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.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Forest Primeval

Deep woods in the Slieve Bloom Mountains, County Offaly, Ireland.
I love forests, and they've featured prominent roles in many of my books. So when I planned my first visit to the British Isles, finding a native forest was high on my list.
Woodlands near Llyn Crafnant, North Wales
You would think that would be easy, but no. Although most of the British Isles was once covered in woodlands, only a few thousand years after humans arrived there, the majority of the wild forests were gone. Cleared for farming. Burned as fuel. Used to build houses and boats. Today forests cover only 10 percent of Britain and Ireland, and of those woodlands, only about 1% is native. And of that 1%, a good share are in private hands and inaccessible to visitors.
Slieve Bloom Mountains, Ireland
Oh, there are trees. Indeed, in some places whole forests of trees. But a lot of them have been planted in the last couple of hundred years and often they're not even trees native to the area.
Oak trees, County Antrim, Ireland
Knowing this, I research native oak forests before we went to Ireland and discovered that there was supposed to be a patch of relatively untouched woodland in County Antrim. With that goal in mind, I dragged my husband, son, brother-in-law and his girlfriend to the glens of Antrim. We saw some lovely scenery, some beautiful oaks, and had a fabulous time in one of the local pubs. But we didn't find a forest, and certainly not the magical primeval woodland of my fantasies.
Croaghan Breen Forest, County Antrim, Ireland
On a second trip to County Antrim with my daughter I fared no better. We hiked for miles, mostly uphill, but never got to the portion of the trail where the woods looked like they did in the distant past.
Coed y Brenin, North Wales
On my recent trip to Wales, I tried again. I researched native woodlands and found a place called Coed y Brenin (Forests of Kings) where there was said to be a patch of pristine forestland. But my hopes were quickly dashed by the sweet young man at the gift shop/visitors center who expressed grave doubt there was any area in the park that was native forest. And if there was, he felt certain none of the trails would take me there. He was right. While I had a nice hike and heard a real cuckoo calling, I saw nothing resembling a native woodland.
But my futile search was redeemed when I reached my destination that night--a charming country inn close to the forest called Plas Dolmelynllyn Country Hotel which translates to something like "hall by the meadow at the yellow lake". The yellow probably comes from the fact that that gold was mined in the area and created yellow-tinted waste water.
With beautiful gardens, a Egpytian-themed breakfast room named after poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (who stayed there for a time), this 200-year-old inn made me feel luxuriously pampered, and quickly soothed away any lingering disappointment in my fruitless quest.

At this point I've begun to wonder if I'm meant to find my vaunted woodlands. Perhaps I should content myself with the forests I've visited. With bluebells like purple mist beneath the trees, brilliant yellow gorse, stands of pink foxglove and grass and bushes and ferns and moss in a dozen shades of green to sooth and refresh my spirit. And trees, wonderful trees.

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