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From alms to ales – A potted history of the oldest pub in Swansea.

Thanks to the combined efforts of the Victorians and the Luftwaffe, most of the old inns in Swansea city centre are gone for ever, but the Cross Keys (pictured above in 1880, 1926 and now) has survived them all and has antiquity by the spade full.

The name is a nod to the legend that St Peter held the keys to the gates of heaven. A clue to its godly past. The building it self was built by Bishop Henry de Gower (Bishop of St Davids) in 1330, not as an inn but an almshouse and early hospital annexed to a monastic cell. The charter of 1332 says that it was established for ‘the support of other poor chaplains and laymen deprived of bodily health.’ It was not only there to look after people taken ill or injured, but to support the destitute, poor and starving.

The institution must have had some significant patronage, as it survived right up until the Reformation and the dissolution of monasteries in 1536. It was then confiscated by the Crown and sold to Sir George Herbert, who was a very powerful and rather unscrupulous man, descended from a family of ‘Marcher’ lords. And to make matters worse, he was from Cardiff.

He was a man of very different moral fibre to Henry de Gower, and as there was no money to be made from feeding the starving or tending to the sick, he closed down the hospital and almshouse and broke the estate up, turning the old buildings into shops and an inn. Later all the other buildings were demolished, but the inn thrived.

By the beginning of the twentieth century the pub was very dilapidated and run down. and its origins had largely been forgotten, so it was a very brave undertaking to get it all restored and renovated. But when the rendering got stripped away, to the delight of the owner who oversaw the work, a lot of the original features, like the stone arched windows and medieval timber, were re-discovered. The two bays on the St Mary Street side were added onto the original building in the seventeenth century, and it is believed that when they were built, they contained two narrow shops separated by a passageway which ran to the back of the building.

Inside there are some lovely features. The massive ceiling beams tell a story of all the walls and partitions that have been added and taken away in the last 700 years, and there are fragments of medieval roof trusses on either side of a small seating area in the lounge.

The layout of the pub today suggests that this part of the original building had two uses. The old hall would have been located on the first floor, which would have been a cleric’s living accommodation. Meanwhile below would have been part of the old hospital, possibly a ward.

This exert is taken from a new book, out now, called “Historic Pubs of Wales” by welsh author and historian; Graham Loveluck-Edwards and published by Candy Jar Books. It charts the history, folklore and incredible stories that are tied up in 89 historic pubs from all over Wales. Everything from royal patronage and assassination attempts to ghosts and priest holes. Even one which claims to have an elephant buried under the beer garden. It is available from good, independent book shops, WH Smiths, Amazon or direct from the author at a discounted price at http://grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk.

A crowd of regulars outside the Cross Keys in Swansea in 1880. Historic pubs of Wales.

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The Welsh festival that became Halloween

Samhain, the festival that led to Halloween started in countries like Wales.
Samhain in full swing somewhere near Llanharry

How on earth has Halloween managed to morph into some innocent, child friendly celebration day? Where kids dress up as pumpkins, collecting bowls of sweets from random strangers? It started out in the Celtic nations as the single darkest and most ominous day of the year for thousands of years.

Originally it was a pagan fire festival called Samhain. It was held at the midpoint between the autumn equinox and the winter solstice and marked the end of the plentiful months of sunlight and harvest and the beginning of the dark season. Where it gets dark however, is because the Celts believed passionately that this was the most dangerous time of year as the usual barriers that existed to keep the spirit world and mortal world separate would break down leaving the people of the world vulnerable to hauntings and possession and attacks by malevolent demons. Some even heralded it as the likely point of the end of the world – with only the year it would happen an uncertainty. This was not a mild threat. They were absolutely terrified by this possibility and it called for a mammoth, co-ordinated effort to keep themselves safe.

To empower themselves against this annual threat they would light huge bonfires with a wheel (symbol of the sun) which would maintain a bright light for as long as possible (but a minimum of 3 days). They would dress up in costumes to make themselves look as terrifying as possible and dance around the fires. This was to try and scare away their adversaries. They would also sacrifice bulls and cocks and leave the sacrifices on burial mounds as gifts for their dead ancestors. The idea was, if there was going to be a war with invading malevolent ghosts, demons and spirits, they wanted to make sure that their own ancestors would fight on their side, to ensure the evil spirits were vanquished.

They took this ceremony very seriously. Everyone had to participate in it. There was an agreement between tribes that any who were at war had to suspend hostilities during the Samhain and put their differences aside until the end of the festival to make sure nothing got in the way of everyone’s involvement. Failure to take part was punishable by death.

