“We marched, a hundred of us,
By moonlight, on our way,
To climb the steeps of Wyddfa,
And see the break of day:
We looked upon the heavens,
From many lonely hill;
We looked upon the mountain llyns,
And staff in hand stood still!”1
It was a late evening in July when we walked up Snowdon. Ascending by the Ranger Path in twilight, joined the Snowdon Mountain Railway line at Bwlch Glas and followed the track to the summit. As the sun descended over Llŷn and glowed into Cwm Clogwyn we walked up Snowdon, the setting sun on our backs, red skies behind us. We spent the few sun-less hours on Yr Wyddfa, sipping Rumbullion from a flask and telling tales of giants, dragons and King Arthur, while waiting for the break of day.
*One step from Heaven
In our search for the site of Arthur's final battle at Camlann we find ourselves overnight on the summit of Snowdon, at 3,560 ft (1,085m) the highest mountain in Wales, and the highest point in the British Isles outside of Scotland. The peak is busy during the day, in the summer months it is often crowded and you can queue to stand on the summit plinth and take in the extensive views. It was childhood holidays in Snowdonia that got me hooked on the Arthurian legend many, many years ago. It seems every lake, every hill has a story to tell; in this country Arthur is an eternal part of the landscape.
|Glaslyn below Yr Wyddfa (Edward Watson)|
We sat with our backs to the Hafod Eryri visitor centre, opened in 2009 replacing the previous eyesore; everyone seems to have a strong opinion on the building and its placement at the summit of Wales highest peak. Etched along the wall by the entrance is "Copa'r Wyddfa: yr ydych chwi, yma, Yn nes at y nefoedd / The summit of Snowdon: You are, here, nearer to Heaven". Love it or hate it, there have been buildings on the summit since the early 19th century offering shelter for climbers and refreshments for tourists, but it wasn't until the advent of the railway in 1896 that tourism really took off with the introduction of accommodation buildings to the summit. There are six main walking routes up Snowdon and of course you can take the train from Llanberis to the summit station and today walk along steps to the plinth on the cairn without even stepping on the natural surface of the mountain.
The name Snowdon is derived from the Old English “Snaudune” meaning literally “snow hill”. However, we are told that the Welsh use the name “Eryri” to refer to the Snowdonia region, as opposed to the Snowdon massif itself. Eryri has been interpreted as meaning the “abode of eagles”. Hundreds of years ago eagles were certainly observed building their aeries on the rocks of Snowdon, which is said to have led to the Welsh term “Craigian-eryri,” the “Crags of the Eagles”; accordingly, some claim the highest point was known as “The Eagle's Nest”. However, some Welsh scholars claim that Eryri simply means “highland”.
A Place of Presence
Yet, the Welsh name for the summit, first recorded in the 12th century, is “Yr Wyddfa” meaning “the burial mound” or “tumulus”. I have also heard it described as “place of presence” which seems very apt. The burial mound is said to refer to the legend of Rhita Gawr, (variously Ritho or Ricca) the giant killed by Arthur who had a cairn built over the corpse; thus, “Gwyddfa Rhudda” (Rhita's Cairn). Rhys Goch Eryri (d.1420), a native of Beddgelert, included the following couplet in a poem: “On the ridge, cold and vast, there the giant Ricca lies.”2 It has also been known as “Yr Wyddfa Fawr” (the great tomb) and “Carnedd y Cawr” (the cairn of the giant), however, over time the name of Rhudda was lost and the summit cairn became known simply as “Yr Wyddfa”. Sadly the giant's cairn was demolished in the mid-19th century to make way for the summit buildings to accommodate the advent of tourism.
|19th century summit cairn|
The story of Ritho (Rhitta Gawr) is first recorded in Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae = HRB), as occurring on on Mount Aravius:
“[Arthur] told them he had found none of so great strength, since he killed the giant Ritho, who had challenged him to fight, upon the mountain Aravius. This giant had made himself furs of the beards of kings he had killed, and had sent word to Arthur to carefully cut his beard and send it to him; and then, out of respect to his pre-eminence over other kings, his beard should have the honour of the principal place. But if he refused to do it, he challenged him to a duel, with this offer, that the conqueror should have the furs, and also the beard of the vanquished for a trophy of his victory. In his conflict, therefore, Arthur proved victorious, and took the beard and spoils of the giant...”[HRB, Book X.III]
Geoffrey's Mount Aravius is thought to be his attempt at a Latin form of 'Eryri'. In the Prophecies Of Merlin, contained in Book VII of Geoffrey's History, he again refers to Aravius, and on this occasion refers to an eagle's nest:
“The lion's whelps shall be transformed into sea-fishes; and an eagle shall build her nest upon Mount Aravius. Venedotia shall grow red with the blood of mothers, and the house of Corineus kill six brethren.” [HRB,Book VII.3]
The sentence immediately following Mount Aravius refers to Venedotia (Gwynedd) and giants. According to Geoffrey, Corineus arrived in Britain with Aeneas and the descendants of the Trojans. Corineus settled in Cornwall, which was then inhabited by giants. Corineus fights the last of these, giants, Goëmagot (Gogmagog) and throws him into the sea. The place, Geoffrey tells us, is called Lam Goëmagot, that is, Goëmagot's Leap, identified as the Giant's Leap, or Plymouth Hawe.
