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Posted on 05/07/2017 by David

Following on from our Midsummer’s Eve blog, we’re continuing the theme of mystical, magical and legendary places in North Wales - of which there are many! This week, we explore the history of three very different sites, encouraging you to head out and really engage with your surroundings.

Myth and legend is tied to the Welsh landscape, and everywhere you go you’ll find clues to the history of the local area in the place names, landmarks and landscape. You’ll be hard pressed to find anywhere else in the UK that is as evocative as North Wales. As you explore the region you will connect with the stories and characters, feeling the stones they touched, seeing the same dramatic horizons they saw, wading in rivers and seas as they did.

For us, that's what the Year of Legends is all about. It’s a reminder to get out and explore, to delve into history and expand your knowledge, just as our Welsh ancestors did.

Dywryd Estuary

Ysbyty Ifan - southern Conwy

It’s hard to believe this sleepy village has such a rich history. An unassuming place, this slate-roofed hamlet set in rugged Welsh countryside is extremely isolated. The village, once known as Dol Gynwal (Cynwal's Meadow), was a stopping place on the prominent pilgrimage route to Bardsey Island and hosted a varied and fascinating selection of penitent visitors.

Its location on the pilgrimage route from Holywell in Flintshire, to Bardsey Island (off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula) came to the attention of the Knights Hospitaller, a military monastic order that founded a hostel here in c.1190. The mission of these fierce soldier-monks was simple - to protect pilgrims, whether in the Holy Land or at home.

The hostel offered food and shelter to travellers but its hospitality was, at times, abused. It became a hideout for some of the most infamous bandits in Welsh history, including the Gwylliaid Cochion Mawddwy (the Red Bandits of Mawddwy).

The hostel was demolished in 1540 during Henry VIII's Reformation, along with many other Catholic monasteries across Wales. The church that stands today still retains relics from the old hostel, a link to a time when knights upheld the law in the name of God.

Pay a visit to this remote village to really understand the dedication and endurance of the monks and pilgrims who called this place home. There are beautiful walks in the surrounding countryside, some of which follow the pilgrimage routes. Many offer incredible views across the distant mountain ranges - the perfect place for peaceful contemplation, then and now.

Ysbyty Ifan

Caer Arianrhod - Llyn Peninsula

The iconic medieval Welsh story collection, the Mabinogion, gave rise to many of the literary figures we love to this day and has provided a basis for myths and legends the world over.

The tales focus primarily on the lives, loves and ambitions of the Welsh royal families with many of the characters representing the gods of a much older, pre-Christian mythological order. Several of the stories were written in the late 11th century while others are much older still. It is from the older stories that many of the fantastic and supernatural elements of the Mabinogion have come.

The story of Welsh goddess/sorceress Arianrhod is exactly one of those. Taken from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogion, this tale features some very strange, complex, mysterious and, somewhat uncomfortable, content (Game of Thrones, eat your heart out). 

Arianrhod's island palace is believed to lie around a kilometre off the Caer ArianrhodGwynedd mainland, off the coast near Llandwrog. Visit on a low spring tide and you will see an oval-shaped reef in the shallows.

This spectacular circular beach walk - only accessible at low tide - presents you with an opportunity to get your binoculars out and spot the remains of Arianrhod's watery abode. 

Bryn Celli Ddu - Anglesey

Although already mentioned in our Midsummer blog post, we wanted to expand on this most-mystical of sites - it’s an incredibly evocative place to visit at any time of year. 

The island of Anglesey has preserved its history very well, with many ancient remains found scattered across the island. Here you can really get a feel for life in prehistoric times as all the sites are in very close proximity - you can spend just one day on Anglesey yet see so much!

Bryn Celli Ddu (The Mound in the Dark Grove) is an incredible example of a late-Neolithic (c. 5,000 years ago) monument. Because it’s so well preserved, now managed by Cadw, it’s probably one of the most visited ancient sites on the island.

The intrinsically human fascination with death was an object of ritual for our ancestors and the site has yielded many insights into the religious rituals of the era. Finds include a burned human ear-bone and crustacean shells from a hidden pit in the tomb. Animal and human bones, and flint arrowheads were also discovered in the passageway. Following carbon-dating, it’s believed they were placed here some 3,000 - 4,000 years ago.

Go inside - the cramped space, dark, damp and cold, it’s all part of the experience! ​Marvel at the incredible feat our ancestors achieved to construct a perfectly-aligned structure without technology, all to celebrate life after death. 

Bryn Celli Ddu (1)

Final thoughts

It really saddens us to see TripAdvisor reviews of local historic sites which read: ‘not what we expected’ and similar grumbles. Modern life seems to desensitise many of us to the remnants of our ancestral history. Hopefully this blog will inspire you to get out and engage with these amazing locations, they are such important features in how our life and culture has been shaped.

Got questions? Ask us! We like nothing more than to hear from you so we can help you discover the ‘real’ Wales we know and love. Tweet us: @NWHC.

Images courtesy: Ysbyty Ifan, © Copyright Martin Bodman and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. Bryn Celli Ddu, © Copyright Paul Allison and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence. View over Dywryd Estuary, © Crown copyright 2016 (Visit Wales).