Follow in the footsteps of King Arthur

Why did the story of a king who (almost certainly) never existed become one the most enduring myths of the western world? The legend of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table is an integral part of British national identity, particularly for the people of Wales.

Love, conflict, death, loyalty and betrayal are the universal themes that permeate Arthurian folklore – themes that have captured the imagination since the Dark Ages.

It seems today, everyone wants a piece of Arthur. Hundreds of communities across Britain claim the legend was born on their soil. Tintagel, the fabled palace of Arthur’s mother Igraine, is said to have been situated in Cornwall; Avalon, the island where the sword Excalibur was forged, is said to be found in a remote part of Sicily; and a tiny hamlet in northwestern France, Carhaix-Plouguer, claims to be the location of King Arthur’s court.

These are just a few examples, we’re sure you can bring many more local examples to mind too – Glastonbury, Cadbury, Carlisle, Winchester and Stonehenge to name but a few.

An ancient legend

Arthur was the son of Uther Pendragon and heir to the throne, but Arthur had been conceived in magic and deceit (you can read the legend here) so he was raised in secret by one of Uther’s trusted knights. When Uther died there was a power struggle over the throne, only a very few knew the king had a son.

To repel claimants to the throne, the wizard Merlin used magic and set a sword in a stone, announcing that only the true heir of Uther would be able to pull the sword from the stone and claim the title King of Britain. Hundreds tried and failed and the throne remained empty.

Many years later, Arthur (as Merlin had planned all along) succeeded in pulling the sword from the stone when his half-brother misplaced his own at a tournament. Seemingly by chance, a humble squire was to become King of Britain.

Noble by birth, the young King Arthur used his new-found power for good and gathered a loyal retinue of knights – the famous Knights of the Round Table – to fight the enemies of the kingdom. At times, these enemies came too close for comfort, numbering among their ranks Arthur’s half-sister, the witch Morgana le Fay, and his ambitious and power-hungry son, Mordred.

Many locations in North Wales have strong associations with the Arthurian legends and, with the backdrop of the mountains and lakes of Snowdonia, it’s easy to believe Arthur and his knights had many of their most celebrated adventures right here.

What better place to begin your quest for the Once and Future King than from the Royal Victoria Hotel in Llanberis? Our hotel is the perfect base from which to explore Snowdonia and follow Arthurian legend back into the mists of time.

An encounter on the slopes of Snowdon

One story tells of Arthur’s meeting with the a giant, Rhitta Gawr. While out riding on the slopes of Snowdon, the giant goaded Arthur, claiming his cloak (grotesquely woven with the beards of vanquished kings) was incomplete without the High King’s royal tresses.

Understandably, Arthur was reluctant to part with his beard and a mighty struggle ensued, with the king emerging victorious. Arthur and his knights buried Rhitta beneath a cairn (yr wyddfa in Welsh) at the summit of Snowdon and this is how the mountain, supposedly, got its Welsh name – Yr Wyddfa.

A watery abode

Excalibur (or Caledfwlch as it is called in Welsh) was the legendary sword of King Arthur, said to be imbued with magical powers. While the true origins of the sword are a mystery locals believe Arthur was bestowed with the sword by the Lady of the Lake at one of two lakes near Llanberis: Llyn Llydaw or Llyn Ogwen.

The Lady of the Lake was the ruler of Avalon; which some believe to be an island, though was more likely to be a small kingdom (a possible site for Avalon or Caer Afallach has been suggested as a hill fort in nearby Flintshire). She played a pivotal role in Arthur’s life, being there at both his beginning and his end, and is intrinsically linked with water whenever mentioned.

Where Merlin soundly sleeps

Ynys Enlli, or Bardsey Island, is a small island off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula. It has very strong Arthurian connections, but no-one can really agree why!

Some stories suggest Bardsey is the burial site of Merlin, a powerful magician and Arthur’s closest adviser. Others disagree, claiming it to be the home of the Lady of the Lake and the true Isle of Avalon.

Whatever the truth, Bardsey has been a sacred place for centuries and it is still possible to visit the island by boat today. You can even follow in the footsteps of medieval people, like the brave Grail Knights, on the North Wales Pilgrim’s Way. We wrote a blog on it recently, why don’t you take a look?

