Upper Reaches

From Chesterwiki
Jump to navigationJump to search

The River Dee - its Upper Reaches (pale blue) from the source (red dot) pass eroding and tempestuous through Wales; the Middle Reaches (dark blue) slow and meander about along the borders, and the Lower Reaches (purple) are estuaraine waters that dip to the sea dumping sediment from upstream.
The sources of the Dee at Dduallt - a series of springs at the base of the cliffs.

We have divided the story of the River Dee into three parts:

Upper Reaches

From the source of the river at springs on the slopes of Dduallt above Llanuwchllyn in the mountains of Snowdonia, through Wales, to its emergence from the Vale of Llangollen; here the young river flows swiftly and the majority of erosion takes place, cutting relatively narrow, steep-sided, "V"-shaped valleys, often with interlocking spurs.

Hillforts, cairns and stone circles dot the landscape. Later fortifications come from the Romans (see Roman Chester and Dark Ages) and the Normans (see Earls of Chester). Almost every old church has its holy well dedicated to its founding saint. Modern archeaological studies have vastly multiplied the numbers of sites of interest, but many down in the valley of the Dee many sites have been "ploughed flat", with a much better survival rate at higher elevations.

Middle Reaches

Through England and the Welsh borders to Chester; the "middle aged" river slows down and the valley becomes broader. Both erosion and deposition of material takes place, leading to the formation of meanders and occasional changes of course which have in cases left pockets of England "stranded" on the Welsh side of the River Dee.

Lower Reaches

Back in Wales, below Chester to Hilbre Islands and the sea; the river is now in "old-age" and while there is little erosion a lot of material is deposited. In the case of the River Dee this deposition has had a significant impact on the economic development of Chester, effectively turning a major port into a relatively quiet backwater. The estuary is important for birdlife and has been designated both as a "Site of Special Scientific Interest" and under the "Ramsar Convention" on "Wetlands of International Importance", especially as waterfowl habitats.

Map - Source to Bala Lake

The source of the River Dee ("Afon Dyfrdwy") is on Ddualtt, towards the lower left in this map. This 1950's map shows the Ruabon to Barmouth line before its closure. Two separate sections of the line have been restored and run steam-trains. One starts at Llanuwchllyn and runs alongside Bala Lake to the far end of the lake. The other runs along a section of the Dee valley from Carrog to Llangollen.

Upper Reaches

An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire is extremely useful if you want to find every bit of history in the upper reaches of the Dee.

The Dee is the largest river in North Wales with a catchment area of more than 1,800 km2. It is one of the most highly regulated rivers in Europe, and along with Llyn Tegid it has been designated as a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). From its headwaters in the uplands of Snowdonia, the Dee descends via Llyn Tegid (Bala Lake), the largest natural lake in Wales. After flowing through a broad valley to Corwen, it tumbles eastwards through the spectacular Vale of Llangollen, under the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct World Heritage Site, before breaching the Welsh foothills near Bangor-on-Dee, and meandering northwards through the Cheshire plain to its tidal limit just below Chester. The River Dee is fascinating in many ways: especially in terms of geology and human history. It would be impractical to tell every story associated with the river in this article, so there are many pointers along the way to other sources of information.

The Dee rises on the slopes of Dduallt and flows down towards the Bala Fault (dashed line) and then north towards Bala Lake. The other notable geological feature in the area is Rhobell Fawr: a long extinct volcano.

In its upper reaches, the Dee flows rapidly and its channels erode deeper rather than wider. The valley is steeped in myth. References to Gwyn ap Nudd, Lord of the Celtic Otherworld, are commonplace in the area, with the name for the Berwyn range perhaps translating to Gwyn's Hill. Others include Nant Gwyn (Gwyn's Valley), Caer Drewyn (Gwyn's Town) - the whole area has been known locally as Gwyn's Land (Gwynedd) for centuries. "Gwyn" means "white" in the Welsh language and is in everyday use as a common noun and adjective with that meaning. "Albion" (Greek: Ἀλβιών) is also one of the oldest known names of the island of Great Britain, and is often taken to mean "the white country", perhaps a reference to the white cliffs of Dover or the pale skin of it's inhabitants.

The upper reaches of the river Dee are associated with Arthurian legends - Arthur was said to have grown up at the source of the Dee and the castle of Dinas Bran (lit "Castle of the City of Crows") is supposed by some to be "Corbenic" the home of the Fisher King. The feminine form of Gwyn, Gwen, is the root of "Gwenhwyfar", the original Welsh form of Guinevere. More recent legends include that of the "Welsh Roswell". The upper reaches of the River Dee are highly regulated to maintain a more or less constant supply of water throughout the year, but once the river was noted for its floods. The Dee is only about 30th on the list of UK rivers by length, but one of the most well-populated with sites and stories of interest.

Willam Camden wrote:

  • The river Dee, called in Latin Dava , in British Dyfyr-dwy , that is, the water of Dwy , breeding very great plenty of Salmons, ariseth out of two fountaines in Wales, and thereof men thinke it tooke the name. For dwy in their tongue signifieth two. Yet others, observing also the signification of the word, interpret it Blac-water , others againe Gods water or divine water. But although Ausonius noteth that a Spring hallowed to the Gods was named Diuvona in the ancient Gaules tongue (which was all one with the British), and in old time all rivers were reputed Διοπετεῖς, that is, Descended from Heaven , yea and our Britans yeelded divine honour unto rivers, as Gildas writeth, yet I see not why they should attribute Divinitie to this river Dwy above all others.

A different world

Early geologists strove to explain how fossil fish and shells could be found on the higher slopes of mountains, as they can still be found today in the mountains around the Dee valley. The first explanation was Noah's Flood and led to the theory of "Catastrophism" where the earth was shaped by sudden and often cataclysmic changes. This was later displaced by "Uniformitarianism" which believed that one should look no further for the causes of geological change than to processes which are still going-on today. These would include, for example everyday erosion by rain.

The truth is somewhere between the two. Rain still washes mountains slowly to the sea, grouse still swallow small stones to aid digestion and deposit them elsewhere and meandering rivers sort and scour their flood-plains, but now and again these processes reach a tipping point as drifting continents collide, volcanic pressures reach bursting point or the climate switches from greenhouse to ice-house. Sometimes there are genuine catastrophes, as wayward comets slam into the earth or when a new species, in the blink of a geological eye, modifies the entire planet in a few hundred years. In order to make sense of the history of the rocks, geologists divided them into three "eras", oldest (pre-dinosaurs), middle (with dinosaurs) and youngest (after the dinosaurs). They later added a forth era and started to separate the three eras up into "periods" (as well as adding some previous "eons" of even longer timescale). Nowadays the geological past of the earth is thinly sliced into eons, eras, periods, epochs, ages and "chrons" (and every geologist wants to name a new one).

A geological map showing the course of the River Dee (thin blue line), and the rock types below any superficial deposits, together with their ages in "million years ago".

Our story of the River Dee starts in the deep past, in the period informally known as the "Pre-Cambrian" (literally - "before the Welsh mountains"). It spans from the formation of Earth around 4500 Mya (million years ago) to the evolution of large hard-shelled animals, which marked the beginning of the Cambrian, the first period of the first era of the "Phanerozoic" eon, some 542 Mya. It is named after the Roman name for Wales - Cambria - where rocks from this period were first studied. Little is known about the Precambrian, despite it making up roughly seven-eighths of the Earth's history. Most of the Earth's landmasses were collected into a single supercontinent around 1000 Mya ("Million Years Ago"), known as Rodinia (from the Russian for "the mother-land"), which broke up around 600 Mya when glacial conditions possibly reached all the way to the equator, resulting in a so-called "Snowball Earth". In those long gone days the Earth was very different from the world we know today - there was no life on land, apart perhaps for some algal scum, and the day was shorter by as much as two hours as the earth rotated more quickly. The tidal drag of the moon would slow the earth down over hundreds of millions of years. Such was the birthplace of the Welsh mountains, eventually to become the head of the Dee.

The atmosphere of this early Earth is poorly understood, but it is thought to have been "reducing" gases, containing very little free oxygen. The young planet had a reddish tint, and its seas may have been olive green. Evolving life forms, such as cyanobacteria, developed photosynthesis, and oxygen began to be produced in large quantities. While animals need oxygen to survive, it was a toxic gas to early life causing an ecological crisis sometimes called the "Oxygen Catastrophe" (or, "Oxygen Crisis", "Oxygen Holocaust", "Oxygen Revolution", or even "Great Oxidation"). The oxygen was at first immediately tied up in chemical reactions, primarily with iron (as rust), until the supply of oxidizable surfaces ran out. After that the modern high-oxygen atmosphere developed. This eventually killed off most of the early life forms for which oxygen was a waste-product and poison. Rocks of the subsequent Cambrian period are only preserved in Pembrokeshire to the West and Snowdonia to the North and include the slates of Snowdonia and the hard rocks of the "Harlech Dome", formed when the Caledonian collision compressed the rocks of the Harlech region into large folds, and raised them into a huge dome. Apart from a few outcrops the original Cambrian mountians have long been eroded away or buried deep below subsequent deposits. The oldest rocks found in Britain are the more than 3000 million year old (mya) rocks in the Hebrides. In Wales the oldest outcropping rocks, in Angelsey for example, are a "mere" 700 mya. The Cambrian rocks of the Harlech Dome were laid down some 500 mya.

A view of Arenig Fawr and Moel Llyfnant from Dduallt summit by Gabby77. Survey evidence shows that settlement and agriculture of the medieval and post-medieval period dominates the archaeology of the uplands around Arenig Fawr with, unlike the Dee valley and the Berwyns, very few prehistoric and Roman sites.


The roughly circular grey area of Cambrian rocks in the lower middle of this map is the "Harlech Dome" - the river Dee rises just off the eastern edge of that formation, in an area of complex volcanic geology.

When the supercontinent of Rodinia split it prduced three major pieces: the supercontinent of Proto-Laurasia (North America, Greenland, Europe and the former USSR), the supercontinent of Proto-Gondwana (parts of South Ameica, Antarctica, Madagascar, India, and Australia), and the smaller Congo craton. Next Proto-Laurasia split to form the continents of Laurentia, Siberia and Baltica. The Iapetus Ocean formed a wide oceanic basin between the paleocontinents of Laurentia (Scotland, Greenland and North America) to the west and Baltica (Scandinavia and parts of northeastern Europe) to the east. A smaller sub-continent, called "Avalonia" also lay on the south side of the Iapetus Ocean. On the northen side of Avalonia lay a marine basin, termed by geologists the ‘Welsh Basin’. While the extent of the Welsh Basin varied with changes in sea level, it stretched roughly from the English Midlands through Shropshire to Ireland. In shallow Cambrian seas there was often precipitation of various chemicals. These included Manganese deposits which would later contribute to the economy of the River Dee catchment area.

The present-day River Dee has its source on the slopes of 662m Dduallt (ðɨæɬt - "Black Hill") above Llanuwchllyn in the mountains of Snowdonia. A peculiar story about this mountain is recounted by George Bolam ("Wild Life In Wales", p387) who was crossing the Dduallt range with a farmer when they came across the material which is known locally as "pwdre ser" (rot from the stars). This "star-jelly" has been suggested as being some kind of mysterious extra-terrestrial goo which fell with meteors, but there are more mundane proposals for it's origin - DNA analysis shows it is possibly formed from the glands in the oviducts of frogs and toads. Birds and mammals will eat the animals but not the oviducts which, when they come into contact with moisture, swell and distort. However this is a good place to start with the geological journey, for the formation of the earth itself is believed to have been completed by an intense period of "falling stars" - the "late heavy bombardment" whose scars we still see on the face of the Moon.

Pre-Roman Wales - both the Silures and the Ordovices would have geological periods named after them.

Switching to the human journey, once the headwaters of the Dee were the land of the Ordovices, a tribe that lived here before the Romans came and whose name could be in some way related to the word for "hammer"; Irish 'Ord', Welsh 'Gordd' (with a G- prothetic) and Breton 'Horzh' (with a H- prothetic). They kept sheep, built hillforts and were among the few British tribes that resisted the Roman invasion, apparently organized by the Celtic leader Caratacus, exiled in their lands after his defeat (as the leader of the Catuvellauni) at the Battle of the Medway. Caratacus became a Roman public enemy, but was defeated (~51 AD) at the Battle of Caer Caradoc, by the Roman General Publius Ostorius Scapula. Caratacus fled north to the Brigantes, but their queen, Cartimandua, was loyal to the Romans and "handed him over in chains" to Ostorius, and he was dragged off to Rome to be presented to the Emperor Claudius. He made such an impression that he was pardoned and allowed to live in peace in Rome. After his liberation, according to the Roman historian Dio Cassius, Caratacus was so impressed by the city of Rome that he said:

  • "And can you, then, who have got such possessions and so many of them, covet our poor tents?"

Around 70AD, the Ordovices rebelled again and provoked a somewhat excessive response by Agricola, who, according to the historian Tacitus, "exterminated the whole tribe". No other mention of the tribe appears in the historical records, but in view of the mountainous terrain of the lands of the Ordovices it is questionable whether Agricola could have wiped out the entire population.

The River Dee (blue line) rises on, Dduallt - a subsiduary peak of the extinct volcano Rhobell Fawr.

The "Ordovician" geologic period was first described and named by Charles Lapworth in 1879 for rocks located in the lands of the Ordovices. The geology of the deep past shapes the land and gives rise to differences in ways of living that are often missed. As we shall see with the Dee, geological boundaries often become human borders. One of the great scientific disputes of the mid-nineteenth century concerned the partitioning of a large part of Wales into younger (Silurian) and older (Cambrian) rocks. It started in the 1830s with the work of two very different men, and the most important British geologists of the time. Revd Professor Adam Sedgwick was the man of genius, and R. I. Murchison, later Sir Roderick, was nothing if not the practical man of method. A 22 year-old Charles Darwin was one of Sedgwick's geology students in 1831, and accompanied him on a field trip to Wales that summer. The two kept up a correspondence while Darwin was on the Beagle expedition, and afterwards. However, Sedgwick never accepted the case for evolution made in "On the Origin of Species" in 1859. By the year 1839 Murchison had mapped and described the four groups that made up his Silurian System, defining each on the basis of fossils he had collected during five years fieldwork in South Wales and the Borders. His then friend Professor Sedgwick had given only a brief lithological description of the Cambrian rocks of North Wales by this date. As it became clear the two great divisions did not lie one on the other but overlapped at their boundary, Murchison extended his Silurian terminology into Sedgwick's domain. Arguments over the limits and validity of these two Systems scarcely abated with the death of the two chief contestants. British geologists remained in opposing camps until the end of the century, when Lapworth's Ordovician System of 1879 was generally accepted as a compromise for the disputed strata.

The Isles of Avalonia

The Iapetus Ocean - Scotland and parts of Ireland were then part of North America on the further, northwestern, shore of Iapetus, while Wales lay on the southeastern shore of the ocean. The micro-continent of "Avalonia" comprises part of New England, Newfoundland and Novascotia as well as south-eastern Ireland, Wales and England. Avalonia is racing north-west for an eventual collision with Laurentia. Iapetus closed and then re-opened along a slightly different line leaving Scotland "over here" and Nova Scotia "over there".

In the Ordovician period, some 450 million years ago, the region that is today the source of the Dee lay under a semi-tropical sea well south of the equator: the Iapetus Ocean - Wales was in a location similar to that of present day Namibia. Present day Scotland was then part of the Laurentian continent (North America) on the further, northwestern, shore of Iapetus - possibly at the southern tip of what is now Greenland. Wales lay on the southeastern shore of the Iapetus ocean. Marine animals were abundant, including brachiopods which lived attached to or buried in the sea floor. Krakatoa-like volcanic activity was rife and Rhobell Fawr, just next to Dduallt, was producing vast quantities of hot ash which killed, buried and eventually fossilised these brachiopods.

The drift northwards would take the land through several different climatic zones: temperate, desert, equatorial, desert again and finally temperate once more. Ice ages would expose the rocks to polar extremes. At times the land would be above the sea, at other times below. Sometimes it would be landlocked, at other times coastal. These changing conditions would determine which rocks were formed and how fast they were eroded away.

The first crossing of the Dee is a ford just off the A494 described by Jim Perrin in his book "River Map" as: "..some massive stepping stones as Rhyd-y-Bran, the crows' ford."

"Avalonia", located at the southern end of the Iapetus ocean, was an ancient microcontinent which now forms much of the older rocks of Western Europe, Atlantic Canada, and parts of the coastal United States. The name is derived from the Avalon Peninsula in Newfoundland and not directly from the Avalon of Arthurian legends.. The sinking floor of the Iapetus Ocean produced huge volumes of molten magma that erupted to make the backbone of Lleyn, Snowdonia, and Cadair Idris. The Ordovician came to a close (444-447 million years ago) in a series of extinction events that, taken together, comprise the second largest of the five major extinction events in Earth's history in terms of percentage of genera that went extinct (the only larger one was the Permian-Triassic extinction event). More than 60% of marine invertebrates died, including two-thirds of all brachiopod and bryozoan families.

The Iapetus Ocean closed by the end of the Silurian, about 425 million years ago, when Scotland and England, once on the opposite sides of the Iapetus Ocean, finally collided - the first step in the production of the supercontinent of "Pangaea". This Caledonian collision produced highlands covering most of Scotland and Wales. Eventually, with the break-up of Pangaea and the opening of the Atlantic ocean (along a slightly different line to that of the collision - leaving Scotland stuck to Europe rather than North America) the rocks of Avalonia were dispersed over a large portion of the Earth's surface. In the modern world, we see Avalonia as forming the basic structure of the Ardennes of Belgium and north-eastern France, north Germany, north-western Poland, England, Wales, south-eastern Ireland, the south-western edge of the Iberian Peninsula, the Avalon Peninsula, much of Nova Scotia, southern New Brunswick and parts of New England. In many of these regions slate is present as one of the principal rock types.


