Castell y Bere - a castle to treasure in the hidden foothills of Snowdonia

 

US literary and broadcasting genius, Garrison Keillor, once said he was brought up in St Paul, Minnesota among a dark people, who believed life was inevitabley difficult and troubled, and in a short a constant struggle.

 

In the 2007 docu-drama, a Prairie Home Companion, he said stoicism was rife and people were often prepared for the worst, but hoped for the best. If you ever felt really happy, you were advised to wait, because it was soon sure to pass.

 

Although perhaps a strange analogy, these words, although uttered long after the English invasion into Wales, must have shaped similar philosophies the native Welsh lived, fought and died by.

 

Perhaps in the face of repeated defeat by the invading forces of England, the Welsh learned to accept the terms and treaties of their new overlords with a stony-hearted resolve.

 

Like a Minnesotan winter in America's mid-West, successive invaders could perhaps be characterised as bitter and overwhelming opponents that could wreak extreme havoc and damage.

 

 

This would have certainly described with a great degree of precision, the incursions of the Anglo-Saxons, that arrived in significant numbers after the fall of the Roman Empire.

 

King Arthur's supposed last battle at Camlann (one site is allegedly some 8 miles from Glyn-yr-aur at Ganllwyd) in 537 saw many of the existing Celtic tribes pushed brutally back in to what is now Wales, Cornwall, Scotland and Britanny.

 

King Offa in the 9th century, built his legendary dyke or fortification to keep the Welsh away from his centrally located kingdom of Mercia. However, with the arrival of the Normans after the conquest of 1066, great swathes of Wales soon found themselves swearing allegiance to their baronial classes, particularly along the borders and in the south.

 

And the remainder was left to existing Welsh princes particularly in and around Snowdonia, who were adjured on pain of death to also show fealty and loyalty to William the Conqueror. It seemed, the legendary Y Mab Dagoran, or Welsh leader who would restore Wales to an independent nation or lead it out of the clutches of foreign powers was nowhere to be seen. (He was often spoken of in Welsh mythology, and was later presumed to be Henry VII, who actually haled from Pembrokeshire).

 

 

Over time, the Norman's main combatitive strategy of choice was to build innumerable castles and fortresses to maintain their stranglehold over the Principality. None was as successful in this regard as Plantagenet king, Edward I in the 13th and 14th centuries, with perhaps Caernarfon, Conwy, Beaumaris and Harlech being among the most well-known and famous.

 

But his predecessors also helped greatly to achieve the startling total of 641 castles, which now in various states of decay, can be found across all of the counties of Wales.

 

Although not all castle building was the preserve of the Norman and Plantagenet line. Welsh princes also began in the 12th century to build up their own defences to protect their lands - often from neighbouring Welsh incursions, aswell as offering a further line of defence to any encroachment by land-hungry English kings.

 

 

Historians have calculated that only 10 per cent of all castles ever built in Wales were developed by actual Welsh-born royalty. However, one of the most successful in this regard was Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, or Llewelyn the Great, who was also a contemporary of the much maligned British monarch, John Lackland or King John.

 

He actually married King John's daughter Joan, and set up his main powerbase at Garth Celyn, near modern-day Bangor.

 

He spent much of his reign in battle with other Welsh princes in a bid to maintain his supremacy. He had hoped for an an entirely independent kingdom, and did all he could do stay on amicable terms with King John and managed for a time, to make him a more pliant ally than many of his forebears had been.

 

But to consolidate his powerbase, he set about building several stone castles that stretched from North Wales to the southern fringes of Snowdonia. And perhaps the one with the most outstanding and breath-taking views of all, is one Castell y Bere which looks out over the southern flanks of mighty Welsh mountain, the Cadair Idris.

 

As you drive up the mountain passways from the Talyllyn Lake in the Dysynni Valley, you surmise that any would-be invader would certainly have not stumbled across this castle by chance.

 

Perhaps the best defence the fortresses of Llewelyn offered was that they often were hidden high among the mountains and were largely inaccessible.

 

 

Perched precariously on rocky promontories with sheer cliffs protecting their ramparts and walls, what they lacked in showy grandeur, they certainly made up for in other ways. What an enemy couldn't find, he surely couldn't conquer!

