Where the name "Gwydir" comes from
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 Caernavon. 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 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:
Following a discussion with a colleague about the possible origins of the
name of Gwydir Street I searched for it online and found your pages. I was
interested to read the etymology you provide. As a Welsh speaker, though,
the tour guide's translation seems a little unlikely: although the
*Cambridge* pronunciation of Gwydir approximates to the Welsh pronunciation
of gwaed-dir ['gwide-deerr'], or blood-land, the *Welsh* pronunciation of
Gwydir is, to Welsh ears, so far from gwaed-dir as to be almost
unrecognisable as a corruption of it.
There is an another word for blood/gore, gwyar, which at first glance seems
a more likely candidate for the 'blood' component of the word Gwydir, but
when spoken the emphasis (quite pronounced in Welsh words) in the word
Gwyardir would fall on the penultimate syllable -ar-, making it unlikely
that this syllable would be dropped.
What gwydir does immediately suggest to a Welsh speaker is the word for
glass, gwydr: it is quite common in Welsh to find words ending in
consonant+r spelt with an extra vowel, repeated from earlier in the word,
inserted between these last two letters, as that is how such words are
often pronounced. The inserted vowel for gwydr would be 'i' as this would
preserve the *sound* of the earlier vowel 'y', whereas a repetition of 'y'
in the word-end position would sound differently... Anyway, the connection
seems so obvious that I had always assumed until today that the street must
have been named after a Welsh-owned glassworks or something that had once
However, it does seem rather unlikely that land in Wales would derive its
name from the word for glass. It's perhaps more likely that the name Gwydir
is a corruption of some earlier compound of a word beginning 'gwy-' (there
are many) + 'dir', the latter being the part meaning 'land' and therefore a
common component of Welsh place names. Possibilities include Gwyndir (white
land), Gwydd-dir (wild land, in the sense of wilderness, or plough land)
and Gwyrdir (sloping or crooked land).
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!"
Another person gives an alternative derivation:-
Hi, our first thought was that there may have been a connection with Gwydir Castle in the
Conway valley. We consulted the experts in Pwllheli and discovered that a Meredydd ap Ieuan
from Eifionydd (where my mother's family originated) established the Gwydir estate. He was a
great scholar who provided an education for able young men in the area. His descendant, Sir
John Wynn of Gwydir 1553 - 1627, was a scholar at All Souls, Oxford but his son, who
inherited the estate, went to Westminster School and St.John's College, Cambridge.
Further etymology, according to Geiriadur y Brifysgol (University Dictionary) it refers the word
"gwydir" to "godir", meaning a piece of valley or wooded land. There is also a reference to
similar place names in Scotland meaning slope. Maybe Sloping Street is the best bet after
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
Gwydir St flat? Never! Anyone who rides a bike knows that it rises from the Upper Gwydir St end to the
Mill Rd end. Inferring from my 1927 O S map the difference could be as much as 12 ft. There is
a bench mark outside our house (on the side wall of No 155) marked on the map as 51.8 ft osl
- surely the crest of a hill by Cambridge standards! Further more, I recently dug down about 4 ft
in our garden and from 3 ft came to solid chalk. So perhaps we are living on one of the foothills
of the Gogs?
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.
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
"Some say that the word comes from gwy tir, meaning watery land, others say it comes from gwaed dir, meaning bloody land, while others say it is simply the lliteral translation of the Welsh word for glass. Consequently, a dubious legend has arisen that suggests that the Wynns were the first in these parts to build a house with glazed windows. Personally, given what we know about the flooding, I'm for the watery land theory."
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 prose 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 of the people on the hunt, including "Gwydre the son of Arthur".
If you want to add to this debate, go to the site homepage for my email.
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