More than crows (of which more downstream), the area supports substantial populations of upland birds including raptors, such as the Hen Harrier (Circus cyaneus), Merlin (Falco columbarius), and Peregrine (Falco peregrinus). Evidence of activity in this area during the neolithic period between about 5000-2000BC is scarce, although there are large burial mounds that might be of neolithic date in the upper valley of the Dee, one of which at least, Tanycoed, is chambered. There are remains of ancient settlements close to the source of the Dee near Rhosdylluan and the modern A494 follows the course of a Roman road. It is here, where the road crosses the river on one of the Dee's many bridges that the stream starts to look like a real river. A little downstream is the village of Pandy, site of a fulling mill and a indication of the mills and industry to be found downriver. There is a large hillfort at Cefn Caer Euni.

As the micro-continent Avalonia (on the right) moved westwards, the crust of the Iapetus ocean was subducted beneath it, leading to volcanic eruptions such as that of Rhobell Fawr about 510 mya. The generated heat dissolved metals from the rocks, and, when they cooled and solidified, these were redeposited as metal ores such as those of copper and gold. Further north, the same subduction produced the volcanic rocks of the Lake District.

Just when people first settled the upper reaches of the Dee is not clear. Early Britons had to cope with extreme changes of climate, and at least seven times they apparently failed to do so and died out completely. The earliest evidence for humans (Boxgrove Man) in the UK dates from around 700,000 years ago, but that was in East Anglia. We know that subsequent glaciation drove mankind out of Britain around 475,000 years ago and that it was re-colonised around 400,000 years ago by Swanscombe Man (Homo heidelbergensis - believed to be the common ancestor of Neanderthals, Denisovans, and modern humans). Shortly after, the glaciers and ice-sheets returned again and mankind was absent for a further period.

Homo heidelbergensis lived in Africa, Europe and western Asia between 600 and 200 thousand years ago, and might have been the first species of the Homo genus to bury its dead. Between 300,000 and 400,000 years ago a group of Homo heidelbergensis migrated into Europe and West Asia via yet unknown routes and, as a response to the ice-age conditions, eventually evolved into Neanderthals. The African Homo heidelbergensis (Homo rhodesiensis) population evolved into Homo sapiens approximately 130,000 years ago. No forms of art or sophisticated artifacts other than stone tools have been uncovered, although red ochre, a mineral that can be used to mix a red pigment which is useful as a paint, has been found at Terra Amata excavations in the south of France.

Humans (for convenience "Human" includes Neanderthal as anatomically "modern" man only evolved some 130,000 years ago) returned around 325,000 years ago and possibly remained in Britain until around 200,000 years ago when the Ice Age entered another cold cycle. North Wales appears to have been home to Neanderthal people as this cold period began, but they were either killed-off or driven southwards by the cold. Their remains, the earliest Neanderthal remains in the UK and the furthest north west ever found, were unearthed in north Denbighshire at Bontnewydd in the Elwy Valley. Mankind remained out of Britain for over 100,000 years, only re-colonising the islands around 10,000 years ago. At that time the land would have been treeless tundra. The older view of Mesolithic Britons as being exclusively nomadic is now being replaced with a more complex picture of seasonal occupation or, in some cases, permanent occupation and attendant land and food source management where conditions permitted it. Juniper was the first tree to return after the ice departed, quickly followed by birch, hazel, pine, willow and alder. In the lowlands, oak, elm and pine dominated the landscape, while in the uplands pine and birch were more common. This heavily wooded landscape was home to red deer, roe deer, wild cattle and pigs, all of which were potential prey for Mesolithic hunters. The first forests were of birch, an arctic tree, pollinated by wind as it was still too cold for insects in Britain. By 7,500 BC, the rising sea levels caused by the melting glaciers caused Ireland to be separated from Britain and, by around 6500 to 6000 BC, the plains of Doggerland were submerged and the land-bridges to continental Europe were covered for the final time. It has been estimated the population of Britain (excluding Ireland) around 9000 BC to be 1,100–1,200 people, in 8000 BC to be 1,200–2,400, in 7000 BC to be 2,500–5,000, and in 5000 BC to be 2,750–5,500. According to some modern research, eighty per cent of the DNA of most white Britons, has been passed down from these few thousand individuals who hunted in this region after the last Ice Age. This would indicate a significance of the early migrants which dwarves all subsequent migrations to Britain from Europe such as the Saxons, Vikings and Normans. However other evidence suggests that migration, rather than cultural exchange was a more significant influence.

The past half-million years have seen repeated cycles of Ice Ages (blue) and warmer "Inter-Glacial" periods (red). The ebb and flow of the ice-sheets has meant that, during the "Old Stone Age", at some times Britain was habitable (green) and at others it was not.

As for the Neanderthals, views of them have changed over the years. Neanderthals lived alongside early modern humans for at least part of their existence. We now know that some encounters (according to "The Guardian") were very intimate - some of us, outside of Africa, have inherited around 2% Neanderthal DNA. Interbreeding may have helped early modern humans coming out of Africa to adapt quickly to new environments, by acquiring genes from Neanderthals who had lived there for many thousands of years. Some of the DNA is found in parts of the human genome that are associated with skin and hair, maybe giving our ancestors thicker hair and skin that helped them cope better with the colder climate. Other DNA inherited from Neanderthals seems to be involved in boosting immunity, perhaps providing a quick fix against local infections.

The construction of the earliest earthwork sites in Prehistoric Britain began during the early Neolithic (c. 4400 BC – 3300 BC) in the form of long barrows used for communal burial and the first causewayed enclosures, sites which have parallels on the continent. The former may be derived from the long house although no long house villages have been found in Britain, only individual examples. The earliest evidence for farming in the British Isles comes from Ireland and probably the Isle of Man, and not from southern Britain. Elms grow on the edge of woodlands and are likely to be the first to be felled in a clearance. Nettles and plantains tend to flourish alongside human habitation. From 4000 BC to 3000 BC is a period when the elm tree had a great decline and remains of nettles and plantains show an increase. This is probably the first large scale impact of agriculture on the Wildwood. The area around Llangollen has been occupied since very early times. Before 6000BC any human presence would have been in the form of small bands of hunters. After this time it is known that a Neolithic farming culture, originating from Europe, was present in North Wales, although it is only after 3000BC that we have any direct evidence of the culture's presence in this area, in the form of many tumuli, cairns, stone circles and standing stones. The earliest surviving structures are the megalithic tombs which are found only in the Dee and Elwy valleys, with Tan y Coed, downstream at Cynwyd, being the "best preserved" example, even though it is described By the Royal Commission as follows:

  • "An irregular elongated mound, much mutilated by the construction and opperation of Tan-y-Coed farm, c.43m by 14-20m and 4.0m high, thought to have originally been a circular mound, c.46m in diameter. There is a roughly square megalithic chamber within, its present entrance dating from re-use as a kennel, or store."

When the farm came up for sale, the estate agents described it as "Occupying a peaceful and idyllic rural location with remarkable panoramic views over open countryside, fields and mountains, Tyn-Y-Coed is a beautiful detached property which originally dates back to 1677." The fact that people had been burying their dead there five thousand years ago did not get a mention.

sources and links



Caer-Gai, a Roman fort on the banks of the Dee near Llanuwchllyn, was traditionally known as the home of Cei, the character in the Arthurian legend known in English as "Sir Kay". Legend holds that Arthur grew up and was educated here. The Caer-gai fort is square in plan, each side measuring about 420 feet (c.128m), and covers an area of 4½ acres. The fort was furnished with timber buildings never rebuilt in stone and was occupied from around 75AD until around 130. A spring which probably served the Roman soldiers lies about 200 feet outside the western corner-angle. The Roman name of the fort may have been "Lavobrinta". During the summer of 2001 archaeologists unearthed the central plank of a Roman barrel lid branded LEV at Chester which may have come from Caer-Gai. The "Kay" legend may actually have some truth at the base of it - a stone inscription from Llanfor refers to "Cavo(s) Seniargii (filius)" - Caw, son of Seniargus. Robert Vaughan of Hengwrt (1592-1666) recorded the discovery of an early Christian stone at Caer-gai itself with the inscription: "Hic Jacet Salvianus Burgo Cavi Filius Cupetiani" - and refers to the "fort of Cavi" ("Kay"?). A "vicus", or civilian settlement, is known to exist to the south and also possibly to the east of the fort, while again there is evidence to suggest that the site persisted as a centre of activity and cultural importance in the sub-Roman period. Edmund Spenser (1552–99) in The Faerie Queen, describes how the infant Arthur (109.4) was brought there:

  • Vnto old Timon he me brought byliue, Old Timon, who in youthly yeares hath beene In warlike feates th'expertest man aliue, And is the wisest now on earth I weene; His dwelling is low in a valley greene, Vnder the foot of Rauran mossy hore, From whence the riuer Dee as siluer cleene His tombling billowes rolls with gentle rore: There all my dayes he traind me vp in vertuous lore
The Roman fort at Caer-Gai and the banks of the wrongly nameded Lliw, this is actually the Dee. Like many contemporary forts of the area, excavations suggest that the site was only occupied for a brief time, roughly AD 75–130. This is around the time of the Roman offensive against the Ordovices tribe, whom they virtually exterminated sometime in the late 1st century AD. It was possibly re-occupied after the Roman withdrawal.

The earliest part of the fort is a rectangular turf rampart, much of the earthwork complex associated with the site is extant, and on the south-west side of the fort the rampart stands as a bank 8m wide. Both the south-east and south-west corners are very well-preserved, with the ditch curving around them. The bank is surmounted by a modern field wall, probably partly overlying the foundations of the original Roman stone wall that surrounded the whole area and incorporates a few of its squared stones. In addition to the civilian vicus, a variety of specifically military features were clustered around the fort, including a bathhouse, a parade ground and a possible mansio. A farm/manor house occupies the north corner of the fort and has destroyed most of the north corner-angle. Captain Rowland Vaughan, MP (c. 1590-1667), who was a notable poet and translator (he translated Latin and English books and hymns into Welsh) as well as a staunch Royalist, originally built the manor house in the late 16th -century, though the present structure is largely a product of post-Civil War rebuilding. In 1645 Vaughan and his Company fought at the battle of Naseby and in August of the same year Caer Gai was sacked and burned by General Myddleton's Roundhead troops. In March 1650 Vaughan was captured and imprisoned in Chester Castle for three years, during which time the house was burned down. Curiously William Vaughan, who attemped to found a colony at Avalon in Newfoundland (after which "Avalonia" is named) was related to Captain Roland. The name "Avalon" was given to the land by George Calvert who purchased the land from Vaughan (whose efforts to start a settlement there in 1617 and 1618 did not succeed) - in 1623 Calvert was given a Royal Charter granting the land the name "Province of Avalon": "in imitation of Old Avalon in Somersetshire wherein Glassenbury stands, the first fruits of Christianity in Britain as the other was in that party of America".


The castle at Carndochan and the gold mine. The river on this map is the Lliw, which flows into the Dee shortly afterwards.

At Llanuwchllyn, the Dee is joined by the Lliw and the Twrch (means "wild boar" and gives some idea of the character of this river). The countryside hereabouts is eloquently and extensively described by George Bolam in his 1904 book "Wildlife in Wales". The village of Llanuwchllyn ("the village above the lake") is the headquarters of The Bala Railway (Rheilffordd Llyn Tegid) which runs for 7-kilometres (4.5 miles) along the lake's south east shore and was built on a section of the former Ruabon - Barmouth GWR route which was closed in 1965. Regular trains link the village with the town of Bala. At Llanuwchllyn, visitors can see the steam locomotives being serviced, can view the 1896-built Signal Box in operation and can visit the Station Buffet.

Gold was discovered here (at Carndochan, 52°51'40"N , 3°42'30"W) in the 1860s by a 12 year old boy, although many quartz boulders showing visible gold were scattered on the hillside and had apparently been missed. A company was formed in Manchester in 1863 to work the mine and operations between 1864-66 produced 1508 ounces of gold from 3158 tons of quartz. However, yields declined by 1866, and the plant was sold in 1876 following a winding-up order. Later revived, the mine worked on a small scale till 1905. Records show 12.5 ounces of gold from 50 tons of quartz in 1889, and 393 ounces of gold from 2638 tons of quartz between 1895-98. The deep adit, north-east of the mine from near the river, was completed about 1901. The metal occurs in a quartz-sulphide vein cutting Middle Ordovician volcanic rocks and its relationship to the mineralization in the nearby "Dolgellau Gold-belt" is the subject of continuing research. The National Waterfront Museum in Swansea houses a ceremonial cup made from gold extracted from the Carndochan mine in the 1860s. It is the largest object known to have ever been made from Welsh gold.

The land area drained by the River Dee (shown in blue here) includes a significant part of North Wales.

Bala Fault

The course of the river Dee here follows the line of the Bala fault - a major geological feature of north Wales. The fault is incredibly deep, and is thought to perhaps to extend down to the base of the earths crust so it can also be referred to as a "geofracture zone". It was this geofracture zone which allowed to emergence of magma during the Ordovician to form the volcanos at Rhobell Fawr, the Arans and Cader Idris. The fault is thought to have initially formed during the opening of the Iapetus Ocean in late Precambrian times (>541 million years ago) when Laurentia (North America) and Baltica (Europe) separated. As the Iapetus Ocean began to open tension cracks opened in a NE-SW direction parallel to the continental margins. These eventually became the Bala Valley, the Menai Straits and the valley at Church Stretton along the line of the A49. Between the Menai fault and the Stretton fault the land sank, forming the Welsh Basin with the Bala fault possibly forming an underwater escarpment.

The Bala fault is still "active" - on January 23rd 1974 there was a minor earthquake along it. The prominent "Earthquake lights" observed at the time of the shock possibly led to the local speculation that an aircraft had crashed, and search-and-rescue teams were deployed. Since nothing was discovered, it was concluded that a meteorite was responsible; more imaginative members of the public decided (and still believe) that a UFO had crashed. The scale of geological movements in the deep past can be seen near Llanuwchllyn where the two sides of the fault would have to be slid back for a distance of two miles to get the geology on either side to line up. The detailed cause of "Earthquake lights" has not been determined from among several different theories. One theory is that the stresses in the rocks, especially where quartz occurs (as it does in this region, c.f. the gold mines mentioned above) may lead to a "piezoelectric" effect such as that employed in guitar pick-ups, electric lighters and "quartz" watches. The "lights" are then caused by the high-votages generated.

The ancient river Dee was running before the last Ice Age and is thought to be about 3 million years old. As Wales plunged into the last Ice Age about 73,000 years ago, ice from the local ice sheets on the Aran and the Arenig Mountains flowed down the valley to Bala and along the Dee Valley and on to Cheshire. This ice formed glaciers and ice sheets that covered the landscape carving and shaping the landscape. The ice was up to a kilometre thick.

It is likely that the natural passage through the mountains formed by the Bala fault and the upper valley of the Dee was in use by travellers from Neolithic times. From the southern end of fault, near Barmouth, it would have been possible to trade with the mines at Llancynfelyn and Nant-Yr-Arian where fragments of charcoal in exposed spoil have been radiocarbon dated to the early Bronze Age, around 1400 BC.

sources and links

Map - Bala Lake

This 1950's map shows the Ruabon to Barmouth line before its closure. This section of the line have been restored and runs steam-trains.

Bala Lake

  • "Awaking occasionally in the night, I heard much storm and rain The following morning was gloomy and lowering. As it was Sunday I determined to pass the day at Bala and accordingly took my prayer book out of my satchel and also my single white shirt which I put on. Having dressed myself I went to the coffee room and sat down to breakfast. What a breakfast - pot of hare, ditto of trout, pot of prepared shrimps, dish of plain shrimps, tin of sardines, beautiful beef steak, eggs muffin, large loaf and butter - not forgetting capital tea. There's a breakfast for you." - George Borrow, Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery.
Mary Jones started one morning in 1800 for Bala, and walked the 25 miles, barefoot as usual, to obtain a copy of the Bible from the Rev. Charles, the only individual with Bibles for sale in the area.

The river broadens into Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid) - the largest (in terms of volume) natural body of water in Wales. "Y Bala" means "the outlet", describing the exit of the River Dee from Bala. The name of the lake in Welsh can be translated as "Lake of serenity". The predominant lowland rock type is sedimentary principally mudstone, siltstone and grit with some tuff (a rock formed from volcanic ash) and some limestone bands. Many of the upland areas are the result of volcanic action of the Aran Volcanic Group and the Rhobell Fawr Volcanic Complex. The Berwyn mountains were also influenced by volcanic action - Pistyll Rhaeadr often cited as the highest waterfall in Wales is the result of a river (Afon Disgynfa) flowing over a band of harder Silurian volcanic rock (Pistyll Rhaeadr is not a single drop, and both its single drop height and its total height are surpassed by both the Devil's Appendix and Pistyll y Llyn, as well as several other waterfalls).

There is a local legend (recorded by Gerald of Wales (c. 1146 – c. 1223) - who would believe anything he was told) that the waters of the Dee pass straight through the lake without mixing, but studies have shown that this is untrue. Michael Drayton (1563 – 23 December 1631) mentions both this feature and the outlet in his works:

  • "The pearly Comvaye's head, as that of holy Dee, Renowned Rivers both, their rising have in me : So, Lavern and the Lue, themselves that head-long throw Into the spacious Lake, where Dee unmix'd doth flow. Trnicerriii takes his stream here from a native lin ; Which, out of Plmblemere when Dee himself doth win"

The Dee is not the only river to flow into Bala lake, there is also Afon Llafar and Afon Glyn.

The unique Gwyniad (Coregonus pennantii), a fish left over from the Ice Age, is found only in Llyn Tegid (the population is threatened by deteriorating water quality and by the ruffe, a fish introduced to the lake in the 1980s and now eating the eggs and fry of gwyniad - as a conservation measure, eggs of gwyniad were transferred to Llyn Arenig Fawr, a nearby lake, between 2003 and 2007.). Lake. The lake is also home to the rare Glutinous Snail. Perhaps the lake's most famous resident is "Teggie", the Welsh-dragon version of the "Loch Ness Monster". Though much looked for and even hunted by submarine, no trace of the "monster" has ever been found. Curiously, there is no mention of the monster prior to WW1, and this has led to speculation that the monster was the result of a devious experiment in the course of that war. The local semi-legend (of which there is no proof) states that an attempt was made to train "seals" to deliver explosive limet mines to enemy shipping and, rather than be blown-up, the animals chose to escape. Later sightings of the seals were believed to have led to the myth of the "monster".

