Bronze Age hill fort at Preseli Hills, Wales

Wales on My Mind: Landscape, History, Dwelling

Prose + Photos by Laura Hollengreen

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It’s the call of a place which combines powerful myths, tumbled landscapes, hardscrabble lives, and proud resistance to normative culture.

This past summer I had the pleasure of spending two weeks traveling around Wales. It turned out to be not only the tonic of time in the countryside and small towns, but also a voyage of discovery into the history a somewhat remote but inventive place from antiquity through the 20th century.

I had been to Wales once before in 2007, following the International Medieval Congress at the University of Leeds, in England, and had long wanted to go back. In that year, there was a post-conference tour of late medieval castles that formed the “Iron Ring” in Wales—castles built or renovated by Edward III “Longshanks,” King of England, as he was expanding his kingdom to the west in the late 13th century. (He engaged in a similar campaign of castle building in Scotland; you might know some of this history from the movie Braveheart.) The tour was led by two wisecracking scholars—one an American military historian, the other a curator at the Royal Armouries in Leeds; they never missed an opportunity to tease each other or keep the rest of us in stitches.

Wales landscape
The River Dee seen from the patio of The Grouse Inn at Corwen, Denbighshire, Wales.
Photo by Laura Hollengreen.

Still, my three strongest memories of the trip were all impressions of the landscape. One was a view from the tour bus at the steep, foggy, forbidding, enigmatic uplands of Snowdonia (though the American was busy teasing the Englishman that these 2,000-foot peaks were hardly “mountains”). The second was witnessing the huge, dead slagheaps of mining detritus dotting an old mining town. The third and most magical was looking out to the Irish Sea from the walls of Harlech Castle, sited on a great rocky promontory originally licked by the waves of the Irish Sea below, as the sun was setting. That experience melded the imagined sensation of a medieval English soldier garrisoned here at the edge of the known world—he would have been at finis terra, as Celts and Picts and Romans had been in earlier ages—with the psychological urge of the appel du vide or “call of the void,” which makes one want to leap from high places into thin air.

Prehistoric Mehir in Preseli Hills, Wales
Waun Mawn (“Peat Moor”) menhir (prehistoric standing stone) in the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Photo by Laura Hollengreen.

Why was I so eager to go back? Mostly it had to do with a need for regular exposure to the countryside—always a morale booster for me, who grew up in a territory of dairy farms and small towns in northern Virginia. But I think it’s more than that. It’s the call of a place which combines powerful myths, tumbled landscapes, hardscrabble lives, and proud resistance to normative culture. I’ve realized lately that, in my consciousness, Wales resembles West Virginia, the neighboring but mysterious state to my Virginia. The two states share the Appalachian Mountains and a colonial history, but West Virginia, like Wales, has often been regarded as a backwater, a place either simply devastated by extractive industries or left behind in the march of time. The analogies are no doubt partly rooted in my teenage reading of the famous novel How Green Was My Valley, which fictionalized the lives of coal miners in Wales. (We had one such former miner as guide on a tour of a famous coal mine there last summer. He was a jokester, too, tossing out quips and puns the whole time; what was a little more unsettling—in this time of COVID—was his coughing as we went down the shaft together in a tight elevator.)

Pentre Ifan
Pentre Ifan (a prehistoric dolmen) near Newport, Preseli Hills, Wales.
Photo by Laura Hollengreen.

On my previous trip, I savored the irony of the flags of Cadw, the Welsh historic monuments organization, now flying above castles built to reinforce English conquest of the land. But Wales taught me new things this past summer. In particular, it brought home the fact that the old historiographical model of center and periphery simply cannot hold. At one moment, you can believe yourself to be at the end of the world; at another, you marvel at the huge Bronze and Iron Age fort towns the equal of any elsewhere, or the innovation of the steam engine at work at steel mills, or the “stream in the sky” aqueduct for barges, an early work of transportation infrastructure meant to support the expansion of industrial production in nearby Birmingham. In all these, Wales was a leader, not a follower.

Prehistoric gallery grave
Prehistoric gallery grave in the Preseli Hills, Wales.
Photo by Laura Hollengreen.

