“This dismal place”

A part of Wales in the time of James III (map by Pat Marriott for The Whispering Mountain)

‘Hey, you — you there, you boy!’ The driver’s voice startled Owen by its loud, harsh, resonant tones.
‘Y-yes, sir,’ he stammered. ‘Can I help you?’
‘Is this dismal place the town of Pennygaff?’
‘Yes, sir.’
‘Thank God for that, at least. I’ve been traversing these hideous black hills for the best part of three hours — I wish to heaven I may never have to set foot here again!’
— Chapter I, The Whispering Mountain

With these words the wickedest man in Joan Aiken’s alternate history novel The Whispering Mountain dismisses the Welsh town of Pennygaff and, by extension, this part of Wales. In this instalment of my dissection of this Wolves Chronicle I’d like to compare and contrast the author’s vision of the Principality in James III’s time with Mid Wales as it actually is in our world. Maps and images will feature in order to give the interested reader a sense of this part of the world, and may help in judging whether it is, indeed, as dismal as the Marquess of Malyn suggests.

The Black Mountains beyond the Usk valley, viewed from Llangattock Mountain

When, back in the 1960s, Joan Aiken was researching this novel (she published it between Night Birds in Nantucket and The Cuckoo Tree) she spent time in the archives of Brecon Public Library. To access Brecon from southern England she would most likely have had to pass through the Black Mountains, the eastern part of the newly created Brecon Beacons National Park. From Brecon itself she’d have been able to see the Beacons themselves, the highest point in southern Britain at 886 metres altitude (just over 2900 feet). From east to west the Park includes The Black Mountains and the Beacons, then a tract of mountain, moorland, woods, meadows, lakes and rivers now known as Fforest Fawr (the former royal hunting ground known as the Great Forest of Brecknock), and finally the Black Mountain (in the singular, though itself blessed with several lesser peaks).

Pennygaff in the Black Mountains

From Pat Marriott’s map, drawn to accompany The Whispering Mountain, it’s immediately clear that Joan Aiken was inspired to include the Black Mountains (Hereford is indeed to the northeast of this massif) as well as a vast area she calls Fforest Mwyaf (“the Greatest Forest”) where the Prince of Wales chooses to hunt wild boars. Pennygaff is on the turnpike road from Hereford to Caer Malyn on the coast. (We know that the turnpike road system was pretty extensive in England and Wales in the 1770s, though in truth getting from Hereford to anywhere on the coast of Cardigan Bay was pretty convoluted.)

The name Pennygaff was actually the name of a cheap Victorian theatre entertainment, but here we’ll assume that it derives from Pen-y-gaff, literally the “head of the River Gaff”. The ambiguous map is unclear where the Gaff actually rises, though it appears to eventually join the River Malyn en route to the sea (though of that we can’t be sure). Did Joan have a model in mind for the community of Pennygaff?

I’d like to put in a plea for Crickhowell, a small market settlement on the A40 road to Brecon. While not exact there are some correspondences. Joan’s route to Brecon may well in 1967 taken her across the newly built Severn Bridge — completed in 1966 — and then possibly up north from Newport towards Raglan (on the pre-1970 A449) before turning west towards Abergavenny and on through Crickhowell. I mention this because I’ve noted a few correspondences between this small market town and Joan’s Pennygaff.

First off, there’s a bridge over the River Usk, as there is over the Gaff; Crickhowell Bridge just happens to be the longest stone bridge in Wales. Like many bridges with medieval origins there is an inn by the river: Crickhowell has its imaginatively named Bridge End Inn, while Pennygaff has The Dragon of Gwaun (pronounced ‘gwine’, meaning moorland), described as “small, glum-looking … rather too close for comfort to the foaming Gaff”. Crickhowell does indeed have a Dragon Inn but it’s up the hill, on the High Street. Both settlements are in their respective Black Mountains, Crickhowell being a popular centre for walkers, with a road leading eastwards towards Hereford just as at Pennygaff. An 1872 map of Crickhowell shows a spit of land (long since gone) which could be the inspiration for Pennygaff’s island monastery of St Ennodawg; though as Bullpit Meadows — the low ground west of Crickhowell — is liable to be isolated by flooding, that instead could be the model (as the 1872 map suggests).

