Where the name "Gwydir" comes from

Gwydir Castle

No doubt many people living in Gwydir Street have found other people having trouble with the name of their street. You may be asked "Is it Welsh?" It is, and it comes from Baroness Gwydir, who owned the land of this area just before the area was redeveloped (see History). Her husband was Lord Gwydir, whose estates lay in County Caernarvon. The forest near Llanrwst is called the Forest of Gwydir, and there is a Gwydir Castle (see left and its website). "Gwydir lieth two bowshots above the river Conwy; it is a pretty place." (Leland, 1536).

Gwydir Castle

Gwydir Castle is the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family, descended from the kings of Gwynedd and one of the most significant families of North Wales during the Tudor and Stuart periods. It is really what the English would call a manor house. The surviving buildings date from the fifteenth century, with later alterations and additions. It is also notable for its important gardens and for its reputations as being one of the most haunted houses in Wales! The Welsh "Gwydir" is pronounced differently from Cambridge, with the syllables rhyming with "squid" and "beer". Our "Gwydir" in Cambridge rhymes with "rider".

I was interested in what the word "Gwydir" meant. The forest and the castle and a chapel was so-called, yet the family and the local town had a different name. I asked a local Welsh-speaking tour guide, and she said cheerfully "It means 'Field of Blood'. The Wynn family were mercenaries, and so the Welsh thought their land was bought with blood." Charming!

However, I have had a most interesting email from a local Welsh speaker, who disagrees with this, saying:

The Forest of Gwydir rises above the town of Llanrwst in a steep slope overlooking the river Conwy. It is on the edge of Snowdonia, and in former times must have been very wild. The castle is on the edge of the forest, above the town. Both forest and castle are to the north of the river, which is much steeper than to the south. So the likliest meaning of the Forest of Gwydir is "the forest on sloping land", which is a vivid description of the place. However, this obviously isn't suitable for Cambridge! Perhaps we can, instead, say that Gwydir Street is the "Wild Street!"

Gwydir Castle

Another person gives an alternative derivation:-

The area round Gwydir Castle is certainly wooded. But the problem with the etymology of "wooded land" is that the area is called the Forest of Gwydir. The area is still strongly Welsh speaking, and I don't think that people would call their local area "the forest of wooded land"! The voting seems to be with the meaning "slope". Pity Gwydir Street is so flat! Although this is denied by a local inhabitant A brief comment to anyone not familiar with Cambridge. Twelve feet (less than four metres) does indeed make quite a good hill in Cambridge. The Gog Magogs are the local mountains, rising to a dizzy 74 metres above sea-level.

Another person has pointed me to the "Handbook of the origin of place-names in Wales and Monmouthshire" by The Reverend Thoman Morgan, 1887:

This is interesting, as it seems to be the origin of some of the suggestions given above (and below). But the suggestion of "bloody land" is contradicted by a Welsh speaker, above.

If you want to know more about Gwydir Castle, one of the current owners has written a book about their experience of restoring the castle: Castles in the Air by Judy Corbett (published by Ebury Press). She says

In her book, she describes a massive flood of the Conwy River which reached the castle. Apparently the cellars are frequently flooded. So, here's a new choice - watery land. After all, we do have the Bath House at the end of the street, and there is a spring marked there on old maps. By the way, I thoroughly recommend the book - a very romantic account of the restoration of a beautiful house. It's a good read.

I'm not sure if this is relevant, but in the Mabinogion, there is a reference to someone called Gwydre. The Mabinogion is a collection of eleven stories from medieval Welsh manuscripts. The story of Culhwch and Olwen is a very early story featuring King Arthur. Culhwch goes to King Arthur's court to seek his help in winning the hand of Olwen. There is a long list of Arthur's warriors, including "Gwydre the son of Llwyddeu, (Gwenabwy the daughter of Kaw was his mother, Hueil his uncle stabbed him, and hatred was between Hueil and Arthur because of the wound)." Later on, Culhwch is set tasks by Olwen's father, one of which is to hunt Twrch Trwyth. This is a vicious boar, who kills some of the people on the hunt, including "Gwydre the son of Arthur".

If you want to add to this debate, contact me at here.

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