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Art & Culture

various essays on, well, art and culture

Bookbinding & Conservation

lessons learned from this profession


ok, I'm not the guy from SNL,
but I still have a sense of humor

'Jim Downey' Stories

mostly true stories from my

Personal Essays

more "it's all about me"


Im at -7.13/-7.33 on The Political Compass.  Where
are you?


observations on the human condition


Europe 1994
Wales 1998

Wales 2003
      The Warm Stones
      A Rich Man's Fantasy
      The Wind of Deheubarth
      The Latches of her Dreams
      Ynys Môn
      St. Cybi's Well
      Castell y Bere
      Dafydd Iwan
      The Bird & Baby

Wales 2006
CCGA Vignettes

Castell y Bere

Thursday, 9/25

My feet hurt.  My knees hurt.  My thighs ached.  My calves were threatening revolt.  I felt like someone had worked me over with a bag of nickels.  Alix was feeling the effects of the Snowdon adventure even moreso, and in fact would be a little stiff-legged for the next several days.  So, what did we decide to do?  Go climb another castle, of course.

Well, not immediately.  First, we had a late breakfast, got showers, et cetera.  Then we loaded up the van, drove north to Bangor.  Pulled into a 'carpet warehouse' in order to secure a length of the heavy cardboard tube from the center of a carpet roll.  The staff there were quite accommodating, once we explained why we wanted the thing:  to ship back our hiking sticks and Alix's umbrella.  Even got out a hacksaw and cut it to our specified dimensions.  The myth of the UK's surly, incompetent store clerks evidently doesn't apply to Wales.  We thanked them, tossed the tube in the back of the van, and went to check email.

Now, this seems to be a silly thing to do, since we were on vacation and everything.  But it was a comfort, knowing that things back home were running smoothly (I had given my manager at the gallery instructions not to tell me any bad news that I couldn't fix or help with while on vacation.  Thankfully, she complied).  We weren't connected otherwise, but being able to check mail every couple of days was a nice lifeline.

Decided to head south, along the coast for a bit on the A487, then inland and down to Porthmadog, across to the A470 and south to Dolgellau.  Opted to eat lunch there at a "Little Chef," sort of the British version of a "Big Boys" restaurant, where they had something fairly close to an American style burger.  Hey, cut me some slack, it wasn't a McDonald's, and I was in the mood for a little comfort food, being all achy and sore from climbing Snowdon the day before.  So we had a leisurely lunch, then got back on the road.  The A470 until we picked up Dysynni valley the A487 again, south past Cadair Idris, then on the B4405 through Tal-y-llyn to Abergynolwyn.  There we got onto local country roads, towards Llanfihangel-y-pennant, to Castell y Bere.

This is one of my favorite places in the whole world.  I'd only been there once before, but that memory has proven so strong that it seems like I must visit the place regularly in my dreams.  It was the first 'native' Welsh castle I had seen, and is still my favorite.  It sits on a modest lump of rock in the middle of the wide Afon Dysynni valley.  The hills on either side of the valley are much higher, and close off what you can see from even the castle grounds.  But you're high enough to see all that happens in the valley, and the feeling you have is of being protected by those higher hills, like being in the arms of a mother or lover.

We parked in the small lot, entered through the kissing gate.  The path to the castle winds along the south east face of the castle, the long axis of this oddly-shaped fortress ruin.  The path leads steadily upwards, climbing gently, a grace for our complaining muscles.  Then you swing around the D-shaped South Tower and continue to climb almost back the direction you just came from.  In a few moments youre standing in front of the castle's main gate, ready to cross a wooden bridge that spans the remains of one of the deep defensive ditches.

OK, I'll be honest.  This castle is a ruins.  There aren't great, restored walls, impressive towers you can climb through, big all-weather displays explaining the layout and history of the castle.  But what's there is just charming, compelling somehow.  I said that it is oddly-shaped.  It is, due to the configuration of the rock it sits upon.  Make a fist with your left hand. Extend your index finger. Now look at the profile of your hand, palm Castell y Bere facing you, finger extended to the side.  That is roughly the shape of the castle.  The South Tower would be where your fingertip is, the North Tower at the base of your wrist.  Got it?  OK, the Middle Tower is about where the knuckle of your finger is.  The Round Tower where the tip of your thumb rests on your third finger.  There, that's the layout.

Llywelyn the Great built this castle in the early 1220's.  Edward I captured it in 1283.  There really isn't much in the way of history to the place that I've come across.  But it is a wonderful castle.  There's just a sense of peace, of harmony, there.  Others I know who have been there report the same thing.  As we wandered the grounds, stood on what was left of the walls, sorted out how the passage around the large well just inside the main gate must have looked, I felt almost like I was home.  Weird.  To the best of my knowledge, I have no Welsh ancestry.  (My grandmother, who was 3/4 Cherokee, used to always say "We're Indians.  Everybody used to screw the Indians.  No telling who your ancestors were.")  But there was some kind of connection there.

We were slowly making our way to leave, when a nice fellow, a pensioner, came up the stairs.  Stopping to catch his breath, he made some comment about being out of shape.  I joked along with him, said I was still sore from Snowdon.  Realizing we were Americans (my Midwest accent is about as mainstream American as they come), he chatted us up a bit.  He was from this valley, now retired in England.  Told us a little of the lore of the place, how the mountain you can see from the castle down the valley to the SW is called Bird Rock, so named both because of the profile and that some variety of seabird nests there.  Said that the legend was that the sea used to come all the way up the valley to the base of the castle (several miles), but that the monks pushed the sea back in order to create more farmland.  Said that he couldn't understand how they did it.  Pleasant chap, but a bit simple.

We made our way out, back down the pathway to the car, complaining about walking downhill all the way.  Retraced our route out of the valley, back to Abergynolwyn, where we stopped in a small shop for postcards and ice cream.  Up the B4405 toward the A487, stopping just before we got to the highway to pull into a small park there at the base of Cadair Idris.  This is one of the prime starting points for hiking the mountain (the second highest in Wales).  But though sorely tempted (too sorely, in truth), we decided that we'd save that climb for another trip.

chestnut walk Instead, we explored the park a bit.  There was a heritage center (closed for the season) there, down an incredible chestnut-lined walk.  Behind the center was a waterfall that tumbled down from the mountain.  I'm not much of one for the sea, but I love waterfalls.  I had heard the sound of this one from the path, and had to go explore and find it.  Nothing spectacular, no great drops into beautiful pools, but a steady low roar as the water tumbled and played over small boulders half covered with moss.  Ahhh.

Back to the car, and an uneventful drive back north through the mountains to our cottage.  We made dinner, and relaxed reading and watching tv.  No guilt; this was the perfect evening for two people still worn out from Snowdon.

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all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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