This weekend past, I ventured out into the dense fog and headed for the one place I imagined would be cloud-free: Castell Dinas Brân – the Castle of the City of Crows looming over Llangollen in the Vale. Through cobwebbed-covered gorse and up into the bright sunshine above the clouds, it was a steep but splendid walk for me and the 2-year-old twinagers.
Conventional narratives about the castle can be found here on the Castles of Wales website, on the CPAT website and on Wikipedia. There is also a bilingual guidebook produced by Denbighshire County Council. I have touched upon Castell Dinas Brân in previous entries, notably how the castle is a place of folklore and social memory incorporated into an antiquarian landscape and the modern tourist trail as discussed in the wider context of memory and identity around Llangollen. I have also discussed it as part of the Pillar of Eliseg’s ‘topography of memory’.
Put simply, the castle’s history can be divided into five elements:
- its prehistoric origins as a Late Bronze Age/Iron Age univallate hillfort of c. 1.5 hectares; traces of the earthworks survive and are most prominent on the eastern and southern sides of the hill;
- the unproven possibility of an early medieval continued use/reuse of the site as a stronghold of the rulers of Powys during the 8th/9th centuries, for which there is sadly no convincing archaeological evidence but which is equally not implausible given its strategic location overlooking the Vale. There are many hillforts in the region that might plausibly have been refortified in the early medieval period, including Foel Fenlli and Moel Arthur;
- the possibility that the site continued in use/was reused as an early timber fortification/castle of the 12th/early 13th centuries prior to its late 13th-century development as a stone fortification. Again, there is no conclusive archaeological evidence for this though;
- the stone castle remains which survive date to the 1260s to early 1280s, possibly the work of Gruffydd II ap Madog. Key elements of its plan revealing a comparable structure to other 13th-century Welsh castles with (i) rectangular keep, (ii) adjacent gatehouse and (iii) D-shaped ‘Welsh’ tower serving as great hall along the souther wall. The overall rectangular plan, defying the natural contours of the site, resembles Dolforwyn Castle. The site may have been artificially levelled prior to the stone castle’s construction.
- the castle’s abandonment and association with folklore and legend seem to pre-date the stone castle. Intriguingly, it is already imagined as a ruin in the 12th century in the Romance of Fulk Fitzwarine, in which it is imagined as the denizen of a giant Gogmagog who had forced its abandonment by King Bran. As such, it was a place of hoarded treasure, perhaps already famed before the stone castle’s construction. It retained/was adapted as a place of the historical imagination for the Romantic Movement; for Wordsworth it was ‘wrecked of forgotten wars’;
- as a modern landmark and tourist attraction, the castle is managed by Denbighshire County Council, has footpaths and traces of modern memorial practice as discussed here;
- surely this hill and its ruins have been the inspiration for many literary ruins. It is difficult to look at the ruin today without imagining Weathertop, as described by J.R.R. Tolkein and envisioned in the 2001 film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring and the 2012 film The Hobbit: an Unexpected Journey.
For me, the power of Castell Dinas Bran lies in its powerful ruination and the many stories that can be swathed around it like the fog that hid the Vale and transformed it into an island above the clouds. Gosh that is a cliche, but was a day for cliches and the striking scenario made it difficult to deny! Whether the fog is there or not, the castle’s steep and prominent topography render it an island, its ruins set apart and above the worries of the world below it.