‘and the entire, while it bears the impress of great antiquity, conveys some idea of the great strength of the place when in the plentitude of its power.’
Slater’s Royal National Commercial Directory (1868)
The views from the heights of Caer Drewyn are catch-your-breath astonishing. From the shattered stone ramparts of this most curious of hillforts, the wondrous Dee Valley and the glorious Vale of Edeirnion lie before you in all their beauty. The brooding wall of the magnificent Berwyn Mountains faces you from across the River Dee, the pretty, ancient town of Corwen sits silently beneath you. And all is peace.
Raised atop a spur of ridge at the nexus of ancient routeways, Caer Drewyn seems ideally suited to control the flow of traffic though the Dee Valley, the Vale of Edeirnion and across the Berwyns.
It is often the case, more often than not, that hillforts provide visitors with quite the most wonderful views, situated as they usually are high and prominent in the landscape. Caer Drewyn is no exception. These rampart and wall surrounded enclosures, sometimes enormous in area, are unmistakable. But they remain the subject of considerable debate as to their original purpose and function within the societies that built them, hidden away in a largely pre-literate past.
To walk along their mighty ramparts, to be witness to their impressive size would seem to make a nonsense of such arguments, for it would seem quite obvious that these massive constructions are fortified enclosures, raised to dominate their surroundings and protect a community from attack - hillforts, then. But, such conclusions have been repeatedly challenged in the last century or so, as archaeological study of these magnificent enclosures has intensified. An argument for elsewhere.
A plan of Caer Drewyn, from the Royal Commision's Inventory for Meronithshire (1921)
Caer Drewyn is, by any measure, quite astonishing. Sited on a detached spur of ridge overlooking the ancient routeways along the Dee Valley, the Vale of Edeirnion and across the Berwyns, the hillfort is some 294 metres above sea level - the lowest of the major enclosures of north east Wales. Any first impression must be that this hillfort, some 7 acres in size, was enclosed entirely by huge stone walls, since there would seem to be little else here but stone - fallen, collapsed stone. But in fact, while the eastern ramparts were indeed built entirely of stone, thick walls boasting stone facings, revetment and interior steps to produce wall walks, the western ramparts were originally earthen, with stone frontage or breast work. This may indicate different phases of development, or possibly a tactical appreciation that greater strength in defence was required to the east, facing along the ridge.
There are two inturned entrances to the main enclosure, to the west and the north east. Both are in ruin, but the western entranceway would seem to have been used as a ready source of stone by the peoples of the area in the centuries since its abandonment. The entranceway to the north east is quite incredible, however. While much has collapsed, it is possible to get a sense of its obvious strength - a strength one imagines, along with the huge stone walls to either side of it, that was designed to intimidate, to project power to any party approaching from the east. Willoughby Gardener’s excavations in the early 1920s, building on those of Hugh Pritchard some fifty years earlier, did much to uncover its startling strength. At its opening it was apparently some 30ft wide, with the walled, inturned passageway tapering down to some 15ft in width, ending in what appeared to Gardner to be a guard chamber - and while debate continues, it remains likely that he was correct. Before the entrance is a roughly triangular rocky platform leading up to the northern slope to higher ground. Gardner was of the opinion that this platform would have included chevaux de frise, perhaps of natural origin, but this remains a matter of some conjecture.
The staggering power of the northern wall is readily apparent, despite its ruin.
Perhaps the most curious aspect of Caer Drewyn, and the subject of considerable debate, is the apparent ‘annex’, seemingly attached to eastern stone wall, within an earthen bank that runs on north east from the small enclosure and a little proud of the north eastern entranceway. There is a distinct lack of evidence of habitation within the larger enclosure - some, but not much. But within the annex are the remains of the foundations of small roundhouses. It’s been a puzzle for centuries, with a sort of vague historical consensus attributing it so some kind of animal enclosure, although matters have moved on a little, more of which will be said a little later.
The curious annex, seemingly attached to the eastern rampart has been the subject of much debate over the last 400 years. The remains of a Iron Age roundhouse are visible in the near foreground.
It is fair to say that the last one hundred and fifty years has seen our knowledge of Caer Drewyn improve significantly. That will happen with investigation, both archaeological and historical. It really is only in that time that Caer Drewyn has enjoyed focused study. But it has appeared in recorded history, before Pritchard’s, ‘tentative clearances’ in the 1880s. The first appearance in writing, as far as we know to date, comes to us through the pen of Dr Sion Dafydd Rhys, the celebrated Welsh physician and grammarian, in around 1600. In his, ‘The Giants of Wales and their Dwellings’ (Peniarth MS 118), he reflects the tradition that hillforts were the work of giants - a tradition that seems to have persisted for some time, but which is also clear in all societies struggling to understand the workings of a distant people producing monuments and buildings that were seemingly beyond them.