As noted above, the Bala fault has not only directed the flow of the Dee, but also created a natural travel route through the mountains. The presence of three or more Roman forts down the valley, and the concentration of no less than four earthwork castles at the north end of the lake, emphasize the anxiety of rulers to control this area. "Bala castle" (Tomen Y Bala) is the largest of these earthwork castles and can be found in Bala itself. It is little more than a mound, but at 30 feet high it offers panoramic views across the town. Llywelyn the Great is believed to have commandeered Tomen Y Bala in the early 13th century before building the spectacularly situated stone castle Carndochan, not far from Llanuwchllyn. Carndochan Castle is now in ruins.

  • "Finding myself rather dull in the inn I went out again notwithstanding that it rained. I ascended the toman or mound which I had visited on a former occasion. Nothing could be more desolate and dreary than the scene around. The woods were stript of their verdure and the hills were half shrouded in mist. How unlike was this scene to the smiling glorious prospect which had greeted my eyes a few months before. The rain coming down with redoubled violence I was soon glad to descend and regain the inn." - George Borrow, Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery.
Edward Llwyd - the last local stocking knitter - kniting socks in Bala, 1875.

During the 18th-century, a hosiery industry developed which led to much rebuilding in the town and to an expansion of building beyond the extent of the medieval borough. Until the industrial revolution, Bala’s residents were famed for their knitting with wool products such as socks and Bala stockings bringing in a large percentage of the town’s revenue. In later life, George III always wore socks from Bala, which he claimed soothed his arthritis. Thomas Pennant in his "Tour Through Wales" describes Bala as follows:

  • REACH Bala, a ſmall town in the pariſh of Llanyekil, noted for its vaſt trade in woollen ſtockings, and its great markets every Saturday morning, when from two to five hundred pounds worth are ſold each day, according to the demand. Round the place, women and children are in full employ, knitting along the roads; and mixed with them Herculean figures appear, aſſiſting their omphales [Page 68] in this effeminate employ. During winter the females, through love of ſociety, often aſſemble at one another's houſes to knit; ſit round a fire, and liſten to ſome old tale, or to ſome antient ſong, or the ſound of a harp; and this is called Cymmorth Gwau, or, the knitting aſſembly. MUCH of the wool is bought at the great fairs at Llanrwſt, in Denbighſhire. CLOSE to the ſouth-eaſt end of the town, is a great artificial mount, called Tommen y Bala, in the ſummer time uſually covered in a pictureſque manner with knitters, of both ſexes, and all ages. From the ſummit is a fine view of Llyn-tegid, and the adjacent mountains. On the right appear the two Arennigs, Vawr and Vach; beyond the farther end, ſoar the lofty Arans, with their two heads, Aran Mowddwy and Penllyn; and beyond all, the great Cader Idris cloſes the view. THIS mount appears to have been Roman, and placed here, with a caſtelet on its ſummit, to ſecure the paſs towards the ſea, and keep our mountaneers in ſubjection. The Welſh, in after time, took advantage of this, as well as other works of the ſame nature. THE town is of a very regular form: the principal ſtreet very ſpacious, and the leſſer fall into it at right angles. I will not deny, but that its origin might have been Roman.

Pennant is wrong about the "Roman street plan" - around 1310, in a move intended to quell the rebellious local community, Bala was given its Royal Charter by Roger De Mortimer of Chirk Castle and the current street plan dates back to this time. By 1310 Roger Mortimer had laid out 53 "burgages" - plots of land for building:

  • ‘for the king’s benefit for the security of those parts and to restrain the malice of evil-doers and robbers in the locality’.

Mary Jones

In 1804 Mary Jones aged 15, walked barefoot along the Bala fault from Llanfihangel-y-Pennant to Bala to buy a Bible from Thomas Charles – a journey of over 50 miles there and back. It was not the distance that was impressive, or even the fact that she walked barefoot, but the fact that she had saved the seventeen shillings (over six years) to buy the book. Unfortunately Charles, had none left. However (according to one version of the story) he took pity on Mary and gave her his own. It is said that Mary Jones’s visit to Thomas Charles made such an impression upon him that he had "no peace of mind" until he had found a way to ensure a regular supply of cheap Bibles for the common people of Wales. In 1800, Charles seemed to be worrying about everything: a frost-bitten thumb gave him "great pain and much fear for his life", his friend, Rev. Philip Oliver of Chester, died, leaving him director and one of three trustees over his chapel at Boughton in Chester and this "added much to his anxiety". In the 19th Century there was a whisky distillery at Frongoch near Bala. Unfortunately, for the Welsh whisky industry, this distillery closed in the later years of the 19th Century. Its closure coincided with the height of religious revival and “chapel building mania” in Wales, which stressed the importance of temperance.

John Jones, Welsh kleptomaniac.

Coch Bach y Bala (the "Little Redhead of Bala) was more properly John Jones, otherwise known as ‘The Welsh Houdini’ best known for his poaching and persistent thievery, both of which brought him into regular and continuous trouble with the Law and for his frequent jail escapes. Jones’s first escape from prison was in November 1879, when he was awaiting trial at Ruthin Gaol, for stealing 15 watches at Bala and Llanfor. Despite his frequent escapes, John Jones spent more than half his life in prison, with over 10 separate convictions for theft, breaking and entering, and on one occasion, for "rioting against the Police" in Bala. Jones’s activities caught the public’s imagination, and the media of the time sensationalised and publicised his activities. Jones was on the run for six days after his final escape (on 30 September 1913 he tunnelled out of his cell and using a rope made out of his bedding he climbed over the roof of the chapel and kitchen and got over the wall) before being tracked down on the Nantclwyd Estate several miles from Ruthin. He was shot in the groin by one of his pursuers, 19 year old Oxford undergraduate Reginald Jones-Bateman, son of an increasingly unpopular local landowner. John Jones was 60 years old, was living off tallow candles and methylated spirits, and died of shock and haemorrhaging due to his injury (a double shotgun wound). Jones-Bateman was charged with manslaughter, though the charges were subsequently dropped. Despite his wrongdoings, John Jones was a popular figure and the circumstances surrounding his death were the source of much public discontent in the area. Postcards that showed a photograph of his funeral, and the location where he was shot, were mass-produced and sold. Maybe not so much as a ‘memento mori’, but as the final evidence, legitimised by the camera, that ‘Coch Bach’ was finally confined to one place. Jones-Bateman became an unpopular captain in the 3rd Welsh Regiment and battalion "bombing officer". Bombing Officers were unpopular anyway - opposing forces in WW1 frequently maintained a tacit live-and-let-live "truce" in which they refrained from bomb-throwing between trenches. Bombing Officers would try to encourage the troops to throw bombs (grenades) over to the enemy side and this could spark-off a end to the quiet life that those in some parts of the trenches preferred. Jones-Bateman was severely wounded in a grenade "accident" in France (July 1916) and invalided home. He later went off to Ceylon, where he wrote a book on his amataur archeological exploits ("A Refuge from Civilisation") and a guide to playing Bridge.

The Lake

Bala lake has always been prone to flooding. There is an ages-old belief in the countryside that Bala will continue to grow bigger until it has swallowed up the village of Llanfor (site of another Roman fort), now about a couple of miles from the water's edge. There is a Welsh couplet, still well known in Merionethshire, which, translated into English, runs:

  • "Bala old the lake has had, and Bala new: The lake will have, and Llanfor, too."
Bingley's guide to North Wales ia available as an e-book. Sometimes his descriptions need to be taken with a hefty pinch of salt as he can be quite disparaging about people and hotels: for example he describes Llangollen as "dirty, ill-built and disagreeable".

According to legend the site of the original town was near the middle of the present lake, at a spot opposite Llangower. There, a peaceful community lived a happy, prosperous life in houses clustering around a well called Ffynnon Gwyer, or "Gower's Well" (note the connection with Gwyn/Gwen and "Gwyniad"). Only one very important thing had these people to remember: that was to cover up their well every night, otherwise, the spirit of the well would grow angry. One night, after much drinking, the guardian of the well forgot his task and the well began to gush forth water. The guardian fled, though it is said the angry waters overtook him and drowned him miserably. When morning broke, instead of fields and houses, the valley contained a great lake three miles long and a mile wide. It is also claimed that on moonlit nights towers and buildings can be seen under the waters of Bala Lake. A further legend states these buildings to be the palace of King Tegid, husband of Ceridwen, the mother of the legendary Welsh bard Taliesin. In this version of the legend the king refused to listen to the warnings of a harpist as regards a coming flood, which promptly drowned him, and his palace. "King Tegid" is an obvious reference to Tylwyth Teg, a common Welsh name for fairies. Almost exactly the same tale is told of Llyn Llech Owen ("the lake of Owain's slab") in Carmarthenshire.

The location of "Ffynnon Gwyer" (bottom left).

Unfortunately, Bala lake was actually formed by glacial action, but even in comparatively recent times Llyn Tegid has flooded dangerously, especially when whipped up by a south-westerly wind. The 18th century traveller Reverend W Bingley noted, in his accounts of his college vacation of 1798, that the lake was subject to ‘dreadful’ overflowings, while other sources record a massive torrent in the early 1780s, when the floods rushed over the Vale of Edeirnion to the south, killing several people. The Welsh lawyer Richard Fenton described the catastrophe in Archaeologia Cambrensis (1813):

  • "The Lake of Bala was covered with the wreck of different houses, and one person recovered two feather beds floating on the lake, and one with a looking glass on it as she had left it when she left her house".

Alfred Tennyson also mentions the Dee floods at Bala in his Idylls of the King, using it as a Victorian sexual metaphor for the relationship between Geraint and Enid:

  • "And Enid tended on him there; and there Her constant motion round him, and the breath Of her sweet tendance hovering over him, Filled all the genial courses of his blood With deeper and with ever deeper love, As the south-west that blowing Bala lake Fills all the sacred Dee."

Another "Ffynnon Gwyer", said to be named after St Cywair who dwelt at Llangywer in the 5th or 6th century, is a "holy" well on the east side of the lake. St Cywair (or Gwyr), a 5th century Irish princess, is said to have married king Coel Godhibog of the north Britains. She is reputed to have been the mother of Llywarch Hen, the early Welsh bard, and St Pabo. Ffynnon Gower is sited some 650m south-west of St Cywair's church and while said to be a "cure-all" is often dried up. The Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments casts some doubt as to whether this is actually the original well associated with the church.

Apart from "Ffynnon Gwyer" there are several other "holy" wells around Bala Lake. "Ffynnon Beuno" in Bala was said to be good for ligaments and bones, for eyes and for the liver, kidneys and bowels depending on whether you bathed in it or drank it. Its fame lasted into the Victorian era when Richard Lloyd Price of Rhiwlas, on whose estate it then lay, jumped into the burgeoning health spas market, bottling and selling "St Beuno’s Table Waters, efficacious for the kidneys" from the old Workhouse Building on the High Street in Bala. By the 1980's the well was in a sorry state - filled in with builders rubble. In the early 2000's it was excavated to reveal what matched a record from 1913:

  • "... rising in a sunken rectangular enclosure of stone, 12 feet by 9 feet with six steps at one corner. The water is fairly deep and the overflow is copious; where it crossed the main road the roadway was roughly paved, hence the name ‘Pensarn Road.’ There are no traces of buildings over or immediately around the well. The hilly district to the south-west is called Bronydd Beuno."

Unfortunately, health and safety concerns meant that the well could not be left as an open body of water so it was filled in with stones, although its outline is still marked with a low wall. It seems odd that there should be such health and safety concerns given that the largest natural lake in Wales is only a very short walk away.


St Buenos Church at Llanycil on the west shore of Bala Lake (where the Bible Society has its "Mary Jones World Visitor Centre") was also said to have a Holy Well - another Ffynnon Bueno, but no sign of this remains. The well may have been mineralised, as just up the hill at Fron Feuno there is a disused quarry where a bedded deposit of manganese ore (psilomelane) was worked. Manganese is found in leafy green vegetables, fruits, nuts, cinnamon and whole grains. A deficiency of manganese causes skeletal deformation in animals and inhibits the production of collagen in wound healing and this can be caused by chronic liver or gallbladder disorders - while this could explain the "holy" properties of the wells hereabouts, manganese is toxic at high levels and most people obtain enough from dietary sources.

Craig-y-Fron, just outside Bala to the north-west, provided stone for many buildings in Bala, including Coleg-y-Bala and Bodiwan. The excavations have left a 400m cavern with the roof supported by regular pillars of rock, known locally as “the caves”. The rock type is tuff (a rock formed from volcanic ash), sandwiched between mudstone (above) and siltstone (below). The internal roof (mudstone) has ripples - indicating sedimentary rock. On the east side of Bala Lake, the area was known as Bryniau Golau (The "Lit-up Hills") derived from the fires of lime-kilns lighting up the area at night. The remains of several lime-kilns and a small limestone quarry are still visible over the ridge to the East.

sources and links

Map - Bala to Crogen

This 1950's map shows the Ruabon to Barmouth line before its closure.

Below Bala

The proposed Elesmere Canal, of which the section between New Bridge and Chester was never built beyond a very short length at the southern end. It isn't known how the canal was supposed to cross the Dee at Chester (below the Old Dee Bridge). Either it would be some kind of aqueduct or a flight of locks down to the riverside from Handbridge. See Canal and Boatyard for more on the canal.


Comparing old and new maps, it is possible to see how the course of the Dee has changed over the years, both through shifts in the meanders and human intervention. Only in the mid 70's was the major Roman camp under the center of this photograph discovered.

To the geological and the human themes we now add a third, the industrial. Thomas Telford constructed sluices at the outlet of Bala Lake to control the flow downstream so that there was always sufficient to supply the Llangollen Canal which starts at Horseshoe Falls. The Llangollen navigable feeder became the primary water source from the River Dee for the central section of the incomplete Ellesmere Canal. Somewhere around the site of the sluices was a motte which has now vanished, one of several in the neighborhood. Pen uchar'r llan Scheduled Ancient Monument earthwork is an oval ringwork enclosure which dominates the northern end of Llanfor. It has been identified as one of a pair of earthworks, the other being Tomen-y-castell (NPRN 406424), located some 1.25km to the north-east. A footpath is depicted on historic (1889) Ordnance Survey mapping, which would have connected Tomen-y-castell to the northern end of Llanfor, and may represent a historic route. Pen uchar'r llan has been identified as a possible medieval commotal structure.

Afon Tryweryn

Just below Bala the Dee is joined by the Hirnant and, roughly half a mile downstream from Bala Lake, the 12-mile long River Tryweryn, flowing down from Llyn Celyn, created in 1965 to provide water for Liverpool. In the late 1950s the Bala Lake Scheme was promoted to increase the available water for abstraction in the River Dee. Telford's original sluices were by-passed and the natural lake outlet was lowered . New sluice gates were constructed downstream of the confluence with the Tryweryn, Construction of the Celyn reservoir in the 1960's involved inundation of the village of Capel Celyn and adjacent farmland, which was controversial, especially as the village was a strong-hold of Welsh culture and the Welsh language, whilst the reservoir was being built to supply Liverpool and parts of the Wirral, rather than Wales. The legislation enabling the development was passed despite the opposition of 35 out of 36 Welsh Members of Parliament (with the 36th not voting). At that time, the 67 inhabitants of the village of Capel Celyn were forcibly removed as the village. This led to an increase in support for the Welsh Nationalist party and Welsh devolution. The abstraction sites downstream include one at Huntington water treatment works Chester operated by United Utilities, which supplies water to Liverpool and Wirral. The building of the reservoir also contributed to the final closure of the GWR branch line from Bala to Blaenau Ffestiniog. Passenger trains had ceased running in 1960, and the last freight train ran in 1961. The line was subsequently flooded by the lake, and the base of the dam also crosses it.

Below Bala Lake

Below Bala Lake the Dee valley supports sheep and cattle grazing and the production of hay and silage. This area may have been farmed since the Neolithic, as the flow of the river would have been sufficient to undermine trees during its frequent changes in course. These glacial and periglacial deposits are rapidly eroded during storm events giving rise to a considerable load of sediment moving downstream. A large sub-circular enclosure has been identified on the flood plain of the Dee, at Ty-tandderwen, just east of Llyn Tegid, from aerial photographs and geophysical survey, and this seems likely to be a neolithic settlement or ceremonial enclosure (or possibly even a mediaeval cattle enclosure).


It is thought that Llanfor was once the commote centre of Penllyn, before it was superseded by Bala sometime before the thirteenth century. The customs and tolls of the market and fair of Llanfor were transfered to the new foundation of Bala in 1310-1311. The earthwork overlooks the church from an elevated position some 70m north. The two may have been contemporary and have formed elements of the same settlement. The earthwork is defined by a massive rampart, up to 5.2m high, with traces of an external ditch. The area enclosed measures some 26m by 18m. At Llanfor, yet another "Holy Well" is depicted on historic (1889-1901) Ordnance Survey mapping. The well is associated with the church of Saint Tyneio, the 6th century Patron Saint of the town. The following legend is told of the church:

A hill-fort, or possibly a Roman Camp, near Cefn-Ddwysarn.
  • "Llanfor Spirit troubled the neighbourhood of Bala, but he was particularly objectionable and annoying to the inhabitants of Llanfor, for he had taken possession of their Church. At last, the people were determined to get rid of him altogether, but they must procure a mare for this purpose, which they did. A man riding on the mare entered the Church with a friend, to exorcise the Spirit. After some time this man emerged from the Church with the Devil seated behind him on the pillion. An old woman who saw them cried out, “Duw anwyl! Mochyn yn yr Eglwys”—“Good God! A pig in the Church.” On hearing these words the pig became exceedingly fierce, because the silence had been broken and also because God’s name had been used. In his anger he snatched up both the man and the mare and threw them right over the Church to the other side, and there is a mark to this day on a grave stone of the horse’s hoof on the spot where she hit. But the Spirit’s anger was all in vain, for he was carried by the mare to the river and laid in Llyn-y-Geulan-Goch. But so much did the poor animal perspire whilst carrying him, that, although the distance was only a quarter of a mile, she lost all her hair."

