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Vale of Llangollen
Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

The Making of the Vale of Llangollen and Eglwyseg Historic Landscape


The dramatic topography of the Vale of Llangollen has inspired a long tradition of literary and artistic associations since early medieval times which have themselves influenced the ways in which the landscape has been perceived and developed — having influenced certain aspects of its architectural heritage, the creation of designed landscapes, and the conservation of natural features.

Folklore and medieval poetry

As elsewhere in Wales, the earliest cultural associations within the Vale of Llangollen are probably to be seen in folklore associated with a number of natural features which perhaps originate in the early medieval period if not earlier. This is most notably focused on Craig Arthur and Craig y Forwyn (‘Maiden’s Crag’) — place-names associated with two of the prominent outcrops of the dramatic limestone escarpment of Eglwyseg Rocks.

Subsequent associations in the early medieval and medieval periods are predominantly with reference to structures or buildings created within the natural landscape, and frequently arose through royal or ecclesiastical patronage. The Pillar of Eliseg, the base of a stone cross prominently sited in the Eglwyseg valley, was erected in the first half of the 9th century by Cyngen in honour of his great-grandfather Eliseg who had reunited the kingdom by retaking land once conquered by the English. In 1696 the antiquarian Edward Lhuyd recorded the original inscription on the Pillar of Eliseg, before it had deteriorated to its now largely illegible state. The inscription on this symbolically important monument traced the legendary descent of the royal house of Powys from the early 5th-century king Gwrtheyrn (Vortigern), the late 4th century Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus), and a religious blessing from St Germanus of Auxerre, thus laying down political and territorial claims reaching back to the late Roman world. The origin of the place-name element eglywseg in Afon Eglywseg and Creigiau Eglwyseg is hotly debated, but some authorities have been considered that the place-name element are derived from Eliseg.

Perhaps the earliest record of place-names in the vale appeared in the 9th or 10th cycle of poems known as Canu Llywarch Hen (‘Song of Llywarch the old’), which alludes to the settlement of Llangollen and the pass known as Bwlch y Rhiw Velen northwards over the mountains to Ruthin with reference to the burial places of Llywarch’s sons.

Further poetical associations were to be made in the early 13th century by the court poet Einion Wan whose surviving works include an englyn (an early metrical form of Welsh poetry), which includes and elegy for Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, the first ruler of the subdivided kingdom of Powys Fadog. Madog founded Valle Crucis Abbey in 1201, his son Gruffudd ap Madog built Castell Dinas Brân in the 1260s, two buildings which were later to acquire iconic status within the region.

Despite its loss of political and strategic significance following the Edwardian conquest of Wales in the 1280s, Dinas Brân was to feature in a number of literary works in the later 13th and 14th centuries. It appears in the prose romance known as Fouke le Fitz Waryn, a manuscript written in Old French and dating from the first half of the 14th century now in the British Library but based on a now missing late 13th-century verse romance. Also dating from the 14th century is the only extant work of the Welsh poet Hywel ab Einion, who composed a love-poem to Myfanwy Fychan of Dinas Brân, a young lady belonging to a branch of the Trevor family. The poem, said to have been left in the cleft of an oak tree on the slopes of the hill, was first published in an English translation by Thomas Pennant in his Tour in Wales. It includes the following memorable metaphor alluding to the impregnability of the hilltop:

Though hard the steep ascent to gain,
Thy smiles were harder to obtain

The medieval poem was to inspire the the well-known Victorian poem, Myfanwy Fychan, by the poet John Ceiriog Hughes. The poem, with its emphasis on moral standards, was written for the Eisteddfod held in Llangollen in 1858 and formed a model for Welsh love poetry in the second half of the 19th century.

CPAT PHOTO 1766-154

Remains of the Cistercian abbey at Valle Crucis founded by the Welsh prince Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, in 1201. Dinas Bran is just visible in the distance towards the right. Photo: CPAT 1766-154.

