Wales is a small land with big stories to tell. 2017 is our Year of Legends. A chance to peel back layer upon layer of glorious myths and fantastical tales. Legends which have travelled through the mists of time to make any modern day journey to Wales as enchanting as it is curious.
We’re a Celtic nation. Celts love a good story. What better way to set the scene than our dramatic landscapes. Our beautiful countryside and rugged coastline have inspired countless folk tales from the stories of the Mabinogion to the mystical Merlin.
It’s all very well telling you about our legends, but there’s no substitute for getting out and about and to experience the environment which inspired them all in the first place.
Start your day in a small village called Llangernyw, near Conwy.
None of us want to know our fate in advance, but according to legend the souls of Llangernyw, in north Wales, waited to hear if they were to depart this mortal coil thanks to a strange supernatural being – Angelystor – residing within a 3,000-year-old yew tree. One thing’s for sure, the churchyard does indeed contain the oldest living thing in Wales - a yew tree believed to date back to the Bronze Age. If you believe the tale then each year on Hallowe'en and 31 July the Angelystor appears to solemnly announce, in Welsh, the names of those parish members who will die shortly after.
Head to Conwy Castle.
Built for Edward I, by Master James of St George, the castle is amongst the finest surviving medieval fortifications in Britain. In a word, exceptional. You can’t fault it, from the grandeur of its high towers and curtain walls to its excellent state of preservation. An estimated £15,000 was spent building the castle, the largest sum Edward spent in such a short time on any of his Welsh castles between 1277 and 1307. For those with a taste for the supernatural then there are legends of a number of ghostly figures roaming the castle, from a haunting monk to a soldier in full medieval armour.
Head towards the foothills of Mount Snowdon in Llanberis. There are a number of routes to the top. Either take one of the 6 official walking trails to the top – allow a good 6 hours to get to the summit and back - or take the less energetic 2½ hour route aboard the Snowdon Mountain Railway - the UK’s only rack and pinion railway.
You’ve heard of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, but what about Wales’ own fabled lake monster from Welsh mythology? Take a trip to the summit of Snowdon and you might just catch a glimpse of something unusual down in the depths below. At 1,970 feet above sea level, Llyn Glaslyn is one of the glacial lakes of Yr Wyddfa (Mount Snowdon). As one of Wales’ highest and remotest of lakes it may come as no surprise that it has its own legend. The most famous being the Afanc, described as something akin to a crocodile, beaver, dragon or demon. It was once said to reside in a pool in nearby Betws-y-Coed but kept flooding the area as it thrashed about. It was decided to relocate it to another lake out of the way. They used a local girl as the bait, and made her sing near the lake. When the Afanc approached the girl, the local villagers captured it and removed it to Llyn Ffynnon Las (Lake of the Blue Fountain (which is now called Llyn Glaslyn)) using a pair of oxen to move the monster.
In the 1930’s, an eyewitness Oliver Vaughan, was walking with a friend up the slopes of Mount Snowdon. They spotted a grey line appear in the lake and thought it to be a creature rising to the surface. Mr Vaughan said it was not an otter or anything else he was familiar with. If you see anything out of the ordinary then let us know!
The legendary King Arthur is also associated with Mount Snowdon. It was here he reputedly killed the mountain’s most famous resident - Rhitta, a fearsome giant who created a cape for himself out of the beards of his enemies. His corpse was covered in huge stones by Arthur’s men at the summit of the mountain.
Approximate distance : 34 miles / 55km
Approximate travelling time : 60mins
Overnight suggestion : Llanberis
Head for Beddgelert (Gelert’s Grave).
Home to one of Wales’ lasting, if somewhat tragic, tales. The sad fate of Gelert, Prince Llywelyn of Gwynedd's favourite dog. The legend tells of Llywelyn leaving his baby son with a nurse and a servant to go hunting with his wife and Gelert. The nurse and servant went for a walk leaving the baby unprotected. After some time Gelert is nowhere to be seen. Llewelyn heads home to be greeted by Gelert covered in blood. Llewelyn rushes in to find the cradle overturned, the bloodstained bedclothes thrown all over the floor, and no sign of his son.
Filled with anger and grief he kills the dog with his sword. As Gelert dies, Llewelyn hears the baby crying. Llewelyn finds his son unharmed and the body of a wolf next to him. Gelert had killed the wolf to save the life of his son. From that day onwards Llewelyn never spoke again and buried Gelert in a meadow nearby.
You can take a short signposted walk alongside the river Glaslyn to see the mound purported to be the grave of Gelert for yourself.
Carry on towards Wales’ north west coast and Harlech Castle.
