When History Takes You by the Hand

Photo by Hugh Venables / Track onto the Common, via Wikimedia Creative Commons, 2.0

When researching my story, I stopped at the village of Ewyas Harold and asked for directions to the pre-Norman castle. A local official told me that nothing of the castle existed and that I would find nothing of interest without an archeologist. . 

I drove along the road where I thought the castle had once been, planning to explore the Golden Valley and the Black Mountains. The steep, narrow, and twisted single—lane road rose above the village. Grasses brushed my car as I edged around a hill on my left while watching for the sheer drop on my right. I drove slowly, approaching each blind curve, fearful of meeting a car coming in the opposite direction. 

As I approached a series of switchback curves climbing the wooded hill, I saw a large truck filled with sheep creeping down the steep road toward me. I stopped. As wide as the road, the truck left no room to pass. I could see no turn off ahead and imagined trying to back down to the village. I then remembered passing a driveway. I let my car roll backward down the road, backed it into a dirt driveway, and waited for the truck to pass.  

The driveway, surrounded on three sides by rock walls, inclined up into the hillside, about two car lengths deep just wide enough for a car, reminded me of a small box canyon. I had no view of the road, except for the swath in front of the driveway but could hear the truck roaring down the hill in low gear. 

While waiting, I glanced into my rearview mirror. I saw a sign tacked to a stake in front of the dirt wall. I turned and read the words printed in pencil on a piece of cardboard, the size of a packing box flap. 

Just then the truck lurched loudly down the incline and passed the driveway. I pulled the car back on the paved road, turned it around, and nosing forward, I reentered the driveway. Following the arrow on that little sign, I drove slowly up a deeply rutted track and crested the hill.  

Though covered by overgrown trees and bushes, I recognized the motte, the large earthwork mound, which had been built almost a thousand years ago. I walked around the mound built to hold a tower, felt a cool breeze, looked out where the defense ditches would be, searched for Dulas Creek. I found the footpath and stairs through the bushes and realized what a dominating view this place had of the land around it.

Sitting on the grass, I listened to the birds, looked at the budding trees, and tried to absorb something of this place, knowing it once throbbed with the sounds of metal on anvils, soldiers and servants. It felt desolate, lonely, sad. 

I thought about the simple sign. Handprinted in pencil, it was unrecognizable from the road, certainly not visible by anyone driving by and unnecessary for local inhabitants who knew where this site rested. 

Despite the logical and rational explanations for this sign’s existence, I decided that this sign had been made for me—a guide to take me to the place I wanted to find, the essential starting place of my story—the birthplace of my male protagonist.