I had originally planned to remain in Oxford all of Spring Break. It made sense to save some money, as I will be doing a lot of traveling in May between my semester here and the business program I am attending in June. Nevertheless, acting maturely did not last long.
I decided to do something quite impetuous. I booked myself a three day trip to North Wales in the Snowdonia region. I justified it by arguing that I found relatively cheap train tickets and a cheap hostel. I would walk most of the time I was there, so other travel costs would be minimal. All in all, I could afford it. A few painful transactions later, and I was booked for a three day, two night stay in the YHA Bryn Gwynant hostel in Snowdonia.
Little did I know that I was in for the adventure of a lifetime.
The main reason I wanted to visit Snowdonia was to find Dinas Emrys. You see, I love Arthurian legend. According to the old stories, Dinas Emrys was where the young Merlin (Myrddin Emrys in Welsh) was taken to the treacherous King Vortigern (who had betrayed the Britons to the Saxons, only to himself find as their enemy) to be sacrificed in an attempt to explain why the fortress he sought to build upon the hill was demolished every night.
I will get back to Arthurian legend later, but it was not actually until Saturday that I got to visit Dinas Emrys. I did pass it on Thursday, but it was late in the afternoon and I was not exactly sure which hill it is. Still, I should go back to the beginning of the journey itself.
On Thursday morning I took a train from Oxford to Birmingham. There, I hopped on another train across the Welsh countryside to Porthmadog. We passed through Hereford, Shrewsbury (of Henry IV fame), Harlech, and a multitude of other Welsh cities. All in all, it was about a six hour journey on the train. Fortunately, the countryside was beautiful, and part of the ride took me along the Welsh coast. That was an incredible sight.
I eventually made it to Porthmadog around 4:00 in the afternoon. I was fortunate to arrive when I did, because I arrived just in time to take the last bus from Porthmadog to the village of Beddgelert about eight miles away. I had imagined that I could walk that trip if necessary, but I am glad it was not. For one, the roads were narrow and without sidewalks. I probably would have been run over on some treacherous turn around a cliffside. It was harrowing enough to be speeding down those roads in a bus. Still, I arrived safely in Beddgelert just as the sun had begun to set into the west.
Beddgelert is a quaint little village just within Snowdonia. Etymologically, it means the site of Gelert’s grave, connected to a story about when the 13th century Welsh Prince Llewelyn killed his prized hound Gelert because he mistakenly believed it had killed his son (in reality the dog had saved his son from a wolf).
Unfortunately, I could not remain long in Beddgelert. I still had a four mile trek from the village to my hostel at Bryn Gwynant. I had planned to walk this distance, however, so it was not surprising. Dinas Emrys sits between Beddgelert and Bryn Gwynant, so I hoped to pass the old fortress along my way to the hostel.
Technically I did pass it, but I did not recognise it at the time. It was growing dark and I wanted to make it to my hostel before too long, so I decided I would spend more time exploring Dinas Emrys on Saturday when I walked back to Beddgelert. Passing through Nant Gwynant (which is linguistically redundant as it means “the valley of the white valley” in Welsh), I eventually came to my hostel at Bryn Gwynant and settled into my room for the night.
The first thing I noticed about arriving in Snowdonia was the lack of cell reception. I had anticipated this. It is well documented that cell service around Mount Snowdon is abysmal. I lost reception almost immediately after leaving Beddgelert. Still, I assumed that my hostel would have Wifi that I could use to let people know that I was alive and well.
I was wrong.
There was no Wifi at the hostel. So long as I remained in Nant Gwynant, I would be without a way to communicate with the outside world. At first, I found this disconcerting. After all, I was alone in the heart of Wales. I knew that the responsible thing to do would be to contact my family and let them know that I had made it to my hostel safely. Okay, so the responsible thing would have been to travel with someone else, but I am reckless and young.
Soon, however, I decided that this actually posed an incredible opportunity. This was the first time I could truly see how I would respond to situations on my own. So long as I remained here, I would have to handle any trouble, any difficulty, without the help of anyone else. I looked at it as a test of my determination and willpower. Before too long, I decided that it was nice to have no connection outside of my hostel. It allowed me to be more present there and interact with the people around me, strangers who welcomed me without reservation.
