In the Land of Castles, Sheepdogs and Dragons

On Thursday the 8th of August, we finally traveled northward to Gwynedd – one of my favorites places on the planet. I first discovered the fascinating history of this particular region of Wales through the Here Be Dragons trilogy by Sharon Kay Penman. If you’ve never read it, I insist you stop reading this blog right now and get to it. Well, maybe not this minute … but soon.

Much of world history is filled with strife and tales of woe … or triumph, depending on the narrator’s perspective. Being the land of dragons, Wales holds a special place in the history of the world’s timeline. Its terrain, especially in Gwynedd, and Welsh guerrilla warfare tactics made it a difficult little country to subdue. The people of Wales were boldly and fiercely independent. I suppose they still are.

In the time of medieval knights and courageous ladies, determined princes and ruthless kings, arranged marriages and forced alliances, sword fights and fierce battles, political intrigue and civil wars … the story of Llywelyn the Great and Llywelyn the Last unfolds. Sharon Kay Penman puts into words an exciting, passionate and turbulent portrait of the lives of the Welsh princes and the historical figures surrounding them, all with their own dynamic lives intertwined.

In an itty-bitty nutshell …

Llywelyn the Great & Joan, Church of St. Mary (Photograph by ©Martin Crampin)

Llywelyn ap Iorwerth came to power at a young age after defeating both his uncles in battle to become sole ruler of Gwynedd in 1200. Five years later, enjoying relative peace with England, Llywelyn married King John’s daughter Joan. Together, they had one child, Dafydd ap Llywelyn, who would go on to declare himself the Prince of Wales in the years following his father’s death. Although Llywelyn only held the title(s) Prince of North Wales and Lord of Snowdonia during his lifetime, he reigned for forty-five years and wielded considerably more power over all of Wales than his son Dafydd would ever command.

Following Dafydd’s childless reign, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, grandson of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth and second son of Llywelyn’s first-born (illegitimate by English standards) Gruffudd ap Llywelyn Fawr and Senana ferch Caradog, (confused yet?) became ruler of Gwynedd upon defeating his brothers Owain and Dafydd in 1255. The youngest Rhodri abstained from challenging his older brother’s claim. Between 1264 and 1267, Llywelyn attempted to take advantage of the baronial war raging in England by forging an alliance with Simon de Montfort, leader of the opposition against King Henry III and his son Edward (future King Edward I). Llywelyn’s lofty terms included recognition as the sole ruler of all Wales.

And I’ll stop there because … no spoilers.

The Penman trilogy introduced me to the Welsh Princes. From there, my interest pretty much exploded with my shelf space quickly monopolized by books on the history of Wales. I fed my new addiction with John Davies’ A History of Wales, Michael Preswich’s Edward I, J.R. Maddicott’s Simon de Montfort, just about every book I could find on the Welsh Princes and their castles, life and warfare in medieval times, until finally discovering J. Beverly Smith’s tome Llywelyn ap Gruffudd: Prince of Wales. I also added to my library Edith Pargeter’s The Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet though I found Penman’s version more sophisticated and engaging.

Before moving on to my exploits in Gwynedd, I’ll make one other mention of an interesting manuscript and that is The Journey Through Wales/The Description of Wales by the 12th century deacon and historian Gerald of Wales. He traveled a complete circuit across the country alongside the Archbishop of Canterbury in 1188. Keeping a detailed and extensive travelogue, Gerald provided a unique “first-hand” view of everyday life throughout medieval Wales. Incidentally, many years later Gerald made several arduous yet unsuccessful bids for the bishopric of St. David’s Cathedral between 1198 and 1203.

As we headed north, we couldn’t resist stopping to admire the views along Tal-y-llyn Lake, a 220-acre reflective ribbon of fresh water situated in the southern region of Snowdonia National Park. The views throughout this area were breathtaking, but the mountainous lake area presented a particularly beautiful vista.

The lake is named after the historic hamlet nestled along its southern bank, Tal-y-llyn, which is translated as “the end of the lake.” Thus, the lake is literally “the lake at the end of the lake.” Not sure if whoever named it was being lazy or poetic because of the surface reflections mirroring the verdant hillsides surrounding the water. Perhaps just being cheeky.

The serenity of Tal-y-llyn Lake cannot be captured on camera, but it kept me company as I strolled along the southeast shore. Across the water I spied a flock of sheep grazing in the foothills, no doubt ungrateful and oblivious of their view. Pentre Dolamarch Farm spans a large portion of the area on the other side of the lake, sitting along an unnamed road. I hope the local inhabitants have a name for it, something like “the road at the end of the road” perhaps. I found the location inexpressibly (is that a word?) perfect and couldn’t help wondering if the farm was for sale.

Having traveled far from the car, I double-timed my way back and hopped into the front seat. As we continued on our way, Mandy made one last stop to admire yet another breathtaking view. Of course, she couldn’t resist the picture-in-picture opportunity …

… and I couldn’t resist taking a picture of these lucky cows which are mostly hidden behind my obnoxious watermark.

