WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Hungover Ghost?
Updated: Feb 23
“ON A COLD, DARK NIGHT” seems a bit of a cliché, so I’m going to start this blog with something different; a warm, moonlit night during one glorious midsummer in Wales...
It was between midnight and one, about the time "fern seeds ripen and turn to dust." A man was staggering home over Garth Hill after a night out in Cardiff with his mates, the fern seeds getting all over his coat and boots. It covered his hair so thickly that it glistened in the moonlight.
When he got home, after wasting time fumbling for the keyhole with one eye shut, no doubt, he found that his mam and sisters had gone to bed, so he curled up to sleep downstairs next to the fire so as not to wake them. But when he got up in the morning, they acted as though he wasn’t there. He thought to himself that they must have been winding him up for getting home so late, so he apologized and said “...sorry, my lovelies, I won’t be late again- no indeed!”
At that, his mam and sisters stopped in their tracks and looked around in bewilderment.
“What’s wrong? You look like you’ve seen a ghost!”
This time, they all screamed and legged it. Confused, the man happened to scratch his back as he watched them running off, and that's when, dislodging the fern seeds, he became visible again and it all made sense.
For you see, it’s a well-known fact that fern seeds turn you invisible…
Now, at this point, it might be worth mentioning that the Garth is a mushroom-picking hotspot for those looking to have a good time in Cardiff, according to local youth I've spoken with through my line of work. Every year, from September to November, students, bored teens and ageing hippies flock to the hill to harvest the psychedelic fungi for themselves, each person nodding and smiling awkwardly whenever they pass each other on the trail. This particular anecdote featured in Marie Trevelyan’s book, Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, published in 1909, but is said to have derived from a young local boy who claimed it to be a story his grandfather, or 'taid' in my northern, or 'Gog' Welsh, once told him, who claimed it involved a friend of his (himself being one of the boys who were with him on the night out, no doubt!) In any case, it being midsummer, this would disprove any claim that said drunk was on any other 'trip' other than the usual route home at the time, or significantly lowers the chances that he was, at least!
Indeed, the Welsh have long had a tradition of narrating ‘chwedlau’- myths, legends, folk tales, fables, tall tales, gossip- whatever you want to call them, and passing them on to the next generation. My own taid once convinced me that there was an elephant being held in a shed in Waunfawr, when in fact, it was where the local undertaker kept his hearse- my cousins and I still call it "Cwt Eliffant’," to this day. Once, we all even swore that we caught a glimpse of the elephant’s feet behind the door!
It seems that every village, every pub and every type of gathering or establishment going has its own storiwr (storyteller); the lonely eccentric, the boasting drunk, the gossiping housewife- who delights in perplexing, terrifying and humouring his or her audience, often claiming stories to be true just for dramatic effect. It is a tradition that goes further back than Y Mabinogi themselves, which concern romantic Arthurian adventures just as much as they represent viewpoints and opinions on social and political events that took place in medieval Wales. The stories derive from story-tellers, or “cyfarddwyr” from the Middle Ages. As such, they do not originate from any kind of written text. Thus, the tales forever differ according to the narrator. You can tell one person a rumour you heard and the chances are that person will recite the rumour slightly differently to the next. Thus, gossip mutates, like a virus passing from one host to the next, always a slight change in structure and DNA...
Between 1382 and 1410, these Celtic myths were officially put down on paper for the first time. Eleven in total, split between the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Now, it is perhaps good to mention at this point that the term ‘Mabinogion’ is in fact something of a typo for ‘mabinogi’, derived from the Welsh word ‘mab’, meaning ‘son’, or ‘boy’. For this reason, some scholars believe that ‘mabinogi’ was a ‘tale for boys’, or perhaps a tale told by young boys. However, many say this theory has already been disproven, with the general consensus being that it means ‘youth’ or ‘tale of youth’. The term ‘Mabinogion’ was made popular when Lady Charlotte Guest translated the manuscripts into English between 1838 and 1849, whom regarded it as the plural form of ‘mabinogi’ as well as a catchy title. With her translation having introduced the tales to the English-speaking world, the name stuck.
So influential were these stories that many places in Wales owe their names to them, such as “the giant Idris’s chair”, the mountain 'Cadair Idris' , to name but one. Indeed, the mabinogi and other stories have played a huge role in shaping Wales into the country it is today, yet they have fallen so far into the background of Welsh culture that many have been forgotten by the general public. This is where my new blog ‘WHERE THE FOLK’ comes in...
I have always enjoyed a good hike and would love learning more about these Welsh folktales, so I have decided to retell these stories to a new audience- over the next few months, I will be travelling all over the country to visit various locations associated with Welsh folklore and re-telling these magnificent stories, as per tradition. I will provide details of and directions to these locations, so that, if you’re interested, you can visit them yourselves.
