Friday, 15 April 2016

A470: Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

world-map llangelynin


People who know me well are more than aware that I don’t, as a general rule, do television. But just lately I’ve been gorging on a number of Scandi Noir crime dramas, the pick of the bunch being the Icelandic series ‘Trapped’(Ófærð).


Set in the small town of Seyðisfjörður during the depths of winter, it has an exciting and intriguing plotline based on several murders of town notables. What caught my attention early on is that part of the story involves the Smyril Line ferry from Denmark which I was investigating at the time due to a possible future trip. The immense scenery and fascinating culture depicted in the series has made up my mind and so, watch this space, art shall imitate life, and Uncle Travelling Matt’s next intended trip is northwards to the land of geysers…

Keep travelling!

Uncle Travelling Matt

Flickr album of this trip

Links to all parts of this travelogue

Part 1: Introduction

Part 2: Llandudno

Part 3: Llandudno to Dolwyddelan

Part 4: Dolwyddelan to Blaenau Ffestiniog

Part 5: Blaenau Ffestiniog to Dolgellau

Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws

Also check out my other Welsh travelogues:

The Sacred Heart of Wales

Across the Sound

V-log: Llangelynin

V-log: Barmouth Cliff Walk

V-log: Walking Pilgrimage to Bardsey Island


Part 6: Dolgellau to Caersws 

We considered turning off at the Cross Foxes pub for Machynlleth and perhaps we should have done. Although well away from the A470 no exploration into what makes Wales tick is complete without a visit to that little market town. It was there, in 1404, that Owain Glyndŵr held his Welsh parliament, the last one before the opening of the new Welsh Assembly in 1997 following devolution. As such it thinks of itself as the ancient capital of Wales and, despite having a population of little over two thousand, has twice applied for city status.

Owain Glyndŵr is a difficult figure to assess but an essential one for his name is heard all over Wales. Indeed, of the several proposals to rename the A470 into something much more memorable, the Glyndŵr Way is the one looking most likely to succeed, even though, to the best of my knowledge, he has had nothing whatsoever to do with the road.

Glyndŵr is generally portrayed as the last great Welsh hero. Born in Glyndyfrdwy near to Llangollen and a descendent of the Princes of Powys, he led the Great Welsh Revolt against the English King Henry IV in 1400. Initially the revolt was successful; the great castle at Conwy fell to Glyndŵr and very soon he held much of North and Mid Wales. Under Henry Percy the English countered but the Welsh defeated them at Mynydd Hyddgen and then later, in 1402 at Bryn Glas. By this time the French and Bretons were helping the Welsh and the revolt spread to South Wales as well. By 1404 Glyndŵr held court at Harlech, (another of the great castles of Edward I that he had captured), and he felt confident to call his Parliament at Machynlleth where he was crowned Prince of Wales and emissaries from several foreign powers attended. There he declared his vision of an independent Wales with a return to pre-English Welsh law, two universities and an independent Welsh Church. Now Glyndŵr was at his apogee, with the English holding only a few isolated castles in the Principality and, in 1405, a French force landing at Milford Haven and marching all the way into Worcestershire. However, although they met with the English army, a battle was never fought and both forces retreated. So too did Glyndŵr's fortunes as the political winds changed in France and his main ally abandoned him. Slowly the English regained the country, taking back the castles at Harlech and Aberystwyth in 1409, and in 1410 Glyndŵr's ancestral home in Glyndyfrdwy. By this time the Prince of Wales was a hunted rebel, yet mysteriously, he was never captured or betrayed by his followers so that he adopted an almost mythical presence. He is thought to have died in 1415 but no one knows for sure or where his body lies. Since Glyndŵr though, Wales has never been an independent state.

Which is why the nationalists love him so much. When the modern-day nationalist movement began with the establishment of Cymru Fydd in 1886, (perversely, it began initially in London amongst Welsh emigres and only opened a branch in the Principality itself in 1892), they revived Owain Glyndŵr and recast the half-forgotten rebel as a national hero par excellence, creating a mythology around him that many place, particularly Machynlleth, like to exploit. This modern reworking of ancient history is best represented for me by Jan Morris' 'Machynlleth Trilogy', a trilogy of novellas in Welsh and English set in the town dealing with the state of Wales past, present and future. The first revels in the pageantry and pride of Glyndŵr's 1404 Parliament; the second mopes about the sad, provincial tumbleweed state of the town (and country) in the 1970s whilst the third is a look forward to a glorious future in the 21st century when Machynlleth is again a capital of an independent Wales, a country that is eco-friendly and devoted to peace, a beacon of hope and progress for the world. For us A470-lovers though, what is most noticeable is how Morris envisages a brand-new highway cut through the mountains, joining the nation from top to bottom, with a large junction just outside of the new capital. That book was written around the same time as the A470 was renumbered into a single entity and the thinking is clear: a highway to unite Wales is necessary, but if you can't afford a new one then instead make one up from some old bits of road.

