Newborough is probably the most beautiful beach in Britain; in fact, I’m almost reluctant to tell you about it because it should really remain my secret! But, I guess, having featured it as a major location in Illumination, that ship has kinda sailed! Reaching it involves driving down a track through beautiful, dense pine forests and the odd whitewashed cottage, managed by the Forestry Commission, and a Site of Special Scientific Interest. At the car park at the bottom, there are no commercial outlets, just more forest and the sound of the surf. Clamber over the dunes, and before you is the wild beach of fine sand. Look to your left, and you’ll see the mountains of Snowdonia; if you’re lucky enough to be there in winter, they may even be snow-capped. Stretching out into the Irish Sea is the Lleyn Peninsula – mountainous too. To your right, the wide sweep of the bay, contained and sheltered by Llanddwyn Island, extending from the mainland.
Wander along the shore, past driftwood from the bordering forest. If the tide is out, the wide beach is perfect for a game of cricket or football. I have very fond memories of being a student in Bangor, and my housemates and I would often visit Newborough – even for a chilly dip in October!
Ynys Llanddwyn (Llanddwyn Island in English, and actually more of a promontory much of the time) is a place of antiquity. Formed of volcanic rock, it’s a National Nature Reserve. It’s supposed to be the last resting place of St. Dwynwen, the Welsh patron saint of lovers. She fell in love with Prince Maelon, but he tried to seduce her and, upset, she retreated to Llanddwyn, where she spent the rest of her days as a hermit. Dafydd ap Gwilym, the twelfth century Welsh poet, wrote that “Neither sickness nor sorrow/Will follow a man from Llanddwyn”. The name itself means the Church of Dwynwen, and the ruins of that building are easily found alongside the main path, and a cross further on commemorates her life. In Wales, couples often celebrate St. Dwynwen’s day on January 25th instead of Valentine’s Day in February.
The old lighthouse is no longer in use; in fact, there is no light at the top any more – it’s been capped off. In writing the novel, the idea occurred to me that if you were to visit the tower now, you should see it after the events described took place. The missing light inspired me to tell a story about what might have happened to it. There is a beach below the lighthouse, but no sea-cave – that’s my invention. On the east side of the island, though, is a bay called Porth yr Ogof, Port or Gateway of the Cave. The vessel Atlantis, too, is the product of my imagination – I did try to find a real shipwreck to reference, but could find none that would be suitable.
If you’re in North Wales, a visit to Newborough beach and Llanddwyn Island is definitely worth an excursion. Just don’t tell anyone else about it!
I decided quite late in Illumination‘s gestation period that these kinds of books should really have a map, showing the locations featured in the story, and their relative positions. Children love maps, and I love drawing, so why not? It does make you realise that it’s quite a long cycle ride from Anglesey to Caernarfon, and undoubtedly there’s a bit of artistic licence to move the plot along. But the map, especially the detail, isn’t that easy to see on reading devices, so I thought I’d put a larger, higher resolution version here. If you’re wondering why the scroll on the right (with the title) is a funny shape, I guess you haven’t got to that part of the book yet! For the graphic artists out there, the map was drawn on A4 Bristol board, using Winsor & Newton ink and Series 7 brush (size 00), and lettered in Photoshop using Blackadder ITC Std font. Click on the image for the large version.
Just a quick post to link to the Wikipedia site about Ogham, in case you’re wondering what this ancient alphabet looks like. To get the puzzle in the university library to work, I had to find a letter in the Welsh alphabet made up of two characters, that was also in the Ogham alphabet, and that letter was ‘ng’. Thanks to Eiry at the School of Welsh in Cardiff University for helping me out with that one. For those interested in the Welsh alphabet, here’s Wikipedia again – where would we be without it?
