Rhaeadr Ddu
A circular walk in the Coed-y-Brenin to King Arthur's last battleground

Time: 3.15 hrs to 5 hrs
Level: Intermediate to Advanced. Mostly level walking. A few steep ascents
Directions to start: -Turnoff A470 near Ganllwyd (6km north of Dolgellau) to Signs Workshop.


The name King Arthur immediately conjures up in most peoples' minds visions of Camelot, fearless knights of the Round Table, Guinevere, Merlin, Excalibur and the Lady of the Lake.

Regrettably, however, most of what people believe they know about this once great king is often the stuff of pure myth, fantasy and legend.

Bards and jongleurs ranging from Welsh leviathan Taliesin to Chretien de Troyes, in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine, have cultivated and developed the tales about Arthur in to what most people know today.

But if you try to follow the Arthurian trail from the Dark Ages to more modern times, it's hard to obtain a clear picture of when and where he lived, and exactly who he was.

Arthur as a historical figure is difficult to define; and so many competing tales abound, that it's almost impossible to draw any specific conclusions about where he actually fought, lived and died.

However, in the run up to the Millennium, historian Rodney Castleden, spent a great deal of time in Snowdonia in a bid to piece together all the known facts about his life. And through his comprehensive investigations, he maintains that he not only found where Arthur's main court was held, but also the site of last battleground and probable death.

Just as an aside, speculation has mounted for years that mighty mountain the Cader Idris was potentially a site of Arthur's Camelot, or perhaps a base for his moving court. However, Mr Castleden does not support these arguments, and is instead convinced Arthur's main base was in Killibury in Cornwall.

Compelling evidence

What he does provide, however, is compelling evidence for the site of Arthur's last battle of Camlann. He argues in his book King Arthur - The truth behind the legend - that the mid-point of this designated walk, a few miles from Glyn-yr-aur, was the actual site of a devastating and bloody massacre in the year 537 AD.

He writes in his detailed book's preface: "There is a curious stand-off by scholars with regard to sixth-century Britain. Only a few brave spirits like Ken Dark tackle the Celtic Britain of AD450-600 with any determination to get at the truth.

"If he lived at all, Arthur lived during that period. The pursuit of Arthur as a historical figure necessarily involves reconstructing that lost century and a half. The stakes are therefore high.

"It was entirely fortuitous that a friend acquired a cottage on a mountainside in Wales a short woodland walk from a stream called Gamlan; staying at her cottage and exploring the area around it made me radically reconsider my ideas about the nature of Arthur's last battle.

"Arthur Koestler wrote of the Library Angels who guide us to the sources we need for our research, and I am grateful to my friend for guiding me unwittingly to one of the key Arthurian locations."

He is convinced that Arthur rather than die in Britanny, Cornwall, Scotland or other better known sites in Wales, was slaughtered with a war band of his most trusted knights, on the River Gamlan (or Camlan). Situated just 6km north of Dolgellau, he believes the actual battle was fought alongside the old Roman Road or Sarn Helen, close to the the Pont ar Eden. The bridge can be found very close to the A470 within the heart of the Coed y Brenin where our cottage is based.

King Maelgwn

Historians typically paint the leader of the rebels against Arthur as his power-hungry nephew Merdraut or Mordred. But Mr Castleden actually favours an actual historical figure in the form of his tyrannical nephew or cousin, King Maelgwn of Gwynedd.

He feels that genuine mistakes, some centuries later in the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth, led people to believe that Arthur became involved in a nine year battle against the Gauls in Brittany.

He actually believes rather than the use the word Armonica, which is the Latin word for Gwynedd, scribes miscopied this word and instead wrote Amorica - the Latin for Brittany.

He suggests it's far more likely that Arthur was embroiled in battles against Maelgwn because, he in fact coveted his role as Dux Bellorum or High King of Britain. He doesn't believe Arthur ventured as far as Brittany, and that these later accounts are largely invented.

And the evidence certainly stacks up, when it becomes clear, soon after Camlann, Maelgwn did in fact secure the role of High King. Dark Age monk, Gildas, whose writings survive from the time, described him as a 'dragon of the island' and 'first in evil' and someone 'who cruelly despatched the king your uncle'.

