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The Original Maid of Sker

The original Maid of Sker, wooed by a penniless harpist

I am sure many students of literature will be familiar with the romantic novel by RD Blackmore called ‘The Maid of Sker’. You may or may not also be aware that the author grew up in the village of Nottage near Porthcawl. It is Sker house at the end of the dunes in Kenfig that was his inspiration for the story. The name of his novel, however, was borrowed from a much older Welsh legend from a book called Y Ferch o’r Scer, which was translated into English by William Davies of Neath in 1806.

It is claimed that the story originated from an air composed by a local harpist by the name of Thomas Evans. As is the usual way, the story has been further embellished by subsequent retellings and whether it is entirely true is disputed, not least by the family it is about. The characters themselves however are indisputably real.

Isaac Williams of Sker had two daughters. The youngest, Elizabeth, was tall, beautiful, and elegant, and she loved to dance. She lived for the annual Mabsant (festival of the saint). One of the traditions of the Mabsant was that a harpist would be brought in to play throughout the night for the younger members of the community to dance until dawn.

One especially popular harpist was Thomas Evans of the parish of Newton and Nottage, the man credited with writing the song that this legend is based on. The sight of the beautiful Elizabeth Williams, dancing so elegantly through the night, caught his eye and quickened his pulse. He was utterly transfixed with her, and to his joy she made it obvious that his attraction was reciprocated. By the time the sun rose in the morning they were lovers.

When Isaac Williams got wind of this courtship, he was furious. After all, he was a gentleman farmer and lord of the manor, and Thomas Evans was a mere carpenter. He could not possibly be considered a worthy suitor for his daughter, no matter how good a harpist he was. Undeterred, Evans hired a horse and carriage and rode out to Sker House at night, in the hope that he could persuade Elizabeth to elope with him. But his plan was scuppered when he woke the dogs, who started barking and gave the game away. In response Isaac refused to let Elizabeth leave the house, and she was kept a prisoner in her room under lock and key until she was married off to Mr Kirkhouse of Neath.

She never got on with the husband that had been forced on her, and always begrudged him and her father for breaking her heart. She never forgot about her first true love and sought him out wherever there was a Mabsant in the area. She would always find a way to contrive to meet him in secret. On one occasion they were even caught together by her husband.

Eventually she could not take the pain of being without her true love anymore and died of a broken heart. She was buried 6th January 1776 in Llansamlet. Thomas Evans pined for her for so long that he did not take a wife until he had turned fifty. He died in 1819 and is buried in Newton churchyard.

There are obvious parallels between this story and the far more famous one about ‘The Maid of Cefn Ydfa’. May be the Welsh bards liked telling stories about the beautiful daughters of wealthy families falling head over heals in love with penniless bards.

This item is an exert from my book Legends and Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale. Available to buy here.

You may be interested to know that my blogs are published in The Glamorgan Star newspaper.

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The quirky family of Cadoc

No matter how embarrassing your father may have appeared to be when you were growing up, compared to St Cadoc, you had it easy. ‘Who is St Cadoc?’ you may be asking. I am sure you have noticed the many references to ‘Cadoc’ or ’Cadog’ around South Wales. In the names of churches, streets, wells, houses, schools, community centres and hospitals. To say nothing of the village of Cadoxton.

Historically, he was one of the most revered saints in the early Christian church. It gives you an idea how significant a figure he was when you consider that he was born in the latter quarter of the fifth century. Over 1,500 years ago. And we are still naming things after him today.

The life of St Cadoc is recorded in the ancient works of the Cambro British Saints. His story is the first ever to reference the now legendary King Arthur ‘the Great’ of Camelot. Amongst his achievements are the founding of the ‘Clas’ monastery at Llancarfan near Cowbridge as well as many churches throughout Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and Brittany. He also managed to fit in time for the odd miracle. Even as a baby it is claimed that he made the water in the font he was baptised in turn into milk.

All these achievements, however, were in spite of a really dysfunctional upbringing. It was so weird, it wouldn’t look out of place in a Channel 5 documentary

First of all, he was not the only saint in the family. Pretty well his whole family were saints. Then you have his father. All I can say is, I think the bar for sainthood must have been set low back then.

He was a brute, a drunkard, and a pirate. And randomly; a king. He was called Gwynllyw although somehow that got Anglicised in later history to Woolos. He is credited with being the founding father of the city of Newport and the cathedral there is dedicated to him to this day. He fell head over heels in love with Gwladys, the daughter of King Brychan (later Anglicised to Brecon). He wanted to marry her, but Brychan refused him. So Gwynllyw took an army of 300 men to knock on his castle gates and kidnapped her.

