Beguiled by a magical history tour

30th May 1997 at 01:00
You enter King Arthur's Labyrinth, near Machyn-lleth in mid-Wales, through a long, candlelit passage at the end of which waits an iron boat. Floating past blue-lit caves, under waterfalls that mysteriously stop as the boat approaches, visitors are transported to a legendary world.

King Arthur's Labyrinth is one of the many attractions in Wales celebrating Celtic history and myth. Celtic history is a topic for study in the Welsh national curriculum, along with the Welsh legends, especially those in the celebrated Welsh epic, The Mabinogion. It is also relevant to study of the Romans in the English curriculum.

The Labyrinth is in the surviving caverns and passages of the old Braich Goch slate mine, which operated between 1836 and 1970. Some of the passages have been flooded to make a narrow canal while others have been smoothed and lit to make walking easier.

Leaving the boat, visitors pass along tunnels that look on to caverns where tableaux illustrate various Arthurian myths and legends. These include the battle between the white and red dragon, Arthur's tussle with the giant Rhitta and the story of Bran's head. Arthur himself is also reputed to be sleeping in a cave in the Welsh hills, awaiting the call to rescue the Cymry (the British confederate tribes that found a homeland in Wales during the Saxon invasion) if they ever find themselves in danger.

The visit lasts around 45 minutes. Afterwards children can visit the workshops to see local artisans, including makers of leather, glass and candle products, at work.

The tableaux are probably too static for children used to moving images, and it is occasionally difficult to hear the soundtrack (this is being dealt with, says the director). But the tour has some nice touches. The boat trip is magical and the caverns often spectacular.

The interplay of fact and myth in Welsh stories is examined in the Labyrinth's guidebook. In answer to the question "Who was Merlin?", for example, it points out that a priest or druid called Myrddin often appears in early Welsh Arthurian stories. In Latin translations his name is Merlinus. In the same way that the name Arthur was the title given to a great warlord, the name Merlin became attached to the greatest wizard or shaman of each generation.

The Machynlleth area provides a wealth of resources for Celtic studies. Just up the road from King Arthur's Labyrinth is Celtica, which, with special effects, inter-active displays, film and recreation of a Celtic village, aims to present a picture of Celtic life from the iron age to the present. It emphasises the importance of poetry and oral traditions which were kept alive by the druids and bards.

Celtica has much to offer school parties, especially at key stage 2. Apart from a tour of the exhibition, young visitors usually do one of the many workshops and drama sessions on, for example, storytelling, the life of iron-age Celts, problem-solving or craftwork including spinning and weaving. A workshop on creating patterns and designs from the past and present has also recently been introduced. Activity packs are available.

Celtica is also a centre for Celtic studies at an academic level, with a regular programmes of lectures, seminars and conferences.

Concentrating on Welsh myth and legend, King Arthur's Labyrinth complements Celtica's more historically rigorous, though no less entertaining, approach.

Much further north, in Rhyl, Clwyd, are the Knights Caverns, which also provide a technologically-aided experience of the myths and folklore of Wales. Again, visitors walk along a corridor to hear and watch some of the stories brought to life, including tales from The Mabinogion.

Finally a slide show tells the story of the "magnificent castles of Wales". This gives an overview of early Welsh history centring on the Norman castles of Rhuddlan, Flint, Conwy, Caernarfon, Harlech and Beaumaris. Caverns staff recommend that a visit to the exhibition be combined with a look at one or more of the castles, some of which are near.

For Welsh schools these exhibitions provide a visual accompaniment to their heritage and the tales and history with which they are familiar. For English schools there is all the excitement of new magic.

* King Arthur's Labyrinth, Corris Craft Centre, Machynlleth, Powys SY20 8ER, tel: 01654 760584.

Celtica, Y Plas, Aberystwyth Road, Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 8ER. Tel: 01654 702702.

The Knights Caverns, 38-41 West Parade, The Promenade, Rhyl, Clwyd, LL18 1HG. Tel: 01745 338562

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