One of the more romantic, true-life elements in Illumination is the pirate’s grave in the churchyard of St. Baglan’s church at Llanfaglan. I’m not sure where I first heard about it, but I investigated it in the autumn of 2009. The church itself is outside the village of Llanfaglan. When I arrived, I couldn’t see a church anywhere, and had to ask a passerby, an older inhabitant who clearly knew about the history of the place, as he said “Looking for the pirate’s grave, are you?” He directed me out of the village to the very edge of the Menai Straits. A couple of times, I thought I’d taken a wrong turn, until I spotted the lonely church standing in a field. Like the characters in the book, I trudged up a ploughed field, and into the graveyard.
An old wall surrounds the site, giving partial shelter, but the trees alongside the church have developed wind-blown shapes from years of buffeting from gales howling in from the Irish Sea. The church itself seemed to me to lean, just like the trees. Apparently, the church is redundant now, and is looked after by the Friends of Friendless Churches. There’s evidence that the site dates from the 6th century, but the present church is 13th century, with the chancel built some time around 1800. It’s a Grade I listed building partly because it escaped tinkering by the Victorians, and so it retains much of its medieval fixtures. It has an oak altar, and apparently the only seven-sided font in Wales.
Like Sian and her brothers, I searched the graves for the skull and crossbones symbol. In the shelter of a gable end, I found one – a very old looking marker made of two slabs, the larger of which had a worn, barely visible carving of the symbol I sought. The grave itself is shown here, along with an annotated version showing the skull and crossbones. There’s very little on the internet about it, but here’s a piece on Caernarfon Online. It says that such symbology actually just represents mortality, and is not uncommon in the region, or even elsewhere in the country. Some believe it has links to Masonic traditions.
However, it’s much more romantic to consider this the last resting place of a buccaneer, and for the purposes of my tall tale, the grave will forever remain the grave of a pirate! Arrrr!
In Illumination, the houses that Uncle Toby and Professor Pritchard-Jones live in are quite important clues to their characters. Hawlings has an imposing, but quite cold and frightening exterior; inside it’s dark and full of secrets, just like its owner. Nemeton, by contrast, is very different – the Tudor mansion itself is empty, and the ‘real’ Nemeton is the grove of oaks in the grounds. The character who lives here presents a respectable front (like the Tudor house provides for the grove), but his real nature is unorthodox, romantic, warm and closely allied to all things natural. So if you want to know a character’s true nature, look at their house!
I chose the name Hawlings as a nod to the book that was partly responsible for inspiring the story, John Masefield’s The Box of Delights. In that book, the mansion is called Seekings, but the wise old man of the book is called Cole Hawlings; a good character, so perhaps it’s a bit unsuitable to name the house after him. However, like the old man, the house in Illumination is ancient and full of secrets.
Nemeton, however, is a very old Celtic word meaning a sacred grove or a place of sanctuary. In Illumination, the house is both these things. You can find out more here.
Bangor Cathedral is very old – St. Deiniol founded his first cell on the site in the early 6th century. He was consecrated as a Bishop in 546 and his church became a cathedral. It was attacked (and in some cases destroyed) in 1073 by Vikings, 1210 by King John’s men and 1402 in the Glyndwr rebellion. Much of the present building dates from the 16th century, with Sir George Gilbert-Scott’s restoration in the late 19th century, and the central tower completed in the 1960s.
The plot is driven by two main facts. The first is the similarity between the bell tower, built in 1532, and an image in the Bangor Pontifical (created in the early 14th century). You can see the image I had in mind here. Not only will you see that the Pontifical is real, as is the image, but you’ll note, I’m sure, that nowadays, the kids wouldn’t need to break into the library to see it, they could check it out on the web! Anyway – that would be much less interesting and dramatic. I saw similarities between the doors and the three windows above. Opposite is the bell tower, and you can decide for yourself how much artistic licence I employed with this clue! Obviously the tops are different, but I figure that prophecies can’t always be 100% right… The two pointed features at the top, however, are shared between the manuscript and the actual bell tower.
The other fact I employed is the loss of a window when the stained glass showing Old Testament figures was moved from one location to another in the bell tower. This is completely true as well, the image of Solomon really was lost during the move, and it then gave me a nice link to Gawain. You can see the actual windows in this image – from left to right, Aaron, Moses and David. Not sure why Moses appears to have horns coming out of his head – maybe that’s a clue for another book!