District of dragons

Dinas Emrys is a wooded hill above the Glaslyn River, near Beddgelert, where once stood the hill fort of the mighty chieftain Vortigern. Legend has it, it was the site of a mighty power struggle between Vortigern and a youthful Merlin, a young wizard still grappling with his powers.

Vortigern chose Dinas Emrys as his base and ordered his men to build a stronghold but, despite all efforts, every night the structural work of the preceding day was found crumbled to the ground. No matter how swiftly and how strongly the fortress was built, each morning it stood in ruins.

At his wits’ end, Vortigern appealed for help. Merlin explained that the fortress would never stand as it was built above an underground pool that was home to two slumbering dragons: one an icy white beast and the other fiery red worm.

Vortigern had his men dig into the hill to expose the pool and drain it. The dragons awoke and began to fight, shaking the mountains with their terrifying roars and howls. Eventually the white was vanquished by the red and flew away, never to be seen again. The triumphant red dragon returned peacefully to his lair and resumed his slumber.

In the footsteps of Arthur North Wales

Afterwards, Merlin explained to Vortigern that the battle was a prophecy. The white dragon represented the Saxon hoard and the red, the British people. The red’s triumph signified that one day the British would defeat the invading Saxons and so the red dragon was adopted as the guardian of Wales, immortalised on our national flag.

Arthur’s last stand

Snowdon’s neighbour, Cwm Tregalan is said to be the site of Arthur’s last battle. The battle between the ageing king and his ambitious son raged all day, but Mordred had the advantage and pushed Arthur and his knights into an ambush at Bwlch y Saethau (the Pass of the Arrows).

Struck a mortal blow, Arthur died on the slopes of Snowdon where his faithful knights buried their beloved sovereign under a cairn known as Carnedd Arthur, or Arthur’s Cairn; the exact location of which has, sadly, been lost in the mists of time.

The knights resolved to await their king’s prophesied return and took refuge in a cave just below the summit of Y Lliwedd. Here, it is said they slumber, fully-armed and ready to wake and fight again at Arthur’s side in Wales’ hour of greatest need.

Images: ‘The Death of Arthur’ by John Garrick, 1862, via Wikimedia Commons. ‘King Arthur’ by Charles Ernest Butler, via Wikimedia Commons. ‘The Battle of the Dragons’ by Unknown – 15th century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae. 

5 secrets of Snowdon

You may have heard of Snowdon, or maybe even Yr Wyddfa in Welsh, Britain’s tallest mountain. You may have even conquered it’s towering snowy peak, but what do you really know of this iconic national landmark?

Discover our 5 secrets of Snowdon and impress your friends with your knowledge of North Wales.

  1. 1. There were, not one, but two hotels at the summit
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This image of Snowdon summit was taken pre-1880 – how things have changed!

By 1847, the Roberts Hotel, then owned by the Royal Victoria Hotel, and the Cold Club owned by the Dolbadarn Hotel, could be found at Snowdon’s summit. Originally the only shelter at the summit was a rickety shed but as the peak grew in popularity so too did the demand for decent accommodation.

Fierce competition between the two businesses combined with high visitor numbers meant that both hotels were in poor condition and, more often than not, housed more visitors than beds!

The Snowdon Mountain Tram-road & Hotels Company eventually took over the hotels but the buildings were in such terrible condition it was decided to build a new multi-purpose building in their place.

The new building was designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (of Portmeirion fame) and featured huge windows on the front and side for visitors to enjoy the breathtaking views.

Unfortunately, the huge windows shattered in a storm just six months after completion so smaller windows were installed in their place.

In 2008, schoolchildren from Beddgelert and Llanberis buried a time capsule near the Hafod Eryri summit complex, containing items including a chocolate bar and a list of house prices. It won’t be opened until 2058.

  1. 2. Snowdon was the home of the giant Rhitta Gawr 

According to legend, a giant by the name of Rhitta Gawr once lived on the slopes of Snowdon. A tyrant  and a menace to all who lived nearby, the giant was especially fond of killing kings and wearing their beards as a cloak!   

This gruesome tradition began when Rhitta killed two warring rulers, Nynio and Peibio, and took their beards as a prize. Seeking revenge, many more kings attempted to vanquish Rhitta but all met the same fate – and their beards ended up trimming his cloak too.

However, Rhitta met his match when he encountered the most illustrious king of all. One day King Arthur was out riding with his knights when came across Rhitta. Arthur remarked upon the giant’s most unusual cloak.

