I guess it's fair to say that the reputation of Dinas Emrys precedes it somewhat..... a state of affairs that, I have to admit, has been known to depreciate the potential value of a site in my eyes in the past. Not a laudable behavioural trait, perhaps, but I reckon there are worse idiosyncrasies out there. Anyway, I reckon I duly absolved myself of any accusations of elitism courtesy of last year's comic failure to ascend the right crag, an error compounded by a subsequent screening of 'Merlin' on TV. Never mind. As Adam Ant once said, 'ridicule is nothing to be scared of'. Only the failure to try and correct an error when it is in your power to do so.
So, what's in a name? Why are the (relatively) fragmentary remnants of this Iron Age hill fort, overlain with later medieval castle, accorded such a prominent place in Welsh lore? I mean it's not as if Merlin actually existed, any more so than Ms Rowling's bespectacled, mop-haired muppet? Well, for what it's worth.. it seems to me that in an age before the dubious 'delights' of mass communication and TV, power politics was nevertheless still utterly dependent upon the ordinary peasant being sold a good story, one complete with iconic sets and characters. Needless to say, then as now, it didn't have to be true! Add a widespread belief in the supernatural into the mix and this crag, magnificently set beneath Yr Wyddfa at the very heart of Gwynedd's 'natural fortress', was just about the perfect location to stage your 'battle of the dragons' clash of cultures, the analogous bout naturally foretold by that man Merlin. Powerful realpolitik indeed. Wouldn't have had the same impact if Harry Hill had said 'So which dragon is best? Red or White. There's only one way to find out. Fight!'.......
Hmm. How can any site possibly live up to all that? Seems an impossibility. But you know what? I reckon Dinas Emrys carries it off. As per last year (ahem) I approach via the way-marked path from Craflwyn Hall, the scenery very pleasant, bordering upon the exquisite where the Afon-y-cwm, crossed by a 'clapper bridge', cascades down from the rocky heights of Yr Aran (incidentally a lovely peak, that). The legendary fortress rises more or less due east, the final, rocky ascent by way of a narrow, wooded ridge from the north-east. Llyn Dinas lies resplendent in Nantgwynant far below, the classic, achingly evocative scene framed by autumnal vegetation of a hue somewhere between pink and brown... don't think it's got a name. The colour, that is. The Snowdon massif towers above to the north, the summits obscured by the almost obligatory cloud mantle. Continuing to the west I encounter the rectangular footings of the apparently medieval great tower and, beyond again, three lines of drystone rampart. Ok, these are much denuded, but are nevertheless a lot more substantial than I expected. Indeed it would appear the main approach to the enclosure was here to the west, the defences thus aligned to cover the 'easiest' approach. Easiest? Yeah, right.
The north-western outlook has another prize in the form of a wondrous vista toward Beddgelert, the Bronze Age skyline of Moel Hebog looming above all through a grey mass of vapour. Also worthy of note is the nearby hill fort of Dinas.... standing aloof and displaying a far more precise geometric profile than its illustrious eastern neighbour. Wandering to the southern edge of the crag I gaze down at the fast-flowing Afon Glaslyn, sourced immediately beneath Yr Wyddfa itself, and ponder that it would be difficult to imagine, let alone visit, a more strategically placed fortress than Dinas Emrys? Yeah, the pieces are falling into place.
The onset of darkness beckons so I decide I'd better be off. One can not be too careful, what with all these legends hanging in the air. For example it seems that the site has also been known as the 'Hill of the Flaming King', perhaps a reference to a solar cult? Needless to say the Celts were not adverse to a touch of sun worship. Clearly Dinas Emrys has played a fundamental part in shaping how this nation and its people view themselves. After (finally) coming here to experience it for myself.... I can understand why.
Recently Country Walking magazine had a featured walk to this site, I thought it was only accessible through permission of the Craflwyn NT warden, I contacted him and he assured me it is still only really allowed through their consent. So slapped wrists Country Walking!
Heading into Snowdonia the weather steadily got worse, flooded roads, wind and rain coming in sideways, but a day off work is a day off work and we were here now so on with the waterproofs. The big rock with the hillfort sits right next to the road and parking place, the easy way up is through the entrance on the north west corner.
