Communion Of Dreams


Three weeks in Wales, Part 8: before history.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6. Part 7.

We spent the bulk of Sunday driving to Llandysul in SW Wales. There we’d made arrangements to stay with an online friend of Martha’s.

Monday we spent mostly in prehistoric Britain, starting with Castell Henllys. This is an iron age hillfort which has been partially reconstructed, using solid archeological research done on the site. Since the roundhouses have been rebuilt right on the original foundations, you get a real sense of what life in the village must have been like. You can see it, feel it, smell it. They’ve done a remarkable job in building the structures and constructing the everyday items which would have been inside them.

Typical traps between the defensive berms: sharp rocks, pot holes, mires.

 

Inside defensive berm.

 

 

What you see as you come through the defensive perimeter.

 

Nice to see how the thatch around the vent hole was replaced recently.

 

Common house and animal pen.

 

Entrance to the chieftain’s hut.

 

Interior roof support structure.

 

Simple loom.

 

Grindstone.

 

Firepit.

 

Cooking gear.

 

Decorative end of log seat.

Interior wall.

 

‘Bedroom.’

 

Interior decoration.

Pole lathe.

 

Storage/work shed.

 

Fish basket.

 

Roof detail.

 

Granary.

 

We decided to have lunch at a local pub, then I wanted to make another stop at Craig Rhosyfelin (from Part 3), to take some additional images for my own reference in working on St Cybi’s Well:

Approaching the point.

 

And from there we went exploring — driving off into an area we hadn’t been before, just looking to see what we might find on the map. And we wound up at Gors Fawr, a wonderful remote neolithic stone circle. With the clouds hanging low and covering the nearby mountain tops, you couldn’t ask for a more atmospheric scene:

The whole circle.

 

The ‘avenue stones.’

 

Lastly, on our way back to Llandysul, we stopped by the Hywel Dda Centre in Whitland. We had been to the Centre previously, but only when it wasn’t open. This time we had a chance to chat with a charming docent, who shared his enthusiasm for Welsh history. And of professional interest, we got to see the excellent facsimile copy of ‘Boston Manuscript of the Laws of Hywel Dda‘:

It was a delightful day.

Jim Downey

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Three weeks in Wales, Part 7: Like an aqueduct over troubled water.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5. Part 6.

It was the last day for my sister and her family, so we decided to hit a couple of interesting places on our way from Dolgellau to Manchester, where we had a B&B for the night.

First was Valle Crucis Abbey,  outside of Llangollen. Valle Crucis is another of the big Cistercian abbeys, and one of the best preserved, giving you a chance to walk through and really get a feel for what it must have been like to live in:

It’s a cool place.

Next up was the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct outside of the town of Llangollen.

Most Americans know very little of the early industrial revolution in Great Britain, and the role which the early canal system played in helping launch that fundamental societal change. Prior to the development of railroads, canals were crucial for moving goods and materials in the UK. And Thomas Telford was one of the greatest civil engineers of the era, who helped to construct the network of canals.

The canals no longer play a critical role in the economy of the UK, but they have become a popular holiday destination, and people often take tours on narrowboats or even rent them as a short-stay vacation home. Narrowboats like these:

After walking across the aqueduct, we decided to take a ride on one of the narrowboats from “Jones the Boats.” We got tickets, then went and had a nice lunch at the Telford Inn  while we waited for our turn.

The trip back and forth across the aqueduct takes about 45 minutes, and the views over the Dee River (the river is some 125′ below) are quite lovely:

Heading out.

Note the lack of any kind of rail or ledge on the one side. And the edge of the trough is only about 6″ up out of the water. You can hang right over the edge of it if you want.

There were dogs …

… and cats.

Heading back.

Everyone seemed to enjoy it.

I certainly did. And I could see doing a couple days on one of the fancy narrowboats.

After the aqueduct we continued on to Manchester. Our B&B (which we’ve used on previous trips) was a charming place: Ash Farm Country House. After getting settled in, we popped next door to a fantastic gastro-pub for dinner and some real ale: The Swan with Two Nicks.

It was a great way to close out the portion of the trip which Celeste, Steven, and Haley shared with us. The next morning we dropped them off at the airport, and Martha and I headed back into Wales.

 

Jim Downey



Three weeks in Wales, Part 6: the best laid plans … worked.

 

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4. Part 5.

Some years back my wife Martha and I climbed Snowdon. This trip, my brother-in-law Steven and niece Haley decided that they wanted to do it. But being somewhat more into hiking than I ever was, they wanted to try a more adventurous path than we used, and consulted with an outdoors shop owner in Dolgellau they had made friends with to see what he recommended. After discussion, they decided on the Rhyd Ddu Path, which they were told would take between 2:30 and 3:00 hours for hikers in good shape to do.