I must say, the Welsh people I met were some of the nicest people I have ever encountered. When I got off the bus in Beddgelert, one of the other passengers (admittedly a little inebriated) called out to me by calling me pilgrim due to my walking stick and offered me directions and assistance to make sure I knew where I was going for the evening. When I told my roommate in the hostel that I planned to walk north to Betws-y-Coed to visit the Fairy Glen on Friday, he offered to give me a ride part of the way. I turned him down, as I wanted to walk the full distance and explore the area, but I was grateful for the offer. Too often I think it is easy to distrust people, when, in fact, most people will reach out to help at a moment’s notice.
But I did set off the following morning for the village of Betws-y-Coed (prayer house in the woods) to visit the Fairy Glen. I had not intended for this trip to be a pilgrimage, but I think the drunken man on the bus understood more than I would have expected. I soon realised that this was much like a pilgrimage. At the very least, it was a transformative experience.
Betws-y-Coed lies about thirteen miles northeast of my hostel. There is a road that runs directly there through Nant Gwynant, and I intended to walk along that road all the way. I felt that it would be an incredible opportunity to truly see the heart of Snowdonia, and I was not disappointed in the least. With the sun rising over the mountains to the east, I set off, staff in hand and a fierce determination in my step.
I passed by Llyn Gwynant (the lake of the white valley), keeping to the road until I could see Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) itself to the north. Its snow covered peaks taunted me, begged me to try my strength against its heights. My roommate the previous night had submitted it the day before, and part of me wanted to spend the day braving its slopes instead of visiting the Fairy Glen. No, I told myself, an adventure for another day. Yr Wyddfa would remain, and one day I would conquer it.
If only I had kept to the road. You see, I had the brilliant idea that I could pass over a mountain ridge to the east to cut across to another section of the road. A shortcut, if you will. Technically, the distance is geographically shorter. I did not anticipate how exhausting it would be to actually climb a mountain to get there, however. I should have heeded the warning of the barbed wire fence that tried to keep me from climbing up the ridges, but, again, I am young and reckless. I spent an hour trying to ascend to one of the peaks, trudging and regretting my stupid decision. I am not fit for mountain climbing, at least not without more preparation. Still, I was determined to see it through. Before long, however, I had made it to the summit, and instantly I knew I had made the right decision.
The view was absolutely stunning. With the sun warming my already exhausted body, I stared out over Nant Gwynant, taking in the majesty of where I now found myself. I might have seriously underestimated my physical abilities. I might have nearly torn my pants on barbed wire fencing. I might have to scale more barbed wire fencing to get back down, but it was worth every exertion. I, McKinley Terry, stood atop a mountain in the heart of North Wales. Alone and left to my own strength, I had accomplished that much.
Eventually I managed to clamber back down to the road and continue my journey northeast towards Betws-y-Coed. Walking in the shadow of Yr Wyddfa, I delighted in every exhausting moment of it all. I had barely gone more than a few miles, and many more awaited me, but I knew the road could not possibly be harder than scaling the mountain.
Before long, I became to the hotel at Pen y Gwyrd (head of the river Gwryd). It is significant because it is there that Sir Edmund Hillary and others stayed while they used Yr Wyddfa to train for their ascent of Mount Everest. If you go in, you can still see much of their old equipment and memorabilia. Here, the road diverges. One route heads more strictly north towards Llanberis, the other towards Capel Curig and further to Betws-y-Coed.
As I passed towards Capel Curig, the landscape began to change. Before, passing through Nant Gwynant, it had been widely forested and winding, uneven and tumultuous in its beauty overlooking Llyn Gwynant. Now, the mountains seemed to become rockier and fiercer, more unforgiving. Slate grey and cold, they were nevertheless beautiful. Wide, yellow plains opened before me, with mountains to either side, and I could see my path for miles ahead.
For someone who loves Lord of the Rings like me, I felt as if I had suddenly stepped onto the plains of Rohan. Had Eomer and the Rohirrim swarmed me and accused me of being a spy for Saruman in that moment, I would not have been surprised. I probably would have died of excitement, but I would not have been surprised. It was like I walked the path between Edoras and Helm’s Deep. This thought helped energise me, and for the next few miles sustained the determination with which I plodded ahead.
Of course, determination alone cannot sustain a traveler. I had drained all the water in my flask when I climbed the mountain, and I had not yet seen a place to refill it. Getting thirsty, I decided that I should embrace my surroundings. The plains were full of little mountain streams and rivulets formed by the snow melting at the peaks, and I was constantly stumbling upon these flowing, melodic sights. At one that flowed particularly fast, I filled my flask, drained it, and then filled it again. The water was rich and cold, delightful in every quality.