On the other hand, Crickhowell is a good 90 miles as the crow flies from the Irish Sea compared to Pennygaff’s mere twenty. Also, as with many Welsh communities, both localities boast competing chapels but neither of Pennygaff’s named institutions — the Habakkuk Chapel (the Separated Rogationists?) or the ex-Detached Baptists Chapel (now the Museum which Owen’s grandfather runs) — necessarily corresponds with Crickhowell’s now defunct nonconformist chapels. There is no school building corresponding to the Jones Academy for the Sons of Gentlemen and Respectable Tradesmen, but the “high stone pillars which flanked the gateway” of the establishment may have been inspired by Crickhowell’s Town Hall completed in 1834; its pairs of Doric columns in an English Renaissance façade (said to be based on the style of Inigo Jones) front a sheltered market space originally protected by the sort of “close-set iron railings” that Owen peers out through in the opening page of the novel.

My conjectural plan of Pennygaff therefore must be taken as extremely tentative. In any case, Joan’s whole concept of Wales is born of the pick-and-mix approach: magpie-like, she chooses what appeals as well as suiting the needs of her narrative. The same applies elsewhere in The Whispering Mountain: when we travel on the turnpike road to Caer Malyn, with its castle and its harbour at Port Malyn, it becomes more likely that the localities are an amalgam of places and structures.

Caer Malyn is a case in point. This “blighted, down-at-heel” hamlet — as the Seljuk sees it — is clearly somewhere on the coast of Cardigan Bay facing the Irish Sea (vaguely suggested by ‘Atlantic Ocean’ on Pat Marriott’s map). The ‘Shambles Light” appears to be inspired by the Portland Bill Lighthouse, an 18th-century predecessor of which helped warn of the Shambles sandbank near Weymouth, but also recalls Strumble Head lighthouse on the Pembrokeshire coast in West Wales. Perhaps the origins of Caer Malyn at the end of a Roman road is somewhat akin to Segontium, a ruined Roman fort on the Roman road called Sarn Helen, now part of Caernarfon and lying near the famous castle.

However the positioning of Malyn Castle reminds us more of somewhere like Aberystwyth Castle (with its ruined north gateway on a hill overlooking the sea) or, more famously, Harlech Castle on its clifftop eyrie (Malyn has its Cliffs of Draig, named from a dragon). However, as Wales is known — from the sheer density of medieval fortifications here — as the Land of Castles, any one or several could have been the inspiration, even landlocked examples such as the scant remains of Alisby’s Castle at Crickhowell or even Raglan Castle which Joan may have seen en route to Brecon. Malyn Castle is described as being sited on the side of a steep hill, accessible via a precipitous narrow zigzag path from Caer Malyn. On its seaward side it stands on the brink of a cliff a thousand feet above the waves, its granite walls dominating both port and town at its foot.

Clearly Malyn Castle is one of those great castles built either at Edward I’s behest or by one or other of the Welsh princes and lords who resisted the English between the thirteenth and fifteenth centuries; it will have comprised a keep (possibly sited over a motte), an inner ward ringed by walls and towers and a gatehouse to protect the outer ward. A range of rooms ran along the west side towards the north tower, including a hall forty feet long.The Marquess added to the castle’s comforts by having pipes laid from Nant Agerddau to the Castle to keep it warm, capitalising on the ‘hot vapour’. Four hundred feet below the castle were cellars and dungeons, and below that a cavern reached by a concealed mine entrance.

Map of Malyn Castle, port and town

As mentioned earlier the name Malyn suggests a number of origins, none mutually exclusive: (1) from malign; (2) from Malin Head, the northernmost point in Ireland; (3) from Welsh melyn meaning ‘yellow’, after the collection of gold objects the Marquess (and probably his predecessors) had amassed.

