I was holding the castle’s key as I climbed the steep path towards the keep, my legs burning with the effort, as if I were carrying a treasure. The ruins of a single wall stood on their own by my right, proud and solitary, but I had no time for it. I could see the main rectangular tower on top of the hill, shaded in black and grey against a pale sky, its stone walls the colour of Snowdonia’s slate. A flight of stairs built in the structure drew me closer to the wooden door where I stopped, out of breath.
The big lock rested on my palm – a heavy black iron lock with a thick hook that bolted the entrance. The iron key, a simple bar with an oval ring tip, solid and plain as any iron key is supposed to be was, for a moment, my key. I inserted it on the lock and turned, click, then turned again, click, and it gave in. I had opened Dolwyddelan castle’s door and it felt as if my right to come back home had been restored.
I am Brazilian and none of my ancestors are Welsh, not even further up the family tree. The only connection I can make with this sense of familiarity has to do with the grey and the cold. Deprived of winter, Rio became chilly and misty when a cold wave arrived in town. My house would fall in the shadows as the day turned dark outside. And slowly, as if the storm had moved inside my bedroom, everything would acquire strange shades of grey, the same shades of grey I would later find on the mountains of Wales. Rain crackled like fire on the tiles of the garden, cool air wrapped around my shoulders, wind howled from the top of a hill: I was somewhere else.
There were red dragons and Welsh flags everywhere: on the bumper of my red Ford Fiesta, on top of my workstation, hanging from my shelves, covering my oven, glued to my diary, stuck to my laptop. But they never looked as beautiful as when I saw them for the first time, on my first trip to the UK, over ten years ago.
The train had entered the North Wales coast with wind and rain hammering the windows. The ocean was being shaken by the storm further down the horizon; a gravel beach had been stretched out by the low tide, leaving behind harsh cement pavements, iron fences, parking lots. As I turned to the slopes and hills in search for details of the landscape, everything was a blur. The train had stopped at a station, the doors had rolled open and people had started to come inside, pushing bags into their overhead compartments, finding their seats, pulling out newspapers. I hadn’t noticed. There was a colourful thing behind the glass: the flag, its red dragon standing out on the green and white background, which stood out even more strikingly against the bad weather. Inside my head, I heard myself say: I’m home.
I kept coming back ever since. To Gwynedd, mostly. It took me several trips to piece together the puzzle of emotions that made me feel at home and happy in Gwynedd like nowhere else in the world. It was about the sensory impressions that felt so familiar since I was a child but it also had to do with the flag. I felt a strong connection with the Welsh medieval history, as if I had lived there in a previous life and was returning after a long time. This became clearer to me when I arrived at the exhibition centre at Caernarfon Castle. I had entered a very white auditorium and sat on a line of chairs in front of a panel where a documentary was being screened. The narrator was talking about Edward I who had swept out the Welsh resistance after the last Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd died, and had built a string of fortresses on the Northern border.
I cannot tell at which point of the screening a surge of emotion assaulted me so powerfully it burned. I cannot explain it. But it faded away quickly, leaving me with a strange sense of loss and, at the same time, a fierce sense of pride. Wales had remained Wales, Welsh was still being spoken, and the nation had retained its cultural identity.
Thirteenth century Gwynedd became an obsession to me. My trips were planned around historical sites that sometimes determined the most intricate itinerary for a traveller without a car. I loved to take the small trains and buses to reach almost inaccessible places. Travelling by bus created a degree of intimacy with the region I perhaps wouldn’t have developed otherwise.
The intermittent stops allowed me to watch the youngsters and the elders come in, greet the driver, sit on one of the numerous empty seats with their backpacks or grocery shopping bags, stare absentmindedly out of the window, ignoring my existence, then leave a few stops ahead. Like the people, the houses on the streets weren’t different from village to village but many of those houses had Welsh names inscribed on slate plaques hung by the door. I kept reading the plaques as I did with the names of towns on the road signs, rolling them on my tongue, unable to pronounce them right or understand what they meant.
This obsession made me reach places that were not marked on normal maps, like Aberffraw, in Anglesey, which had been Gwynedd’s capital between the 11th the 12th centuries. The heritage centre was closed but I could visit a monument erected in the seventies to celebrate the Welsh princes. It looked nice and simple, with what seemed to be two shields and two dragons in slate facing each cardinal point, decorated with Celtic patterns. There was nothing left to see, so I walked towards the marshes, the pale brown dunes of the river estuary, where streams of water interwove with patches of grass and mounds of sand.
