Bound for the United Kingdom: Tolkien, Brunanburh, and Owain Glyndwr

Some time ago I sent an email to the Bodleian Library at Oxford, one of the foremost libraries in the world, requesting permission to examine some of their one-of-a-kind holdings: the unpublished papers of J.R.R. Tolkien. I wanted to access this material not because it would be fun (though it would be) or because I am a fan (though I am) but because one of my current academic projects requires me to do so.

That examining them would also happen to be both fun and fan-tastic is just a bonus.

Anyway, on the Fourth of July, as fireworks hit the sky across America, I received an email from one of the main curators of manuscripts at the Bodleian, granting me the access that I sought. Indeed, the curator offered me even more than I was looking to get.

And so, after a day or so of fretting about the finances, I made the decision to fly to Oxford to examine those very papers.

Since this kind of travel isn’t cheap, I decided to work on some additional projects while I’m across the pond: one is my ongoing work on the Battle of Brunanburh, the other is my just-beginning work on the Welsh hero Owain Glyndwr, who is the subject of one of the next big book I’m working on (Owain Glyndwr: A Casebook, co-edited with John Bollard). Work on these things would mean my visit would also take me to the Wirral Peninsula (the location for Brunanburh according to several of the essays in The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook), and the heart of Wales. And given the pressures of my own schedule, I was going to need to plan all this in time to leave, well, next week.

So I’ve been busy.

Thankfully, I think all is about ready to go now. It’s going to be one packed trip:

Tuesday, 12 July
Leave Charleston, flying to Detroit. After a lovely few hours, leave Detroit for London.

Wednesday, 13 July
Arrive London Heathrow, around 8 in the morning. Hopefully, I will have slept well on the plane. Regardless, I’ll catch a bus to Oxford as quickly as possible. In Oxford, I’ll drop off my bag — I’m only taking one, which will be the subject of another post — at
Jesus College, where I’ll be staying. I’ll tidy up in a bathroom, get my reader’s card, find my reserved seat at the Library, and then commence trying to read Tolkien’s beautifully cryptic handwriting.

Thursday, 14 July
More Tolkien manuscripts.

Friday, 15 July
More Tolkien manuscripts. At some point in here I’ll have to eat at the Eagle and Child. Just on principle.

Saturday, 16 July
Now things get really interesting. If I’m done with the Tolkien manuscripts (knock on wood), I’ll rent a car and drive — on the right side of the road, which is the left, you know — west. If I get an early enough start I may stop by Gloucester Cathedral and the tomb of Edward II (oh, okay, and also the occasional interior of Hogwarts). My main destination, however, is Kentchurch Court, one of the locations rumored to be the last resting place of Owain Glyndwr. Though the estate house is not scheduled for public viewing, I’m still hoping to be able to get inside (knock on wood x2). This is the only night for which I don’t have a room reserved, but at the moment I’m thinking I’ll be able to go on and make the drive to Pilleth, in Wales — stopping along the way to visit Arthur’s Stone.

Sunday, 17 July
First, I’ll tour the site of the Battle of Bryn Glas, a massive victory for Owain Glyndwr and the Welsh. Happily, it’s right beside the road in Pilleth. From here, I’ll continue west across Wales, reaching the reservoir of Nant-y-moch, which isn’t terribly exciting except as a good place to park my car and set off on a hike, seeking the site of the Battle of Mynydd Hyddgen, which was another important victory over the English for Owain and his forces. Assuming I make it out of the heathland and bog, I’ll drive into my hotel in Aberystwyth and pass out.

Monday, 18 July
Not a lot of travel, but a lot to see: the Owain Glyndwr Centre in the town of MachynllethSt. Peter ad Vincula Church and perhaps the medieval hall house of Cefn Caer in the town of Pennal (from which Owain’s “Pennal Letter” was sent in 1406), and Aberystwyth Castle. If I have any spare time (hahahahaha), I’ll walk the sands of the Irish Sea and pop over to the National Library of Wales or Aberystwyth University.

Tuesday, 19 July
First things first, I’ll take care of anything I failed to get done the previous day. Then it’s a short drive along the Welsh coast (ah, researching is such a pain) to Harlech Castle, which was essentially the capital of Wales under Owain. From here, I’ll drive across Snowdonia (one of the traditional Seven Wonders of Wales) and down into the valley of the River Dee. As the sun is setting, I’ll probably stop at Owain’s Mount near Glyndyfrdwy, also the site of the Owain Glyndwr Memorial Hall. I’ll pull into Llangollen for a good rest.

Wednesday, 20 July
I’ll likely head north out of Llangollen, crossing its famous bridge (Seven Wonders of Wales #2) and visiting the medieval ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg, and Castell Dinas Bran in short order before passing by World’s End on the way to the Wirral and sites associated with Brunanburh. I’ll then return to Llangollen in the evening, stopping by All Saints’ Church in Gresford (Seven Wonders of Wales #3) and St. Giles’ Church in Wrexham (Seven Wonders of Wales #4) if there’s time. I tried to figure out a way to fit St. Winefride’s Well at Holywell (Seven Wonders of Wales #5) and the 2000-year-old yew trees at Overton (Seven Wonders of Wales #6), but I don’t think it’ll be happening. This night the Buzzcocks are playing in Llangollen, which is apparently kind of a big deal if you’re into that sort of thing. I suspect I’ll be far more interested in sleeping.

Thursday, 21 July
Up with the dawn, and driving south, to see the waterfalls of Pistyll Rhaeadr (Seven Wonders of Wales #7) near the village of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant (itself the filming location for The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain). From here I’ll cross the Welsh countryside to visit Sycharth Castle, the principal home of Owain Glyndwr. I’ll end the day in Oxford, turning in my rental car before hitting the sack at Wadham College.

Friday, 22 July
After taking a leisurely breakfast, I’ll catch a bus back to Heathrow, wade through security, and then board a flight to Atlanta in the early afternoon. Many, many hours later I will arrive in Charleston.

Whew! Just reading that makes me tired.

Excited, though, too!


  1. Anita Livingston

    We wish you well on your trip/voyage/quest, and hope that all that you wish it to be becomes reality. I selfishly also wish I could be there to share in your exploits and learn from them, much like our trip together many years ago. Safe travels.


  2. @Anita Livingston Thanks! I would have loved the company, though I fear the library times will be quite unexciting for anyone else. 🙂

Comments are closed