Elias Owen, in his 'Welsh Folk-lore' (1887) quotes both this and several other slightly different version of the story, where, for example, the impression of the horse-hoof is on the river-bank instead. Owen concludes:

  • "There is a good deal that is human about these stories when stripped of the marvellous, which surrounds them, and it is not unreasonable to ask whether they had, or had not, a foundation in fact, or whether they were solely the creations of an imaginative people. It is not, at least, improbable that these ghostly stories had, in long distant pre-historic times, their origin in fact, and that they have reached our days with glosses received from the intervening ages. They seem to imply that, in ancient times, there was deadly antagonism between one form of Pagan worship and another, and, although it is but dimly hinted, it would appear that fire was the emblem or the god of one party, and water the god of the other; and that the water worshippers prevailed and destroyed the image, or laid the priest, of the vanquished deity in a pool, and took possession of his sacred enclosures."
Maps of agriculture types show how mixed rearing of sheep and cattle (pale green) extend up the easilly defended Dee valley to Bala, whereas the Cheshire plain (dark green) is mostly dairy. It is likely that this is an ancient division and it has led both to Cheshire Cheese and the Welsh "drovers road".

On the floodplain of the Dee, to the east of Bala and to the south of Lanfor, is a remarkable series of early Roman sites. These have been ploughed completely flat and survive only as cropmarks, discovered by Cambridge University photographers in 1975. The earliest site is a very large marching camp beyond which can be seen one corner of the triple ditch system of an auxiliary fort. The most prominent feature is a double-ditched polygonal enclosure. The fort is roughly square, with sides running 650 feet along an east-west axis, and 600 feet north to south, enclosing an area of about 9 acres. The site is defended by a rampart and 3 ditches on all sides. The ramparts appear to have been made of simple turf walls. Within the walls are signs of two colonnaded courtyard buildings, set in the centre of the fort. These were probably the principia (the administration building) and praetorium, or general's quarters. To the south stood a granary, and a series of 22 subdivided buildings suggest several barracks. The barracks are larger than usual, at 10m by 60m. The number and size of the barracks suggest that Llanfor was made to hold 4 legionary cohorts. The fort was probably built around 70 AD and was in use for only a short period before it was replaced by a new fort at Caer Gai, 5 miles distant, about 75 AD.

The excellent Archwilio database allows you to discover more about the known features of archaeological and historical interest recorded by the Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust. The image shows the result of a search for Bronze Age sites near Llandrillo.

Rhiwaedog, or "The Bloody Brow" was, according to a local tale, the site of a battle between "Llywarch Hên" and the Saxons. There is a historical record of a stone circle, Pabell Llywarch Hen ('The tent of Llywarch the Old'), close to Llanfor, but the circle was unfortunately removed in the 17th century during "agricultural improvement". Llywarch Hen was a 6th-century prince and poet of the Brythonic kingdom of Rheged, a ruling family in the Hen Ogledd or "Old North" of Britain (modern southern Scotland and northern England). Along with Taliesin, Aneirin, and Myrddin, he is held to be one of the four great bards of early Welsh poetry. Whether he actually wrote the poems attributed to him is unknown, and most of what is known about his life is derived from early medieval poems which may or may not be historically accurate. The Bonedd lists his date of birth c. 534, and his death c. 608, meaning he would have been around 80 years old at the time of his death, in keeping with his reputation as Llywarch "the old." However, some sources list different birth and death dates, with unlikely claims of his age reaching 105, or even 150 years. George Borrow writes of him as follows:

  • "Llewarch Hen or Llewarch the Aged was born about the commencement of the sixth and died about the middle of the seventh century having attained to the prodigious age of one hundred and forty or fifty years which is perhaps the lot of about forty individuals in the course of a millennium. If he was remarkable for the number of his years he was no less so for the number of his misfortunes. He was one of the princes of the Cumbrian Britons but Cumbria was invaded by the Saxons and a scene of horrid war ensued. Llewarch and his sons of whom he had twenty four put themselves at the head of their forces and in conjunction with the other Cumbrian princes made a brave but fruitless opposition to the invaders. Most of his sons were slain and he himself with the remainder sought shelter in Powys in the hall of Cynddylan its prince. But the Saxon bills and bows found their way to Powys too. Cynddylan was slain and with him the last of the sons of Llewarch who reft of his protector retired to a hut by the side of the lake of Bala where he lived the life of a recluse and composed elegies on his sons and slaughtered friends and on his old age all of which abound with so much simplicity and pathos that the heart of him must be hard indeed who can read them unmoved. Whilst a prince he was revered for his wisdom and equity and he is said in one of the historical triads to have been one of the three consulting warriors of Arthur " - George Borrow, Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery.


Crogen had a motte (probably Norman), Branas Uchaf a chambered cairn and there is a hill-fort at Llechwedd Cilan. It is also the place where William de Braose (the younger) was hung in 1230 after his affair with Joan, Lady of Wales.

Downstream of Llanfor the Dee valley narrows to a point where the river and the railway could not both pass through, so the railway uses a short tunnel to pass the bottleneck, After this the Valley broadens again around Llandderfel and is joined from the south by the valley of the river Callettwr.

Near Llandderfel was Ffynnon Derfel - a spring attributed to the 6th Century Saint, Derfel. Derfel is said to have had healing powers where animals were concerned, and in particular, for cattle. Visiting the well in 1913, the Royal Commission inspector described it as follows:

  • "There is no well at the present time at the spot where the water gushes forth in which adult bathing could have taken place or to which vaticinatory offerings could have been made; there is merely a stone slab about two feet long, which, with some rude masonry, protects the spring and forms a small reservoir> about four feet wide. The water escapes at one side of the stone, and runs along the east side of the field."
Horse or stag? - the statue in the porch at Llandderfel church.

In the porch of Llandderfel church there still survives the mutilated figure of an animal lying down, with its legs tucked neatly beneath its body. Some believe it to be a stag, others a horse. It still exhibits faint traces of red paint. With the animal is a substantial portion of a decorated wooded pole. For ages these have been known as the "cefifri and ifon" of St Derfel (his horse and staff or walking-stick). However a letter to the bishop written 8 November 1626, when the image was more complete, records the presence of "a wooden image of a Redd Stagg as a relique of the image of Dervell Cadarn" on the north side of the sanctuary, which is probably where the cult image stood before the Reformation. Damage to the stag began when in 1730 the Rural Dean ordered that the image be decapitated. At the same period, the image was carried in procession to Bryn Sant the "saint's hill", also called Bryn Derfel, annually on Easter Tuesday, where it was made to function as a sort of fairground ride; resulting in yet further damage. This was once accompanied by a statue of Derfel which befell an even stranger fate. On 6 April 1538 Thomas Cromwell's Commissary for the St Asaph diocese, Ellis Price, wrote to his master:

  • ..there is an image of Darvel gadarn within the saide diosece, in whome the people have so greate confidence, hope, and truste, that they cumme dayly a pilgramage unto hym, somme with kyne, other with oxen or horsis, and the reste withe money: in so muche that there was fyve or syxe hundrethe pilgrames, to a mans estimacion, that offered to the saide Image the fifte daie of this presente monethe of Aprill. The innocente people hathe ben sore alured and entised to worshipe the saide Image, in so muche that there is a commyn sayinge as yet amongist them, that who so ever will offer anie thinge to the saide Image of Darvellgadarn, he hathe power to fatche hym or them that so offers oute of Hell when they be dampned.

Cromwell ordered that this statue be confiscated, and taken to London for destruction, and a further letter from Price, dated 28 April, records not only that this had been done, but that such was the local regard for St Derfel's image:

A hill-fort, or possibly a Roman Camp, near Cefn-Ddwysarn.
  • ..the person [parson] and the parysheners of the churche wherein the saide Ymage of Dervell stode, profered me fortie powndes that the said Ymage shulde not be convaide to London..

- and warned Cromwell that the parish priest "wythe others" were heading for London to demand the return of their sacred image, and to complain about Price's conduct. Even if they reached London in time, their complaints were of no avail, the image was burned at Smithfield on 22 May 1538 together with John Forest, a Franciscan friar, and the only Catholic martyr to be burned at the stake.

Thomas Pennant in his "Tour Through Wales" tells the story as follows:

  • "A LITTLE beyond the extremity of this romantic part, in an opening on the right, ſtand the church and village of Llan-Dderfel: the firſt was dedicated to St. Derfel Gadarn, and was remarkable for a vaſt wooden image of the ſaint, the ſubject of much ſuperſtition in ancient times. The Welſh had a prophecy, that it ſhould ſet a whole foreſt on fire. Whether to complete it, or whether to take away from the people the cauſe of idolatry, I cannot ſay; but it was brought to London in the year 1538, and was uſed as part of the fuel which conſumed poor frier Foreſt to aſhes, in Smithfield, for denying the king's ſupremacy. This unhappy man was hanged in chains round his middle to a gallows, over which was placed this inſcription, alluſive to our image: "David Darvel Gutheren, As ſayth the Welſhman, Fetched outlawes out of Hell. Now is he come with ſpere and ſheld, In harnes to burne in Smithfeld, For in Wales he may not dwel. And Foreeſt the freer. That obſtinate lyer, That wylfully ſhal be dead. In his contumacye, The goſpel doeth deny, The kyng to be ſupreme heade.". THE prophecy was fulfilled, the image burnt, and the Foreſt conſumed, to the great content of the lord mayor, the dukes of Suffolk and Norfolk, the lord admiral, and lord privy ſeal, and divers others of the nobility, who honored this auto de fe with their preſence†; but unfortunately, the frier not having the inſenſibility of our wooden ſaint, on the touch of the flames ſhewed the natural horrors at approach of an agonizing death, and payed very little reſpect to the arguments of the pious Latimer, who was placed oppoſite to the ſufferer, in a pulpit, to preach him into a ſenſe of the crime of differing in opinion with his ſovereign in religious matters; for which the prelate himſelf ſuffered in a ſucceeding reign. Foreſt thought fit to deny that Henry was head of the church; and Latimer would force that honor upon Mary, who choſe to cede it to the Pope."

The valley of the River Dee between Bala and Corwen is filled with earthworks, stone-circles and other prehistoric remains. Unfortunately, many have been the subject of "robbing", and some have been completely destroyed, often by "agricultural improvement". Many of the sites will be disappointing to those expecting a "stonehenge". At Cefnddwysarn there is a sizeable enclosure not using a naturally good defensive location but with a double wall (bivallate), so clearly not just a settlement or stock enclosure. The inner rampart was apparently unfinished. There is a much larger hillfort at Cefn Caer Euni. This is a strongly-defended bivallate fort with evidence of numerous houses and probable extension and refortification. This fort, significantly, overlooks the major route between the coast and inland that was eventually taken by a Roman road, rather than overlooking the Dee Valley, and the river crossing at the east end of Bala Lake was clearly an important point on this route. That, and the proximity of the hillfort, may have influenced the siting of the early Roman fort at Llanfor.

sources and links

Map - Llandrillo and Cynwyd

There is a very detailed report on the Archaeology of the North Berwyn Area available for download.


A hill-fort (possibly two) above Llantrillo.

Here we find St Trillo's well - "An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire" states that:

  • "This spring, which is situated about 500 yards north of the parish, is now dry except in winter or very wet weather. No local traditions relating to it exist, and it does not appear to have possessed healing properties or been used for divination - visited 12th July 1913."

Trillo was nobly born, in Brittany, and came to Wales as a disciple and student of Saint Cadfan (the 6th century founder-abbot of Tywyn and Bardsey), who later admitted Trillo to the religious life. St Trillo's Church stands on a mound next to the Ceidiog stream close to its confluence with the River Dee. Geochemical studies have shown anomalously high levels of a large group of metals (Titanium, Zinc, Iron, Manganese) in streams draining the Carnedd y Ci area south of Llandrillo. In fact there is a legend associated with the well, that it "sulkily migrated sfter an insult". The church contains an inscribed stone: a granite slab, 0.7m by 0.6m by 0.5m, bearing "a possible inscription", currently illegible, and said to be Roman, but which look very much like runes. The stone was "originally" at Blaen-y-Cwm, some miles to the south at the head of Cwm Pennant.

Here the flood-plain of the Dee broadens until it is about a mile wide. Above the Ceidiog valley - Cwm Pennant, to the west are numerous cairns and a rather well defended circular hillfort. Cwm Pennant eventually leads to a pass over into Cwm Rhiwarth and the Tanat valley. This sheltered vale, over three miles long, probably has been used for agriculture and permanent settlement throughout history.

The valley of the River Dee between Bala and Corwen is filled with earthworks, stone-circles and other prehistoric remains. Only a few are shown on this map and the individual views are not to scale (or located accurately). Many have been the subject of "robbing", and some have been completely destroyed or "ploughed flat" to the point where they only exist as crop-mark "ghosts". A report "Prehistoric Funerary & Ritual Sites in Denbighshire and East Conwy" concludes that cluster of unusual and elaborate sites in the area surrounding Llandrillo is of exceptional significance in the Neolithic and Bronze Age.

At Tyfos, half way between Cynwyd and Llandrillo, stands a "stone circle" some 50yds in diameter with thirteen to twenty stones (depending on what you count) each standing just one or two feet tall. This may be the remains of a cairn or barrow in which the stones formed a "kerb" around the outside, rather than a true "Stonehenge" type of monument.

In just a six kilometer stretch of the Dee valley are the circles of Tyfos Uchaf and Moel ty Uchaf, and the remains of three chambered tombs including that of Branas Uchaf chambered cairn. The chamber remains at Branas Uchaf consist of two large erect aligned slabs and several smaller stones which together seem to form a "passageway". Moel ty Uchaf, dating from around 2,200 BC, is said to be aligned on the Midsummer rising of the star Deneb in Cygnus - similar to the circle at Grey Croft near the site of the former nuclear-power stations at Sellafield, Cumbria. Moel Ty Uchaf is an unusual site (here is how to get there) which may have had both a burial and ritual function. Although it has the appearance of a stone circle, there are also similarities to the kerbs surrounding some of the upland burial cairns, and the central mound may once have covered a burial. The same arrangement, Deneb alignment, ring and central burial, was found at Grey Croft stone circle - also dated to around 2200 BC.

An ancient trackway known as "Ffordd Gam Elin" runs from the earthworks at Caer Bont to the cairn/circle on the summit of Cader Bronwen, passing a further and more spectacular stone circle of Moel ty Uchaf on the way. A round funerary cairn, 23m in diameter and 1.6m high, surmounted by a small recent cairn sits on top of Cader Bronwen. 9m to the SSW is a large natural boulder, 3.0m by 2.0m by 1.1m high, set on the county border. The name 'Arthur's Table' (Bwrdo Arthur) attaches to either cairn or stone. "Ffordd Gam Elin" is a clear reference to St "Elen of the Hosts" a legendary builder of Roman Roads in Wales. The road heads in the general direction of Viroconium (Wroxeter) probably via the copper mines which lie along its direction. In the other direction, to the north, the trackway may have led to the Great Orme copper mines. Large-scale human activity on the Great Orme began in Bronze Age (around 2000 BC) with the opening of several copper mines - about the same time as Stonehenge was being built. These were abandoned around 600 BC shortly after the start of the Iron Age.

Caer Bont, once a noted fosse and rampart has been "ploughed flat". In June 1913 it was described by the Royal Commission for Antiquities as "one of the most intesresting historical sites in the county" with ramparts 6-9 feet high.

Thomas Pennant in his "Tour Through Wales" describes the then quite prominent earthworks at Caer Bont as follows:

  • "PURSUE the journey to Bala. Go by the little church of Llangar. Obſerve ſomewhat farther on the left, in a field called Caer Bont, a ſmall circular entrenchment, conſiſting of a foſs and rampart, with two entrances, meant probably as a guard to this paſs. My fellow-traveller, the reverend Mr. Lloyd, informed me, that in another tour he had aſcended a hill, above this place, called Y Foel, on whoſe ſummit was a circular coronet, of rude pebbly ſtones, none above three feet in height; with an entrance to the eaſt, or riſing ſun. The diameter of the circle is ten yards. Within was a circular cell, about ſix feet in diameter, ſunk a very little below the ſurface; and about a hundred yards diſtance, facing this, are the reliques of a great Carnedd, ſurrounded by large ſtones. The whole of this formed a place of worſhip among the antient Britons, and probably was ſurrounded with a grove. But what I have to ſay on the ſubject of Druidiſm, is reſerved till I reach Angleſea, its principal ſeat."

One can still find, on the summit of the isolated hill of Y Foel (52.9544N, 3.44849W), an oval enclosure known as the "Y Gaerwen Enclosure" of very meagre earhworks, c.92m by 70m. It is defined by scarps thought to represent the robbed remains of a wall.

Tyfos ring - some 50yds in diameter with thirteen to twenty stones (depending on what you count) each standing just one or two feet tall. So far, it has been spared the plough and the local farmer seems to be taking more care of it than is afforded to other lowland sites.

The introduction of a farming economy is one of the major developments of human history, yet the process by which he changed from an essentially passive user of his environment to an active manipulator of plants and animals is one which is poorly understood. The appearance of new crops and domestic animals must indicate some colonisation from Europe where farming had been established for at least two millennia before its adoption in Britain in the 4th millennium BC. One consequence of agriculture was that pathogens which had once been exclusive to animals transferred to humans, with these animal diseases leaping the species gap and mutating into contagious human diseases. This transmutation of disease is still apparent, as it is believed that humans nowadays share more than sixty micro-organic diseases with dogs, and only slightly fewer with cattle (TB, smallpox, measles), sheep, goats, pigs (flu), and poultry (flu). Hunter/gatherers died from causes of nature but were practically unfamiliar with diseases (which survived poorly in small populations), while farming communities offered a new chance for pathogens to spread but provided a more stable food source. Settlement also increased malaria, as farmland created the warm water-holes and furrows which make perfect breeding environments for mosquitoes. Despite the increasing population pressure and rise in disease, humans did not prove totally defenseless against the onslaught of disease, as survivors of epidemics acquired some antibody protection which allowed for the immune system to become more sophisticated over time. Of course, if the farmers still carried the diseases in a weakened form, contact with the hunter-gatherers could prove fatal for the latter.

The hill-fort above Llantrillo (right) and the motte at Crogen. The two cains towards the lower center of the map have been almost destroyed by what might be relatively recent "treasure hunting".