Writing this during the first Welsh firebreak lockdown in 2020, I have decided to begin my quest locally…
Garth Hill, referred to by locals as ‘The Garth’ or ‘Garth Mountain’, or ‘Mynydd y Garth’ in Welsh, is a hill located between the communities of Llantwit Fardre and Pentyrch, overlooking the Welsh capital of Cardiff as well as part of the Rhondda Cynon Taff. On a clear day, you can see as far as Weston-super-Mare. At its feet sit the villages of Gwaelod-y-Garth and Taff’s Well. Taff Well Park stands right in the hill’s shadow, most famous for being the home to the only thermal spring in Wales. For hundreds of years, people would come from all over Europe to bathe here, but today, the springs exist as little more than a sizzling puddle hidden behind neglected ruins, fenced off to the public. But Taff's Well does have another claim to fame; for allegedly, a shop there is rumoured to have been the inspiration for the hit BBC comedy Open All Hours.
At Garth's summit sit a number of ‘tumuli’- ancient burial sites dating from the early-to-mid Bronze Age. Then on the other side of the valley sits the Garth’s sister hill, the Lesser Garth, herself scarred by limestone and iron ore quarries. The Industrial Revolution tore through the valley long ago, but today, the A470 runs through here (and is often very busy, being one of the main points where traffic travels in and out of Cardiff), alongside which crawls the River Taff, or ‘Afon Taf’ in Welsh, having come all the way from the Brecon Beacons. From here, it runs through the capital and out to into Cardiff Bay.
Now, there’s a reason why Garth Hill is often referred to as ‘Garth Mountain’, which is also linked to a taid’s bold tales to his grandson, and you may be surprised to know that it is a fairly recent phenomenon… in 1995, Christopher Monger, a native of Taff’s Well, released the novel The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, based on a story his own taid told him. The book is based on the fictional ‘Ffynnon Garw’ (“Rough Well”), above the author’s home village. Based in 1917, it tells of the time two English cartographers visit the fictional village to measure what is claimed to be the "first mountain inside of Wales". The villagers love their "mountain" and are disappointed when the cartographers conclude that it is in fact a "hill". Unwilling to be told by a pair of pompous Englishmen that their precious mountain is nothing more than a mere hill, the villagers set out to raise the summit by their own means. But they must keep the Englishmen from leaving before the job is done in order to succeed…
Adapted into a film starring Hugh Grant, the story spread across the world and people have flocked to view the site ever since, as well as to climb Garth ‘Mountain’ for themselves. Now, one can safely assume that ‘Ffynnon Garw’ was inspired by the Garth and Taff's Well and that the mound upon which the trigonometrical point stands in the book and film is, in fact, the Bronze Age burial ground.
So, there you have it- two tales linked to Garth Hill, both passed on by the storytellers’ teidiau. And if you are keen on climbing the ‘mountain’ yourself, be sure to do so between the months of September and November… to avoid that pesky fern seed, that is!
I shall leave you with an introduction to my mate's band Vertigo Flo's new album. Rhodri ap Hywel accompanied me on my first hike for this blog and kindly took the cover photo for me. His band, Vertigo Flo, are from Caerphilly.
Thanks for reading the first post from my new blog, ‘WHERE THE FOLK'
‘Very Volkal’ is a conversation prompt that will feature in all future posts (a pun on the term ‘Verry Volk’, the English translation of ‘Tylwyth Teg’, being the fairy-like inhabitants of the Welsh Otherworld). Please feel free to take part!
I am keen to know if any of you have ever been to Garth Hill or know of any other stories associated with the place…? Or perhaps someone has a funny or scary anecdote of their own regarding the famous spot?
Please leave your comments below.
Davies, Sioned (2007), The Mabinigion: A new translation
Guest, Lady Charlotte (1838-1845) The Mabinogion
Monger, Christopher (1995), The Englishman Who Went up a Hill but Came Down a Mountain
Stevenson, Peter (2017), Welsh Folk Tales
"Waters From The Deep: Taff's Well thermal spring" (PDF). Natur Cymru. Summer 2014. pp. 30–33.
^ Farr, Gareth; Bottrell, Simon H (2013). "The hydrogeology and hydrochemistry of the thermal waters at Taff's Well, South Wales, UK". Cave and Karst Science. 40 (1).
Trevelyan, Marie (1909) Folk-lore and Folk-stories of Wales, 89-90
Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Jesus College III), 1382-1410
White Book of Rhydderch (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 4-5), 1350