The scents of moist sea weed and salt mixed with the choking, dry smell coming from blades of grass the colour of ripe wheat, rising from the ground up to my thighs. I took one of my gloves off and held a bunch of blades, then let them slip between my fingers, gently, so the sharp edges wouldn’t cut my palms nor I would break them. They felt flexible and smooth, less fragile than I expected, but I had to quickly put the glove back on and pocket both my hands because of the cold. The wind flattened the grass with a sweeping noise, forcing it to bow, and I stood there, shivering, being showered by the sand. I could not see the ocean ahead and, as I turned to my left, I saw Snowdonia covered in snow, bathed in sunshine.
I had walked up Beddgelert’s sinuous road and crossed the stone bridge over the broad but shallow river Glaslyn. The water ran fast and crashed with rocks, making little crests and waves, like a rapid. I was searching Dinas Emrys’ hills where, according to the myth, the boy Merlin had witnessed the clash between a white and a red dragon. The red dragon won and this meant that the British would win the battle against the Saxons.
I kept looking upwards to the pale brown rocky top encircled by dark green forest, imagining the dragons’ fight and wondering if, perhaps, their flames had scorched the ground and turned its grass the colour of copper. Later I learned the battle had taken place in a cave within the mountains. It still feels magical to me nonetheless.
I was tempted to go and see Gelert’s grave. Legend says that Gelert had been a loyal hound slain by Llywelyn the Great, the last Prince’s grandfather, who thought he had killed his son.
In fact, the dog had shielded the baby from the attack of a wolf and saved his life. Filled with remorse, Llywelyn erected a monument in its honour. But it was getting dark and the perspective of a hot chocolate with a piece of cake sounded more attractive than a grave. I entered a pub, which was also an antique shop, and savoured my drink on a tiny round table on the corner, my eyes examining porcelain dolls, gold rimmed china, flowery plates, colourful iron toys, small hardback books, and postcards displayed around me.
I used Betws-y-Coed as my base camp for most of my walking trips. The village was surrounded by thick forest, with an open area in the centre the size of a football field, where park scenes could be seen: Couples walking hand in hand, families picnicking, children running, playing and squeaking. There was a stone church, a stone pub, a stone bridge, and loads of flowers that gave this stone-greyness scenario an air of oil painting. Betws-y-Coed was a route to the mountains and the starting point for walks uphill into the woods or along riversides.
Once, following the river Llugwy towards Swallow Falls, I had a moment of unforeseen adventure. The walk had started mild and, for half of the journey, the path had been a large stream of water; shallow and rocky in the beginning, then deeper and fiercer further ahead. The ground was humid and covered with moss, with big worm-like roots crawling over the surface. I was expecting to find the waterfall a few yards ahead when suddenly the path narrowed and became steep.
On my right, the forest had turned into a hill; on my left, the river was now running way below me. The inclination had become so abrupt that I was soon down on my knees, trying to climb it, balancing myself on the slippery muddy ground, tightly grabbing wet roots and harsh trunks. I stopped for a moment to catch my breath. The muddy path surrounded the mossy green roots of a tree that resembled one very tall step. My leg had to reach really high and it was slippery like soap. I realised that if I slipped, I could actually roll downhill and break my neck.
I crossed it by getting hold of the trunk and powerfully, rather painfully, pushing myself upwards. It demanded so much effort from the muscles of my arms and thighs that they were sore for a week, but the path eased and I reached Swallow Falls about half an hour later. It paid-off. The waterfall was like the scenario of a dream, an unearthly place, sharp grey and misty, with its cascade of crags and pointy rocks that foamed and roared. Suddenly, the danger sank in and I thought: I could have died back there.
I laughed at my recklessness, wondering what made me venture those trails without real preparation, poorly equipped, wearing flat trainers. I wouldn’t have done that anywhere else in the world! It was as if the fact that I loved Wales so much made me invulnerable. I felt so safe, shielded by my joy, that I wasn’t afraid of anything.
That sense of security could have been imaginary but I had never been in true danger in my trips. I did think twice though before embarking on a trekking up Snowdon’s summit, which would have involved some real climbing. First, I’m terrified of heights. Second, it was too cold to climb its 3,560 feet, the highest mountain in England and Wales, and I wasn’t fit enough for the task. So I took the train. The Victorian Snowdon Mountain Railway train slowly jerked upwards, rocking gently from side to side. From the top, the mountains looked like a crumpled mattress. I had seen them from different angles, at different times of the day.