‘Drewyn Gawr made Caer Drewyn in Deyrnion, the other side of the river from Corwen. And to his sweetheart he made that Caer, to milk her cows within it.’
Curiously, this work by Dafydd Rhys was given some historical credence by the Royal Commision in their Inventory entry for the hillfort in 1921. It was believed that whatever else their function, hillforts were enclosures for the herding and protection of livestock. It is hardly a controversial theory, and seems entirely practical, in truth. Clearly, it was a theory current at the end of the 16th century, though it’s fair to say that the belief that a giant built the hillfort for his sweetheart has fallen from favour. But it seems also, that the Royal Commision had the curious annex in mind, seemingly abutting the eastern stone rampart. It fits, you see, and rather neatly too.
Sheep from the nearby farm seem happy to use the old routeway along the ridge toward the small enclosure of Fron Newydd to the east - a view from the annex. Have livestock tread this path for millenia?
It is unclear as to whether Edward Lhuyd was aware of the work of Dafydd Rhys (although I rather fancy he was), or if he had come by the tradition independently, but at the end of the 17th century, he was minded to describe,
‘Kaer Drewin a round stone wall about an acre of ground where they kept their cattle in wartime.’
His description is interesting, for any number of reasons, but particularly because the area to which he attributes to Caer Drewyn is considerably smaller than the actual enclosure, suggesting that either his information was a bit skewed, or that he was actually describing the annex. The belief that Caer Drewyn was actually some large fortified animal enclosure returns, and there seems little to be gained from arguing that it was never used as such. But to walk amongst all the stone is to be aware of the immense effort it would have taken to build Caer Drewyn, and to be clear that its role was far more than to milk cows.
A view from the southern rampart - towards the Berwyn's. Did Owain Gwynedd stand upon this wall to watch as the forces of Henry II of England approached from across these hills?
Thomas Pennant, writing at the end of the 18th century gives more depth, to be sure. His belief as to the purpose of hillforts is much enhanced from that of Dafydd Rhys and Edward Lhuyd, while remaining rooted in the practical. He describes hillforts as, ‘temporary retreats’, to protect the community as well as their livestock. Pennant seems to have come to this view through an appreciation that a lack of a reliable water source within the compound would make permanent habitation impossible. It is an understanding hard to argue with, especially when one considers the lack of archeological evidence of any considerable living quarters - Caer Drewyn has evidence of just 8 roundhouses, even though there is a small spring nearby, a little down the slope from the western entrance, outside of the walls. Pennant’s specific description of Caer Drewyn warrants closer examination.
‘It lies on the steep slope of a hill; is of a circular form, and about half a mile in circumference; and the defence consists of a single wall, mostly in ruins; yet in some parts the facings are still apparent: in the thickness of the walls are evident remains of apartments. It had two entrances. Near the north-eastern is an oblong square, added to the main works; and as the ground there is rather flat, it is strengthened with a great ditch, and a wall: within are the foundations of rude stone buildings; one of which is circular, and several yards in diameter: the ditch is carried much farther than the wall; and seems part of an unfinished addition to the whole. It is conjectured, that Owen Gwynedd occupied this post, while Henry II lay encamped on the Berwyn hills, on the other side of the vale. Owen Glyndwr is said also to have made use of this fastness, in his occasional retreats.’
Thomas Pennant, ‘Tours in Wales’ Vol II (1781)
Quite apart from the considerable detail as to the appearance of the hillfort, Pennant is the first writer we know of that makes mention of the tradition that Caer Drewyn was active as a fortification during the invasion of Wales by Henry II in 1265, when the king of England came against Owain Gwynedd across the Berwyns. The Prince of Gwynedd was said to have made camp at Caer Drewyn, as Henry did so across the valley. Pennant also makes mention of the tradition that Owain Glyndwr made use of Caer Drewyn, ‘in his occasional retreats’. There is, unfortunately, no archaeological or historical evidence that Owain Gwynedd ever made use of Caer Drewyn. A matter, perhaps of geographical convenience. As for Owain Glyndwr’s apparent activity at Caer Drewyn, it is surely a nonsense, given the fact that this was most assuredly Glyndwr country, that he and his people simply ignored the rather impressive, and surely more impressive then, remains of Caer Drewyn. But there is no actual evidence that he made use of the ancient hillfort, even if his kin at Rhosesmor was inclined to do so. Rather, Glyndwr was said to have raised his standard at nearby Glyndyfrdwy.
