My last trip to the UK was an extraordinarily fruitful one, giving me the information and impetus to complete one book (Owain Glyndwr: A Casebook) and at least three articles (so far). I was thus tremendously pleased to have the chance to go back this summer.
Even better, I was not going to go back alone. Nor, for that matter, was I just going back to the UK. This summer’s research trip saw me spend roughly one week in Wales with my brother, Lance (who is an extraordinary photographer), one week in England, Belgium, and Northern France with medieval historians Kelly DeVries and Bob Woosnam-Savage, and finally one last week alone in Wales. It was awesome.
What follows is a journal of this adventure. It’s also perhaps a bit of an insight into how I travel (especially when paired with how I pack).
I flew in to Dulles International Airport from Charleston some three hours before Lance was scheduled to arrive from Denver, so I had a splendid time writing fiction in the airport. This was pleasant. I hadn’t seen my brother in quite some time, but within minutes we were getting along as usual, which is to say terrifically.
Alas, the flight had an inauspicious start, as we left Dulles International some 2 hours after boarding the plane. Mechanical failure of sort or another. And dinner on the plane was not a great improver of moods: I chose beef, which was steak of the half-fat sort, soggy with poor sauce and rubbery mushrooms. On the plus side, the plane didn’t fall out of the air.
And I watched Looper, which was a great movie.
I didn’t sleep on the plane, unless it was a bare 10 minutes here or there. This is typical for me, a fact that makes me very jealous of those who can snooze in airplane seats. To fight jetlag, though, I scheduled a busy first day: work through the day — no naps, fighting through until dark — and then pass out. Then when you wake up your internal clock is reset.
We arrived late (see above), but worse still we arrived in rain. Indeed, we had drizzle with us on and off for much of the day, with occasional bouts of much heavier rain.
First stop was to drive by Peveril Castle. I’d considered doing a hike to it, but we first took the very long way out of Manchester on accident, then had to go a bit slower due to the weather, plus we were already late due to the flight delay … so we didn’t hike it. We really just waved at it.
I had a visit to Arbor Low next, which is a stone circle (henge) in the Peak District, but timing scratched that off our list entirely.
So that brought us to Lud’s Church, which is a natural chasm in a little country valley. I knew of it for its possible connection to the great medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — Lud’s Church may be the “Green Chapel” that serves as the location for the climactic scene in the poem — and it also appeared to be quite a striking location. I’d long wanted to see what it looked like in person.
I’m pleased to say that it did not disappoint. As a topographic feature the chasm is far more impressive than it appears in pictures, and the mists we were experiencing did much to add to the atmosphere of the place.
Next we drove across England to the Dee valley and Llangollen, my favorite town in Wales, where we stayed for the night. We were pretty significantly jet lagged by this point, but we staved off sleep for a bit longer by driving up the valley to see Glyndwr’s Mount (near where Owain probably grew up), Rhagad Hall, and a couple other sites associated with Owain. Then a meal at my favorite restaurant in Llangollen (the Corn Mill) and, at last, sleeping to the sounds of the river Dee tumbling below our window.
After a small breakfast, we hiked up (and up and up) to Castell Dinas Bran, which overlooks Llangollen. It’s a bit of a hike, but a great way to start what would be a day of hikes.
After coming down (and down and down) from that mount, we drove to Valle Crucis Abbey, where one of Owain’s most famous ancestors was buried, along with perhaps one of the great Welsh poets of the Middle Ages. I feel like I’m really getting a handle on that part of Owain’s world, which is important for my upcoming book.
We made a quick stop at Eliseg’s Pillar before driving south to Montgomery. Parking in this lovely little town we hiked up (and up and up) to the castle that overlooks it. Lovely ruins with commanding views of a wide swath of plains below. Like many of the castles I saw, this one was a strategic location in the revolt of Owain Glyndwr.
The real business of the day, though, came after a long drive west into the mountains: we parked near Nant-y-moch Reservoir in order to hike the area around Mynydd Hyddgen, where Owain fought an important battle against an English force and beat them. That battle has never been firmly located or its procedure shown.
My first visit to the area (in 2011) was largely stymied by weather, but not so this one. There was low cloud cover, but no rain. My first target was to find the so-called Covenant Stones of Owain Glyndwr that are sometimes associated with the battle. Lance and I did this with little difficulty. He then listened with interest and patience as I worked through what happened (or what I thought had happened). Even more than that, he helped talk through the problems and the evidence around us.
