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.
It always comes as a surprise to me what a rich tradition of mythical beasts we have here in Glamorgan. We have so many we could give the ancient Greeks a good run for their money. And what is more, many are unique to this area and in many cases were believed to be genuine phenomena right up until the 20th century. Especially in more remote, rural areas in the Vale of Glamorgan.
For example, we have our own, indigenous race of goblins known as the Bwci Bo. They were believed to live alongside their human neighbours, hiding out in cottage gardens or farmyards. They could be mischievous, even destructive if disturbed or spied upon, but the superstition was that they might also do country folk the odd, good turn if needed. I am descended from a long line of Glamorgan farmers, and I know that if a calf became ill or lame, if all else failed, my great grandfather would leave a pale of milk at the barn door for the Bwci Bo as an incentive to help tend the calf back to good health. They were also used as a threat to naughty children – like a sort of bogey man. Nothing would get little legs pumping up the stairs faster than the threat “if you don’t go to bed this minute, I will go out into the yard and fetch the Bwci Bo.”
The origins of this little mischief maker are firmly rooted in the traditions of tree sprites and fairies from pre-Christian Celtic paganism. So too are some of our more sinister beasties. The Ceffyl Dwr for example is undoubtedly a derivation of a pagan water spirit. It was believed to frequent the banks of the Ewenny and Ogmore rivers near fording points. When a hapless traveller would come by and climb onto the horses back to avoid getting their feet wet, the creature would show its true colours and would soar hundreds of feet into the air until vanishing and leaving its mount to plummet to their death. There are lots of water horse spirits in Celtic and Norse folklore, but this aerobatic display is unique to our home-grown version. We also have the Cwn Annwn which is a kind of demon dog. They were frequently seen in desolate areas like the crossroads at Stalling Down near Cowbridge. If you saw a Cwn Annwn it was usually a sign that a death would follow.
As much as most of these accounts of beasties come from ancient history, there are a couple which only came into existence in the 20th century. None more bizarre than the account of the dragons of Penllyn. In 1905 a lady called Marie Trevelyan published what she described as “eyewitness accounts” of what were described as “winged serpents” living in the woods around Penllyn Castle. There was even a claim that a local man had killed one and kept its hide as a souvenir. I cannot swear to it, but I would say that the origin of this beastie is far more likely to be the fruit of an overactive imagination. But I would so dearly love to be proved wrong.
The author; Graham Loveluck-Edwards is selling copies of this book with 10% discount in November & December 2021 if you visit his website www.grahamloveluckedwards.co.uk.