Quirky Chirky: welcome to the 'wild west' of northeast Wales
Tina Rogers traces the anarchic spirit of Chirk through a thousand years of people living on the border
Halfway up the hill and on the left-hand side from the English approach to the Welsh village of Chirk, is a large ornate sign saying Croeso i Gymru - Welcome to Wales. But look to the right, and you’ll notice a mound where a motte and Bailey once stood to keep the English out. Chirk lies on the border of England and Wales, and is a most uniquely unusual place, filled with contradictions.
Tottering on top of River Ceiriog, the old Roman road from Shrewsbury to London – now the A5 – runs through it, making Chirk a place that history has passed through wisp-like for a thousand years, without leaving a real mark on the place and people. It remains individual.
Because of its location, the population of Chirk is misfit, neither one thing or another, not wholly Welsh (we all speak English and the is border a spit away) yet fiercely patriotic (look around at all the houses adorned with red dragons and Welsh flags). A Welsh village that may have been razed by our most beloved Welsh prince Owain Glyndŵr in the early 1400s, because even Owain didn’t know what we were.
Chirk has been and is still a ‘wild west’ border town, a long and wide main street perfect for a gun fight at dawn, where time stands still and only moves with its industry, inhabited by ancient cowboys who once were coal miners, and now don’t look up from their mobile phones.
It is thought one of the earliest Welsh collieries was in Black Park (hence the name) from the mid-1600s, and when Thomas Telford built the A5 through Chirk, the industrial revolution came with him, removing its population from the fields and into the coal mines, opening the way for men and their families from other coal mines and areas to work here, leaving their odd ‘Dorset-Welsh’ accent alive in Black Park even now. Road, canal and rail allowed new hostelries to open, including the central building and beacon of Chirk, The Hand Hotel, to alleviate the stresses of ‘modern living’ with the introduction of Madam Geneva (gin) to the workers; the work hard, play hard sentiment that has remained.
Two world wars diminished the male population of Chirk who were lucky enough to escape the black seam for foreign shores. Coal was the backbone of Chirk from before memory, until Bersham pit, the main employer of men here, closed in 1986 after the miners’ strike. Grandfathers would work alongside their grandsons, generations of Chirk men with black eyes, blue scars and pneumoconiosis, who now had no job, and no future. The men lost their identity, generations of males were diminished by Thatcher, so reviled by the miners’ families of Chirk. I wonder what my own father would think on seeing the very first Conservative MP voted in for the area at the last general election.
The Posh dads, ex-miners who went to the grammar school but couldn’t escape their class, managed to get work at the factories, chocolate (Cadbury’s) or MDF (Kronospan). Kronospan, hidden behind trees, is now larger than the town. Seen from aerial photos it spans the whole length and more of the village, and is the most divisive entity in Chirk. Loved by those who work there, hated by others – there is no such thing as indifference here.
Where once our population looked towards the gentry of Brynkinallt – home to the Trevor family since 942 – to doff caps and work in servitude, Kronospan has taken their place. In early 2023, the Myddletons of Chirk Castle, doyens of aristocracy, holder of hunts and balls since the reign of Elizabeth I, sold their land to the company. Now Kronospan is king.
Chirk boasts an eleventh century church and Norman Castle filled with treasures, built to subdue the Welsh (Someone tell Owain Glyndŵr we’re on his side), also a Boys’ School, designed by Pugin (now a furniture shop) where Thomas E, Thomas, that pioneer of Welsh Football, taught Wales international and Manchester United hero Billy Meredith to pass the ball. Brynkinallt is a beautiful Elizabethan stately home containing Canalettos and the original family of Trevors who continue to work the land. Artist Kyffin Williams lived here as a young lad (his dad was manager at the bank, now an Airbnb), and poet R.S. Thomas was the curate in the inter-war years. The beautiful Cenotaph that dominates central Chirk was designed by artist, writer and alleged sexual deviant Eric Gill; it seems fitting for such a place of heroes and villains.
But these well knowns pale beside the ordinary people, the visceral beating heart of Chirk. The good and bad, the strong women who kept life going when their men had no hope, the kids hanging around the chippy because there was, and is, nowhere else to go.
Let me tell you a story of Chirkers. As a child waiting for the school bus I spied John Cussy, a milkman so named (not John-the-milk) because he couldn’t pronounce ‘custard’. A kind, funny man with a retro 1950s duck’s-arse hairstyle, who was shocked to be stopped in the middle of the road, quite near to the local MP’s house, early that morning by Ada Tay-ter (Potato), a matron of Chirk. She was only in her twenties but looked ancient to me, like she’d roamed off the moors in 1320s Scotland, witch-like, her ragged smock blowing like the sail of a galleon in the wind.
Ada was quite large and frightening, with thick lensed broken glasses and her husband’s unlaced work boots on, and clutched between her fists were the handles of a Silvercross pram full of stolen coal. Probably from the MP’s house. ‘Help me home, Cussy’, she said, ‘I can’t push this back, it’s too heavy’. Cussy smiled, removed all the milk from his float, loaded the pram and Ada into it and drove away, leaving crates of dairy and Cresta pop bottles on the A5.
There is no lesson to be learned from this story, other than a glimpse into the extraordinary occurrences and acceptance that was everyday life for the people of Chirk, a border town that defies categorisation, where the unusual was, and is, ordinary and where the heart of the village is fuelled by the anarchic spirit of its people.
Tina Rogers is a working class, self taught disabled writer and artist from Chirk.