From there we had a working theory of the battle to test, and we did so by hiking up (and up and up) the mountainside. I’m pleased to say that the theory fit better than I could possibly have imagined. I clearly have an article to write!
Back at the car, just ahead of some rain, we drove north around mountainsides until we eventually caught a main road into Aberystwyth, my second favorite town in Wales, where the ocean broke against a beautiful promenade below our hotel room window.
The evening was spent eating a quick meal and taking many pictures of the promenade, the castle (seized by Owain), and the sunset.
It was incredible to watch how my brother worked with his camera. His skills are extraordinary, and I never tired to observing him snapping away at the scenery. We returned to the hotel around midnight and slept to the crashing of waves.
This day was a “flex” day until a dinner appointment, so we ultimately decided to drive south out of Aberystwyth to St Davids Cathedral at the southwest corner of Wales. It is an ancient and beautiful church, vitally important to the history of the country, and a place that I was pleased to see at last. On the way we stopped at Cilgerren Castle (awesome, and also attacked by Owain) and two Neolithic burial chambers. As one does, right?
The highlight of the day, though, was driving to the home of Gruffyth Aled Williams and his wife, Eimear, who graciously welcomed us into their home for a delicious meal. Conversation was lively and interesting, fun and exciting — and the food was superb!
After a very late night at the home of Gruffyth Aled Williams — we didn’t get back to the room until 12:30, after which I had to finish my account of our adventures — Lance and I slept once more to the sound of waves driven by an Irish wind striking the shore of Wales.
Morning brought pleasant memories of our conversations with Aled and Eimear, followed by a leisurely drive north to the isle of Anglesey. Along the way we made a stop at the prehistoric site of Tomen-y-Mur, where we were surprised to be met by a number of rather serious looking folk in 1920s period garb. It turns out we had stumbled upon technical rehearsals for a multi-stage outdoor performance of Blodeuwedd by the National Theater of Wales. Fascinating to be sure.
From there we drove on to Bangor and over the old Menai Bridge to Anglesey. Our destination was Beaumaris Castle, the last of Edward I’s great castles around Snowdonia and perhaps the most conceptually ideal medieval castle: because of its location, Edward’s engineers could design the best fortifications they could imagine without worrying too much about existing features in the landscape. It even had a fortified sea dock the likes of which I had never seen. The result is a model of designs and of beauty today. I was in heaven.
From Beaumaris we drove to the eastern point of Anglesey and the small priory at Penmon. There are two Celtic crosses here that pre-date the Normans: I could well imagine Athelstan’s enemies, sailing from Dublin to England, seeing them on their way to the great battle at Brunanburh.
From Penmon Priory we journeyed back to mainland Wales through Bangor in order to reach Caernarfon, where we would be lodging. The castle here is astonishing: the most “royal” of Edward’s ring of fortifications and certainly the best preserved. The town itself still has parts of its medieval walls, and it is in excellent condition. We stayed in the castle until they locked the doors, after which we had a good meal (I ate too much, but the pint of elderberry ale was solid) and walked the fabulous old part of the town within the walls (the area in which we stayed, in fact). We ultimately found a great vantage point for cross-water pictures of the castle and harbor and stayed there until late, waiting for the sun to go down and the lights to start coming on. The pictures Lance took were extraordinary (as so many of his are).
After warming up with another stop at a pub (Strongbow!), Lance decided to try for a few more night-time pictures with the castle lit up. So we crossed the river on a pedestrian walkway to get to our previous vantage point, which was awesome. We chatted, we laughed, we took a number of shots, and I stood in strange contortions trying to block the intrusion of offensive light from Lance’s camera. It was great.
At 11:00, we saw some activity at the pedestrian bridge, followed by it swinging open as if a ship were going to pass through — an odd thing at low tide, we thought. Then we saw the lights of the bridge wink out.
I sprinted from our spot and reached the bridge swinger (not his real job title, I’m sure) walking to his car. I asked if the bridge would be closed all night. “Until 7am,” he said.
“We are staying right there,” I said, pointing across the water.
The Bridge Swinger stared.
“So how do we cross the river now?” I asked, hoping he’d volunteer to swing the bridge back for a minute.
