UK Trip 2011: Day Nine

I recently returned to the USA from a sudden but exciting adventure across the pond to the United Kingdom. The goal of the trip was three-fold: to study some unpublished manuscripts of J.R.R. Tolkien (for an article or two in progress), to tour sites related to Owain Glyndwr (for an upcoming book), and to visit the site recently identified as the location of the Battle of Brunanburh.

As a result, the trip was pretty well packed with things to do, so I’ll be breaking up my trip report here into smallish doses. Enjoy!

. . .

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

It is turning 8 now, and I’ve just arrived at the Corn Mill (same as last night) for dinner and a pint. I’m exhausted but exhilerated.

After a hearty breakfast — I knew I was in for a long haul from the get-go — I got in the car and drove just up a nearby tributary valley to Valle Crucis Abbey. It’s a ruined abbey — a lot like Tintern, which my brother has photographed so beautifully — and I hoped that the weather would break and give me some sun on it.

It wasn’t quite open yet when I arrived, so I hiked a short bit up along the side of the road until I found Eliseg’s Pillar out in the middle of a sheep field. (I think just about everything in Wales is in a sheep field.) The pillar is the broken-off bottom of a cross that once stood in the middle of the valley (and gave the nearby abbey it’s name, as a matter of fact — “Abbey of the Valley of the Cross”). It is not admittedly the most impressive thing to look at, but it actually is fairly significant. It had an Insular Latin inscription on it — now eroded away but partially preserved a few hundred years ago — in which the person who raised it claimed to be doing so to honor his grandfather, Eliseg. In so doing, the recorder also makes reference to Vortigern, the man who by some accounts preceded Arthur as king of the Britons. Pretty cool stuff. In addition, Owain’s descent from the carver ( and thus to Eliseg) was one of the genealogical facts that enabled him to claim the throne of Wales.

Eliseg's Pillar.

By the time I go back to the abbey it was open. Even better, the sun was coming out. I took a lot of pictures, which raises the statistical likelihood that I may have managed to take at least one that does the site justice. I’m well aware of my very limited skill as a photographer — I intentionally use the singular there, as I think my only skill is a working trigger finger — but my inadequacies really come home in trying to capture something so viscerally striking.

Valle Crucis Abbey.

Anyway, I left the abbey and drove over Horseshoe Pass through small Welsh towns toward England. I’d planned to go by World’s End, but I spent that time at the abbey. A good trade-off, especially if a picture or two turn out.

Ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey up close.

After spending all my time driving on English backroads and then Welsh roads, it was quite jarring to get near Chester and run into cities and traffic and people. But things were a lot easier to navigate on freeways, and I made good time getting to the Wirral, the peninsula on which several essays in The Battle of Brunanburh: A Casebook (see in particular those by Cavill, Coates, and Harding) argue that the famed battle occurred over a thousand years ago. I first went to Bromborough — which Cavill very convincingly shows is the philological equal of “Brunanburh” — and then I meandered my way over to Higher Bebington, which has been suggested to be the actual location of the battlesite (our sources essentially point to it being “near Brunanburh”).

Standing (maybe?) at Brunanburh -- next time I'll have a tripod.

Though I seem to be getting a bit well known for being an expert on the battle — which is silly, since the contributors to the book are the brilliant ones here — this was my first chance to walk the supposed location. Good fun, and I came away with some additional thoughts about how it played out, and not a hint more doubt about the identification.

(It may sound strange to say, but feeling like the identification was really hammered down was slightly disappointing. There’s something really great about an unsolved mystery, and I’m thinking that the biggest mystery about Brunanburh is pretty much solved. Plus, if I had walked it and found problems we’d really have a reason to write on it again!)

From “Brunanburh” I rumbled a long way back south, headed for Owain’s home at Sycharth. Along the way I stopped at Chirk Castle — no time or money to tour, but I took pics.

Chirk Castle.

Sycharth is really in the middle of nowhere, and there aren’t even signs to help with navigation to it (which is astonishing to me). I’d examined the location on Google Earth back in Charleston, though, so as soon as I got reasonably close I was able to find it without a hitch.

Sycharth Castle's remains today.

There’s nothing left of the buildings, and there hasn’t been since Prince Hal burned it to the ground while Owain was on the run. You can still see the earthworks, however, and even Owain’s fishpond. You also get a very strong sense of, well, place. One can almost hear the ghosts.

It was probably pushing 4 o’clock when I left Sycharth and drove a bit south and then west, deeper into the hills of Wales. Passing through the town where they filmed “The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain” — which I now want to see again — I drove to the highest waterfall in England or Wales. It was utterly gorgeous, though I was there at totally the wrong time of day. Shadows were all wrong for photography.

Pistyll Rhaeadr.

Backroads and more backroads now. I drove over two ridgelines up and down one-lane roads trying to avoid head-on collisions with Land Rovers and farm trucks that would’ve made my little Volkswagen very unhappy indeed. I got lost once — my maps were not terribly helpful at this point — but a friendly young chap on a bike (who was a dead ringer for Ron Weasley if he had braces) helped point me to a vital turn that got me back down into my basecamp town of Llangollen.

It was 6:45 at this point, and I still had one big thing I knew I wanted to do: Dinas Bran Castle, which sits atop a mountain right over town. My car parked at the hotel — which sits right beside Llangollen’s famed bridge over the River Dee — I set off on foot with not much more direction than that I needed to go up.

Castell Dinas Bran from Llangollen. Go up!

And boy was it up. I don’t know what the elevation gain is from the river to the castle, but it was enough to make my legs and lungs burn a bit as I hurried to get up while I still had good light. Probably took me a half-hour to reach the ruins at the summit, but it was completely worth it.

Dinas Bran actually features in some medieval literature that I teach, and I have zero doubt that Owain stood up there at least once in his life. The ruins are evocatively skeletal, and the views are simply breathtaking.

I took a LOT of pictures.

The ruins of Castle Dinas Bran.

View from Castle Dinas Bran.

Then back down (found the main route now) and straight here to the Corn Mill and my just-finished pint of cider and plate of bangers and mash.

So. Tomorrow I drive to Oxford, return the car, perhaps meet Paul Cavill — one of my Brunanburh contributors — and stay at Wadham College. I haven’t decided if I will make any stops on the way to Oxford.

And then the next morning I bus to Heathrow and fly back to the USA. I’ve enjoyed this trip — I truly hope that is clear — but I’m nevertheless anxious to get home.

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