'It put me in mind of some old king, unfortunate and melancholy but a king still, with the look of a king, and the ancestral crown still on his furrowed forehead.'
George Borrow 'Wild Wales'
Dinas Bran is simply one of the most starkly beautiful castles in Britain, enjoying one of the most awe inspiring views anywhere in Britain. For me, only Corfe Castle in Dorset comes close to the romance it inspires. It is worth reminding ourselves that castles were built to intimidate and inspire fear rather than pleasure, such is the impact it has on first viewing. The castle dominates the Vale of Llangollen and this in itself is an achievement, since it is surrounded by hills, mountains and escarpments. Approach Llangollen along the A5 from Chirk or the A539 from Ruabon and I challenge you not to be impressed by the view of the fortress. It is, quite simply breathtaking. This is no picture postcard Germanic mountain castle, but a snapped toothed raggedness of a castle that has witnessed 800 years of war and wear. It is perhaps then, unsurprising that it has a collected a number of myths and legends.
The remains to be seen are actually the most recent evidence of fortification. The castle stands on what was once a hillfort, one of a series common to the area. Remains of the original earthen rampart are still visible to the south east.
Dinas Bran stands in what was once the Kingdom of Powys. There is some fragmentary evidence that Madog ap Gruffudd, the founder of Valle Crucis Abbey ruled from Dinas Bran. If indeed he did so, there is no archaeological evidence of this. Any fortification he had built would probably have been wooden, and the same fragmentary records claim it burnt to the ground.
The castle of the present ruins was probably founded by Gruffydd II ap Madog in the 1260s, in response to his alliance with Llywelyn ap Gruffud Prince of Wales. The Powys of this time would have been an important buffer state between Llywelyn's heartland of Gwynedd and the England of Henry III. The Treaty of Montgomery had acknowledged Llywelyn ap Gruffud as Prince of Wales, in effect an acknowledgment of his power and authority.
On Gruffydd's death in 1269/70, Dinas Bran probably passed to his eldest son, Madoc. The rise to power in England in 1272 of Edward I, the scourge of both the Welsh and Scots led to war between the Welsh and English in 1276. Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln moved into Wales through Oswestry in May 1277 with an army set on capturing Dinas Bran, only to be informed that the castle had been set on fire by the Welsh and abandoned. The reasons are not clear, but it seems the feeling amongst the Welsh was that it could not be held in the face of the English army moving towards it - a military opinion hard to credit by anyone who has made the climb to the summit. An English garrison is recorded on site in 1277 and some restoration was delivered by Llywelyn after peace was restored.
The role of Dinas Bran in the Anglo-Welsh war of 1282 is not recorded, but on Llywelyn's death in December 1282, most of Powys and the castle was granted to John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey. Instead of rebuilding Dinas Bran, he chose instead to build a new castle in Holt, on the border of Flintshire and Cheshire, some 15 miles to the north. Certainly, Dinas Bran played no part in the upsrising of Owain Glyndwr between 1400-12, centered though it was around Corwen a few miles down the A5.
Standing at nearly one thousand feet atop a conical hill, the remains of the castle are substantial enough to gain a very real sense of its original impressive size. A steep drop protects the north side, but the other sides were protected by a ditch, the excavated stone used to build the castle itself. The castle is Welsh built, attested to by the D shaped Welsh Tower, reputed scene of the events of the tragedy of Myfanwy Fechan. Despite its windswept and austere seating, Dinas Bran was most certainly a castle of some splendor, a visible testament to the power of the Gruffydd II ap Madog.
Romantically impressive from a distance, it is clear why the castle was considered such a target by the English in 1277, dominating the Vale of Llangollen and routes into Gwynedd, seemingly impregnable. So much so that de Lacy is quoted as saying that the fortress was,
'still so good and strong
For there is no stronger castle in all Wales, nor has England a greater.'
It is clear that Edward could not allow such a stronghold to remain in Welsh hands, and thus sought to remove what could have been a considerable threat to his power.
Enough of the castle remains to gain a sense of how it would have once looked to those approaching through the Vale of Llangollen - imposing and magnificent.
Looking to the north west from the remains of the courtyard buildings, a view of Velvet Hill (Coed Hyrddyn) can be seen beside the A542 Horsehoe Pass road.
The views from the summit are jaw dropping. To the east, along the valley to the famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct one can see the Chirk Aqueduct and the A5 bypass viaduct further on. Below the castle, nestled between the A5 and the A539 is Llangollen and the Royal Pavillion of the International Eisteddfod. The Berwyns stretch towards Corwen to the west and south. Hang gliders and microlights set out from the hills above Llangollen and can be seen in the valley, and on several occasions I have witnessed fast jets out of RAF Valley on low level flying missions through the Vale. The magnificent River Dee can be seen winding its way silently through the valley, as can the canal. To the north is the silent mass of Creig iau Eglwyseg. Look out for Peregrine falcons swooping down the side of Trevor Rocks at breakneck speeds. Wandering amongst the castle ruins themselves is to be reminded of its military purpose, all cold stone and power.
Eglwyseg Escarpment ~ the realm of the peregrine
A view along the Vale of Llangollen
Approaching the castle is possible from two main directions. The shorter, steeper climb is from the Eglwyseg cliffs (parking off the road on the verge) while the longer but less arduous route is from the Llangollen canal by Ysgol Dinas Bran.
There are no amenities on site, so prepare well for your walk. During Victorian times, a 'refreshment woman' used to ply her trade at the summit, but you will have to take your own refreshments. The Camera Obscura that used to provide panoramic views from the summit has also long since gone.
There is no admission charge for the castle. Further information about Dinas Bran can be obtained from the Tourist Information office situated in the town library on Castle Street or Llangollen Museum on Parade Street.
A plan of the castle from, 'An Inventory of the Ancient Monuments of Wales and Monmouthshire' (1912)