Dolgellau and its History
While attempting to write this piece about Dolgellau, I stopped and started several times. It's certainly easy to recount the typical platitudes about the area and a relate a fairly prosaic and mundane account of its recent history. The woollen trade, the tanning industry and agriculture all feature strongly.
However, dig a little deeper and research a little
more, and you start to uncover some startling
and remarkable facts about the area, which take it from the ranks of the
ordinary, in to the realms of the significant and extraordinary; in fact it
soon becomes apparent Dolgellau was a town where many events of great
historical importance were played out.
Perhaps it's time for this area, little known outside of
This rather unassuming and modest parish has been riven by clan warfare, plagues and all types of colourful marauders and scoundrels that would have kept ancient chroniclers extremely active for many a decade.
It is only until relatively recently that high drama,
times of great triumph and then times of great woe have ceased to wash over
this outstandingly captivating area in the southern reaches of the
Perhaps among the most glorious of glory days the area
has ever known were when King Arthur and his knights were said to roam freely
in these parts and held court at the mighty mountain, Cader Idris (also known
as the Seat of Arthur). Ancient scribes
claimed that Arthur's kingdom stretched from south
Because Arthur's story is steeped in mystery and also open to much conjecture, it was also supposed that he did not in fact die on the battlefield, but simply walked off in to the local mountains merely to sleep in a hidden cavern, until he and his knights would one day be called upon to help defeat Britain's most deadly of foes (see link on Welsh Book of Fairy Tales).
Myth and legend have undoubtedly reverberated around
Cader Idris for many a century, and began with the fabled Welsh book of
folklore, The Mabinogion. In this, tales
of a bear-like leader and a warrior king first emerged at the beginning of the
so-called Dark Ages, when the fall of
The White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest tell of the adventures of Arthur and Gwenhywyfar (Guinevere), Cei (Sir Kay), Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere) and Myrddin (Merlin). Initially begun as an oral tradition, these tales weren't actually laid down in written form until the 13th century.
Welsh cleric Nenennius (in 830), however, reveals in
his records that an ancient king (Arthur) actually died at Camlan (then spelt
Camlann) in the year 537. Legend has it
that that he was taken by Welsh bard Taliesin and wizard Merlin to the Isle of
Avalon (considered to be
Sir Geoffrey of Monmouth in 1133 revived the Arthurian
legends in his manuscript the Historia Regum Britanniae. At this time, the notion of the Knights of
the Round Table and Camelot became popular and the quests such as that for the
Holy Grail grew in significance.
Jongleurs or bards from the French court such as Chretien de Troyes also
embroidered the original mythology, and themes such as the 'Sword in the Stone'
were said to originate from around this time. (Arthur was said to have drawn a
sword from a stone or anvil at a young age.
Only the king who could unite all of
Among the more contemporary scribes about the mighty ancient king was Victorian poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, who interestingly was a regular visitor to Snowdonia along with many others in the Romantic Movement such as William Wordsworth and Robert Southey. Tennyson's great classic, The Lady of Shallott is one of the most famous pieces of prose that speculates about life during the time of Arthur and his court. People could certainly find no better place to read such a poem on a hazy summer day by the banks of the River Mawddach - one of the major rivers that courses around Dolgellau.
(An excerpt from The Lady of Shallott - by Tennyson)
"On either side the river lie,
Long fields of barley and of rye,
That clothe the wold and meet the sky;
And thro' the field the road runs by
To many-tower'd Camelot;
And up and down the people go,
Gazing where the lilies blow,
Round an island there below,
Willows whiten, aspens quiver,
Little breezes dusk and shiver,
Thro' the wave that runs for ever,
By the island in the river,
Flowing down to Camelot.
Four grey walls, and four grey towers,
Overlook a space of flowers,
And the silent
The Lady of Shallott.
In the above verse, a highly evocative picture is painted of an idyllic Arthurian citadel of Camelot.
Could the lands surrounding Cader Idris have ever been
such a place? It is really hard to know for sure. And many other areas throughout
But the distinctive beauty of Cader Idris, its supposed bottomless lakes, steeply curving peaks and forest glades could well have been the actual backdrop and setting to the turbulent years of this Dark Ages' warlord's reign. (To find out more about Arthur, people can visit local attraction, Arthur's Labyrinth at Corris, off the A487 between Dolgellau and Machynlleth. To ring them call: 01654 761548 or to visit the official website go to: www.kingarthurslabyrinth.com).