The weather was rediculous so we didnt hang about, one circuit around the fort and a quick inspection of the medieval tower and we were out of there. On the way in we had just missed the entrance and didn't pick it up till we were leaving, just outside of the fort there is a very worn zig zag road/path leading to and from the entrance. On a clear day a perfect place to be with Snowdon and its near neighbours so very close.
Between Dinas Emrys and Llyn Dinas you can still see a building called 'Beudy Bedd-Owen', referring to the grave of Owen. From a document of Edward Llwyd's, Celtic Folklore, Welsh and Manx (1901) says..
that is to say, 'Owen son of Maxen.' Owen had been fighting with a giant - whose name local tradition takes for granted - with balls of steel; and there are depressions (panylau) still to be seen in the ground where each of the combatants took his stand. Some, however, will have it that it was with bows and arrows they fought, and that the hollows are the places they dug to defend themselves. The result was that both died at the close of the conflict; and Owen, being asked where he wished to be buried, ordered an arrow to be shot into the air and his grave to be made where it fell.
Near Dinas Emrys, Owain ap Macsen fought with a giant. As they were equal in fighting with tree trunks, Owain leapt up a hill on the other side of the river and cast a stone which fell at the feet of the giant, who cast it back. They then tried wrestling. Owain became enraged, threw down the giant, who shattered a huge stone in the fall and a piece entering his back, he was killed. In dying he crushed Owain to death.
From T Gwynn Jones's "Welsh Folklore and Folk Custom" (1930), from a Welsh 1875 source.
Local lore adds more about Merlin. He stayed on for a while after Vortigern left. When he left himself he filled a golden cauldron with treasure and hid it in a cave, blocking the entrance with a stone and a heap of earth. The treasure is intended for one particular person, a youth with blue eyes and yellow hair. When he approaches, a bell will ring and the cave will unblock itself. Other treasure seekers have been repulsed by storms and sinister omens.
p89 in Geoffrey Ashe's 'The Landscape of King Arthur' (1987).
Dinas Emrys is a small hill-fort in the valley of Nant Gwynant. It is thought to be originally Iron Age, but was reused many times since.
Nennius wrote about some of the happenings at the fort (with his usual embroiderings). You can read a translation of the original at the Internet Medieval Sourcebook - this is rather a precis.
Vortigern had a bit of an embarrassing episode in which he had a child with his own daughter. His advisors told him it might be best to find a nice quiet place in the country and build a secure fort there. Vortigern found an ideal site at Dinas Emrys and arranged for builders and carpenters to start work. However, after the building materials were delivered, they mysteriously disappeared during the night. This happened three times.
The advisors were called in again - what was going on? Apparently it wasn't the neighbours stealing stuff - what Vortigern actually needed was to find a boy born without a father, and then to sprinkle the foundation stones with the child's blood. Despite already having a poor reputation Vortigern didn't seem to see anything wrong with this and sent his men out to search for such a boy - and eventually they found one (his mother claimed that she had never slept with a man).
The boy was brought back to the king. Unimpressed by the sound of his fate he showed Vortigern the true source of his problems. Under a pavement lay a pool - and in the pool a vase containing a tent. In the tent were two dragons, one red and one white. They began to fight. The white one seemed to be winning, but then the red one prevailed and the white was driven from the tent. The boy explained the scene - it represented how the Welsh would eventually recover their lands from the Saxons.
He added that the citidel was actually destined for himself, and that Vortigern would have to go elsewhere. Which he did. The boy's name was Ambrose (Emrys in Welsh, and this bit could be a fudge to fit other stories) - later known as Merlin.
Note that there is currently (Oct 2012) official access to the site through NT's Craflwyn Hall. Punters should follow a waymarked footpath - beautiful, it has to be said, complete with waterfall.
It should be simple enough. Needless to say, however, I first diverted to the wooded hill to the north-east in search of views of Llyn Dinas (and, in truth, somewhat disorientated within the wood) and subsequently got completely carried away by the wonder of it all as the sun came streaming through the cloud base. Seeing my mistake, the hill fort rising opposite through the trees, I then concluded I didn't have enough time before dark to do the site justice. I will therefore return some other time. Classic scenery, this.
Dinas Emrys is a very fragile and vulnerable site, owned and managed by the National Trust. Visitors are strongly advised to contact the warden at Craflwyn beforehand on 01766 890659, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.