Exploring the world of the Welsh mystics

The region surrounding our hotel is plentiful with ancient sites and stone circles, which begs the question – why are they there?

Welsh history and oral tradition are steeped in mysticism and otherworldly stories, and it seems that they have some roots in pre-Christian Britain.

Everything intrinsically ‘Welsh’ entwines the land and its spirits, and the tradition of this goes back millennia. Today, we’re going to take you back in time to explore the roots of Welsh mysticism and learn more about this sacred land.

The men, the myth

Druids, the ancient priests of Celtic Britain, have long kindled our imaginations. We cultivate a stereotypical image of a white-robed wise man, but what else do we know about these powerful yet elusive figures?

The druids were first mentioned more than 2,000 years ago and were described as observers of natural phenomena and moral philosophers. Similar to the druids were the bards. The bards were singers, poets and diviners who interpreted sacrifices in order to foretell the future.

Historically, the Welsh people believed that the environment had magical links and practiced ritual and sacrifice to appease their many deities. Gods lay in the water of fast-flowing streams and in the bark of the Sacred Oak. The moon, the sun and the stars were also important and they divined the future by looking to the heavens. They also worshipped the time of the tide and the changing of the seasons.

A bloody history?

Tacitus, a Roman senator and historian, gave an account of when the Roman army, led by Suetonius Paulinus, attacked the sacred isle of Ynys Mon (Anglesey). Tacitus is the only primary source that gives accounts of druids in Britain though he remained hostile toward them, believing them to be ignorant savages.

On landing on the isle, the Roman legionaries were startled by the appearance of a band of druids, who were described as forming a circle ‘lifting their hands to heaven’, which is in keeping with some Celtic images that we have of their shamans in prayer.

The druids were cursing whilst the blood of prisoners drenched upon their altars (a chilling image) as they requested aid from the Gods to avenge them. That they formed a circle would imply that they believed that some sort of power was derived from this ritual. The courageous Romans, however, soon overcame their fears. The Britons were put to flight, and the sacred groves were cut down.

Nora Chadwick, an expert in medieval Welsh and Irish literature, emphatically believed that the druids were merely great philosophers, and not involved in human sacrifice at all. Tacitus’s account clearly has prejudice, but there is seemingly some truth to his statement.

Offerings were made to the Gods in return for protection and good fortune, and there’s evidence to suggest that humans were set before the Gods as payment. The ritual deposition of items in Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey includes swords, spears, chariot fittings, horse bridles, cauldrons and a trumpet. However, although they were omitted from the report, the excavation at this site did recover human remains.

A new age (ironically)

The raid on Anglesey effectively marked the end of Druidism as an effective force in Britain but worship of the gods was tolerated under the Roman regime.

Further to the Roman invasion, the introduction of metalworking to Wales seems to have had an effect on the religious practices of the natives, too. Dolmens and stone circles were no longer constructed. This is perhaps because the making of metal was believed to be an act of magic in itself. This new, tangible alchemy seduced them into leaving the old ways behind.

Have a look for yourself!

Archaeologists have spent centuries trying to establish the origins of these mysterious stones. Luckily, there is now sufficient evidence available to make an educated guess as to the purpose of Wales’s mystical spots. Constructed in the Neolithic (New Stone Age) and Bronze Age c. 3,500 BC and 1,500 BC, there are dozens of these landmarks in Wales.

Some academics suggest they were ancient places of worship, constructed high on hills to be close to the gods, and yet others claim the structures were solely to appease them. Others will claim that they were used in burial ceremonies, or that stone circles are often aligned with constellations indicating a prehistoric knowledge of the heavens. It’s also possible that they had a dual function as community centres, where tribes could meet and trade. Whatever their purpose, they have survived, and perhaps one day scientific advances will allow some more of their mysteries to be unravelled.

Here three spiritual spaces you might want to explore:

Barclodiad y Gawres

Barclodiad y Gawres is one of the most impressive of the many prehistoric remains on the Isle of Anglesey. This Neolithic chambered tomb has been partially reconstructed, which helps a great deal to give an idea of the site and how it was used. The tomb’s name means ‘the giantess’s apronful’, which gives you an idea of its impressive size. The tomb is built to a cruciform pattern, with a central area with a hearth, and side chambers.

There is a wealth of carved stones, particularly several carved with spiral patterns which are unique in Wales. Two cremated male burials were discovered in a side chamber.

Bryn Cader Faner Cairn Circle

If you’re ready for a real trek up into the Welsh heartland, this cairn circle is really impressive, and has likely survived so well because of its remote positioning. Access is via a 4-mile walk through marshy ground, so be sure to wear proper walking boots!