Indeed, it is worth speculating that because Arthur's kingdom was supposedly so vast, that the many places that do lay claim to his tenure were in fact very much primary forts or cities that he established to maintain his supremacy. It is perhaps foolish to consider he only ever founded one city and stayed there for the most of his reign. It is more than likely his court would go on progress to different regions, and again it would be hard to state which of these would have been the most favoured.
Further clues that Arthur may indeed have been a real
figure and not just a character of myth and legend can actually be found close
to Dolgellau. The small
Records state that around 500 AD he set up a monastery
at Llantwit Major in Glamorgan, and set about spreading Christianity throughout
In Welsh, his name is St Illtyd and he, or one of his
disciples, was said to have created a church which grew into the hamlet of
Llanelltyd a few miles outside of Dolgellau.
Locals like to believe that St Illtyd or Sir Galahad actually had a
vision of angels and the Holy Grail (the cup that Christ and his disciples drank
from at the Last Supper) near the church that bears his name. He apparently, so the story goes, was in
search for the gateway to heaven on earth or the spiritual city and residing
place of saints, Ynys Enlli. If he found
the Grail, allegedly brought to
Now back to some more poetry: Welsh historian TP Ellis liked to suppose that poet and great admirer of Snowdonia, Alfred Lord Tennyson, used this area as inspiration for his own poem about Sir Galahad and his quest for all things godly.
(Excerpt from Sir Galahad - by Tennyson)
"...Sometimes on lonely mountain-meres
I find a magic bark;
I leap on board; no helmsman steers;
I float till all is dark.
A gentle sound, an awful light!
Three angels bear the holy Grail:
With folded feet, in stoles of white,
On sleeping wings they sail.
Ah, blessed vision! blood of God!
My spirit beats her mortal bars,
As down dark tides the glory slides,
And star-like mingles with the stars..."
And indeed many Christian leaders have flocked to the area in a bid to find 'the promised land'. About 1000 years after the time of Arthur and Galahad, celebrated Quaker preacher, George Fox, believed he had found paradise on earth near Dolgellau 'in this valley of perfect beauty'.
Again, Welsh historian TP Ellis recalls that Fox came
down from Machynlleth over the Bwlch Goch and looked down on the
From 1657 to 1837, there was a sizeable community of
Quakers locally. One of their famous
compatriots was Rowland Ellis, a farmer who set out for
As in everything, just as there were many saintly and goodly people with strong ties to Dolgellau and the surrounding lands, it also saw its fair share of sinners pass through its precincts, often leaving death and destruction in their wake.
Before Dolgellau was even officially established as a serf village some time in the 12th century, this area was the domain of warring clan chiefs. Raiding parties, vendettas and petty disputes were commonplace, and were perhaps all the more disturbing because most of them were related.
From the time of Sir Galahad until the rise of the Tudors and the establishment of Dolgellau as a free village, there were constant battles and a shifting of the local power base. Up until the 10th century, there was relative stability throughout the region due to the supremacy of Sir Galahad's cousin Merion and his descendents.
But this was shortly to change with Scandanavian
invaders and William the Conqueror's forces battling to gain a foothold in
Just as Dolgellau had begun to flourish as a village, for example, chieftains Owain and Madog attempted to unseat the ruling lord, Uchtryd. Houses and corn were burnt and cattle were slain according to historical records. Uchtryd himself was the brother in law of Cadwgan who was in fact the overall ruler of these lands and who had granted him a role as a subordinate leader.
Not content with this power base, Uchtryd himself
wanted to free himself from the shackles of Cadwgan. His attempts to do so, so enraged his nephew
Einion, that he ransacked Uchtryd's castle and drove him into the hands of the
Many of the people who originally made up the inhabitants of Dolgellau were themselves 'the spoils' of raiding parties or wars (English and Irish). As serfs they were tied to the land and had to cultivate it in return for the right to grow their own food, and for the protection of their ruler.
Free people belonged to the clans and were mainly herders, hunters and gatherers and set up homesteads throughout the surrounding hills and mountains.