In addition to its significant ecclesiastical and economic impact, the Cistercian abbey at Valle Crucis also became an important focus of cultural life within the region due to patronage by successive abbots, having associations with the poet Iolo Goch in the 14th century and with Guto’r Glyn and Gutun Owain in the 15th century. A well-known poem by Gutun Owain praises the hospitality of Dafydd ab Ieunan, the same abbot who had harboured the poet Guto’r Glyn in old age:

He’ll provide drink from flourishing orchards
And from wheat malt and splendid grapevines.
What the bees carry from the meadow corners
Will make liquors in his enclosures.
The best of fruits, like Gweirydd the Strong,
That grow from the earth, Dafydd bestows.

The Romantic movement

By now in ruins, Castell Dinas Brân and Valle Crucis continued to be referred to in works composed in the 16th and 17th centuries and were first remarked upon by early antiquaries. John Leland, the King’s Antiquary, visiting some time after 1534, mentioned ‘the castle of Dinas Brane was never a bygge thing, but sette al for strength in a place half inaccessible for enemies’. Early Romantic images of the ruined castle were conjured up in an englyn by the Denbighshire poet Roger Cyffyn in the late 16th or early 17th century, given in translation in George Borrow’s Wild Wales:
Gone, gone are thy gates, Dinas Brân on the height!
Thy warders are blood-crows and ravens, I trow;
Now no one will wend from the field of the fight
To the fortress on high, save the raven and crow.

General improvements in communications and greater mobility for social and leisure purposes by the elite classes resulted in a flurry of visitors to the area from about the middle of the 18th century together with the earliest appearance of published illustrations of the Vale of Llangollen, which were influential in promoting a picturesque image of its antiquities and scenery. Engravings of Valle Crucis were published by the Buck brothers in 1741–42 and by S. H. Grimm in 1770. The Welsh artist, Richard Wilson painted several views Dinas Brân in about 1770, one commissioned by Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1771. Wilson had previously studied landscape painting in Italy, the Dee valley with its fertile countryside and ruined castle and abbey forming ideal subject matter for lanscapes in the Italian fashion. Indeed, X-ray analysis of one of his views of Dinas Brân suggests that it was painted over an abandoned landscape of Tivoli. John Ingleby undertook a watercolour of the landscape near Llangollen including both Vale Crucis and Dinas Brân and in 1776 Paul Sandby published Views of North Wales which included one of the Vale of Llangollen from the east showing Dinas Brân.

Despite the influx of visitors, a strong local bardic tradition continued by such native poets as the Denbighshire poet Jonathan Hughes (1721–1805), born at Ty’n-y-pistyll farmhouse, Pengwern, near Llangollen, a competitor in the eisteddfodau organised by the Gwyneddigion Society. Hughes, whose epitaph was written by his friend Twm o’r Nant (Thomas Edwards) published several volumes of poetry both during his lifetime and shortly after his death.

The principal cultural influences upon the area were to come from further afield, however, and despite improvements to the network of turnpike roads some visitors went out of their way to pit themselves against the most arduous and adventurous routes that the area could offer. Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Wales, published in 1783, described the Eglwyseg valley as being ‘adapted only for the travel of the horsemen’, being

long and narrow, bounded on the right by the astonishing precipices, divided into numberless parallel strata of white limestone, often giving birth to vast yew-trees: and on the left, by smooth and verdant hills, bordered by pretty woods. One of the principal of the Glisseg rocks is honoured with the name of Craig-Arthur. That at the end of the vale is called Craig y Forwyn, or maiden’s rock; is bold, precipitous, and terminates with a vast natural column. . . . This valley is chiefly inhabited (happily) by an independent race of warm and wealthy yeomanry, undevoured as yet by the great men of the country.

The hills above Froncysyllte he described as having ‘a prospect uncommonly great. The distant view is boundless. One side impends over a most beautiful valley, watered by the Dee; diversified with groves and bounded towards the end by barren and naked rocks, tier above tier’. The notable houses of the gentry are also first described and praised in these works. Pennant noted that ‘Trevor house makes a handsome appearance’ though the timber-framed hall at Plas yn y Pentre was considered ‘a grotesque antient house, which gives variety to the scenery’. The first descriptions of the settlements of the Vale also appear at this period, Pennant describing Llangollen as

a small and poor town, seated in a most romantic spot, near a pretty common watered by the Dee, which emblematic of its country, runs with great passion through the valley. The mountains soar to a great height above their wooded bases; and one, whose summit is crowned with the ancient castle, Brân, is uncommonly grand. . . . I know of no place in North Wales, where the refined lover of picturesque scenes, the sentimental, or the romantic, can give a fuller indulgence to his inclination. No place abounds more with various rides or solemn walks.

