UK Trip 2011: Day Six

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 The goal of the trip was three-fold: to study some unpublished manuscripts of J.R.R. Tolkien (for an article or two in progress), to tour sites related to Owain Glyndwr (for an upcoming book), and to visit the site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!

. . .

Sunday, 17 July 2011

This morning after breakfast (alone again, as I was the only guest) I hiked out to the earthwork remains of Castell Foel-allt, a Norman motte and bailey castle in the valley just behind the Pilleth Oaks.

It was pretty impressive for a not-on-the-map sort of thing. I then spent more time milling around and talking to myself as I took pictures. Add it all together and I am strongly suspicious that every account of the battle I have seen has it incorrect. I can’t see it happening the way they claim.

Panorama from Castell Foel-allt: "Cuckoo burial mounds" out of sight up valley at left, Bryn Glas "mass burial site" marked by Wellingtonia trees near center.

Castell Foel-allt earthwork remains.

After I was done — well, after my schedule told me I was done — I drove south a bit on a detour to try to find a group of standing stones near Walton. Did not find them.

So then it was on west into the heart of Wales. After some missed or wrong turns — thanks again, car rental — I got on the road north into what are surely the most desolate and untouched “highland” areas I’ve ever seen: the wind-swept mountains above Nant-y-Moch Reservoir. The rain was coming in at that point – sideways no matter which direction I faced – and it was bitter cold. From where I had to park the wee Volkswagen (to go further required a Land Rover) I could see one human being: a brave fellow in thick neoprene fly-fishing down by the lake. He left not long after I headed off from my car, away from the reservoir and the road and straight up the mountain into the mists.

No one then around then but me and the ghosts of the past.

And the sheep, of course. Lots and lots of sheep.

The terrain was both craggy and marshy. The rocks promised respite they could not deliver: the damp made them slick with colorful moss, and even the thickest tufts of grass that covered the slopes might give way unexpectedly into the boggy damp beneath.

It was, in a word, wet.

But it was strikingly beautiful, too. The wind and rain would let up occasionally, and though the sun never shone through, wide vistas would open up. I captured them as best I could with the camera.

Mount of Hyddgen at center; Owain's battle likely occurred in Hyddgen valley to left.

I was up there because Owain won a small but historically significant battle somewhere on or near the slopes of Pumlumon, the mountain whose sides I was clambering up. No one knows where exactly the battle was fought, so I was mostly there to get a sense of the types of terrain that the fighters were dealing with. I certainly got that.

After a time I angled back down to meet the 4×4 road, which I followed up to where it forded a stream and a river in quick succession at a valley separating Pumlumon from the mount that gave the battle its name, Hyddgen. There was a wide stretch of ruins there — post-medieval, I’m fairly sure — and the waters were singing as they tumbled down over the rocks among them. I could not have been a half-mile from where the battle was fought six hundred years ago. For all I know, I was standing upon it..

It was incredible.

River Hengwm tumbling down toward the River Hyddgen.

And then the rains hit. And the wind.

I know, I said that earlier. But those rains and winds were nothing. What hit now was fierce. The rain soaked the few semi-dry parts of me left, and then the wind plastered the sodden mess to my body and forced me to lean to stay upright. I discovered a new coldness, and I decided, reluctantly, that since I was alone I better not spend the hours more I’d planned up there. If I twisted an ankle — or worse — in the slicked up broken landscape, things could be trouble.

Welsh highland mountainside in the mists.

Still, it was great. I got back to the car chilled but safe, and I set off again, briefly stopping to check out the official marker for the Battle of Hyddgen, which is miles away from the site itself.

Memorial for the Battle of Hyddgen -- a looooong way from the actual site.

I was ahead of schedule, so instead of going straight into Aberystwyth I drove a one-lane road over the highlands to visit the Owain Glyndwr Centre in Machynlleth, which is where Owain held his Welsh Parliament.

Random Welsh valley between rains.

Raining in Machynlleth, naturally, and the centre was closed both today and tomorrow. A pity, since it would be perfect to tour in inclement weather, which is also expected tomorrow.

So I drove a bit further to the tiny village of Pennal, from which Owain wrote a famous letter to the French. There is a small church there, also connected with Owain, which is one of six locations to receive facsimiles of the Pennal Letter.

Letter signed "Owain, Prince of Wales," at Pennal Church.

There were some other Owain things there, too, including a statue (recent) in the churchyard.

Statue of Owain at Pennal Church.

I photographed all and then drove down into Aberystwyth, still plunging through the rain. I found my hotel by working off week-old memory of its location in the city according to Google Maps.

It was only four, and it was pelting rain with a vicious salty sea breeze, so I tried to find some bookstores I was told about.

Found them. Closed early for Sunday.

So, too, most of the restaurants.

Eventually I found a pizza-and-bar joint open on the pier, so I drank a pint of Strongbow, ate pizza, and started writing this (long) account.

After dinner, the rain had finally stopped. The wind was still crazy, and the sun was fast sinking, but I managed to take some pictures along the promenade. The local volunteer orchestra/band was playing a free gig in the bandstand, so I stopped and listened for a bit. Not the Boston Pops, but they were enthusiastic despite their meager audience (five of us?). Then back here to the hotel to finish this note.

The Aberystwyth seawall and promenade, beset by storm.

So that’s it. Still haven’t decided on tomorrow’s plan. Much will depend on the weather.

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