In his survey of Cornwall (1602) Carew reported the outline images of two giants, cut into the turf exposing the white limestone, at Plymouth Hoe. The figures were said to be Goemagot and Corineus (some say Gog and Magog), however they were lost sometime after 1671.
Ricca also appears in the tale of How Culhwch won Olwen, the oldest tale in the Mabinogion, which has giant killing and beard collecting as an underlying theme throughout. Gormant son of Ricca is twice invoked in the tale by Culhwch. Jones and Jones3 assert that Gormant is brother to Arthur on his mother's side, his father the chief elder of Cornwall. Bromwich and Evans4 suggest that the name Gormant can be equated with the Cornish Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall and husband of Arthur's mother Igerne.
Here There be Dragons
Looking east from the summit you cannot help but look down to the lakes below in Cwm Dyli; Llyn Llydaw, crossed by the Miner's Track, and the blue-green waters of Glaslyn. Stained by the presence of copper ore from the old Snowdon mines Glaslyn was formerly known as Llyn Ffynnon Las (the lake of the green well), the pool has a rather sinister reputation as the bottomless abode of demons that no bird will fly over. This is the home of the Afanc, a water monster dragged from a pool on the Conwy known as Llyn yr Afanc, across the mountains of Dolwyddelan by two oxen. In the early 18th century a shepherd who claimed to have seen the monster described it as “toadlike with tails and wings”.5
Cradling the two lakes of Llyn Llydaw and Glaslyn is the backdrop of Y Lliwedd with its East and West peaks, the waters of Glaslyn seemingly held back by the ridge of Y Gribin leading up to to Bwlch y Saethau (The Pass of the Arrows). The path up to Y Lliwedd is named after Sir Edward Watkin, officially opened by Gladstone in 1892, and said to be the hardest path up Snowdon because it starts at the lowest point of all the main routes. The Watkin Path starts at Pont Bethania in Nant Gwynant, at 190 feet above sea level requiring another 3370 feet of ascent to the summit in just three and a half miles, over a thousand feet more than other routes stating from Pen-y-Pass.
Further along the valley of Nant Gwynant by Llyn Dinas, overlooking the southern end of Cwm Llan and the initial stretches of the Watkin Path, is the historic site of Dinas Emrys The site has been known as Dinas Emrys since the 9th century Historia Brittonum (aka Nennius) and marks the birth of the Merlin legend.
According to the storyteller, after being advised by his wise men to retire to the remote boundaries of the kingdom to build a fortress, Vortigern arrived at North Wales and having surveyed the mountains of Heremus (the eagle rocks; Eryri). Every night the materials gathered to build the tower vanished, a second and a third time. The wise men informed him that he must find a fatherless child, put him to death, and sprinkle his blood on the ground on which the tower is to be build.
They find a boy at Ælecti in the district of Glevensing (Monmouthshire) who prophesied to them that the reason the citadel could not be built was because in an underground pool there was a vase containing two serpents, one white and the other red, which represented the races of the English and the Welsh. The boy reveals himself as Ambrose, son of a Roman consul. Ambrose, or Emrys in Welsh, is later named by Geoffrey of Monmouth as "Merlinus Ambrosius", who becomes the prophet of Arthurian legend.
Today little remains of the Iron Age hillfort that occupied the hilltop although traces of occupation into the 5th century have been found there. Still visible today are the remains of some stone ramparts and the base of a Keep said to have been erected by Llywelyn ap Gruffudd (Llewelyn the Last, d.1282), guarding the pass below. The Keep at Dinas Emrys must have had an imposing presence in its day and probably resembled that of Dolwyddelan Castle constructed in the early 13th century by Llywelyn the Great, Prince of Gwynedd, to guard two main routes into Wales. Dolwyddelan remained an important stronghold for his grandson, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, until its capture by the English in 1283.
|Dinas Emrys - Vortigern's Tower (L) and Dolwyddelan Castle Keep (R)|
A pool within the hillfort enclosure may have some connection with the tale of Vortigern and the dragons; excavations during the 1950s identified a platform above the pool as described in the Historia Britonum. How the dragons came to be buried at Dinas Emrys can be found in the traditional Welsh tale of "Lludd and Llefelys". Dinas Ffaraon (Fortress of Pharaoh) is named as the place where King Lludd of Britain trapped and buried the two dragons which were ravaging the land. The tale explains that the site was later named "Dinas Emreis". An allusion to the episode is also found in the Triad, “Three Fortunate Concealments of the Island of Britain”.
