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Greetings, lords and ladies! And happy holidays! Apologies for the lack of posts lately– things have been super busy but I plan on making more time for these posts! I missed this blog dearly. ❤
Since last I wrote, things have finally opened again and are safe for travel! I know a bunch of my fellow Arthurianists are excited to explore more of the U.K. in the near future. What better thing for us Camelot nerds to dream of for the coming new year than Arthurian travel destinations, right? We covered some of England last time– and still have much more of her to cover– but we haven’t yet mentioned her next-door neighbor.
While England has the reputation of being a hub for tons of Arthurian spots, Wales is honestly the true goldmine. Most Arthurian fans know that Wales is argued by many to even be the birthplace of the legend. The first written accounts of King Arthur were by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his Historia regum Brittanniea, or The History of the Kings of Britain. Not only did he write accounts of Arthur in Wales but he wrote most of his work in his hometown of Monmouth (south Wales.) And Geoffrey wrote about the land and legends that he knew. Some people believe his work to be connected to The Dream of Rhonabwy, another early Arthurian tale that dates back to the 12th century and whose author is unknown. Whether written/inspired by Geoffrey or not, this author told the Welsh tale of how Rhonabwy saw in a prophetic dream the red and white dragon in heated battle. In many newer tales, Merlin is the one who has this vision, telling King Uther of the red dragon’s victory over the white, representing Camelot’s victory over their enemy. Henceforth, the red dragon becomes the symbol of Camelot, accompanying the name, Pendragon (“head dragon”). This is thought by some to be the reason why the red dragon is the symbol on the Welsh flag today!
There are so many other Welsh ties to Arthurian legend. And their locations make excellent travel destinations! I had the honor of visiting south Wales with my dad a few years ago and it was easily one of the most magical experiences of my life. You can feel how old and mythical the land is. It’s in the air; in the quiet hush of the village at dusk, in the fields of summery bluebells. It’s in the dark stone of old pubs, the smell of strange flowers and the taste of fresh salmon. There’s something magical about traveling past endless fields of sheep and castle ruins. And there’s an inescapable presence of something legendary that hangs in the air, like a rainy mist.
Let’s take a look at a few locations in the south (we’ll cover the north next time), so that when next you go exploring, you can check off some of these beautiful sites!
Caerleon is mentioned several times in older texts, as a town where Arthur often held court. Some even say that Caerleon was Camelot and that this was where the Round Table was kept. If Arthur was an actual historical figure, this is a maaajor possibility because of the ruins of its Iron Age hill fort, and the Roman amphitheater that’s now part of the National Roman Legion Museum. As far as the Round Table goes, many claim that it wasn’t actually a “table”, at all. Rather, it was Caerleon’s Roman amphitheater, used for holding larger council meetings. It’s perfect when you think about it: lots of space for everyone at court, a speaking place in the round (where there is no head and everyone is equal), good acoustics for giving speeches, instructions and reports, good visuals, and it’s outside where Arthur might feel closer to God, or gods.
The fort and amphitheater even have Roman baths nearby (which might still be available for tours today!) If we’re thinking in the style of the Romans, the king’s royal bathhouse would be close by to his public place of business (AKA the Round Table/ampitheatre). So it makes perfect sense. Also, Arthur’s rule was not long after the Romans left Britain– and in many versions, he’s Romano-British, himself– so he would have made great use of Caerleon.
Hanbury Arms Inn
Also in Caerleon is what could very well be the remains of a “real” Camelot! Nestled in the heart of the town, right alongside the Hanbury Arms Inn, is what remains of a castle– a few feet of a Roman watchtower. Although it’s believed that the castle was added to by Normans in 1085 and attacked by the Welsh in 1217, the castle is still thought by some to be a Romano-British castle from before the 10th century. Geoffrey of Monmouth, himself, said Caerleon Castle was one of Arthur’s and even grew to rival Camelot! Nearby is also a site of one of Arthur’s twelve great battles. And the Hanbury Arms is also where Alfred, Lord Tennyson often came to write poetry and his Idylls of the King, which includes a good chunk of classic Arthurian literature. An Arthurian hotspot, for sure!
Those who visit Caerleon for its Arthurian roots tend to visit the Roman Legion Museum, including the amphitheater. But when I go one day, I’m taking a lunch break at the Hanbury Arms…it’s the closest thing Caerleon has to where Arthur may have lived!
Chepstow is a beautiful, quaint little village. But its castle is nothing short of gigantic. Chepstow Castle is thought to be the resting place for Arthur and his Round Table pals. Some tales say that it was one of his home castles. Others say that after the battle of Camlann, while Excalibur was thrown into the Lake of Avalon, Arthur and his knights were brought to Chepstow to be buried…but they’re not dead. Only sleeping. And one day, when the land’s need is greatest, Arthur will rise again. ❤
Until that day, it’s believed by some that he and his men rest beneath the castle, in the caverns below, just above the water of the River Wye. One staff member even claimed to have seen Arthur’s ghost once, along with the ghosts of his knights while he was on night parol. He fled the castle and never returned, warning people never to visit there after dark. I, personally, would be overjoyed and honored to witness King Arthur’s ghost!? But to each their own, I guess. (I also would like to add that I literally had a dream that Arthur’s ghost came to walk with me around Monmouthshire and told me that Monmouth Castle was the real Camelot. But he also said that the place where he held all the lavish parties– the place that best matches our idea of Camelot– is Chepstow Castle. So. Just throwing that out there.)
