Discovering Welsh legends in south west Wales
Watching the mist swirling in the mountains, listening to the sea crashing by the coast and the silence of the remote valleys, Wales seems a natural home for myths and magic, for legendary heroes and fairy folk, for tall tales and spellbinding epics.
So it’s no surprise how important the bards were, as tellers and creators of stories, keeping history and traditions alive. As the country celebrates the ‘year of legends’ this year, we headed along the south coast to far western Wales to discover a few Welsh legends for ourselves.
Are you sitting comfortably? Then I shall begin. Once upon a time – or rather, Amser maith yn ôl*…
1. Afan, Neath Port Talbot
Once… there was a young girl called Elen, who lived on a farm at the mouth of the River Afan. There she met the King of the Hill, disguised as a goblin, who showed her his kingdom’s treasure. The king offered her whatever treasures she wanted from his land, as long as she never told anyone of their meeting. But while Elen took the gold, she didn’t keep her promise and the treasure vanished – and Elen never saw the King of the Hill again.
Now… the trees towering above the Afan Valley once went to the nearby mines; today they overshadow the cycle routes of Afan Forest Park, including ones to test your mountain bike skills to the full. Fortunately ours was a lot gentler than some of the more adrenaline-fuelled trails, and after coaxing Minnie into a child seat on the back of the bike, managing not to tip either of us onto the ground (just about), we pedalled off with our guide to discover a bit more about the area.
After coasting past the bike skills area designed for kids, we headed down towards the riverside path listening to the water and birdsong, passing horses and a couple of contented dogs. Any supernatural royalty was keeping its distance, so we contented ourselves with lunch at Afan Lodge.
Minnie checked out the toys in one corner, I devoured my chicken burger and discovered another tale of a rather more flesh and blood legend, Richard Burton. Once the Miners’ Institute, it was the first place he performed.
2. The Gower peninsula, Swansea Bay
Once… King Arthur was travelling through Carmarthenshire, when he found a stone in his shoe. Taking it out, he threw it out across the water to Cefn Bryn where it landed, magically growing in size along the way. The surrounding stones, in admiration that it had been touched by the hand of Arthur, raised it high. To this day, the ghost of Arthur can be seen riding a white horse along the remains of a stone pathway.
Now… the first written references to King Arthur were in Welsh (before French and English poets added to the tales), and you’ll find links to the once and future king across the country, not least three different lakes in Snowdonia which are supposed to contain Excalibur, the site of Camelot at Caerleon and two possible locations for his burial – including the hill where he sits and waits to save the country from danger once again.
There’s a rather more prosaic explanation for Maen Ceti, or Arthur’s Stone, in the heart of the Gower Peninsula. But it’s equally fascinating: the site of a Neolithic burial tomb dating back to 2500BC, it was once considered as important as Stonehenge – and with the bonus legend that the stone is thirsty, occasionally moving to a nearby stream for a drink. Offer it a special barley, honey and milk cake, circle it on your hands and knees three times and you can also discover whether the man you love will be faithful to you.
We didn’t try that (it was raining and I hadn’t packed any barley) but it’s a beautiful part of the countryside to explore. Stopping at the King Arthur Hotel nearby for lunch, we made up our own tales inspired by the legends, based on our morning’s exploration of Rhossili Beach – and happily tucked in to the delicious food on the menu.
Once… as a young boy, Merlin loved to sit under one particular oak tree, not far from the Priory where his mother was a nun. Until one day, a friend told him that his tree was destined to be chopped down. Infuriated, he put a spell on the oak and announced, ‘When Merlin’s tree shall tumble down, then shall fall Carmarthen Town’.
Now… Home to the greatest wizard of history, tales of Merlin are woven throughout Carmarthenshire – he also reputedly sleeps under a hill just outside Carmarthen awaiting the hour of need, or possibly imprisoned by his sorceress lover. In the town itself, you can still see the remains of the amphitheatre where his wisdom was first spotted, resulting in him being brought before Vortigern, King of the Britons, and unleashing two warring dragons from under his fort. The red one won…
And on Priory Street, Merlin’s oak endured for centuries (or was possibly planted in the 17th century) despite apparently being poisoned in the 19th century. Eventually, by the 70s it was dying and dangerous and the decision was taken to chop it down. When terrible floods struck nine years later, the legend was remembered.
Today, two pieces of the original tree remain: one in the County Museum at Abergwili, the other in the Civic Hall (which you can pop in and see, along with the remains of the castle nearby, including an old dungeon and interactive display on Carmarthen’s history). Head to Priory Street and there’s a new wooden carving of Merlin in the middle of the shops.
For another very real Welsh legendary hero, head to the coast nearby to Llansteffan, where the castle was briefly taken by Owain Glyndwr during his rebellion against the English kings. There’s a virtual reality experience planned in the ruins to celebrate the year of legends too. And don’t miss what turned out to be one of our most legendary meals of the trip, at nearby Mansion House which managed impressive gourmet style and to be child-friendly at the same time.
4. St David’s, Pembrokeshire
Once… as a fierce thunderstorm raged on the coast, St Non, niece of King Arthur gave birth on the cliffs to a boy named David. An unearthly light illuminated the scene, the storm turned to calm, and a spring of clear water burst forth. Going on to become Bishop and later St David, or Dewi Sant, he is said to have lived to the age of 147, vanquishing a monster and performing miracles along the way.
Now… One of my favourite parts of Wales, Pembrokeshire has its own share of legends – our cottage was not far from Ffynone Waterfall, reputed to be the entrance to Annwn, the Celtic Underworld. Bedd Arthur, meanwhile, is another reputed resting place of King Arthur, while there’s a memorial to another more recent legend, Barti Ddu or Black Bart in Little Newcastle near Fishguard. The Welsh King of the Pirates is mentioned in Treasure Island and has his own exhibit at Tenby’s museum.
It was the first time I had visited the UK’s smallest city, St Davids, where the saint’s shrine still lies within the cathedral, not far from his reputed birthplace. Restored using traditional techniques and rededicated in 2012. the golden icons are beautiful and it’s still a site of pilgrimage. In the Treasury are some of the cathedral’s surviving treasures, including books and bishop’s regalia, the oldest dating back to the 13th century.
Behind the cathedral lies the ruins of the Bishop’s Palace, which must have vied with its neighbour in sheer Gothic impressiveness when it was still intact. Check out the exhibitions at Oriel Y Parc gallery at the other end of the tiny city (population less then 2,000).
To discover more Welsh legends, you can follow the ‘Legends’ cycle trail across South West Wales, through Neath Port Talbot, Carmarthenshire, Swansea Bay and Pembrokeshire including downloadable guides, as well as a separate ‘Tombstones’ trail.
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Disclosure: My trip to Wales was courtesy of the tourist boards for Carmarthenshire, Swansea Bay, Pembrokeshire, and Neath and Port Talbot. All opinions, edited legends and somewhat rainy photos remain my own.
*With thanks to Cathryn from Cardiff Mummy Says for help with the translation
Images: Arthur’s Stone courtesy of johnmorris/Flickr; all others copyright MummyTravelsLIKED THIS? FOLLOW ME ON BLOGLOVIN