“Walk two or three miles up there,” he said, pointing upriver.
And then he got into his car and drove off, down the very road we were going to have to walk.
So Lance and I hitched up our gear and commenced trudging through fields and narrow roads until we hit the highway and got a bridge across. Then it was back down the river and (at last) back to our guesthouse in the old town. A fun side adventure, and the pictures were worth it!
Morning brought a pleasant breakfast from the very kind proprietors of the Cantref Guesthouse, Mary and Roger. The meal was delightful, including the black pudding I ordered so that I could be a “true” Welshman for a few minutes anyway (main ingredient is blood, so it isn’t for the squeamish). After breakfast my brother and I left Caernarfon reluctantly, for it is indeed a beautiful town.
Our first stop was Conwy Castle, another in Edward I’s ring of stone around North Wales. Conwy itself is a fantastically preserved medieval town in terms of both its castle and walls, and they’ve done an absolutely incredible job of establishing improvements to the ruins, including the most hilarious signage I’ve ever seen. Like so many sites I visited this trip, Conwy is important not just as an example of castle-building, but as a location pertinent to Owain Glyndwr’s career. It was a very stimulating time for me.
Next we drove to Rhuddlan Castle, which has quite skeletal remains but was nevertheless cool. Very stark, with few people there, which is always nice.
After Rhuddlan we drove to nearby St Asaph Cathedral, which is one of the most important spiritual centers of Wales — today as it was in Owain’s day. It was also remarkably empty, which meant Lance got some incredible pictures while I milled about in the quiet.
From St Asaph’s we drove to Holywell in order to visit the shrine (and supposed healing waters) of St Withfride. Very good to see — it is a hugely important Welsh medieval shrine, plus a site with connections to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight — and I even dipped my fingers in the holy waters. Didn’t get burned, which will no doubt disappoint many.
I reserved a room above the Pied Bull pub in the medieval heart of Chester, which looked great and turned out to be even better than expected. Highly cool pub, with highly cool accommodations.
Chester is a great town with a very famous cathedral (plus walls and old market streets). As it happens, we stumbled into another thing Chester is famous for: the Chester Mystery Plays, which constitute a remarkable Middle English dramatic cycle. Chester has re-established the tradition of performing the plays, but they have only a few weeks of performances one out of every five years. Not only did Lance and I luck into being here when they were being performed, we were able to catch some good seats. And better still, the performance was inside Chester Cathedral.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime confluence of events, and I’m thrilled my brother was able to share it with me. Unforgettable.
The day began with a drive to the Manchester airport where, to my sorrow, I had to drop my brother off to fly home. (Worse, on the way out of the airport I drove for a time beside a great looking Ginetta sports car, which he would have enjoyed seeing, I think.)
From there it had been my plan to drive to Burnley, Skipton, and a couple of abbeys, but an email from the Liverpool University Press the previous day had me switch plans: my next book was going to be on display at the medieval congress in Leeds. So I drove there, parked near the bustling markets downtown, and hiked up to the University of Leeds, where the conference was being held. The place was packed — Leeds is the second largest gathering of medievalists after Kalamazoo — but it didn’t take me too long to find the booth for Liverpool University Press.
There were fliers aplenty — well done and in full color, too — but no volume. I approached the LUP representative and introduced myself. The book was coming, she insisted. It had been at the press offices the previous day and they’d overnighted the volumes to Leeds.
And so it was that as we spoke, as I contemplated how to rearrange my day, a man walked up with two packages and handed them to the press representative. And thus I first got my hands on a copy of Owain Glyndwr: A Casebook, which I co-edited with John Bollard. I was, as they say in the UK, chuffed.
My good friend Kelly DeVries was attending Leeds — and has an interesting essay in the Owain volume — so we sat down to catch up for a bit, which resulted in us deciding to tour a few sites in Yorkshire together for the afternoon.
Kelly knows Yorkshire very well, as he does much of the UK: he and Bob Woosnam-Savage are the tour leaders of the Leeds Conference excursions every year.
Kelly’s first suggestion was that we go to Harewood, a rather famous “great house” with beautiful gardens and grounds, priceless art on the walls, and other such opulence. We would not go for the house, however. We went for the little historical church that’s tucked away in the trees there. Kelly didn’t tell me why we were going there, only that it would be worth it.