In spite of the warring factions among its own
Edward 1st was perhaps one of the most successful
conquerors and built an iron ring of castles from Harlech to Conwy to safeguard
his newly acquired lands. He wanted Llewellyn, the last great prince of Wales,
to swear allegiance to him. However,
Llewellyn was anything but willing to be a loyal satellite state to
It wasn't until Owain Glyndwr attempted to wrest power
away from the English in the early 1400s that
Parliament House Dolgellau
His power base was centred around Machynlleth and
Dolgellau where he held his councils and parliament. (Visitors to the area
today can take a tour of the parliamentary building at Heol Maengwyn, about 300
yds from the centre of Machynlleth. Tel: 01654 702827). Despite taking
Life during the Middle Ages and Reformation in and around Dolgellau was very far removed from the peaceful and tranquil town that it is today. Bordered by some of the most spectacular and impressive mountains throughout Snowdonia such as the Rhinogydd, Y Lethyr and Cader Idris to name but a few, it's easy to escape the crowds and delight in solitary walks among the mountain pastures and meandering forest trails.
Religious orders also sought out the solitude of the area and were eager to follow in the footsteps of St IIlytyd. Cistercian monks came to settle and create Cymmer Abbey close to the town, and the ruins of that can currently still be seen (Visitors' Note: Just outside Llanelltyd are the ruins of Cymmer abbey, 1.5 miles North West of Dolgellau). Their good intentions to teach the local people new ploughing methods and pass on to them new craft skills were often marred by the acts of other outlaws and ne'er-do-well factions that also made Dolgellau and the surrounding area their home.
There was no continuous rule or particular law and order, until the Tudors came to power. The area was a wild and untamed wilderness for the most part, and the people's temperament and character seemed to be shaped by the geography of the area in which they roamed.
Perhaps those wanting to gain a useful insight in to just how life was lived during these days could turn to the recently televised series of Robin of Sherwood (shown on ITV3). Although set in Merry Olde Englande, many of the supposed fantastical problems posed by fighting monks and ruthless cut-throats in the ITV series were really faced by the people who lived in the area.
As in Robin of Sherwood, starring actor Michael Praed, a band of fighting monks, the Knights Hospitallers settled near Dinas Maddwy, several miles from Dolgellau. Known for their brutal crushing of the Saracens in the crusades, they answered to no-one but the Pope and were free from local and national jurisdiction.
The knights were originally founded by Benedictine
At Gwanas Grange, they supposedly established, with permission of the last of the great Welsh princes, Llewellyn, a military enclave that was to have been run on fiercely Christian principles. But according to Welsh historian, T P Ellis, they were 'a veritable nuisance' and were a draw to all outlaws and bandits who they used to prey upon the poor unfortunates living close by.
In the Knights of Acre episode, it was actually the
Knights Templar, a similar order to the hospitallers, who came to Sherwood.
Established slightly later, after the First Crusade, in 1096 their role was to
also safeguard the passage of pilgrims to
In Robin of Sherwood, they were eager to kill the eponymous hero's brother Much, because they believed he had stolen their golden crest. Without it, so the story went, they would be thrown out of their order. Of course, he was wrongly suspected, and it found its way in to the hands of the evil Sheriff of Nottingham (played by Nikolas Grace).
Happy to let Robin and his band be the chief suspects, the sheriff hoped the knights would see off Robin and his band of 'wolfsheads' once and for all for their supposed treachery. Needless to say, after various intrigues and swordfights, the truth is uncovered and Robin and his Merry Men save the day and emerge victorious.
However, it's worth noting that the scale of fighting and swordsmanship shown was not, it would seem, just the wild excesses of the writer's and director's collective imagination. As far as Welsh people of the time were concerned, it was an integral part of their way of life - depending on which band of foreign invaders or warring clansmen deigned to descend on them next.
And perhaps, we should leave the marauders behind and move on to more peaceful times. But before we do, it's worth mentioning the Red Brigands - so called because of their flaming red hair. (If you're wondering what happened to the Knights Hospitallers, they were subdued by invading English King, Edward 1st).
It was said that people of the time were so eager to bring the brigands to book that they left scythes in their chimney stacks in a bid to deter them from sneaking stealthily into their homes at night. They were, so chronicles of the time say, a veritable band of liars, cheats and thieves.
When they weren't rustling cattle or trading in
smuggled goods, they would demand money with menaces from locals. Their wild and free ways were cut short in
the time of the Tudors, who sort to introduce some sort of law and order
throughout the whole of
Queen Mary commanded Dolgellau-based Baron Owen to wipe out the brigands once and for all. And in a show of spectacular brutality, typical of the period, around 100 of them between the ages of eight to 80 were rounded up and hung without mercy.