 

But try to find Llewelyn his enemies did and they ranged throughout the course of his turbulent reign from his nearest and dearest family through to successive kings of England and noble barons.

 

Perhaps on a par to Richard the Lionheart, from a very young age Llewelyn was keen on war and fighting. He managed to wrest Gwynedd away from his uncles Dafydd and Rhodri ab Owain by the time he was 21 (in 1194).

 

He successively built up his empire from the west of the River Conwy by agreeing various treaties with King John and by taking over various dominions in Wales by force. What he did not conquer outright, he managed to control in part by making lesser Welsh princes swear fealty and allegiance to his throne.

 

And as was the fashion by many Marcher lords at the time, he set about building a series of castles to maintain the boundaries of his kingdom. This was some 60 years before Edward I, the grandson of King John, who built his iron ring of castles in Wales at a cost of some 98,000, which was considered to be a phenomenal amount for the time.

 

Llewelyn's kingdom stretched from his principle residence at Garth Celyn (now Pen y Bryn, Bryn Llewelyn) in between Bangor and Conwy to the southern reaches of Merionydd.

 

Castell y Bere marked this southern flank, and Llwelyn's court would move between his other main castles that were located at Criccieth, Ewloe, Dolwyddelan and Dolbardarn, amongst others.

 

Interestingly, there were said to be 10 cattle farms located at Dolwyddelan, which was said to be located at a strategic point along a mountain pass route.

 

Cattle ranches, to feed his people and armies, were also located here in the shadow of Castell y Bere.

 

 

By Welsh standards, the castle was built on a fairly expansive and grand scale. It had several towers and a fairly large keep and some of the most majestic views in all of Snowdonia and Wales.

 

Dolwyddelan for example was a simple style castle. While Castell y Bere, built after 1221, seems to have more apartments, towers and more impressive defences.

 

As you pass through the gate from the car park up towards the castle and the rocky promontory on which it sits, its sad perhaps to reflect that it barely lasted 73 years, before it was burned and neglected after a Welsh revolt.

 

In its hey day, the castle would have had oranate tiles, stained glass windows and ornate masonry and statues around its grounds. But after 600 years or more of standing empty, there is little left to indicate such a lavish setting.

 

However, once past the last twist in the curving routeway, the remains of the once grand castle entrance come into focus. In its hey-day, a protruding watch tower or barbican would have stood guard over the castle's entrance, and people would gain access to it by a series of timber bridges, and drawbridge, over the deep-cut rock moat. Today, a series of wooden stairways have taken their place.

 

A set of authentic steps have, however, stood the test of time and take people up to the main level of the castle and its buildings.

 

It's quite hard to glean from the ruins what it would have actually looked like in its prime, but fortunately there are some information boards within the castle that help to explain what would have gone where.

 

 

Remains of an sturdy round tower (built to defend the entrance), greet you as you move across the central courtyard in addition to a fairly large well, that is still full of water. Excavations were said to have found some interesting leather and pottery artefacts from the reign of Llewelyn. And various rooms lead off from the central open area up up to the North Tower, which was said to have had two storeys and a chapel residing within it. This directly faces the Cader Idris, and perhaps could be said to have the best of all views.

 

This towers is apsidal or D-shaped so as to enable it to be defended better on the exterior, but allowing more living spense on the interior. It has a sister tower at the southern end, which was added by Edward I when he took the castle by force in 1283. It too mirrors this shape and had separate living apartments.

 

Prior to this though during Llewelyn's reign the Middle Tower, next to the well, was thought to have been the main keep. And ruins of stairs suggest that there was at least another storey to this building.

 

 

It should take people a comfortable 30 minutes to tour all of the site and become acquainted with its overall layout and surprising nooks and crannies.

 

But as you wind your way back down towards the car park, its perhaps heartening to know you have paid homage to this particular monument that still stands as proud testimony to Wales turbulent and troubled past. It is a landmark that few seek out, but perhaps is all the more precious because once discovered you'll want to return to these here parts again, again and again.

 

Now see the slideshow.