Mr Castleden is convinced Maelgwn was, in all likelihood, Arthur's nephew and morphed into the infamous Modred character during later medieval tales.

In these later romantic narratives, Mordred is meant to have acted as regent while Arthur was away fighting the Gauls and a resurgent Rome in France.

Arthur was forced to return, so the various bards and writers revealed, to seize back his throne from the unscrupulous Mordred, and also to take back his wife Guinevere - who had been captured.

Chretien de Troyes

However, Chretien de Troyes takes the whole legend much further by the introduction of a completely fictitious character: Lancelot du Lac. And in his writings for Marie de Champagne, the daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine, he makes Lancelot's affair with Guinevere the prime reason for Arthur's ultimate downfall and demise.

Arthur allegedly pursued Lancelot to northern France to gain his revenge, but was nevertheless forced to return to Britain, when Mordred manoeuvred to crown himself supreme ruler of the Britons.

Much of these later stories, however exciting, do not in fact bear any relation to the real Arthur and his court. Excalibur, the search for the Holy Grail, even the Knights of the Round Table have been thought by many to have been completely made up.

Successive writers from the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who wrote that Arthur was descended from Trojan war hero, Aeneas, added even more outrageous layers to the whole Arthurian legend.

And they give little in the way of information to those who want a definitive account of his life - inspite of Monmouth's insistence his tales were developed from an ancient and reliable source.

Mr Castleden asserts his recent book gives the truest account of who Arthur really was. Camlann, his last battle, he contends, was fought to quash sub-king and his supposed ally Maelgwn. A divided Celtic nation, he says, would have fallen more easily to the encroaching Saxon settlers - which of course it eventually did.

Ambushes in steep valleys and at river crossings were reportedly a favoured Dark Age method of attack. And other routs were inflicted in this way so records of the time state. (Taliesen described the ambush at the Battle of Wensleydale in his works as follows: "On the ford's brink, I saw blood-stained warriors, their weapons abandoned. I saw men destroyed and dejected and blood staining their clothes."

Pont ar Eden

Maelgwn, it is thought, chose a fording place near the Pont ar Eden (formerly the Pont ar Gamlan), to betray Arthur, and kill him to take his throne.

He and his men were said to be waiting in the shadows provided by the thick forests close to the where the Eden and Mawddach rivers join together, and very near to Mawddach tributary, the Gamlan.


Confluence of the Mawddach and Eden (coming in from the right)

Mr Castleden further explains: "The Eden Valley is particularly narrow and constricted just here, with a very narrow floor, almost a gorge. It would have been very easy to predict Arthur's route: there was little alternative but to follow the old Roman road (Sarn Helen).

"If forest clad the valley sides then as it does today, a war-band could be concealed until the last moment, and an ambush sprung.

"Whether Arthur and his men rode into Gwynedd to quell an overt rebellion and met open and anticipated hostility, or were lured there by some guile of Maelgwn's and fell unsuspecting into a trap at Ganllwyd cannot be known on the existing evidence.

"However, the Battle of Camlann was a massacre. The name of the battle entered the vocabulary of the medieval Welsh bards as a 'cadgamlan' which meant an utter rout. Very few of Arthur's men survived."

What happened after Camlann is also open to much conjecture, but varied accounts have Arthur being spirited away to Avalon or its equivalent - some say Bardsey Island off the Lleyn Peninsula. Alternatively and more controversially, Mr Castleden favours the Isle of Whithorn near Galloway in Scotland.

At the time, he says Whithorn (Cor of Bangor at Ynys Afallach) housed a priory, founded by St Ninian, that was supposedly the most holy in all of Britain and where 'services were chanted or sung continuously'.

He believes Arthur's lieutenants, or Irish allies, had ships waiting in Barmouth Bay to transport the king far away in the event of his defeat.

Mr Castleden goes on: "The decision to sail to Whithorn was in itself a decision to resign the military command, to retire from public life, to abdicate.

"There were strong reasons for choosing Whithorn; it was far removed from the arena of conflict, it also had special religious associations and resonances; it was a place of sanctity and great learning.