So after keeping an eye on the weather, they decided to tackle it on Thursday morning of our second week in Wales. We dropped them off at the trailhead in the small town of Rhyd Ddu:

Snowdon in the distance.

 

My sister Celeste, Martha, and I took a leisurely drive over to Llanberis, where we’d arranged to take the Snowdon Mountain Railway (SMR) up Yr Wyddfa. The timing on this was a little tricky: your ticket for up and back only allows a 30 minute stay on top of the mountain. And our plan was to meet Steven and Haley there, and to have them get stand-by tickets to take the train back down with us … if there were any. Because there frequently aren’t, and they’re only sold on a ‘as available’ basis. One additional possible complication: even under the best conditions, the weather on top of Snowdon is very changeable, and the SMR will only go to the very top (where the station is) if visibility it clear. 

But Steven and Haley were confident that they could do the hike in the time allotted, and if worst came to worst, they could also hike back down and we could then pick them up.

So, we drove to Llanberis, enjoying some sight-seeing along the way:

Snowdon is the peak in the middle.

 

Well, the plans worked perfectly. Steven and Haley made it to the top of Snowdon in just 2:15, and got their names on the top of the stand-by list. The train made it all the way to the top, where we joined them at the Hafod Eryri, the station/visitor’s center which was new since the last time I had been to the top.

The path heading up from the lake is the Miner’s Path, which Martha and I climbed previously. The one above it is the PYG Track, which is the way we went back down.

Yeah, it’s that wonderful. You should go sometime.

One the way back to the cottage we stopped at Cymer Abbey, just outside Dolgellau. Cymer is a late 12th century Cistercian ruins, but still quite charming:

The next day we decided to visit one of my very favorite places in Wales: Castell-y-Bere. It’s one of the native Welsh castles, dating back to about 1220, and was brilliantly designed to take advantage of the natural features of the site, as can be seen in this image of the ruins on CADW’s site:

You can see a rendering of what the castle may have looked like in the information plaque there at Castell-y-Bere:

And here are more images from our visit, but I would also recommend the Castle Wales entry.

After a nice long visit at Castell-y-Bere, we stopped off at the entrance to the Path up to the summit of Cadair Idris and had a pleasant late lunch at the Tŷ Te Cadair Tea Room. I love this tree-shaded little road leading up to it:

It was a good day.

Jim Downey



Three weeks in Wales, Part 5: water and old stone.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Part 4.

“Water and old stone” pretty much sums up Wales, for me, I think. But I have an admittedly biased perspective.

We started the next morning with a trip to Pennant Melangell, a small pilgrimage church in the Tanat valley in north Wales. Here’s the preamble I use in the first chapter of St Cybi’s Well, which is titled ‘Pennant Melangell’:

Melangell was a female saint of the 7th century. According to tradition she came here from Ireland and lived as a hermit in the valley. One day Brochwel, Prince of Powys, was hunting and pursued a hare which took refuge under Melangell’s cloak. The Prince’s hounds fled, and he was moved by her courage and sanctity. He gave her the valley as a place of sanctuary, and Melangell became Abbess of a small religious community. After her death her memory continued to be honoured, and Pennant Melangell has been a place of pilgrimage for many centuries. Melangell remains the patron saint of hares.
– St Melangell’s Church website

It’s a wonderful little place.

Here’s the entrance to the churchyard, with the classic lych gate:

Interior of the church:

The 15th century rood screen.

 

Chancel, with the (reconstructed) 12th century shrine of St Melangell.

 

Detail under the shrine.

 

Inside the Apse.

 

Back of the tympanum, containing a plaster panel with The Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments, all in Welsh.

In the churchyard:

I love this place. Maybe it shows:

We got some lunch in the charming little town of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (where parts of this favorite movie was shot), then went to visit Pistyll Rhaeadr, one of the “seven natural wonders of Wales.”  The waterfall is mentioned in Communion of Dreams, and one of the major chapters of St Cybi’s Well is titled ‘Pistyll Rhaeadr’. Here it is:

That’s almost 250′ tall.

 

My sister and her family before we climbed to the top.

 

Up on top.

 

Steve, getting some images of the falls, looking down.

I did the same:

Here’s a description of the top of the falls, taken from St Cybi’s Well:

As he came around past the rock outcrop, the sound from the falls increased. There was the distant rumble from the bottom of the first long drop, but closer now were the sounds of water scrambling over rock and root, gathering in the small pools at the top before the plunge. Darnell made his way to the last of these pools, near the edge of the cliff, and stood there, listening.

