A strong sense of place #TDiRS22

Cadair Idris range, Gwynedd

The last instalment of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, Silver on the Tree, is set in several places – by the Thames in Buckinghamshire at the start, mythical lost lands out in Cardigan Bay – but principally in the southwest corner of Snowdonia, Gwynedd, centred on the seaside town of Aberdyfi on the edge of the Cadair Idris range.

Having spent a couple of recent breaks in Aberdyfi with relatives who had links with the area, I was in a good position to become more acquainted with the background to both Silver on the Tree and the preceding volume in the sequence, The Grey King. It reinforced the strong sense of place that Cooper embedded in these two titles.

This post then is an attempt to give a pictorial impression of some of the landscape mentioned in the final novel for those who’ve not visited here; a later post will go into some detail of the literary, legendary and mythical influences that the author drew on to give both grounding and significance to incidents in the narrative.

Susan (back row, centre) at 15 in 1951 with brother, father, uncle, and cousins on Aberdyfi beach. Her Welsh uncle Llew (back row, right) told her about the Brenin Llwyd or Grey King. TheLostLands.com

Susan Cooper, born in 1935, spent her teens on holiday in Aberdyfi and environs, and it was here that her parents subsequently retired, to be close to Welsh relatives. It’s unsurprising then that the places, people, language and culture loom so large and so vividly in the two novels set in Gwynedd.

A just visible Trefeddian Hotel overlooking Aberdyfi dunes – the golf course lies between the dunes and the hotel © C A Lovegrove

In Silver on the Tree the Drew family stays at the modern Trefeddian Hotel, half a mile north of Aberdyfi. From the hillside above the hotel Simon, Jane and Barney can see the golf course fringed by dunes, and the sandy beach at the edge of Cardigan Bay. On their left, to the south, is the Dyfi estuary and beyond it the county of Ceredigion. Behind them are the foothills of Cadair Idris, where they will meet Will Stanton and Bran Davies when Will blows his horn.

Cwm Maethlon, ‘Happy Valley’, seen from the Panorama Walk © C A Lovegrove

With Will and Bran the Drew siblings go on to visit the Bearded Lake – Llyn Barfog – on the Panorama Walk, a route into the hills along a single-track road. On the left is Happy Valley, in Welsh Cwm Maethlon (‘nourishing combe’), down which the Dyffryn Gwyn river flows to the sea, just south of Tywyn.

The road eventually leads to an unnamed farm which is actually based on the real Bwlch Farm – bwlch meaning pass or gap – an isolated building on the side of a low rise.

Bwlch Farm on the way to the Bearded Lake © C A Lovegrove

An unmetalled track skirting the southern flank of the rise takes the group past an upright slate inscribed CARN MARCH ARTHUR, ‘the hoof(print) of Arthur’s horse’: a natural indentation in the adjacent stone outcrop could indeed suggest the hoofprint of a small horse, supposedly made as Arthur struggled to haul an aquatic monster from its abode.

Carn March Arthur, ‘hoofprint’ of Arthur’s horse

As they round another rise a hundred yards or so further on a small lake, Llyn Barfog, is suddenly revealed; in summer it’s covered in lilypads but, in contrast, quite clear in late autumn – which is when I saw it. Located between the Cadair Idris outliers and the Dyfi estuary its immediate appearance, nestled in a natural amphitheatre, is rather magical, especially if the late afternoon sun lights it up.

Llyn Barfog or the Bearded Lake, with part of the Cadair Idris range behind © C A Lovegrove

The lake has several legends, the principal one concerning an afanc (pronounced ‘avank’), a monstrous entity which is associated with several other watery sites in Wales. Nowadays the word afanc refers to a beaver but in the past it’s also been imagined as a crocodile or, under the name addanc (‘aðank’), as a malevolent dwarf similar to the English grindylow.

Dyfi estuary looking south © C A Lovegrove

Later, as the five youngsters head back to Aberdyfi past a scattered herd of Welsh Blacks – cattle which still graze these fields and through which one may have to walk, as I had to – they see the Dyfi estuary on their left and, ahead of them, the sea where the legendary lost land of Cantre’r Gwaelod (the Sunken Land) once lay. Cantre’r Gwaelod literally means “the Hundred – a land division – lying below”.

The Dyfi estuary from Tyddyn Rhys farm B&B © C A Lovegrove

After Will and Bran leave the trio the Drews head past a farm (probably Tyddyn Rhys farm, now a delightful and friendly B&B) where they meet Mrs Rowlands, who drives them down Mynydd Isaf and Copper Hill Street towards Chapel Square.

Chapel square, Aberdyfi © C A Lovegrove

Just beyond the Square they meet John Rowlands on the concrete pier which replaced an earlier wooden one and, during a timeslip experience, dramatically encounter their Great-Uncle Merry by one of the shipyards which made Aberdyfi such an important port in times past.

Aberdyfi beach and pier

Meanwhile, Will and Bran have somehow travelled to the Lost Land, visiting a dreamlike Country with its City and Castle, in an episode owing much to the medieval Book of Taliesin and the slightly later Tale of Taliesin (as influenced by Robert Graves’ interpretations in The White Goddess).

