Friday, January 5, 2018

The Truth about Castles

There's lots of things I love about writing stories set in the Middle Ages. The dashing, heroic knights, damsels in graceful trailing dresses, scenic pastoral countryside settings, unspoiled by modern roads and buildings. And then there are the castles:
Even when crumbling to ruins, they remain awe-inspiring. I especially love the way they blend into the landscape, with soaring towers, weathered stones and jagged walls merging seamlessly into green hillsides and blue waterways.
Cardiff Castle
Dolwyddelan Castle
Dolbadarn Castle

Sterling Castle
There are somewhere around 600 castles and defensive sites in Britain. Wales alone had 600, with over 100 remaining. A few are well-preserved and functional as actual residences. Others are little more than piles of stones. Castell Dinas Bran, below, was once a castle, but it was burned in the thirteenth century and never rebuilt. All that's left are these evocative ruins.

Visiting most historic castles, you have to use your imagination. Even well-mortered stonework crumbles after that long. Where there were once beautiful halls adorned with tapestries, massive hearths with a roaring fire, and trestle tables crowded with knights and ladies in their finest velvet and sarcanet clothing, you now see barren, rough spaces, often open to the elements. Those rooms that remain intact are chilly and gloomy even in summer.   

 Splendid walkways must now be supported by scaffolding, and once magnificent towers are guarded by ravens and seagulls. Moss, lichen and delicate flowers invade formidable walls that once formed an impregnable barrier against attacking armies.
To capture the sense of what these structures might have been like in their heyday, you have to visit a castle like Sterling in Scotland, where period furniture helps recreate sumptuous bedchambers while actors and displays attempt to recreate a long-ago world. 
It's easy to be impressed by the drive and ambition involved in building castles. The larger ones took years to construct and cost the equivalent of millions of dollars for materials and labor. I'm amazed by the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the people who designed and constructed them. They had only primitive tools and engineering skills had advanced little from Roman times. I'm even more blown away when I think of the people who dwelled in castles, thriving in a environment devoid of all the comforts of modern life.

Even in our high tech era, castle fascinate us. The only thing in our world that begins to compare are skyscapers. But they lack the rugged beauty and primal magnificence of even the smallest castles. And the views from the tallest modern building, no matter how spectacular, can't compare to the sweeping grandeur of lush countrysides and breath-taking seascapes afforded by these ancient giants.

Conwy river and bay seen from Conwy Castle.

The view from the other side of Conwy.

Conwy Castle seen from Deganwy Hill
My newest book, LADY OF STEEL, takes place almost entirely in a castle and the area immediately surrounding it. Of course, Valmar Castle is a very idealized castle, with much larger "tower rooms" and other features that would never have existed in a relatively minor nobleman's keep. Valmar Castle is also much more comfortable than a real castle and definitely smells a lot better! But it was inspired by the real thing, and I hope my depiction of this long-ago world captures some of the magical beauty of castles.
Dolwyddelan Castle
Of course you have to keep in mind that castles came into being because of warfare, and many of the details we find intriguing about them were directly connected to that purpose. Arrow slits, moats, walkways and crenels (the jagged top edges of the walls) were intended to make castles easy to defend. And the sites where they were built were chosen based on battle strategy, rather than for the pretty scenery in the area.  

Violence and war play a big part in LADY OF STEEL as well. A gripping, suspenseful story always needs conflict and there was never any shortage of that in the Middle Ages. But what draws me to castles is their mystical appeal and the sense of traveling back through time.

Available January 10th

One rapturous hour sparks unforgettable passion between Lady Nicola and Fawkes de Cressy. But when Fawkes returns from Crusade, he finds Nicola enmeshed in a dark web of castle intrigue. Surrounded by enemies, the battle-hardened knight and the aloof, wary woman must rebuild the bond between them. Or a sinister plot will destroy them both.

Pre-order links:

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Holyhead, Wales--Ancient Outpost

For over 4,000 years humans have been making the voyage from Ireland to Britain and landing their boats at the natural harbor on northwest tip of the Isle of Anglesey, just off the Welsh mainland.
The Welsh name for the area is Caergybi. Caer, meaning fort, for the fort the Romans built here in the 4th century, and Gybi from Cybi, the name of the Cornish monk who in 540 founded a monastery here, incorporating the walls of the Roman fort into the structure. Cybi was given the land by Maelgwn the Great, the "dragon" of my Dragon of the Island series.
The English name for the town and area, Holyhead, also combines two words. "Head" for headland and "Holy" because of Cybi's monastery.

The walls of the fort are still standing. It is one of only three known three-walled Roman forts in Europe.
The church of St. Cybi was sacked by the Vikings in the 10th century, damaged by Henry IV's army in the 15th century in an assault on the holdings of the Welsh prince Owain Glydwr and much of the interior destroyed by Cromwell's army in the 17th century. Despite this, most of the church remain intact.
Rather incongruously, the ancient Roman walls and church are right in the center of the town, not far from a bridal shop and other modern stores and businesses.
But nearby there is also an old graveyard where headstones from the 1700's and 1800's mourn wives, husbands and children.  
Along with the fort, the Romans built a watchtower on nearby Holyhead Mountain.
Today the coast is guarded by the picturesque Southstack Lighthouse, built in 1809, and Elin's Tower, built in the mid-1800's as a summer home for a local family.

Elin's Tower is now used as a visitors center for the nearby nature reserve. Forty different bird species were sighted here this last season, including puffins, like this one on closed caption TV in the visitors center.
The Southstack coastline is very rugged and dramatic, rivaling the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland. Although the harsh lines are softened by the lush vegetation and jewel-like flowers.
 Until recently the voyage across the Irish Sea might have been made in a coracle, a hide and wicker boat like this one. The journey probably would have taken two days.   
On modern ferry you can make the from Dublin to Holyhead in an hour and a half.
But it can still be a rough voyage, as the Irish Sea is frequently turbulent. On my first trip from Dublin to Holyhead, I spent most of the time down in the lower deck bathroom. My husband, however, Irish-Viking soul that he is, endured the trip on very windy outer deck, visiting with one of the locals.
Because of this regular contact with Ireland, Holyhead has a strong Celtic flavor, even more so than the rest of Wales.
Although like the British, they love their gardens. And the maritime climate makes the summers here cool and the winters mild, ideal for growing flowers.
The influence of the sea is ever present in Holyhead, timeless, restless and wild.