"Arthur would have been taken in to have his wounds tended. Whether he died shortly after his arrival or recovered from his battle wounds is not known, but even if he recovered he remained out of sight, thereafter leading a life of religious seclusion."

Pilgrimage

And visitors to Glyn-yr-aur, could do no better than to follow in Mr Castleden's footsteps and make a pilgrimage the alleged site of Arthur's last battle of Camlann.

Our walk, outlined below, takes in some of the amazing scenery that leads up to the quiet and unassuming battle site today. There are, however, no signposts or noticeboards to alert people to its significance.

To begin this circular walk, which lasts around 3 hours and 15 minutes, people should first park at the beginning of a forestry trackway on the western side of the Coed-y-Brenin. To reach this, people should take their car to the Tyn-y-Groes public house in Ganllwyd on the A470, pass through the main village of Ganllwyd itself and then take a road soon after on their left which has two large black boards advertising the Signs Workshop company or Gweithdy Arwyddion in Welsh.

A minor road parallel to the A470 should be followed, until the beginning of a forestry trackway is reached. This actually forms part of the Coed Ganllwyd Nature Reserve. Cars should then be parked at this point. You will know you're on the right route, because you should have just passed Dolgyfeiliau Farm (which is marked by a visible wooden signpost aswell).

People should follow the trackway through the forest, where they should keep to the left and follow the pathway downwards (after the initial uphill section).

(People could also make this a much longer walk, of around 5 hours in length if they choose to walk it right from the front door of Glyn-yr-aur itself.

Walkers would need to follow the rough trackways down the hillside to the nearest local river, the River Mawddach. They first need to either pass by a wooded copse or pass through it, and then go through a series of metal gates and follow a rough way-marked trackway down towards the river itself. There are plenty of rivulets that cross the pathway, but it's fairly easy to follow until you emerge out on a wider forestry trackway.

From here people should just follow the forestry routeway for 20 minutes or so until they come to cross-section of routeways. People need to take a right hand turn down towards a stone bridge that crosses the Mawddach. They should then go leftwards down towards the mighty Rhaeadr Mawddach waterfall. Continuing on and across a metal bridge, people should see in minutes the Pystyll Cain, another impressive waterfall in this locale. And after this they should continue down the trackway past the Ferndale series of cottages and towards an area of the forest known as Tyddyn Gwladys.

From here people should follow the forestry trail to Pont ar Eden (the alleged site of Arthur's last battleground - see previous notes, and notes further down for more details) and then turn rightwards past the grey stone cottage of Glan Dafarn. People should then walk up this forestry road closest to the A470. They will soon come to another stone bridge on their left, which should be crossed, and then people should trek to an opening on the road. People should cross over the road, the A470, at this point, and walk a short way up it to a left hand turning which is marked by signs for the Signs Workshop. They they need to walk a short way to a forestry trackway and take a lefthand turn down it - and from here we will now resume the walk).

Tall pine trees populate the area along the forestry trackway, and stacks of freshly felled logs can usually been found somewhere along the route. After rainfall, they seem to emit a fresh, lemon-like scent and contribute to the intoxicating sights and sounds that can be found throughout the parkland.

At sunrise, the sky comes alive with a misty canvas of purples, indigos and reds. It's well worth taking a camera to preserve the skyline as the sun climbs above the mountains and throws an enchanting kaleidoscope of colours up into the air.

As you continue walking, a derelict pair of grey-stone cottages will come into view on your left hand side, just before a metal-bar gate is reached.This should be passed through, them the trackway followed through verdant, broad-leaved woodland that includes oak, beech and birch

To know you're in the right place, people should see what looks like the back of a farm in the near distance, bordered by a moss-covered dry-stone wall.

As the routeway descends towards the River Gamlan, there is a turn-off to your right on a rough trackway to a viewing point of the truly amazing Rhaeadr Ddu or Black Falls.

They're best viewed after high rainfall, because they then torrent frenziedly down the hillside to join the Mawddach on its journey towards Cardigan Bay.

