Historic Setting

Long Ago...

Hunter-gatherers…

There’s a spectacular cave on the edge of the Great Orme overlooking the north Wales coast that was occupied 14,000 years ago during the last Ice Age. Britannia was still part of the continent then. A decorated horse’s jawbone was found in the cave that is the oldest known work of art from Wales and unique among finds of Ice Age art in Europe. Northwest Wales has exerted a powerful attraction for a long time.

The Neolithic…
With the coming of farming 5000 years ago people living in the area erected standing stones as route markers; burial chambers to honour the dead and stone circles to map out and celebrate the seasons. Nearby Ynys Môn (the island of Anglesey, known as Mona in antiquity) is densely clustered with these ancient sites. Because of its fertility Môn supplied grain to the hinterland and became known as Mam Cymru, the Mother of Wales. Some say it was also called Nain y Byd, Grandmother of the World. Given that in prehistoric times it was easier to travel around Britannia by boat, and given that Môn is about half way between Cornwall and Orkney – at the hub of the whole archipelago – it’s easy to see how the name Nain y Byd may have arisen.

The Bronze Age…
Meanwhile back on the Great Orme about 4000 years ago copper was discovered. Miles of underground tunnels were dug with stone and bone tools, making them the earliest copper mines in the world. With the addition of tin bronze was made, thus ushering in the age of metals.

The Celts…
During the Celtic heyday hillforts were built on some of the plentiful sites around the mountains, in Arfon (meaning ‘the land overlooking Môn’) and along the Llyn Peninsula. This was the Iron Age and was accompanied by an increasing militarization of society. The local tribe was the Ordovices. Their name remains in the nearby village of Dinorwic, meaning ‘the fort of the Ordovices’. The nearest hillfort, Dinas Dinorwic, rises up from the Arfon plain with stunning views in four directions of Yr Eifl (The Rivals), Holyhead Mountain, the Great Orme and Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon).

The Romans…
The spiritual guides and sages of the Celts were the Druids. Their main college in Britain was on Mona. When the Romans invaded Britain the Druids of Mona fuelled the resistance of the Britons, determined not to give up their ancient ways without a fight. Tacitus, in his famous account, says that Suetonius Paulinus prepared to attack the island by constructing a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats. On the opposite beach they saw:

… a serried mass of arms and men, with women flitting between the ranks. Like the Furies, in robes of deathly black and with dishevelled hair, they brandished their torches; while a circle of Druids, lifting their hands to heaven and showering imprecations, struck the troops with such an awe at the extraordinary spectacle…’ (Tacitus Annals XIV.xxix-xxx)

Eventually the Romans overcame their fear, crossed the Menai Straits, slaughtered the men, women and children and cut down the sacred groves. About then Boudicca’s uprising took place, drawing Paulinus and his army away. Unfortunately for the indigenous Britons it wasn’t enough to save them. Boudicca’s revolt was crushed and Roman forts were built at Segontium near Caernarfon, in Holyhead, the Conwy Valley and elsewhere. Thus the Cymry, the original people of Wales, faced their first experience of subjugation and resistance.

mountains and myth

Last Refuge…

Silently bearing witness to all these human endeavours were – and are – the mountains of Snowdonia, known by the Cymry as Eryri, or ‘Abode of the Eagles’. The highest of them all is Yr Wyddfa, one meaning of which is ‘The Knowing One’. These mountains are the heart of Wild Wales and have been a refuge for the Cymry since time immemorial. Although they are not high by global standards (Snowdon is 1085 metres) they are spectacularly rugged and, over the last century, have been used by many mountaineers, including Edmund Hillary, preparing for greater challenges.

Old Stories…
Often the Welsh place names hint at old stories: Cwm Bleiddiaid, the Valley of the Wolves, for example, and Bwlch y Seithiau, the Pass of the Spears. But there are bigger mythic tales anchored in this landscape. One of the most well known is the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, which has its roots in the pre-Roman Iron Age. It’s likely that Math’s Hall was in the Nantlle Valley, for example, and that Gwydion’s fort was at Dinas Dinlle. Pryderi’s tombstone is thought to be at Maentwrog and Lleu and Blodeuwedd had their home at Tomen y Mur. And at the place where Lleu speared Gronw through the stone, there is the stone with a hole in it!

‘City of the Immortal’…
For me the most potent place in Snowdonia is Dinas Emrys, a modest hill at the heart of the mountains in the valley below the summit of Yr Wyddfa. Inside the pregnant belly shaped hill is a womb-like little valley with a small reedy pool whose outlet trickles over the edge and disappears underground. There are ruined ramparts indicating that it was a hillfort, and on the summit the foundations of what could have been a square tower. The place was used on and off for about fifteen hundred years until the early 13th century. The hidden inner valley is shaped like an amphitheatre and it’s easy to imagine people coming here from all corners of the north to meet and take council in times of danger.

Prophecy…
The story about Dinas Emrys (name means ‘City of the Immortal’) tells of a fugitive king trying to build a tower that kept collapsing. A fatherless boy was sought for sacrifice to make the walls stand firm. Such a one was found in Caerfyrddin (Carmarthen) and brought north. But this lad was none other than the young Merlin (Myrddin) and he had ‘the sight’. He could see that dragons, symbolic of power in the land, were causing the disturbance. After the dragons – one red (symbolising the indigenous people), one white (symbolising the Saxon invader) – were released from their captivity inside the hill, the young Merlin made his first great prophecy, a prophecy that still, to this day, seems to be coming true. To read Eric’s short version of click link.

Resistance to the Normans…
It was in the 13th century that the Cymry, under the leadership of the two Llewellyns, made their last great stand for independence. Once again Eryri was their stronghold and centre of resistance, this time to the Normans. In 1225 Llewellyn Fawr built Dolbadarn Castle (only a mile from Cae Mabon) to guard the main gateway into the mountains. But after Llewellyn’s death division and family feuding did not help their cause. And the Normans, like the Romans before them, were well organised and had a mighty military force at their disposal. Eventually, in 1284, a treaty was made with Edward 1, who promptly began building a ring of imposing castles around Snowdonia to contain the Welsh. Today these castles – Conwy, Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Criccieth and Harlech – are World Heritage sites and a reminder of English power.

The Meaning of Wales…
The names ‘Wales’ and ‘Welsh’ are derived from a Saxon word meaning ‘stranger’. It’s a grim paradox, a reminder of how history is so often written by the victor, that the descendents of the earliest inhabitants of Britain should be known as ‘strangers’. Their own word for themselves, the Cymry, and for Wales, Cymru, has at its root the word ‘cym’ meaning ‘community’ or maybe simply ‘the people’. (For more on Cymraeg, click link).

moving slate mountain...

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