One of the most difficult parts about writing the “The Curse of the Nannau Oak” (an illustrated book forthcoming from Lost Art Press) was being so far away from where it all took place. Time and money aside, the pandemic made a trip impossible.
Much of the story could have been written anywhere, but several scenes in the story, I felt, needed the eyes of someone physically there. One scene features detailed plasterwork in a restaurant in Dolgellau, a small town in northwest Wales. The other is a walk the main character, Cadi, takes with her grandmother.
The Nannau estate is about three miles north of Dolgellau. In our book (which I wrote and is illustrated by the brilliant Elin Manon Cooper) Cadi and her family eat in a restaurant in which there is a frightening and detailed plasterwork scene of a large tree on the wall. The waiter tells her it’s the hollow oak of the demon – the Nannau oak. This plasterwork scene is real and exists, as does the restaurant, called Y Sospan. Legend states that the plasterwork has actual branches from the Nannau oak embedded in it. From what I gather, the armorial (another plasterwork scene next to the tree, also featured in our book) was constructed as late as the 19th century, perhaps when the restaurant was used by the Dolgellau Cricket and Reading Club. The tree, on the other hand, was possibly constructed as part of the 1758 restoration of the hall, as the subjects’ clothing in the scene matches that time period. As far as branches from the Nannau oak actually being embedded into the plaster? Who knows! It’s one of the perks, I suppose, of writing heavily researched fiction.
A detailed Standing Building Report commissioned by the Snowdonia National Park Authority was instrumental in helping me describe this scene accurately, and find a place for it in the story, without actually being there.
Later in the book Cadi and her grandmother walk through the Nannau Deer Park. This detailed article (and this entire website, along with the book, “Nannau – A Rich Tapesty of Welsh History” and its author, Philip Nanney Williams) were more than helpful.
I think I’ve watched maybe a dozen total videos on YouTube in my life, a fact that is shocking to my children. But I was thrilled to find the delightful Margaret Hall, who lets viewers walk with her through the Nannau Deer Park. It was the next best thing to taking the walk myself, and being able to listen to her speak Welsh while reading the English subtitles was wonderfully instructive as well.
But then I found Elin Manon Cooper, who is now my partner on this project and who is producing the most gorgeous illustrations. This summer she went to Y Sospan. And she walked through the Nannau Deer Park. She saw Coed y Moch (a lodge on the Nannau estate); Aran Fawddwy, Aran Benllyn and Cader Idris from a distance (southern Snowdonia mountains in North Wales); and Yr Hen Ardd (the Old Garden, built in the 1790s).
“Cadi knew this was land that held secrets and stories.”
Elin tried to find the stone pillar that marked where the Nannau oak once stood, but it’s now in someone’s private garden. While wandering, a deer jumped out right in front of Elin and her family – a magical sight, she says.
“Despite not being able to find the exact spot of the oak it was an incredible place to walk around anyway,” she says. “You got a real sense of time and story all merging, swirling and stretching together.”
With many traditional, big-name publishers, such a close partnership and collaboration between author and illustrator would have never happened. Often, a writer and illustrator never meet or speak. And so to have this experience, I’m grateful.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl