Penmachno to Dolwyddelan: a walk on the wild side

Dragons have been officially extinct for aeons, except perhaps in the realms and outermost reaches of those with an imagination that is especially vivid.

In Wales not so dim and distant past, however, these supposed mythical creatures were very much alive, and an integral part of this country's history, heritage and culture.

The principality's very own flag, Y Ddraig Goch (literally meaning the Red Dragon) is perhaps today a potent reminder of a long-standing fascination with these fire-breathing, demonic-style behemoths.

Imported after the 1st century invasion by Rome, dragons reportedly flourished as classical tales, and their emblematic insignia were absorbed into every day life and folklore.

They became particularly significant in the Dark Ages when legendary wizard Merlin told of two such beasts that were, he said, inauspicious omens of decidedly turbulent and troubled times to come.

Merlin, who was a principal architect of King Arthur's court, was said to have been born in mysterious circumstances to a Welsh princess of the royal House of Dyfed.

Supposedly the illigetimate son of King Meurig ap Maredydd ap Rhain of Ceredigion, it was claimed, as a face-saving measure, that he was in fact the child of an incubus or devilish spirit.

However, he was baptised before the darker side of his nature could fully develop, so the chroniclers of the time suppose. But in spite of this, amazing supernatural powers stayed with him, especially an ability to predict future events.

It seemed his life would be brutally cut short when he fell in to the clutches of ruthless Celtic king, Vortigern, who was the Celtic leader after the Roman departure from Britain (end of the 4th century AD).

The king was advised by wizards, skilled in the black arts, that the only way to prevent his fortress' continual subsidence and collapse (at Dinas Emrys in Snowdonia) was to sacrifice a fatherless child to the gods.

It seemed Merlin would undoubtedly perish, as he was put forward for the said savage and brutal rites. However, his magical powers literally saved his hide. As he threw himself at the mercy of the king, he claimed he knew how to reverse the castle's structural problems.

He revealed to Vortigern that two dragons were at war beneath the castle in a sub-terranean pool, and were causing all the devastating ructions.

One red, represented the indigenous British peoples, while his white combatant signified the invading germanic tribes that, were at that time, expanding their invasive tendrils across the very lands of the Britons.

He foretold that the red dragon would be driven back by the white dragon at first, but then the red dragon would eventually regain its footing and reign triumphant and supreme. A new Welsh leader, Y Mab Darogan, was to then, Merlin said, unite all of England and Wales. It's thought that Henry VII (Henry Tudor) fulfilled this prophecy in the 15th century. He originally came from Pembrokeshire.

Merlin also foresaw that, Vortigern would soon perish, followed in quick succession by others, until the glorious rise of a great king or war leader, called Arthur. He was, Merlin said, to be pivotal in bringing the Saxon invasion and onslaught to a grinding and juddering halt. (In a bid to save his castle, Vortigern was advised to dig up the dragons!)

In these lawless times, it seemed people were forever wary of warring factions, be they outside invaders or British kings and princes. However, perhaps the most feared of all were the gruesome monsters and creatures that were said to walk side by side with man at this time, and hailed from the grisly paranormal dimensions.

On this forthcoming walk, it was said that people took their very life into their own hands if they dared follow a track around the Valley of the Gwyber (now called the Wybrnant Valley in memory of this troublesome beast).

Fiercely evil, the Gwyber was a flying snake or dragon that had a particular appetite, for humans, animals and livestock.

It was never more happy than when it left a trail of destruction in its wake, or when it wasn't sticking its venomous fangs into an unsuspecting local villager.

Said to be the only one of its kind in Britain at that time, a reward was put up for its capture and destruction.

Young Owen ap Gruffydd, who lived in the nearby mountains, felt he was equal to the challenge of seeking out the dragon and bringing about its utter annihilation and demise.

Before embarking on his perilous mission, however, he sought out the advice of local wiseman and fortune teller, Rhys Ddewin.

Rhys did not have anything other than dire warnings for Owen, and told him that he would be unlikely to succeed and that the Gwyber would bite him in a frenzied attack.

