Hearing ghosts in Bodelwyddan

Date published: 14 Jan 21

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“If you want to hear a ghost, you need silence,” said Ifor, as we downed several pre-pandemic beers. We were in London, at a time when few had ever thought about coronavirus. “You’ll hear them best towards evening,” he added.

Thanks to Ifor’s words, and a year later, I found myself in the gloaming beside a normally busy A-road, on the outskirts of a North Wales town called Bodelwyddan. The coronavirus was at full pitch, a second wave was underway, Wales had closed its borders to all but essential traffic, and patients were dropping like flies.

The military plot at Bodelwyddan's Marble Church (courtesy Jane Moore)There are few blessings of disease, but on this occasion there was one. I was now able to hear sounds that were ordinarily masked by rumbling tyres. I was standing outside the town’s 19th-century Marble Church, called so because of the 14 varieties of marble - from Belgium, Languedoc, Anglesey, Purbeck and elsewhere - that can be found within its frame. In normal times, the church is a popular tourist destination.

I strained, listened hard, and concentrated on the unfamiliar. After all, I had never listened for a ghost before. At first, it escaped me, then it came, the distant, rhythmic sound of crunching feet as the iron-studded, leather soles of ammunition boots marched in my direction. The soldiers called them crunchies. Spectres now, but once very real, I guessed they would be returning from their training in the improvised trenches of the neighbouring Bodelwyddan Castle. They were making their way to the nearby camp at Kinmel Park, where they were billeted. The crunchies soon vanished and once again it was silent, yet Ifor had been right. The ghosts of times past had made Bodelwyddan haunted.

Mock-up trenches at nearby Bodelwyddan Castle used for trainingIt was the 4th & 5th March 1919, and Canadian troops stationed at Kinmel Park had rioted, it is said because there were delays in their repatriation after frontline First World War service. Five had been killed. Perhaps we should not be surprised, as although the Great War was over, Spanish flu had begun, and 17,400 men were sleeping 42 to a hut, wooden buildings that were designed for only 30. Mutiny, riot, call it what you will, was inevitable.

As I stood beside the Marble Church, in its well-kept graveyard, I looked around me at the 82 Canadian headstones and memorials, arranged in several long rows. The rioters were there, at least four of the five who had perished. Three lay together. There was Sapper Tarasevich, the ringleader. Beside him lay Corporal Young, beneath a headstone that carried the words, 'Sometime, sometime, we’ll understand' while next to him was Gunner Haney, who had also died, aged only 22 years. Nearby was Private Gillan, whose memorial declared he was defending the honor of his country when he was shot. There was a fifth who died that day, Private Hickman, whose resting place is not Bodelwyddan. His remains were disinterred in 1919 and taken back to Canada.

Kinmel Park as it looks todayBeyond the tragedy of the mutiny, lay something more powerful in that cemetery, the memory of the Spanish flu pandemic, which started in early 1918. Four waves later, and 50 million dead, it had settled by April 1920. The majority of young service folk in the Marble Church’s graveyard were killed by disease, not enemy action. Let no one underestimate the power of that invisible virus, which sped through the overcrowded barracks like a steam train. As I studied the headstones, it felt perversely fitting that I was visiting Bodelwyddan with my own pandemic underway, more than a century later.

In the Kinmel Park of 1918 there was a large medical facility, the Canadian General Hospital. It was the workplace of a 26-year-old Canadian nursing sister named Rebecca MacIntosh, who by all accounts was a real treasure. In her war diary of 5 February 1919, she wrote:

The memorial to Rebecca MacIntosh, the nurse who died from Spanish 'flu (courtesy Jane Moore)“Influenza increasing rapidly in camp. Central part of hospital almost full - we have over 600 patients in hospital now. Admitted 49 yesterday and 55 today practically all influenza.”

Three months later, and two days after the Kinmel Park Mutiny, Rebecca was dead, from the disease she had sought to care for. Her memorial dominates the Marble Church’s cemetery and still remains a focus of pilgrimage for nurses worldwide.

I was silent for a long time in that graveyard, as the headstones told a story that was inescapable. The waves of a killer disease against which mankind had no vaccine, the youth, the futures wasted, the risks to medical staff, and the social unrest of the Kinmel Park Mutiny that followed. Civil turbulence has been a feature of pandemics throughout history.

