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Llangollen, Denbighshire, belongs to the Wales of the Dee, not to the Wales of the Severn; to the pleasant hills and valleys, not to the moors and crags. But it has, on its own scale. a mountainous feature of great interest, the Eglwyseg Rocks. Placed to the North East of the lake-land plateau that possesses the central parts of Wales, and sundered by it from others of its ancient provinces, Llangollen has had a distinctive history and a distinctive challenger in the raiding earldom of Chester. This aspect of its past can be summarized in the name of the most predatory of the Lords Marcher who held Chester: Hugh Lupus, the Wolf. There are several outstanding monuments to history in the Llangollen area, more than in the place itself. Among them, rather unexpectedly, is Plas-yn-Ial on the Corwen- Chester road, the seat of the family from whom sprang the founder of Yale University in the United States. Ial is the name of the princely Welsh region in the North that numbered Llywelyns among its possessors. Oddly enough, Harvard may also trace its origin to a family of Cambro-Britons on the Cheshire border. In 1832 the idea of a North Welsh University was imagined by the Rev. W. Jones, Baptist minister at Holywell. Thirty years later the idea was realized at Llangollen in an academy with six students. After forty years of endeavour, the institution was removed to Bangor.

That Llangollen itself is a product of late Roman-British times seems to be established by its name. It is dedicated to the memory of Cohen, a saint of what is known as the Celtic Church, and was in being before the Anglo-Saxon assault. He is remembered in legend as the one who was singled out by “fairies” to be tempted by beautiful clothing and song. Their apparel was red and green; and he reproved them by pointing out that such was the dress of condemned souls, since one side burnt with the fires of Hell and the other froze with the ice of outer darkness. Like most legends, it is largely metaphorical; Gildas, the outraged cleric who chronicled the shortcomings of Britain in the 6th century, condemned its rulers and indeed its Churchmen for indulging in such wanton pleasures and in having sophisticated ladies at the dining-table. And, what is more, the sub-Roman society he attacked took red and green as dominant colours for their military symbols.

However, the present church, though old, belongs to a much later date, and its main feature is a carved roof that came from the nearby Abbey of Valle Crucis (Vale of the Cross). Llangollen stands on the Dee, and bridges it with a structure of four arches, for a long time included in the Seven Wonders of Wales. It is said to have been built in Henry I's reign, but in 1346 it was widened and extended by John Trevor, Bishop of St Asaph and Chancellor of Chester. It has now been further widened and enlarged by construction undertaken in 1873 with an eye to the needs of the railway. It was then that a more definite date could be added to its tale, for workmen found a stone in its arches with the figure 1131 and the initials W.S.

Flannel was once the chief industry of the town. Now it is more renowned as the site of the International Eisteddfodau to which countries all over the world send dance and song teams to compete. It is a curious commentary on Cohen's puritanic zeal.

One cannot mention Llangollen without including the Ladies and their house. They were two unmarried women of Irish connection, Lady Eleanor Butler and the Hon. Sarah Ponsonby, who decided to elope together the expression is apt, since they conducted the affair without telling their families. They settled first in the town of Denbigh in 1776. From there they removed to a cottage in Llangollen, which they enlarged into the present Plas Newydd (New Place). They dominated what was then a village, and summoned various men of distinction to their Place, demanding forms of tribute in the shape of curios, particularly pieces of oak, carved if possible. One visitor, William Wordsworth, went so far as to offer a sonnet as a gift, but unfortunately he referred to the Place as a low-roofed cottage, which debarred him from ever having another invitation. It is certainly a curious house, over-timbered rather than half-timbered, and there is nothing else quite like it anywhere, except perhaps the monstrously romantic dwelling Victor Hugo chose to elaborate in Guernsey during his exile.

Llangollen can be readily reached from either Wrexham or Oswestry, and, though the town has many points of interest (its beer was famous), the surrounding area is more attractive still.

To the North of the Vale of Llangollen, coming in a curve round the point of Cefn y Fedw (Birch Ridge), are the Eglwyseg Rocks. Their name is said to mean rocks that fell within the domain of the Church. They are a stepped and broken formation of limestone of under 2,000 ft. but dominating the valley by sudden contrast. The impression of barren wilderness they give is increased by the name World's End given to their final bluff. The road beneath them passes a Tudor house. Plas n Eglwyseg, replacing a medieval lodge to which, in the days of Henry I, was brought a lady of Wales who has earned the title of its Helen. About 1108, Rhys ap Tewdwr, who could claim to be the independent Prince of the Deheubarth, or South, of Wales. had a daughter whose fascination must have been irresistible. She attracted Henry I himself, who made her his ward; and from their mutual feeling sprang the distinguished family of FitzHenrys. Her name was Nest. In due course Henry had her married to his Constable at Pembroke, Gerald de Windsor; from this alliance sprang the family of FitzGeralds. They lived at Cenarth Castle in Pembrokeshire and, as it happened, were invited to some celebration by Cadwgan. Prince of Powys, who had extended his power over Ceredigion or Cardiganshire. His son Owain fell in love with the wife of Gerald, and at the first opportunity raided Pembrokeshire, burnt the Castle of Cenarth, and abducted Nest to his remote hunting-lodge near Llangollen. Gerald narrowly escaped death, and he swore revenge. The subsequent tale, almost as long as the Tale of Troy, involsed for many years the confused politics of Wales and the marchlands. At one time Owain escaped to Ireland, threatened as much by his father and brothers as by any other enemy, for only on condition that his son never returned was Cadwgan allowed to keep Cardigan as part of his principality. But Owain did return, and, by a stroke of poetic justice, he died in the Dyffryn Tywi at the hands of Gerald, the husband he had outraged, through a chance encounter when neither knew he had met the other. When Gerald died, Nest married Gruffydd ap Rhys. and founded yet another of the great families of Wales, Ireland, and the North of England.