Valle Crucis was to be described as ‘solemnly seated at the foot of the mountains, on a small meadowy flat, watered by a pretty stream, and shaded with hanging woods’ and engraving taken from watercolours of Dinas Brân, Valle Crucis and the Pillar of Eliseg by Moses Griffiths, were to be published in Pennant’s Tour in Wales. A further engraving depicting a view of Valle Crucis and Dinas Brân appeared in Henry Boswell’s Antiquites of England and Wales published in 1786.

Continental travel had become hazardous in the last years of the 18th century because of the French Wars and this was consequently a time when many would-be travellers sought adventures at home rather than attempting the Grand Tour. Numerous publications exploited the needs of this new and growing market. A Map of the Six Counties of North Wales was published in 1795 with engravings by Robert Baugh, which included a view of the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey. An engraving of Llantysilo Hall was published in 1796 and a drawing of the Pillar of Eliseg was made by Thomas Rowlandson in 1797.

CPAT PHOTO 1766-222

Plas Newydd, Llangollen, the former home of the Ladies of Llangollen, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, with Castell Dinas Brân in the distance. Photo: CPAT 1766-222.

The last two decades of the 18th century was to see the Vale fully embraced by the European-wide Romantic Movement. By the 1780s Plas Newydd, then the small stone cottage of Pen y Maes on the southern outskirts of Llangollen, had become the home of two remarkable Irish ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who became known as the Ladies of Llangollen. Living there until their deaths in 1829 and 1831, they played host to an illustrious coterie of friends and acquaintances including members of the local Welsh gentry, as well as national and international figures from the world of art, politics and literature who represented a further generation of cultural tourists to the area. Visitors to Plas Newydd over this period of 40 years or more included such diverse personalities as Arthur Wellesly (later Duke of Wellington), the Duke of Gloucester, Prince Paul Esterhazy (Austrian minister of foreign affairs), Sir Walter Scott, Robert Southey, Josiah Wedgewood, Charles Darwin, Richard Sheridan, and Sir Humphrey Davey. In the grounds of Plas Newydd in 1824, overlooked by the imposing ruins of Dinas Brân, William Wordsworth composed the following lines about the ruined castle,

Through shattered galleries, ’mid roofless halls,
Wandering with timid footsteps oft betrayed,
The Stranger sighs . . .
He was subsequently to describe his visit to the Ladies of Llangollen in a letter to his friend Sir George Beaumont:
Called upon the celebrated Recluses . . . . We drank tea and passed a couple of hours with them in the evening, having visited the aqueduct over the Dee and Chirk Castle in the afternoon. . . . Next day I sent them the following sonnet from Ruthin, which was conceived, and in great measure composed, in their grounds.

Glyn Cafaillgaroch, in the Cambrian tongue,
In ours, the Vale of Friendship, let this spot
Be nam’d; where, faithful to a low roof’d Cot,
On Deva’s banks, ye have abode so long;
Sisters in love, a love allowed to climb,
Ev’n on this earth, above the reach of time!

The allusion to the Vale of Meditation in the above, would recall to the Ladies’ minds, as it was meant to do, their own good-natured jokes of the preceding evening . . .

Anna Seward was a further Romantic poet to visit the Ladies during this period, subsequently composing the following lines, published posthumously in her Llangollen Vale: with other poems:
Say, ivy’d Valle Crucis, time decay’d,
Dim on the brink of Deva’s wandering flood,
Your riv’d arch glimmering thro’ the tangled glade,
Your gay hills, towering o’er your night of wood,
Deep in the vale’s recesses as you stand,
And desolately great the rising sigh command.
The legacy of Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby was to long outlive them. The house was enlarged and elaborate timbering added in the 1880s by a subsequent owner, General John Yorke. Improvements were made to its gardens, including the erection of a summerhouse and ornamental bridges across the Cyflymen stream on whose banks the house was sited. Richard Llewelyn is said to have written How Green Was My Valley at the house in 1924, which was also briefly home to the Welsh National Theatre Company in the 1930s. Today the house and gardens are managed as a tourist attraction.