If you visit Bangor cathedral, ask about the mice. I’d planned to feature them as a clue, but I didn’t need them, nor could I fit them in. I’ll say no more than that!
My old university features heavily in Illumination. I spent the best years of my life at Bangor, and I wanted to include the college in the story (it features much more prominently in the sequel, though!). Life at Bangor is terrific – because it’s a small town, it is a civic university that feels like a campus. Everyone knows each other. In one direction is the sea, in the other the mountains. The friends I made at Bangor are still good friends today.
There are three academic locations in the book, the Professor’s rooms in the Main Arts Building, the university library and outside a hall of residence. The Main Arts building is an imposing structure on the hill above the town, built in 1911. Inside, it feels like an archetypal university building, with high-ceilinged hallways, stained glass and impressive public rooms. The largest is called the Prichard-Jones Hall, after a well-known benefactor, a local boy who founded Dickins & Jones department store in London. He lends his name to my Professor in the book, with a slight change to the spelling of his name, as a nod to the surname of an old college friend of mine.
The Professor’s office at the top of the college is based on memories I had of the academics’ rooms, complete with fireplaces and leather chairs. I used to have Italian Renaissance Art seminars in that top corridor, and it felt exactly the way academic buildings should – solid, ornate, serious and, ultimately, quite wonderful. This picture shows the main building from the back, the entrance to the P-J Hall on the left. The library entrance (shown below) is to the right. It was taken in my last term at university, which explains why the cars look so shockingly antiquated (it was only 1991, but I guess that was over 20 years ago!). The Professor’s room number, 46, is a reference to the houses I shared with friends in my second and third years, both numbered 46, and one of them situated almost opposite this building (and the number of my room in Halls was simply those two digits reversed, 64).
The university library is a place I frequented often, and is strange in that, while you enter through a modern building, many of the books (including the History books I studied) are housed in the original part of the college. You can see the entrance in the photo opposite, where the old meets the new (itself a metaphor for Gawain and the Green Knight). Despite regular visits, I can’t quite remember the internal layout, and except for that juxtaposition of the old and the new, the locations are mostly imaginary. It goes without saying that the rare books room, with DNA scanners, temperature sensors and convoluted password puzzles, is completely made up. With so much of the old world in the book, I wanted to have a chapter that seemed very modern, almost James Bond-like, with computers, gadgets and gizmo’s. Nowadays, though, the children could simply investigate the Pontifical online! To see what I think of as the model for the rare books room in the story, have a look at this image of the Shankland reading room in the University.
The hall of residence the children rest in after escaping from Menai Bridge is my old hall, Neuadd Reichel, which in my day was quite formal, with Sunday lunches in suits and gowns, in rooms filled with enormous oil paintings of academics. But it was a true home for us, and as an all-male hall at the time, was really like living in a huge frat house. Most of the time was spent playing pranks, engaging in ancient hall rituals (long live Benny Dicemus!), watching videos (remember them?), partying and playing D&D – when we weren’t working hard, of course! Happy days! Vitam Impendere Vero, and all that!
I was absolutely adamant that Illumination needed a sequence set in a castle, one of the staples of classic children’s adventure fiction, and I was spoilt for choice in North Wales. As I wrote the chase through Bangor and realised the protagonists were heading for the apparent dead end of Bangor Pier, it became clear that the obvious one to use was Beaumaris Castle (click to visit its page on the Cadw website).
King Edward I built an ‘iron ring’ of fortresses to subdue the Welsh people during the thirteenth century, including Harlech, Conwy and Caernarfon. Beaumaris was the last, with building work starting right at the end of that century, but famously it was not finished, as Edward focused his spending on his Scottish campaigns. Nevertheless it is one of the best surviving examples of a symmetrical concentric castle and has some magnificent features that make it an excellent location for story-telling, especially its moat. The chapel, also, was particularly interesting, as one of the themes of the book is religion, old and new.
