There’s nothing like a medieval castle to exhume one’s sense of romance however deeply it may be buried beneath the mundane. And Wales, that piece of geography that bulges from British soil into the Irish Sea like a full belly, has close to 400 of them in various states of restoration and ruin. But only one claims legendary ties to the Holy Grail: Castell Dinas Bran, which translated into English means ‘castle of the fort of the crow (or raven)’. Some say it is the Arthurian Corbenic Castle itself and the Grail is still there buried deep beneath the rocky remains. I thought I’d try to find out for myself.
Dramatically situated high on a rugged hillock 1, 000 feet above the Dee River valley, getting to these 13th century ruins seems like a daunting challenge when viewed from the 3,000 year old town of Llangollen at its feet. After navigating through the baaing sheep that graze around its base, and after vigilantly avoiding their droppings like land mines, it took me a little over an hour to traipse the winding path to the top. And that’s with a number of reverential stops along the way to gaze over the verdant Welsh countryside so lush it almost provoked me to salivation. Only a few other hikers passed by. It was characteristically not crowded. The higher one climbs, the further one’s mind reverts back in time to where the castle served as a foreboding stronghold against invaders into Northern Wales. And once I had crested the summit to experience the view at the top, I didn’t want to come down. Amidst the 40 mph winds that regularly whip through the ruins, I literally felt on top of the world. On a clear day only the eye limits visibility.
Ditches and earthen embankments around the southern and eastern portion of the summit, date back to the Iron Age. The first stone castle on the site was built in the 8th century with the present ruins probably begun by Gruffydd Maelor II in the middle 13th century. It was a simple design, with a wall that enclosed an area about 330 feet long and 130 feet wide containing a square keep and a great twin-towered gatehouse. In 1277, the Earl of Lincoln besieged the castle, torching it and reducing it to ruins. It has remained that way since. Untouched. Enchanting. Hauntingly beautiful.
Did I find the Grail? The word in old French for raven or crow is Corbenic and the word for raven in Welsh is Bran; same castle name, different tongue. It’s all in the name and based upon French Grail romance manuscripts from the 12th and 13th centuries that tell the story of how the Holy Grail came to rest in a castle in North Wales. Dinas Bran was the physical inspiration for these romances. Visiting there, you know why. No, I didn’t find the actual Grail and for all anyone truly knows, it could now be in New Jersey. But I did discover something else: my love for Wales. And I learned not to wear Cowboy boots when hiking.
Painters such as Turner and Wilson have tried to capture the essence of Dinas Bran on canvas and Wordsworth tried with his prose, but it takes experiencing Dinas Bran, to know it. You don’t just visit the place; you feel it in your gut.
While in Llangollen, take a canal boat through its winding waterway and experience the Horseshoe Falls. There’s much to see there.
Photography by Michael Hadfield