The Alleged Castell Aber IaThis is a precis of a chapter from my new book on Harlech castle. In this I take a look at other castles in the district to actually understand what was going on in the vicinity during the Age of the Princes.
It has been alleged for over 400 years that a castle stood near Portmeirion. This was given the name Castell Aber Ia, based upon examination of the church records for 1699 - a hundred years after Camden first proposed this as the 1188 castle site mentioned by Giraldus Cambrensis as Deudraeth. As this is claimed to have been the fortress ‘in Eifionydd towards the mountainous north' constructed by the sons of Cynan in the 1180s, it is worth looking at the evidence for this to examine the validity of this claim.
To quote Giraldus:
From that place we crossed over Traeth Mawr and Traeth Bychan that is the greater and the lesser drawing of the sea where two castles of stone had been newly sited one in Eifionydd towards the mountainous north, which belonged to the sons of Cynan which was named Deudraeth the second truly on the other side of the river towards the sea in the headland of Llyn which belonged to the sons of Owain which was named Garn Fadryn.
This passage clearly seems to tie both castles to the traeths or beaches. Castell Garn Fadryn is some fifteen to twenty miles from the sands around Harlech castle in Meirionydd. Therefore, using the original evidence, it is not necessary to pin Deudraeth castle to the immediate vicinity of Portmeirion as has previously occurred. Judging from the position of Garn Fadryn in relation to the traeths, Deudraeth could have been as far away as Tywyn. This would put a plethora of stone castles within the possible orbit of being Deudraeth, viz Castell y Bere, Carndochan, Prysor, Dolwyddelan, Dinas Emrys, Dolbadarn, Caernarfon, Dolbenmaen and Criccieth. Of these castles most must be discarded as they are nowhere near a traeth - even less so than Garn Fadryn. This leaves us with just Caernarfon, Criccieth and of course Harlech within the likely ambit of Giraldus' statement. Caernarfon and its castle were later visited by Giraldus so this too can be discarded as Deudraeth castle, leaving us with just Criccieth, Harlech and the putative castle alleged at Aber Ia.
There is also the statement that Deudraeth castle was within Eifionydd. This was a commote, but it does not really help us with defining where the castle was as commote boundaries changed as the political power of their controllers waxed and waned. By such a description all three castles may have been ‘within' Eifionydd in the late twelfth century, but only Criccieth certainly was. It is also unfortunate that Giraldus does not mention which river divided the castles. The Dwyfor and Erch stand between Garn Madryn and Criccieth, to which must be added the Glaslyn before Aber Ia and also the Dwyryd before Harlech. Again this is hardly conclusive in pinning down the elusive Deudraeth, although it must be noted that the Glaslyn/Dwyryd makes more of a noticeable boundary than the Dwyfor.
Giraldus clearly states that Deudraeth castle was situated towards the mountains to the north. These mountains are obviously Snowdonia, which can be said to stretch from Yr Eifl in the west to the Afon Conwy in the east and run down virtually to Tremadog in the now blocked Glaslyn estuary. All three sites are south of this block, but only the alleged Castell Aber Ia is blocked from a view of Snowdonia by the ridge behind its supposed site. After this poor start we completely run out of believable evidence for Castell Aber Ia. Even the castle ‘site' is highly suspect. All the modern accounts about the alleged castle merely quote unsourced opinions and ill-considered hearsay. The best ‘evidence' for any castle having stood there - in the absence of any physical remains - is the alleged picture of the castle before it was demolished. Unfortunately no one can attest to ever having seen this picture or even to know where it is! Indeed, other than bold unsubstantiated and unsubstantiatable assertions, there is no proof that it ever existed.
Such lack of proof is the hallmark of the alleged Castell Aber Ia. Just look at the peculiar statement, to get around the total lack of any medieval remains, that the castle was:
finally razed by Sir William Fothergill-Cook (inventor of the electric telegraph) to prevent the ruins becoming known and attracting visitors. The stones were later used to build the Portmeirion campanile in 1925.
Again this is little more than an unverifiable excuse for the lack of castle remains and it is stunning that there are neither contemporary documents nor memories to support such a modern assertion. In fact, the only holistic investigation into Castell Aber Ia utilising both archaeology and history has been carried out by Gareth Hughes, the Conservation Officer for Broadland District Council. He noted that the bulk of the ‘masonry' at Portmeirion is modern, ‘dating only from the 1980s' and that the majority of the ‘ruins' had been ‘built by Clough Williams-Ellis (presumably with the intention of eventually enlarging it into something more impressively castle-like)...' Indeed with this comment there is little point in even examining the supposed site of a castle where there are neither remains nor history to back up what is undoubtedly a preposterous claim. Portmeirion has neither political nor military significance, being right off the beaten track. No contemporary prince was likely to have thought it necessary to build a castle there. This was no answer to the dominating site of Castell Garn Fadryn, the other fortress linked to Deudraeth by Giraldus.
Despite all of this, the most compelling claim for a castle having been built above Portmeirion comes from 1927 when an octogenarian resident of Minffordd claimed to have seen a ruined semi-circular tower about ten to twelve feet in diameter and ten feet high, when he was a child. However, even this claim does not stand up to even cursory scrutiny. Such a minute structure is hardly comparable with the remains of other Welsh castles that Giraldus mentions, nor is there any trace of such a structure on the rock above Portmeirion despite the alleged claim that it was demolished. Further this ‘castle' was remembered to have had a view across the bay to Harlech castle. The geography around the Portmeirion site precluded such a view, even before the trees grew up on this peninsula. In other words, that there was a castle standing at Aber Ia is just pure, unsupported, fantasy - before it is taken into account that there is a site that does exactly match the resident's description. This is the squat tower overlooking the entrance to Borth y Gest as can be seen in the accompanying photograph, but this can in no way be described as a twelfth century castle. This is the final fact that convincingly lays the fantasy of Castell Aber Ia to rest and confirms that there was never a twelfth century castle at either Portmeirion or even Borth y Gest.
This article is taken from the book, Harlech Castle and its True Origins.
Paul Martin Remfry