Prior to the advent of the first settled communities of farmers in about 4000 BC (the start of the "Neolithic" or "New Stone Age") there appear to have been no monumental structures such as these, but with the advent of farming - the so-called "Neolithic Revolution" - came a concern with permanence and continuity which found expression in the large stone or earth constructions which we know today as megalithic chambered tombs or long barrows. Perhaps, with the advent of diseases related to farming, death became a more mysterious thing rather than being from some obvious cause such as falling off a cliff. This interest continued into the Bronze Age (starting about 4000 years ago), though the form of burial monuments and the new ceremonial circles changed - some say that this was under the pressures of an increasingly personalised and hierarchical society in which individuals held power, and every local ruler wanted his own memorial.

The spectacularly sited, but somewhat isolated, stone-circle of Moel ty Uchaf lies just to the north of the "Ffordd Gam Elin".There is a useful guide on how to get there.

However, in the eleventh century BC many traditions, notably the building of burial monuments and stone circles, were abandoned. This was the time of the "Late Bronze Age collapse" - between 1206 and 1150 BC, there was a widespread cultural collapse of the Mycenaean kingdoms (leading to the "Greek Dark Ages"), the Hittite Empire in Anatolia and Syria (Egyptian pharaoh Amenhotep III declared, in a letter tablet found at Tell el-Amarna, in Egypt, that “The Land of Hatti is finished!”), and the New Kingdom of Egypt in Syria and Canaan (the first known labor strike in recorded history occurred during the 29th year of Ramesses III's reign, when the food rations for Egypt's favored and elite royal tomb-builders and artisans in the village of Deir el Medina could not be provisioned). Theories as to the cause of this collapse have included: that the previously benign climate deteriorated, leading to crop failures in multiple consecutive years. This could have been due to the Hekla 3 eruption, the most severe eruption of that Icelandic volcano Hekla during the Holocene. The disruption of trade, making supplies of tin (of which there are few if any known workable deposits in Wales) and therefore bronze scarce, may have then ushered in the Iron Age (around 650 BC).

sources and links

Map - Around Corwen

This 1950's map shows the Ruabon to Barmouth line before its closure.


Between Bala and Corwen, the Dee is joined by the Alwen, which is fed by the Alwen Reservoir and Llyn Brenig. Alwen dam was built between 1909 and 1921, originally to supply water to the town of Birkenhead. Construction of Llyn Brenig began in 1973 and was completed in 1976. A large water treatment facility was built below the dam, and a cast iron underground aqueduct laid to Birkenhead.

Brenig has a capacity of 60 million m³ and was first filled in 1979. Whilst it is not the largest lake in Wales in terms of volume (that is Bala Lake), it is the largest in terms of area covered, around 920 acres (3.7 km2). It has a perimeter of some 14 miles (23 km). When Llyn Brenig is drawn down, it can take several years for it to completely re-fill again so it is only used during droughts when the capacity of Llyn Celyn and Bala Lake are not capable of maintaining the flow in the Dee. The Dee Regulation System ensures a residual flow of at least 364 m³/d is maintained over Chester Weir "in all but the most testing of droughts", safeguarding the passage of migratory fish and limiting the passage upstream of salt water over Chester Weir at high tide. Despite efforts to control the Dee, floods still occurred. The Ruabon-Barmouth line was flooded as recently as on 12th December 1964 when the river broke it's banks near Llandderfel. The line never re-opened.

During construction of Brenig, a number of Bronze Age artifacts were found, as was a camp used by Mesolithic hunter/gatherers. This has been dated by radiocarbon analysis of the charcoal from their fires to around 5700 BC. To enable the visitor to gain some insight into the archaeology of the area a number of sites have been preserved and, in some cases, partially reconstructed. They can be seen along two trails. The shorter of these includes a ring cairn, a bronze age burial mound, several barrows and a hafod dated to the 16th century AD. Hafotai were the summer dwellings where people lived whilst the cattle and sheep grazed the moors. The longer trail includes other bronze age cairns, medieval field banks and a stone building which is possibly the remains of a farm and another hafod which was rebuilt in 1881. . A visitor centre to the south of the lake displays archaeological information about the area.


Rhug (pronounced "reeg") is about two miles outside of Corwen. About 1150, it was ruled by the Maer Du or "Black Mayor of Rhug" and later became part of the lands of the later barons of the ancient cantref of Edeirnion who ruled from "Gwerclas Castle" - although that "castle" site has been rejected as a motte and is now believed to be the site of a barrow, as discussed below. It was at Rhug that Gruffudd ap Cynan was staying when he was betrayed by Meirion Goch of Llŷn, in 1080. Hugh of Avranches, Earl of Chester and Hugh, Earl of Salop, learned that the prince was at Rhug and came with a group of soldiers under the pretence of visiting him. Gruffudd was taken and carried off to Chester Castle and kept there for twelve years in chain and irons. The guards that accompanied Gruffudd were likewise taken prisoners, and after having been barbarously treated (their right-hand thumbs were cut off, making them useless as soldiers) they were then allowed to go free.

Near Corwen: the Gwerclas mound, the Church at Llangar, Ffynnon Sulien holy well, the motte at Rhug and the hill-fort at Caer Drewyn.

Capel Rûg was built by William Salesbury (c. 1520 - c. 1584) the leading Welsh scholar of the Renaissance and the principal translator of the 1567 Welsh New Testament. The chapel is highly decorated with much carving and a recumbent skeleton to serve a reminder of mortality. Architect Edwin Lutyens wrote that the chapel influenced his work, including his most spectacular commission, the Viceroy's House in New Delhi, built 1912-30. In 1547, Salesbury produced an English-Welsh dictionary called "A dictionary in Englyshe and Welshe", and in 1550 added "A brief an a playne introduction teaching how to pronounce the letters in the British tong (now com'enly called Welsh)": in those days spelling was not consistent. According to "An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments in Wales and Monmouthshire" the nearby "motte" at Rhug estate was excavated in 1875 and at the center of the mound a stone cist was discovered. This was formed of fout stones set on end without any coverstone. The cist was found to contain "some dust and small lumps of burt bone". Other finds included seven examples of a "circular bone object ornamented with circles". It now appears that the motte was a castle mound constructed over an earlier Bronze Age burial cairn. The close proximity of the unfortified estate house to the castle mound is a relationship that can be seen elsewhere in Merionydd at Castell Prysor (NPRN 308964) and Crogen (NPRN 306558). The estate house was replaced by the current mansion at the end of the 18th century by which time the prehistoric grave/medieval motte had been utilised as a garden feature with the erection of a summer house or folly on the summit.

The cliffs behind Corwen were formed when Wales lay deep in the southern hemisphere about 425 million years ago. This part of Wales was a deep sea called the Denbigh Trough, which over time filled with grit, sand and occasional tiny fossils of sea creatures called crinoids. This rock is called the Denbigh Grits and Iron Age people used this rock to build the impressive ramparts of the hillfort at Caer Drewyn on the northern side of the valley.

Gwerclas ia a circular mound set on the edge of a river terrace, 14m in diameter and 2.0m high, with kerbing noted on the east side. Despite having been lately identified as a Bronze Age Barrow, it displays all the features of having been constructed at some time during the Neolithic period. The chambers of the barrows were often covered by capstones and burials were deposited over a period sometimes over a thousand years. They sometimes show evidence of ceremonial and ritual use. Excavations elsewhere have shown that fires were lit outside the tombs at certain times of year (Halloween/Bonfire Night) and deposits of animal and human bone have been discovered in a ‘ritual’ context. The location of the Gwerclas tomb is interesting in that the monument lies near to the River Dee and a historic crossing point. Views to the river from the cairn indicate that the River was possibly a focal point for the tomb builders.

Gruffydd ap Cynan escapes after many years in Chester (illustration by T. Prytherch in 1900)

Llangar church sits on the east bank of the River Dee near its confluence with the River Alwen about a mile south of Corwen and probably dates from the twelfth or early thirteenth century. Earthworks have been recorded in the past in the bracken-covered field to the north of the church and in pasture just to the east of the main road. The former may be no more than a medieval or later lynchet and perhaps a quarry, while the significance of the others is uncertain.

A modern stained glass window showing the story of the white hart which was involved in the siting of St Johns Chester.

The track leading to the church from the south is certainly of some antiquity and is edged by flattish ground suitable for occupation. The church closed after it was replaced in 1854 and remained empty until 1967 and was opened to the public in 1991. Its original name was 'Llan Garw Gwyn' (The Church of The White Deer). According to legend, when builders came to build the church, it was at a site down the valley. Every night the work they had done during the day was mysteriously destroyed (or their tools stolen). In despair, the builders turned to a local hermit, or holy man, who told them to hunt for a white stag, and build the church where they first found it. Then they would need to track and kill the deer, and mix its blood with the mortar used to build the church. Elias Owen quotes from a document written by the Rural Dean for the guidance of the Bishop of St. Asaph, in 1729, that the stag was started in a thicket where the Church of Llangar now stands:

  • “And (as the tradition is) the boundaries of the parish on all sides were settled for ’em by this poor deer, where he was forc’d to run for his life, there lye their bounds. He at last fell, and the place where he was killed is to this day called Moel y Lladdfa, or the Hill of Slaughter.”

A series of noted wall-paintings cover most of the interior. Until Cadw took over restoration of Llangar the paintings were unknown, for like many churches, the interior walls had been whitewashed during the Reformation to remove "idolatrous decoration". When Cadw's restorers began work they quickly uncovered a series of paintings that cover most of the interior. Perhaps the partial exposure of these paintings in the past is the origin of the "blood in mortar" myth.


The Roman road that has followed the Bala fault up from Dolgellau would here have contined north-east towards Chester, via the Roman camp at Ruthin, while the course of the River Dee turns east towards Llangollen. At the turn, the well of "Ffynnon Sulien" seeps down into the Dee. Once again geochemical studies have shown anamalous levels of metals in the ground-water hereabouts, typically of zinc. Traditionally Corwen was the venue for a great fair held on May 13th, the feast day of SS Sulien and Mael. The earliest reference to the present church in Corwen dates from around 1222 although the site is believed to be much older. An ancient pre-Christian standing stone has been built into the porch: it is known in Welsh as ‘Carreg y big yn y fach rhewllyd’ or “the pointed stone in the icy corner” and the remains of a later Christian cross, dating from around 1000 stands on a prehistoric cup marked stone in the churchyard. Water from the well used to be carried to the church in Corwen and/or Rhug for use in baptisms.

The cup-marks in the churchyard are Corwen may indicate that the boulder on which the cross stands is from the Bronze Age or earlier. They were described by antiquarian Elias Owen in 1886:

There are several ancient church sites in the upper Dee valley which are associated with a "holy" well, and which have nearby anomalous levels of metals in ground-water. Only the very highest levels are marked in colour on this chart, but each set of small characters indicates a high metal level. Anomalous levels outside of the immediate Dee catchment are not showm.
  • "The stone basement in which the (cross) shaft is placed is elliptical in form, with transverse and conjugate diameters measuring respectively 64 and 60 inches; it is 12 inches or so thick, is of a slaty nature and might have been procured in the neighbourhood… There are seven peculiar artificial depressions along the surface of the pedestal, strongly resembling the cup-markings which are found occasionally on the capstones of cromlechs, etc. They are irregularly arranged: on the north side there are three, almost in a line; and on other parts of the stone there are four of these marks. They differ somewhat from each other in size and shape, but they are for the most part circular, though one is more of an oblong than a circle. They vary also in depth, one being two-and-half inches deep, while the others are shallow. The largest is three inches in diameter; the others are not so broad."

One theory about cup-marks is that they are symbolic "wells" which collect rain water. Elias Owen, in his 'Welsh Folk-lore' (1887) quotes Thomas’s 'History of the Diocese of St. Asaph' concerning the story surrounding the construction of this church:

  • “The legend of its (Corwen Church) original foundation states that all attempts to build the church in any other spot than where stood the 'Carreg y Big yn y fach rewlyd,’ i.e., ‘The pointed stone in the icy nook,’ were frustrated by the influence of certain adverse powers.”

Corwen church has some other almost unique features. The lintel over the priest’s doorway is marked with a cross, reputedly carved by Owain Glyndŵr’s thrown dagger. Inside the church is the effigy of Iorwerth Sulien, once vicar of Corwen. It’s thought to date from the 14th or 15th century. Unusually the upper part is in relief, but from the waist down the detail is level with the surface. Beside some of the graves are "kneeling stones", where people prayed for the departed. Such stones are found only in a few churchyards, all in this area of Wales.

One cannot help but note the regularity with which the story of the hunting of an animal being associated with the establishment of a church which is in turn associated with a holy spring or well turns up along the Dee. At Llangar - 'Llan Garw Gwyn' it is a (male) white deer. Upstream at Llandderfel a stag appears to have been hunted by Derfel, and downstream we have St Johns at Chester (where the well may have been "Jacobs Well"). For the ancient Celts, the white hart was a harbinger of doom, a living symbol that some taboo has been transgressed or a moral law broken - to come across a white hart was to realise that some terrible evil or judgment was imminent. The white hart's reputation improved in Arthurian legends, where its appearance was a sign to Arthur and his knights that it was time to embark on a quest - it was considered the one animal that could never be caught so it came to symbolise humanity's never-ending pursuit of knowledge and the unattainable. It was not long before Christianity managed to appropriate the white hart for its own purposes: the white stag came to symbolise Christ and his presence on earth. It has been suggested that horned animals were associated with the totems of the Cornovii and may be cognate with the Gaulish Cernunnos or the unnamed horned god of the Brigantes. White deer are relatively rare - in fact, genetic analysis shows that the fallow deer introduced by the Romans went extinct in Britain following the collapse of the Roman Empire (after 400AD): it was not until the 11th century that fallow deer were reintroduced. White red deer are much rarer than white fallow deer implying a relatively large deer population and the presence of woodland. Deer populations in woodland need to be actively managed, otherwise they can rapidly destroy the woodland.

There may be a "scientific basis" for the healing properties of the "holy" wells. Much of the groundwater around the upper reaches of the Dee contains an assortment of anomalously high levels of metals. These vary considerably from place to place as a result of the complex underlying geology. While some of the metals are quite toxic (lead and arsenic for example) bathing in such water could be an effective way of treating skin conditions. While trace levels of other metals (zinc for example) could be a useful dietary suppliment.

The Hill-fort of Caer Drewyn occupies a strategic location above the Dee Valley to the north-east of Corwen. A later small enclosure has been constructed on the east side of the hillfort, in the angle between the ramparts and the earlier enclosure embankment, within which one or two hut circles are visible. It is thought that these may be Romano British, or later, in date. There is also evidence for Medieval occupation inside the western entrance.

Just before Corwen (map) the Dee passes under the A5. The "original" London to Holyhead road was built to improve communication between London and Dublin, following the 1800 Act of Union. A number of existing turnpikes between London and Shrewsbury were purchased by the government and, where necessary, new roads were built to connect the turnpikes together. The section of what is now the "A5" between London and Shrewsbury is roughly contiguous with one of the principal Roman roads in Britain: that between Londinium and Deva (Chester), which diverges from the present-day A5 corridor at Wroxeter (Viroconium Cornoviorum) near Shrewsbury. Beyond Shrewsbury, the engineer Thomas Telford constructed the "new" road (linking existing sections of road where possible) up to Holyhead, where ships would take mail and cargo over to Ireland. The project was completed with the opening of the Menai Bridge in 1826. For the next 15 miles the Dee and the A5 will be almost inseparable companions. The building of the A5 had repercussions downstream at Chester: in 1815 when Telford was appointed to the new road project it was seen as a threat to Chester's Irish trade which had to pass over the narrow Old Dee Bridge. As a consequence a committee was set up which led to the construction of the Grosvenor Bridge over the Dee in Chester, which was completed in 1833.


According to Samuel Lewis in the earlier part of the 19th century, the name of Corwen was derived from:

  • "an ancient fortification which formerly occupied the summit of a hill called Caer Wern, in the immediate vicinity of the church, and of which there are still some vestiges".

Corwen most probably takes its name from Caer Drewyn a nearby hillfort. The hillfort would appear to have two main phases of construction, the earliest comprising a small earthen enclosure on the summit of the hill, only the eastern part of which is now readily identifiable. This is believed to date from the Iron Age. The main hillfort is considerably larger, cutting across the earlier enclosure and extending downslope to the west, defended by impressive stone-revetted ramparts. There are two inturned entrances, the more impressive of which is located at the north-east corner, with a second, smaller entrance on the west side. A later small enclosure has been constructed on the east side of the hillfort, in the angle between the ramparts and the earlier enclosure embankment, within which one or two hut circles are visible. It is thought that this may be Romano British, or later, in date. There is also evidence for Medieval occupation inside the western entrance, where a long hut is clearly visible. In around 750 BC iron working techniques reached Britain from southern Europe. Iron was stronger and more plentiful than bronze, and its introduction marks the beginning of the Iron Age. Iron working revolutionised many aspects of life, most importantly agriculture. Iron tipped ploughs could churn up land far more quickly and deeply than older wooden or bronze ones, and iron axes could clear forest land far more efficiently for agriculture. However at the same time the climate became considerably wetter, forcing the Bronze Age farmsteads which had grown on lowland areas to relocate to upland sites. The presence of hill forts may indicate greater tension between better structured and better armed iron-age groups, although there are suggestions that in the latter phases of the Iron Age they existed simply to indicate wealth. Alternatively, they may have served as centres used for markets and social contact. Corwen also has the motte of a Norman castle, probably from one of the many expeditions of Hugh of Avranches.

This stretch of the river can be explored via the Dee Valley Way a 15 mile footpath from Corwen through Carrog, Glyndyfrdwy, Rhewl and Berwyn to Llangollen. For those who prefer not to walk, Carrog marks the present terminus of the Llangollen Steam Railway. The Flint and Deeside Preservation Society (later the Llangollen Railway Trust) was formed in July 1975 with the objective of reopening the 10 miles of line of the original Llangollen and Corwen Railway Company. The Society proceeded to reopen the line in stages commencing with Llangollen Station followed by the track and stations westward. The village which was originally called Llansantffraid-Glyn-Dyfrdwy (from this Owain Glyndwr took his name) until the Railway came in 1860 (it was reopened in 1996 as part of the preserved Llangollen Railway - the plans are to extend it back to Corwen). It was renamed "Carrog", from the name of a local manor-house "to avoid confusion".