His passion for her never seemed to faulter, even in old age. There is an account that in later life after being converted to Christianity by his son; Cadoc, he tried to seek a prayerful retreat on a desolate mountain. His endeavours however would perpetually fail as he could not overcome his carnal urges towards her and could not help himself from continually running back down the mountain to her bed.

If you thought he made a rotten husband, he was hardly parent of the month either. There is also a story that one day, he gave his infant son: St Cadoc away to a total stranger in exchange for a cow while out on a drinking spree. We’ve all done it. Oh no. Hold on, we haven’t, have we?

But against all the odds, Cadoc grew up to be a cornerstone of early Christian mission in northern Europe and became famous across the known world for his wisdom. In the modern Catholic church, he is still patron saint of burns and skin complaints, so he is the one to pray to if you are bothered by such things. His father is patron saint of Newport and pirates. No words needed.

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The murder of Colyn Dolphin at Tresilian Bay

One of my favourite bits of folklore from the St Donats end of the Vale of Glamorgan is a tale of how a disgruntled aristocrat had his revenge on a pirate on a beach near Llantwit Major.

A notorious seventeenth century pirate from Brittany in Northern France who was the scourge of merchant ships in the Bristol Channel went by the name of Colyn Dolphin. But his greatest haul was not silver of gold, it was when he kidnapped Harry Stradling, son of Sir Edward Stradling of St Donats Castle.

The riches he gained for the ransom lay heavy in his pocket until the day came when Stradling got his revenge at Tresilian Bay between St Donats and Llantwit Major. He buried the pirate up to his neck in sand and forced him to watch his crew hang from the gallows in front of him. Then the final horror as the incoming tide finally engulfed him as he lay powerless in the sands at the mouth of Reynolds Cave.

Watch the video on the link below for the full story. 👇

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Two sunny days and a light breeze please

In the 1700s if you wanted to be sure of some good weather for the weekend, there were people from whom you could buy it! And according to some new research, Barry was full of them.

Most people back then, sailors and sea farers in particular, were extremely superstitious. This played into the hands of a small group of people who you might either call ‘enterprising’ or ‘unscrupulous’ depending on your own moral compass.

They would ‘sell’ weather and I have found records of three such people who operated in the Barry and eastern Vale area in the eighteenth century. 

The first was called ‘Modryb Sina’ (which means Aunty Sina). She lived somewhere in the parish of Cadoxton. If you sailed out of Lavernock or Sully, for a fee, she would sell you ‘a fair wind’. Enough to fill your sails and give your vessel speed on the waves, but not enough to put you in danger. It seems that she peddled her wares for over 20 years so she must have been good.

But she obviously was not quite as good as another chap who lived on Barry Island called ‘Ewythr Dewi’ (or Uncle David). He not only sold weather to local sailors but was known to travel as far a field as Swansea as his ‘fair weather’ was in such demand. His reputation for doing a good line in weather was impeccable amongst the superstitious sailors of the Welsh ports on the Bristol Channel. 

Both of these people lived and worked in Welsh speaking parts of the Vale, and therefore catered for Welsh speaking sailors. But what if you were an English speaking sailor? Have no fear, you were catered for by another local man going by the name of ‘Bill O’Breaksea’ who offered a similar service in Aberthaw (which was an English speaking part of the Vale). However, we cannot be sure when he operated as records of him are more sketchy. Chances are it was around the same point in history or slightly earlier, when Aberthaw was having its boom years, trading with the merchants of Minehead and providing the people of Bristol with their supply of butter.

There is also folklore of wives who had grown weary of drunken, slothful or abusive husbands going to these people to pay for a good storm the next time they put to sea. To rid themselves of them once and for all. Probably cheaper than a divorce. Like I said, depending on your moral compass.

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History of Sully Island and the Captains Wife

I am delighted to be giving these history talks to the people taking part on the ’10 Days in May’ walking festival in the Vale of Glamorgan. Today I met the walkers outside the Captains Wife pub in Sully to tell them about the area and shot a video of it.

In this one I cover the ancient settlements which once stood on Sully Island and how it was used by smugglers in later history. Then the thorny issue of how the pub got its name and something about the nature of folklore which you might just find interesting.

Click on the link below to play.

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The Winch of Cardiff

The ‘Winch’ – is not a misspelling of ‘witch’, nor is it anything to do with the sort of winch you might use to raise a heavy object. It was a character in Welsh folklore similar to the sirens in ancient Greek mythology.

