Chris Oakley wants to show me North Wales in a new light – quite literally.
The Wrexham-based video artist will today beam a blue-white searchlight into the night sky from the Jubilee Tower at the summit of Moel Famau as part of a major art installation. The proceeding procession and dusk-light illumination are to mark 200 years of the tower, designed to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of George III. It will also mark 25 years of the surrounding Clwydian Range holding the status of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
The video installation, accompanied by laser projections, is intended to illuminate the tower across North Wales and North-west England. It will remain in situ throughout the coming week.
I join Chris for an autumnal walk in the Clwydian Range to examine with fresh eyes the tower's battered aesthetics. "I want to create a sense of spectacle," he explains. "But I also hope people will go away from here having realised that the Jubilee Tower is not just a dilapidated pile of stones on a windswept hill. It reflects the way history has evolved around us."
A grand procession of high-society bigwigs came to North Wales for the ceremonial laying of the foundation stone on 25 October 1810. The 115ft structure, crowning the highest point in the range, has dominated the landscape ever since, yet many of the walkers clambering over the ruins each day know little of the pathos and pride that underscore its tumultuous history. The architect Thomas Harrison envisaged it as a grandiose Egyptian obelisk, but the final construction, unveiled in 1817, was a scaled-down version. The structure then partly collapsed in gales in 1862.
Chris and I follow the stone-laid Offa's Dyke National Trail through the heather moorland on the two-mile climb to the tower. Tufts of clouds drift overhead; purple-hued heather and yellow-flowered tormentil splash colour across the path. The pasture provides the habitat for the indigenous black grouse, one of Wales's rarest birds.
As we cross a plateau, overlooking the Vale of Clwyd, the tower looms, weather-beaten but still imbuing a stoic sense of pride. A stone-pitched slate path marks the final, steep ascent to the foot of the tower where we sit, munching biscuits and sharing a flask of milky coffee. From the battlements the full widescreen view opens out: west to Snowdon and Cader Idris, east to Liverpool, and north-west to Llandudno's Little Orme.
"I find being here quite uplifting," says Chris. "It inspires a sense of freedom embedded in me on walks to the tower with my dad during my childhood."
Walking in the Clwydian Range not only offers me a fresh perspective on local heritage, but also introduces me to a lesser-known area of North Wales. The Clwydian Range stretches from Prestatyn on the northern coast to the deep-wooded valley of Nant y Garth, near Llandegla, in the south. Walkers and families often miss the area in the stampede to the nearby Snowdonia National Park, yet it has enough to draw visitors, including activities from mountain biking to woodland foraging, and a variety of places to stay, from homely B&Bs to boutique-chic hotels.
My base for exploring the area is the sturdy Welsh market town of Ruthin. It is packed with history. The 15th-century Nantclwyd y Dre is the oldest timber-framed building in Wales and hosts a new regional arts hub, the Ruthin Craft Centre. It features galleries, events and incorporates the manorhaus, a stylish, art-themed hotel set in a rambling period property with eight rooms, each showcasing the work of local and national artists.
Chris and I end our walk at the Loggerheads Country Park, tucking into plates of yellow, fluffy scrambled egg at low-food-miles champion Caffi Florence. The café, North Wales Regional Winner at the True Taste Wales Awards 2009, has become a beacon for regional suppliers to take their premium products to a wider audience. "We have tried to make the food we offer reflect the natural environment of the range," says the owner, Jane Clough.
There are plans afoot to restore the tower's bastions on either side of the west window, improving the entry points at the corners and installing interpretation material. The Jubilee Tower has been battered by the passing of time, but Chris's public art event is putting it back on the map.
How to get there
Wrexham & Shropshire (0845 260 5900; wrexhamandshropshire.co.uk) offers return fares from London Marylebone to Wrexham General from £50 return. B&B in a double room at manorhaus (01824 704830; manorhaus.com) costs from £85 per night.
Jubilee Tower 200 (jubileetower200.co.uk); Clwydian Range (clwydian rangeaonb.org.uk); accommodation ideas (clwydiancountry.co.uk); Caffi Florence (01352 810397; caffiflorence .co.uk); Ruthin Craft Centre (01824 704774; ruthincraftcentre.org.uk).
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