Top tip: there is a small parking on a no through road past the Maes-Y-Neuadd hotel (LL47 6YA) near Talsarnau.

Fifteen stones survive here, and they’re up to six feet tall. The stones are spread out from the centre of the cairn like a porcupine’s bristles. There were originally up to 30 standing stones, but the site was damaged prior to World War Two. The military removed some stones from the east side of the circle and used the circle for target practice.

At the centre of the cairn is a depression that suggests a grave, left by treasure-hunters in the 1800s. If there were any remains at the centre of the cairn they were removed, but why the combined stone circle and cairn? Perhaps this spot is a result of different traditions harmonising together at once.

Bryn Celli Ddu Burial Chamber

Bryn Celli Ddu is a Neolithic chambered tomb, and a perfect spiritual location to celebrate the dawn of the Summer solstice. People flock to Anglesey from far and wide to observe the druidic service that accompanies the rising of the sun during the solstice. As the first rays of dawn penetrate the open doorway, lighting the inner burial chamber, it is filled with a sense of life, even in a place of the dead. That said, it’s also a marvellous place to enjoy a picnic on a sunny afternoon!

Bryn Celli Ddu is perhaps Anglesey’s best-known prehistoric monument, a burial chamber known in English as ‘the mound in the dark grove’. It is unique in being the only tomb to be aligned directly with the rising sun on the summer solstice on the island.

Continuing tradition

In Wales, the roles and privileges of bards related to laws set down by Hywel Dda in the 10th century and during the 1700s, the image of the druids became what it is today. From then, the Druids were seen as the ancestors of the bards, the beloved poets, musicians and genealogists who flourished in Welsh medieval society.

Stone circles haven’t been built in thousands of years, but the practice was revived following the activities of 18th-century antiquarian Iolo Morgannwg. It must have caused quite the stir when it became a part of the activities of the National Eisteddfod! Today, wherever the Eisteddfod visits a stone circle is erected and is the focus of Bardic ceremonies during Eisteddfod week.

Yes, it’s exciting to be told stories of giants and dragons, lake-dwelling sorceresses and gallant knights, but if you’re hankering for a story about ancient tribes communing with the stars and exacting terrible violence of unlucky souls chosen for sacrifice, then you needn’t turn to fairytales!

Image courtesy: Sterim64, 15 September 2018, Sterim64 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0).

Our favourite Welsh dishes

If you’re missing our beautiful country, we can help ease the ache by showing you how to create some delicious Welsh food at home. While we might not be a country renowned for our culinary heritage, Wales has some delicious traditional dishes that we’re going to share with you in this blog.

Our culinary tradition stretches back centuries and reflects an impressive talent for cultivating satisfying and flavourful food from, often limited, ingredients. We’ve chosen a few of our favourite Welsh dishes along with the recipes so you can create a taste of Wales in your own home… at least until we can spoil you again here at the hotel.

Each dish provides enough food for four people, whether as the main event or a side dish.

Glamorgan Sausages

In a quest to create a delicious veggie dish, these intensely-flavoured cheese sausages were created in the southernmost parts of Wales. Glamorgan sausages are traditional Welsh vegetarian sausages made with cheese and leeks and coated in breadcrumbs.

Sadly, the Glamorgan cheese that gave the sausages their name no longer exists, but there are some wonderful local alternatives that we recommend. They’re explosively flavourful from using just a few ingredients.

Ingredients: 

  • 25g butter
  • 115g trimmed leeks
  • 175g breadcrumbs
  • 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh thyme
  • 150g grated strong cheese (we recommend Y Fenni cheese or any mature Welsh cheddar)
  • 2 free-range eggs, separated
  • 1 tsp English mustard
  • 5 tbsp sunflower oil
  • Salt and black pepper

Method:

Place the breadcrumbs, cheese, seasoning, mustard, leeks and herbs into a mixing bowl and mix well. Beat together the eggs, and add to the ingredients. Once well combined, mix to form a firm dough. If the mixture is dry, add a drop of milk. Divide the mixture into eight and form each portion into a sausage shape.

Coating the sausages is optional, but we recommend it because it provides such a lovely crispy texture. To do this, beat the egg and add the milk. Place the breadcrumbs on a plate and season lightly with salt and pepper. Roll each sausage in the egg mixture and then roll in the breadcrumbs. Once you’ve done them all, chill for an hour.

When they’re ready for cooking, add the oil to a hot frying pan and add the sausages a few at a time. Cook over a medium-low heat until golden all over. Take your time and cook them gently – they’ll burn on the outside and not cook through if the pan is too hot.

We recommend serving these cheesy morsels with buttery mash and vegetables for a robust and filling meal.