My dad and I loved our time there. It’s absolutely massive for a ruins and the energy there feels…large, if that makes sense. “Large” as in larger than life, full of vibrance. It still echoes of a giant court, large dinner parties, secrets never told that remain within the walls, stories and lives and vicious battles that whisper their truths in the chilly breeze blowing in the open corridors. While I felt very at peace there, I wouldn’t be surprised if some spirit still remains there of a great king and his knights, who did much for Wales and the land of Britain. Definitely a must if you’re visiting Monmouthshire.
Dinas Powys Castle
Almost all the way to the southernmost part of Wales, Dinas Powys Castle lies at the eastern end of the Vale of Glamorgan. This ruins was a castle that had been conquered by many and was originally a home for the Norman de Somery family in the 1100s. But some believe that before then, it was originally a castle of King Arthur’s that was destroyed by invaders in the Dark Ages. (I feel like every castle in Wales claims theirs to be one of Arthur’s castles. On every Welsh castle’s website, it lists the history and then below it: “Birthplace of King Arthur!” or “Home of King Arthur!” But also, like…who’s to say it’s not true? Who’s to say each one of them wasn’t a place some historical Arthur-figure has been? He was the High King, it’s very possible he touched base at every one of these locations! Anyway, I digress.) Today, you can check out Dinas Powys for free, so long as you don’t mind the thorn bushes and overgrowth. 🙂
This one isn’t high on most people’s radar but I went with my dad and it did not disappoint. It’s thought by some to have a connection to Sir Percival and/or Merlin. Merlin has an association with the River Severn, which is right downhill (the river separating Wales from England). It’s also thought to have been The Waste Forest; the forest in which Percival was raised by his mother and kept sheltered from civilization. (Which is funny because only a twenty-minute walk away is Tintern, which in medieval times, was a busy village and home to a fully functioning and very popular Tintern Abbey.) Some modern Arthurian stories also place Percival’s forest here– including one of my favorite stories, the Pendragon’s Heir series by Suzannah Rowntree. In The Door to Camelot, Percival even hides out in Tintern Abbey after running away from home, before going to Camelot. In that case, Percy’s first introduction to civilization was through Tintern Abbey, which makes sense given his Christian heart and pure soul. (I guess you could make Tintern Abbey an Arthurian location, too!) But even after all his wild quests, a part of himself always stayed in the forest. In my Percival-based novel, I, too, placed his home here in the Wyndcliff Woods. It just made so much sense for him to look out across the River Severn at England; at Camelot’s towers just beyond the horizon, as he dreams of a life of knighthood.
Going there with my dad and actually stepping foot in the place was a truly magical experience. The forest feels as ancient as it does mystical. It was so quiet, filled only with the sounds of birdsong and cold, early-spring wind shivering through the pine trees. I felt like an intruder. We were so pleased to hike there. It’s so easy to imagine a young Percival there, climbing the forest’s steep paths, sitting in silence with the ancient stones and tree stumps, hunting for food…bombarding passing travelers with questions about the world. But who can blame him? If I had a cottage here, I’d probably have a hard time leaving, too.
Anyway, the Wyndcliff Woods is now officially an Outstanding Area of Natural Beauty and is a popular place for hikers. It has a beautiful viewpoint called the “Eagle’s Nest”, for hikers to stop and look out at the view of the two rivers below; the River Wye and the River Severn just beyond. As an Arthurianist who enjoys the Welsh tradition, I’ve decided to call this little area of south Wales “Percival’s Perch”. Because I’m that person. And yes, that’s me in the picture below, standing at the Eagle’s Nest, drunk on my happiness.
St. Govan’s Chapel
Last but not least, this little chapel is nestled in the rocks, near the cliffside caves of Pembrokeshire. It’s named after St. Govan the Hermit, who secluded himself in this chapel for shelter from pirates– and in some stories, from a long, merciless winter– saving his own life in doing so. But many believe the name “Govan” to be derived from “Gawain”. And after all, in some versions of Arthuriana, Gawain becomes a hermit after Camelot falls and lives out the rest of his life among the wilderness and the fae. So this little chapel could very well be Gawain’s. If we know one thing about Gawain, we know his association with chapels, especially during his Green Knight quest. We also know, of course, that the Green Chapel was a mossy cavern and not at all an actual chapel. But he certainly did spend a good deal of time in real chapels throughout his quest, taking respite from the cold and praying to the Virgin Mary, who lay painted faithfully in his shield. If this isn’t the chapel he called home later in life, it could certainly be one in which he sheltered himself from that harsh blizzard during his fateful quest.
I like to think he would have liked it there. It’s on the cliffside right by the water. And as someone raised in the Orkney Islands, he probably would have felt a little closer to home in a place where he could smell the saltwater on the crisp, sea wind and watch the sun glint on the waves. Today, you can visit there in person, so long as you don’t mind the steep climb!
These are just a few of the Welsh wonders that hold Arthurian myth and legend within their walls and branches. Here’s to Cymru and all the legend-filled treasures she holds within her beautiful land!