WHERE THE FOLK can I find a genuine Fairy Tale Castle?
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
ONCE UPON A TIME, in a small castle by the sea, there lived a cruel Lord; a warrior chief, renowned for his skills in battle. One day, during a time when the land was embroiled in a bloody war, a messenger arrives with a proposition from a neighbouring Prince.
The Prince is willing to give the Lord anything he wishes in exchange for winning a battle for him. The Lord agrees to it. When the battle is won, much to the Prince’s horror, the Lord chooses his beautiful daughter’s hand in marriage to be his reward. The Prince has no choice- he sticks to his word. Reluctantly, the Princess agrees to marry him, and a great feast is prepared.
On the night of the celebrations, as the party reaches its peak, the guards hear music playing from outside the castle walls. Upon inspection, they see a band of fairies, clapping and dancing to their music and waving flaming torches. To their surprise, the fairies ask if they can join in the wedding celebrations! I’m not sure how I’d react here, but the evil Lord, blind drunk, called on his guards to attack them. Big mistake.
Using magic, they conjured up a terrible sandstorm, burying the castle and everyone within, leaving behind nothing but dunes and ruins. There are a few different versions of the story, some saying that the wedding guests all managed to escape, or that the fairies arrived just as the evil Lord was about to rape his new bride, or that the fairies had secretly been friends with the Princess all along, but the basic narrative remains the same. Interestingly, experts believe that a huge storm actually passed through the area around that time, stripping mounds of sand from the Irish coastline in the process.
So where the folk can you find this genuine fairy tale castle, then?! Try Pennard, on the Gower Peninsula, just south of Swansea…
Pennard, formerly Llanarthbodu, is a small village with a population of around two thousand residents. A mere seven miles from Swansea city centre, it took me about an hour and a quarter to get there from Cardiff- just a straight run down the M4 and through Swansea city centre, then onwards through the Mumbles and onto the Gower Peninsula. Included within the Pennard community are the villages of Southgate and Kittle.
“You have arrived at your destination!”
Pennard Golf Club- otherwise known as the “links in the sky”, is an 18-hole course known for its magnificent views of Three Cliffs Bay and Pennard Sand Dunes.
Parking up in one of the bays, I got out and hollered at two gossiping housewives and their bored children, asking them where the best place to park was if coming to see the castle. They looked posh, but approachable. Glancing at all the other cars, I spotted Mercs, BM’s, Jags… I suddenly felt like Del Boy turning up for clay pigeon shooting.
“You can’t park there!”
“I gathered that, that’s why I’m asking!”
They told me about a National Trust car park down near the Coastal Path, but added that I could cut across the golf course, but I thought that might not have been such a good idea…
“Are you meeting anyone there, or…?”
“No, no… just me.”
Looking for fairies. Way to make me feel like a loser!
Most visitors come to Pennard due to its close proximity to the Welsh Coastal Path- there’s a National Trust car park down the far end of the village right next to it. Paying £2.50 for two hours’ worth of parking time, I headed off towards the cliffs, drooling to the smell of a nearby barbeque. I think it came from the retirement home that sits right next to the cliffs. “What a great place to retire,” I thought, admiring the view. Then I remembered the recent landslide up at Nefyn and decided that it was a bad idea. And probably a bit out of my price range, too- it’s an expensive area, with the average house price being around the £366,000 mark.
It didn’t take long before I muttered the word “wow”, standing at the edge of the cliffs, looking out to sea with the surf crashing against the rocks below. Following the path, I arrived at Three Cliffs Bay. Otherwise known as Three ‘Cliff’ Bay, it’s easy to see how it got its name… the cliffs are made of limestone, are about twenty metres high, and for obvious reasons, are very popular amongst rock climbers. In June 2006, the BBC programme Holidays at Home ranked Three Cliffs Bay as the best beach in all of the UK, and it was recently nominated for “Britain’s Best View”. The Red Hot Chilli Peppers filmed a music video here, and it was also used in the opening titles of the 1980s sitcom, Me and My Girl, and it also featured in Channel 4’s Skins and in an ITV advert called ‘The Brighter Side’.
“Yhm… sorry, excuse me… I feel a bit daft, but… I came here to see a castle. Know where that may be?”
“Excuse me? You seen a castle around here?”