Rhitta replied he would be honoured to have the King of Britain’s beard on his cloak but Arthur, naturally reluctant to part with it, refused. In the battle that followed, Arthur struck a mighty blow with his sword that cut the giant in two!

Arthur’s knights constructed a cairn, or burial chamber, over the giant that became known as  Yr Wyddfa Fawr or ‘the Great Tomb’. Eventually it became just Yr Wyddfa which, as you may know, is the Welsh name for Snowdon. 

3. Snowdon is the site of King Arthur’s last battle

Arthur’s association with Snowdon did not end with the death of Rhitta Gawr; it is said that his final battle also took place on the mountain.

In a monumental battle against evil son Mordred, Arthur and his knights were brought down by a hail of enemy arrows at a place that became known as Bwlch y Saethau or the Pass of the Arrows. 

As Arthur lay mortally wounded he issued a final command to his most loyal knight, Sir Bedwyr (Sir Bedivere). He said: “Take my sword Caledfwlch to the lake that lies over there and to throw it into the water and to come back and tell me what you saw.”

Bedwyr tried three times to cast the sword into the lake but could not muster the courage or the strength to cast the magical sword Caledfwlch (Excalibur) into the murky depths of the lake. It seemed wrong that such a mighty weapon be lost forever.

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Looking down at Llyn Llydaw from Bwlch y Saethau.

When he returned to the king, sword in hand, Arthur angrily ordered him to do his bidding and, after much hesitation, Bedwyr flung Caledfwlch into the lake.

Before the sword could hit the water a woman’s arm, clad in white silk, rose out of the lake and caught Caledfwlch by the hilt. Hefting it three times in silent salute, the hand and the sword then slipped silently back into the lake.

Sir Bedwyr returned to his king’s side, told him what he had witnessed and shortly after Arthur died peacefully in the knowledge that the sword had returned to its rightful owner – the mysterious Lady of the Lake who had gifted Caledfwlch to a then-young King Arthur many years before.

Following his death, Arthur’s knights interred his body in a cairn then sealed themselves in a cave on nearby mountain, Y Lliwedd, where it is said they lie slumbering until Arthur awakens them to fight once again.

Today walkers on the Watkin Path pass the spot of Arthur’s death just before they join with the Rhyd Ddu path nearing the summit. Llyn Lydaw, a popular stopping point on the Miner’s Track, is said to be the final resting place of Caledfwlch/Excalibur.

  1. 4. Snowdon was once part of the seabed

Geologists believe that five hundred million years ago Snowdon was part of the seabed. During the Palaeozoic Era the land that eventually became Wales was part of a micro-continent called Avalonia.

Avalonia was engulfed by the sea during the Cambrian Era and this is when our landscape began to form, moulded by the ebb and flow of primeval tides and the sediments, minerals and fossils left behind.

Fragments of seashell fossils found on the summit have provided significant evidence to suggest that the mountain was once part of a relatively flat seabed, known as the Welsh Basin.  

So, contrary to the myths and legends surrounding Snowdon’s formation, the valleys of Snowdonia were actually etched out over millions of years. Timeless and enduring – it’s a fitting description of our beautiful landscape. 

5. Snowdon is home to a rare species of flower and insect 

Snowdon is home to a rare species of Alplily, Lloydia serontia. In Welsh, it is called brwynddail y mynydd or ‘rush-leaves of the mountain’ because of its slender, grass-like stems. Alplilies are widespread across areas of North America, Asia and Europe but Lloydia serontia is a unique strain only found in Snowdonia.

Another unique inhabitant of the mountain is the Rainbow Leaf Beetle (Chrysolina cerealis). These colourful little creatures reside solely on Snowdon where, it is speculated, there are less than 1,000 in existence. More prevalent in other parts of the world, the beetle is so rare in Britain it has been nicknamed the Snowdon Beetle.

More secrets of Snowdonia

Both species are protected but there are fears that either could become the very first living things to face extinction due to global warming. 

Images: Snowdon Summit c. 1880 courtesy of the National Media Museum. Llyn Llydaw from Bwlch y Saethau by © Copyright Peter and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence. Snowdon Alplily by Stemonitis via Wikimedia Commons. Rainbow Leaf Beetle by Nickola Rahme via Flickr