A thick slate plaque has an inscription of some prose from Thomas Gray. The initial words were written in Latin by some person as yet unknown. But the National Trust has reproduced the words in both Latin and English. The English translation reads as follows: -

O, thou! The Spirit 'mid these scenes abiding,
Whate 'er the name by which thy power be known
Truly no mean divinity presiding
These native streams, these ancient forests own
And here on pathless rock or mountain height
Amid the torrent's ever-echoing roar,
The headlong cliff, the wood's eternal night,
We feel the Godhead's aweful presence more
Than if resplendent neath the cedar beam,
By Phidias wrought, his golden image rose,
If meet the homage of they vot'ry seem
Grant to my youth - my wearied youth - repose.

It's often quite hard to make the words out exactly as the forest cover keeps in the area in a certain semi-gloom, even when the sun is shining brightly over head.

A wooden bridge can be crossed a little further down the river bank, which gives exceptional views of the higher reaches of this magnificent series of falls. They're perhaps known as the Black Falls, because the reddish bedrock turns a dark shade on contact with the water.

People can then walk up the rough hillside trackway to see the higher section of the Rhaeadr Ddu which has about three skeins of water continually torrenting down the rockface at any one time.

Lower down the river, there are a series of falls in miniature, and all in all, they make for a very impressive local landmark.

People can then either follow the tarmac forestry road nearest to the River Gamlan or trek along the rough pathways that have been worn into the river bank over successive generations.

After walking the length of the river, people will soon come to a dark wood and corrugated iron building. This is a mission hut one of many exported to Africa and is now the only surviving example in the UK although many still survive in Africa. It has recently been completely restored and is used as the village community centre.

Then people should cross the main road, or rather the A470, and go through a wooden gate on the far side of the road, and follow the narrow footpath towards the edge of the River Mawddach. People then need to cross a wooden bridge and go through two small metal gates and onto the wide forestry trail that follows them. Turning leftwards, people will then need to walk for a good while along the trackway that follows the outer edges of the River Mawddach.

Walkers will soon arrive at another wooden bridge which should be crossed, and then people should turn left following the Mawddach downstream arriving at the Pont ar Eden, which was supposedly at the epicentre of King Arthur's last battleground.

The bridge was formerly known as the Pont ar Gamlan, and shortly below it is the conflucence of the rivers Eden and Mawddach, which is also alleged by Rodney Castleden to be part of the last battleground of Camlann. (Interestingly there are two other sites within a short drive of Glyn-yr-Aur that are also reputed to be the last battleground one is near the Cader Idris and another is near the village of Mawllyd, not far from Dolgellau).

The peacefulness and solitude of the Pont ar Eden today, however, belies the supposed bloody rout that took place here in the year 537.

Mr Castleden says of the battle ground: "An arched stone bridge marks the site of the river crossing now, but whether there was a stone or wooden bridge there in the Arthurian period is not known.

"If there was a bridge, it would have been a bottle-neck for an army, a place where they would have to slow down; if there was no bridge it would have been an even more perilous bottle-neck, as warriors tried to leap from boulder to boulder or pick their way uncertainly among the pools with their horses. Either way the crossing was a good place for an ambush."

He also reveals his book that the nearby former Sarn Helen road, or old Road, was used by Dark Age warriors when they were on manoeuvres to do battle.

This particular routeway stretched from Glevissig and Brecon in the south, northwards to Gwynedd and Maelgwn's stronghold of Castell Degannwy (modern day Conwy).

He believed Arthur followed the routeway as he entered Wales from his base in Dumnonia, now present day Cornwall.

One can only imagine the utter carnage and devastation there would have occurred to bring about Arthur's untimely defeat. He was thought to have been approaching 60. And his death and legend has certainly reverberated strongly throughout history, not just Europe, but all over the world.

But because there was largely an oral tradition of story-telling, many of the exact details about what happened to him will be forever lost in the mists of time.

After his alleged fall, he was said to have chosen Constantine as his heir from his relatives in Dumnonia.

But nevertheless Maelgwn was said to have seized the High Kingship so it is thought, by setting a challenge for all contenders for the post. He said that the person to remain seated the longest on a chair when the tide came in should take the role. And he did this, it was said, by constructing a chair that would float. After his reign, the Saxons eventually took over much of what is England today, and remained dominant until the times of the Norman conquest.

