Welsh History

Off the Straight and Narrow

There is a long straight road in North Wales running north from near Dolgellau to the lake at Traws. It is so long and so straight that it shouts ‘Roman’ at travellers and sends them to look at their maps for confirmation where they might notice the icon for a Roman fort at the northern end, overlooking the lake, and feel a diversion coming on.

We, the intrepid travellers, turn off the main road and head up hill but we are being watched – by warriors ranged along the crest of the hill?   A thousand grave stones watch our progress. Weird, but we have seen similar in the back yards of Darwen and Rossendale in Lancashire, although the slab-walls there were made of local stone – millstone grit. We are near Ffestiniog, the slate capital of Wales and we know that Welsh farmers use whatever is available.

Slate Slabs on the Hillside

There are no sign posts but, sure enough, we find a gravel parking area in a desolate but raised area in the middle of a great bowl of open landscape bounded in the distance by an unbroken jagged horizon of blue mountains.

There is a mound and a small information sign which identifies it as a later Norman motte (earth mound on which to place a keep or tower), built on the site of the old Roman fort; that explains why it is so un-flat (Romans were meticulous).

Norman Motte built on pre-existing Roman site at Toman-y-mur. (Walled heap)

Norman Motte built on pre-existing Roman site at Toman-y-mur. (Walled heap)

A weather beaten and white haired lady stands gazing over a depression in the ground where rushes grow, ‘Is this an amphitheatre or a pond?’ I ask.

‘I know nothing about this place other than that I am strangely drawn to it… I come back again and again,’ she says, turning startling blue eyes to me – the colour of hair-bells.


Her gaze dances over the landscape, ’Its name, Tomen y Mur, means a rubbish heap in Welsh!’ she says, ‘That’s all I know,’ and strands of white hair lash her face and her thin brown coat, flecked with purple, flaps in the wind together with the reeds, purple thistles and white haired cotton grass that wave in the rough pasture. I feel the chill.

‘It’s Roman, they say,’ says I.

‘Oh no, this place is much, much older than that.’

When we get home we looked it up: Tomen y Mur is thought to be the Castell Mur of legend, as recorded in the Mabinogion. It was the court of Llew Llaw Gyffes who became king of Gwynedd despite the treachery of his wife Blodeuwedd who was magically created from flowers.

The Roman fort was built to pacify (that’s a euphemism for conquer) the local tribe that they called the Ordovices, led in AD50 by Caratacus, who caused a lot of trouble and suffered the brutal wrath of the Roman Governor.  in AD70 the Ordovices had recovered enough to massacre a whole Roman regiment for which they were all but wiped out and the Roman fort built.

From the air, the eyes in the sky can see the rectangles of Roman enclosures, albeit scarred by the later Norman boil which erupted in the middle of the old fort, which in turn seems quite likely to have been sited in a place, important and strategic to the vanquished Ordovices, whose legends will have lived on into the mediaeval times when written into the Mabinogion.

That’s the magic of Wales.

Wall of Slate Slabs in Snowdonia

Wall of Slate Slabs in Snowdonia


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