Updated, 2010-10-19: I've replaced all the photographs with remastered versions that are a significant improvement over the originals --- in particular, I replaced the painstakingly hand-crafted panoramas with ones produced automatically by Hugin. Unfortunately this still doesn't solve the original problem that the photographs were all taken with a camera that was lousy even in 2002, but it's a vast improvement over the originals. Enjoy.
During the years 1965 to 1977, the author Susan Cooper wrote the series of books that we now call (for lack of any other better name) The Dark Is Rising Sequence. These are considered to be among the best children's fantasies ever written; and when I say children, I mean, of course, children of all ages.
The five books are:
- Over Sea, Under Stone
- The Dark is Rising
- The Grey King
- Silver on the Tree
They pull together numerous elements from British mythology; King Arthur, the Wild Hunt, the Drowned Hundred, and many other more esoteric elements. The best book is The Dark is Rising, which has some superb characterisation and is quite genuinely creepy. The worst is, unfortunately, Over Sea, Under Stone, because it's the first book in the series and is likely to be people's first introduction to the series. However, it's easily missable and doesn't contain much useful plot. I'd recommend starting with The Dark Is Rising.
The books are all set in real British locations --- mostly. Over Sea, Under Stone and Greenwitch are set in the apparently fictional Cornish fishing village of Trewissick; all I know about it is that it's near St. Austell. It certainly doesn't appear on the maps.
However, The Grey King is set in Snowdonia, Wales. In fact, Cader Idris itself is a character. And it certainly does appear on the maps.
So when I recently bought myself a new omnibus edition of the books to replace my old and sadly lost Puffin set, I decided to spend the Easter weekend in Wales and go and have a look.
On this trip I found out several things.
- Wales is nice.
- It rains a lot in Wales. Good grief, Bran even tells me --- "Mean annual rainfall one hundred and fifty inches," he says. Believe it.
- It's rather hard to stop and take a photo when you're on a single-track road, with cars backed up behind you, and there are no stopping places.
- I really need a better camera.
- I really need a polarising filter for my camera.
- I really need a wide-angle lens for my camera.
As a result my photos are rather washed out and blurry. A lot of Wales is rather too big to fit in the view of a 35mm lens, and so I had to take panoramas and use the GIMP to glue them together... which doesn't work very well. Apart from the fact that mountains seem to move between shots, so they tend not to match up, the colour balance changes from picture to picture. I've done my best to compensate but, well, the seams are still rather visible. Bear with me.
A number of these pictures, particularly the panoramas, are rather small and fuzzy and as a result I've also included larger versions. Watch out for the blue or purple border around the pictures; if there is one, clicking on the image will take you to a bigger picture.
The Grey King
The Grey King is set in and near the Dysynni Valley, which is wide and flat runs up from the coast just north of Tywyn on the coast, past Craig yr Aderyn, before petering out at Llanfinangel-y-pennant to the south-west of Cader Idris. The peak of Cader Idris itself is called Penygadair and is 893m above sea level. This may not be big in mountain terms, but in human terms it is very, very large. Trust me.
Unfortunately I was staying in Forge, which is to the south, and as I was working my way up the coast I only managed to get there on Saturday evening, by which time the light was fading. Sunday it rained and I didn't get very good photos. And I didn't get to climb the Grey King himself, which was a pity.
The white dog bounded happily beside them as they crossed the fields, away from cottage and farm, up the valley towards the mountains and the lone near peak. It stood at a right angle to the mountain behind it, jutting into the flat valley floor.
"Funny how that rock sticks out like that," Will said.
"Craig yr Aderyn? That's special, it's the only place in Britain where cormorants nest inland. Not very far inland, of course. Four miles from the sea, we are here. Haven't you been over there? Come on, we've got time." Bran changed direction slightly. "You can see the birds fine from the road."
This is Craig yr Aderyn as seen from the south-west. The dedication to The Grey King states clearly that Clwyd Farm is fictional, but if it existed, it would be off to the left of this picture. Alas, I didn't see any cormorants. And I must say that if Will and Bran climbed that, then Will was rather less ill than he thought. According to the map there's a path which runs up the valley on the right and circles round behind the peak, on which there's a fort. The highest point is actually the little knob in what appears to be the saddle, at 258 metres. (The valley floor is 5 metres above sea level.) Next time I'll give it a go.