The Reverend Bingley was to note Plas Newydd on his tour in 1798:

the charming retreat of lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby, which, however, has of late years been probably too much intruded upon by the curiosity of the multitudes of tourists who every summer visit Llangollen. . . . These two females, delighted with the scenery around Llangollen, when it was little known to the rest of the world, sought here a philosophical retirement from the frivolities of fashionable life, erected a dwelling that commands a fine mountain prospect, and have resided here ever since.
Bingley also wrote in 1798 about Castell Dinas Brân and gave a first-hand account of the construction of the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, but was less flattering of the number of visitors to the town of Llangollen: ‘in the summer time I have more than once found it very unpleasant, from the crowd of travellers that are constantly passing on the roads to and from Ireland, and from the number of . . . tourists’.

Britain’s finest landscape painter, J. M. W. Turner, was to be numbered amongst these visitors in about 1798, when he sketched a view of the river Dee with Dinas Brân in the background. In 1808 he made a preliminary sketch of Valle Crucis again with Dinas Brân in the background, which became the subject of a later watercolour, the principal themes of which include one of the central themes of the Romantic art of the period, juxtaposing a shepherdess and labourers making hay in the foreground against the background of the natural scene including the ruins of abbey and castle.

A vociferous campaign against industrialization mounted by a number of prominent local figures in the early years of the 19th century was influential in the long-term conservation of the rural landscape of the Vale of Llangollen. Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby had long campaigned against quarries being opened within view of their windows, and they likewise campaigned against Telford’s Holyhead Road. They also rallied their friends and acquaintances, including members of the local gentry such as the Myddletons, Myttons, Mostyns and Williams Wynns, to oppose the construction of mills within Llangollen, which were considered ‘destructive’. Eleanor Butler wrote to solicit the support of Mr Thomas Jones of Llantysilio Hall, expressing her concern about ‘the peace Health and Morals of the Inhabitants’. According to the newspapers the ladies had threatened to abandon Llangollen:

Lady Eleanor Butler, and her fair friend Miss Ponsonby, who have for so many years been the fair recluses of the Vale of Llangollen in Wales are going to leave their beautiful seat no longer a retreat from the ‘busy hum of men’, by two extensive cotton mills having been erected near their abode.
By the summer of 1804, however, they were comforted by the knowledge that they would be invaded ‘neither by Buonaparte nor the Cotton Mills’. The canal, however, was apparently not included in their campaign against industrialization. Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby were amongst the party of distinguished guests occupying the first barges to cross the Telford’s Pontcysyllte Aqueduct amidst great pomp at the opening ceremony in 1805. Some later visitors such as Richard Fenton and his companion Sir Richard Colt Hoare visiting in 1808 were less approving, and whilst taking a trip along the canal, considered that ‘though it may bring commerce to a Country, yet in a picturesque point of view disfigures it’, though today, of course, the canal is regarded as one of the areas most cherished attractions.

The growth of tourism and cultural life in the 19th and 20th centuries,

Well-heeled and predominantly English tourists continued to flock to the Vale throughout the earlier part of the 19th century. The young physicist, Michael Faraday, visited the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in the second decade of the century, remarking upon the embankment on the southern side of the valley ‘jutting out like a promontory’, and upon its slender stone piers which made it seem ‘light as a cloud’. A visit was made in 1823 by the essayist William Hazlitt who wrote ‘I went to Llangollen Vale, by way of initiating myself in the mysteries of natural scenery; and I must say I was enchanted with it . . . the valley was to me . . . the cradle of a new existence . . . on passing a certain point you come all at once upon the valley, which opens like an amphitheatre, broad and barren hills rising in majestic state on either side, with [quoting Samuel Taylor Coleridge] ‘green upland swells that echo to the bleat of flocks’ below, and the river Dee babbling over its stony bed in the midst of them’.

