Wrexham, Wales: A City in Transition, with a Yale Connection

Internet photo, town centre, Wrexham, Wales

Internet photo, town centre, Wrexham, Wales

Wrexham, Northeast Borderlands, Wales

We woke to pouring rain, gave up all hope of walking, and headed to Wrexham, in the area known as the North Wales Borderlands.

Why Wrexham?  It’s the only real city in northern Wales, with large retail shops. We thought we’d wander around them, and Clive could get an overdue haircut.

Almost in England

Wrexham is almost on the England/Wales border, between the English city of Chester to the northeast and the Welsh region of Snowdonia to the west.

Coming from Australia, and having grown up in the U.S., it still amazes me how quickly you can drive back and forth from one country to another in Europe. We didn’t cross the border back into England, but were very close to it in Wrexham.

The Yale Connection

At the Wrexham Tourist Office, we discovered the Church of St. Giles has two claims to fame. One is its high Tudor tower. The other is being the burial place of Elihu Yale, after whom the U.S. university is named.

Elihu Yale’s ancestors came from Wrexham. His English grandmother was daughter of the Bishop of Chester, and her first husband was Thomas Yale. Following Thomas’ death, she married the British-born governor of America’s New Haven colony, which took her to the U.S.

Elihu Yale was born in Boston in 1649, but lived there only four years, until his parents took the family back to England. Elihu died in London in 1721, and is buried at St. Giles in Wrexham.

The city is proud of its connection to Yale. There’s a local college named after him, and we saw a pub bearing his name on one of Wrexham’s main streets.

Elihu Yale pub, Wrexham, Wales

Elihu Yale pub, Wrexham, Wales

A City in Transition

It was fascinating for us to see Wrexham as a city in transition, dealing with the forces and effects of both globalisation and immigration.

Wrexham’s town centre has narrow pedestrian thoroughfares and small, historic buildings with great character. Sadly, many shops sit empty, while the majority of commercial business goes to big-name department stores like Marks and Spencer, Debenhams, and H&M,
who have moved to bigger spaces in bright new shopping malls on the outskirts of town.

As in other parts of the UK, Wrexham has a huge, empty Woolworth’s in the city centre, a painfully visible reminder of the company’s collapse last year.

'Evening Leader' photo, Woolworth's closing in Wrexham, Wales

'Evening Leader' photo, Woolworth's closing in Wrexham, Wales

Immigration, Integration, and Language

In Wrexham we noticed, more than in other cities we’ve recently visited, the preponderance of eastern European accents and languages spoken by residents of all ages.

Wrexham has a large Polish population, many of whom moved to the UK after Poland joined the European Union in 2004. Their integration into city life has not been without controversy.

We read the Wrexham member of the Welsh Assembly made news in 2007 when, instead of following longstanding tradition and printing re-election materials in English and Welsh, he printed them in English and Polish. This caused significant debate, particularly in light of the national focus on preserving the Welsh language.

When the local Environmental Agency put up signs in English and Polish to control fishing at a lake near Wrexham, anglers whose first language was Welsh ‘vowed to fish with impunity until a sign went up in their native language’.

A Peaceful Day

The day we visited Wrexham, everything seemed peaceful, if a bit dispiriting due to the economic downturn. We saw several large groups of young people who appeared to have nothing to do, and wondered if they were students in between classes at Yale College or if they were unemployed.

Clive got his haircut in the old town centre, where the young woman confirmed many small shops are closing due to the new malls. I confess we headed to one of the malls ourselves after the haircut, where we enjoyed looking around the department stores and being in warm, dry surroundings.

A Bookshop Browse

There are still some medium-size shops in central Wrexham. On our way back to the carpark, a highlight of the day for me was finding a Waterstone’s bookshop with an excellent local interest section.

'Real Wales' by Peter Finch

'Real Wales' by Peter Finch

Here we had a lovely browse, and purchased ‘Real Wales’, a quirky, insightful portrait of the country by Cardiff poet and writer Peter Finch.

As I wrote in ‘Travel and Books, Part 5: Where We Find Them’, Clive and I both love to make these unexpected discoveries when visiting local bookshops.

This was the third Waterstone’s we went into on this trip. We learned this British chain is a subsidiary of HMV Group, which also owns Hatchard’s on Picadilly in London, another of our favourite bookshops.

We were delighted when the young woman behind the counter offered to register us for a Waterstone’s loyalty card. Our only regret was we didn’t have receipts with us for books we purchased in the past two weeks at Waterstone’s in London and Ipswich.

Wrexham’s Future

It will be interesting to see how this Welsh city develops in coming years. We especially hope the old town centre will find a way to compete with the shiny new shopping malls.

Small businesses are still trying to make a go of it here. After we left the bookshop, we passed one of them, a little piece of Paris in Wrexham.

A bit of Paris in Wales

A bit of Paris in Wales

My next post will be about something extremely eccentric in the middle of north Wales.

7 Responses

  1. I used to go to a Woolworths in Colorado. I wonder if they still exist in the States?

  2. Hi Carol,

    Language is about identity, family, and community. People cannot reject a language without disrespecting the speakers. In short, language matters.

  3. Another great post. What a wonderful way to document your travels on your blog like this. Your next post sounds exciting.

  4. Linda, I think U.S. Woolworth’s closed around 2001. The English company is different (and also different from the Aussie one, a dominant supermarket company here).

    Eleanor, yes absolutely, which is of course why the omission of Welsh was so controversial.

    Lilly, thanks for your visit and kind comment!

    Cheers all.

  5. Did you know you could enter this blog/post into a competition to win a luxury weekend in Wales?

    Find out more at http://blog.visitwales.co.uk/623/wales-in-words-the-visit-wales-blog-competition/ or contact us directly at marketing@visitwales.com

  6. hey im actually from wrexham, and i just stumbled across this interesting little blog, you somehow managed to sum up our little town within a few paragraphs….good work.

    Not much has changed, but the shops are starting to fill again….which is great!

    (this is probably quite weird, writing this now when you probably visited ages ago, and have no interest in what the “wrexhamites” are up to)…Lol

  7. Hi Tom – I really appreciate your comment – thank you!

    We are definitely still interested in Wrexham and it is indeed great to hear the shops are filling again. We loved the city centre especially but could see the broader appeal of the area and setting within northern Wales. You live in a beautiful place.

    We hope to get back to Wales sooner rather than later but until then thanks again for your comment and cheers to you and Wrexham!

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