Unbowed, Owen decided to test the old man again, and put on a disguise and asked him again to give a frank opinion about his likely chances of success.

The seer once more had nothing but tales of doom, and said uneqivocally that if he engaged the Gwyber in battle, he would die of a broken neck.

Concerned at such tidings, he decided to test the clairvoyant's skills one final time, and dressed up as a miller to see what he would say about his planned quest.

When it turned out, he said he was to die by drowning, Owen could contain his resentment and anger no more. He threw off his disguise and asked how he could be given three completely competing and contradictory set of predictions.

Rhys could only nod his head and say that his visions would indeed come to pass.

Nevertheless Owen was still determined to find the Gwyber, kill it and claim the handsome reward as his own.

So the next day, he set out to track down and vanquish it once and for all, and was in the process of searching along a rocky ledge at the side of the valley. Out of nowhere the flying viper descended from the skies and started to attack him and attempted to kill him outright.

It slashed and bit him about the shoulders, causing him to plunge backwards sharply and hit the rocks with his head. The powerful impact saw is neck break in two, and he plummeted further down the valley floor in to the shimmering waters below.

His friends heard of his untimely passing, and set out to destroy the Gwyber and avenge his calamitous death. They found it asleep near the riverbank, and fired a volley of arrows while it writhed and let out a series of piercing screeches and screams. It fell into the river, and was never heard of or seen again.

As the Dark Ages passed, and more enlightened times follows, the stories of beasts and malevolent beings began to evaporate and seriously decline.

Religion became the new all-conquering force and main focus of the people - and perhaps never more so than through the influence and tireless works of another famous resident of these here parts, one Bishop William Morgan.

Said to be the first translator of the whole of the Bible in to Welsh, he allowed indigenous people to read the Good Book in their native tongue for the first time ever.

The site on which he was born and raised, is now a permanent shrine to his memory and his upheld and maintained by the National Trust.

The often sun-speckled cottage of Ty Mawr is open to the public on most afternoons throughout the year, and has an inspiring collection of Bibles from around the world including some of Bishop Morgan's original translations.

Bishop William Morgan

When Britain was a devoutly Catholic nation, it was considered heretical that ordinary people should have a Bible of their own.

The word of God was only ever to be revealed to the people via the pulpit and through an ordained minister or priest, on pain of death. And to actually translate it from the Latin into everday English was thinking the unthinkable for the power mongers in the upper echelons of the Church.

However, what was once considered inifinitely dangerous to people's immortal souls is now permissable throughout the British Isles, and people can read the word of God in whatever language they so choose. It's perhaps a sign of our times,that many today are largely ignorant of the Bible, or rarely open a page, and yet perhaps they should pause and consider that many were matyred or pilloried for just such a cause in the not so distant past.

Common Bible ownership and other such reforms came in with the Protestant Reformation that swept Britain through the collective reigns of the Tudor dynasty (albeit temporarily arrested with the ascension of devout Catholic, Mary I to the throne).

And when times were more favourable, Wales was also permitted to set about having a translation of its own.

Bishop William Morgan was among the first translators who set to work to give local people a Bible in ordinary, everyday Welsh.

Born and raised at Ty Mawr from 1545 onwards, he was educated it's thought at Gwydir Castle alongside the children of local landowners and nobility, the Wynn family.

A naturally bright and ambitious student, he secured a place at St John's College Cambridge, where he studied a multitude of subjects, including mathematics, philosophy and Greek.

He took up his first appointment as a minister in 1572 at Llanbadarn Fawr, while at the same time embarking upon lengthy studies of original Biblical texts.

He wanted to continue the work of William Salesbury who in 1567 produced a Welsh translation of the Bible's New Testament.

However,Morgan believed the Old Testament should also accompany this tome, and he set about working on translations from the original Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek. His completed version was published to much critical acclaim in 1588, and is still among the standard Welsh Bibles still in use today.

For over 13 years until his death, ordinary people in Wales could now read the Bible for themselves at home by the hearth, and not wait for it to be demystyfied by the church. Morgan finished his ecclesiastical career as Bishop of St Asaph from 1601 until 1604 and his death on 10 September.