In 1829 a visit was made by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, who sought refuge from the harpists sitting ‘in the hall of every reputable tavern playing so called fold melodies — that is to say, dreadful, vulgar, out-of-tune, trash with a hurdy-gurdy going on at the same time!’ by venturing into the surrounding countryside:

yesterday afternoon I had already climbed to the top of a high mountain, with the ruins of a Roman citadel [Dinas Brân] at the summit, had looked far out into the blue distance, and down to the dark, lonely valleys below – then climbed right back down into one of these quiet valleys, in which the walls and windows of an old abbey are covered and overgrown with lovely green trees – the abbey is right next to a rushing, babbling brook, mountains and rocky cliffs are spread all around, the choir of the church has been converted into a stable, the altar into a kitchen, above the tops of the gables you can see the tops of the beeches towering in the distance which could be a chapter in themselves
A similar picturesque image of the Vale of Llangollen is given by Samuel Lewis in his Topographical Dictionary published in 1833, setting the scene for a more popular appreciation of the attractions of the district that was to burgeon later in the century:
The situation of Llangollen on the mail coach road from London through Shrewsbury to Holyhead causes it to be enlivened by the daily passage of travellers; and its inhabitants derive considerable advantage from the number of persons who visit it in the summer season, and make this their temporary abode, for the purpose of enjoying the scenery of the neighbourhood, which is equally pre-eminent for its grandeur and sublimity, and for its picturesque and romantic beauty. The parish is very extensive, and the Vale of Llangollen is deservedly celebrated as containing, in proportion to its extent, a greater variety of interesting objects, and a more beautiful and striking combination of the milder and nobler features of pleasing and majestic scenery, than probably any other in the principality.
The dramatic outcrops of Vale of Llangollen became a source of geological wonder and speculation from at least the mid 18th century onwards. Thomas Pennant in his Tour of Wales published in 1783 writes of the ‘astonishing precipices’ of Eglwyseg ‘divided into numberless parallel strata of white limestone, often giving birth to yew trees’.

Llangollen was the natural starting point for the epic geological transect across north Wales by Professor Adam Sedgwick and Charles Darwin in August 1831. Principally intended to point out the errors in the Geological Map of England and Wales published by George Bellas Greenough in 1820, it also provided Darwin with a grounding in ‘how to make out the geology of a country’, just before setting out on the momentous voyage of the Beagle. The local cultural life of the district was to receive a fillip in the middle of the century, with the National Eisteddfod held in Llangollen in 1858, at which, as noted above, the Silver Crown was won by John Ceiriog Hughes for his now well-known poem Myfanwy Fychan.

The tourist industry was being actively promoted locally from the 1880s, the period between then and the end of the first decade of the 20th century seeing a rapid expansion in hotels, inns and boarding houses in Llangollen. The attractions of the area were detailed in a number of new publications such as Jones’s Picturesque Views of 1880, which enable the improvements that were being made for visitors to be traced. Thus Black’s Picturesque Guide of 1870 noted that the ‘old and mean’ houses which formerly existed in the town were being ‘gradually giving place to modern and more handsome dwellings’. In 1898 travel writer A. G. Bradley was to write of Llangollen, long seen as a blight in the vale: ‘the village has this long time ceased to be the unsophisticated Arcady whose deficiencies – matter nothing – since it is the situation and the surroundings which make it famous’. The ultimate accolade that the writers of the age could give came from John Ruskin who declared that ‘the Dee itself is a quite perfect mountain stream, and the village of Llangollen – one of the most beautiful and delightful in Wales’.

Long-standing attractions had been Castell Dinas Brân and Valle Crucis Abbey, to which canal trips and the picturesque walk to the Horseshoe Falls had been added with the coming of the canal in the early years of the 19th century. New diversions created for tourists in the period up to the first few decades of the 20th were to include the Victoria Promenade along the riverside in Llangollen, a camera obscura and tea-room within the castle ruins on Dinas Brân, and the Panorama Walk, high on the hillside below the Trevor Rocks. The coming of the railway had taken trade away from the canal and enabled the canal to be fully exploited by pleasure boats. Day visitors or weekly boarders arriving by road, rail or on foot across Ruabon Mountain from the industrial towns and cities of north-east Wales and the Midlands. By the end of the 19th century there were so many visitors arriving by train from the Midlands especially that in 1897 the railway platform was extended, and the waiting room at the station enlarged. Additional facilities in Llangollen and the surrounding district were provided to capitalise on increased demand which all had an impact upon the physical aspects of the environment, including shops, tea rooms, hotels and lodging houses. Horse-drawn vehicles and later motor buses were needed to convey visitors to accommodation and excursions to the Horseshoe Falls or Valle Crucis. Queen Victoria was herself to visit the Llangollen in 1889 at perhaps the height of the Victorian tourist trade, recording in her diary the visit she made to the Martins of Bryntysilio in its pleasure grounds overlooking the Horseshoe Falls:

drove up the beautiful wooded, mountain-girt, deep valley, dotted with villas and cottages, to Bryntysilio, the well-known residence of Sir Theodore Martin, who with Lady Martin received us as the door. The place is beautifully situated, and the house is furnished and arranged with the greatest taste. They showed us all their rooms and his study, with the table at which he wrote dearest Albert’s life. Had tea in the Drawing-room, during which a selected number of Llangollen choirs sang Welsh songs, in the pretty sloping garden. It is wonderful how well these choirs sing, being composed merely of shopkeepers and flannel weavers.
Literary associations in the early decades of the 20th century were to be maintained by John Cowper Powys whose Owen Glendower, published in 1940, was partly written in the ruins of Valle Crucis. Its early chapters are set in and around Dinas Brân, which is seen through the eyes of Powy’s young hero, Master Rhisiart:
There it was! There before him, towering up beneath a great bank of white clouds and against a jagged ridge of bare desolate rock, rose the castle of his imagination.

For some minutes he remained spell-bound, absolutely caught out of himself, lost to everything but that majestic sight. It was not less, it was more than the picture he had in mind.

All ramparts ever built, all towers, all fortresses, all castles, seemed to him mere clumsy reproductions of the ideal perfection of Dinas Brân. It wasn’t that it was so large—and he could see clearly, even from this distance, that it was in a battered, broken condition—but it took into itself that whole hill it was built upon! Yes, that was the thing. Dinas Brân was not the stones of its human walls, not the majestic outlines of its towering embattlements, not its soaring arches and turrets and bastions; it was an impregnable mountain called up out of that deep valley by some supernatural mandate. It foundations were sunk in the earth, but they were sunk in more than the earth; they were sunk in that mysterous underworld of beyond-reality whence rise the eternal archetypes of all the refuges and all the sanctuaries of the spirit, untouched by time, inviolable ramparts not built by hands!

The historic landscape area was to become only marginally affected by the Second World War. Various firms were relocated to Llangollen during the war, occupying a number of former mill buildings. Llantysilio Hall became temporarily occupied by a school evacuated from Shropshire and Bryntysilio was occupied by the military. A new minor road was constructed across Ruabon Mountain from Minera to World’s End to improve access, and a pillbox was built for the Home Guard on the Horseshoe Pass. Practically the only active involvement in hostilities came during 1941 when extensive areas of the heather moorland on Ruabon Mountain were set ablaze by enemy bombers and parts of Plas Uchaf were damaged by an incendiary bomb.

The period since the Second World War brought a number of changes which are marked in the physical environment. Llangollen is now widely known for the International Music Festival established in 1947, promoting international peace and today playing host to more than six thousand competitors from over fifty countries taking part in competitions for choirs and dance groups. The festival was first held on the Recreation Ground above the town but subsequently moved to its present permanent site on land formerly belonging to Penddol Farm, and now equipped with new permanent structures. Dylan Thomas described in a radio talk broadcast in 1953, subsequently published in his Quite Early One Morning (1954), the impact of the festival on the town in its early years, describing the way in which it ‘spills colourfully, multilingually and confraternally into the streets of Llangollen and the surrounding countryside’.

The growth of private cars and the closure of the railway line in the 1960s, apart from the stretch now run privately running eastwards for a distance from Llangollen, resulted in an increase in the proportion of day visitors which led to a decline in the trade for boarding houses (many of which were converted to private residences). This in turn gave rise to pressures for the creation of car-parks in the town, including one which now occupies the former livestock market in the centre of the town.

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