Relics of kings, wreck of forgotten wars, to the winds abandoned and the prying stars. Wordsworth, describing his visit to Castell Dinas Bran.
Castell Dinas Bran translates to English as: The Castle of the City of Crows. Perched on a conical hill above Llangollen, it enjoys aerial views and despite its dilapidated state, commands not only a strong historical presence, but also one of love, legend and fairytale. But don’t be fooled by the romance of it all, epic battles and crimes against king and country have plundered across these soils for centuries. If this was a walk through fiction, we could expect every genre under the sun. The name Llangollen is derived from the sacred enclosure of St Collen, who made a name for himself in the 7th century – both here, and on look-a-like Glastonbury Tor – for sorting out fairies gone bad, so I think we’re deep into fantasy before we even start to climb.
The castle’s first literary appearance is in a 12th-century historical document entitled ‘The Romance of Fulk FitzWarin.’ In this tale the castle is already referred to as a ruin during the early years of the Norman Conquest. It tells of an arrogant Norman knight, Payne Peveril. On hearing that no one had courage enough to stay overnight inside the castle ruins for fear of evil spirits, Peveril decided to take up the challenge, with 15 ‘knightly followers’. A storm blows up and a mace-wielding giant called Gogmagog, appears. Peveril defends his men against the attacks of the giant with his shield and cross, then stabs Gogmagog with his sword. As the giant is dying they hear the story of King Bran and his building of the castle in order to defeat the giant. Despite King Bran’s attempts against Gogmagog, the King had been forced to flee and since then the giant had terrorised all the land around for many years. In his final words, Gogmagog revealed that a great treasury of idols was buried at Dinas Bran which included swans, peacocks, horses and a huge golden ox, but in the true tradition of folklore … he died without revealing their location.
Dinas Bran wasn’t always a castle. The origins of this site go back to a Bronze Age fort, which was destroyed in some bloody battle, followed possibly by a wooden castle … which was also burnt down. This was followed by the 13th century stone version, until Edward 1st invaded in 1277 and it was destroyed again in another bloody battle, i.e: it was burnt down. Sadly, it was never repaired to full glory although the beautiful Myfanwy Fychan resided here in the 14th century. Her admirer, the poet Hywel ap Einion, wrote verse in praise of her, up in an oak tree on the slope of this hill. The final owner, Sir William Stanley from Chirk Castle was executed for his part in the rebellion against Henry 7th, and after his demise the castle’s only recorded inhabitant, was a fierce eagle.
One thing which hasn’t changed throughout the centuries: the view. It’s truly spectacular, a full 360° window across Wales, reaching out all the way towards the Shropshire Plain to the East and into Snowdonia to the West. We didn’t find the hidden treasures of Dinas Bran although according to legend you need a boy, and a white dog with a silver eye to have any sort of success rate. And it was so warm the day we made the climb, once atop we were content to sit and stare, rather than start digging. Even our Yorkies had turned to liquid (that’s the chocolate kind, not the small dogs). Unless … unless those fairies were up to some sort of Celtic mischief …
Words and photography by Jan Ruth
A circular walk of 10 miles including 1,500 feet of elevation overall. Start Point: The wildlife reserve car park at Trwyn yr Wylfa, Cemaes Bay, Anglesey. LL67 ODH. Map References: SH: 35619-93789 or Lat: 53.415189 Lon: -4.474820
A circular route utilising much of the Anglesey coastal path. Spectacular scenery – on a sunny day the area takes on a Mediterranean feel with bright turquoise seascapes, coloured rocks, soaring white gulls, and if you’re lucky – seals and porpoises. Worth noting that it’s possible to shorten this route by making the start point at Cemaes Bay village at point 3 and reducing the overall mileage by approx 4 miles, without missing the most scenic parts of the walk.
There’s plenty of historical points of interest in this area too, and the best place to see the Gwna Melange – an unusual combination of ancient rocks created by an underwater landslip. In fact, the whole of the island is a designated European Geopark so a veritable playground for those interested in geology, including White Lady’s Rock; a triangular-shaped slab of rock which once formed part of an arch but was quarried extensively in Victorian times for its quartz. Only ruins remain of Porth Llanlleiana, used for the production of china clay, and further on, evidence of the area’s industrial heritage in the form of winding gear which was used to lower quartzite, used in the production of bricks, down to the works at Porth Wen. Production ceased at the start of WW1 but the site is still an evocative piece of history in a breathtaking setting.
Take the footpath by two brick pillars and pass through a metal kissing-gate, walking up through a small copse onto the headland. The way may seem indistinct here as planning for a second phase of the power station has altered the landscape. Walk towards the sea and head to the right, passing through several wooden gates whilst following the blue coastal path markers – towards a small cove and the outskirts of Cemaes village.
The route continues close to several coastal properties. Still following the blue coastal markers, take a gravelled path to the right, turning right again at the finger-post sign. Walk between the stone walls then turn left down a slope to the shore. The blue markers are set into the pavement here and lead up through the village.
In the centre of Cemaes village, turn left at Bridge Street, opposite Ye Olde Vigour pub. Bear left at the next finger-post towards the harbour, and a short promenade. Turn left at the National Trust finger-post signed for Llanbadrig and Penrhyn Mawr, and follow the steep track up between blackberry bushes, passing through a wooden gate onto the headland.
Go through the next wooden gate to the right, which leads down a dip and back up the other side, passing an old kiln set into the hillside. Continue to follow the track until you reach White Lady’s Rock. Turn right here towards a wooden gate, arriving on a single-track road.