And it was. In this small, hardly visited, essentially unmarked chapel there’s the most impressive collection of alabaster effigies I have ever seen. The detail on these life-sized funerary monuments was extraordinary. It was all I could do to drag myself away.
From there we drove to Knaresborough, a place from which part of Kelly’s family originates. There’s a royal castle there in ruins, and it has some features that have left specialists scratching their heads. Kelly had some theories about it, and he wanted my thoughts on the matter.
It was a fascinating experience to read the stones with such an expert in the field. I learned a great deal in a very short amount of time, and I was even able to point out several features he claimed he had not noticed in his many years if visiting. We spent a couple of hours there, and I daresay we may be closer than anyone has been to explaining some of the anomalies of the castle that may have driven Thomas of Lancaster to hunt down Piers Gaveston in 1312.
From there, we drove to the site of the Battle of Boroughbridge, where the same Thomas, now in rebellion against the crown, was captured (later to be executed). Kelly has written on that battle, which made it even more awesome to stand on the bridge where the earl of Hereford died — supposedly by someone thrusting a spear into him from below through the boards of the then-wooden bridge.
We drove next to the nearby town of Aldborogh, site of some of the best preserved Roman mosaics in England (closed, alas), the original monument celebrating the battle at Boroughbridge, and a parish church with some Roman ruins and a terrific brass funerary monument. Good stuff.
Next we drove back to the conference at Leeds, where Bob Woosnam-Savage and the two lead archaeologists were scheduled to give a talk on the recent finding of Richard III’s body. I decided to stay for the talk despite not being registered for the conference, and I was recognized by several folks (“I didn’t know you were going to be here!”). Thus I had a great meal with several academic friends old and new (including the ever delightful Richard Barber).
From there it was a late-night drive to York and my booked lodgings. Alas, without my trusty navigator or a street-scale map of the city I was (shall we say) delayed in my arrival. I didn’t check in until 11.
I arose and headed straight to the highlight of any trip to this ancient city: the York Minster. It’s the largest Gothic structure in Northern Europe, and it inspires awe just for its existence. The writer Anne Bronte’s last written words, in fact, imparted just this same kind of astonishment as she described a visit to York Minster in 1849: “If finite power can do this, what is the …” The sentence is usually considered “unfinished” (cut off by her death), but I do wonder if it actually is finished; words simply fail as the mind boggles.
Touring the minster was great for me. The architecture is extraordinary, as are the aesthetics, but the history is even richer. I saw the tomb of Archbishop Scrope (who figures into the tales of both Owain and John Gower), and many another effigy and beautiful stained glass. Especially fun was the fact that this spring they opened up a new area of the crypt/undercroft, which moves you through first the Roman and then the Norman ruins on which the present minster is built. It was very well done.
After the Minster I visited Clifford’s Tower (from which the above picture was taken), followed by a leisurely and meandering walk through the medieval heart of York. I spent the remainder of the day leaning against a tree in the park beside York Minster, staring up at the great soaring side of the structure, with the delight of the chapter house off to my left. Life is lovely.
From York I drove west to the little town of Otley, at the maypole of which I met my old friend Kelly DeVries and my new friend Bob Woosnam-Savage — my two traveling companions for the next few days.
Our primary goal this day was to tour the site of the Battle of Shrewsbury (1403). I have an essay coming out on Hal’s wound from the battle, and I have been considering making it the topic of a forthcoming casebook.
The three of us got along marvelously, and we spent four hours on the battle site bouncing ideas off one another as we put our minds to what had happened there over six hundred years ago. At the end of it all, I am pleased to say, we concurred that the battle is located incorrectly, and that I will likely start putting together the casebook soon. I have two contributors already!
From Shrewsbury we drove to Oswestry, taking a slight detour to consider possibilities for a battle site associated with Owain Glyndwr. Oswestry is where Bob was born, and it is one of the first towns that Owain raided and burned in 1400, so we had plenty to do walking around the town, visiting the old castle mound, and, of course, having a pint or two.
A day of travel today, with many wonders on the way. We drove from Oswestry to Manchester Airport, where I returned my rental car and we grabbed a short train to the heart of Manchester city. There we had a lovely walk over to the city art gallery, where we ate a meal and toured a few paintings. About which I observe just this:
Aye. My second favorite painting by my favorite painter. It may be said that I drooled.