To begin the walk proper

The walk proper begins at this house, and people can park in the small car park a little away from the property.

What is first so amazing about this area is the beautiful sweeping valley floor that is carpeted on both sides by a mix of pine, spruce and deciduous trees. When there's a clear blue sky, almost swept clean of clouds, this area can said to be almost an unearthly paradise.

To reach the house, people will first need to follow the signs from the village of Penmachno. Then they should follow a single track road through the Gwydir Forest, until they arrive in the car park of the said house.

A forest trackway leads away from the car park and when followed allows people the perfect vantage point from which to view this most tranquil and glorious of valleys.

Hidden away, out of sight, it is truly an amazing find and contains a smattering of cottages and secluded small holdings.

It's perhaps never more uplifting than to set out on a walk with the sun beaming down from above and a fresh breeze about your face. The total sum effect is quite heavenly.

And indeed Bishop Morgan was most fortunate to be born and raised here, and this area would surely have helped him embark on a lifelong and fruitful relationship with the Lord, and at the same time, given him ample evidence and proof of all that is godly.

As you follow the slightly steepening track, a series of wild animals can also be spied in hidden nooks and corners. A heron figure here and fox figure there all add to the area's overall undeniable charm.

The rough, stony trackway is bordered by a untidy mangle of briars, shrubs, ferns and grasses. And precariously stacked layers of logs can be found at sporadic and infrequent intervals.

Wild flowers are typically dotted along the verdant borders, while small rivulets of water trickle delicately down the hillside.

The most perfect view of the entire valley unfolds as you walk further around the trackway. It's a particularly awe-inspiring sight with rolling hills and a lavish sprinkling of trees as far as the eye can see.

For those who don't wish to embark on a fairly adventurous walk, they can just take a circular route around the cottage of Ty Mawr.

However, those keen on a more expansive and challenging trek should keep walking up a narrow, and wilder stretch of hillside. People will pass some tumble-down dry stone walls, and should look out for a small wooden sign marked Dolwyddelan. Keep following this path past some old cottage ruins, until you come to a forestry trackway. Then cross over to the other side of this, and follow the less well defined footpath upwards and onwards towards some heather-clad moors, and some magnificent views of the central peaks and mountains of Snowdonia.

The major leviathan peak directly that should come almost immediately come in to view, is the mighty Moel Siabod. At around 3000 ft in height, it towers over the picturesque village of Dolwyddelan, which was incidentally the birthplace of several royal Welsh princes.

It takes around 30 minutes to catch a glimpse of this pretty mountain village, but the relatively flat terrain before this, makes for a most perfect ramble. People, however, need to be cautious of particularly wet and marshy ground. After rainfall, proper walking boots and waterproofs should be worn.

It's best to aim for the rocky promontories in the centre of the moorland and follow the intermittently marked footpath as best you can.

Then before long, you'll reach a dry stone wall and a style that takes you into some woodland. This follows the valley down towards Dolwyddelan, and you can soon spy the village from the woods end, and can walk entirely towards it, if you have the strength.

However, this writer, turned back and retraced the route, got in the car and checked out the village more thoroughly this way instead.

Basically linear in construction, it has a village shop, inspiring church, pub and an enchanting array of grey-stone buildings. People could perhaps take time out here for a bite to eat, or travel back to the ever-popular outdoors capital of these here parts, one Betws-y-Coed.

However, before people do, it's perhaps best to take in the small, but significant nearby Castle of Dolwyddelan. Located a few miles after the village, it sits comfortably on a rocky outcrop and is perhaps less majestic than its English cousins and counterparts.

English king, Edward I was the most prolific castle builder in all of Wales, and built around 22 castles from Flintshire to Aberystwyth to subdue the native inhabitants (in the 13th century).

However, castle building was a particularly expensive venture and required a significant amount of manpower, which was not necessarily at the disposal of Welsh princes at the time.

But one of the most notable, Prince Llewellyn the Great, tried to rival his English counterparts with several stone-built strongholds of his own. He was born at a now demolished castle near this site, and built this along with several others in and around Gwynedd, such as those at Criccieth and Castell y Bere.

