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

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.