The River Dee left it's mark on Carrog in 1601 when the church was washed away in a flood: the replacement was completed in 1615. According to an Englyn by a local contemporary poet, Thomas Evans of Hendreforfydd;

  • Dyfrdwy, Dyfrdwy fawr ei naid; Aeth at Eglwys Llansanffraid, Y Llyfrau bendigedig A'r Gwppan Arian hefyd. (The Dee of the great leaps, Took Llansanffraid church, The sacred books and the Silver Chalice also.)

In 1730 the Rural Dean recorded a report on the parish and describes the churchyard as follows:

  • ..pretty large and much excpos'd, the church standing on a great eminence above the river Dee. The church that now is has not been built many years. and was plac'd on this eminence as likely to be here secure from the fate of the former church. The old church stood on a level with the river and one night swam along towards Chester. It spar'd nor the churchyard but consumd and quite eat it up. The same ungodly and impious river pursues the church even hither, and undermines the wall of the church yard apace. Were the pulpit not sacred, it wd. be no matter of grief if it and the lining were washd and made to swim.

sources and links

Map - Glyndyfrdwy to Llangollen

This 1950's map shows the Ruabon to Barmouth line before its closure - this stretch has been re-opened and runs steam-trains.


The spot where Owain Glyndŵr was proclaimed Prince of Wales by his followers on September 16 1400.

At Glyndyfrdwy (approximately "glin-DUVR-dooy"), a much neglected tree-covered mound on the banks of the River Dee marks the site of Owain Glyndŵr's fortification. It was also the spot where Owain was proclaimed Prince of Wales by his followers on September 16 1400. Glyndŵr was a descendant of the Princes of Powys through his father Gruffydd Fychan II, hereditary Tywysog of Powys Fadog and Lord of Glyndyfrdwy, and of those of Deheubarth through his mother Elen ferch Tomas ap Llywelyn. The site was devastated by Harry of Monmouth, English Prince of Wales (later to become King Henry V) and his forces, in 1403. Henry's actions are set out in his own words, he wrote to his father King Henry IV on May 15th 1403 that:

  • "we took our people and went to a place of the said Oweyn, well built, which was his principal mansion called Saghern, where we supposed that we should have found him if he had been willing to have fought in the manner as he said, but upon our arrival we found no one; hence we caused the whole place and many of his other houses of his tenants in the neighbourhood to be burnt and then went directly to his other place of Glyndourdy (Glyndyfrdwy) to seek for him there. We caused a fine lodge in his park to be burned and all the country therabout and we lodged at rest there all that night..."

At the same time Sir Henry Percy ('Hotspur'), lately justice of Chester, raised the standard of revolt in Chester and formed an alliance with the Welsh rebel. Before they could join forces, Hotspur was defeated and killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury as he raised his visor to get some air (he was wearing full plate) and was hit in the mouth with an arrow. After Percy's defeat one of the quarters of his body was sent to Chester, together with the heads of Sir Richard Venables and Sir Richard Vernon. Chester was not wholly on the side of the rebels as the mayor and the constable of Chester Castle were present at Shrewsbury in the king's retinue (see Shoot the Welsh!). There is a small collection of artefacts associated with Owain in the Owain Glyndŵr Memorial Hall at Glyndyfrdwy. Although initially successful, the Welsh uprising was eventually put down — Glyndŵr was last seen in 1412 and was never captured, nor tempted by Royal Pardons and never betrayed. His final years are a mystery and the location of his grave was long thought unknown, until 2006 when it was revealed to be at Mornington Straddle, in Herefordshire.

The hills south of the Dee are scattered with cairns and tumulii.

Glyndyfrdwy was also the terminus of the Deeside Tramway, a narrow gauge railway built to serve the local slate quarries. These slates were formed from deposits collected in the Welsh Basin during the Silurian (444 - 416 million years ago), and folded during the collision between Eastern Avalonia and North America during the late Silurian and Devonian. Continental collision started in the Mid Silurian and by the start of the Devonian period, the Welsh Basin was at an end. The landmasses formerly separated by the Iapetus Ocean had collided, and the earth movements this collision caused forced the remains of the Welsh Basin into a new range of mountains - the Welsh Caledonides - by an uprising long before that of Glyndŵr. As the marine sediments of the Welsh Basin were being deformed, every grain of sediment was compressed under phenomenal pressure and the rocks developed a grain - a cleavage, making it easy to split them into thin sheets. Thus were the foundations of the Welsh slate industry laid. The local land climate was arid, with occasional rainfall eroding the mountains away and generating new sediments. However at sea the story was different - the Devonian period has been called the "age of fishes" - it marked the major evolutionary burst which evolved the first amphibians to crawl onto the land, where the colonisation by plants was already well underway.

The Berwyns

The scholar T. Gwynn Jones suggested that a possible origin of the term "Berwyn" was "Bryn(iau) Gwyn (ap Nudd)", where the Middle Welsh word "bre" (hill) had mutated to Ber + Gwyn, Gwyn ap Nudd being the mythological King of the Tylwyth teg (Fair Folk, or fairies). Gwyn means "fair, bright, white", cognate with the Irish fionn. As such, he has some connection to the Irish hero Fionn mac Cumhail, whose maternal great-grandfather was Nuada. The name of Gwyn's father, Nudd, appears like Nuada to be cognate with the Brythonic deity Nodens. Small grains of gold have been found in streams draining the NW part of the range, but no convincing bedrock source has been identified.

The landscape of the Berwyn tops comprises tracts of rolling moorland pasture lying to the south east of the Dee valley, overlooking Llandrillo and having prospects to the Snowdonian massif beyond in the west. On the east side of the area, the central ridge of the Berwyn Mountains reaches a height of 827m above OD at the summits of Cader Berwyn and Moel Sych, but westwards the ground slopes gradually in a series of ridges to between 350–450m above OD, before dropping steeply into Cwm Pennant which adjoins the area on the west. In recent years, a combination of aerial photography and archaeological fieldwork has revealed a well-preserved relict landscape of historical agriculture, comprising extensive areas of field systems extending for over 3km above Cwm Pennant. The banks, ditches, enclosures and habitation sites of these field systems are believed to be variously of prehistoric and medieval origin. Gradually, fieldwork is revealing a complex pattern of settlement and farming where a number of terraced platforms, often occurring in pairs with vestigial stone foundations and presumably representing a ‘house and byre’, can be seen to be sited at the ends of associated paddocks and fields. Each complex perhaps represents a small medieval family farmstead. This pattern overlies the remains of an earlier period of land use, represented by stone cairns and circular stone hut foundations, probably belonging to the Bronze Age, and although the pattern here too is presumed to be one of small family farmsteads. While modern "land improvement" has greatly reduced the survival of many of the historic elements of the Berwyn Mountains landscape, this area still represents one of the best preserved landscapes of its type in central Wales. The remarkably high number of prehistoric features, resulting both from farming and ritual activity, and the equally impressive survival of medieval and later farming and settlement evidence contained in this relatively small area, make this a rare and important example of a historic landscape in Wales.

Below Glyndyfrdwy the Dee is rejuvenated, changing its character from a meandering river on a flood plain to a series of "incised meanders" where it cuts deeply into the underlying rock. The path of the river trends generally east-south-east as it descends off the Ordovician Denbigh moors, over the man-made Horseshoe Falls and towards Llangollen, generally skirting the outcropping Karstic limestone exposures north of Llangollen. At Gafaeliau a distinctive loop in the river isolates it from the major east-west lines of communication. The river rejoins the railway and A5 at Llantysilio, once the home of Colonel John Jones, Cromwell's brother-in law and a signatory of the death-warrant of Charles I. Jones made no attempt to escape at the Restoration. He was arrested as a regicide in June 1660 and confessed his complicity in the execution of Charles I when brought to trial. He was hanged, drawn and quartered on 17 October 1660, "conducting himself bravely at his execution".

At Rhewl is a 14th-century drovers’ inn - the "Sun Inn". For centuries, drovers herded cattle and sheep across the hills to the lowland markets of England. Drovers’ roads developed, avoiding towns and toll roads. Inns along these remote routes provided welcome shelter and food for the drovers overnight, with secure pens alongside for their animals. Above Rhewl, Moel y Gaer is one of the summits of Llantysilio Mountain, on the north side of the Dee Valley and west of the Horseshoe Pass. There is evidence for human activity here dating back to at least the Bronze Age (2,000 – 750) BC), with a large burial cairn on the summit of Moel y Gamelin. Several centuries later, during the Iron Age, Moel y Gaer was chosen as the site for a small hillfort. Llantysilio Mountain is part of one of the best preserved open moorland landscapes in North Wales with rare and important habitats and historic interests. The land, most of it unenclosed common, rises to over 500m. The dry heaths which cover most of the area are part of the internationally important Berwyn and South Clwyd Mountains European Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and provide habitat for upland breeding birds including black grouse, skylark, tree pipit and curlew.

in "A Topographical Dictionary of Wales", 1833 & 1849 Samuel Lewis described Llantysilio as:

  • "A parish in the Union of Corwen, hundred of Yale, county of Denbigh; 2 miles (NW by W) from Llangollen, containing 842 inhabitants. ..... It is pleasantly situated on the river Dee, which forms its southern boundary, and is skirted on the north by the small river Merenion; on the west it is bounded by the parish of Corwen; and on the east by a small river running through the Vale of Crucis. The surface is boldy undulated, and in some parts mountainous; the soil, though various, is in general fertile, and the surrounding scenery is strikingly diversified, and in many parts beautifully picturesque. A chain of mountains of romantic appearance and rich in mineral wealth runs through the centre of the parish, which is also intersected by the turnpike road leading from Llangollen to Ruthin."

St Tysilio was the son of Brochwel Ysgythrog, Prince of Powys in the early 7th Century, who was mistakenly thought to have died at the Battle of Chester (Heronbridge) in 613. The account of the battle in the Welsh Chronicles is consistent with Bede, but since it was written after his work the author was probably aware of it. However, this man is clearly not Brochwel as his grandson, Selyf ap Cynan, was King of Powys at this time and described as dying in the battle. References to the subject as 'Brochfael' are probably due to a mistaken identification with the person referred to by Bede.

sources and links


The limestone of the Lower Carboniferous forms a massive white outcrop north of Llangollen on the River Dee.

By Carboniferous times 358.9 ± 0.4 million years ago, Wales had drifted northwards to the equator and the remains of the Caledonian massif had eroded to a low plain. Warm, shallow, seas invaded the edges of the landmass, and thick layers of limestone accumulated as sea shells settled on the sea floor. There are fine examples of this limestone at Llangollen. Eventually, the marine transgression of the Carboniferous covered most of North Wales with only the highest mountains remaining unsubmerged. By the Upper Carboniferous, extensive coastal deltas and swamps dominated the landscape. These were dense with tree-sized club mosses while ferns, seed-ferns, and other plant life lived on the raised river levees. The atmospheric content of oxygen also reached its highest levels in geological history during the period, 35% compared with 21% today, allowing terrestrial invertebrates to evolve to great size, such as the giant "dragonflies" typically shown in geological illustrations. Meganeura, a giant dragonfly-like insect with a wingspan of ca. 75 cm was the largest flying insect ever to roam the planet.

Great thicknesses of peaty matter accumulated in these swamps, which, under the higher pressures and temperatures of deeper and deeper burial, were slowly converted into coal seams. The removal of carbon into limestone and coal depleted the atmospheric CO2 levels and reduced the "greenhouse" effect, possibly resulting in massive climate change. This has been suggested as one basis for the transition from the rainforest conditions of the Carboniferous to the arid conditions which followed. However the transition is a complex one and also appears to have involved an episode of volcanic erruption.

At this time, the landmasses which are now Africa, South America, India and Australia were joined together as a supercontinent, By about 290 million years ago, during the Permian this huge land-mass, which is known posthumously as Gondwanaland, had collided with the Laurasian block of Laurentia (North America), Baltica (Europe) and Siberia (Northern Asia) to form a single supercontinent - Pangaea.

The formation of Pangaea had a major effect on life globally - sea-levels dropped, bringing changes in marine salinity. The Permian Dee valley would have been an equatorial desert with expanses of sand dunes dotted with salt lagoons where areas of former sea had been cut off as global sea levels fell. On either side of modern-day Wales, great sedimentary basins developed. One was in the Irish Sea, and the another was to become Cheshire. By the start of the Jurassic (c.200 million years ago), the land was widely subsiding and in, once again, came the sea, submerging all but the mountain areas. Important mineral deposits were formed as high heat-gradients generated metalliferous brines which migrated into older rocks. The limestone of the Lower Carboniferous were a particularly favourable host for mineralisation, and so the "Pennine-type" lead-zinc-fluorite-baryte orefields were formed, including the Halkyn-Minera district. The unique copper deposits of the Great Orme, near Llandudno, are thought to have been formed at this time too, and have been mined since the Bronze-age. In the Jurassic, Pangaea split into Laurasia and Gondwana, with Avalonia as part of Laurasia. In the Cretaceous (starting about 145 million years ago), Laurasia broke up into North America and Eurasia with Avalonia split between them. If there was a River Dee in deep prehistory it's banks are scattered oceans wide.

The present day Cambrian mountains, are one of the high Welsh plateaux that began as a Permian erosional surface (worn down over 20,000 feet from the original Cambrian Mountains) then rose to its present height in the past 50 million years. Geologists do not agree on the cause of this uplift. Some believe it to be the result of distant rumblings of the Alpine collision to the south. Others believe light granite intruded near the base of the crust, made the crust lighter so it rose. At Llangollen the Dee cuts through the hills which bound the ruins of these ancient mountains. The dramatic topography of the Vale of Llangollen has inspired a long tradition of literary and artistic associations since early medieval times.

Chainbridge and Horseshoe Falls

The Horseshoe Falls and the chain-bridge. The water off-take from the River Dee at the Horseshoe Falls, to fill the canal system, was significant enough to cause several water-mills on the Dee to close.

Just downstream of the Horseshoe Falls, at Berwyn, is an excellent example of a chain-bridge. There has been a river crossing near here since at least Roman times, when their original road forded the Dee just below Llantysilio Hall, some 300 yards up-steam. This crossing was later used by the Cistercian Monks of the nearby Valle Crucis Abbey (dissolved 1536). The crucis ("of the cross") in the name of the Abbey refers to the Pillar of Eliseg which had stood nearby for nearly four centuries when the abbey was established in 1201. The first chain bridge was built by the ironmaster Exuperius Pickering in 1814, to transport coal and slate to the new A5 and save himself the hefty toll to cross Llangollen Bridge. By 1870 the bridge was badly rusted and Henry Robertson replaced it with a new construction. Robertson's bridge was repaired in 1909 following the heavy floods of that year but eventually succumbed to the Dee on 16th February 1928 after an exceptionally heavy flood, dammed fallen trees against the upstream side. That evening, the structure failed and was swept downstream with parts reaching as far as Chester. The current bridge was constructed in 1929, but was closed in the 1980's due to it's dangerous state, and not re-opened until 2015. The River Dee below the Chain Bridge Hotel follows a geological fault line and cuts through a deep and narrow slot. Canoeists know this testing section as the "Serpent's Tail". This is also the site of a dramatic escape, where the river rushes through a narrow gorge about 18 feet wide: it is said that a thief once leapt the river at this point to escape pursuit and is has been known as the "Thief's Leap" or "Robber's Leap" since then.

An old post-card showing the River Dee looking downriver. The white cliffs in the background are the limestone outcrop at Trevor Rocks.

The present-day Llangollen Canal was originally the centre section of the Ellesmere Canal. The canal was intended to link the River Mersey at Netherpool (now known as Ellesmere Port) with the River Dee, and from there run via Overton (south of Wrexham) to the River Severn at Shrewsbury. With it's aqueducts and scenery, it is the most popular canal for holidaymakers in Britain. The upper section was built as a navigable feeder and is both shallow and narrow. Thomas Telford's Horseshoe Falls is the "filling point" for the canal. Construction work on the canal running through the Vale of Llangollen began in 1795 and was completed in 1808. The canal was not only intended to supply a means of transport but also to provide a supply of water (to Crewe and Nantwich) and so it is known for it's marked current. The volumes of water abstracted from the Dee led to problems - when the sluices were opened the level downstream fell significantly and water-powered mills suffered a loss of flow. In 1811 the canal company admitted liability and paid £312 in compensation, but problems continued. The Ellesmere Canal merged with the rival Chester Canal in 1813. In 1830 an Act allowed the canal company to buy the Dee Mills at Chester, which were sub-let. Before long the new tenants were claiming compensation for the reduced flow of the river. A merger with the Birmingham and Liverpool Junction Canal in 1845 was followed in 1846 by the formation of the Shropshire Union Railways and Canal Company, making the canal part of the Shropshire Union Canal network. Following litigation in the 1880's the canal company entered into an agreement to pay compensation for the next 21 years. It is not known to what extent, after 1808, the diversion of water from the Dee (which was canalised by 1740) accelerated the silting of the estuary, which was already well underway, but the abstraction of such a volume of water must have reduced the scouring action of the river.

Vale of Eglwyseg

Eliseg's Pillar. The pillar itself dates to the 9th century, the mound is significantly older, dating from 2000 BC and has several burials in it. Full details of the excavation of the mound and what was discovered can be found on the Project Eliseg website - a collaboration between the Universities of Bangor and Chester.

The ruined Cistercian abbey of Valle Crucis lies near the confluence of the Eglwyseg and the Dee north of Llangollen, and was founded by Madog ap Gruffydd on 28th January 1201 as a colony of Strata Marcella near Welshpool. The now ruined abbey buildings are typical of many Cistercian foundations, lying in a secluded river valley surrounded by farmland. The Pillar of Eliseg, the base of a stone "cross" prominently sited in the Eglwyseg valley, was (according to its inscription) erected in the first half of the 9th century by Cyngen ap Cadell in honour of his great-grandfather Eliseg (who was probably known as Elisedd ap Gwylog). In 1696 the antiquarian Edward Lhuyd recorded the original inscription, before it had deteriorated to its now largely illegible state. The inscription traced the perhaps part legendary descent of the royal house of Powys from the early 5th-century king Gwrtheyrn ("Vortigern"), the late 4th century Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus), and a religious blessing from St Germanus of Auxerre, thus laying down political and territorial claims reaching back to the late Roman world - see the Dark Ages article on the Romano-British for more. According to tradition, Magnus married Elen Luyddog - "Elen of the Hosts", who is associated with the building of many "Roman Roads" in Wales (some of which are prehistoric trackways - such as the "Ffordd Gam Elin" which runs from the earthworks at Caer Bont further up the Dee to the cairn/circle on the summit of Cader Bronwen). Elen and Magnus Maximus turn up in a garbled form in the Nativity Play of the Chester Mystery Cycle.

