Beddgelert stands in a valley at the confluence of the River Glaslyn and River Colwyn. Despite the presence of a raised mound in the village called Gelert’s Grave, the mound is ascribed to the activities of a late 18th-century landlord of the Goat Hotel in Beddgelert, David Pritchard, who connected the legend to the village in order to encourage tourism.
Portmeirion is a tourist village in Gwynedd, North Wales. It was designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis between 1925 and 1975 in the style of an Italian village, Portofino, and is now owned by a charitable trust.
Nothing wins hearts like cheerfulness – St. Dwynwen
The celebration of Dwynwen – the Welsh patron saint of lovers – takes place on January 25th. Not only does she command a unique day on the calendar, but Dwynwen surely lives on in cheerful spirit. Llanddwyn Island, the slim peninsular of land dedicated to her is so evocative, surely there has to be more than lava rock, saltmarsh and historic ruins here…
One of the 24 daughters of a Welsh prince, Dwynwen lived in the fifth century AD. She fell in love with a young man called Maelon but rejected his advances. This, depending on which story you read, was either because she wished to remain chaste and become a nun or because her father wished her to marry another. She prayed to be released from this unhappy situation and dreamed that she was given a potion to do this. However, the potion turned Maelon to ice. She then prayed that she be granted three wishes: 1) that Maelon be revived, 2) that all true lovers find happiness, and 3) that she should never again wish to be married. She then retreated to the solitude of Llanddwyn Island to follow the life of a hermit. Not so bad, then.
Dwynwen became known as the patron saint of lovers, and pilgrimages were made to her holy well on the island. It was said that the faithfulness of a lover could be divined through the movements of the eels that lived in the well. This was done by the woman first scattering breadcrumbs, then laying her handkerchief on the surface. If the eels disturbed it then her lover would be faithful. Visitors would leave offerings at this shrine, and so popular was this place of pilgrimage that it became the richest in the area during Tudor times. This funded a substantial chapel that was built in the 16th century. In 1879, a plain cross was erected in Dwynwen’s memory, followed by the Celtic cross in 1903.
The medieval love poet Dafydd ap Gwilym first popularised her story in the 13th century, writing: ‘Dwynwen your beauty is like a silver tear. Your church is ablaze with candlelight.’
To see that church ablaze with candlelight against such a backdrop must have been beyond magical. But there is still magic to be found here.
The history behind these scattered ruins across a relatively small area of land, seems all the more poignant for their close proximity … a concentration of beauty and legend, history and romance. There’s a sense of shivery danger too when you learn that at certain high tides, the island is completely cut off from the mainland. And yet there’s a quaint coziness in the row of empty cottages – given over to a small maritime museum – the lighthouse and the boats. I was walking into a children’s adventure one moment, a grisly crime scene or a romantic mystery, the next. (Only in my imagination). And I was on a natural history tour too, scanning the coves for seals, cormorants, sandpipers and turnstones. The rock formations are pillow lava, formed by undersea volcanic eruptions; as the hot molten rock met the cold seawater a balloon-like skin was formed, which then filled with more lava, forming the characteristic pillow shape. These extend down much of the length of Llanddwyn Island, giving it its interesting rolling topography along the beach. These secret coves of washed sand, one after the other nestled into the cliffs were virtually undisturbed, even on a busy day. Combined with the two crosses set against the sky, the solitude lends the place a special peace, a mesmerising natural sanctuary.
No surprise then that the island has been used for various film sets. The lighthouse was built in 1845 in a style similar to Anglesey’s windmills. In 2004, it became a location for filming romantic thriller Half Light. From here there are fabulous views stretching to the misty hills and mountains of the Llyn Peninsula and Snowdonia.
According to Dwynwen nothing won the heart like cheerfulness. Where else can a writer, photographer, artist, nature lover, bird-watcher, walker or historian find such concentrated richness? I was left contemplating that historical novel, no, wait, I need to write a time-slip historical fantasy. Or the next Enid Blyton? Whatever the outcome, Llanddwyn certainly won my heart.
Words and photography by Jan Ruth apart from *by Don Cardy.
Wild, Dark and Silent: A testimony to the Welsh Hills…
Wild Water is the story of Jack Redman, the wronged alpha male who’s trying to make the best decisions for his family but more often than not, gets kicked in the teeth. How often we read novels in the contemporary genres which consistently root for the female character – nothing wrong with a strong woman, of course – but no one seemed to be telling these stories from the male viewpoint, at least not twenty years ago when I began my quest. Divorce still seems heavily weighted towards the partner with the children, and the mother is usually awarded custody unless there are extenuating circumstances which can be proved. Most of the time this is all well and good, but there are a great number of cases where our ancient system is fully exploited. Sadly, a lot of the initial storyline was prompted by real-life experience but there’s no better starting point than this for fiction in the family-saga genre. Jack Redman is a victim not only of the court system injustices but of its inability to deal with the speed and complications of contemporary family life.
The Wild Water series is strongly rooted in Conwy, a medieval town in North Wales. In the main I’ve used real places, and I do love the mix of historical buildings as a backdrop to a modern tale. Links to Welsh history and heritage are unavoidable in Wales and it’s the visible remains of quarries, castles and farmsteads which give the area a strong sense of the past. And there’s richness in the landscape here which has certainly inspired my writing. St. Celynnin’s 12th century church in the hills for example, is an evocative piece of living history and a landmark which is included throughout the series. It’s exactly the sort of place Anna, with her natural spiritualism, might seek sanctuary. Nestled in the hills 927 feet above the sea, it’s pretty inaccessible and best approached on foot, but this is no great hardship.