We never made it as far south to the “end of the lake” hamlet, but I discovered these images you might find as fascinating as I do:

  • The first plate is attributed to freelance photographer © Simon Robinson, 2012 CC-BY-SA-3.0 & GFDL-1.2.
  • The second plate was developed by Welsh photographer John Thomas (1838-1905) who specialized in a wide variety of subjects including landscapes, images of country life, progressive street scenes, and notable architecture – especially chapels, but he also enjoyed taking portraits of ordinary folk.
  • The third image is a black and white lithograph by Samuel Prout (1783-1852) and is part of the Welsh Landscape Collection with the National Library of Wales. A master of British watercolor architectural painting, Prout’s work is often compared to that of J.M.W. Turner, my personal favorite.

Onward and upward, we continued winding our way through Snowdonia National Park toward Caernarfon Castle. The site of Caernarfon beside the River Seiont has been a prime location since the era of Roman conquest. William the Conquerer was the first to build a motte and bailey castle near the site of the current structure though nothing from that architecture remains. Following William’s demise in 1088, the castle came under Welsh control. Historical records indicate Caernarfon provided occasional quarters for both Llywelyn the Great and Llywelyn the Last, but their primary “residences” were further east into the mountains of Snowdonia.

John Davies described Caernarfon Castle as a “shameful memorial to the subjugation of the Welsh” while at the same time a “tribute to the tenacity of the Welsh.” Spoiler alert. Following the final defeat of Llywellyn’s forces, Edward invested a great deal in castle fortifications to keep the Welsh in line. Of course, that didn’t prevent further uprisings, none of which succeeded.

Let’s veer off the political history of Wales for a few seconds to admire the works of Joseph Mallord William Turner. Turner made six tours through Wales between 1792 and 1799 and again in 1808 (as enamored with the country as I am, obviously), producing a sublime study of oil paintings, watercolors and sketches featuring picturesque landscapes and several castles, including Caernarfon Castle.

Turner’s exhibition in 1800 included the following poem with the painting above (verse attributed to the artist):

And now on Arvon's haughty tow'rs
The Bard the song of pity pours
For oft on Mona's distant hills he sighs,
Where jealous of the minstrel band,
The tyrant drench'd with blood the land,
And charm'd with horror, triumph'd in their cries,
The swains of Arvon round him throng,
And join the sorrow of his song.

from The Art of J.M.W. Turner, David Blaney Brown, Knickerbocker Press, 1998

Now, back to our regularly scheduled program. Below, I’ve included a helpful layout of Caernarfon Castle (stolen from wikipedia, actually) to aid in the deciphering of my photographs which follow.

Plan of Caernarfon Castle: A – Site of Water Gate; B – Eagle Tower; C – Queen’s Tower; D – Well Tower; E – Lower Ward; F – Great Hall; G – Kitchens; H – Chamberlain Tower; I – King’s Gate; J – Upper Ward; K – Black Tower; L – Granary Tower; M – North-East Tower; N – Cistern Tower; O – Queen’s Gate. Blue shows the area built between 1283–92, red that between 1295–1323 (from wikipedia)

As you can see, Caernarfon Castle truly was a massive symbol of subjugation following several tormenting years of rebellion. The architecture with its bands of colored stones and polygonal towers made it unique from other Edwardian castles of the time.

Below I included a few interior views to give you an idea of the grandeur of Caernarfon – for a 13th century castle, that is. I found myself lost more than once or twice inside these walls.

My favorite thing to do (besides trying on the nifty hat) was walking across all those well-worn stones and trying to imagine the folks who lived there, envisioning what the halls looked like with their tapestries and roaring fireplaces. I imagined music playing, people laughing, lovers whispering in the dark corridors, lords and ladies drinking and eating foods I probably can’t imagine. Oh, what fun it would be to visit Caernarfon fully equipped with medieval furnishings and populated with characters re-enacting life in a fully functioning castle. I guess I’ll have to stick to books and movies.

Caernarfon is a staggering place to visit, but we were eager to get back on the Here Be Dragons path. Next up was Dolbadarn Castle.

Dolbadarn sits at the base of Llanberis Pass, 8 miles southeast of Caernarfon. Llywelyn the Great’s 13th century stone-built fortification was enhanced by Glyderau range on one side and the Snowdon massif on the other. The castle’s strategic location required a special commissariat to transport supplies over considerable distances. We just drove up to the parking lot along the main road. Ah, modern conveniences.

Excited to be back, I’m fairly certain I jumped out of the car before Mandy even had time to put it into park. It had been too long since I last hiked up the path to Dolbadarn. It looked unchanged and just as magnificent as I remembered.

There’s a certain kind of melancholy I feel whenever I visit places like this, but especially this medieval ruin. I suppose it’s because I know more about Dolbadarn’s history than any other fortress, and really, I’ve barely scratched the surface. Let’s take a moment to admire Turner’s vision of this legendary castle.

In the foreground of the oil painting above, you’ll notice three figures. Cuffed and dressed in red, Owain Goch ap Gruffudd (Llywelyn ap Gruffudd’s older brother) is marched toward the castle where he was held prisoner for twenty-two years. Talk about family scuffles. You must read the books. Really.