The mysterious Hill of Bran (about 900 ft) watches the Vale of Llangollen under the South escarpment of the Eglwyseg Rocks. It is held by a castle called Dinas Bran, whose architecture is not Norman or a Welsh imitation of Norman battlemented structure. Apparently the original Celtic system of fortification, depending on wooden palisades and earthy mounds and ditches, remained much the same into the early Middle Ages. But Castell Dinas Bran has a character of its own. its l3th century occupation by Gruffyd ap Madoc, who took the side of Henry III against the Welsh, noticeably affected its architecture. But the foundation of heaped rock seems to belong to the earliest days of the sub-Roman power of Powys. The name Bran strictly means Crow, although in the extended form of Cig-Fran it means Raven, and Bran sometimes takes that sense. Bran is also the name of a great figure in the Mabinogion, which reflects a romanticized 14th or 15th century version of much older memories from the dark “Arthunan” times. Much of the associated literature - in particular the Graal story of the 12th century, on which Malory founded his romance of the Grail 250 years later shows the adapted form taken by the Mithraic legionary faiths, which set their temples around the northern walls of Britain in Roman times. And the raven was the first of the Mithraic grades. Considering the ravens of Owain that haunt the dream-like record of Rhonabwy, soldier of Arthur, and the standard round which they manoeuvred, the direct descent of this castle from the 5th and 6th centuries is clearly possible.

The impression is confirmed if you take the way by car or on foot, or by barge along the canal, to Valle Crucis Abbey. This is only 2 miles from Llangollen and - though without the sense of awe that, even in its ruins, still possesses Tintern is the most interesting example of its kind in the North of Wales. Founded in 1189 by Madoc, son of Gruffydd (Griffith) of Maaelor and Lord of Bromfield and Ial, it suffered under Henry VIII. In the style known as Early English, it preserves the nave with aisles, a choir, and two transepts, and a piscina or fish-pool. The monastic buildings themselves were for some time used as a farmhouse, but have now been cleared. The main door and the lancet window are particularly worth noting. Nor far away, a most interesting stone monument stands lonely in a field. This is Eliseg's Pillar - a memorial not only of its own distant times but of reasonless destruction by man. It had already stood for 1,000 years when, in the middle of the 17th century, and at the height of the Second Civil War between Parliament and King that vexed Wales in particular, Puritan fury despoiled it as some sort of Popish idolatry. In 1779 it was re-erected by a Mr Lloyd of Trevor Hall. The inscription on it a restoration due largely to him now reads: “Concen, the son of Cateli; Catch, the son of Brochmael; Brochmael, the son of Eliseg; Eliseg, the son of Cnoillaim. Concen, great-grandson, therefore, of Eliseg erected this stone to the memory of his great-grandfather, Eliseg”.

The names recall the entries made by scribes in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Eliseg was indeed a historical person; he was King of Powys in the days of the final Saxon assault on Britain that burnt down Pengwern at Shrewsbury, the capital of Powys, and by a victory at the Bangor hard by Chester, which stood at the northern strategic limit of Powys about the Dee, finally severed the British of Wales from the British of Strathclyde. Eliseg took part in this battle, and must have seen the massacre of many of its 2,500 monks as they stood under the banner of their church praying for the victory of their faith. The song they sang, as they were cut down to the last man, is said to be the one known as “Ymdaith y Mwnc” (The March of the Monks), the saddest and noblest of the traditional tunes of Wales.

There are a few other survivals from this period in British history confused by ideological disputes that led, among so many other things, to the Puritan demolition of the Pillar. Uotiporius, an even earlier British King of South Wales, had for his own memorial the massive stone now in Carmarthen Museum; but it is an inscription in Ogham, the non-alphabetic writing used around the Irish Sea between AD. 350 and 550, that honours him. The Eliseg Pillar is a direct and unique transmission to our own day of that lost time in which the legend of Arthur was created.

Some further recollections of the past in the Vale of Llangollen may be had by visiting Llantysilio and its restored church, and by making the journey to the village of Glyndyfrdwy.

Nearby towns: Chirk, Corwen, Oswestry, Ruthin, Wrexham

Nearby villages: Acrefair, Brymbo, Bryneglwys, Burton, Caergwrle, Carrog, Cefn-y-Bedd, Clawdd-Newydd, Clocaenog, Coedpoeth, Cyffylliog, Cynwyd, Derwen, Efenechtyd, Erbistock, Ffrith, Frankton, Glyn Ceiriog, Glyn-Dyfrdwy, Gobowen, Graigfechan, Gresford, Gwyddelwern, Gyfelia, Hindford, Ifton Heath, Llanarmon Dyffryn Ceiriog, Llandegla, Llanelidan, Llanfair Dyffryn Clwyd, Llandderfel, Llangadwaladr, Llanrhydd, Llansilin, Llantysilio, Marchwiel, Minera, Overton, Pont Newydd, Rhewl, Rhosllanerchrugog, Rossett, Rossett, Ruabon, Selattyn, St. Martins, Trefonen, Trevor, Whittington, Wynnstay

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