The bus rumbled down the main street just after midnight, turning into the narrow cobbled lane behind our cottage. I’m not a night
person, but the little I could see outside the window—dark forests, sheep fields shadowed by stone farm buildings, roadsigns in both Welsh and English—hyped me up better than caffeine or the Doctor Who theme. I’d been in posh North Oxford for too long.
I was now in Llanberis, Cymry (Wales), a small village which sleeps along the south-western shore of Llyn Padarn, one of Snowdonia National Park’s many lakes. At the foot of Mt. Snowdon and only a twenty-minute drive from the nearest seaside town, Caernarfon, Llanberis served as the ideal home base for our extended weekend trip into the faeryland of northern Wales.
When the sky slightly cleared at midmorning the next day, I pulled on my London Fog coat and Merrel boots and stepped out the front door onto the main street. The shop fronts switched between ecstatic reds and blues and demure creams. I resisted the temptation to jump from puddle to puddle as I passed tea shops, a used book store, and a two-story slate home with a long
drive lined by tall pine trees and a yard closed off from the modern village by a stone wall. Further down the main street, I inspected a war memorial and climbed up a small hill past a beer garden to Eglwys St. Padarn Church, a venerable edifice built of local slate.
Turning left, I ambled through a park with swings, benches, and a gaggle of geese to the lake. A path skirts the lake, angling south-east towards the Norman castle ruins at the lake’s most inland corner.
I followed the right-of-way around football fields, the local train station, and yellow-green sheep fields opposite the north shore’s slate mines. As I walked, I met only one runner and a man walking his dog. The isolation, the startlingly briny breeze that burst through the mountain passes, the smell of livestock, and the cries of seagulls rushed over me like the March rain. I rinsed off eight weeks of term and three weeks of worry about a fatally ill family member, hummed “This is My Father’s World,” and chatted
with the sheep that trotted curiously after me.
Obliged to return to the house for lunch, I ventured out that afternoon, leading the rest of the group along the path to the castle. We crossed the river at Llyn Padarn’s south-east corner and followed a trail cushioned by last autumn’s leaves up a forested hill. The
Norman castle has perched at the hill’s crest since the 1230s—after William I conquered England and encouraged his nobles to settle the Welsh marches, after the hybrid Welsh-Norman Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his History of the Kings of Britain decrying Norman rule, while the Welsh princes still hoped for autonomy, and long before Cymru was ‘conquered’ in
any sense. The castle, way back when, had two main floor levels, both with fireplaces and windows in their chambers. No Norman castle is complete without a spiral staircase, and this one had a particularly tricksy one—it reversed direction halfway to the top. Now, all that remains is the keep and the foundations for the outer walls.
While everyone else ignored the Ministry of Works’ red danger sign—‘VISITORS ARE WARNED TO TAKE EVERY CARE TO
AVOID ACCIDENTS’— and climbed down into the keep and through what I think was the hole beneath a Roman-style loo, I shot photos of the castle’s majestic view over Llyn Padarn. The urge to write gripped my gut, and I wished I had my leather journal with me. It occurred to me that the modern poetry I’d been studying so diligently for eight weeks had no relevance to this world of
castles and sheep and mist.
Disdaining to return the way we had come, we climbed down the hill’s north face through a pathless forest. I found
myself scanning the forest floor for straight sticks that could pass as wands—my Harry Potter fanatic friends back home would appreciate wands from Wales. And I mused, I could use that castle in my book—yes—and the ice-dragon could sleep in
the keep, and rush down in fury upon the village when awoken by my young heroine and her foolish brothers.
In short, what Carrol, Lewis, and Rowling found in Oxford, I, like Tolkein, had found in Wales.