Cardigan Bay, Tywyn © C A Lovegrove

This legendary land is of course Cooper’s interpretation of Cantre’r Gwaelod, an area which was to be eventually inundated by the waters of the Irish Sea in Cardigan Bay; it’s remembered in the old song The Bells of Aberdovey (in Wesh Clychau Aberdyfi) with its refrain un, dau, tri, pedwar, pump, chwech | Meddai clychau Aberdyfi (“one, two, three, four, five six, say the bells of Aberdovey”) referring to the underwater sounds from the sunken land sometimes heard in the village.

Jane and Simon subsequently catch a vintage steam train from Aberdyfi, the carriages – in Great Western Railway’s chocolate-brown and cream livery – hauled by a King class engine, a classification evidently chosen by the author for its Arthurian echoes.

GWR King class locomotive

As the train – picking up other key characters – travels eastwards towards the Chiltern Hills of Buckinghamshire (near where the novel opened) the carriages transform into medieval boats travelling down the Thames, where one one of the flotilla becomes Arthur’s legendary ship, Prydwen – ‘fair complexion’ or ‘fair of face’, perhaps an echo of Bran’s albinism.

But it’s back in Gwynedd that the novel closes, with the Drews, Bran and Will heading back to Aberdyfi after their excursion into the hills. These final paragraphs were written as an end point when Cooper was first planning sequels to Over Sea, Under Stone and they form a bittersweet conclusion to the pentalogy. Bittersweet for the author as well as the reader – as she wrote in a 2013 note to the Margaret K McElderry edition of this final novel.

#TDiRS22 @ annabookbel.net

A further post or possibly two will examine some of the literature, legends and lore which Cooper drew on to enrich her narrative; as always I’m grateful to Annabel for proposing this TDiR readalong – it has been a very satisfying project through much of 2022.

28 thoughts on “A strong sense of place #TDiRS22

  1. Your wonderful photos bring the book to life. Last time I holidayed in Snowdonia, we were to the north in Pwllheli, so never made it south to Aberdyfi, which I hadn’t realised is close to Aberystwyth, somewhere I went as a child – so who knows, I may have been to Aberdyfi after all. A continued thank you to you too for all your evocative accompanying posts to the readalong. So much appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. If you went by train to Pwllheli via Machynlleth you’d’ve passed through Aberdyfi, Annabel, but if by car it’s easier to bypass it without taking the coastal route. But I’m so pleased the photos helped enliven your appreciation of the novel and that my supplementary posts have been informative! A little more to come, of course. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Karen! Ideally I’d have liked to have included photos of the Thames Valley near Burnham, where Cooper grew up, and Mevagissey, on which Trewissick was based, but I’ve not been to the first, and the second I visited briefly as a kid – so unfortunately it was not to be!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a wonderful post! I have seen practically nothing of Wales and this makes me yearn to return (although I think I need a companion willing to drive).

    I got a bit tired of The Lost Land (and I guess I haven’t read as much Robert Graves as I thought) but you probably noticed that Cooper calls her website The Lost Land of Susan Cooper! https://www.thelostland.com/


    Was anyone else shocked by Mrs Rowlands? I was not expecting that.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, those apparently motherly figures – in Over Sea, Under Stone and The Grey King for instance – aren’t always what they seem, and that is shockingly unexpected, almost ‘off’, I agree. Even the girl who was soft on Will’s brother in The Dark is Rising was a thing of the Dark, turning Hawkin away from the Light.

      The fantastical nature of the Lost Land hasn’t met with much favour from readers but it’s clear that for Cooper it was important to her. I hope to discuss a little of this in an upcoming post (or possibly two), Constance, as I think its origins lie in a number of sources. But I’m glad you’ve liked what I’ve presented here – I guess I’m lucky to be living in Wales from which so many fantasy authors (Lloyd Alexander, Arthur Machen, Jenny Nimmo, Tolkien obviously, the late Patricia McKillip, and many others) drew their cultural inspiration.


  3. Thanks for the photos, especially the one of the Bearded Lake – truly magical! The pics of the Cader Idris range make me itch to get on my hiking boots. When I was a child reading the books, I was completely non-athletic and could never dream of roaming all over as the characters do, but now that I have some long-distance hiking experience, I’d love to see those places for myself. At least I have your pictures to take me there.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I chickened out actually going right up to the shore of the Bearded Lake – just in case! – but I loved standing about fifty metres away and watching the late afternoon sun just briefly lighting up the scene in a golden glow for a few minutes; anything more like moving closer would’ve broken the spell, I felt.

      Another photo of the lake will appear in a future post, including the dog of the chap residing in Bwlch Farm (though luckily it wasn’t a milgi or grey fox!).

      Unlike the youngsters I drove along the Panorama Walk until the metalled road ended at the sign for Bwlch Farm. But it’s an invigorating walk from and back to Aberdyfi, Lory, and I imagine well worth the effort.

      Liked by 2 people

    1. You’re too kind, Silvia, but thank you. 😊 I’m pleased to share any insights or enjoyment I’ve got from stuff I read, and if they help others’ appreciation of the books then it’s win-win as far as I’m concerned.

      Liked by 1 person

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