View north from Castell Dinas Bran

As a recon. trip for the Past in its Place project, Dr Patricia Murrieta-Flores and I took a look at some of the more famous sites of the Vale of Llangollen where archaeology, folklore and literary culture collide. We visited Valle Crucis and the Pillar of Eliseg and considered their roles and relationship as sites of memory since the early Middle Ages. We also visited two other sites of interest to the project.

Ruins of Castell Dinas Bran

We scaled the heights of the prehistoric hillfort and medieval castle: Castell Dinas Brân. This short-lived thirteenth century castle is intriguing because its prominent situation within the Vale and traces of earlier occupation allude to a possible prehistoric and early medieval life before it was a castle.

It also has a fascinating biography, attracting folklore associated with giants, bardic poetry and, from the mid-18th and 19th centuries, travel literature and art recording and celebrating its sublime character.

Ephemeral memorials to a visit, to a person, to a dead person, to a living person?

We explored the ruins and the minimalist heritage signboard, before looking at modern traces of commemoration persisting at the site.

Ribbons of memory at Castell Dinas Bran

First, there are the arrangements of stones used to map out messages by visitors. Are these individuals living or dead? Some are the names of loved ones framed by hearts of stone. Second, there is a tree, clearly a focus of commemoration and perhaps a former site of ash-scattering. Third, there is a location, this time unmarked, but where previously I have noticed is a favourite location for ash scatterings. The castle’s ruins, because of their antiquity, folklore and the fine views they afford, accrue significance as places to enjoy, learn about the past but also to commemorate loved ones.

Plas Newydd – a ‘memorial’ to the Ladies of Llangollen
The stone circle, Plas Newydd

Second, we visited Plas Newydd. Home to the Ladies of Llangollen – Butler and Ponsonby – for over 40 years, it served as a hub for the fostering Romantic movement in Llangollen. The house is situated in an antiquarian landscape where the past was imagined and fostered through landscape and retrieved material culture.

Medieval churchyard cross positioned in the grounds of Plas Newydd

While the house is closed until April, there is an overtly commemorative component is the house itself on its outside: the names of the Ladies’ for all to see. Hence, through the display of its contents and its external names, the dwelling serves as a form of funerary monument for the Ladies and their Romantic patronage for the arts in the Vale. Their gravestones are also commemorative of the Vale and their role as well as their individual lives: they have been translated from St Collen’s churchyard for display in the Llangollen Museum.

Within the grounds, as devleoped by Butler and Ponsonby and their successors, key antiquarian features include a stone circle and relocated medieval churchyard cross, and a font brought from Valle Crucis Abbey and framed by a poem by the Ladies.

The medieval font from Valle Crucis recomposed in a grotto within the grounds of Plas Newydd

So here in the Vale we have juxtaposed medieval ruins and landscapes created from medieval ruins. Together, they constitute elements of the antiquarian landscape of memory constructed during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in the Vale, a process that also implicated both Valle Crucis and the Pillar of Eliseg and has accrued significance to the present day. The attraction of these places today as heritage sites and as places of memory is attested through the presence of modern, ephemeral memorials.