Saturday, September 17, 2016

Deganwy Hill

When I wrote my first book in the early 90's, I chose as my hero a historical king, Maelgwn the Great. Most of what we know about Maelgwn is from the writings of a 6th century monk named Gildas. His work is not really a history but a denouncement of the leaders of his era, particularly Maelgwn. Although Gildas refers to Maelgwn by the unforgettable epithet, o thou dragon of the island, he also calls him a "tyrant among tyrants" and recounts his numerous sins.
Being a romantic, I glossed over Gildas's accounting of Maelgwn's less than savory nature and used the dark age king's larger-than-life reputation to create a hero who was complex and enigmatic enough to be featured in two books (or four, if you count the two books I wrote about his sons).

At the time I wrote the first book, Dragon of the Island, there was no internet and I had to rely on what information I could glean from British history books, where there were vague mentions of Maelgwn here and there. I had also never been to Wales, and so I conjured the mountain fortress where Maelgwn takes his less-than-willing Roman-British princess bride, completely from my imagination.
Although it is was built some 800 years later, Dolweddylyn Castle in North Wales makes for a credible stand-in for Maelgwn's formidable stronghold. 
Deganwy seen from Conwy Castle across the bay.
By the time I wrote Dragon's Dream, I had uncovered more details about Maelgwn, including that his main fortress was at Deganwy Hill in North Wales. Over ten years after I first imagined Maelgwn and his world, I finally had a chance to visit Deganwy with my daughter. We arrived at sunset and climbed the steep hillside, annoying the sheep who grazed there and having an unpleasant encounter with nettles, which sting pretty fiercely.
 But the climb was more than worth it for the fabulous views.
You can see why Maelgwn chose Deganwy, as it surveys a huge swath of the North Wales coast. Important in a time when you are regularly being raided by the Scotti, also known as the Irish.
It was fascinating for me to visit the place that figured so largely in my fictional world. Although Deganwy Hill (and consequently, the fortress that Maelgwn built there 1500 years ago) is smaller than I imagined, I was not disappointed. The area is steeped in a mystical allure so compelling that even viewing it in bright sunlight, with a golf course and housing development nearby, it still retains its magic.
And Maelgwn himself still maintains a fierce hold on the Welsh imagination...and on my heart.
Near Dolweddylyn Castle, 2011

Monday, September 5, 2016

The Druid's Circle

In May I visited one of the real places I used in my historical fantasy novel The Silver Wheel. The Druid's Circle is situated on on a hillside in North Wales high above the Irish Sea and dates to almost 5,000 years ago. There were no druids around then so the name is obviously recent. We also have no idea of the purpose of the circle, but it was presumably an important religious site since there are three ancient trackways leading to the area. 
To reach the Druid's Circle is a three mile hike, and much of the trail is very steep. It's also not terribly well-marked. I had to stop and ask directions three times along the way. Fortunately, despite its relative remoteness, the site is well-known. 
When I arrived at the circle, there was no one there except a few sheep and some very shaggy, wild Welsh ponies. 
When the site was excavated in 1957, they discovered a stone-lined chamber in the center of the circle, called a cist. The cist contained an urn holding the cremated remains of a child. A nearby pit contained another urn, also with the cremated remains of a child. It's possible the children were sacrificed. Or they might have died naturally and been buried there because of the sacred nature of the site.

The setting of the circle is spectacular, on a high ridge with a view of the sea in the distance.

And the wild Welsh hills all around.

When I was writing The Silver Wheel, I needed a real location in Wales where my heroine Sirona and her fellow drui Cruthin could hold a sacred ceremony. I discovered the Druid's Circle in a book on British megaliths and knew immediately it was the perfect spot for my characters to call down the power of the night sky to protect the spirit of the Celtic tribes in the upcoming battle with the Romans. 

Fifteen years after writing that book, I finally had a chance to visit the actual place where I had set my story, and found it just as magical and awe-inspiring as I had envisioned.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Beaumaris Castle

The last castle I visited on my trip to Wales was Beaumaris Castle. It has a impressive defense system, with a huge wall encircling the entire castle, and a moat that runs 2/3rd's away around that wall.The name Beaumaris comes from the Norman-French for "fair marsh".

Built by Edward the I between 1295 and 1300, the castle is located on the eastern side of the Isle of Anglesey, just off the northwest coast of Wales. The presence of the sea is very strong here. Given the castle's location on the edge of an island off a remote part of Wales, its massive impregnability seems like overkill. In fact, the castle never played an important part in history, so it's more a symbol of English might than anything else. 
From the other side of the castle you can see the mountains of Snowdonia.
The stonework of Beaumaris somehow seems more massive and formidable than other castles.
Now the stones are crumbling away due to the forces of nature. 
These days seagulls rule this realm.
Where kings and princes once walked, there are now only tourists. Like me.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle rises up from a spur of rock above the Irish Sea. Like many Welsh castles, it was built by Edward I as part of his campaign to subdue the Welsh. But the history of the site goes back much farther than the medieval era. Harlech is linked to the classic Welsh tales of the Mabinogion, which opens with the king of Britain sitting by the Irish Sea at Harlech.

Harlech is very square, solid and impressive. The castle was nearly impregnable, with no easy way for an enemy to reach it.
When Harlech was built, it was much closer to the sea. A natural channel made it possible for boats to travel all the way up to the castle's moat.
There is still a stone staircase of 200 steps which once led down to the dock where ships dropped off supplies.
From the other side of the castle you can see the Welsh mountains in the distance. 

The castle was an important stronghold throughout the Middle Ages. It played a part in the Welsh uprising in the 1400's led by Owain Glywyr and also in the War of the Roses. 

My favorite part of Harlech was the towers. I climbed every one, so I could enjoy the sense of being on top of the world.
I also had a great time strolling through the village of Harlech, where I admired a beautiful ginger cat and was intrigued by a "soul food" restaurant with an impressively authentic American menu (they even serve black-eyed peas). Sadly it didn't open until the evening, by which time I was off on my next adventure.