The remains of the inturned western entrance, the shadow of a chamber still visible in the earth.
‘In the summer following, under a feeling of regret that this curious old Caer (one of the oldest we possess) should remain in seeming neglect, I obtained the kind permission of the Hon. C.H. Wynne of Rhug, the owner of the property, to make a few tentative clearances along its wall, with the object of ascertaining whether in structure it is compound or otherwise.’
H.Pritchard, ‘Archaeologia Cambrensis’ 5th Series (Oct 1887)
So began the Rev. H. Pritchard’s address to his fellow Cambrians in October 1887, describing his work on Caer Drewyn two years earlier. Pritchard’s work is the first record we have of any serious excavation work in an effort to better understand the camp. It would be fair to say that his work added tremendously to the meagre fair enjoyed to that date, giving depth to Pennant’s description. His efforts brought the impressive stone ramparts and walls into clarity for the first time, as well as revealing characteristics of the two entranceways to the west and north east. Once again, the curious annex is made mention of, with Pritchard suggesting that this perhaps was a separate area inhabited by a chieftain. Pritchard’s work moved Caer Drewyn from the vague domain of myth and legend to a more serious residence of scientific study, and made clear for the first time, the very real differences between this, ‘curious old Caer’, and those hillforts further north in the Clwydians, with their many ramparts raised largely of earth (with stones facings, perhaps). Having said that, despite sterling efforts in his clearances, Pritchard did not, in fact, add much to the context within which his finds could be placed.
Just a shade of its might still remains, but the north eastern gatehouse, with its walled avenue and guardchamber would have been an intimidating sight to those approaching from the east.
His work was nevertheless the foundation for Willoughby Gardner’s work at Caer Drewyn in the early 1920s. His work confirmed much of Pritchard’s work and further explored both the walls and the impressive entrances, his focus on the formidable north eastern entrance. His work on this entryway, with its mighty inturned walls, probable guard chamber and tapering avenue has added much to both our understanding of Caer Drewyn and hillforts in general, while inevitably leading to more questions and maybes, including an excitable scenario (in his writings, here and elsewhere, Gardener always strikes me as excitable - a pleasing thing) in which Caer Drewyn is facing an attack from Deva. Gardner also puzzled over the annex, suggesting that it may have been a much later ‘hafod’ - an enclosure for the summer pasturing of livestock. Indeed, as an addendum to his address, he makes clear that he feels that Dafydd Rhys’ late 15th century writing regarding Caer Drewyn confirms his hafod theory.
An example of the curious chambers within the walls - evidence, perhaps of much later grouse butts.
The vexing question of the much mentioned annex was given a further twist some forty years later, in the work of E.G. Bowen and C.A. Gresham, and by I.P. Brooks in 2006, along with geophysical surveys conducted in 2008. Together, these new studies seemed to suggest that in fact, the annex, rather than being a later hafod, is in fact the remains of an earlier enclosure, pre-dating the later, largely stone built hillfort. Further evidence of the paradox of how as our knowledge of hillforts and Caer Drewyn improves, our ignorance increases.
So, while we can come to some tentative conclusions, it is fair to say that major questions remain. An Iron Age date for the largely stone built enclosure seems fairly safe, but the earlier enclosure, of which the annex is a possible feature, requires further investigation. The curiosity of a smaller enclosure to the north is of real interest, as are the smattering of ditches and structures within the main enclosure, close to the northern wall. The relationship of Caer Drewyn, to the little understood small enclosure of Fron Newydd, a short distance along the ridge and routeway to the east is fascinating - the probability of their entranceways effectively facing each other is very interesting. For that matter, what was the relationship between Caer Drewyn and the possibly contemporary hillfort of Moel Fodig, to the north of the A5104? It seems that Caer Drewyn was built to be seen by all who travelled the ancient routeways along the valleys and vales and even across the Berwyns. The strength and obvious power of its wall and rampart would suggest a role of some considerable importance, possibly in controlling the flow of traffic and trade along the nexus of ancient routeways, still used today.
A view of Caer Drewyn from Pen y Pign on the edge of the Berwyns - note how the hillfort commands the valley and vale below.
So, while you wander Caer Drewyn, keep in mind that while recent years have added much to our understanding of this ancient place, there are still big questions which remain unanswered. But still, questions or not, on a day when the sun is high and bright, and the wind is calm, it is impossible not to be at peace atop the quite glorious Caer Drewyn.