His aunt had called it the loveliest lake in Wales, but lying there in the grey morning, it was more sinister than lovely. On its black still surface not a ripple stirred. It filled the valley floor. Above it reared the first slopes of Cader Idris, the mountain of the Grey King, and beyond, at the far end of the valley, a pass led through the hills --- away, Will felt, towards the end of the word. He had himself under control now, but he could feel the tension quivering in his mind. The Grey King had felt his coming, and the awareness of his angry hostility was as clear as if it were shouted aloud. Will knew that it could not be long before one of the watchers, a peregrine curving high over the slopes, would catch sight of him. He did not know what would happen then.
Tal y Llyn as seen from the south (the Ty'n-y-cornel Hotel car park, actually). The field of view here is nearly 180 degrees and the opposite slope is much steeper than it looks; no, the seams between pictures don't exist in real life.
Cader Idris itself isn't visible here, it's deep in the clouds. The little indentation in the mountains just to the right of center is in fact the Nant Cadair valley, where the path goes up. More on Cader Idris later.
There is only one candidate for the farm to which John Rowlands and Will take Pen after Cafall is shot, that's the farmhouse on the left on the far side of the lake. (Click on the image for a bigger version.) It's not named on my map. The place where the Brenyn Llwyd shrugs Will off the path and he nearly falls in the lake is completely made up, I'm afraid. There are no cliffs above the lake.
The figure was so huge that at first he could not realise it was there. It stretched wider than the field, and high into the sky. It had shape, but not recognisable earthly shape; Will could see its outline from the corner of his eye, but when he looked directly at any part of it, there was nothing there. Yet there the figure loomed before him, immense and terrible, and he knew that this was a being of greater power than anything he had ever encountered in his life before. Of all the Great Lords of the Dark, none was so singly more powerful and dangerous than the Grey King.
Cader Idris, the Brenyn Llwyd himself, as seen from the bottom of the path up. Unfortunately the thick overcast is hiding the top completely and the light is so dim that I'm surprised this came out at all (the flash triggered). Over the near rise, which is 300 metres, by the way, is a shallow depression with a corrie lake in it, Llyn Cau, which apparently it makes a really good place to camp in the summer. The path then runs half-way round the rim of the cwm in what must be a highly spectacular fashion until it reaches the summit at Penygadair, 500 metres higher. If there was no cloud, the summit would be visible almost directly above the lowest point of the ridge.
For better pictures, try Google.
Silver on the Tree
The last book in the sequence takes place in a number of locations. However, part two, The Singing Mountains, is set not far south of the Dysynni Valley in the Dyfi Valley. It didn't rain while I was here, so you will be relieved to hear that I got much better pictures.
"No," Jane said. "We've never been to Wales before, Barney. But Dad's grandmother was born here. Right in Aberdyfi. Perhaps memories can float about in your blood or something."
"In your blood!" Simon said scornfully.
Aberdyfi is so cute it's almost sickening. It's perched on the edge of the mountain and is a weird mixture of East Coast Scottish fishing village, West Coast Scottish fishing village, and Southend.
The Drews were staying at the Trefeddian Hotel, which exists. Unfortunately, I couldn't find it while I was there, so I don't have a photo. It turns out that if I had studied my map more carefully I would have noticed that it was described as being half-way up the mountain, above the golf course, and then I would have seen Trefeddian Farm... oh, well. Next time.
I followed the Drews, Will and Bran up the road past the vicarage.
"Duw," Bran said. [...] "That's years away, anything could happen. Power stations in the estuary. Holiday camps on Snowdon."
"Cars, cars," said Will. "D'you know there's even something on the Machynlleth road called a chaltel? A chaltel!"
Their fears are coming true, I'm afraid. But once I got away from the chalets (and on to the right road --- pay careful attention to the map), Cwm Maethlon soon stretched out before me.
They were on the rim of a magnificent valley. At their feet the hillside dropped away in a sweep of waving green bracken, where a few sheep precariously grazed on scattered patches of grass. Far, far below, among the green and golden fields of the valley floor, a road ran like a wavering thread, past a toy church and a tiny farm. And across the valley, beyond its further side patched blue with cloud-shadows and dark with close-planted fir, there rolled in line after line the massing ancient hills of Wales.
"Oh!" Jane said softly.
"Cwm Maethlon," Bran said.
"Happy Valley," said Will.
