‘Relic of Kings! Wreck of forgotten wars,
To winds abandoned and the prying stars.’
William Wordsworth, 1824
He keeps calling this a thin place which, to be honest, I find a little presumptuous. It’s true that a soon as we pass through the gate by the school and start to walk up the hill I find all sorts of thoughts and imaginings bubbling up to the surface, but is that really because of the place or is it just something I’m carrying inside me? Or maybe it was a book I read or something someone once told me?
You can see Dinas Brân from a long way down the valley: its conical hill dominates the view as you face upriver and the gnarled fingers of the castle’s outline seem to beckon and draw you in. I taught at the school at the foot of the castle hill once, just for the autumn term many years ago. Funnily enough, I never bothered to take the walk up to the ruined castle during that time, although I have done so several times since.
It’s a steep climb, the grass is slick with rainwater and the path a lumpy gruel of mud and small stones. Historians will tell you that they built the castle here because the hill provides a strong defensive position, but for me the choice of this site seems to be as much about asserting a claim to dominance: the hill isn’t just a point upon which to build a fortified position, but it is statement, a declaration of male dominance over the valley landscape and all who live within it. Thus the local lord was able to keep his own population in check and remind them who was in charge – Man dominating nature, or rather a handful of men dominating other men and women.
There’s a certain joy that comes from reaching the top of a hill and finding that there is no one else around when you get there, just my companion and me; and he seems to be more interested in checking the settings on his camera than in making idle conversation, which is good. I drink some water, not because I’m particularly thirsty but to disguise the fact that I’m out of breath and need to rest.
From the summit of the hill, standing amongst the castle ruins, you can see the River Dee below as it winds along the floor of the valley. I used to do a lot of wild swimming and I once swam in that stretch of water. It was quite a challenge to swim against the flow of the river just downstream of the town and it didn’t help to have so many crows constantly circling and swooping as I swam.
The name Dee is derived from the Brythonic word for goddess – the River of the Goddess. Castell Dinas Brân, I’m told, is variously translated as the Castle of the City of Crows, Crow’s Castle and Brân’s Fortress. Brân, of course, is the Raven King of Welsh mythology, hence my name for it: the Castle of the Raven King.
Most of the castles we now see in North Wales were built by the Normans to suppress the followers of the native Welsh princes; but Dinas Brân is different in that it pre-dates the invaders by at least a couple of centuries and was the stronghold of the princes of Powys Fadog. The site, however, was occupied long before that with evidence of Iron Age earthworks and ditches at several points on the summit.
Legend has it that Brân, the Raven King of Welsh mythology, had his head buried on Tower Hill in London after he was killed in battle. Brân, together with the ravens of the tower, then lived on as the symbolic protectors of the kingdom. King Arthur, the legend continues, had Bran’s head removed and re-buried at Dinas Brân where it remains until this day. Another Arthurian legend suggests that the Holy Grail is buried somewhere on the hill.
I don’t know the truth behind any of these stories, but I suppose that’s the whole point of mythology. This landscape certainly provides fertile ground for the weaving of legends: Dinas Brân’s imposing setting above the valley is reminiscent of something out of Tolkien and the facts of the castle’s earliest days are lost to recorded history, which leaves us with just the tales we read in the Mabinogion.
But I know this place, it lives in my dreams. I never dream about my time at the school, but the dark, glowering hill which looms above it frequently haunts my slumbering journeys. I am drawn to the sight of the jagged teeth of its wind-blown ramparts, and in my dream the crow flies and then everything makes perfect sense.
We are archaeologists of our own past lives, curious observers prodding away at the cooling embers of what we once experienced. All is cold and dusty, beyond any hope of responding to a despairing breath. It’s six years since I last swam in the River Dee, one day I will allow myself to think about why I stopped. We are creatures who look for patterns, trying to connect disparate elements, unwilling to accept the randomness of reality.
This is a guest post by Julie Baptiste. Any views expressed are entirely those of the author, Psychogeographic Review accepts no responsibility… ever.