He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, and relaxed, opening himself as he had tried to do at St Cybi’s and St Seiriol’s, allowing rather than reaching, feeling rather than thinking.

And he felt something. A whisper in his mind. A whisper as though someone were speaking his name. A whisper of invitation, to step through the wind and over the edge of the cliff, to come to freedom. It was a beckoning, a subtle and supple call to pass through to the other side.

This was the thinness Megan spoke of. He understood it now, at least a little.

Releasing the breath, he slowly opened his eyes, then knelt down to the pool in front of him. The silver-grey sky reflected in the pool had a new shimmer to it, an intensity he had not seen before. He reached out, as he had done before, and placed the palm of his hand against the surface of the water.

There was no slight electric thrill, but neither was there just the crisp coldness of a mountain stream. Rather, there was a vibrancy, almost a … depth … there, more than the few inches of water in the pool would suggest. And while the roar of the falls to his left called loudly, it was the trickle of water coming from his right which whispered to him. He stood, and followed it further up the mountain.

After hiking back down to the base of the falls, we enjoyed a snack in the little tea shop, then headed back to our cottage. The magic of the day continued, as we watched clouds form midway down the mountain:

The next day we decided to visit Caernarfon castle, the massive fortress in the north Wales town of the same name. This one:

Some of my images:

And from displays inside one of the main towers:

Time enjoying the castle was followed up with lunch on the castle square:

That afternoon, we went to St Cybi’s Well, itself:

The main bathing pool.

 

The well source, itself, behind the bathing pool.

 

“Author’s selfie.”

 

Jim Downey

 



Three weeks in Wales, Part 4: Take a walk on the wall side.

Part 1. Part 2. Part 3.

That’s the famous Laburnum Arch at Bodnant Garden in North Wales. Calling it an ‘arch’ is somewhat misleading, since it’s actually 55 meters long. Here’s a better image of it from Wikipedia:

We decided to kick off our week in North Wales with a trip to Bodnant Garden, particularly since Martha knew that the Arch would be in bloom. She’s wanted to see it in it’s full glory since we first went there almost 20 years ago.

And much of the rest of the garden was in bloom, as well:

If you plan a trip to Wales, particularly anywhere in the north, you really should include Bodnant in your itinerary.

After enjoying the garden, we decided to pop into Conwy for a bit of lunch, enjoying the old town, and seeing the amazing City Walls:

(Not my images, found on Google.)

From there, we decided to drive back to our cottage in Dolgellau via Betws-y-Coed, so we could check out Swallow Falls:

And here’s some video of it:

The next morning we headed to Ynys Môn, more commonly known in English as Anglesey. The first stop was St Seiriol’s Well, Penmon. We visited the well:

Then checked out the medieval dovecot, and went out to the beach for a nice stroll. We drove further inland to check out a site I had again *thought* that I had visited previously, but that turned out to be only in my fiction: the Lligwy Burial Chamber, a neolithic burial site. And nearby is the Lligwy hut group, a Roman-era defensive village which is really quite delightful, even if it is only foundations:

After the Hut Group, we stopped at a roadside pub for some lunch, then went exploring Anglesey, taking in the views, hopping fences to get up close to some wind mills, and enjoying the many scattered Standing Stones.

Jim Downey



Three weeks in Wales, Part 3: Under ancient skies.

Part 1. Part 2.

After a very nice breakfast at our B&B in Kidwelly, we decided to hit a couple of our favorite places as we worked our way north to Dolgellau, where we had a cottage for the next week.

First was the National Botanic Garden of Wales, home of the Great Glasshouse, where you can find the most amazing collection of Mediterranean plants from around the world:

We also checked out the butterfly house, the walled gardens, and the broadwalk water feature. We even visited with the guardian dragon:

From the Garden, we decided to backtrack a bit east, to one of my favorite Welsh castles, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons: Carreg Cennen.

I love the views of the surrounding countryside from the castle:

And of course, the interior of the castle ruins is also about as atmospheric as you could ask for:

From there we headed to Pembrokeshire, and one of the most iconic neolithic sites in Wales: Pentre Ifan. Here’s a brief passage from St Cybi’s Well describing the roads leading to this amazing site:

This was widely considered the most important megalithic site in the entire country, yet all it got was this simple sign on a country road smaller than just about any subdivision road in the US. It was frustrating, yet somehow also endearing, because it showed just how much the Welsh assumed that locals would know about the area … and how little interest outsiders would take.