“No, no I haven’t…”
I was beginning to wonder if I’d gone to the right place. The only route I could see was a steep path heading down to the beach. Then I spotted it- a small cluster of ruins, standing near the cliff-edge, a good distance from where I stood. I had to endure a steep climb up the dunes to get to it, dragging my feet through the sand and getting lost twice in the maze of different trails.
Finally, I emerged onto the golf course, the indication being that the field in which I stood was absolutely covered in golf balls. Then it dawned on me. Looking up, I saw that I was standing on the driving range, just a few feet away from the hole itself! I was also right back where I started!
“Shit!” ducking my head as I went, I power-walked my way onto safer ground, wishing I had a helmet. I didn’t want to run, in case I looked suspicious. So I marched with my hands over my head, instead.
And then I saw it, peeking over the dunes- my Fairy Tale Castle…
It sat right on the edge of the cliff, overlooking the mouth of the Pennard Pill stream, which strangely looks like the Amazon from the castle, and Three Cliffs Bay, protected to the north and west by impregnable cliffs.
It was built in the early 12th century, after Henry de Beaumont, the Earl of Warwick, conquered the Gower Peninsula. For a while it existed as a timber ‘ringwork’ castle, which was the earliest form of Norman castle in Britain. There are two types of ringwork castles: there’s a full ‘ring’, broken by a single entrance, then a ‘partial ringwork’, whereby the ditch was cut and the bank thrown up across a ‘promontory’, being a river or a narrow neck of land, so as to make full use of the natural defences.
The walls were then re-built by the Braose family in the 13th and 14th centuries, during which time they also introduced a stone gatehouse. St Mary’s was also built on the castle grounds. It wasn’t long after, however, that the castle was abandoned. Invading sand dunes caused the site to be hazardous and difficult to get to, and the castle fell into ruin. A survey from 1650 describes the site as being “desolate and ruinous and surrounded by sand” and by 1741, most of the south wall had collapsed.
From then on, it became nothing more than a popular spot for budding Victorian artists. No doubt, tales of fairies would have arisen from this time, seeing as Welsh romanticism was catching the imagination of rich English tourists, hook, line and sinker, and it would have been foolish not to make full use of a ruined castle that was seemingly abandoned for no reason (there is no record of there ever being an attack on the castle), other than being an accident waiting to happen and a complete pain in the arse to get to!
The castle was somewhat ‘restored’ during the course of the 20th century, and the site is now protected under UK law as a Grade II listed building.
So what about these vicious ‘fairies’, then? What’s that all about?
You may have noticed that at the end of each post, I include a little segment called ‘Very Volkal’, whereby I encourage conversation regarding the blog. This is a perfect example of my inherited ‘Dad humour’, for it is a pun on ‘Verry Volk’, the name given to fairies of the Gower Peninsula.
Indeed, the Verry Volk (from the English: Fairy Folk, referring to fairies in general) feature in many tales across the Gower, and although descriptions of them differ, they tend to be short, child-like beings who like a good party and curse or destroy anyone who gets in their way.
Tales of the Verry Volk are mainly restricted to the Gower (the area is heavily anglicized- perhaps the locals chose to adapt the English term ‘fairy folk’ rather than stick to the Welsh ‘Tylwyth Teg’), but tales of fairies aren’t exclusive to the peninsula- Tylwyth Teg actually play a huge part in Welsh mythology, and have links to Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, as well as Arawn, the realm’s god-like leader, and other Welsh mythological beings.
And just like I wouldn’t do to their Verry Volk cousins, I wouldn’t go calling one of the Tylwyth Teg a “fairy” to its face, either, for Welsh fairies are nothing like the delightful, winged godmothers that we are all familiar with- they’re hard as nails!
The origin of the term ‘Tylwyth Teg’ can be traced back to a 14th century poem by Dafydd ap Gwilym (“Hudol gwan yn ehedeg”). In the poem, the main character gets perilously, but comically, lost while going to visit his lover.
Later, they are described as fair-haired, indescribably-beautiful beings, who kidnap human children in the night, replacing them with “changelings” known as ‘Plant Newid’. Parents would claim that their children were developing fine one minute then suddenly becoming mutes, displaying some pretty odd behaviour. Interestingly, some scholars believe that Plant Newid were, in fact, autistic children. Many tales of Plant Newid depict them as being of the age in which autistic traits become apparent. I think they deserve a post of their own, one day!
