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A great Welsh legend for Good Friday

This is Mynydd Ysgyryd Fawr (or in English; The Skirrid). It lies north of Abergavenny in Monmouthshire. It is also known as ‘The Holy Mountain’.

Technically it is a hill not a mountain but the Welsh word ‘mynydd’ doesn’t have such a strict definition criteria as its English equivalent. It just means big hill.

It has a famous legend attached to it. It was said that at the exact moment of the crucifixion the whole mountain shook until the central section collapsed giving it the distinctive outline we see today.

The name ‘ysgyryd’ is derived from the Welsh word for earth quake.

In the medieval period it was a popular place of pilgrimage and at certain points of the path you can take if you are climbing it, there are old stone steps to help the pilgrims with their ascent. It is well worth the trip as the view from the top is amazing. You can see across 4 counties.

There is also a large flat stone, possibly a Neolithic monument, known as the Devil’s Stone half way up it. This time referencing another legend that the collapsed part of the mountain was used as a seat by Satan himself.

So something for everyone!

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What’s in a name: Laleston

I have quite a strong connection with the village of Laleston, near Bridgend. I grew up in the parish, went to the primary school and sang in the church choir. So speaking as someone with that background who is mad about legends and folklore and the origins of local place names, you can imagine my delight at stumbling across a legend about the origins of the name “Laleston” (or “Trelales” in Welsh). And my embarrassment at only now discovering it.

I am indebted to Bill Howells from the Llynfi Valley History Society for alerting me to it.

The story goes that the village is named after a man called Lales (pronounced “Lalless”) who was a very talented stone mason.

He was not indigenous Welsh but was captured in the holy land during the crusades. He was brought to Wales by his capturer and was put out to general duties on his master’s estate.

However the opportunity to demonstrate his true skills did not present itself quickly. After he had been in Wales for the best part of a year, it came when a stone wall enclosing a field of livestock collapsed during a storm. He was set to work to make good what he could before the animals escaped while a local stone mason was sent for.

When the local craftsman arrived at the scene the wall was not simply patched up as expected. The repairs had been completed and had been done so to a really high standard using techniques which the local man had never seen before.

The stonemason was amazed and asked Lalless how he had done the work and for him to teach the stonemason his unique abilities. Lalless unable to speak a word of Welsh and the stonemason unable to speak his language, the two men communicated solely through mime and gesture and through plans and sketches drawn in the mud with a stick.

They bonded over mutual respect and an appreciation of one another’s skills and through their love of stone.

In time they learned each other’s languages and became firm friends. Lalless converted to Christianity and became popular with local people. He and his friend the local stonemason worked on the construction of many cottages and farms in the area and most particularly the church that has ever since been the parish church of Laleston. But sadly, before the work could be completed he died.

Such was his popularity amongst the people of the village he had helped to build, that the village has ever since been known as Lalless’ town.

It is, I’m sure you would agree, a rather wonderful story. And it does go some way to explaining why the Lale part of “Laleston” is pronounced “Lall” like pal not lale like pale.

Beyond that, how likely is it to be true?

It is hard to say. Some folklore is dreamt up by bards to entertain their audience. But there is also a lot of folklore which has a truth somewhere at the heart of it. Even if evidence to back it up is thin on the ground.

We know that several local knights fought at various crusades. The 12th Century Archdeacon of Brecon and chronicler Gerald of Wales boasted in his writing at how effective he was at recruiting crusaders from amongst both Welsh and Anglo/Norman nobility in our area.

The De Chaworth brothers of Ogmore, Sir Richard Siward of Llanblethian, Sir Hugh Jonnys and Jasper Berkerolles of St Athan to name but a few. And they were lauded for their military prowess. In fact Henry II of England wrote to the Byzantine emperor to praise their military fervour, stating that “they do not hesitate to do battle”. So there is no shortage of candidates to have brought Lalless to our shores.

It wasn’t common place to capture ordinary people even skilled craftsmen and bring them back to put them to work. However kidnapping the heirs of wealthy families and holding them for ransom was very common place. So if this story is true it is more likely this was why we was brought here. And if the ransome was not paid and he was helpful to have around the place then why not keep him on.

Like so many of our fantastic legends, the mystery surrounding its origins is as tantalising as the story itself. And I love that.

Laleston church
The church he helped to build
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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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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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Mythical Beasts of Glamorgan

The Bwcci Bo, Cwn Annwn and Ceffyl Dwr – Mythical beasts of Glamorgan

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.

This exert is taken from Legends and Folklore of Bridgend and the Vale (2020 by Graham Loveluck-Edwards. Also published in the Buddy Magazine.

The author; Graham Loveluck-Edwards is selling copies of this book with 10% discount in November & December 2021 if you visit his website