It must be said that I was very fortunate to have encountered such wonderful weather as I did on this journey. Wales, much like the rest of Britain, is notorious for the amount of cloudiness and rain that it gets. Nevertheless, I had bright and warm sunlight the entire time that I traveled, and I loved every moment of it all.
Eventually, I made it to Capel Curig. Here, there was an outdoors activity centre that actually had Wifi, so I used it briefly to let people know that I was alive. Onward I marched, having finally passed onto the final road to take me to Betws-y-Coed. If I am being perfectly honest, I was absolutely exhausted by this point, and I still had nearly eight miles to trek to the Fairy Glen itself.
Beyond Capel Curig, however, the landscape once again changed. Gone were the open plains and wild expanses. Once more I found myself amongst verdant forest trails and sapphire rushing rivers. If the journey from Pen-y-Gwryd to Capel Curig was Rohan, it seemed that I had now passed into the depths of Fangorn itself. At least, that was what I told myself to keep myself enthusiastic and focused on the journey ahead.
Along the way I stopped at Swallow Falls, where a mighty waterfall crashes down through the cliffs, filling the valley with the roar of foamy water battering the rocks. It involved climbing down and up some rocky steps, and my legs did not thank me for that. Still, it was a nice diversion for a few moments while I took a break from the road itself.
Fortunately, the Swallow Falls are only about two miles outside of Betws-y-Coed, a fact that I did not know. This meant that when I finally came upon the little village I had sought all morning, it was a surprise, an exhilarating surprise. I spoke with a few of the shop-owners there and got directions south towards the Fairy Glen. It was about a mile outside of town, but this did not worry me. I had walked nearly fourteen miles already. I could handle more if it meant finally getting me to my destination.
Staff in hand, satchel gripping into my shoulders, I trudged onward, determined now to complete my journey. The walk to the Fairy Glen itself was pleasant; Betws-y-Coed is a lovely little village seemingly untouched from the time that they built the first railroads through its centre. I stopped and entered the Church of St. Mary’s in the village. It seemed fitting that a pilgrimage should involve a prayer in a church.
After fumbling through the countryside a little bit (there are very few directions to the Fairy Glen, strangely), I managed to find my destination itself. The trail goes over a few hills before leading down into a gorge. Uneven, slippery steps threatened to send me to an early grave (would that not be ironic, to be felled moments away from making it to the Glen?), but I eventually climbed down onto the rocks amidst the river and stared towards the Fairy Glen.
It truly did seem like the home of the Faër Folk. Sunlight streamed through the gorge, hiding the distant glen in a gleam, a bright veil. The river trickled at my feet, a tantalising melody of otherworldly beauty. The heart of Albion itself had come to life in this moment, and it was as sacred a place in this world as there can ever be. I had to battle the desire to risk life and limb on the more dangerous rocks to make my way further towards the glen, and it was nearly an hour before I finally left that place.
All of the exhaustion, all of the fatigue, all of the tiredness, all of it was suddenly both meaningless and meaningful in this moment. The exhaustion fled my bones and joints, but I knew that it also made the entire journey even more incredible. I had indeed completed a pilgrimage, and my soul delighted in the wonder of my time there at the Fairy Glen.
Of course, now I had to find a way back to my hostel. There are buses that run from Betws-y-Coed to Bryn Gwynant, but my detour up a mountain meant that I had missed the last one that takes that route. Fortunately, I managed to find one that would at least take me back to Pen-y-Gwryd. From there, it was only about four miles back to my hostel, a far more bearable journey.
Bearable is an unfair word. I did take the bus back to Pen-y-Gwryd, and I did walk back to my hostel from there, but it was far from a merely bearable journey. With the sun now setting over the western mountains of Nant Gwynant, I took a different path back to Bryn Gwynant, a footpath lower in the valley and nearer to the river and lake. I let myself walk more slowly now. I knew where the hostel was; I could find it in the dark if necessary. The path was relatively safe, so I was in no hurry. No, I would enjoy watching the sun set in Snowdonia. How many times would I truly get to experience that?
Along the way, I marvelled at one of the facts I still consider so thrilling about my time in Wales. Having read a lot of old Arthurian and Celtic literature, I am familiar with a fair number of Welsh words and terms. I had already begun to translate many of the places I had visited without having to do much research. For someone who loves languages, that is an incredible feeling.
I spent the evening sitting at the edge of Llyn Gwynant as I watched the sun set over the snow-capped mountains. Oh, I took a few little detours to get there, but nothing to the extent of climbing another peak. A few rocky crags that were more dangerous than I should probably admit to my family, but I survived. That is all that matters, after all.
