Historian and author, Brian Bennet looks back at Holywell racecourse…
As one travels along the A55 motorway these days, not many people who pass alongside a field near to the Pantasaph Franciscan Friary Retreat Centre will know its history.
It is an old Monastery, part of which today is a modern luxury apartment complex.
One will find it difficult to realise that years ago a famous racecourse existed in the field on the left hand side as you travel westerly.
The part nearest the road was quarried in the early 20th century, so bears no resemblance today as the ‘old racecourse’, but traces can be seen in the adjoining fields being only about 150 yards from the modern highway.
This racecourse, situated between the villages of Pantasaph and Babell, was laid down in c1766, cutting across part of the ancient Offas Dyke historical monument in the process, but very soon became the venue for a very prestigious race meeting held every October between 1767 to 1852.
The principal local patrons were Lord Derby, Lord Grosvenor, Sir W. W. Wynn, Lord Mostyn and Sir Tom Stanley – all members of the local aristocracy. They were all race horse enthusiasts and owners.
Presumably, it was set up initially to see who had the bragging rights of each one’s stables. I believe for the 85 years of its existence it was very much a big part of the racing fraternity’s calendar and was reported that it attracted large crowds from a wide area.
Many famous and champion horses graced the course over the decades, including Lord Mostyn’s filly called Queen of Trumps, which not only won at Holywell, but was a winner of some of the big classics which included, amongst others, The Oaks and the St Ledger.
It was also recorded that royalty in the form of Prince, then later King Leopold of Belgium attended in 1819, who was on a visit to Earl Grosvenor at Eaton Hall.
Another tale relating to the racecourse meetings, tells of Lord Mostyn who was so overjoyed when his horse Piccadilly won at Holywell, that he gave the public house at Caerwys to the horse’s jockey, who re-named the building the Piccadilly Inn – a title it still trades under today.
The first image shows an early 20th century map of the racecourse, with the present A55 pencilled in, showing how near the old racecourse was to the modern highway.
The racecourse was two miles one furlong in length – mainly flat with a slight hill, as the horses entered the final four furlongs, running in an anti-clockwise direction.
This racecourse can be walked almost completely today and is easily found on the local Ordinance Survey map, because the majority is on a right of way public footpath and bridlepaths.
The old grandstand was built in 1828 with a slated roof, and the start/finishing tower (pictured). Both structure positions can still be ascertained, albeit today just heaped lumps of stones and rubble.
It is recorded that the guests seated in the bricked grandstand enjoyed the benefits from a coal fired heating system, presumably fire buckets that were lit beneath the rows of wooden seats to warm the VIPs! Whatever happened to the health and safety?!
One notable tale about the race meeting involved Lord Grosvenor, who had a significant impact on the nearby village of Halkyn, which eventually resulted in the building of a new castle and church, and the demolition of an existing church.
The story goes that the 2nd Earl Grosvenor booked into the White Horse Inn, in High Street Holywell and requested all the accommodation rooms at the hostelry, for the exclusive use of his guests on one race meeting week, but a commercial traveller refused to give up his room.
The Earl reputedly was so outraged by the action of the traveller, that he went out and built what was to be known as Halkyn Castle – a mansion just three miles distant, but only sparingly used the property, chiefly on race meeting days.
The White Lion later to become the Midland Bank, would have been a very prestigious hostelry in the day, with no less a mortal than Princess (later Queen) Victoria staying there in 1832.
Halkyn Castle is today in private hands and the old racecourse still traceable but now used only for agricultural needs.
My thanks in compiling this article with extracts from the notes of the late Mr Geoffrey Veysey (past archivist of the Clwyd County Council).