At the end of the 3 days ceremony, if everyone was alive and not possessed by spirits, it was clear that the alliance between the living and the dead had once again been victorious over the spirit world. So, it would be followed by a great celebration for a further 6 days. It featured a great feast where places were set for both the living and the dead combatants. Women folk would chatter into the air, to bring the dead up to date with everything that had happened through the year and a lot of merriment would take place. All to celebrate having survived the threat of invasion by the spirit world.

There were regional variants. One that always amuses me is that our ancestors here in Wales did not think that the festivities above were anywhere near mad enough. So here in South Wales it was customary for young men to hurl burning logs at each others heads in a game of ‘chicken’.

This festival was a really big deal to the pagan Welsh. Something that was massively underestimated when Christianity came along. The church wanted to stamp out all pagan practices which could not be re-branded as Christian. It was hard to see a way of making Samhain into something that was Christian friendly so they attempted to bring this practise to an end. Unsuccessfully. So, rebrand was needed. Pope Boniface in the fifth century tried the idea of a festival in May where bonfires would be lit in homage and as a celebration of saints and martyrs. But he had seriously underestimated how terrified the masses descended from the ancient Britons were of invasion by the spirit world at the end of October, so the practise continued in spite of the papal decree. Then in the ninth century (so no rush then? Only took 400 years) Pope Gregory moved “All Saints Day” (known in old English as All Hallows Day) to 1st November. The name “Halloween” comes from “All Hallows Eve”, or the day before all Saint’s Day. He also made “All Souls Day” (the day when Christians leave offerings on the graves of our dead ancestors) the day after the old Samhain; on 2nd November.

Common people found this a bit easier to swallow but it still continued to be a day marked by burning bonfires for centuries to follow. Eventually the bonfire got moved a week, supposedly to commemorate the foiling of the gun powder plot to blow up parliament. We still run with that idea today in the UK. But both bonfire night and Halloween are just continuations of Samhain in one way or another.

What amazes me though is the scale of the Halloween festival we have today. People in America spend more money on decorations and costumes at Halloween than at any other time of year besides Christmas. It has become massive. Yet I can say with hand on heart, in the UK even as recently as the 1980s it just wasn’t a thing. Bobbing for apples was about as far as it went.

by Graham Loveluck-Edwards.

About: Graham Loveluck-Edwards is a historian and author who writes regular columns in the Buddy Magazine and The Glamorgan Star newspaper. He has also published books about the history, myths, legends and folklore of Wales. They include Legends and folklore of Bridgend and the Vale and Historic pubs of Wales. Available on Amazon (in the UK and Europe) and all good UK based bookshops. They can also be bought direct from the author’s website (at a discounted price) at http://grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk with shipping available worldwide

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“Historic Pubs of Wales” by Graham Loveluck-Edwards reviewed by the South Wales Argus.

An AUTHOR has published a book telling the historic tales of 89 pubs across Wales – including Newport, Caerphilly, and several cross Gwent. 

Graham Loveluck-Edwards has announced the release of his new book ‘Historic Pubs of Wales’ where he relishes in some of the more colourful myths, legends and stories from Wales’ ancient past and oldest pubs. 

Included in the book is an entire chapter dedicated to Gwent, titled ‘Monmouthshire and the ancient kingdom of Gwent’ which includes pubs such as The Hanbury Arms in Caerleon, The Murenger House in Newport, The Robin Hood Inn in Monmouth and several more.

“For example, the pub which claims to have an elephant buried under its beer garden, or the pub where funeral parties take a short cut to the cemetery through the bar to keep an ancient right of access alive, or the pub that claims to have invented pancake day and so many more. 

“In all, I’ve compiled over 100 incredible stories based around 89 amazing old pubs – is there any truth to them?

“Some for sure, but this book captures them and puts them in the context of history so you can be the judge.”

The book also contains a travel guide so readers can go on a tour around Wales and visit all the pubs in the book.

You can find out more at www.talesfromhistoricpubsofwales.co.uk.  

“As you can imagine for such a book the research was relentless and thorough, and a lot of fun,” he added.

“Pubs have had such a tough time in the last year with us going in and out of lockdowns and with the introduction of social distancing measures. 

“Sixteenth century inns are usually a warren of tiny rooms so being two metres apart has made opening and trading near impossible for many. 

“So, a book which celebrates all that is great about our old pubs, which tells people their history, where to find them and what to expect when you get there has been welcomed by all landlords.”

Link to live item: https://www.southwalesargus.co.uk/news/19581611.vale-author-details-history-newport-pubs-new-book/