The pillar was knocked down during the Civil War and was re-erected in 1779 by Trevor Lloyd of Trevor Hall. At that time the area was carefully examined, thinking that it might be Eliseg's final resting place. The remains of a very tall man and a silver coin were supposedly found there but his identity remains a mystery. A witness said the skeleton's bones 'broke like gingerbread' when exhumed.

The placement of Eliseg's Pillar is on the possible route from previously Roman and now ecclesiastical centers on the north Wales coast to other centers in the south. Cantrefs and commotes at times claimed by Gwynned are shown in orange. The route is aon a corridor defined by the Berwyn mountains on one side and Offa's dyke on the other. It's placement begs the question of who exactly were the intended audience for the inscription - the general populace would not be able to read "ceremonial" latin. Perhaps its location on a route that would have been used by the clergy, the formal "legal" language, and the strong inference that it should be read aloud, might mean that the Church (i.e. Nennius and co) were the target.

The mound which supports the pillar was subjected to excavation in the years 2010, 2011 and 2012 by Project Eliseg. This established that the earliest phase of construction was that of a kerbed platform cairn, dated by type to around 2000 BC. A small cist (burial chamber for ashes) in the first phase of construction yielded evidence of burnt human bone, confirming its use as a burial site. The second phase of construction consisted of a raising in height of the cairn and contained a large cist considered as Early Bronze Age, however, no human remains were found. A further cist was found in this phase which contained some 7 kg of cremated bone, which represents numerous adult, juvenile and infant burials. A flint knife and a bone pin were also recovered.

A generally accepted translation of the inscription, one of the longest surviving inscriptions from pre-Viking Wales, is as follows:

† Concenn son of Cattell, Cattell son of Brochmail, Brochmail son of Eliseg, Eliseg son of Guoillauc.
† And that Concenn, great-grandson of Eliseg, erected this stone for his great-grandfather Eliseg.
† The same Eliseg, who joined together the inheritance of Powys . . . throughout nine (years?) out of the power of the Angles with his sword and with fire.
† Whosoever shall read this hand-inscribed stone, let him give a blessing on the soul of Eliseg.
† This is that Concenn who captured with his hand eleven hundred acres [4.5 km²] which used to belong to his kingdom of Powys . . . and which . . . . . . the mountain

..the column is broken here. One line, possibly more, lost..

. . . the monarchy . . . Maximus . . . of Britain . . . Concenn, Pascent, Maun, Annan.
† Britu son of Vortigern, whom Germanus blessed, and whom Sevira bore to him, daughter of Maximus the king, who killed the king of the Romans.
† Conmarch painted this writing at the request of king Concenn.
† The blessing of the Lord be upon Concenn and upon his entire household, and upon the entire region of Powys until the Day of Judgement.
Germanus of Auxerre (Welsh: Garmon Sant) (c. 378 – c. 448) was a bishop of Auxerre in Late Antique Gaul. He best remembered for his journey to combat Pelagianism in Britain in or around 429 AD. Germanus led the native Britons to a victory against Pictish and Saxon raiders, at "a mountainous site near a river", of which Maes Garmon, near Mold, in North Wales is the traditional location. Nennius changes the history and has Germanus anihilate Vortigern with fire and brimstone.


Much ink has been spilt trying to discern the meaning and purpose of the inscription. For example in the line "Britu son of Vortigern..." the original latin reads:

  • "Britu a[u]t[e]m filius Guarthi/[girn] que(m) bened[ixit] Germanus que(m) / … peperit ei Se[v]ira filia Maximi / [re]gis qui occidit regem Romano/rum"

..it is not clear who is getting blessed (Vortigern or his son?), and while "bore" is in the sense of "give birth" (peperit being the third-person singular perfect active indicative of pario) rather than "carry"(ferro) it isn't clear that "Maximi.." refers to a person, such as Magnus Maximus or to simply the "great king who slew the king of the Romans". Germanus visited Britain on two occasions, dated by Bede to 429 AD and 438 AD (Bede, Ecclesiastical History, Book I Ch. 17 and Ch. 21), and the visits are also known from a hagiography written by Constantius of Lyon in 480 AD (who does not mention Vortigern at all). See Mold Cope for more on his visit.

It is usually surmised that the inscription is an attempt to record and justify the valid claim of Cyngen to the throme of Powys through ancestors which go back, via Vortigern, to the Roman usurper Magnus Maximus (Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus, Welsh: Macsen Wledig) (ca. 335 – August 28, 388). That might have been a part of an ongoing propaganda war with Gwynedd, where the Welsh monk Nennius was (around 821-829, or perhaps earlier) producing his History of the British (possibly at the request of Elvodug, bishop of North Wales who had induced the Welsh church — after centuries of Celtic practice — to adopt the Roman method for determining the date of Easter.) and claiming that Vortigern was not the head of the line of Powys royalty at all, but that they were descended from a servant. The "servant" in question having shown some kindness to St Germanus shortly before Vortigern was anihilated by the saint:

  • "from hence- forward thou shalt be a king all the days of thy life." Thus was fulfilled the prophecy of the Psalmist: "He raiseth up the poor out of the dust, and lifteth up the needy out of the dunghill." And agreeably to the prediction of St. Germanus, from a servant he became a king: all his sons were kings, and from their offspring the whole country of Powys has been governed to this day."

In the Nennius version Germanus does not bless Vortigern or his son, but pursues him for his sin (said to be incest), prays for divine retribution and Vortigern duly dies in a firey holocaust. Rather than the kings of Powys being descended from Vortigern, they are descended from the servant whose name was apparently Catell Drunluc.

Gildas (an earlier historian and author of "The Ruin Of Britain") has nothng good to say about Maximus:

Magnus Maximus (Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus, Welsh: Macsen Wledig) (ca. 335 – August 28, 388), was Western Roman Emperor from 383 to 388. In 383 as commander of Britain, he usurped the throne against emperor Gratian; and through negotiation with emperor Theodosius I the following year he was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul.
  • ..new races of tyrants sprang up, in terrific numbers, and the island, still bearing its Roman name, but casting off her institutes and laws, sent forth among the Gauls that bitter scion of her own planting Maximus, with a great number of followers, and the ensigns of royalty, which he bore without decency and without lawful right, but in a tyrannical manner, and amid the disturbances of the seditious soldiery. He, by cunning arts rather than by valour, attaching to his rule, by perjury and falsehood, all the neighbouring towns and provinces, against the Roman state, extended one of his wings to Spain, the other to Italy, fixed the seat of his unholy government at Treves, and so furiously pushed his rebellion against his lawful emperors that he drove one of them out of Rome, and caused the other to terminate his most holy life.

In reality Magnus Maximus set up his capital at Trier (Treves) and apparently ruled well over Britain, Gaul & Spain for four years. Gratian was killed while fleeing him. He was baptised a Christian, and was recognised as Emperor in the west by Thedosius (the same one who had accompanied his father to Britain in 369) who was occupied with his own troubles elsewhere. Eventually however, Maximus was forced to make a move against Gratian's younger brother, Valentinian II, the Southern Emperor, who threatened his rule from Rome. He invaded Italy, took Milan and for a whole year besieged Rome. Unfortunately though, Valentinian escaped to return, backed up by the Roman Emperor of the East, Theodsoius. Maximus' forces were twice defeated at Illyricum, before he was finally killed, with his son, at Aquileia, on 28 August 388. As for "Vortigern", actual evidence for his existence is scant and shrouded in legend:- it is occasionally suggested by scholars that Vortigern could be a title rather than a personal name, the name in Brittonic literally means "Great King" or "Overlord", composed of the elements *wor- "over-, super" and *tigerno- "king, lord, chief, ruler" (compare Old Breton "machtiern", Cornish "myghtygern") a type of local ruler (literally "pledge chief").

Vortigern does not appear in any "official" version of history. By 400 the provinces of Britain were now isolated, lacking support from the Empire, and the setting up and pulling down a series of emperors as the soldiers supported the revolts of:

  • Marcus (406 - 407), a soldier in Roman Britain who was proclaimed emperor by the army there some time in 406. All that is known of his rule is that he did not please the army, and was soon killed by them;
  • Gratianus (407), acclaimed as emperor by the army in Britain in early 407. His army wanted to cross to Gaul and stop the barbarians who were attacking the empire but Gratian ordered them to remain (he should have known better). Unhappy with this, the troops killed him - and finally
  • Constantine "III" (who actually listened to the troops);

One possible explanation for Vortigern is that he is a made-up figure including elements of Constantine III and others of the time, with a mix-up between the usurper Gratianus and the emperor Gratian thrown-in. Vortigern is in Welsh: Gwrtheyrn; Old English: Wyrtgeorn; Breton: Guorthigern; and, Irish: Foirtchern. Two manuscripts name him: MS. A (Avranches MS 162, 12th century), refers to Uortigerno; and Mommsen's MS. X (Cambridge University Library MS. Ff. I.27) (13th century) calls him Gurthigerno.


The place name Powys, is from the Latin "pagenses" meaning something like "those who dwell in the country". The post-Roman (after AD 400) kingdom of Powys initially extended much further east and may have included the Roman cities of Chester and Viroconium (Wroxeter) and so covering the lands of the Ordovices and Cornovii: modern day east mid Wales, Chester and Shropshire - the fertile valleys of the Dee, Severn and Trent. Viroconium may well have been the capital of Powys and later of the sub-kingdom of Pengwern. Investigations at Viroconium have revealed the construction well into the fifth century of a large and remarkable timber palace on quasi-Classical lines. Grandiose in conception, there existed a massive hall with a linear spread of outbuildings, all executed in timber. It has been suggested that this was built for "Vortigern", which would place him on the throne around 530-570. These dates present some problems for the claim that Vortigern's (first) wife was the daughter of Magnus Maximus (ca. 335 – August 28, 388). According to tradition, Vortigern's second son was handed Powys when Vortigern became high king of Britain c 425 (again this does not fit with the reconstruction at Viroconium). Viroconium was reputedly sacked by the West Seaxe around 584. The kingdom has very likely already relocated its capital before this event. Within a hundred years the area of Powys had shrunken considerably, possibly due to the break-away of Pengwern. For the next couple of hundred years the early Welsh kingdoms fought a bitter series of wars while territory was being lost in the east to Anglo-Saxon rulership. Matters would not have been helped by the extreme weather events of 535–536, which might have led to widespread crop failure.

Porch sculpture from Chester Town Hall - Egbert - believed at the time to be the first king of England. Visited Chester once - to invade it. At that time (c.829) Chester was possibly part of Gwynedd

The times leading up to Cyngen ap Cadell's reign were unsettled for both Powys and neighboring Gwynedd. Both kingdoms were beset by internal dynastic strife, external pressure from Mercia, and bad luck with nature. In 810-11, there was a bovine plague that killed many cattle (the primary form of wealth at the time) throughout Wales. The next year, the ancient wooden llys (stronghold - possibly dating back to the Romans) at Deganwy was "destroyed by thunder" and burned to the ground. A destructive war for control of Gwynedd raged between between supposed brothers Cynan and Hywel from 812 and 816, while in Powys a son of the king was killed by his brother "through treachery" (Elisedd - Cyngen's son, slaughtered Gruffydd ap Cyngen). In 818, there was a notable battle at Llanfaes on Anglesey. Although historical sources do not identify the combatants, the site had been the stronghold of King Cynan. Coenwulf of Mercia took advantage of the situation in 817, occupying Rhufoniog and laying waste to Snowdonia. Coastal Wales along the Dee Estuary must have remained under Mercia through 821, as Coenwulf is recorded dying peacefully at Basingwerk in that year (the abbey came much later). In 823, Mercia laid waste to Powys and returned to Gwynedd to burn Deganwy to the ground. Gwynedd and Powys then gained a respite when Mercia's attention turned elsewhere and its fortunes waned. King Beornwulf was killed fighting the East Anglians in 826, his successor Ludeca suffered the same fate the following year, and Mercia was conquered and occupied by Ecgberht of Wessex in 829. Though Wiglaf of Mercia managed to throw off Ecgberht's rule in 830, it was thereafter beset by dynastic strife and never regained its former dominance, either in Wales or eastern England, leaving the way open for Merfyn Frych (c.825-844) to lay the foundations for a strong position for Gwynedd under his son, Rhodri Mawr.

Sometime after 823 "Eliseg" had re-established the independence of Powys following the Mercian incursions. Cyngen was the last of the original line of kings of Powys. He died in 855, on pilgrimage to Rome. He had (some say three) sons, but on his death Powys was annexed by Rhodri Mawr, ruler of Gwynedd who claimed it as the son of Cyngen's sister, Nest ferch Cadell - despite the fact that surviving texts of Welsh law expressly forbid inheritance along the maternal line. It has been suggested that perhaps medieval genealogists introduced a fictitious sister named Nest and asserted that she was the heiress of Powys and carried the kingdom to her husband or son (the genealogies are notoriously unreliable). Perhaps Cyngen saw the end of the petty Welsh Kingdoms coming, he would have known that Merfyn Frych had (suposedly) claimed the throne of Gwynned through his mother Esyllt, the daughter of King Cynan (d. after 816) and raised "Eliseg's" pillar to proclaim the rights of his own dynasty. The borders of Gwynedd and Powys have moved back and forth over the years: Powys Fadog (English: Lower Powys or Madog's Powys) was the northern portion of the former princely realm of Powys which split in two following the death of Madog ap Maredudd of Powys in 1160. The realm was divided under Welsh Law, with Madog's nephew Owain Cyfeiliog inheriting the south (see Powys Wenwynwyn) and his son Gruffydd Maelor who inherited the north. Gruffydd received the cantref of Maelor and the commote of Iâl as his portion and later added Nanheudwy, Cynllaith, Glyndyfrdwy and Mochnant Is Rhaeadr. The cantref of Maelor and the commote of Iâl have at times been part of Gwynned and the same may have happening in Cyngen's reign. So perhaps the aging Cyngen was off to Rome not only on pilgramage but to request that the Pope ensure the propper succession of his sons? Here his luck may have finally run out - the Pope (Leo IV) died in mid-year 855 and the election of a successor (as Benedict III) was delayed, disputed and disrupted by the election of an "Antipope". A medieval tradition claimed that "Pope Joan", a woman disguised as a man, was Benedict's immediate predecessor. The legendary Joan is generally believed to be fictitious, but if she were not, it is little wonder that the unfortunate Cyngen dropped dead in Rome.

A highly schematic iilustration of the types of geological event which have shaped the landscape along the course of the River Dee. Ordovician volcanos laid down deposits which were uplifted together with Silurian sediments to form the Cambrian Mountains at the river's source. Devonian sandstones either never formed or were eroded away completely. The Carboniferous contributed limestone and coal and the Perian/Triassic a layer of New Red Sandstone which is rifted into the Cheshire plain. Faults have introduced minerals, and in many places slate has been formed. Most recently, ice has sculpted the landscape and deposited gravels and clays. The River Dee continues to try to wash the Welsh mountains down to the sea.

Whether Cyngen fled to Rome, went on a genuine pilgramage (willingly or not) or was seeking the intervention of the Pope in the succession of his seemingly murderous sons, he left behind, nearby the River Dee, an enigmatic monument to the royal house of Powys. In those troubled times, an age when a "Kingdom" might only be a single valley, the darkest part of the Dark Ages was drawing to a close, and new, somewhat larger, political institutions were beginning to form.

sources and links


The stunning Limestone Trevor Rocks at Llangollen played an important part in the August 1831, expedition of one of England's foremost geologists, Prof. Adam Sedgwick, together with a young Charles Darwin, to map the "transition beds" of Wales. Sedgwick had business in Llangollen, with Robert Dawson, a surveyor, who was to furnish him with notes on the limestone of the Vale of Clwyd to the north. The mountain limestone here is of a type which was well known to Sedgwick from elsewhere to be located just above the Old Red Sandstone of the Devonian - the so called "Herefordshire Beds" and Sedgwick was seeking signs of these beds beneath the Llangollen limestone. Adam Sedgwick did not find the Old Red Sandstone at Llangollen, but he later (1839) established the "Devonian System" for the pre-Carboniferous rocks of Devon. This mostly Devonian "Old Red Sandstone" is from a much earlier period than the Permian/Triassic "New Red Sandstone" of the Cheshire plain. Sedgwick was not to find a succession into the transition beds anywhere in North Wales, as the "unconformity" represented a break in deposition and a period of erosion that covered the entire Devonian period and the beginning of the Carboniferous. Devonian strata do not out-crop at surface anywhere in north east Wales and the Devonian sandstones elsewhere are the remains of the Caledonian Mountain chain which was thrown up by the collision of the former continents of Avalonia, Baltica and Laurentia to form the "Old Red Sandstone Continent" - otherwise known as "Euramerica" by the mid Devonian. Euramerica became a part of the major supercontinent Pangaea by the Permian when first Iberia and then the African plate collided with Avalonia. In the Jurassic, when Pangaea rifted into two continents, Gondwanaland and Laurasia, Euramerica was a part of Laurasia. In the Cretaceous, Laurasia split into the continents of North America and Eurasia, but not quite along the previous join. The Laurentian craton became a part of North America while Baltica became a part of Eurasia, and Avalonia was split between the two.

Dinas Bran

Arthur Rackham - "How at the Castle of Corbin a Maiden Bare in the Sangreal and Foretold the Achievements of Galahad".

Castell Dinas Bran, a stone castle, was built within the old hillfort which lies above the river Dee near Llangollen. The castle was built in the later half of the 13th century by the princes of Powys Fadog (English: Lower Powys or Madog's Powys). It consists of a courtyard with the main buildings ranged along the east side and defended by a rock-cut ditch to the east and south. On the two other sides the hillside falls away steeply. Castell Dinas Bran was burnt by the Welsh before it could be captured by Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln in 1277.