Mabinogion

No-one, however, has spawned such an industry for story-telling as King Arthur did. Right from the Dark Ages, the Celts, now the modern-day Welsh, deified him in their celebrated tales, the Mabinogion.

They differ widely from the later anglicised fables, and Arthur in these stories, had already become something of a deity and super-hero. This book does concentrate largely on the love affairs and challenges of his courtiers such as Peredur and Geraint, and Eric and Enide.

However, in one book, Kilhwch and Olwen, he is seen to undertake challenges akin to the Labours of Hercules in a bid to help his cousin, Kilhwch, win the hand of the fair maid Olwen. Among those 'marvels' are his hunt of the wild boar Twrch Trwyth and the slaying of a sea hag, Orddu.

What these tales do actually give those in search of the truth, are details of his home base, which the Mabinogion puts as being at Gelli Wic (in Cornwall) and Caerleon on Usk.

The last battle of Camlann is spoken of frequently, so among all the ones he was said to have fought down the ages, this one is at least deemed to have occurred.

But it wasn't until the time of Geoffrey of Monmouth that the mythology that we know about Arthur began to take shape. From this time, Merlin, Excalibur, Sir Galahad, the Knights of the Round Table, Morgan Le Fay and many other of the celebrated characters were woven into the glorious narrative that has become the legend of King Arthur.

However, in spite of the many place names claim that claim to be an integral part of his backstory, the often overlooked site near the Pont ar Eden does in fact seem to be the most likely place for his last battleground. Author, Rodney Castleden, would indeed, seem to have discovered, as he set to in his book, the truth behind the legend.


Glan Dafarn

To complete the rest of this walk, people should just follow the forestry trackway from the Pont ar Eden up past Glan Dafarn cottage. It leads eventually to another stone bridge that also needs to be crossed over. There is small opening on to the A470; people should just then go across the road, and walk a short way up it until the turn-off for the Signs Workshop is reached. They will soon come to the walk's starting point at the start of a forestry trackway.

Those who have walked all the way from Glyn-yr-Aur should have passed the Pont ar Eden and the last battleground site on the outward journey. Instead, on the last leg of the walk, past Cae'n y Coed car park, they should just turn rightwards and follow the forestry trackway upto Tyddyn Gwladys and the Ferndale series of cottages. They will soon past the Pystyll Cain and Rhaeadr Ddu waterfalls; and they should then retrace their footsteps along the forestry trackway by the River Mawddach, and through the mixed woodland, and up the hillside all the way back to Glyn-yr-aur.

Slideshow of the Walk

Arthurian Factfile

The best known version of the Arthurian legend was completed by Thomas Malory in 1470 in his work Le Morte d'Arthur. It was printed by William Caxton in 1485.

This tale opens with Arthur being conceived as the illegitimate son of Uther Pendragon. With the help of Merlin, he deceives Cornish Queen Ygraine into accepting him as her husband for the night.

Arthur is thereafter brought up in secret by foster parents, and with the guidance of the wizard Merlin, is able to draw the mythical sword from the stone, to prove he is the next rightful king of all Britain.

He marries Queen Guinevere, founds the Knights of the Round Table at his capital city of Camelot and then begets Mordred in unknowingly with his half sister, Morgan Le Fay or Morgause.

Following a time of prosperity, Arthur is engaged in supposedly 12 battles, which includes the Battle of Badon against the invading Saxon hordes.

Some of Arthur's knights, notably Sir Galahad and Lancelot go on a quest in search of the Holy Grail, or the cup that Christ supposedly drank out of at the Last Supper. (Joseph of Arimathea was meant to have brought it to Britain's shores)

During this time, gallant knight, Lancelot ends up having a clandestine affair with Arthur's wife, Guinevere.

Ultimately, the couple are discovered and Arthur attempts to track down Lancelot in France, leaving Mordred behind as regent.

At the end of the tale, Arthur returns to Britain to quash Modred's attempt to steal his throne outright. And in a final battle of Camlann, he receives a mortal blow and is transported by boat to Avalon.

Following the battle, Excalibur is cast to the Lady of the Lake by a reluctant Sir Bedivere. In the meantime, both Guinevere and Lancelot enter holy orders and live the rest of their lives in quiet contemplation and solitude.