Back at the train station, we boarded a train for London, which resulted in a lovely couple hours of chatting between true intellectual heavyweights. I took a nap.
In London we had a quick walk through the city between stations, passing the British Library on the way. Talk about difficulties keeping me in task!
The ride through the Chunnel was, well, dark. I sat with Bob, and I was pleased that we were already on our way toward becoming good friends. Great conversation.
In Brussels we walked through the old city to the Grand Place. It was breathtaking visually, of course, but also intellectually: both Bob and Kelly were full of information, leaving my head spinning.
This morning, after Kelly picked up the rental car, we meandered out of Brussels to Beersel Castle, which is a very picturesque brick fortification. Then, just a short jaunt down the road, was Halle, with its marvelous but little-visited medieval church. One of the only places of worship where you find cannonballs inside. One of the wonderful things about Europe is that it is positively dense with wonders for folks like us.
Lest it be said that as medievalists we ignore more modern history (“journalism,” as Kelly likes to say), we also took the time to spend a couple of hours touring the site of the Battle of Waterloo, where in 1815 over 70,000 men died in one day. It was daunting and inspiring and amazing. We climbed the Butte de Lion, a monument/viewing point in the midst of the battlefield, which was great except that building it erased a sunken road that was a key feature of the battlefield and the English victory. Everyone else was enjoying the view, and we were muttering about preservation issues.
I’ll also say that it was pretty darn strange how much Napoleon dominated the site and the gift shop when he lost the battle (and the war).
Mid-afternoon was spent drinking cherry beer in a small restaurant in Waterloo, a fine companion to the sweets recommended by the French waitress.
From Waterloo we journeyed back to Beersel Castle, which we had only seen from the outside earlier. It was now open, so we went in. It was great walking around it with Bob and Kelly. Very little of the castle has been interpreted, so we did a lot of brainstorming as we read the stones together. Great fun.
We drove on to Bruay-la-Buissiere, which was our headquarters for the next few days. Had dinner at a little restaurant, where I had the French equivalent of a pizza with a flight of four house-brewed beers, followed by a good Crepe Suzette.
Food was good. Company was even better.
We began with a pleasant breakfast: fruity with fresh breads. Outside a beautiful day with blue sky and a gentle breeze formed up.
From Bruay-la-Buissiere we drove to Crecy, the site of a massive and hugely important battle in 1346. As you might expect, we suspected that tradition has misplaced the battle. We went to the site, observing the story as you read it in the history books, then walking the ground and working through the sources.
Yes, it appears that the traditional interpretation of the battle is incorrect. Bring on the Crecy Casebook!
From Crecy we drove to Saint-Riquier, site of a tremendously impressive abbey church that was likely a resting place for some of the dead at Crecy.
Onward to Amiens Cathedral, which is one of the great Gothic cathedrals in France — and which houses the head of John the Baptist (one of them anyway). Took a storm of pictures.
We spent the greater part of the day at Agincourt (or Azincourt). A battle was fought there in October 1415 between the English under Henry V and a far larger French force. The English were weaker in nearly every aspect: in number, in health, and in experience, and yet they carried the day in a resounding victory. I went to consider a theory about how and why Henry V took the actions he did, and I was very pleased that my thoughts seemed to be borne out on the field of battle — and that Kelly and Bob didn’t think I was insane. (Which either means I’m sane or we’re collectively batshit crazy.)
We had for a time thought about staying in St Omer, though Bruay ended up being quite a bit cheaper. Still, we went to St Omer to visit its terrific church and medieval vibe. Plus we had a terrific dinner (I really don’t want to think about how much weight I’ve gained!).
To round off our day, we drove to Mont Cassel, where a small town sits on a high hill in the middle of a wide plain. Because of its strategic location, Cassel has been the site of many battles, dating as far back as the Roman period and as recent as World War II, when it saw a heroic holdout of British troops who delayed the German advance on Dunkirk, thus allowing thousands of their countrymen to escape France during the evacuation — and themselves left behind to be captured by the Germans. It then saw a tank battle after D-Day.
Back at the hotel after midnight, I was thrilled to spend over an hour texting with a seven-year-old back home.