Well, there was no bracken, but that's probably just the time of year. And that's not what I call 'far, far below', but then I grew up in Scotland and am used to such things. But magnificent it certainly is. If ever you visit the area, it's worth a look. (But walk. Don't drive.)
By the way, the road in the above picture is straight. The field of view is just over 180°. The photos in the panorama really did not want to fit together and I had to do a lot of blending; the strange patches in the sky are partly clouds, partly artifacts of this. Again, click on the image for a bigger picture.
The church and farm mentioned in the quotation do exist, but they're not visible from this angle.
The road follows the ridge along for a surprising distance. It's a fair walk, especially for someone who usually sits in front of a computer desk all day and wasn't expecting it. It's all exactly as described, including the place where the road comes to an end at another farmhouse. A track then goes on around the curve of Tyddynbriddell Hill, until we reach the slate marker that means we've come to Carn March Arthur.
"There's a sort of carved-out circle here that's supposed to be where the hoof of Arthur's horse trod --- look, it's marked." Barney measured the hollow in the rock with his hand. "And another over here." He sniffed, unimpressed. "Pretty small horse."
Um, yes. I must admit that I was expecting something a little more impressive. I only found one of Barney's hoof prints and it took me some time before I worked out that was it. The text on the marker just says 'Carn March Arthur'
Llyn Bartog, the Bearded Lake, is another half kilometre round the hill.
It was a strange small reed-edged lake, little larger than a pond; its dark surface seemed curiously patched and patterned. Then Will saw that its open surface was rippled by the wind, but that only a small part of it was open, a triangle at the closest end of the lake. All the rest of its surface, from the end at the edge of the valley to a trailing V-shape in the centre, was covered with the leaves and stems and creamy white bloom of waterlilies. And from a singing in his ears like the sudden rise of waves on a loud sea, he knew too that somewhere up here, after all, was the place to which they were intended to come.
Another awkward panorama, I'm afraid. Llyn Bartog (the map spells it with a t; Susan Cooper spells it with an f) is bigger than it looks in the photo, about two hundred metres long. There were no waterlilies on the surface but they were just visible to the human eye on the bottom. Apparently they were invisible to the camera.
It's a nice place, actually. Obviously once Bran cast out the afanc --- again --- it became much more reputable.
Interestingly, the impression you get from the book is that Carn March Arthur is on the edge of the lake. In fact, it's a good five minutes walk away. The legend goes that the afanc scared Arthur's horse, who jumped back and its hooves hit the rock and left the marks; all I can say is that it should have been a show jumper.
The path goes on past the lake and heads down to the bottom of Happy Valley. I'm embarrassed to say that I did not go and hear the echo. By this point, some five kilometres from Aberdyfi, I had discovered that my boots were not quite broken in properly and didn't really want to go any further. However, I could clearly hear a group of children shouting 'Echo' at it...
"Haven't you heard that old story yet? About where the Bells of Aberdyfi ring, all ghostly out at sea on a summer night, over there?" Masked by the dark glasses that covered his pale eyes once more, Bran got to his feet and pointed out at the mouth of the estuary, all of it sunlit now beneath wider patches of blue. "That was supposed to be Cantr'er Gwaelod, the Lowland Hundred, the lovely fertile land of the King Gwyddno Garanhir, centuries ago. The only trouble was, it was so flat that the sea-water had to be kept out by dykes, and one night there was a terrible storm and the sea-wall broke, and all the water came in. And the land was drowned."
I'm really annoyed by this photo. I don't know what happened, but I could clearly see South Wales on the horizon. I don't know why it went so cloudy in the image. It was quite sunny when I took it.
The flat area you can see is, as Bran explains just before the passage quoted above, Cors Forchno (to use the map's spelling); it is bog, but these days it's a nature reserve. The long straight water feature is the Afon Leri, a river-cum-drainage ditch; and if you look at the larger version you can see the dunes of Tywyni Bâch. I never got out there, either, and I would have liked to.
What is there to say? Susan Cooper obviously has impeccable taste. I'm sorry I didn't get to spend more time there, and see more of the area. Alas, I doubt I'll be able to get to the Lost Land, much though I would like to! (Provided I can take along a rubber boat and life jacket.)
I'd like to go back, possibly with more holiday booked from work and a better camera. I'd like to climb Craig yr Aderyn, go up Cader Idris, and definitely spend more time around Aberdyfi.
Watch this space.