They could be like a green carpet speckled with light-grey piles of stones suddenly interrupted by a pond; or acquire a golden brown tan, with specs of red, mustard and even a bluish tone under the sunset; or assume the contrasting shades of black, dark-grey and white of a photograph. They waved smoothly ahead, cut by the defined lines of the roads, or towered over my head in sharp, jagged angles as if they were going to collapse over me.
On the road to Dolbadarn, the castle that flanked Snowdonia alongside Dolwyddelan, I saw the mountain’s scars for the first time. They seemed to be bleeding slate. The mining activity that had been so favourable for the Welsh economy came with a high price.
But I tried not to think too much about it while I crossed the footbridge to reach the castle. The site was marked by grids of chequered low white ruins and I walked around them, examining their patterns like an archaeologist, trying to deduct by their shapes what they had been: chambers, kitchens, living quarters. The round tower was hollow inside, top open to the sky, no floor. A tall window looked like a corroded iron hole, having lost some of its original shape. I sat on the steps of the tower’s internal walls trying to make sense of my mixed emotions.
Perhaps those were still effects of the sight of the slate stacked under the wounded hills down the road. Perhaps it was because I knew a man had been imprisoned in this castle for most of his life. Owain Gogh, Llywelyn’s older brother had waged war against the last Prince while they shared Gwynedd’s crown. He lost. It must have been unimaginable to be sentenced to life imprisonment inside the walls of this bleak fortress.
The train that took me to Dolwyddelan looked like a toy. It was hard to call its iron wagons “coaches”. The railway followed Conwy river’s estuary for a while, then dived into the woods. The driver came along, balancing himself against the rows of seats, piercing tickets, and I couldn’t tell if he was too big a man or the aisle was too narrow. He was checking my return ticket, trying to explain something I wasn’t able to understand. It’s not that I didn’t understand the English, I couldn’t grasp what he meant. Another passenger came to his aid and confirmed I would have to wave at the driver on my way back, otherwise, the train would not stop.
I tried not to laugh at the image of myself waving on the platform, as I would wave at a taxi or a bus, which felt a bit silly. Then I understood why. When I hopped off in Dolwyddelan, the platform was deserted; the town itself looked deserted. I kept walking down the road for a while, until I saw the castle’s graffiti-grey structure. I knocked at its administrative centre, where a nice woman collected my fee.
It was actually her house and she had opened the back door, which allowed me a view of her untidy kitchen. I was the single visitor that day and she trusted me with a treasure: the castle’s key, the key to a place that felt as familiar as home.
There I was, staring lovingly at Dowyddelan’s Keep as if it had been too long since I last saw it. Daylight invaded the Keep’s main chamber as I walked in. The wood floorboards squeaked softly under my weight, my steps echoed. There was nothing inside, apart from a series of exhibition panels. I read them, then closed the door. The wind silenced.
Dim, cold, light floated in the air like thin smoke. I looked at the stone walls right up to the wood ceiling, two storeys high, and located the remains of the beams where the second floor had been. On the rectangular ground floor, there was a fireplace taller than me and almost as large as the castle itself. The castle’s walls were thick, interrupted every two metres, converging toward each of the four windows, creating small retreats with seats large enough to accommodate me in my bulky coat. I sat on one of them, the nylon coat swooshing as I moved, by the non-existent warmth of the fireplace. I could see the road through the iron grid that framed the windows and the blurred transparency of the glass. I took a sip from my orange juice, a bite from my packed sandwich.
I began to imagine the fire flickering red, casting shadows on a heavy wooden table scattered with wine stained maps, bronze cups, crumbles of bread and dried meat, knives. A slim greyhound would yawn and lie by an armchair covered with mudded brown furs. Moth eaten, faded, tapestry would be hanging from the walls; candles would have covered their candle-holders in melted yellow wax. I heard boots thundering across the bedroom above my head, where fire crackled from two braziers, pillows entangled with furs on an unmade bed, a chain mail and a leather breast plate were almost falling from a large wood chest. A defensive outpost that smelled burned wood and heated metal, temporarily sheltering a fugitive prince. This chilly, naked, room would have felt suffocatingly hot, oppressive and alive with men’s guttural voices, clanking war gear, stale sweat, and smoke.
When I returned to Dolwyddelan station and waved frantically at the train, as if the driver could have missed me, I didn’t feel silly at all. I felt transparent: I was still sheltered in the castle and didn’t want to leave. That fraction of me on the platform wasn’t quite solid enough to be visible.
This piece was written for the Writing module during the MA Creative and Critical Writing, University of Winchester, 2008.