But was Glyndŵr really the great national hero that Morris and Cymru Fydd make him out to be? As a great sceptic of nationalism, I personally doubt it and all reports from the time declare that his initial grievance was not the sad, subjected state of his spiritual homeland, but instead the fact that his neighbour, Baron Grey de Ruthyn, seized some of his land and when he appealed to the courts for redress, he was turned down. So perhaps his cause was not quite so noble after all, but what of his legacy? Simon Jenkins, himself a proud Welshman, states in his classic work on Welsh architecture, 'Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles' that “The land that Glyndŵr left behind was ruined, as much by his own warmongering as by that of the English. In his Jacobean history of Gwydir, Sir John Wynn remarked that 'it was Glyndŵr's policy to bring all things to waste, that the English should not find strength nor resting place in the country.' The revolt, he said, 'brought such desolation that green grass grew in the market place... and deer fed in the churchyard'.”[1] So, a man who brought his country to its knees, a state from which it took decades to recover from. Is that the same as the hero that Jan Morris drools over? I shall leave it to you to decide.

Owain-GlyndwrOwain Glyndŵr

Several miles on from Dolgellau is another contender for the Highlight of the A470 Award: Bwlch Oerddrws (Cold Door Pass). Owain Glyndŵr once fought a battle there but he is not the main reason why it is notable. Folk memory talks far more about the Red Bandits, a group of robbers who set upon travellers traversing the lonely pass in the 16th century before retiring to their lairs in the nearby mountains. Most of today's travellers though are unaware of this unless they stop at the viewpoint at the head where there is an information board. Instead they are stunned by the awesome views across the vast empty glacial valley of Cwm Cerist with the looming mass of Cadair Idris in the background. Nonetheless, even today the descent is still not without its perils. I remember vividly a trip over as a child when we passed the mangled wreckage of a car and caravan. In the high winds and driving rain, the caravan had swung violently and left the road, pulling the car and its unhappy occupants down the slope to their deaths.

1497665_10154592528205305_640592624074697750_nBwlch Oerddrws

Looming over Bwlch Oerddrws is the forbidding mass of Cadair Idris, perhaps the second most famous mountain in Wales after Snowdon. At 893m in height it’s hardly a monster even by British standards, but it is the highest peak in Mid Wales and it looks far more forbidding than its height suggests. That impression was only reinforced when I was told as a child that it was the Devil’s Chair but in fact the name refers not to Satan but instead Idris, a mythical giant who was supposedly skilled in poetry, astronomy and philosophy. Interestingly though, Idris is also cited as an early prophet in Islam who lived in Babylon which has caused some, such as Bob Quinn in his book ‘The Atlantean Irish’ to postulate about links between early Wales and Ireland, suggesting that the ‘Celts’ of the Western reaches of the British Isles are not in fact connected to the Celts of the central European La Tène culture as most historians suppose, but instead get their vibrant culture from seafaring routes stretching back to the Middle East. Whatever the case, a popular legend about Cadair Idris states that anyone who sleeps on its slopes alone will supposedly awaken either a madman or a poet. This has been taken up by many writers of fiction including Bernard Cornwell in his entertaining Warlord Chronicles in which his Merlin ascends the mountain and returns with a bit of both qualities in him.

After Bwlch Oerddrws the scenery beyond our car's windows changed. Gone were the harsh rocky crags of Snowdonia and in their place greener, tamer hills. This was still an empty landscape in terms of people but it was far less forbidding. We had now left North Wales behind and were in the middle of the country.

Travel guides, historians, politicians and a plethora of others always seem to divide Wales into North, Mid and South which is strange since no other country in the British Isles seems to get the same treatment. We are told that North and South Wales do not connect much with one another, hence the need for an artery like the A470 to unite them, that they are quite different in character. Such a viewpoint however, to me begs three very important questions: Firstly, what do we mean by South Wales? Secondly, what do we mean by North Wales? And thirdly, what is there in-between the two that is so awesome as to separate them so completely?

These are not easy questions to answer. Geographically, the country can be divided into three broad stripes. The southern one is the largest since Wales is at its widest there, stretching all the way from St. David's to Chepstow. However, is this stripe an interconnected whole? Well, it has the largest population centre (Cardiff) although the other big city (Swansea) is far more central. Nonetheless, it is linked together by road (M4-A48-A40) and rail with various off-shoots up the valleys and down to Pembroke and Milford Haven. If any region can be seen as such, it is the south.

