Dinas Brân, Llangollen

Extract from original essay published in On this Mountain: Essays on Ten Welsh Mountains with photographic images by Ray Wood, Gomer, 2008 

Through a kissing gate, the rising path was lined with bare hedges of hazel, a few straggling leaves still clinging to autumn with withering stems and long spikes of hawthorn bejewelled by last night’s rain. Beyond the hedges, soft lights from two or three houses glowed through the cloud, the homes of more sensible folk wrapped warm and dry inside, the delicious smell of wood smoke licking out of the chimneys, twining with the mist.

I continued steeply upwards, squelching through the juicy copper rot of oak and blackened rowan leaves and out onto the lower slopes of the hill. Defining its contours, thick emerald garlands of moss spiralled upwards layer upon layer as if around an ancient mystic head, the ruined battlements perched on its skull at some lunatic angle – at once the battered crown of a defeated prince, and a jaw ripped out of the shale.

Halfway up, I paused to look back over Llangollen, the whole valley and its surrounding hills breathing out. The giant tent of the International Eisteddfod, an upturned conch, ear close to the pulse of ground, gleamed white through the steam of the railway. As the train pulled through the valley it tugged chimney smoke and swirling vapours rising from the treetops with it, before letting out a slow high-pitched wail. A single piercing note reverberated off the bleak rock, echoing from every ridge and underneath it, the whoosh of the traffic, the whirr of an ambulance siren, and the distant hammering of metal.

Reaching the crown I stepped into the ramparts, an eerie silence negating all sound from the valley floor. Pressing my hand to the jagged edges of the fallen masonry, feeling the whole history of the castle and its prehistoric hill fort converge in the decay of its majestic arches, I touched, unnervingly, on Rhisiart’s ‘supernatural mandate’. Moving inwards, I stood on what looked like a giant shield of moss, iridescent at the heart of the siltstone remains, and felt it again that ‘something other’ Rhisiart described during his fictional incarceration here. It was, wrote John Cowper Powys,

‘…in some extraordinary manner not as solidly material as other places. And why shouldn’t there be spots like this on the surface of the earth where the electric currents of good and evil have clashed and contended for so long that they have drawn the opacity out of “matter”?’.

Suspended in a timeless void, the ruin was a living chamber of memories for centuries of human struggle, absorbing the vital force of the hill beneath it, the cinnamon larches and the dusky mauve branches of silver birch leaning hard into it. Through the clouds I watched the surrounding landscape escaping from me – the graceful line of the Berwyn, Llantysilio mountain to the north, the lilac-banded scarp of Eglwyseg and far off to the east, the plains of Shropshire. The downward path dissolving in the mist and the rain coming in again, I flashed back to the words in Cowper Powys’ diary – to heroes without graves and their returning. One word whispered serpentine around the battlements, ‘Difancoll’ – Disappearance? Oblivion? Both? I decided not to stay up there too long.

©Jane MacNamee, 2008. Quote from John Cowper Powys’ historical novel of 1941, Owen Glendower.

Publisher’s Information:

‘This is a sumptuous celebration of the mountains of Wales. Scaling verbal and visual heights, it combines pithy writing and striking photography as ten well-known authors explore and explain the appeal of their favourite Welsh hill or peak. North or south, east or west, each is a place in the heart as much as a fixed geographical feature. Ray Wood is world-renowned as a mountaineering photographer and his images give this collection its stunning visual integrity and impact.’ Contributors: John Barnie, Alun Wyn Bevan, Ray Gravell, Bethan Gwanas, Mererid Hopwood, Dylan Iorwerth, Jane MacNamee, Jim Perrin, Angharad Price, Iolo Williams.

First published by Gomer 2008, now available from Y Lolfa, your local bookshop or online from Gwales.