Welsh Cakes

Welsh cakes, or pice ar y maen meaning ‘cakes on the stone’, are flat spiced cakes. Historically, they were cooked on a bakestone, but you can achieve the same results on a griddle. You can eat them hot or cold, by themselves or smothered in butter (and even jam!).

Ingredients: 

  • 225g self-raising flour (it’s important to use self-raising vs. plain flour and baking powder as you tend to taste the baking powder otherwise)
  • 100g margarine or butter
  • 50g sugar
  • 50g currants/sultanas
  • 1 egg
  • 2 tbsp milk
  • Pinch of salt
  • Cinnamon and sugar for dusting (optional)

Method: 

Mix the flour and salt, and then rub in margarine. Stir in the sugar and currants and mix to a stiff dough with the egg and milk. With a rolling pin, roll the dough out to about 0.5cm in thickness and cut into rounds of about 7cm across. Re-roll any excess to make more Welsh cakes.

To cook, place on a medium-hot greased griddle pan for about three minutes on each side. Once cooked, we love to dip them onto a plate with a mixture of cinnamon and sugar for a sweet, spicy kick!

They’re delicious with butter, perfect warm from the pan at breakfast time with a steaming cup of coffee.

Tatws Pum Munud

The English translation for the next dish is ‘five minute potatoes’ – it’s really that easy! It’s a stew cooked in almost no time on the stove. This warming recipe can be served as a starter or a side dish, but is best enjoyed with lots of crusty bread and butter.

Ingredients:

  • 20 small potatoes
  • 8 slices of bacon
  • 800ml beef stock
  • 2 red onions
  • Salt and pepper
  • Dash of olive oil

Method:

Begin peeling the potatoes and cutting them into thin rounds or small cubes. Slice the bacon into small cubes and dice the onions. Fry the onions and bacon in a large frying pan, and once the bacon and onions are softened, add the potatoes. If you have a lid for the pan, put it on. Add the beef stock to the pan and simmer until the potatoes give no resistance to a prodding fork.

Break up the potatoes up as you go and then cook for 20 minutes, stirring and mixing the bacon and onion mixture through the potatoes whilst cooking. Season with the salt and pepper and add a generous portion to each person’s bowl!

Conwy Mussels

Most people known the town of Conwy for its medieval castle and walls. Around 40 minutes drive from the hotel, it has recently been crowned one of the most beautiful places to visit in Europe by the Japanese Tourist Board.

As well as its history, Conwy is world-renowned for outstanding seafood, notably the mussels harvested from the local estuary. The town lies on an estuary where the River Conwy meets the Irish Sea and it’s the mix of freshwater and seawater that’s believed to give these juicy molluscs their unique flavour.

Conwy mussels are very much a seasonal treat, but if you can source them year-round, so this is a great recipe to try.

Ingredients:

  • 1kg mussels (cleaned and beards removed)
  • 1 glass white wine of your choice
  • 4 slices sourdough bread
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 finely chopped shallot
  • 1 tbsp olive oil

For the garlic butter:

  • 40g unsalted butter
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 1 tbsp chopped parsley leaves (plus extra to serve)
  • ½ tbsp tarragon leaves
  • ½ tsp smoked paprika
  • 10g grated Parmesan
  • Pinch of salt

Method:

First, to make the garlic butter, blitz all the ingredients in a food processor. You can make this up to five days ahead of time if you chill it in the fridge. Toast one side of each slice of bread under the grill and spread the other side thickly with the butter. Place the bread under the grill again until the butter is bubbling. Once you’re there, turn off the grill and keep the toasts warm.

For the mussels, heat the oil and butter over a medium heat in a large pan with a lid. Add the parsley, bay leaf, shallot and pinch of pepper. Allow to sweat for a few minutes until the shallots are soft. Add the mussels and white wine and stir, before covering tightly with a lid. Steam for 2-3 minutes until all the mussels have opened.

To serve, spoon into bowls, pour over the pan juices, scatter over some chopped parsley and serve with the toasts. As an accompaniment to this dish, we simply recommend more white wine; it’s a match made in heaven!

Crempogs

Welsh cakes are the VIP in North Wales most of the year around, but we recommend changing it up come Pancake Day, or you know, whenever you fancy!

Use your favourite pancake recipe to make the Welsh equivalent, crempogs. Made with buttermilk and much thicker than normal pancakes, crempogs are served hot and drizzled with butter and honey in a fabulous pile. They’re rich, fluffy, and unfortunately terribly bad for you, so enjoy blissfully in moderation.

They’re great as a breakfast treat with orange juice and a brew on the boil, but they’re a really decadent dessert, too!

We love to celebrate Welsh food. Simple ingredients can pack a real punch and we’re so pleased that these recipes are accessible and affordable to get that little taste of heaven until we see you next! Bon appetit!