Harry Millington sailed from Liverpool is search of adventure.
As a ship’s clerk for the Palm Line shipping company in the early thirties, he visited Rotterdam before Rem Koolhaas even thought of urban-modernist architecture and journeyed to West Africa long before Damon Albarn captured its soundtrack.
But he always came back to North Wales and always returned to Llangollen, strolling in the shadow of Dinas Bran.
Harry was my granddad.
Some of my earliest childhood memories are about day trips with him to Llangollen, lunch at the Hand Hotel and tales of knights and dragons at the ruined castle, lording it with Celtic mysticism over the workaday town.
George Borrows, the author of Wild Wales, also enthused about the small town in northeast Wales.
He was even distracted from dining on legs of mutton for long enough to explore Llangollen, climbing several times above the Dee Valley to the summit of Dinas Bran.
He writes in typically understated prose:
Dinas Bran, which crowns the top of the mighty hill on the northern side of the valley, is a ruined stronghold of unknown antiquity.
He goes on to quote the 17th-century bardic poet, Roger Cyffin, who paints a slightly more evocative picture:
Gone, gone are thy gates, Dinas Bran on the height! / Thy wardens are blood-crows and ravens, I trow; / Now no one will wend from the field of the fight / To the fortress on high, save the raven and crow.
It has been years since I was last in Llangollen and what feels like a lifetime since I last thought about Dinas Bran.
That is, until this week.
Maybe it was a vanity exercise in childhood nostalgia, or maybe a compulsion to share something of myself with my companion. I didn’t know.
I just knew we just had to climb it.
The late-afternoon gloom was descending over Castle Street like a slow madness as we arrived.
The piled-up snow was coarse and bulbous, it’s frozen fibres baring our progress on the riverside walkway. The forecast had the guesthouse owner shaking his immaculately gelled head ruefully. But still I wanted to try.
We set out the next morning, crossing the bridge to the canal as hefty, angular flakes of snow fell around us. The steps leading upwards were lethal, taunting us with black ice and the promise of a one-way ticket to A&E.
Waterside, all was still. Only the primary colours of our hats and scarves, and the cheery stencils of flowers on the closed shutters of the ticket office for narrowboat rides, brought a splash of vitality to the snow-blind whiteout.
We didn’t make it, of course. But I felt that something about just being there at that moment in time was enough to bring me closer to my granddad.
We followed the towpath, crunching over the sea-salt ice and sniffing the stillness in the air. It was crisp, visceral.
As we trudged on, kicking up fresh flakes and skirting gingerly the icy patches that fell away via snow-blanketed banks to the road below, I felt the closeness to nature, to people. The wind chipped away at our resistance but it couldn’t deflate our resolve.
We were alone and at peace for a delicious moment as the world melted away.
Only the sudden arrival of a bird of prey, swooping from a tree in search of animals emerging from the frost-frozen ground, shook us back to reality.
I’m still to conquer Dinas Bran but there will be another time.
Now I miss North Wales!
Have you left? Where did you go?
Really enjoyed your post David. Reminds me that I must walk Dinas Bran one day soon and re-read George Borrow.
Thanks Anne. A colleague recently suggested that, if you like Welsh landscape, then I should read Not Quite White by Simon Thirsk. I haven’t yet. Know it?