And here’s the passage describing what the protagonist sees when he arrives there:

Darnell came to the ‘parking area’: an extra strip of asphalt, with room to park perhaps half a dozen cars along the road. There was a simple gravel path, a wooden gate, and a very small metal sign from CADW that said “Pentre Ifan.” Darnell pulled over and parked. His was the only vehicle there.

He got out of the car, slung his bag over his shoulder, plopped his hat on his head. The slight mist wasn’t heavy enough to require digging out either umbrella or rain gear.

Stepping onto the path at the gate, he realized that it wasn’t a gravel path, but was instead made of crushed stone. Crushed … bluestone, from the looks of it, when he squatted down to get a better look.

He continued on. Alongside the path was a tumble-down wall separating fields, partially overgrown with hedge and briar. He went past cattle in the field, grazing and occasionally lowing to one another, who took little interest in him as he walked along. Through another kissing gate, and almost suddenly he was standing there before the structure, bare to the sky. One great slab of stone several meters long and a couple wide, supported by three menhir, high enough that he would have to stretch a bit to touch the underside of the capstone. There were a couple of additional uprights at the south end, and several largish stones which had tumbled over. He just stood there for a moment, taking it all in.

Standing there, it is easy to imagine yourself looking over the landscape at any point in the last thousand … two thousand … five thousand years. Because Pentre Ifan is estimated to date back to approximately 3,500 — 3,000 B.C.

Which is the same time period for the initial construction of Stonehenge.

And speaking of Stonehenge … another brief excerpt from SCW, between the protagonist Darnell and Eleazar, a somewhat mysterious old wanderer he has crossed paths with several times, and who he meets at Pentre Ifan:

Eleazar considered Darnell, then stepped around to the side of the dolmen, gesturing for Darnell to follow him. He pointed off to the southwest. “About a mile that way.”

“That’s where the portal leads?”

“No, that’s not where the portal leads. But it is where it came from. It’s where the first circle of stones at Stonehenge came from, as well.” He nodded at the phone still in Darnell’s hand, which was now by his side. “Does that have a map on it? Of this area?”

“Yes.” Darnell raised the phone, tapped the screen a couple of times, then cursed. “Damn. Sorry, no signal.”Eleazar smiled slightly. “Not to worry. When you get away from here, just look up Craig Rhosyfelin, right in the bend of the Afon Brynberian. It’s easy enough to find.”

“Huw at Pistyll Rhaeadr mentioned that place. What is it?”

“In some ways, it is the source. Just as there is a source for a stream which becomes a great river. The source cannot do the things that the river can do, and it cannot be used for good or ill in the same way that a river may be used for good or ill. But it is worthwhile – critical, in fact – to know the source, to know where to begin.”

Craig Rhosyfelin is indeed now known to be the actual source of at least some of the inner bluestones at Stonehenge, something which has only recently been scientifically established. Here’s the description of Darnell driving to the site, and then examining it:

The small back roads from Pentre Ifan to Craig Rhosyfelin were, though it was difficult to believe, even worse than what had brought him to the dolmen. They were little more than cart paths in a slight depression between hedge rows. But it was a pleasant, pretty area, and as he came out of the trees from the west, heading down the long gentle hillside, everything seemed to open up. He was just to the north of the main Preseli Hills. The light mist which had been coming down earlier threatened to turn into real rain, and the local radar had shown heavier storms moving in.

Eleazar had been correct; Craig Rhosyfelin was easy to find on the map, and wasn’t at all far. Furthermore, the site had recently been in the news as having been identified as a source of the inner Stonehenge stones, the oldest part of the structure. He followed the directions Andi gave, and after making a sharp right bend he saw it there in front of him: a lump of rock poking up above the narrow little valley floor. Thirty meters ahead there was a hairpin turn of a switchback, and just at the point of the turn was a small area where he could pull off and park the car. He did so. There was no signage, no formal public access path down to the exposed crag. But he pulled off the road, and got out of the car. He walked over to the fence. It was simple cattle mesh with a strand of barbed wire on top, supported by rough wooden posts. Allowing access over the fence was a small, new-ish ladder that went up one side and then down the other. The sort of thing you’d see countless examples of in the Welsh countryside.

He went back to the car, grabbed his shoulder bag. Then glancing up at the sky, decided that taking an umbrella would suffice for the current amount of rain. Opening it, he went to the fence, then over the ladder to the other side. The way down to the little valley floor was clear. He descended.

Standing there, before the lump of rock, it was easy to see why others might have picked this as a possible source for the Stonehenge bluestones. The whole base of the outcrop was exposed stone, in fractured slabs two to three meters in height. Above that was more such rock partially obscured by gorse and other vegetation. Here and there were suitable stones already about the size and shape of the bluestones of the inner circle of Stonehenge, ready to be split off and carted away.