However, the red-haired womenfolk were to have their
revenge. Years later, the baron sent his son to study law in
So ferocious were they in their ambush at Mallwyd (several miles outside Dolgellau and further south of their home range at Dinas Mawddwy), that the Baron's entourage fled and the baron and his son were taken hostage and led to Dinas Mawddwy. An old woman was brought out of a hut and so the story goes skinned the baron's son alive. Then she wiped the blood over the baron's face and then plunged a dagger deep into his belly. She triumphantly declared that the deaths of their menfolk had at last been avenged.
Times of Prosperity
The years of the Tudor monarchs saw times of relative peace and prosperity come to Dolgellau and the surrounding towns and villages. All men were now declared free and serfdom was totally abolished. However, landowners were now at liberty to rent out their meadows and pastures to their former peasant bondsmen and women. Farming, particularly that of sheep and livestock, was to become an essential part of Dolgellau's whole economy, and grew in to such a mammoth industry that by the 18th and 19th centuries, the town's woollen trade was said to be worth around £100,000 per year.
Local historian TP Ellis further explained in his short history of the area: "As a rule, the wool was sold in its rough unbleached state and sent elsewhere for bleaching and fulling. About 1780 fulling mills were established in the neighbourhood which accounts for so many 'pandys' in the vicinity- and it became customary to hang the products for bleaching on woollen trellises or 'tenters', as they were called, which were a common feature of the countryside."
"The great inland market for Dolgellau was
"It dawned on them at last that, though the barrel of the cylinder might be a yard in circumference, the last revolution thanks to the rolls of flannel already wound on it, might be made up of as many as two or even three yards.
"When the Welsh sellers discovered this fact, they rose in wrath, destroyed the cylinder, sacked the market and a part of the town, and I fear killed quite a number of the Shrewsbury buyers - who were carrying on trade along the lines of the approved commercial morality of the time."
These contretemps aside, Welsh wool and that of
Dolgellau was in worldwide demand and wool was regularly shipped across the
Atlantic from Liverpool to
But as the old adage goes: 'all good things must come to an end.' And a rather sad and depressing end it was too for the Dolgellau woollen trade. Essentially a cottage industry, mechanised looms put many of the townspeople and outlying villagers out of business. With the onset of the Napoleonic wars and subsequent blockades, trade never fully recovered, and it virtually died out in the latter parts of the 19th century.
However, despite many being on the poor list and times
of hardship for a great number of people, some recompense was found in the way
of a minor gold rush in the late 19th century, similar to that of the Klondike
Many gold panners and miners hoped to strike it rich in the hills and mountains of the Coed-y-Brenin. Some managed to make their fortune, but generally, there was not great amounts of this precious metal to be had.
Perhaps one of the biggest industries that Dolgellau has developed today is that of tourism. In the 19th century poets such as Tennyson, Wordsworth and Gerard Manley Hopkins were great admirers of Snowdonia and were regular visitors to this particular part.
It became popular to take tours of
And of his stay at Penmaenpool, a few miles outside Dolgellau, Victorian poet, Manley Hopkins wrote the following:
(Excerpt from visitors' book at local inn)
Who long for rest, who look for pleasure
Away from counter, court or school
O where live well your lease of leisure
But here at, here at Penmaen Pool?
What's yonder? - Grizzled Dyphwys dim:
The triple-hummocked Giant's stool,
Hoar messmate, hobs and nobs with him
To halve the bowl of Penmaen Pool.
And all the landscape under survey,
At tranquil turns, by nature's rule,
Rides repeated topsyturvy
In frank, in fairy Penmaen Pool.
And Charles's Wain, the wondrous seven,
And sheep-flock clouds like worlds of wool,
For all they shine so, high in heaven,
Shew brighter shaken in Penmaen Pool.
The Mawddach, how she trips! though throttled
If floodtide teeming thrills her full,
and mazy sands all water-wattled
Waylay her at ebb, past Penmaen Pool.
Indeed those longing for rest or looking for pleasure would assuredly have their needs fulfilled at Dolgellau and of course Penmaenpool.
So now to explore a little what the Dolgellau is like today: with a labyrinth of listed buildings that are picture-postcard-perfect in appearance, this pretty little town has a fascinating history, as alluded to before.
Many of the grey dolerite structures also have their own unique tales to tell and these have been diligently chronicled by local history society, the Dolgellau Civic Trust (To find out more or to follow a town trail, click on this link: Dolgellau Town Trail). The ghosts of the past certainly whisper and echo around the winding and bustling streets.
