It was only the weekend before last, as part of the EMWARG conference at Bangor University organised by Professor Nancy Edwards and Marion Shiner, that I got the opportunity to visit Dinas Emrys, near Beddgelert, for the first time.
Situated on a prominent rocky and wooded hilltop, overlooking the Glaslyn valley, the site is steeped in legend. It’s name means the ‘fort of Ambrosius’. It was where Merlin purportedly prophesised to Vortigern of a cauldron beneath the lake in which there were fighting dragons – one white, one red. Their presence prevented his fortress being built. The red would be victorious: a metaphor for the defeat of the English by the Welsh.
For our visit, the fortress was not only steeped in legend, it was also steeped in wet soggy drenching and sodden rain water that descended from the clouds, dripped from the trees, oozed from the mud, and creeped up from the moss and grass. We were led there and back by Professor Nancy Edwards who told us all about the site in detail until the paper on which her notes were written disintegrated due to excessive precipitation.
Excavated in the 1910s and 1950s, this stone-walled Iron Age, Roman and early medieval fortress was reused as a later medieval castle keep similar to other Welsh castles of the 12th/13th century in NW Wales. The precise character of the habitation there, including activities around a spring – the only secluded part of the site – remain ambiguous as to their extent and character. Was this really a Dark Age fortress? Or was it a site that fed of its own story as a ruin of a once-been place of great deeds?
We also encountered a modern ‘votive’ deposit – a large piece of quartz with white and brown beach pebbles, a seashell and a nutshell placed on it.
We also encountered with superb primordial moss on trees and stones.
Finally, en route we encountered a lovely waterfall and a wonderful wooden dragon bench.
In many ways the perfect field trip, and the rain didn’t hinder my appreciate of the site. In fact, it enhanced it! Although I must say I wasn’t over impressed by the hillfort itself, the landscape context is tremendous. Dinas Emrys is striking eminence yes, but rather unwhelming and low ramparts utilise the natural topography that don’t readily lend themselves to dating.