We finally take the turnpike road to Nant Agerddau, the “stream of vapours” and the peak that dominates it, Fig-hat Ben. Let me begin with the mountain. First of all, the name suggests it has a human character, and that would be a natural assumption to make. It not only gives the book its title but accentuates the mountain’s brooding presence in the area and its decisive role in the literal downfall of the Marquess and Malyn Castle. But Y Mynydd Sibrwd — the whispering mountain — is also called Ben because it is an approximation of at least two Welsh words for a mountain peak. Pen, ‘head’ or ‘end’ depending on where you start is a common name for a peak in Welsh; under certain conditions pen can mutate to ben. Then there’s ban, which means ‘peak’ or ‘beacon’ (plural bannau) — as in Bannau Brecheiniog, the Brecon Beacons, and Pen y Fan (literally ‘the top of the peak’, in this case the highest summit in the Beacons) where Fan is a mutated form of Ban.

Now what about ‘fig-hat’ in relation to this mountain peak? Owen thinks the “craggy hill” bears “a strong resemblance to a man wearing a large, flat hat”. Pat Marriott opts in the Puffin paperback editions to show Fig-hat Ben as a mountain with the profile of a human face under a wide-brimmed hat. Even if you interpret the hat brim as a cloud halo around the peak I rather think this is to miss the point. I suspect the ‘fig-hat’ of the novel is more like a traditional felt beret with a pointy stem at the crown rather like that of — well, a fig. But I’m happy to be corrected!

My guess is that Fig-hat Ben is a conflation of two distinctive peaks. The first is Pen y Fan, the main summit of the Brecon Beacons, which has suggested the ‘Ben’ element. The second is The Sugar Loaf by Abergavenny, which Joan will have seen if she travelled along the A40 trunk road towards Brecon. In Welsh this iconic peak, looking like a conical volcano, is called Pen-y-fâl; it is this I believe which, when viewed in profile from the east or the west, most resembles the beret or ‘fig hat’ that Joan may have had in mind for the Whispering Mountain. Of course, as the man under “the large flat hat” is nowhere evident it’s more than possible that she was also thinking of other iconic Welsh peaks, from the highest point in Mid Wales — Plynlimon — to Cadair Idris in southern Snowdonia.

Sugar Loaf mountain in the Black Mountains, viewed from the west above Crickhowell

In the shadow of Fig-hat Ben lies Nant Agerddau, named from the ‘stream of vapours’ issuing from the mountain; one of Owen’s captors refers to it as “drodsome” and “a doomid outistical sort o’ place”. This community lies “not more than ten or eleven miles south” of where Owen and the boys discovered the injured Prince of Wales along the course of the River Gaff. It is approached through a narrow gorge which then opens out, allowing houses and shops, municipal buildings and an inn to be built on more or less level ground. Some danger threatens from cliff overhangs, including a row of five cottages which have had to be abandoned (it is in the middle one that Owen is briefly imprisoned).

A quarter of a mile up the gorge is Brother Ianto’s cave, with a vertical cliff behind. Other landmarks include The Boar’s Head Inn, the Town Hall in the middle of Nant Agerddau and, adjacent to it, the tourist entrance to the Devil’s Leap cave, leading into the heart of the mountain. At the top end of the gorge is a disused quarry which now provides an open space for a fair. Old adits in the quarry walls lead off to a labyrinth of disused gold mine workings.

Welsh gold was actually mined in two main areas, one in northwest Wales and the other just outside the Brecon Beacons National Park, at Dolaucothi between Llandovery and Lampeter, worked extensively in the Roman period. It’ll be the Dolaucothi mines that will have interested Joan, especially because the Romans’ use of aqueducts and leats will have justified the underground route from the Devil’s Leap cave to the original Roman settlement at Caer Malyn.