Take away the cars, buses and trappings of the 21st century and you could easily be transported back to the 18th century when Dolgellau's fortunes were at its height. Indeed several times a month there are market days when farmers converge on the town. With chattering in Welsh and English, many deals are struck as hapless sheep and cows trade hands and ponder whether its pastures new or the pot that beckons.
Welsh is certainly the lingua franca and visitors may want to brush up on a few Welsh words before they arrive so they can converse easily with the locals (Bore da is Good Day and Diolch is Thank You). Most of course do speak English.
Perhaps the area's biggest draw is its scenery. Dolgellau has a more than enviable location in the heart of southern Snowdonia and offers visitors breath-taking views in which ever direction they look. From the imposing mountainous terrain of the Cader Idris on one side to the lush green woodlands of the Coed-y-Brenin, there is undoubtedly much that would provoke feelings of great awe in the average onlooker or by-stander.
Tourism has certainly become one of the town's major
growth industries and strengths. And you
will often find walkers resting in the main square (
Dolgellau, however, is not just a haven for outdoors enthusiasts. There are plenty of little nooks and crannies to delight contemporary shoppers such as local galleries, museums and craft and souvenir shops.
There is really nothing more appealing than traipsing around the winding streets while deciding on which cafe or cake shop should have your custom; or indeed taking the time to mull over the choice of traditional-style public houses that would perhaps be worth a visit.
Reportedly the 'best cappuccino in Dolgellau' can be
had at Dylanwad Da restaurant on
And for those in need of something more filling or for
some of the best traditional, fast food in town, they could do no better than
to make a trip to the Fish & Chip
There are a few local high street names such as Somerfield, the Co-op and Boots in the town. And you may often be standing at the check-out with a few of the local nuns from the Carmelite Convent, which is located off the road that leads to Cader Idris. Mass is held every day for the general public (both Catholic and non-Catholic). The sisters will also dedicate their prayers towards particular people/causes on request.
Moreover, the area's star is certainly in the ascendancy; and, if proof were needed, then the success of its local rock and folk festival bears testimony to its rising popularity (held in July each year - check Events section for details). Televised on S4C, Sesiwn Fawr has grown from humble beginnings into a major, multi-stage event, with acts such as The Dubliners and US rock guru, Steve Earle among the main attractions.
Dolgellau has also begun to gain greater recognition
So what's there to do at night? Well, there are certainly no thumping night clubs or rowdy wine bars to deaden the senses. It's perhaps the area surrounding Dolgellau where the real fun can be had. If one of the town's restaurants or pubs don't satisfy your needs, then party animals can make merry by having a picnic or barbecue within the stunning setting of the local mountains or forests of pine. Or indeed watching the sun set on the fading blue horizon on any of the nearby beaches is another possible, tempting option. It's all here, just waiting to be discovered, in 'the valley of perfect beauty' and beyond.
Places to visit summary
Arthur's Labyrinth, Corris
To find out more about the life and times of King Arthur, people can visit local attraction, Arthur's Labyrinth at Corris, off the A487 between Dolgellau and Machynlleth. Tel: 01654 761548.
Visit the church dedicated to Sir Galahad or St Illtyd
at the small
Quaker Heritage Centre, Dolgellau
Exhibitions and displays about the impact the Quakers
had on Dolgellau from the 1600s to the 1800s can be found at the Quaker
Heritage centre, Ty Meirion,
Owain Glyndwr's Parliament House, Machynlleth
Owain Glyndwr's Parliament House offers an in-depth insight in to the life and times of the famous Welsh rebel leader. The present building is in fact built on the site of the original parliament building and is said to contain remnants of the earlier edifice. The one in Dolgellau is unfortunately no longer standing. In Machynlleth, the parliament site is at Heol Maengwyn at 300 yards from the town's centre. Tel: 01654 702827 or go to: www.visitmidwales.co.uk
Cymer Abbey, Llanelltyd
The ruins of the abovenamed abbey are well worth a visit. Situated 1.5 miles North West of Dolgellau, the abbey was founded by Cistercian monks in 1198, and was suppressed before the Reformation fully came in to force.
Tyn-y-Groes public house, Ganllywd
About 5 miles outside Dolgellau and about 10 miles from Glyn-yr-Aur by car, this former coach house which dates back to the 17th century, was a favourite haunt of one William Ewart Gladstone (former Victorian prime minister).
Ty Siamas folk music centre, Eldon Square, Dolgellau
New venue dedicated to folk music. Promises calendar of music events, and offers folk artists a public platform for their music, in addition to rehearsal and recording facilities. For more details go to www.tysiamas.com.