But I did spend much of the late afternoon on the banks of the lake. I skipped stones for quite a while, failing to ever get more than four skips out of any of the rocks (I know, not very impressive at all), but I enjoyed it. I also made myself a little island out of the rocks and dirt, fiddling around as the sun slowly sunk lower into the west, casting great streaks of pinks and violets and oranges across the darkening sky. I knew it was my last night in Wales, and I wanted to enjoy every moment of it.
I arose early the next morning from my hostel and set off for the four miles back to Beddgelert. If you will remember, I had come to Bryn Gwynant with the purpose of visiting Dinas Emrys. Technically, since that location is used in my books, this was a research trip. Now, on my last morning in Snowdonia, I would visit it. Nothing would prevent me.
Oh, barbed wire and walls and jagged cliffs and rocks and property laws tried to keep me from climbing Dinas Emrys, but I could not be overcome. You see, I finally figured out which specific hill is Dinas Emrys. It was not actually that difficult, but trying to figure out in the dark a few nights before had proven too much for me. Now, in the morning, however, I was more focused.
Once I figured out which hill is Dinas Emrys, I had to find a way to get over the fence that separated me from it so that I could ascend to the top. In my defence, I did my best to find the proper, public way to get to the old fortress. There was a sign that pointed to a public access route about a mile route, but it included speaking to people at a lodge that was not open. I had come too far, endured too much, to be denied now, so I returned to a place in the barbed wire where I felt I could safely climb.
After nearly slicing open my legs on the wire, I found myself over the fence and clambering up towards Dinas Emrys itself, the great hill looming over me in the Welsh morning, imposing and inviting at the same moment. A few rams stared at me from alongside the rocky crags that make up the hill, but for now they gave me little thought. I wormed my way through an old wall that acted as the last barrier and finally stood at the foot of the hill, trying to discern the best path by which I could climb to the top.
Finally, I chose a path. It was narrow and steep, but it seemed like there was a common trail through it that sheep and rams must have used pretty frequently. This would have to work for me. Surprisingly, it was actually pretty simple to climb to the top. Oh, I slipped and nearly fell a few times, but before I was even tired at all, I stood atop Dinas Emrys, Fortress of the Immortal.
I stared out at the valley before me on that cool Welsh morning. Where I stood, Myrddin had helped bring about the overthrow of the traitor Vortigern. The story itself is fascinating. Long before the time of Arthur, the brothers Lludd and Llefelys were kings of Britain and Brittany. Two dragons assaulted Lludd’s kingdom in Britain, one red and one white. He could not overcome them, so he called on the aid of his brother. Together, they imprisoned the beasts underneath Dinas Emrys, then known as Dinas Ffaraon (Fortress of the Pharaoh). When Vortigern sought to build a castle there, the dragons fought each evening and destroyed all of the work of his men. He sought out Myrddin, hoping to sacrifice what he believed was the son of a demon so that the God might take mercy on him. Instead, Myrddin showed him the dragons.
He explained to Vortigern that the red dragon represented the Britons while the white dragon represented the Saxons. For now they fought fiercely, but soon the red dragon would overcome the white. Vortigern took this to mean that the time had come for him to make war on the Saxons. But Myrddin had lied. The white dragon slew the red, and Vortigern met his death in battle against his former allies.
So maybe that is not exactly what happened in the actual 400s in Wales, but it makes for an excellent story. You can still see the ruins of the old fortress there, though most people believe it was built by Prince Llewelyn in the 13th century. I prefer the Arthurian legend, though. Dragons always make a story more interesting.
After some reckless sliding down the rocky crevices of Dinas Emrys, I found myself once more on the legal side of the barbed-wire fence and returned the rest of the short journey to Beddgelert before taking a bus to Porthmadog, where I hopped on my train to Birmingham. Regretfully, though with a deep satisfaction and fulfilment, I bid goodbye to Wales. I did not want to leave.
After a chaotic encounter with some Birmingham comic-con attendees who took up every seat on every train for about two hours, I finally found myself on a train back to Oxford. I knew it would be nice to return, but I also knew that Wales had claimed my soul. I have always loved Wales for its history and mythology. I loved it when I visited Cardiff and the Brecon Beacons earlier this semester. But to have visited Snowdonia, to have stood in the shadow of Yr Wyddfa, to have pierced the heart of the Fairy Glen, to have stood atop Dinas Emrys itself…well, one cannot experience that and come away unchanged.