I had so much going through my mind this morning, that I somehow left my camera (with all my pictures on it) in the hotel lobby. I realized this around the time we crossed the border into Belgium, which was too late to turn back. Happily we did eventually find me a free wifi signal to get on the Internet and look up the hotel’s number, which Bob was able to use to call and find out that reception had it. Whew.
Still, a day in Belgium without my nice camera was tough.
First stop in Belgium was Kortrijk, better known to medievalists as Courtrai, site of a medieval battle that Kelly is much the expert on. The site is now just a small city park, but we also wandered the city center for a bit, including the old church where they hung up the golden spurs of the slain French knights. Lots of vibrant wealth and happy people. Belgium seems to be doing quite well today.
Next we drove to Ghent. This is Kelly’s favorite medieval city, and indeed it is loaded with medieval sites, from a castle and a cathedral to a belfry and a butcher shop. Bob and I just missed getting to see Jan van Eyck’s famed Ghent Altarpiece, but that gives me a reason to go back!
We had a great time to say the least, rounding off our last night together with a magnificent meal.
After a late night of packing and a spot of laundry, I met Bob and Kelly for breakfast, after which we drive to Tournai. There’s a remarkable half-Romanesque and half-Gothic cathedral there, as well as a number of other medieval buildings big and small.
We drank a last kriek beer together, took many pictures, and then drove on to Brussels. By the time we got the car turned in and everything settled up it was time for Kelly to run.
So Bob and I took the Eurostar to London, then went on from there to Manchester.
It was a long day to say the least, and I was saddened to leave such great company and face the remainder of the trip solo.
I was very tired after a very late arrival in Manchester, and so I decided not to set an alarm for the morning. The result was sleeping much beyond what I had planned. Alas.
I took a train from Manchester city to the airport, where I picked up my rental car before heading south and west toward Wales for phase 3 of the trip. As a result of my oversleeping and then bad traffic — plus a touch of just wanting to catch my breath — I decided to do only one castle today rather than four and instead added a dyke and a church.
I also had a small bit of further bad news: On the way out of Manchester I discovered I no longer had my canteen, which I had grown rather fond of during my trip. I had it in a pouch in the back of my bag, and I’m thinking that it got nicked somewhere in the crowds of people between Belgium and my rental car at Manchester Airport.
The castle I visited was Stokesay Castle, which is a little-known but remarkable place. It isn’t on a high precipice or some other kind of phenomenal setting (though truth be told, all of rural England is beautiful in one way or another), but it has an incredibly well-preserved hall, including medieval beams. It’s just great for someone like me.
From Stokesay I drove to Knighton and the Offa’s Dyke Centre. Offa’s Dyke, which may or may not have been built by King Offa, had essentially served as the division between Wales and England for over 1000 years, and there is a very well preserved section of it in Knighton along with a nice local visiting center. I toured. I gawked. I bought books. 🙂
I checked into the Pilleth Oaks, where I stayed two years ago when I first began to think about the Battle of Bryn Glas, in which Owain Glyndwr won a very important victory in 1402. This cozy B&B sits at the foot of the hill associated with the battle, and no matter how you configure the events of that hard day it sits where many men died. The proprietor remembered me, and I was pleased to point out that he’d been cited in the new Owain Glyndwr Casebook in my essay reinterpreting/explaining the battle. I then went up the hillside to the site of the battle proper, and sat beside the small church located there — reading my essay in the place itself.
Examining the ground again, I still think I got it right: I’ve explained why a thousand men probably died that day, and how. But I confess it wasn’t a sense of boastful satisfaction that I felt. It was instead a feeling of … peace, I guess. I’m not sure what to make of that.
After some further reflection in the church, I drove a short distance to Whitton to recheck the sight-lines that I’ve argued demolish the traditional account — yes, they’re still what I thought — and then I doubled-back to the tiny hamlet of Bleddfa, site of a church that was probably at least partially destroyed by Owain before or (I think) right after Bryn Glas. I’d read about the excavations there, but I’d never been on site. It was quite nice.
Dinner was at a small pub in Bleddfa, the only place for miles. Steak and Ale Pie (good), a local cask ale (not bad), and a Robinson’s cider (delicious). I splurged on a creme brûlée, which will have Bob and Kelly giggling if they read this.