I had also heard my ghosts, the crunchies of Bodelwyddan. An hour later, as I returned home along many empty roads, I was not surprised the Marble Church was such a tourist attraction.

If you go

Coronavirus – be sure to check each of these suggestions before you go, in light of any pandemic restrictions in place on the day. These change frequently.

The Marble Church can be found at 53.26651°N, 3.49548°W or GR SJ0039 7541

Address: St Margaret, Bodelwyddan, Rhyl, LL18 5UR
Opening times: Daily, from 9 am 4.30 pm
Visit website

Parking

There is free parking on the no-through road immediately beside the church, with a turning circle at the far end.

Getting there

Car: Get yourself to the North Wales Expressway (A55) at Chester and drive west for 30 miles until you reach the Bodelwyddan turn-off.

Distances: London (237 miles); Manchester (67 miles); Bristol (198 miles); Glasgow (265 miles); Liverpool (48 miles)

Train: There is no railway station in Bodelwyddan. The nearest stations are Rhyl or Abergele & Pensarn. Rhyl is the best bet for buses and taxis.

Bus: Arriva Number 51 from Rhyl Bus Station to Denbigh Lenten Pool stops in Bodelwyddan. For further choices go to: bustimes.org/localities/bodelwyddan 

Staying there

Faenol Fawr Country House & Manor Hotel (4*)
Bodelwyddan, St Asaph, Denbighshire, LL18 5UN
Tel. 01745 591691
Website:
faenolfawrhotel.co.uk

Bodelwyddan Castle Hotel (4*AA)
Bodelwyddan, Denbighshire, LL18 5YA
Tel. 01745 585088; 0330 100 9774
Website:
www.warnerleisurehotels.co.uk

Read reviews about this hotel on Silver Travel Advisor.

The Kinmel Arms (5*)
The Village, St George, Abergele, LL22 9BP
Tel. 01745 832207
Website: thekinmelarms.co.uk

Where to eat

Faenol Fawr Restaurant
Faenol Fawr Country House & Manor Hotel
Bodelwyddan, St Asaph, Denbighshire, LL18 5UN
Tel. 01745 591691
Website:
faenolfawrhotel.co.uk

Sandbank Bakery
10 Sandbank Road, Towyn, Abergele, LL22 9LB
Tel. 01745 342142
Website:
www.facebook.com/SandbankBakeryTowyn/

George & Dragon
Market Street, Abergele, LL22 7AF
Tel. 01745 826050
Website:
www.beerintheevening.com/pubs/s/16/16119/George_and_Dragon/Abergele

Other things to do

Manorafon Farm Park
A wonderful chance to meet a large array of cute, not-so-cute, small and large farm animals. Located within the parkland of Gwrych Castle.

Address: Manorafon Farm Park, Llanddulas Road, Abergele, Conwy, LL22 8ET
Tel. 01745 833237
Website:
www.manorafon-farm-park.co.uk
Email: [email protected]

Kinmel Park Golf
A 9-hole pay-and-play golf course plus a floodlit driving range open from 1000-2100hrs. There is also a bistro.

Address: Abergele Road, Bodelwyddan, Rhyl, LL18 5SR
Website:
kinmelparkgolf.simplybook.it/v2/#book

Rhyl Miniature Railway
Address: Central Station, Marine Lake, Wellington Road, Rhyl, LL18 1AQ
Tel. 01352 759109
Website:
rhylminiaturerailway.co.uk
Email: [email protected]ay.co.uk

More information

Rhyl Tourist Information Centre
West Parade, Rhyl, LL18 1HZ
Tel. 01745 355068; 01745 344515
Website:
www.gonorthwales.co.uk/visitor-information/rhyl-tourist-information-centre-p396531

Visit Wales
Website:
www.visitwales.com

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Other Members' Thoughts - 1 Comment(s)

  • LynetteH
    6 months ago
    What an interesting article Mr Villar has written. I can picture the images he described in my mind. Especially poignant is the parallels drawn to the silence surrounding St Margaret’s due to the current pandemic. Thank you for sharing the history and your thoughts with us.