Dinas Bran (lit "Castle of the City of Crows") is supposed by some to be the legendary Corbenic, towers above Llangollen and features in a number of literary works in the later 13th and 14th centuries, including "Fouke le Fitz Waryn", based on a now missing late 13th-century verse romance. Also dating from the 14th century is the only extant work of the Welsh poet Hywel ab Einion, a love-poem to Myfanwy Fychan of Dinas Bran. The poem, said to have been left in the cleft of an oak tree on the slopes of the hill, was first published in an English translation by Thomas Pennant in his Tour in Wales. It includes the following memorable metaphor alluding to the impregnability of the hilltop:

  • Though hard the steep ascent to gain, Thy smiles were harder to obtain

John Leland, the King's Antiquary, visiting some time after 1534, mentioned:

  • the castle of Dinas Brane was never a bygge thing, but sette al for strength in a place half inaccessible for enemies.

Early Romantic images of the ruined castle were conjured up in an englyn by the Denbighshire poet Roger Cyffyn in the late 16th or early 17th century, given in translation in George Borrow's "Wild Wales":

A coracle-bearing fisherman in the River Dee above the bridge at Llangollen (before the railway was built). Dinas Bran stands on the hill-top in the background.
  • Gone, gone are thy gates, Dinas Bran on the height! Thy warders are blood-crows and ravens, I trow; Now no one will wend from the field of the fight To the fortress on high, save the raven and crow.

Wordsworth visited Dinas Bran, lamenting the castle's fate as follows:

  • "Relics of kings, wreck of forgotten wars, To the winds abandoned and the prying stars."

The "Fisher King" is associated with Dinas Bran. Versions of his story vary widely, but he is always wounded in the legs or groin, and incapable of moving on his own. When he is injured, his kingdom suffers as he does, his impotence affecting the fertility of the land and reducing it to a barren Wasteland. Little is left for him to do but fish in the river near his castle Corbenic. He may be derived more or less directly from the figure of Bran the Blessed in the Mabinogion, Bran (which means "Crow") had a cauldron that could resurrect the dead (albeit imperfectly; those thus revived could not speak after they were resurrected). The title has several possible origins, which are not necessarily mutually exclusive: in Celtic mythology: there is an Irish myth about the Salmon of Wisdom which is remarkably similar to the story of Taliesin - spilt fluid and a licked thumb lead the wrong person to wisdom. Another theory says that the origin is a play on words or mistranslation: the French words for "fisher" and "sinner" are almost identical (pêcheur and pécheur respectively) - perhaps a reference to all those "rebels" who found their home in the headwaters of the Dee.

Or could the story of the Fisher King's "wounded land" have some basis in truth? Many lead mines can be found in this part of Wales and the Romans extracted vast quantities from the hills. Lead production, is often allied with silver production, hence the presence of a mint and the tradition of silver-working in Chester. "Cupellation" is the oldest and was once the most widely known method of separating and recovering gold and silver from lead. The silver-lead bullion is charged to a cupellation furnace. After the charge has melted, air is blown across the top of the molten bath, causing oxidation of the lead and other impurities which separate as in impure litharge slag, leaving behind the silver and gold as a doré alloy. However, loss of lead to the larger atmosphere creates a significant environmental hazard. Analysis of a Greenland ice core covering the period from 3000 to 500 years ago — the Greek, Roman, Medieval and Renaissance times — shows that lead is present at four times the background level from about 2500 to 1700 years ago (500 B.C. to 300 A.D.). Is it possible that the "wounded land" of the Fisher King legend is a folk-memory of the local effects of toxic waste from early industry? Could people have realised that while crops raised on the land and any animals which were fed upon them would be toxic, the fish of the river would be relatively free of lead? And as for the grail, which a hero must come seeking for the curse to be lifted, could this be a reference to a cupellation crucible, capable of turning base metal into silver (or even gold), but itself the source of the scourge?

St Collen

Llangollen is named after St Collen, (more properly "Collen ap Gwynnawg ap Clydawg ap Cowdra ap Caradog Freichfras ap Lleyr Merim ap Einion Yrth ap Cunedda Wledig") the seventh century saint (there are no other churches in Wales dedicated to St Collen) - who, legend has it, arrived in Llangollen by coracle! Indeed, there has been a church (now St Collen's) in Llangollen since at least the sixth century. The carved oak hammer-beam ceiling of the nave and north aisle - ornamented with figures of angels and fanciful carvings - was built in 1450 by craftsmen employed by the Abbot of Valle Crucis Abbey (some stories suggest that the roofs even came from nearby Valle Crucis Abbey, but this is debatable). While the core of the church dates to the 13th century, most of what we see today dates from a renovation in 1864. A tomb-shrine to Collen stood in the churchyard until the 19th century, but it was demolished to create space for the current west tower. There is a 14th century Founder's Tomb in the north aisle and a striking monument in the south aisle to the Ladies of Llangollen.

The Church of St Collen at Llangollen.

St Collen's Well lies in a field at the top of the Horseshoe Pass - a couple of miles from his church. The associated legend goes that there was a giantess that was terrorising the people of Pentredwr. Hearing of this, St Collen took up his sword and went to do battle with the giantess. After much struggle St Collen killed the giantess and washed the blood from his sword in a nearby spring, which afterwards became known as St Collen's Well. In an alternative version St Collen was a 6th century character of Welsh royal blood, who, during his youth is said to have killed the mighty pagan chieftain Bras and then gone off to become Abbot of Glastonbury before returning to build the church. Both Bras (or Byras) and the giantess are probably symbols of the displacement of pagan beliefs by Christianity. An Oak Chest in the porch of the church is dated 1748 and has three keyholes. It dates back to the days when the Parish comprised of three districts, each of which selected its own Warden and all three had to be present to open the churchwarden's chest.

Ruabon Mountain, the vast area of moorland to the east of Llangollen, was once home to hundreds of burial chambers dating from as far back as 2000 B.C. Unfortunately, many of these, with the exception of those on the very edges of the escarpment, were destroyed by German bombs during WWII. Some stories state that fires were lit here at night and used as a decoy to protect Liverpool. However the bombing appears to have been an error. On the night of 30th/31st August 1940 a German aircraft jettisoned incendiary bombs onto Minera Mountain, which in turn started a large fire within the mountains' gorse and bracken. Over the following two nights further aircraft of the Luftwaffe on their way to bomb Liverpool were attracted by the blaze over the mountain in the belief it was a strategic target, and in turn dropped their bombs. The fire was allowed to burn until 28 square miles of mountain were alight. The Germans thought they had hit a very important inflammable target and continued to bomb the area heavily.

Branch Lines

At Llangollen, it is difficult to tell a simple tale of the river Dee, for there are many interesting sidelines. A bridge across the river at Llangollen has been in existence since at least the 13th century, there being documentary evidence for the repair of the bridge here in 1284. A subsequent bridge is said to have been built by John Trevor in the mid 14th century, but the present bridge is probably originally of about 1500, with major repairs in 1656, with an additional span being added in 1863 across the railway. Thomas Pennant's "Tour in Wales" published in 1783 noted that it was considered one of the "Tri Thlws Cymru", or three beauties of Wales, and it is listed in the anonymous verse "The Seven Wonders of Wales":

  • Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham Steeple, Snowdon's mountain without its people, Overton yew trees, Gresford Bells, Llangollen bridge and St Winifred's well.

Of these "seven wonders", three are located on the River Dee (the yews, bridge and well) and a further two (Steeple and Bells) are close to the Dee valley. Just upstream of the bridge the historic cornmill has been converted into a riverside pub with a terrace overlooking the river.

The "Ladies of Llangollen" apparently dressed this way most of the time.

Llangollen hosted the Eisteddfod in 1908 and has since become it's permanent home. The Eisteddfod itself took place on the old Vicarage Field at Fronhyfyd and was visited by David Lloyd George, accompanied by Winston Churchill. The Gorsedd ceremony (in which the community of Bards "chair" one of their number) was first held on the Hermitage Field, next to Plas Newydd, (the circle of stones were later moved into the grounds of the hall). Three Gorsedd ceremonies are held during the Eisteddfod week:

  • the Crowning (Coroni) of the Bard (awarded to the poet judged best in the competitions in free meter)
  • the Awarding of the Prose Medal (for the winner of the Prose competitions)
  • the Chairing (Cadeirio) of the Bard (for the best long poem).

During these ceremonies the Archdruid and the members of the Gorsedd of Bards gather on the Eisteddfod stage in their ceremonial robes. When the Archdruid reveals the identity of the winning poet, the 'Corn Gwlad' (a trumpet) calls the people together and the Gorsedd Prayer is chanted. The Archdruid withdraws a sword from its sheath three times. He cries 'Is there peace?', to which the assembly reply 'Peace'. Then the Horn of Plenty is presented to the Archdruid by a young local married woman, who urges him to drink the 'wine of welcome'. A young girl presents him with a basket of 'flowers from the land and soil of Wales' and a floral dance is performed, based on a pattern of flower gathering from the fields.

Steam train at Llangollen. It was once possible to get a direct train to London from here.

Plas Newydd, mentioned above, was the home of the "Ladies of Llangollen" - Lady Eleanor Butler (1739-1829) and The Honourable Sarah Ponsonby (1755–1831). Their house became a haven for all manner of visitors, mostly writers such as Robert Southey, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Scott, but also the Duke of Wellington and industrialist Josiah Wedgwood; aristocratic novelist Caroline Lamb (who was born a Ponsonby), came to visit too. They are often said to have been a pair of Lesbians - but does it matter? For the tale of the Dee, all that matters is that the house is still the home to the base of the High Cross of Chester - part of the circle of stones once used by the Druids to enthrone their best poet. The Pengwern Vale, south of Plas Newydd is a relict meander of the Dee, which marks the original path of the river

The nursery rhyme "Mary had a little lamb" is frequently, linked with Llangollen. Mary Thomas (born in 1842 at Ty Issa Farm, Llangollen) attended the "British School" with her pet lamb Billy. She is buried in Worthing but comemmorated on a grave in Llangollen, along with her father, John Thomas. One face of the tombstone is inscribed in memory of John, but the other side bears the inscription:

  • Also in affectionate remembrance of his daughter Mrs Mary Hughes who died in Worthing in 1931, aged 89 years old. Heroine of the nursery rhyme Mary had a little lamb.

However Mary Thomas of Llangollen was not the heroine of the nursery rhyme. The Mary of the rhyme was Mary Sawyer. The original nursery rhyme was, according to one version, penned in America in 1815 by John Roulstone, and was first published in a magazine called Juvenile Miscellany in 1830, 12 years before Mary Thomas of Llangollen was born. The other version has it written by Sarah Josepha Hale, also in America. Whatever it's origins, Thomas Edison spoke the opening lines of "Mary's Lamb" as the first speech ever recorded on his newly invented phonograph.

One final mystery of Llangollen is Guinevere's Cross, mentioned by the antiquarian Edward Llwyd in the 1690's and whose location is now lost. W.T. Simpson in his account of Llangollen in 1827 remarks that "On the north side of the river, nearly opposite the place where the wooden bridge stood, was another pilliar, called Croes Gwen Hwyfr. It stood on the road to Wrexham and has been removed only a few years". The Welsh form Gwenhwyfar can be translated as The White Fay or White Ghost (Proto-Celtic *Uindā Seibrā, "white phantom" or "white fairy").

sources and links

Map - Llangollen to Offa's Dyke

This 1950's map shows the Ruabon to Barmouth line before its closure.

Below Llangollen

The delights of Llangollen tempt the traveller to halt awhile, but the River hurries on.

In the late 1840s / early 1850s a number of schemes were proposed to connect Llangollen to the rail network. One scheme, proposed by the LNWR, even included the Llangollen Canal being turned into a railway. These were all rejected. Further plans were put forwards and the Vale of Llangollen Railway opened to freight traffic on the 1st December 1861 and then to passengers on the 2nd June 1862. Sun Bank Halt between Trevor and Llangollen opened some 40 years later. The tempestuous waters of the Dee are no less deadly when confined by the canal. At Sun Bank a railway disaster occurred one dark night in September 1945 when the canal breached, flushing away the earthworks of the railway (the tracks remained suspended in the air). The telegraph poles were unharmed, so signalmen knew nothing of the damage. Unaware that anything was amiss the engine driver and guard of the Ruabon to Barmouth Mail train perished when their train plunged into the abyss with the engine fireman being the sole survivor.

Thomas Telford's 1000 foot long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct of 1805 crosses the River Dee.

East of Llangolen, Thomas Telford's 1000 foot long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, of 1805, carries the Shropshire Union Canal 120 feet above the Dee (see: Canal and Boatyard).. It consists of a nine foot cast iron trough supported by nineteen hollow masonry piers. Each span is 53 ft (16 m) wide. Mortar used in the construction comprised lime, water and oxen blood. The thin iron plates making up the troughs were cast locally and dovetailed into each other. They were caulked by a mixture of pure Welsh linen and boiled sugar before the joints were sealed over by lead. Crossing the aqueduct is not advised for anyone with a morbid fear of heights. The towpath is cantilevered out from the east side of the trough, which is the full width of the aqueduct. While walkers on the towpath are "protected" by railings on the outside edge, the holes to fit railings on the other side of the aqueduct were never used. As the edge of the trough is only a few inches above the water level, the narrowboat crew have nothing between them and a fatal drop. The aqueduct cost the then considerable sum of £47,000. This resulted in the project running out of money and the canal never reached Ellesmere Port, it's intended destination, but in this phase only reached a quarter of a mile beyond the aqueduct.

Less than one mile east of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct the Dee is crossed by the Shrewsbury-Chester railway at Cefn Mawr. This area was formerly heavily industrialised, with large deposits of coal, iron and sandstone, of which was exported by canal, until the railway reached Ruabon in 1855. In 1867 Robert Ferdinand Graesser, an industrial chemist from Obermosel in Saxony, Germany established a chemical works at Plas Kynaston to extract paraffin oil and wax from the local shale which later expanded into the production of coal tar, carbolic acid and phenol. The site soon became the world's leading phenol producer. In 1919 the US chemical company Monsanto entered into a partnership with Graesser's chemical works to produce vanillin, salicylic acid, aspirin and later rubber. The works is now operated by Flexsys, a subsidiary of Solutia.

The Cefn Viaduct is only slightly less spectacular than the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and was built by Thomas Brassey in 1848 to a design by Henry Robertson. It measures one thousand five hundred and eight feet in length, and stands one hundred and forty-seven feet above the level of the river. The structure is supported by nineteen arches with sixty foot spans.

A real brick - not to be confused with the eponymous polar explorer.. ..Henry Robertson Bowers who died as part of Robert Falcon Scott's polar party on the ill-fated Terra Nova expedition (1910–1913). The Henry Bowers of the brick died in 1902, and his brickworks site was quarried away by Rhos Fireclays Ltd in the 1970s.

The most famous exports of this part of the Dee valley are the Ruabon brick and the quarry tile. The famous red bricks have been used in many buildings - in Liverpool they gave the name to the original "Red Brick University". In Chester they, and other architectural terracotta products were extensively used by architect John Douglas. The Dennis factory is still operating - it was founded by local entrepreneur, Henry Dennis, in 1867 when vast amounts of high quality Etruria Marl clay were discovered in Ruabon. In the traditional method for the making of clay floor tiles, the processed Triassic marl clay was forced under pressure through a die into strips of suitable width and thickness, then wirecut into the required size; mostly 6"x6" and 9"x9". After cutting, the tiles were loaded onto barrows and wheeled to the tile presses. The pressed tiles were hand finished and taken to drying sheds. After drying the bricks were loaded into a kiln and fired. Bricks are glazed by the introuduction of salt, which vaporises in the kiln to give a "salt-glaze". These hard, dense bricks are not only waterproof but also were not subject to staining by industrial air-pollution.

Wat's Dyke and Offa's Dyke

Offa'a Dyke

The River Dee crosses the course of Offa's Dyke just upstream of the railway viaduct. Asser, the biographer of King Alfred, gave the first known reference to the dyke when he wrote, about 100 years after it's construction:

  • that a certain vigorous king called Offa......had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea.

The Dyke appears to have been constructed in response to events in the border region involving the Princes of Powys, but whether it was intended as an agreed boundary, as a defensive structure with long lost additional fortifications, or for some other use, is not known. It is thought to have been started in about 785 AD and to have taken several years to build. The 9th Century history of the region supports the theory that the earthwork had only a short period of importance and was then abandoned. The dyke consists of a ditch and rampart constructed with the ditch on the Welsh-facing side, and appears to have been carefully aligned to present an open view into Wales from along its length. As originally constructed, it must have been about 27 metres wide and 8 metres from the ditch bottom to the bank top.


The border town of Chirk stands on the escarpment above the point at which the rivers Ceiriog and Dee meet. The name Chirk is thought to be an English corruption of the name Church, however it's Welsh name 'Y Waun' means 'the moor'. Chirk castle was built in 1295 by Roger Mortimer, 1st Earl of March as part of King Edward I's chain of fortresses across the north of Wales. It guards the entrance to the Ceiriog Valley. It was the administrative centre for the Marcher Lordship of Chirkland. The castle was bought by Thomas Myddelton in 1595 for £5,000. His son, Thomas Myddelton of Chirk Castle was a Parliamentarian during the English Civil War, but became a Royalist during the Cheshire Rising of 1659. Following the Restoration, his son became Sir Thomas Myddelton, 1st Baronet of Chirk Castle. Presently in the ownership of the National Trust the castle is open to the public between February and October. The state rooms are staffed by well informed guides.

The Ceiriog, often said to be the fastest flowing river in Wales, tumbles out of the Berwyn Mountains and gouges a valley through green wooded uplands as it winds for 22 miles before joining the River Dee. Known as the Valley of Poets (the Memorial Institute in Glyn Ceiriog is dedicated to the poet John Ceiriog Hughes), the Ceiriog Valley was described by David Lloyd George as "a little bit of heaven on earth". It was near to Chirk that John Probert was found dead in the Canal. Probert had been accused of the murder of canal boatman Charles Moston at Waverton near Chester.

From here on the River Dee leaves the mountains behind as it enters its Middle Reaches. The Dee remains in Wales for a while, then becomes the border with England and for only a short length (from Poulton to Saltney, near Chester) is it a wholly English river.

sources and links