Updated: Jun 19, 2020
When was the last time you climbed into a story and walked around in it?
Over the last four days, we've followed in 13th century footsteps; travelling back to a time when arrogant English kings battled to bring down powerful Welsh princes. We've visited courts and castles, walked under waterfalls and peered into places we'd never have known to explore if it hadn't been for Sharon Penman's vivid historical novels Here Be Dragons, Falls the Shadow and The Reckoning.
Penman's books are a heady mix of power and betrayal, love, loyalty and political intrigue - all based upon authentic historical fact. The cruel King John, his unpopular son Henry III and then hammer of a grandson Edward I, set out to dominate and ultimately destroy the independent recalcitrant Princes of Gwynedd. It is an tale of epic scale that spans three generations, three countries and three novels.
And it's a story that can't simply be left behind once finished. The Welsh struggle resonates beyond the page - urging you to find some sort of way to step into the story and explore a little more.
Van packed, little ones loaded and route mapped out, we left Bristol behind. Four glorious days stretched ahead of us and we intended to use them wisely - winding our way up Wales to the wintry heights of Eryri and back before returning to the world of work and nursery.
Our first stop was at Tretower Court and Castle. Rewind back to 1470. We wandered through a working kitchen, walls and walkways that took us back to a time where you could dine on pottage and platters of cow, and sleep soundly in the sumptuous accommodation enjoyed in the 15th Century by rich Welsh gentry.
Suitably in the mood for more time travel, we journeyed on to the spot where Llywelyn the Last was reputedly killed in battle on the banks of the Irfon river. Near here, in December 1282, the last Prince of Wales was ambushed and struck down, his head cut off to be presented to Edward and his body eventually interred at the Cistercian Abbey at Abbeycwmhir. Here we paused, leaving the little ones in the quiet of the car, to reflect upon such a poignant piece of history. Llywelyn's death ended independent rule in Wales and, while a momentary reprieve for those southern Welsh lords subjugated to his rule, was for many a turn towards utter despair and the total destruction of national hope, as reflected in Gruffudd ab Yr Ynad Coch's lament:
"With Llywelyn's death, gone is my mind.
See you not the rush of the wind and rain? See you not the oaks lash each other? See you not the ocean scourging the shore? See you not the truth is portending? See you not the sun hurtling across the sky? See you not that the stars have fallen?"
"O laith Llywelyn cof dyn ni'm daw. Poni welwch chwi hynt y gwynt a'r glaw? Poni welwch chwi'r deri'n ymdaraw? Poni welwch chwi'r gwir yn ymweiriaw? Poni welwch chwi'r haul yn hwylaw - 'r awyr? Poni welwch chwi'r syr wedi r'syrthiaw? Poni chredwch chwi i Dduw, ddyniadon ynfyd?"
A symbol of a proud and determined people, Llywelyn the Last remains "a candle of kings" and a powerful reminder to fight for freedom.
Sleepy little ones in tow, we stopped in Rhayedar to eat, sleep and recharge - the wintry heights of Eryri the next stage of our story!
We woke to a ground crowned with frosty grass and crisp puddles, and under a blue sky we set out North towards Dolwyddelan to find a castle that Cadw aptly names a 'solitary sentinal worth it for the views alone'.
This beautiful ruin once reigned strategically supreme over the valley below. Within its walls walked both Llywelyn Fawr and his grandson Llywelyn ap Gruffudd.
We climbed up to investigate, ducking beneath arches still standing strong and scaling steep staircases that rewarded us with panoramic views of the white heights of Moel Siabod.
From here, we drove on to Abergwyngregyn, a sleepy little village that sits at the heart of our story. Here was the seat of Llywelyn Fawr and his wife Joanna, daughter of King John. Here was the home to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and his wife Eleanor de Montfort who died giving birth to Gwenllian of Wales on the 19th June 1282. Dafydd ap Gruffudd, Llywelyn's brother, was captured at Bera Mountain above the village in June 1283. My stomach did a little flip as, through the trees I was able to spot Pen y Bryn and the famed 'Llywelyn's tower'. I was looking at the palace of the princes; peering through time and feeling that familiar shiver down my spine!
The road brought us to the beginning of the Aber Falls, Rhaeadr Fawr, walk. In the stories, the characters often seek solace in the falls and it is easy to understand why this is likely to have been true for the real people who lived and breathed this part of Wales.
Suited, booted and buckled, we cracked out the jelly beans and set off on our adventure. The reward was a waterfall of breathtaking beauty, made all the more magical by the pink dusk and starry sky that fell as we reached the foot of the falls.
The perfect end to a perfect day!
Day three warranted a reward. And this was to be found in hot coffee and swords. At Conwy Castle, we marvelled at the majesty at the 'finest medieval fortification in Britain', fought fearsome foes along the city walls and pausing briefly to enjoy icecream (as if it wasn't cold enough already!)
From here, we then drove down to Trefriw, where Llywelyn reputedly had a hunting lodge, and wove our way up onto the hill above to visit the ancient church of St Rhychwyn’s in Llanrhychwyn. Legend tells us that Llywelyn's wife Joanna had her husband build St Mary's for her down in the valley because the walk up here was difficult during her pregnancy, and it's easy to believe this is true.
Pushing open the great oak door, you step straight into another century. The font before you is as old as the building itself, the exposed beams above date back eight hundred years and a fifteenth century painted glass remains behind the alter. It's silent and as if time has stood still. A profoundly moving place to visit and certainly one of the highlights of our trip.
Once more, under a starry sky, we slept - waking to a gentle flurry of snow as we breakfasted around the fire.
Our final day was to involve a visit to St Grwst's Church in Llanrwst and a lunchtime stop at Dolforwyn Castle, before heading back to Bristol. Little did we know that Snowdonia still had a surprise in store for us. We thought we'd come the closest to living and breathing real history the previous day at St Rhychwyn’s but more was to come that morning.
You enter St Grwst's Church through a side door and initially admire the intricately carved rood screen that came from the nearby Maenan Abbey in 1537. It is Gwydir Chapel, however, that houses the greatest attraction. Here lies the stone coffin of Llywelyn Fawr himself. Originally buried at Aberconwy Abbey, Edward I's forced relocation of the monks and then Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries meant that Llywelyn's coffin was relocated.
This opportunity to reach out and touch the cold stone sarcophagus of perhaps the most prominent character in the trilogy grants you passage into a world eight hundred years older than your own. And it's a magical moment.
Our final stop, was at lunchtime. We thought the children might be tired and in need of a rest. We toyed with the idea of taking it in turns to brave the snow now falling in fits and starts and dash up the slope from the carpark to investigate the wooded summit of the hill above. But they surprised us. After a hearty meal of cheese and crisps, they requested their armour and pointed ahead. And they were rewarded with one of the most incredible castles sites we'd visited on our trip.
High on a wooded hill, overlooking the fertile Severn valley, Dolforwyn Castle stands sentinel over what was Llywelyn's south-eastern frontier. We had expected a small set on nondescript ruins with a loose link to the princes of the past, but what we actually encountered was the legacy of the hated Roger Mortimer and the chance to understand the danger posed to the Welsh by the English crown and Marcher lords.
Our journey drew to a close on that grassy ridge and we left as the last rays of sunshine fell upon the site of the unexcavated town to the west of the castle; a promise forming on our lips to return to further investigate, at a later date, more about the princes we'd trailed in this tale!
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