North Wales however, is a different case entirely. That too has its great east-west road, the A55 which we have already discussed, but that clings to the coast and misses every major population centre bar Bangor. So too the A5 which plunges through the region but passes through nowhere. And our own A470, whilst pretty, hardly provides a oneness to the north. When we think of the north we think of the rugged and wild peaks of Snowdonia such as those Rob and I had passed through, yet Snowdonia only accounts for around a third of the region if that. Clwyd is rolling and lush, as too is the Isle of Anglesey, whilst the Llyn Peninsula has more in common with St. David's than St. Asaph's. The largest town is Wrexham, but that clings to the English border and is almost cut-off from the rest of the country that claims it. North Wales is not a whole but a collection of regions; it may need the A470 to link it to the south but I would also suggest that it needs its other routes to link it to itself as well.

But if that is north and south, then what lies in-between? Mid Wales is what it is called in the guidebooks, but what does that, the most overlooked part of the Principality consist of. Gone are the lofty mountains of the north and there are no coal or iron-rich valleys yet to replace them. Instead this is a vast expanse of rolling hills, farming country, sparsely-populated and little visited. The fact is that we were struggling for places to stop off at, suggesting that this is more an area that people pass through rather than go to. However, the light traffic on the roads and poor nature of the transport infrastructure, east-west as well as north-south, suggests that people don't even do that much either. Tourists flock to the Gower and Pembrokeshire Coast, to Anglesey, Snowdonia and the Northern Coast, but here is a region they miss. Is this therefore, where the hidden soul of Wales lies?

And there's a term for this region, from Machynlleth down to Brecon. They call it the “Green Desert” because of how empty it is. This is the barrier separating Llandudno and Cardiff that the A470 punctures, this is that piece of Wales that you know nothing about. In 1860 a travel writer wrote, “The locality we were now traversing is one of the most untamed and desolate in either division of the Principality; it has indeed with perfect truth been called the "great desert of Wales." Vast sweeping ranges of hills with round tops, add to the dreary aspect of this nearly unpeopled region...”[2] and from what Rob and I could see beyond the panes of the car's windows, little had changed. Tiny places – Llanbrynmair, Carno, Caersws, Llanidloes – with nothing to make you want to stop, pull over and explore. Just rows of bleak cottages by the side of the road until we leave the 30 zone and enter the national speed limit realm of rolling green pastures once again.

Actually, one of those names meant something to us. Caersws. I've never been there mind, but it had meaning for both me and Rob. You remember how I talked about taking the train a lot when I was younger? Well, another of the great train journeys of Wales is that from Shrewsbury to Machynlleth where the line forks, northwards to Barmouth, Harlech, Porthmadog and Pwhelli, or southwards to Aberystwyth. It's a fine line passing through the heart of the Green Desert and when thinking back of trips along it I always recall Caersws. You travelled for miles and miles through nothing and then there was a stop, in the middle of nowhere with that very unpronounceable Welsh name, the first of the trip, (the stops before are the very English-sounding Welshpool and Newtown). There the train stopped in the evening twilight, very Aldesthrop, just a platform and nothing beyond, and you knew that you were now in a special, half-magical land.[3] For twenty miles or so beforehand, the railway follows the A470 and I remembered by boyhood journeyings along it. I was fourteen or fifteen and had a cassette walkman with a Rod Stewart 'Greatest Hits' tape in it. As he rasped out his cover of 'The First Cut is the Deepest' I thought longingly of a girl in my Chemistry class who just wasn't interested, and then when he broke into the psychedelic strains of 'In a Broken Dream' it was as if I were transported to a different, more surreal place as the sun set over both the Powys hills and my hopes with that siren of the Science lab...

Rob too has memories of that journey, many more than me. He lived in Aberystwyth for three years as he studied for his degree and made the trip to and fro home countless times. It influenced his art greatly as well. Rob is best known I would say, for his innovative work on perspective which he started to experiment with whilst studying at Aberystwyth. Actually, he began writing his thesis whilst on an overland rail trip with me from Bulgaria to Varna and the end result was a painting done on the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury train. It's good and it's also a theme that he has returned to again and again. So far as I know, that painting has never had a name but surely there can be none better than Caersws to conjure up its capturing of the state of inbetweenness that occurs on every journey.

P1250749Train at Caersws

[1] Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles, p.20

[2] Solitudes of Wales

[3] Caersws actually has much more to it than a railway station: it was once one of the pre-eminent Roman centres in Wales, the word ‘caer’ denoting the fortress built by them.

No comments:

Post a Comment