While I was most thrilled by the prehistoric architecture and the coastal landscapes, I was most impressed by the architecture of the early Industrial Revolution. I knew about coal mining in Wales and the way it nurtured and also blighted lives and whole villages there. I knew about mining disasters like the great collapse of a tailings dump that sent a wave of toxic sludge through the Welsh village of Aberfan in 1966, engulfing the local school just as the school day was getting underway and killing some 116 children (as well as 28 adults). If you’ve watched season 3 of The Crown, you know about Queen Elizabeth’s eventual decision to visit the village in question. I knew about early works of industrial architecture like the iron bridge at Telford, designed by civil engineer Thomas Telford, but I had never heard of the early iron works at Blaenavon, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site—complete with rail lines and lifts, blast furnaces, and fascinating if sobering worker housing that was in use from the early 19th century through the mid-20th. A family of eight or ten in one of those tiny dwellings? It makes you realize the space we take for granted today, even in modest homes.

Iron Age hill fort remains in Wales
Garn Goch (“Red Cairn”) Hill Fort from the Iron Age, Brecon Beacons National Park, Carmarthenshire, Wales.
Photo by Laura Hollengreen.

Nearby Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal, also designed by Telford together with William Jessop and completed in 1806, seems as astounding as the Roman-era Pont-du-Gard aqueduct in France, another infrastructure favorite of mine (my new husband and I climbed up to the water channel on our honeymoon, but you can’t do that now); however, this later example was not just for moving water but for moving barges on water—126 feet up in the sky! As in the more famous Roman example, the water channel is at the very top of the massive arcaded structure, but it is not covered and is just wide enough to accommodate a laden barge traversing part of the distance between the River Severn at Shrewsbury and the port at Liverpool. Walking the narrow footpath next to the elevated canal is a heady experience—not one for those afraid of heights. High in the air, you can watch kayakers and others enjoying the River Dee whose valley the aqueduct crosses.

Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal
Pontcysyllte Aqueduct and Canal over the valley of the River Dee, Wales.
Photo by Laura Hollengreen.

Despite these wonders, the day spent chasing down prehistoric architecture was my favorite: we went from hill fort to menhir to dolmen to gallery grave to henge all in a day spent in the Preseli Hills. This beautiful area of western Wales sports great swelling uplifts of earth, sweeping vistas, the ancient Golden Road trail from peak to peak, grazing sheep, and soft greensward under changeable skies. It is famous to aficionados of prehistoric architecture as the area where the mysterious bluestones of Stonehenge were quarried—some 300 miles from the Salisbury plain. As I’ve become acquainted with scholarship that seeks to understand the sensescape of antiquity, I have come across a new suggestion: that the bluestones may have been prized not so much for their color as for a particular resonance they produce when struck. Indeed, together with other interpretations of the sonic qualities of the stones at Stonehenge, this begins to suggest an entire soundscape that could be created within the monument on important ritual moments. The work of architecture that we tend to think of in terms of visual composition, tactility, and tectonics had an aural dimension that may have been equally potent at placemaking.

Cathedral and Bishop’s Palace, St. Davids, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
Photo by Laura Hollengreen.

It’s balm for my soul to be in the windy, hilly landscape and skin-tingling to hunt for the small signs of ancient inhabitation, to realize how long ago other people trod the same ground and made dwellings for themselves, their gods, and their dead. Similarly, moving to Tucson, Arizona, with its long history of inhabitation (longest in the continental U.S.!), and the Sonoran Desert, I have felt similarly challenged and gratified to learn about ancient and modern practices of placemarking and placemaking. The historian in me is continuously stimulated, but my challenge is to translate my historical curiosity about how people lived, thought, and died in the past to positive guidance to design students today who seek to respond to their own place and to draw inspiration from the past for new accomplishments in the future.



Laura HollengreenLaura Hollengreen is, by training, a historian of medieval art and architecture but teaches the full breadth of architectural history. She is an associate professor in the School of Architecture at the University of Arizona, where she has offered courses on concepts of dwelling, landscapes of war, urban public space, museum design, and light in modern and contemporary art and architecture. Her current research centers on a taxonomy of liminal environments.
Header photo, Foel Drygarn (“Hill of Three Cairns”) Hill Fort with Bronze and Iron Age remains, Pembrokeshire, Wales, by Laura Hollengreen. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.