Dolbadarn Castle (we affectionately think of it as our castle) sits quietly within the grounds of the Royal Victoria Hotel, sentinel of the twin lakes of Padarn and Peris.
It is, quite possibly, the most overlooked castle in Wales and, although we quite like having it to ourselves, we think we should share this and other Llanberis legends with you in the hope that you might visit and share in the magic of our wonderful village.
Small but mighty
Nested in tranquil woodland, it’s easy to assume this marvel of 13 century engineering has led a quiet life in comparison to larger, more heroic fortresses in the region, such as Harlech and Caernarfon.
But Dolbadarn was keeping watch long before Edward I set his sights on Wales. It played a crucial role in Llywelyn the Great’s quest to unite the Princes of Wales and its strategic position at the foot of the Llanberis Pass meant even a small garrison could control movement through the valley, which was the principal route into the kingdom of Gwynedd.
Dolbadarn was taken by English forces in 1284, and the castle became the sorry victim of neglect and pilfering. Timbers from the interior were taken and used in the construction of Caernarfon Castle. The fact that this little fortress, now in the care of Welsh historic monuments CADW, has remained relatively intact is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of Welsh engineers, who were new to the phenomenon of castle building.
Unlike its complex and imposing cousin, Castell y Bere in Llanfihangel y Pennant, Dolbadarn is of simple construction, an example of a ‘round tower’ keep. The design, almost childish in appearance, was incredibly effective. Constructed from local slate the castle was as much as part of the landscape then as now.
With the main entrance located on the first floor, entry would have been virtually impossible once the access ladder was retracted. Unwelcome visitors would have been met with a barrage of missiles from hoardings (wooden platforms built out from the walls) on the upper reaches of the tower.
When it came to missiles, anything went. Along with burning oil and boiling water, rotten food, human excrement, even dead bodies would be pelted down to repel attackers – a rudimentary form of chemical warfare.
Dolbadarn keep was encircled by a wall housing the day-to-day activities of the castle: the bakery, the kitchen, the stores and the stables. In addition, smaller towers to the south and east of the enclosure provided extra vantage points and a great hall was used for entertaining visitors and to accommodate passing nobility.
Today, only the round tower survives intact but the remains of enclosure buildings, including the hall, can also be seen.
The lowest level of the keep is possibly the most interesting and mysterious, with no useful record of its use. The basement could only be accessed by a single tiny trapdoor and, with so little known of its function, one may wonder at the sinister purpose it could have served.
Before being seized by Edward Longshanks, Dolbadarn played a crucial role in the struggle for the overlordship of all Wales.
Claimant to the throne, Owain Goch, was imprisoned in Dolbadarn for almost 20 years by his brother and ruler, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. Almost 200 years later, Dolbadarn once again because a symbol of Welsh independence when the castle was used by Owain Glyndwr to house prisoners of war.
This episode became known as ‘Dolbadarn’s last gasp’ but, wow, what a way to bow out of our proud history!
Llanberis: where fact meets fiction?
The small village of Llanberis sits at the heart of Snowdonia National Park. It is well-known as a world-class climbing centre and has a proud history of slate mining but the area has its fair share of myths and legends too.
Llanberis has a rugged beauty: sitting below craggy peaks, on the shores of not one but two massive glacial lakes and scarred by slate mining, it is a fitting setting for a tale or two.
The cannibal witch of Llanberis
Canrig Bwt, the Cannibal Witch, was believed to lie in wait halfway up the Llanberis pass near a small stone bridge called Pont y Cromlech, today a popular climbing spot. Just to the right of the bridge is a stone altar dating back to 400 AD. Allegedly, the witch made her home beneath the altar and, after having sold her soul to the Devil, she began eating little children.
Reluctant for the children of Llanberis to become the witch’s next meal a brave young man stepped up to vanquish her once and for all. Armed with an iron sword, and blessed by both a Christian monk and a white (good) witch, the young man set off to meet his destiny.
Unfortunately, on arriving at Canrig Bwt’s lair he was so horrified by what he saw he froze in terror. Slowly, terror gave way to rage, and the brave young man flung himself at the witch with all his might. This is what happened next:
“The blessed sword, with holy sprigs and iron stopped the witch in her tracks, about a foot away. She stood still, unable to move he lifted the sword and severed the neck from the body. Her eyes still glowing in her head as it rolled down the mountainside.”
The generous Tylwyth Teg
With Canrig out of the picture the parents of Llanberis could breathe easy again. However, there was still the problem of the Tylwyth Teg, the fairies; they were rather fond of stealing away unbaptised babies!
Unlike Canrig, the fairies treated stolen children kindly and almost always left their own ugly (only by fairy standards because, to humans, fairies are always very beautiful) children in their place to make up for the loss.
On the whole, Welsh fairies are reputed to be fair if rather mischievous beings; they also have a reputation for generosity. Another local Llanberis legend explains:
“On dark, misty mornings a friend of hers would go to a particular spot in Cwmglas Hollow with a jugful of sweet milk and a clean towel, and place them on a stone. She would then return, and find the jug empty, with money placed beside it.”
Those hoping to cash in on the legend will be disappointed. To this day, few – if any – are party to the knowledge of where exactly Cwmglas Hollow is. Some think it is a climbers’ cottage called Cwm Glas Mawr in the Llanberis Pass (quite close to Canrig’s old haunt at Pont y Cromlech) but, like the fairies, no one is sure if it even exists at all.
Do you know of any other Llanberis legends? If you do, we’d love to hear them. Tweet us here or post on our Facebook page. We’re always keen to learn more about our village and we’ll share our favourites!
Images: Dolbadarn Castle courtesy of Gary Platt via Flickr 2014, Pont y Cromlech courtesy of Eric Jones via Wikimedia Commons.