An Eye full of Reflections (6 of 7)


Apart from its sheer presence in the landscape, the castle at Harlech has a location that is breathtaking – perched high in the elevated centre of the small town, looking back down the valley at a vista that embraces the area of Porthmadog, then slides your eye leftwards to take in the whole of the Lleyn Peninsula.

On our scouting trip in May, we had searched for a location that would meet the needs of the third of our main themes: authority. Our first sight of Harlech Castle decided it. Seen from below – a straight line of a road that runs close to the magnificent beach – it appears that the castle sits on top of the hill with little else around it. In fact, it is in the centre of the town; logical, as the modern town has developed around it from early times.

There are two roads (photo below). One follows the line of the sea, the other climbs a slow and  winding curve through the lush Welsh countryside and enters the town at its heart. Parking is a challenge, but the castle and associated tourist centre offers a small number of places directly adjacent to the castle grounds.

Keeping a party of several cars together on such a trip is always a challenge, though we have all got better at it over the years – to the extent of developing our own ‘protocol’ about who stops if the next car gets out of sight of the rest. It’s a simple thing but it can help to avoid disconnected delays that can easily add up to a cream tea…

How do we react to authority? It depends on many things, including age. As young children, the authority of the caring adult is paramount in the relationship by which that child is moulded to fit into its society. This is seen as necessary, yet robs us of much of our spiritual originality. Most would agree it is essential for the child’s survival and prosperity, even though, beyond the original love of the home, it forms the first great ‘container’ of reactions that eventually create the personality. From there on, that hard container is wrapped around the soul in an increasingly dense way.


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Later in life, and as our personal power grows, we may feel so aggrieved about the society in which we have matured that we literally go to war with in – as the Prisoner did in the McGoohan series. Seen as a superficial spy story, the man was on a hopeless quest, seen as someone reclaiming his spiritual originality, it takes on a quite different shape. McGoohan’s character was at war with himself…

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As a child, holidaying in Wales, and captivated by its beauty, I marvelled at how many castles this ancient race had built to defend themselves, little knowing that this was completely wrong. Most, if not all of the Welsh castles were built by English kings, such as Harlech Castle’s creator, the military and battle-hardened Edward I.

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Their purpose was to provide fortified and administrative outposts for the English ruling class, in a country transformed by 1066 and the Norman conquest. Edward I built Harlech Castle to secure the lands he had won from Llywellyn of Grufford, the Prince of Wales. For two-hundred years after the Norman invasion, there had been continuous wars between the conquering Marcher lords and the Welsh princes. In 1267, the Treaty of Montgomery recognised Llywelyn as Prince of Wales, in return for annual tributes and subservience. Llywelyn later lost most of his power an authority in further skirmishes which cost him all but his title.

When you realise that you are inside a foreign power’s redoubt, the secure and ruthless architecture takes on a different flavour, and there is a sadness that such a proud and folklore-rich race lived under the English yoke in such a bloody way; though it is probably true that the Welsh of that time were as warlike as the English.

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The model above shows how the castle was originally created. Much of it remains, as least as a visitable ruin. The model illustrates that, at the time of its construction, between 1283 and 1289, the castle was next to the sea, whereas today the long line of dunes constitute a barrier of nearly a mile between the lower part of the castle (and the foot of the town) and the coast.

It was the proximity of the sea that made Harlech such an effective fortress. In times of siege, supplies could be brought in by boat directly to the lower jetty, which was highly fortified. Harlech had its own English lifeline…

Our final act within the castle was to climb the spiral stairway of the west tower – something that proved quite a challenge. Breathless, we reached the top, to gaze in wonder at the commanding view it afforded. Very little could be hidden from the eye based here. One might say the same about the way our own governments seem hell-bent on overseeing all our lives, in the name of such ’causes’ as safety and terrorism. Same psychology, different mechanisms.

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Our group had split into two to explore the small town. We reunited at the famous ice-cream shop and were to be found, silent and entranced, sitting outside the shop/cafe in the Welsh sunshine.

Two parts of our Saturday remained. One – the finale – was still unknown by all but two of us; the other followed the castle visit as we gathered on the quiet end of a beach, two miles south of Harlech, to admire the sun, now descending towards the western sea, and shared our final readings of the day.