The world of the Wolves Chronicles is both similar and dissimilar to ours. Apart from anything else, if my surmises are correct then this world’s Wales is squeezed tight round its waist, real distances are exaggerated and the time to travel them greatly distorted — though we could put that down to human error — rather as we noted when we travelled with Dido through South America from the east coast to the Andes.

But in alternate worlds, as in alternate history, the author is Creator and can arrange things how they like. Only in this Wales of the 1830s will such apparently dismal, blighted and drodsome places as Pennygaff, Caer Malyn and Nant Agerddau exist.

Detail of Pigot & Co’s New Map of England & Wales […] &c (1830)

14 thoughts on ““This dismal place”

  1. Pingback: “This dismal place” — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. piotrek

    Impressive research, Chris! Details most readers miss. I’m still under the illusion I’ll be able to read all the books, so I usually hurry too much… when the time comes, to revisit “Wolves Chronicles”, I’ll remember this post, for the time being – I’ve acquired one of Aiken’s anthologies, I hope to feel the magic of childhood again.

    It’s a wonderful feeling to visit places known from your favourite fiction, if only one could vacation in Middle-Earth…

    Also – how cute, you have 886m mountains 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Piotrek, as I couldn’t find much written about this series (compared with the libraries of studies devoted to Tolkien, Lewis, Pullman etc) I felt I had to research and write it myself! And yes, Aiken’s short stories are magical, what drew me on in the first place to explore her novels.

      Those diddy little mountains certainly can’t compete with Europe’s, or indeed the other continents, but they do have a charm of their own. And the early study of their geology gave the world terms like Cambrian, Devonian and Ordovician after all’s said and done!


      1. piotrek

        To be honest, my favourite hiking areas are mostly 1000-1300m, not much higher 🙂 Some of the wildest and most beautiful parts of southern Poland, and not as many annoying tourists as in the highest ranges, like the Tatras. Black Mountains on your photo look just like parts of our Beskidy Mountains…

        Geological terms – wow, I never realised that, seems obvious in retrospect.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Always good to have some wilder spots where one can escape from tourist hordes, I agree! I’ll have to look up the Beskidy Mountains online now — but I promise I won’t come and spoil it for you!


    1. It so happens that we now live in these very same Black Mountains I describe, indeed in what I pretend to be a model for Pennygaff. 🙂 It’s true, those ties you mention, which is why in the UK tourist honeytraps like ‘Brontë Country’ are such a draw. Thanks for your compliment, glad it worked for you!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. MrsB_inthehills

    Fascinating post Chris, and I think you’re absolutely on the button with your locations – though I’d like to suggest Carreg Cennen castle with its precipitous siting and passageway to the subterranean cave. Of course it’s not coastal – so what about Llansteffan?


    1. Yes of course, Carreg Cennen — somewhere I’ve yet to visit but have had recommended to often — would be an excellent model, especially for the features you mention. Llansteffan has a fine situation, especially when viewed from the train as it approaches Ferryside, though I don’t know if Joan Aiken got to visit it. In fact, apart from Brecon, I have no idea where she travelled to when doing her research, and all my suggestions above are pure speculation!


  4. I can’t believe I haven’t replied to this masterly piece of fantasy geography – I sought it out because I have two Joan Aiken followers coming from Japan looking for the ‘source’ of The Whispering Mountain. A couple of years ago I escorted them (with some little difficulty!) up the Downs in search of the Cuckoo Tree – their maps were better than my memories…but we had an enchanting day; they read to the tree in Japanese.
    You may remember this: https://joanaiken.wordpress.com/2016/05/26/joan-aikens-family-tree/
    Do contact me if a meeting perhaps at Crickhowell might be possible over the next few weeks?
    They are due to visit the ‘Aiken Museum’ in my London garden in the blossoming second week of May!


    1. Yes, I do remember that wonderful post and the equally wonderful superfans from Japan! I’ll email you separately, Lizza, but if it’s possible it would be delightful to meet up with them — in May some time I’m assuming…


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