Once again I got a late start, though not due to sleep this time. At the B&B there was a couple from Devonshire and they really wanted to hear about what I do. Then, to my delight, one of the owners, Peter Hood, wanted to hear more about my book and about my theory on the battle. I’d spoken with him two years ago, and he’d been a great help. I was thus pleased to show him where I’d cited him in a footnote. Even better, he seemed to agree with my ideas — great news since he has lived in Pilleth his whole life and even acts as caretaker for the church where the dead are supposedly buried.
First stop after leaving was Wigmore Castle, from which came at least some of the men who died at Bryn Glas, and which saw many other historical events besides. It is a “wild” ruin now, allowed only minimal upkeep as a result of some rare flora and fauna that have made it home. It turned out to be a special history day in the town of Wigmore, which was to include some folks dressing up in medieval garb, and I was tempted to stay. In the end, though, I pressed on for Ludlow.
In Owain Glyndwr’s time, Ludlow Castle was the primary administrative center for the vast lands of the Mortimer family. It was there in 1402 that Edmund Mortimer would have heard of the proximity of the Welsh rebels. It was from there that he rode forth with the army that would ultimately be destroyed at Bryn Glas.
Ludlow is also, on a hot Saturday in mid-July, swarmed with people headed to its market. So swamped, in fact, that to my great disappointment I had to bail on visiting the castle. I still saw many parts of the town as I circled round and round, but into the castle I did not (yet) enter.
Disappointment followed when I tried to reach Richards Castle, one of the three oldest castles (in the proper sense of the term) in England, and the only one of which any trace survives. It is well off any main road, up what is essentially a single-pass farm track into the hills. Alas, the road was blocked part way up by the preparations for a soapbox derby to be held the next day.
Things got much better when I got to Hereford, which is a positively lovely town. As it happens, they were having a history day, too, though I arrived late for the things that would have been most interesting. Still, there was opera in the market (including a crowd-rousing rendition of “Britannia”), people in medieval, Victorian, Edwardian, and even pirate garb (the last of which was quite inaccurate to history but spot-on for Disney). The market was bustling, and the people were sweating. It was hot hot hot — over 30 on the Celsius scale, which equates to “too-damn-hot” in Fahrenheit.
My destination was Hereford Cathedral, which is interesting in its on right — it has served as parts of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films — but which excited me because of something it houses: the Hereford mappa mundi, the only one of the great medieval maps of the world to survive today. I’ve seen pictures of it for years, even high-resolution ones, yet to see it in person was awe-inducing. I stared for a very long time as tourists came and went. Even better, they had their copy of the Magna Carta on display (one of four that survive, and many visitors were walking right past it!). And even better than that, they had their illuminated manuscripts out — including a copy of Genesis that has one of my favorite illuminations in it, and it was open to that page! (It’s the first page of Genesis, in case you’re wondering, and the “I” in “In principio” [in the beginning] has a bubble gilding that hasn’t worn away in the slightest. It’s a thick sheen of gold that catches the light in remarkable ways.
Leaving the exhibition area, I caught a performance of evensong by the choir, which was marvelous (the voices were superb, and the organ there is world-famous). Afterwards, I went through the crypt (no one there!) and toured the shrines. It was great.
I spent way more time at Hereford than I intended, but I was still able to reach Grosmont Castle while there was decent light upon it. Grosmont is where Owain suffered perhaps his worst defeat, and it is only a handful of miles from Kentchurch, the major house in which Owain is rumored to have spent his last days and which I visited two years ago. It was a quiet ruin, so tucked out of the way that no one else was there.
From Grosmont I turned on the afterburners and drove straight to Neath, where I stayed for the next few days. It took me one wrong turn to find the place — Cwmbach Guest House is seriously out of the way — but it is extraordinarily calm.
It seems strange to talk about doing something special for yourself when you’re on an incredibly special trip like this, but truth be told almost everything I did on this trip was about work. And while research (especially in foreign countries like this) may be work that I love, it still has the air of necessity hanging about it.
Not so what I did for three hours on this day: taking a masterclass at Penderyn, the only whisk(e)y distillery in Wales.
Taking a class meant I was still learning, mind you, but it had nothing to do with Owain Glyndwr or other matters medieval.
No, this was all about spirit and simply enjoying myself.
And it was worth every penny.