The day could hardly have gone better… but it was not over, yet…

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——- to be concluded in the final part (7) ——-

Other parts in this series:

Part One,   Part Two,   Part Three,

Part Four,

Part Five

©Stephen Tanham

The Wyrm and the Wyrd: In search of breakfast

We were surprised to find that breakfast would not be forthcoming. While we could, undoubtedly, have booked it separately, it was almost a matter of principle not to do so. I consider it cheating to neither include the meal in the price, nor to signal its omission in big bold letters where you can’t fail to see it when you book. In fact, although their advertisement mentions that they do provide a cooked breakfast, I have yet to find where it says that it is not included… Which all meant that we got a very early start on the day as we did not have to hang around waiting for service. We downed a banana and a coffee apiece, then headed out into the mist instead…and were very glad we had.

We pulled over at the first lay-by to get a picture of the mountains, wreathed in cloud and looking none too promising. I caught the colour as I pulled in and grabbed the camera while we debated whether or not the buzzard would allow us to get out of the car without flying away, seeing as he was right bedside us and watching the idiots in the green tin can. We watched and snapped through open windows then decided to risk it. He let us get out and snap again… then flew off slowly, taking up a perch on the other side of the road.

As we and the bird were all hunting for our breakfast in the Welsh landscape, there was a sense of shared purpose; an understanding of a common quest. It is an entirely different feeling when wild creatures permit you to come so close without fear… far different from the undoubted joy of being able to get closer still to a trained or captive creature. It is as if they are inviting you in to their world… a place of deeper wonders and heightened senses… and it is always both a gift and an honour. So our day began with beauty, joy and excitement.

We took a while to pick out what we could see of the distant mountains, using the identification panel by which we had inadvertently stopped. Snowdon, Yr Wyddfa, was lost behind the veiling mists. Snowdon stands three and a half thousand feet above sea level and means simply ‘snow hill’, but its true name, Yr Wyddfa, means ‘the tumulus’ or ‘the barrow’. Legend has it that a cairn was built over the giant, Rhudda Gawr, after he was defeated by King Arthur. It is a good tale. The giant had defeated two warring armies and had cut off the beards of their kings, Nyniaw and Peibaw, to make himself a cap. Twenty six kings brought their armies against him, but he defeated them all and took their beards as trophies with which to make himself a cloak. He sent a message to Arthur, demanding his beard too, so he could patch a hole in the cloak. Arthur, incensed, sent his refusal and the giant marched against the King intent on victory and the acquisition of another and more prestigious beard. Rhudda Gawr was defeated by the king, who smote him with such a mighty blow that his sword passed straight through the giant’s armour and clove his crown in two. King Arthur ordered that a cairn be raised over the body of the giant that was known as Gwyddfa Rhudda, Rhudda’s Cairn… and centuries later, when the giant’s name was forgotten, Yr Wyddfa.

Pools of pale sunlight were already bathing some of the slopes of the hills. Perhaps, we thought, the mist would dissipate and the clouds lift. It was forecast to be a nice day, for all the moist grisaille with which we were surrounded. We could only wait and see, accepting the moment and the gifts that it brought; knowing too that the magical watercolour landscape before us was changing, minute by minute with the dance of light and shade. Once the sun broke through it would be a place of brighter hues and harder edges…and had we stayed from breakfast, we would never have seen this transient beauty or the wings of the morning.

We were not meeting our companions until ten o’clock when, we were told, our first stop of the day would open. We found the place by accident as we followed our noses, noting that in fact, it opened earlier than that. Still, we were after food and, early as it was, somewhere had to be open… We continued along the main road, certain of success, until we realised that anything that would be doing food, wasn’t yet. Not that we minded too much. Turning away from the main road, we headed up to Ffestiniog through some glorious countryside, trying to ignore the ugly scarring of the quarries and mines that have given the area its difficult, underpaid and often dangerous livelihood for so long. There seemed such a stark contrast though, between the modern and the ancient mines, where we had looked in wonder at how man can work with Nature to harvest her wealth. Efficiency and productivity have long since erased respect for the earth from those who seek only profit, but as many of my own family were once miners, I know that the men who work the stones and tunnels still have a healthy respect for the earth.

Abandoning our search for sustenance in the hills and villages, we crossed the estuary and headed towards the town’s most prominent landmark, Harlech Castle. We would be seeing it again later… but for now, our quest had at last been successful. Between biscuits and chocolate bars, the little shop beneath the Norman walls had provided for our immediate needs. We turned the car around, heading back towards our ten o’clock rendezvous. We would be early…very early… but that was okay. Maybe we would be able to grab a coffee in Portmeirion…