They were alluring temptresses that lived in or near water and would entice their unsuspecting male victims to their deaths while under their spell.

There is a legend of a ‘winch’ which lived by the whirlpool in the river Taff in Cardiff which local people used to believe was fathomless.

This winch would bathe near youthful men who were fishing or swimming in the river. As they swum out to her they would be caught in the swirling water and dragged to their deaths.

A teller of this tale to a nineteenth century traveller in south Wales described this winch as ‘the devil in disguise’. She said of the whirlpool “it reaches from the Taff to the mouth of perdition, where Satan waits for the souls who are beguiled by the lovely lady”.

There was another legend about this whirlpool. That in its cavernous depths a serpent lived, who would gorge itself on unfortunate victims sucked in to it. If ever someone floated to the surface after being sucked into the whirlpool (either alive or dead) it was believed that they were virtuous as the serpent would not touch those blessed by God.

I remember the whirlpool but I’m pretty confident it’s now gone – the victim of flood prevention engineering and the flooded bay.

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‘I want to suck your gwaed’

It’s not a phenomenon normally associated with Welsh folklore, but while researching for a new book I have recently come across a series of articles which amount to Vampire stories set in south Wales. They are set in the eighteenth century but were written in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

This was a time when ‘gothic’ themes were very fashionable in Britain. Writers like Arthur Machen, the man from Caerleon credited with coming up with the ‘Angel of Mons’ story when he was a journalist during World War I, were enormously popular. And ‘Welsh Gothic’ in particular was all the rage as the recent discovery of the lost manuscripts of the Mabinogion had put our dragons and beasts and wizards at centre stage globally.

The stories about our vampires are quite unique compared to similar stories from elsewhere at that time. There is also a very definite theme with them.

When you think of more famous vampire stories like ‘Count Dracula’ and ‘Nosferatu’, the story is very much about a visible phenomenon. A character with a personality, with a back story and a physical presence. In the Welsh tradition, vampires are not seen, and little is known about who they are (or were). They are also, generally connected to an inanimate object such as an item of furniture, rather than able to wander wherever they like under the cover of darkness. They also do not appear to be put off by crosses and religious paraphernalia.

The following account is fairly typical of the genre and was first published by Marie Trevelyan in 1909.

A large, old farmhouse, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons was taken over by new tenants. They discovered that some old furniture belonging to the previous occupants still filled many of the rooms. This was not really a problem to them as they did not generally use these rooms. But they were dusted down, and a fire lit in the hearth when a pious minister was due to stay as a weekend guest. He was going to be preaching at the local chapel that Sunday.

He arrived on the Friday night quite exhausted from his journey and retired to his chamber early where he sat in an armchair by the window and read from his bible before falling asleep. Through the night he was tormented by bad dreams and when he woke, he spotted that a wound on the back of his hand was bleeding. He wrapped it with a handkerchief and commented to the lady of the house over breakfast that there may be a couple of nails in the armchair that need attention and he showed her his wounds.

She was quite shocked as a previous visitor who had stayed in that room had complained of the same thing, so she had already had the armchair overhauled by an upholsterer. She went to the room and checked the chair over herself but could find nothing that could have caused the minister’s wounds.

The following evening the minister once again fell asleep in the armchair after spending some hours reading his bible. He was awoken by a feeling which he described as being “as if being gnawed at by a dog”. He had a pain which ran down the whole left-hand side of his body and he felt so weak that he struggled to get to his feet and strike a light. When he finally did, he lifted his shirt to see wounds across his rib cage like those he had seen on the back of his hand. All of them oozing with blood.

On Sunday morning as the congregation were leaving chapel the minister was introduced to the landlady who owned the farmhouse. He said to her ‘Madam, you may or may not know it, but I believe a vampire frequents your house. The dead man who owned the furniture comes to suck the blood from intruders and is probably not pleasantly disposed towards ministers of the Gospels.’ To which she replied, ‘It has happened to two ministers before you’.

An exorcism was said and when the minister departed the house, he declared that the malignant spirit had been put to rest. But in 1850, a dignitary of the Church of England stayed at the house and reported the same unpleasant experience and could show similar wounds on his left hand, arm, and leg.

I’m no expert on these matters, but surely, just get rid of the chair?

Graham Loveluck-Edwards is an historian and author of ‘Legends & Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale’ and ‘Historic pubs of Wales’. Available at Amazon and all good independent book shops or at http://grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk.

View his videos on local history by visiting his YouTube channel at https://youtube.com/user/GrahamLoveluck