A visit to an ancient settlement in North Wales revealed an abundance of Welsh literary wonders
“Men of Harlech, wake from slumber
Foes surround thee past all number
Doubts abound, and cares encumber
Rouse thee to the fight!”
Men of Harlech by Richard Raymond III (1965)
After an uncommonly stormy few weeks, we awoke to a sunny if somewhat blustery St David’s Day morning – ideal conditions, we decided, in which to explore a medieval fortification situated on a sheer rocky crag overlooking the Irish Sea.
About six miles along the coast from our village of Talybont, in the centre of the North Wales county of Gwynedd, is the small seaside resort of Harlech. Lying on Tremadog Bay in the Snowdonia National Park, its name is thought by some to derive from Arddlech (ardd meaning ‘high’ and llech translating as ‘rock’), which alludes to the prominent cliff on which its castle stands, though nobody is quite sure.
Overlooking the town is Castell Harlech – to use its Welsh name – which was constructed in a mere seven years by the English king, Edward I, during his 1294–95 invasion of Wales. Over the succeeding centuries, this mighty coastal fortress played its part in numerous battles (including the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War), famously standing firm during the siege of Madog ap Llywelyn, until it fell to Owain Glyndŵr in 1404 (read more about him here). It became the home and military base of this iconic Welsh hero until it was recaptured by English forces in 1409.
Partly due to its colourful past, but also, I feel, because it is brimming with prehistoric mounds, ancient myths and breath-taking scenery, Harlech boasts a lively literary heritage and has provided inspiration for poets and authors through the ages. For instance, the celebrated novelist Philip Pullman, who grew up in nearby Llanbedr, was much influenced by the area when writing Northern Lights (or The Golden Compass), the first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy. In particular ‘Good God Corner’, from where, he once pointed out, one can admire the “stupendous view of Harlech beach”. He also said: “It had the most extraordinarily beautiful appearance to me. Just to look at it and dream at the end of a summer day. I’ll never forget that.”
One of the main characters in Karen Blixen’s 1937 autobiographical novel, Out of Africa, has connections with the area. Her lover, Denys Finch-Hatton, lived in The Plas, a former coaching inn renovated by his wealthy and titled family. It is now a Grade II listed building known as The Plas Café Bar & Grill, to be found on Harlech’s High Street.
The Welsh language author and clergyman, Reverend Ellis Wynne (1671-1734), whose home, Lasynys Fawr (approximately 2 miles from the centre of Harlech) is open to the public, wrote the massively influential The Visions of the Sleeping Bard (Gweledigaetheu y Bardd Cwsc) – which is now generally regarded as a masterpiece. During his lifetime he was a respected Welsh translator and hymn writer and is buried under the altar at St Mair’s in the village of Llanfair.
Set during the Wars of the Roses, L.M. Spooner’s 1858 historical novel, Gladys of Harlech, tells the story of the granddaughter of the last Welsh keeper of Harlech Castle. Louisa Matilda Spooner (1820-1886), born to English parents living in Maentwrog, was the fifth of ten children, and originally published her first book anonymously. The Cambrian Journal praised this work for its “true spirit of patriotism” during a period when few novels were “illustrative of Welsh manners and customs, that a genuine Cymro could for a moment tolerate”. It was republished by Honno Press in 2017 as part of their Welsh Women’s Classics series with an introduction by Rita Singer.
In Welsh mythology Harlech is forever linked with the legend of Branwen, the daughter of Llyr, whose story is told in the masterwork of Medieval Welsh literature, The Mabinogion.
“Bendigeidfran son of Llyr […] was at Harlech in Ardudwy, at his court. And they were seated upon the rock of Harlech overlooking the sea…”
From the children’s author Elinor Lyon to the poet Alfred Perceval Graves, the town boasts numerous literary connections – in fact, the locals have created an official literary trail for the benefit of visitors, enabling them to investigate a variety of places associated with popular literature.
As to our castle visit, while it was certainly fascinating, and the views of Cardigan Bay stunning, the weather was rather too bracing for us to properly explore the battlements. This became apparent immediately we crossed its ingenious ‘floating’ footbridge from the warmth of the visitor centre and were met with an icy blast of wind coming off a choppy sea. We therefore hope to return in early spring when temperatures have improved and the many charming cafes, shops and other amenities have opened for the tourist season.
“On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments
Collecting for Caernarvon’s (Fever) Hospital Fund.”
Welsh Incident by Robert Graves
Categories: Reading Wales
A rich post full of Welsh goodies, the refreshment of the bracing winds notwithstanding.
Thank you, Josie. 😊
It is an extraordinary structure, for its symmetry, its commanding position and its associations, and though I never went inside I’m pleased to have seen it in the flesh, as it were. By the way, have you read Pullman’s YA novel, The Broken Bridge? It’s set near here: https://wp.me/s2oNj1-bridge
Also, Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain, set in an alternate Wales, features a fortification, Malyn Castle, which given its setting — high on a cliff overlooking the Irish Sea — may well be based on Harlech.
Thank you for the link, Chris. I haven’t read The Broken Bridge but I’ll definitely add it to my TBR list.
Yes, Malyn Castle does sound suspiciously like Harlech. That’s another book I must read!
What a large and small world it has been. I met Elinor Lyon when I was a kid. Don’t tell anyone, but I never read any of her books. Needless to say, I was familiar with the sand blasting along Harlech beach.
You’ve met some interesting folk, John.
What a lovely post, Paula! When the children were young we used to holiday every year in Portmeirion, and Harlech got a visit every day. We all still have a strong love of Wales so it was wonderful to read all about Harlech – thank you! 😀
Thank you, Kaggsy, for your kind remarks. I recall you saying you knew Barmouth area well. It’s a beautiful part of the world. If you ever return, please do let me know and we can perhaps meet for coffee and a natter. 😊
What a lovely post, Paula! I loved all the Harlech references and Elinor Lyon – I’d never heard of her, I collect children’s literature and have a daughter called Elinor!
Thank you so much, Clare. Yes, Elinor Lyon moved to Harlech when her husband retired and remained there until her death about 12 years ago. I’ve been told some of her relatives still live in the area. Sadly she gave up writing in the mid 1970s for some reason, but produced a number of books for children up to that point.
I will have to find some of them!
How wonderful, Paula, what history and what a location! I knew the name but nothing of Harlech Castle.
On another note, I unearthed my old paperback copy of Blixen’s ‘Out of Africa’ and mentioned it in my most recent blog post so I was stunned to see your reference to it. Literature never dies!
Thank you, Gretchen. What a coincidence. In the real world (the UK, anyhow) we would cross little fingers and make a wish after saying something at the same time. So we must cross virtual pinkies and make our wishes, but never reveal them to a living soul! 🤣
What a delightful gesture! It beats our ‘Snap!’ exclamation. In all seriousness I imagined crossing pinkies and made a wish. Only time will tell 😉
We say ‘snap’ too (after the card game)! 🃏
Sounds a magical place! But yes, perhaps a bit too bracing at this time of year 😀
It is rather special, Madame B – but nippy! 🥶
Then again, I feel like this trip would go a long ways to correcting our overly romantic ideas about living in castles. While the visitors’ centres might be cozy, the historians are likely correct in saying that they were drafty and unpleasant for much of the year. Even if the return address on your letters would have looked very impressive, you’d’ve shivering while you wrote to your penpals. 🙂
My thoughts exactly as I explored the castle. You have to admire the people who lived in such places – talk about hardy. I wonder if Edward I had a pen-pal? It isn’t something I’ve come across in the history books. 🤔
Thank you so much, Marcie. 😊