The Watkin Path leads up through Cwm Llan, the home of the Tylwyth Teg, to the legendary site of the old city of Tregalan below Bwlch y Saethau. Local legend claims that when King Arthur vanquished his enemy at Tregalan he drove them over the pass into Cwm Dyli. When Arthur reached the top of the ridge the enemy let fly a barrage of arrows fatally wounding the king. Arthur was buried where he fell, just below the Snowdon summit, where a cairn was built over the grave; Carnedd Arthur at Bwlch Ciliau was said to mark the spot and was still visible in 1850,6 but little more than a scattering of rocks can be seen here today.
The faithful companion Bedwyr is said to have thrown Arthur's sword into the cold waters of Llyn Llydaw, returning it to the Goddess of the Lake. According to the Stanzas of the Graves (Englynion y Beddau), after Camlann, Bedwyr was buried on the slopes of Tryfan, which lies a stone's throw from Snowdon across the Llanberis Pass (A4086).
Arthur's men who survived, said to number seven, descended down the cliff face of Y Lliwedd and into a cave, the entrance sealed behind them. The cave is known as Ogof Llanciau Eryri, or Cave of the Young Men (lads) of Snowdonia. Legend claims that Arthur's knights, fully armoured and armed, sleep there, waiting for Arthur's return in the hour of the country's greatest need.
Once a shepherd is said to have strayed into the cave and accidentally struck his head on a bell hanging at the entrance which awoke the knights, but he managed to reassure the knights that they were not yet needed, and they returned to their slumber. The shepherd never recovered from the shock and to this day the cave entrance has never been found since. However, old climbers stories tell of a shallow cave half way up Slanting Gully under the precipitous north face of Y Lliwedd beyond which they claim the knights sleep.
|Glaslyn outflow with Llyn Llydaw below (Edward Watson)|
A late Triad, 'Three Treacherous Meetings on the Isle of Britain', included in Y Myvyrian Archaiology (1807) compiled by Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams) states the Third was the meeting of Medrawd and Iddawg Cord Prydein with their men of Nanhwynan, where they entered into a conspiracy against Arthur.
In the Mabinogion tale The Dream of Rhonabwy, Iddawg Cord Prydein informs Rhonabwy that his nickname is the 'agitator of Britain', because he was one of the messengers between Arthur and Medrawd at the battle of Camlann, and because of his desire for battle he delivered harsh messages between the two men from which the battle ensued. Nanhwynan is the old name for Nant Gwynant at the bottom of Cwm Llan.7
Break of Day
The stars faded from the sky, then the north-eastern horizon glowed with a brilliant bright amber band. Then there she was, the first glint of the sun, a new day was born, for just the briefest moment there was hope of a world without ills. Tales told, we left the summit and crossed Bwlch Main above Cwm Tregalan, crossed Llechog and descended to Rhyd Ddu with red skies behind us.
“We saw the Steven Stars arise
Northward, and with their glow
Smile down upon the paler Seven
Within the llyn below.
We dare not halt,we did not stay -
One short half-hour of night,
And then the Break of Day would rise
On Wyddfa's utmost height.”8
Copyright © 2017 Edward Watson
Notes & References:
1. John Ceiriog Hughes, Toriad y Dydd – Break of Day, in Robert Jones, The Complete Guide to Snowdon.
2. John Rhys, Celtic Folklore: Welsh and Manx, 1901.
3. Gwyn Jones and Thomas Jones, The Mabinogion, Everyman, 1993.
4. Rachel Bromwich and D Simon Evans, Culhwch and Olwen; The Oldest Arthurian Tale, UWP, 1992.
5. Robert Jones, The Complete Guide to Snowdon: Yr Wyddfa, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch, 1992
6. John Rhys, op.cit.
7. Around 1200, probably soon after Llywelyn ab forwerth (Prince Llywelyn the Great) gained control of Dinas Emrys and the township of Nanhwynan (now Nantgwynant), he granted the whole township as a grange to the Cistercian Abbey of Aberconwy. Now the site of Hafod Rhisgl farm by Llyn Gwynant – see: Margaret Dunn, Wenallt, Nant Gwynant, Gwynedd, Excavation Report, 2005.
8. John Ceiriog Hughes, op.cit.
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