burial mound on the outskirts of Mold in 1833. It has been beaten out of a single ingot of gold, decorated by ribs and bosses to make it look like it is covered in beads and cloth and this was all done over 3,500 years ago..! It is one of the finest pieces of prehistoric gold-working in Europe and is unique – it is now housed in the British Museum and even made it into ‘The History of the World in 100 Objects’ project by the BBC. Along the edges, there are holes which suggest it was once attached to something else, perhaps a leather lining. Due to the design of the ‘cape’, as the wearer wouldn’t have been able to raise their arms, it is thought to have been ceremonial. When it was found, it was accompanied by amber beads, a bronze knife, really fragile pieces of material and other strips of gold – now thought to have been part of an earlier, original gold cape. Was this a sign of even earlier world-class gold-working origins in north east Wales?
Today, Welsh gold can be valued up to 30 times more than other gold. It is extremely rare and any activity now is strictly regulated. Although you can find some beautiful pieces for sale on the Welsh (and Chester!) high streets, some pieces are more famous. For example, Welsh gold has been used for the Royal Family’s wedding rings since 1923 when the Queen Mother married the Duke of York, later King George VI. This tradition has continued for almost 100 years now following its use for Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle in 2018.
Royal connections go back even further. In 1911, the regalia, known as the ‘Honours of the Principality’, used for the Investiture of the Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle, including a coronet and a ring, incorporated Welsh gold. These were later used in 1969 at Prince Charles’s investiture at Caernarfon Castle. More information about the investitures, and about the native Princes of Wales, can be found on display at the castle, open to the public by Cadw.
There are two main bands of gold in Wales, one in north west Wales and one in the south. In the south, at a place called Dolaucothi, evidence for gold being mined by the Romans has been discovered. The gold mines here are now owned by the National Trust and are open to the public to visit. It is the only known Roman gold mine in the UK and was first used from the year 74AD right up to the start of the Second World War!
Further north, another section runs from Barmouth up to Dolgellau and beyond. In this week’s episode of Weatherman Walking, I visit the National Trust estate at Dolmelynllyn to visit two of the 100+ old gold mine workings across the Dolgellau gold belt. National Trust Ranger Rhydian Morris takes me on a walk up to Cefn Coch mine to see the old buildings and workings and, I have to say, what is left up there is hauntingly beautiful and quite unexpected. Once there, I meet with John ‘The Rock’ Mason, who tells me all about the history of mining up on the exposed and remote hilltop.
Find out more by tuning in this Friday, BBC One Wales at 7.35pm, right after The One Show, repeated on Sunday at 5.05pm, or you can stream all episodes on iPlayer now via www.bbc.co.uk/weathermanwalking