I wrote the chase through the castle partly from memory and partly from the guide book, aided by information on the internet. Before I published the book, though, I visited the castle and walked the route, and made some tweaks. I was pleased how well the chase sequence written at home held up, but there were some vital changes I needed to make; in one location a permanent art structure had been added making access to an arrowslit in the story impossible! It means, though, that anyone should be able to take the book to the castle, if they wished, and trace the route the children and their pursuers take through the ruins. Accuracy should be secondary to story-telling, I guess, but it’s even better if you can have both!
Dramatic scenes unfold within equally dramatic scenery – Llyn Idwal, high in the Snowdonia mountains. Llyn is Welsh for lake, and this imposing body of water sits within Cwm Idwal, meaning Idwal’s Valley. It’s named for a Prince Idwal Foel, one of the sons of Rhodri the Great, Rhodri Mawr in Welsh, a king of Gwynedd in the 9th century. As mentioned in Illumination, legend has it that Idwal was murdered by drowning in the lake, though it’s thought he died in battle and may have been cremated there instead. Like all legends, we’ll never know the truth of the matter, but like so many Welsh tales, it is a romantic and compelling story, and perhaps that matters more than what really happened!
The best way to reach the waters is from Ogwen Valley (itself the home of a lovely lake). Idwal Cottage, now a Youth Hostel, is at the northern end, where the valley drops away down Ogwen Bank, traversed by Telford’s A5 embankment. At the side of the hostel is a mountain waterfall, and a pathway up to Cwm Idwal. It’s bleak but beautiful in the mountains, described by W A Poucher in The Welsh Peaks as a “boggy hollow”, surrounded by the peaks of Y Garn and the Glyders, and the Idwal Slabs, a popular climbing location. Cwm Idwal is actually a hanging valley, created by glaciation, and is the most southerly place in the UK where Arctic plants can thrive, such as saxifrage, or the unique-to-the-area Snowdon lily.
Bodies of water were sacred to the Celts, the location of offerings to the gods (such as at Llyn Cerrig Bach on Anglesey), and were considered to be areas where the boundaries between our world and the Otherworld were weak. The tradition began in the Bronze Age but continued into the Iron Age (the period we associate with the Druids). There’s no doubt it is an atmospheric place, often filled with a sense of foreboding. Jan Morris notes in her classic Wales that “we are assured that over the dark waters of Llyn Idwal in Gwynedd no bird will ever fly.” On some days, mist spills from the gully known as Devil’s Kitchen, high on the surrounding peaks, as it looks like a steaming cauldron. Despite being a short walk from the A5, the valley feels cold, lonely and remote. It makes it the perfect location for the chilling events halfway through, and for the climax of the story. These snaps of mine give you some idea, but nobody captures it better than my talented friend Duckinwales – have a look at this beautiful shot.
A key and recurring location in Illumination is the small town of Menai Bridge, called Porthaethwy in Welsh. It’s been there for a long time, to receive visitors to Anglesey at the shortest crossing point of the Menai Straits. Its modern English name, of course, comes from Thomas Telford’s famous suspension bridge of 1826, which is anchored at one side of the town. It’s not a big place, and perhaps not the most obvious location for a chase scene. I mentioned this particular piece of drama to a friend of mine who lives in the town, saying that a car chase takes place through the streets of Menai Bridge, and he said “don’t you mean the street of Menai Bridge?”
From the town it is possible to walk down to the banks of the Straits, to what was probably the original fording point, despite the hazardous currents. Here you can walk under the Menai Bridge, along a promenade that was built by Belgian refugees during World War I. They came to Anglesey when they escaped the German invasion of their country, and built the walkway as an expression of thanks. It’s here that the chase begins in Illumination, along the Belgian Promenade, under Telford’s bridge and up into the town.
At one end of the promenade is the causeway leading to Church Island, called Ynys Dysilio in Welsh, Ynys for Island, and Dysilio a mutated form of St. Tysilio, to whom the 15th century church on the island is dedicated. St. Tysilio was a 7th century monk who had a hermitage there, and whose name is best remembered now as a component of the longest place name in Britain. The highest point of the island is the site of a memorial to the local dead of the First World War.