In pagan times, every waterway, from the smallest mountain spring to the vast estuary of the Severn, had a water spirit or god associated with it. As water is so fundamental to life, in their time these spirits were highly revered. But after Christianity took hold of the people of South Wales, these beliefs waned. In most cases they were either completely forgotten about or reduced to a handful of legends and superstitions.
Belief in the magical properties of the Ogmore, however, were widely held by locals throughout history. Even until the nineteenth century. I must confess that even as a small boy growing up in the 1970s, when I used to walk my dog to the dipping bridge every day after school, I always felt as if the river had some soothing, ethereal quality about it. The river- bank always seemed to be the perfect place to get lost in childhood thought and daydream.
The following tale of local folklore comes to us from a slightly earlier point in history but illustrates how the river has always appeared spiritually significant to the people who lived near it.
In the eighteenth century, long after Ogmore Castle had ceased to be a baronial court, the area around the estuary of the Ogmore became rather desolate and forgotten. Taking advantage of its remoteness, during this rather lawless time, a band of outlaws established their hideout in the area.
Like many bandits in Britain at the time, they were predominantly men who had returned from the wars the British had fought against the French and the Dutch of this period. When they returned home, they found it hard to re-settle into normal society. In particular, they found it hard to find work. So, they made their living as highwaymen, preying on lone travellers and packmen, and salvaging from shipwrecks, with all the skulduggery attendant with that grisly profession.
There is also a possibility that they were associated with kidnapping.
There was a local belief held that a family of water ogres lived in the Skee Well which was the source of water for the village of Ewenny. Legend has it that these ogres would carry off young maidens who lingered too long by the well, imprisoning them in the springs that fed it. Any reports of missing girls would most likely have been blamed on the ogres rather than this bunch of cutthroats, who were, in my opinion, altogether more credible suspects.
One day, the springs which fed all the wells along the Ewenny and Ogmore estuaries ran dry. These were the principal sources of fresh, clean drinking water for both bandits and locals alike. It was claimed that, if you listened at the wells, you could actually hear the springs ‘groan’. At the same time, the principal food source of the area, the fish in the rivers, all disappeared, and instead its waters teemed with venomous snakes and toads.
The local people became convinced that the actions of this merciless band of ruffians had angered the water spirits of the Ogmore, and this was their punishment. So a couple of brave locals approached the leader of the gang to share their concerns. The gang, being just as superstitious, took the advice offered to them and went to the wells to tell the water spirits that they were truly sorry for how they had behaved, and made a vow to change their ways. Within a few days, the springs had responded, and water gushed forth, filling all the wells, and the snakes and toads once again gave way to a bounty of fish in the river.
The bandits, realising the importance of their vow, planted trees around the wells to provide shade for the people who visited them, and gave up their lives of crime, turning instead to honest labour on the land.
Graham Loveluck-Edwards is an historian and author of ‘Legends & Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale’ and ‘Historic pubs of Wales’. Available at http://grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk He also writes regular items for the Buddy magazine and the Glamorgan Star newspaper.
View his videos on the local history of the Bridgend and Vale of Glamorgan areas by visiting his new YouTube channel at youtube.com/user/GrahamLoveluck