Okay. On to the exploration goodies. Here’s another helpful graphic I stole from wikipedia to give you an idea of what once was. Also, I couldn’t resist including a few comparative photographs below, just for fun.

Plan of the castle: A – South Tower; B – Keep; C – West Tower; D – East Building; E – Hall (from wikipedia)

The path up the hill approaches from behind where the West Tower used to be and wraps around the ruins of the South Tower. Of course, I stayed off path and approached head on.

Luckily, there was no gate or door to keep me out nor an attendant to shoo me away as the posted closing hour was long past. Climbing over the rocks, I approached the stairs leading into the Keep. Yes, I was more than excited to be making the same ascension as the Welsh Princes up the stairs, though not these exact steps as this staircase was added sometime in the 18th century. Boo!

The door to the main entrance was long gone, most likely taken during one of many scavenging hunts for building materials. The wood from the floors and timbers was reutilized during Edward I’s castle building kick. Much of the stone from the Keep’s battlements was also gone, the ravages of time and weather having taken its toll.

One of the things I love most about Dolbadarn Castle is the rustic, unfinished edges of the windows, doorways and interior staircase – as treacherous as it was. My size 7’s barely fit each step. I cannot imagine traipsing up and down with a full skirt and clunky shoes. And what about the men in their medieval garb, clanging against the walls? The rule ‘no running inside’ probably originated in this keep.

This was my second visit to Wales and this particular castle. My enchantment was not diminished in the slightest. In fact, I was tickled to explore a new part of Dolbadarn. More luck struck that day because I met two local girls hanging out in the castle, treating it as their very own clubhouse. They descended from the third floor ahead of me and disappeared into another part. I could hear their voices echoing against the walls of the Keep, but I couldn’t see where they had gone. I finally spotted them in an open doorway across from the main floor platform. Me being me, I scrambled down the stairs and circled around to the back of the castle where I found …

The one on the right still had a bar blocking the entrance (or rather exit), but the one on the left was open. I popped my head up and found the girls. They greeted me very cordially and invited me to climb up. So, up I shimmied through the privy hole and into the ‘girls’ bathroom.’ Yes, that’s right. I shimmied through the hole where both Llywelyns more than likely did their #1 and #2’s. Woohoo!

Cross-section of Dolbadarn Keep, Illustration by Freelance Reconstruction Artist Chris Jones-Jenkins

In my research, I found a wonderfully informative website called Ancient and Medieval Architecture, showcasing news, articles, maps and the architecture of every medieval castle, cathedral & church in Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Slovakia and Wales. From there, I borrowed this rendition of Dolbadarn Castle.

Notice the two privy holes – and only two! The girls’ is on the first floor while the boys’ is on the second. Love the added artistry of brown waste trickling out. Ick. I’m betting the guards drew straws for sentry duty on that side of the keep.

The entrance as reconstructed is barred with a portcullis rather than a solid wooden door which would not serve well to keep out the cold. Was there a wooden door behind the portcullis but is not pictured perhaps?

I wanted to stay and visit with the young ladies for longer, but we had a long drive back to the farmhouse and one more stop to make. So, I climbed back through the privy hole and hustled to the carpark, stopping to take a few last pictures.

I was sad to say good-bye to Dolbabarn once again. I could truly spend an entire day or more at the castle and in the surrounding area.

Next up was Dolwyddelan Castle, another of Llywellyn the Great’s strongholds. Constructed in the 13th century, Dolwyddelan acted as a watchtower into the heart of the Princes’ seat of power, Snowdonia. Speaking of which, we could not resist stopping to take in more views.

J.M.W. Turner neglected (I say neglected!) to paint Dolwyddelan Castle, but I found these lovely works by three different landscape artists all with the first name of Thomas … so, maybe that had something to do with it?

As far as my own viewing of the castle, I’m sad to report, this is as close as I got …

… because for the second friggin’ time I completely forgot access to Dolwyddelan is via a private farm whose residents probably tire of tourists like me who show up outside the posted hours, asking to hike up to the castle. The only thing I could do was take pictures of their cute, little sheep who stared at me just as annoyingly as the farmers. Actually, they were quite polite – the farmers, not the sheep. You can bet what my first stop will be the next time I return to Wales.

On the other hand, I met this guy …

… the world’s friendliest sheep herding dog. And I mean … he was really, really friendly. I cannot stress how friendly this dog was.

Yeah, like that friendly. He left marks, too. I mean scratches. Get your mind out of the gutter.

Thus, ended my day, not with a whimper but a humping dog.

Until the bat, which we found had made itself at home in Mandy’s bedroom when we returned to the farmhouse. The bat then migrated from Mandy’s room to mine where it stayed for quite some time. Keeping us company was another giant house spider which I found while looking for the bat. I eventually got the bat downstairs and out the front door. I left the spider alone. After all, I figured it was there first.

2 thoughts on “In the Land of Castles, Sheepdogs and Dragons”

  1. Thank you for this bog on the Welsh castles. Lovely photos and scenery. Wow, those castles were huge. Saw a bunch in Scotland in June, but these match them easily.

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