Here an ill-fated marriage between Welsh and Irish nobility began promisingly enough when 13 'beautiful seemly' ships with 'brave ensigns of brocaded silk' sailed across the Irish Sea. Today, the still-powerful 13th century castle is a World Heritage Site and a state of the art visitor centre has recently opened to transform interpretation at the site. To the south, Dolgellau is overlooked by the mountain of Cader Idris, named after a mythical giant and warrior. If you spend a night on the rocky 'Chair of Idris' legend states you will end up as a poet, madman or a corpse. We recommend you perhaps stay a night at one of the many fine local hotels instead!
You’ve heard about Atlantis, but did you know Wales can lay claim to its own submerged fabled kingdom? Aberdyfi, located at the mouth of the sandy Dyfi Estuary, is linked with the legend of the drowned land of Cantre'r Gwaelod, a kingdom submerged after a great storm. At times, according to local legend, distant chimes can be heard from beneath the waves - the 'Bells of Aberdovey'. Next take a coastal drive to Aberystwyth. Its National Library of Wales contains some of the oldest surviving manuscripts in the Welsh language. There’s no better place to seek out the history of The Mabinogion – some of the earliest examples of literature and written story telling in Britain. Dating from around the 12th and 13th centuries these stories combine love, tragedy, fantasy and humour and are totally unique to Wales. Continue onwards from Aberystwyth - you may like to consider taking the historic Vale of Rheidol steam train - to Devil's Bridge, so-called because of a story in which a crafty old woman outwitted Satan when crossing its ancient bridge.
Approximate distance : 68 miles / 109km
Approximate travelling time : 1hr 50mins
Overnight suggestion : Aberystwyth
Head for Llanddewi Brefi.
Wales is a saintly place. Try Llanddewi Brefi, near Tregaron for starters. This small village is dominated by the Church of St David (Wales's patron saint), which stands on a prominent mound above the houses. Legend tells how the mound rose magically beneath the feet of St David in the 6th century allowing him to be better seen and heard by his audience. Further south, at the Dolaucothi Roman Gold Mines, Pumsaint, there's a stone which bears five indentations said to have been caused when five saints ('pump' is Welsh for five) used it as a communal pillow. While in the area you might like to hear the tale of a notorious local, Twm Sion Cati. Dubbed the Welsh Robin Hood, Twm, real name Thomas Jones, lived in Tregaron from 1530 to 1620.He became a highwayman who robbed the rich, but was reputed to be somewhat of a trickster and a master of deception. However he wasn’t one for killing and would prefer pinning his victims with a well-aimed arrow to their saddles. He hid from the Sheriff of Carmarthen in the wooded slopes of Dinas Hill, close to Rhandirmwyn. His cave is well hidden on the banks of the river Towy in the RSPB sanctuary of Dinas Hill.
Head for Myddfai.
The mysterious healing powers of herbs and flowering plants did not escape the so-called 12th century Physicians of Myddfai. Located deep in the Carmarthenshire countryside the hamlet of Myddfai quickly gained a reputation as the seat of this new knowledge. In about 1177 AD the Welsh prince Lord Rhys (1132 – 1197), ruler of the kingdom known as Deheubarth, took health advice from his own personal physician, Rhiwallon. You can visit the Myddfai visitor centre in the village. Aberglasney Gardens and the National Botanic Garden for Wales are nearby and pay homage to the skills of these Myddfai magicians.
The area is also the setting for many more myths and legends. One such tale is the story of the Lady of the Lake. A farm boy grazing his sheep around the lake of Llyn y Fan Fach saw a beautiful woman emerge from the waters. She immediately prophesied he would become rich and respected if he would agree to marry her but that he would never strike her more than three times. He agreed. For many years the couple prospered. On one occasion he struck his wife as she met him from market. She reminded him of his promises to her. However he hit her twice more. She looked him in the eye and walked into the lake taking every animal with her beneath the cold still waters. The man returned to his farm unable to work the land. His only compensation was his children by his otherworldly wife who grew up to be the Physicians of Myddfai.
Make your way to Carmarthen and Merlin country.
This ancient market town in the south west of the country was the said home of Merlin's Oak. It stood proudly in the centre of town safe thanks to the protective curse put on it by the famed wizard of Arthurian legend. Local tradition said if the oak were ever removed the town would drown. In fact, the tree was poisoned in the 1850s by a local who objected to people holding meetings beneath it, but its trunk was preserved within iron railings. It was then removed from the town when someone set it on fire at the end of the 1970s. Carmarthen then suffered its worst floods for many years. Make of that what you will!
Approximate distance : 80 miles / 128km
Approximate travelling time : 2hr 30mins
Overnight suggestion : Carmarthen