Tylwyth Teg were said to live underground in Annwn, where they danced and made fairy rings all day in a tropical paradise. It was said that Annwn could only be accessed via magical rifts, portals or through the various lakes dotted around Wales. Indeed, stories of beautiful women emerging from lakes accompanied by magical creatures are plentiful, and even the well-known Welsh goddess Rhiannon, on whom Fleetwood Mac based their hit song, shares similarities with these Lake Women.
Some tales claim ‘iron’ to be the Tylwyth Teg’s kryptonite, or the female of their kind’s, at least.
In tales referring to them as ‘Bendith y Mamau’ (generally considered to be the given southern name), they ride horses in ‘fairy raids’, flying through the night sky like Father Christmas. It was customary to leave out a bowl of milk for them so they may leave you alone (for unlike Santa, a visit from a fairy raid was not desirable).
They include the story of a woman who’s three-year-old son was replaced by a changeling. She sought advice from a local Dyn Hysbys (again, more on them in future posts!), who told her to remove the top from a raw egg and stir it to distract the Plentyn Newid. In doing so, the changeling revealed its true, otherworldly form. She then went to the crossroads at bang-on midnight during the full moon and observed a fairy raid. By doing that, she saw that her real son was, in fact, in their custody. Finally, she secured a black hen and, without plucking it, roasted it over a wood fire until every feather dropped off. This ensured the safe return of her son, and the vanishing of the changeling.
Anyone with an autistic child ever tried that?!
Folklorist Wirt Sikes paints a rather different picture of the Tylwyth Teg, attributing them to several other types of Welsh mythological creatures, and dividing them into five general categories:
1. Ellyllon (elves)
2. Coblynau (goblins of the mines)
3. Gwragedd Annwn (those seductive ladies of the lakes)
4. Gwyllion (mountain-dwelling hags, similar to witches)
5. Bwbachod (troublesome little house fairies)
He also claimed that their diet consists of toadstools and ‘fairy butter’ (a type of fungus), and that they wear digitalis bell flowers as gloves. He also said that they are not ruled by Arawn (nor Gwyn ap Nudd, whom was later associated with the Welsh Otherworld) at all, but rather by Queen Mab, a fairy goddess mentioned in the work of Shakespeare.
There are too many Welsh folktales involving the Tylwyth Teg to possibly mention in one post, including one whereby fairies held a Sunday market in my hometown, and I’ll be sure to cover the others in future. I’m sure you can deduct from this rundown that the lore surrounding the Tylwyth Teg can be very confusing and conflicting. But there’s no denying that they have played a huge role in Welsh mythology over the centuries, whichever form they took.
But there must me some bigger supernatural forces at play over at Pennard Castle, for there are several other folktales linked to the place, as well- fairies are just the tip of the iceberg!
A tale which concerns the origins of the castle, as opposed to its ultimate abandonment, tells of a wizard who built it all by himself overnight to protect himself from invading Normans. See, this one’s interesting, because it bears a striking resemblance to the story of Ifor Bach’s apparent ownership of Castell Coch, discussed in my previous post, WHERE THE FOLK’s the party at?, in which the Welsh lay claim to a Norman keep through extravagant tall tales.
There is also the story of the maiden who committed suicide by jumping off of nearby Penrice Hill, landing in the lake below. She apparently did so after avenging the murder of her lover, and it is said that anyone who encounters her will surely go insane. Again, this one also strikes a resemblance to a story covered in another previous post of mine, WHERE THE FOLK is the Propa’ Valley Girl of the Lake, ‘en?
Then finally, the castle is also said to be haunted by the spirit of a winged witch known as ‘Gwrach-y-Rhibyn’, whom I briefly mentioned in another old post: WHERE THE FOLK can I buy Vampire Furniture from? Indeed, it seems that I should really dedicate a post for her one day…
Ghosts, fairies, witches and warlocks- Pennard Castle has it all! Would anyone care to spend the night there to find out if there’s any truth to these tales…? Actually, don’t do that- I don’t think Pennard Golf Club would be too happy!
But conclusively, in my opinion, at least, it’s as close as you’ll ever get to an actual fairy tale castle… prove me wrong!
Thanks for reading.
So does anyone have their own ghost stories to tell about Pennard Castle, or know of another ‘fairy tale castle’ I should visit?
Also, does anyone have a theory on why the Tylwyth Teg are referred to as ‘Verry Volk’ on the Gower Peninsula?
Earthwork and Timber Castles (historicengland.org.uk)
Haunted Pennard Castle (englandpast.net)
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