Though there was still evidence of recent archeological digs, there was nothing fresh, and no one in sight. Darnell went down the length of the outcrop to the left, figuring that he would just walk around the whole 60 or 70 meters of the crag to take the entire thing in. He got down to the point of the outcrop and turned back up the valley on the other side.

Compare that to the images we took on this trip:

I think I did a pretty good job describing the site. Especially considering that I’d never actually been there previously.

OK, this is a weird thing. Prior to this trip, I would have sworn that I had actually been to the site before. When we got there, I knew where to park, where to go, what to expect. There were some changes from my memory, with a new gate entrance, etc, but you might expect that with a few years between visits.

But my wife swears that we’ve never been there before. And had I gone, I would have done so with her. In checking back over my previous travelogs, there’s no mention of Craig Rhosyfelin. My memories are nonetheless vivid of seeing the place.

The only conclusion I can draw is that I spent so much time going over the site on Google Streetview and Google Earth, in looking at images of it online, that I manufactured false memories of having visited it in person. It is a very strange feeling to have both the memories and the knowledge that they are not real. Very strange.

After visiting this magical place, we went north, to the cottage where we’d stay for the next week, in the hills above Dolgellau, just behind Cader Idris. Here it is:

More later.

Jim Downey

 

 



Three weeks in Wales, Part 2: Places forgotten, places remembered.

Part 1 can be found here.

We drove over from Avebury and crossed into Wales, headed up the Wye River valley north of Chepstow. You get your first glimpse of the abbey as you come around a bend in the road, something like this:

Yeah, Tintern Abbey, another World Heritage Site. One of those places where you can feel almost a thousand years of history surround you, wrap you up, hold you close. To walk in that space is to somehow find a part of yourself you never knew was missing. There are a number of places in Wales which make me feel that way. Probably why I keep going back there.

Others in our party experienced the same thing:

After a time we left the Abbey, and I begged an indulgence of the group to visit a small site nearby: St Anne’s Well, Trellech. Everyone was game, even though it wasn’t someplace we had discussed previously. But my wife (who is an excellent navigator, and had done extensive research & preparation for our trip), looked at her maps and said “I don’t know how to get there.”

“That’s OK,” I said. “I do.”

See, I had been there multiple times before … through the technological miracle of Google Streetview. I was fairly sure that I could get us there without reference to a map.

And I did:

St Anne’s Well, also know as the “Virtuous Well”.

I wanted to visit the site because there’s a small but fairly important scene which takes place at the well in St Cybi’s Well. Here’s a bit of it:

Darnell looked from her, back at the well. Here and there on the short wall surrounding it were small objects. And hanging from the limbs of the tree above it were dozens of different strips of cloth in varying hues and conditions, some worn to just loose fibers. He nodded towards those, asked, “What’s with the rags?”

“Hanging from the whitethorn? They’re called clouties. It’s an old tradition for those suffering an illness: dip a length of cloth in the water of the well, then tie it to the tree. As the cloth slowly wears away, so will the illness.” She sipped at her own mug. “The believing makes it so.”

You might be able to see some of the clouties in the image above. In this one, you can at least easily see the white strip I hung in the tree after immersing it in the well water:

We drove on to our B&B accommodation in Cardiff.

The next morning we decided on a pair of nearby castles for the day’s enjoyment: Caerphilly and Coch. As a bonus, Caerphilly was playing host to a couple of dragons …

Dewi and Dwynwen, and their eggs (since hatched).

We’ve been to Caerphilly previously, but it is always a great place to visit. And this was the first real castle for my sister and her family, who were impressed with the size and scope of the fortress, even though it had been slighted during the English Civil War.

Out for a stroll along the top of one of the towers.

The unusual companion castle to Cearphilly is Castell Coch. Unusual, because while the two share some history (having both been built by Baron Gilbert de Clare, lord of Glamorgan, in the late 13th century), in many ways Coch is the antithesis of Caerphilly. Where Caerphilly was a massive fortress designed to use the latest military architecture of the time (concentric layers of defense and extensive water bodies), Coch is a small private castle, barely sufficient as a defensive residence. And where Caerphilly still stands largely intact with its 13th century design, Coch was rebuilt extensively in the 19th century to be a delightful (if somewhat bizarre) Victorian fantasy of what a medieval castle would be like:

But still, a nice place for a stroll …

… or a few moments rest.

We left SE Wales, and headed west, to our B&B in Kidwelly.

 

Jim Downey