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Ghosts and legends along the Welsh coast

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Phil Carradice Phil Carradice | 11:05 UK time, Friday, 4 May 2012

On 5 May the Wales Coast Path is due to be fully open. It stretches for the complete length of the Welsh coastline, a distance of over 850 miles, and has been several years in the making.

Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey - Christofer Williams

Cemlyn Bay, Anglesey Coast Path (photo: Christofer Williams)

Walkers will be able to enjoy some of the most spectacular scenery in Britain. But spare a thought for some of the myths and legends that proliferate along the Welsh coastline - even the most basic understanding of these will make the journey so much more enjoyable.

There are hundreds of great stories about the coast and the people who lived there, a subtle blending of fact and fiction that has helped mould and create the Welsh society that is enjoyed today. The tales from The Mabinogion are a classic example.

These wonderful stories, passed down by word of mouth, were first translated into English and put down on paper by Lady Charlotte Guest in the 19th century. Many of them are located firmly on the Welsh coast.

The story of Twrch Trwyth

The story of Twrch Trwyth, the king who was transformed into a wild boar with fearsome razors and combs on his head, is just one example. He came ashore, after journeying from Ireland, at Porth Clais, a tiny port that is one of many stops on the path. His warriors - in the shape of warlike pigs - fought with King Arthur and his followers along the length of Milford Haven. There are many other fantasy tales from The Mabinogion about other stretches of the coast.

Ghostly visions at Queensferry

A little known ghost story from the 19th century begins at Queensferry in the north. A new captain had just been appointed to the survey vessel HMS Asp and one evening, hearing raised voices coming from his cabin, he rushed to investigate. There was no-one there. A few days later the figure of a woman was seen standing on one of the ship's paddle boxes, pointing to the heavens. The apparition made several other appearances and many crew members refused to be alone on deck or even stand watch at night.

Finally, having put into the Royal Naval yard at Pembroke Dock for repairs, a sentry on the quayside saw the same woman come down the gangplank and walk towards him. He challenged her and even levelled his rifle and bayonet at her. The woman simply walked right through him and disappeared into the night. The apparition was never seen again.

cardigan bay photo by adrian davies

Cardigan Bay (Photo: Adrian Davies)

Cantre'r Gwaelod

The legend of Cantre'r Gwaelod is well known in Wales. It was a great tract of low lying but rich farmland reaching from north Pembrokeshire to the Llyn Peninsula, nearly 50 miles in length and boasting 16 fine towns. Defended from the sea by sluice gates, the area was inundated when Seithennin, the keeper of the gates, became drunk and forgot to close them.

If you are walking the coastal path around Cardigan Bay on a quiet evening they say that you can still hear the church bells of the towns and, possibly, even catch a glimpse of the drowned houses lying quietly beneath the waves. It is one of the great stories of Wales - narrow your eyes, squint into the setting sun and look out for Cantre'r Gwaelod as you walk the path.

The legend of the Tolaeth

In many coastal areas the legend of the Tolaeth was prevalent for many years. It was, simply, a knocking, rapping or shuffling sound that was heard by country people and fishermen just before a death occurred.

Raven at St Brides

Raven at St Brides (Photo: Duncan Darbishire)

One well-known Tolaeth story concerns a fisherman living on the coast at St Bride's. One night he was woken by noises - shuffling, the moving of chairs and the grunting of men carrying something heavy - coming from downstairs in his house. For three consecutive nights he and his wife heard the sounds but were too frightened to investigate.

After three nights the noises stopped and did not return. Then, three weeks later, their son - also a fisherman - was drowned at sea. That night the sounds came again, exactly as they were first heard, along with the sound of men putting down a great burden like a body. The Tolaeth had come back.

The legend of Gelert the dog

Stories such as the crowning of Prince Edward - the first English-given Prince of Wales - at Caernarfon and the legend of the hound Gelert who defended his master's son against a wolf and was then mistakenly killed by the prince, are well known, even if they are not historically correct. But both are located in positions on or just off the Coast Path and are, anyway, well worth deviating from your route to investigate.

The wreckers' tale

One legend that has survived although its exact location varies - it has been told about places as diverse as Cardigan Bay, Amroth and Ogmore in the Vale of Glamorgan - is the story of an old man and his wife who worked as wreckers on the coast. They would set false lights, lure ships onto the rocks and then plunder the remains.

One night of heavy weather, hearing that a sailing ship was beating in from the west, they set their lights and retired to bed. The ship and most of her crew died on the rocks that night.

The following morning they went down to the beach to pick over the spoils. At the waters edge lay a man, half dead, his body rolling in the waves. There could be no survivors and the old man took a rock and smashed the sailor over the head. When he turned over the body to search his pockets he found his much-loved and only son, a boy who had gone to sea several years before.

The legends of the Welsh coast are many and varied. Books have been written about them and there is no doubt that, if you are aware of just some of the stories, your walk on the new Wales Coast Path will be so much more rewarding and enjoyable.


  • Comment number 1.

    I could be wrong but I've heard that story about the old wrecker and his sailor son down in Cornwall. As you say, it's told about several locations in Wales so it's hard to know if it's true or not. I suppose, in some respects, that's what makes stories like this so fascinating.


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