Some of the area is chocolate-box pretty, a lot of it isn’t. The struggle to make a living in this community is mostly based on farming or tourism, although the mussel industry is alive and well. Since I know little about these subjects, Jack Redman emerged as an estate-agent. I like to be slightly unconventional with my characters because another great killer of readability is sameness, and cliche.
It was both daunting, and a pleasure to write the follow-up, Dark Water.
The story picks up three years after the end of Wild Water and Jack is in for another bumpy ride. Dark Water is, as the title might suggest, a darker story partly because my writing style has changed over twenty years, but also because I introduced an element of crime. It’s too easy to become lazy with a sequel and repeat much of what has gone before. The resurgence of Simon Banks created plenty of tension, and a fresh challenge for me to write some of the story from his perspective. New characters such as Clarissa Harrison-Smith and Peter Claymore, breathed new life into the original cast. When I brought Claymore into the story, he had to have a purpose and a passion, and his persona took root in one of the most fascinating buildings in Conwy – sadly in a state of disrepair – but the real life situation fitted perfectly with what I had in mind for the plot.
This house was built in 1589 by the vicar of Conwy. Since then it’s been a pub, a tearoom and an antique shop. It’s full of spooky atmosphere with cellars, trapdoors and secret passages, and apparently there used to be an escape tunnel which led to the quay. Haunted? Most certainly!
It’s exactly the sort of place someone like Claymore would want to renovate and bring to life, and the perfect setting for Anna to develop in her own right as a serious artist. Her portrait of Llewellyn the Great is the centrepiece of her launch but of course, this is fiction and nothing goes to plan! The comedy and tragedy of Jack’s life rumbles on. In his own words: ‘Raping and pillaging is still rife, even in the modern world.’
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 …
Beautiful is the large church, with stately arch and steeple. Neighbourly is the small church with groups of friendly people. Reverent is the old church with centuries of grace, and a wooden church or a stone church can hold an altar place. And whether it be a rich church, or a poor church anywhere, truly it is a great church if God is worshipped there.
It’s a long, long climb from the village of Llanwrst but well worth the effort to scramble up through Gwydir Forest above the spa-town of Trefriw, to visit the oldest church in Wales, dated 11th century.
This remote location above the Conwy Valley may have been used for Christian worship since the 6th century. Rhychwyn, or Rhochwyn, was one of the 12 sons of Helig ap Glannog, who lost his court, known as Llys Helig, when the sea inundated it. As a result of this loss, the sons lived devout lives, some as monks. The church is also known as Llywelyn’s Old Church and the reference to age is perfectly justified. Llywelyn Fawr, Prince of Wales, and his wife Princess Joan – the illegitimate daughter of King John of England – worshipped here in the early 13th century when they stayed at their Trefriw hunting lodge at nearby Lake Geirionnydd.
Joan, also known by her Welsh name Siwan, complained that the walk to church was tiring; 2km uphill from Trefriw followed by 2km downhill. It’s said that Llywelyn founded St Mary’s Church in Trefriw to save her this effort. Since we chose to walk this route on a humid summer’s day, I could fully sympathise with her! At least the long trail through Gwydir Forest was shaded. We passed several warning signs about the old mine workings in amongst the bracken and the broken stone walls. The heyday of metal mining here was between 1850 and 1919. Both timber and metal was transported from the forest to the quay at neighbouring Trefriw, from where it was shipped downstream to the coast. This historical industry is blamed for the lack of fish in Geirionnydd today: the result of the poisoning of the waters from the metal mines?
Interesting that there are literary connections to this diocese too, the most notable being Taliesin – a 6th-century Welsh bard living on the shores of the lake – and the earliest poet of the Welsh language whose work has survived.
Once out of the forest, the climb continues past hill farms and uphill through twisted iron kissing-gates, into fields where only sheep manage to remain upright. Any sign of the original settlements here have long gone and the historical relevance becomes more pronounced. Once the past is delved into, these cruel and pretty surroundings give tremendous weight to their own stories and I couldn’t wait to get inside the church. Although we were surrounded by the magnificence of Snowdonia the immediate location of this lovely building is rather nondescript, not as pretty as St Mary’s church on the river, nor does it hold the charm of St Celynin’s church in the hills. It seems tucked away in a corner and hidden by trees, and rather strangely, the back of the church faces outward. But the sense of history here is both compelling and unique. The ancient wooden door, complete with wooden hinges, closes behind you with a thunk, and those thick walls block out every sound apart from the wind as it continues to find a way through the innumerable gaps and crannies of the building. It really does feel like you’re inside a time capsule. The roof beams are some 800 years old and the bell is reputedly from Maenan Abbey. The east window has coloured images of the Virgin Mary and of the Holy Trinity. Apparently, this type of colouring is rare, and this example is probably the oldest of its kind in Wales. There are a number of dusty Welsh bibles still open on the creaking pulpit, and services are still held here despite its lack of nearby road or level track. There’s something mystical and magical about buildings as old as this, so I can fully understand why someone would still choose to attend a service here and brave the incline.
I think I spent almost as much time wandering in the churchyard and reading the wonky gravestones, bordering the path like a set of crooked teeth. No point looking for Llywelyn here… The church in Llanrwst is now famous for containing his carved stone coffin, whilst his wife rests in Beaumaris church on Anglesey. Although this was an arranged marriage, it was clearly a love story too. In 1230 William de Braose, a young Marcher Lord was discovered with Siwan in Llywelyn’s bedchamber. De Braose was hung for adultery and Siwan was placed on house-arrest for 12 months. In time, though, he came to forgive her and Siwan was restored to favour. She gave birth to a daughter in 1231 and died at the royal home at Abergwyngregyn, on the north coast of Gwynedd, in 1237.