With the UK release of King Arthur: Legend of the Sword almost upon us, and 2017 being Wales’ #YearOfLegends, we thought we’d follow Visit Britain’s lead and tell you about our favourite places to visit on a quest to discover Arthur in Snowdonia…
The big blockbuster for history and fantasy fans this year is King Arthur: Legend of the Sword. The movie, directed by Guy Ritchie with a cast featuring Jude Law and David Beckham, was partly filmed in Snowdonia, which has dozens of Arthurian tales forming its rich storytelling tradition.
But where should you go in Snowdonia if you want to hunt down that ancient hero of mystery and magic? Here are some great places to start with.
King Arthur’s Labyrinth
King Arthur’s Labyrinth, in Corris, Southern Snowdonia, has to be the best place to start if you’re a-questing after Arthur. One of Snowdonia’s best-loved attractions, King Arthur’s Labyrinth is pretty unique because not only will the majority of your time there involve hearing fantastic stories of our hero’s life and deeds, but – and here’s the really cool part – a lot of the storytelling takes place while you’re in a boat, underground. Yes, you’re literally travelling in an underground boat, on the water in an old mine. And frankly, modern-day Arthurian adventures don’t get much better than that!
Bardsey is a little island off the tip of the Llyn Peninsula, and there are a few Arthurian stories connected with it. Some say it’s the Isle of Avalon. Others say that Merlin slumbers in a glass tower or cave there. And it’s also said that Arthur’s ship lies in the Bardsey Sound, the stretch of water between the island and the mainland. Go along for a visit – even if you don’t find Arthur (or Merlin) it’s a truly fascinating place that’ll keep history buffs thoroughly entertained. As an added bonus, the boat trip across the Sound offers an excellent opportunity to spot dolphins.
Bwlch y Saethau
Bwlch y Saethau – or ‘Pass of the arrows’ in English – is said to be the site of Arthur’s final battle. Felled by enemy arrows, Arthur was mortally wounded there and his men covered his body with a cairn of stones, which to this day is still called Carnedd Arthur, or Arthur’s Cairn. That’s one version of the story, anyway… another version says that when Arthur was felled, Sir Bedivere carried his body down to Llyn Llydaw, throwing Excalibur into the lake as he passed. Three maidens put Arthur’s body onto their boat and took him to Avalon. To get to Bwlch y Saethau, follow the Watkin Path up Snowdon.
On the subject of Snowdon – in Welsh its name is ‘Yr Wyddfa’ which means ‘the tomb’ – this is the site of an encounter our hero had with a giant, called Ritta. This unpleasant character accosted Arthur on the mountain one day, and said he would take the king’s beard for the collection in his cloak. Well, Arthur of course wasn’t having any of that, so he killed the giant and had him buried under a cairn of stones at the mountain’s summit.
Merlin’s real name was Myrddin Emrys, and the ancient hillfort of Dinas Emrys, Beddgelert, takes its name from this venerable gentleman. Merlin once had a dream of two dragons – one red, one white -fighting in a pool beneath the fort. Merlin prophesied that the red dragon would win, and it did, for it represented the Welsh who overthrew the Saxons, who were represented by the white dragon. Archaeological excavations have shown that there is indeed a pool under the fort, but so far they haven’t unearthed any dragon fossils… not that we know of, anyway!
Staying with Dinas Emrys for a moment, let’s look now at Llyn Dinas. This is a lake in Snowdonia in which Dinas Emrys hillfort, towering over it, is reflected. According to local legend, a battle took place at Llyn Dinas between Arthur’s trusty night Sir Owain and a giant. Further, the hill beside the lake is supposed to be the burial place of Merlin’s treasure.
Another lake, this time Llyn Barfog, whose charming English translation is ‘Bearded Lake’. This is in Southern Snowdonia, near Aberdyfi. A fearsome monster, the Afanc, had been terrorising local people. So off went Arthur on a quest to kill it. Eventually he managed to lasso the afanc with an enormous chain, but how to pull the beast from the water to finish it off? Luckily, Arthur was riding his trusty horse, Llamrai, and between them they hauled the afanc from the water and Arthur killed it. Hooray! But it had been a lot of effort, and during the struggle Llamrai managed to leave a deeply-etched hoofprint in a rock, which has since that day been known as Carn March Arthur, or The Stone of Arthur’s Horse.
What makes Arthur such a symbol of hope? It’s the ancient Britons’ unwavering belief that he will come again when he’s most needed. And that’s why he’s known as the ‘once and future king’. If not Arthur himself, certainly his knights lie in state in a concealed cave below the summit of Y Lliwedd, awaiting their king’s call to save Wales in her hour of greatest need. Today we can brush this off as fanciful, but it was a big deal to the medieval Welsh – so much so that Edward I, wanting to crush their spirit, contrived the ‘discovery’ of Arthur and Guinevere’s graves at Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. If our hero’s body had been unearthed, he couldn’t possibly be alive in a cave waiting to lead the Welsh to victory. Edward’s ruse worked; he went on a rampage around Wales, building castles as he went, and the rest, as they say, is history!