Dolwyddelan was vitally important because it controlled the mountain pass route between northern and sourthern Snowdonia.

It actually was taken over by Edward I in 1283 and became the last Welsh castle held by a Welsh Prince of Wales in living history.

It ceased to be an important centre of power, as Edward I's other castles were established, and they took on greater military and political roles such as those at Caernarvon, Conwy and Harlech.

Dolwyddelan Castle

From the front and the carpark nearest the road, the castle looks remarkably well preserved. And this is perhaps due to the fact that it underwent extensive renovation, thanks to Lord Willoughby de Eresby in the middle of the 19th century.

It consists of a main keep on a fairly large motte or earthen mound, which both hide a significant hinterland of castle remains to the rear.

It's worth walking around the back of the castle to catch a glimpse of its more extensive network of stone ruins, which actually date from around 1220.

The keep's height was actually added to in the 15th century when it was leased to a local nobleman, one Maredudd ap Ieuan.

But its prime function, in its earliest of medieval days, was to serve as a strategic stronghold for one of Wales' best known rulers, Llywelyn the Great. (He was actually born at the site, within the grounds of another castle, which has since been levelled, and the present castle came about in the last 20 years of his reign, once he had consolidated his supremacy within Wales).

When of age, however, he fought his two uncles and wrested power away for them to become the eventual supreme ruler of Gwynedd (with the help of his cousin Gruffyd ap Cynan). But he soon expanded his power base throughout much of Wales, (during his reign from the late 12th century to the middle of the 13th), when he did battle with the Prince of Powys Gwenwynwyn ab Owain.

His actual court was located at Garth Celyn, Aber Garth Celyn now known as Pen y Bryn, Abergwyngregyn. And he perhaps was one of the most notable rulers of a unified Wales up until that point.

He was also a comtemporary of England's King John, and was allowed to take the said king's daughter Joan in marriage in 1205.

When he wasn't battling to maintain the status quo with Welsh princes or Marcher lords, or the sovereign of England, he often had to fight off the advances of those who wished to covet his wife.

Perhaps one of the most interesting anecdotes of this era, was when the 10th Baron of Abergavenny visited Llywelyn to talk of marriage between his daughter Isabella and Llywelyn's heir, Dafydd.

However, unfortunately for the baron, William de Braose, he was found in the bed chamber of Princess Joan, and was hanged on a gibbet until he was dead.

Joan,however, suffered a slightly less damning fate, and was kept under house arrest for a year to do penance. However, interestingly, Llywelyn wrote to Braose's wife, Eva, and asked if her she was still willing for her her daughter to be wed. Suprisingly, she agreed, and the marriage of Isabella and Dafydd soon went ahead.

Indeed in these largely lawless and merciless times, the royal house of Gwynedd soon ceased to exist. Llywelyn's grandson, Llwelyn the Last, would not pay homage to Edward I in the 13th century, he soon lost his throne and his life at Cilmery, mid-Wales - where he was ambushed and slain. Wales did not have much political significance again until the time of the Tudors almost 150 years later. However, in a roundabout way, the supression and invasion of Wales' have also left a lasting legacy of heritage sites, the like of which can be found nowhere else in Britain.

After seeing the castle's ruins and fortifications, people can then either perhaps sample a local inn at the nearby village of Dolwyddelan or go back into Betws y Coed and try one of the many country inns or tearooms in that particular town. Or people could perhaps follow the road northwards to either Conwy or Llandudno and seek out some shops and further restauarants and eateries there.

Directions: Drive to Dolgellau from Glyn-yr-aur, then take the A470 northwards all the way into Betws-y-Coed. Just before the town, turn rightwards on the A5, and then turn rightwards again soon afterwards towards Penmachno, and follow the signs through the forest and woodland to the historic house of Ty Mawr. Park in the nearby car park, and then you're ready to begin the walk. You can check out Dolwyddelan Castle prior to the walk, it's off the A470 just before the village of Dolwyddelan, or you can explore it more fully on the return journey.

Penmachno-Dolwyddelan Slideshow