Turn left on the road and walk a short distance to reach Llanbadrig Church: the oldest Christian site in Wales. Locate a stone stile consisting of steps set into the boundary wall of the church and climb over this – turning right – to pick up the coastal path again along the headland.
From here, it’s a straightforward walk along the cliffs, the route eventually dropping down towards Porth Llanileiana via steep steps. Climb the zigzag path back up the other side to reach the top of Dinas Cynfor and the ruins of a hill fort, and a watchtower. Distant views reveal the Skerries, Middle Mouse, Point Lynas, East Mouse, and on a clear day, the Isle of Man.
From the watchtower, follow the headland again, the route dropping down towards Hell’s Mouth – a deep inlet – and back up the other side. Cross a wooden stile and climb a steep winding track to the top of the hill. From here, follow a wide, grassy track as it heads towards Porth Wen bay.
The brickworks come into view on the left – if you don’t mind exploring uneven ground it’s worth scrambling down to take a look – otherwise, continue along the grassy track, passing through a gate and following the route as it bears right and then left, eventually ending at a single-track road. Turn right. Walk for almost a mile, then on a right-hand bend look for a footpath on the left.
Go over the stile into fields, passing over a stream via a wooden bridge. The footpath is clearly marked and continues through a section of private garden then once through the next gate, keep right along the lower footpath. Continue until this path ends at a single-track road. Turn right then at the T junction, turn left and after approx a mile, you’ll be back at the harbour in Cemaes. Retrace your steps back to the car park.
The described route is a guide only, it’s always advisable to use a map or a GPS device.
Is there something moving out there… or is it just my imagination?
The only historical event I can remember with any accuracy is good old 1066 and The Battle of Hastings. At school I was hopeless at dates, in fact anything to do with numbers, but I used to love history because sooner or later it usually involved writing essays. Now though, I suspect there may be more to it. The longer I live and the more places I visit in the world, the more connected I feel to my roots, or more specifically my spiritual home, Snowdonia.
Twenty years ago we moved from Cheshire to North Wales. Although Cheshire has its history and pretty rural surroundings aplenty, Wales is far more extreme in both aspects. The castles and the rugged hillsides strewn with stone settlements, druid circles and Roman roads bring out the historical muse in me. To think that I am treading the same path as someone who lived in the Iron Age, is both fascinating and humbling. Snowdonia kick-started my stalled obsession with writing in a very positive way.
All this whimsical talk of the past makes me sound as if I write historical-based fiction. Far from it. Much as I admire many other genres I tend to be very much rooted in current times and my work reflects a lot of my own life experiences. But this is where I find the two ideas merge a little because I am most certainly inspired by this Ice Age landscape. What has gone before certainly shapes what we see today, but does it shape what we feel, too?
There’s no doubt I’m in my creative comfort zone tramping up the hills on a moody day. There’s no better way of busting that plot. Dedicated to a 6th century prince, this tiny church is a great find for historians, spiritualists, all kinds of artists, and a certain weary walking writer. This church is mentioned in the Wild Water series and I’ve spent many an hour soaking up the atmosphere. It’s quite a climb, some 900 feet above the village of Henryd, but sheltered from the Irish Sea by the comfortable bulk of Tal-Y-Fan. It proclaims to be the most remote church in Wales and due to its location on the Pilgrim’s Way, it is actually better accessed on foot or on horseback, but that’s just me wearing my whimsical hat again. I guess you could ride a quad bike or get a 4×4 along the green lane (originally the coffin path) up from the village, but that would spoil the experience considerably. The centuries of men’s hands on the same stones put the feeling into a place. I can relate to this and there’s no better way of making that connection than scrambling over those very same walls and finding a way across the hills. Even the names of the mountains are laced with enough magic to fuel the effort.
A small and simple building, Llangelynnin church probably dates from the 12th century (although some sources cite the 13th century), and was likely pre-dated by an earlier church of timber, or wattle and daub construction. Llangelynnin is also the name of the former parish, the primary school in nearby Henryd (Ysgol Llangelynnin). Celynin’s name is also carried by Craig Celynin, a mountain ridge adjacent to the church. Inside the building, there are inscriptions on the white-washed walls of The Ten Commandments and The Lord’s Prayer, and strangely enough a skull and crossbones. The Welsh language, being the oldest (still spoken) language in the world, lends so much more romance and intrigue to any story, even though I don’t understand all the words. One of the well-preserved benches is dated from 1629 and dedicated to Reverend Owen Bulkeley, former rector. Oh, I’d love to go back to those times just for a few hours, to maybe listen to the man reading his sermon and sit with the congregation. Instead, we have to be content with mere historical recordings and the remnants of those times, in whatever form they take.
Close by are the remains of an inn and a cock-fighting pit – if you know what to look for. Easier to see is St Celynin’s Holy Well. Sick children were often brought to these holy waters for a diagnosis whereby an item of the patient’s clothing would be flung into the water. If the clothing floated, then the child would recover…
I love the way ancient history here is often blurred by myths and legends, shape-shifters and superstitions. Rich then, in history and romance and easy enough to blend both, with a touch of fantasy and suspense. Especially so when the winter sun is low in the sky, sending out early shadows to creep across the crooked stones of derelict homesteads and graves. And late sunsets in summer, when the scudding clouds floating in a fiery sky take on the shape of dragons and rearing horses. Or maybe, when the druid’s circle is shrouded in mist and… can you hear something? Like the clink of marching armour and the clash of swords…there’s something moving out there, or is it just my imagination?
Words and photography by Jan Ruth