The class was small by design, led by an engaging gentleman named Alan (and I should also here give a shout-out to Geoff, for helping to arrange my participation despite technical difficulties). I cannot begin to tell you how much I learned about whisk(e)y: how it is made, how one can drink it, etc. The entire program was impressive and informative, and it did an excellent job of underscoring the uniqueness of the Penderyn process. There was also a generous tasting afterwards, during which I was exposed to what is the best gin I’ve ever had (Brecon Botanicals), the best cream liqueur I’ve ever had (Merlyn, sorry Baileys!), and several of the best whisk(e)ys I’ve ever had (pretty much all Penderyn lines, though the portcask was particularly good). All told it was a superb time.
From Penderyn I drove to Monmouth, trying to get some pictures of the area of Craig-y-dorth, where one of Owain’s battles was fought. Was a bit difficult with the hedgerows (and not really knowing where the battle was fought). But I think I got what I needed.
Next I made my way to Usk, a picturesque little town upon the river of the same name. There’s a castle there, which of course I had to view and interpret using my newly honed stone detective skills (with thanks to Bob and Kelly). Even more important, I was able to see where many folks think Owain fought the important Battle of Pwll Melyn. Cool stuff. Added bonus: I got to see the building in which the medieval writer Adam of Usk (who is very important for studying Owain) was born.
I drove back to Neath, and got a good look at the ruins of its abbey (once massive) and castle. Not too much of major excitement but a good time nonetheless.
Plus I caught a few other sites en route, like the statue of a man named Llywelyn who, along with his eldest son, suffered a horrific execution rather than tell King Henry IV of Owain Glyndwr’s whereabouts.
Anyway, I finished the day completely exhausted. In order to have enough time I was literally running up and down the paths to several of the castles — because of course they are built on hills. Many other visitors surely thought there was something wrong with me!
But I made it. Got em all.
The only downside was that the weather was very hazy. So some of the great vistas from certain castles (like from the amazing Carreg Cennen) were hardly postcard perfect.
Oh well. One can’t have everything.
I spent the night in Neath once more (last one), pondering a morning drive through Brecon Beacons National Park down into Hay-on-Wye, which is a town completely filled with second-hand bookshops.
I got a late start. Not because I slept in or anything, but because I paid my bill, got on my way, and then realized they’d only charged me for two nights instead of three. So I went back to make it straight.
From there I drove via Penderyn (alas that I don’t have more room for bottles from the distillery!) right through the Brecon Beacons. It is interesting how one’s perspective changes things. I kept wondering when the mountains would start and then it was done. It was beautiful, of course, but the scores of folks snapping pictures would probably pass out if they saw, say, the Grand Tetons.
I then spent most of my day in Hay-on-Wye, looking at used bookstore after used bookstore. It was pretty impressive, and of course I bought several books.
As it happens, the Portway Inn, where I stayed for the night, is directly across the street from the turn-off to Monnington-on-Wye, a very small hamlet in whose church grounds Owain Glyndwr was once thought to have been buried. I think the story is near to preposterous, but I did my due diligence in touring the site and taking lots of pictures.
From there I started backtracking through some familiar territory in order to get some better pictures of Lawton’s Hope Hill, our earliest identifiable location for Owain to have died.
As a result, I returned to Richards Castle, a place I tried to visit before only to be stymied by a soapbox derby. I made it through this time, which was great: the castle is one of only three known pre-Norman castles, and the only one with any ruins to speak of. Plus the old church beside it has a numbering great medieval features — and not another soul in sight anywhere!
I then drove to Ludlow, which I’d failed to visit before due to massive crowds. It was far more quiet now, and it was great: lots of medieval features in the streets of the town, and the castle is quite impressive. I really enjoyed a couple of hours there.
From Ludlow I drove to the little hamlets of Six Ashes and Four Ashes, which appear to be associated with a spot in Welsh mythological history that enters into Owain Glyndwr’s story (and about which I gave two papers this fall!). Just down the road a bit I popped into the local parish church at Enville and was blown away by the medieval misericords they have. They’re some of the best I’ve seen, and I had them all to myself. I always leave donations in churches, but this time I left double.
And that, as they say, was that.
I drove on up to Manchester, turned in the car, and walked to my hotel at the airport.
All in all, a quite priceless adventure that will reap benefits in my life for years!