WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Giant Beaver Monster?
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
DID YOU KNOW THAT WALES ONCE HAD ITS OWN NESSIE? WELL, KIND OF… ours wasn’t some innocent plesiosaur that got stuck in a lake (being a long-necked marine reptile that died out with the dinosaurs some 65 million years ago); our Nessie was a great, big, crocodilian-beaver-like-thing with a soft spot for women, mass destruction and scrapping with heroic knights, including King Arthur himself. Oh, and he shot poison darts and could make himself invisible! No, this isn’t the tale of ‘The Beast of Craggy Island’ (one for Father Ted fans). This is the tale of ‘Yr Afanc’…
…or one of them, at least. For you see, this bizarre lake monster has terrorized many places in Wales over the years, from Llyn Llion (where he is said to have caused a flood so bad that it killed everyone in Britain, save for two people, Dwyafn and Dwyfach, from whom all British people thus descended) to Llyn Barfog (the ‘Bearded Lake’), where he is slain by King Arthur, to Llyn Syfaddon (Llangorse Lake), where he dwelled in a cave near the ‘Palace of the Sons of the King of the Tortures’, a tale which features in Lady Charlotte Guest’s The Mabinogion, taken from the White Book of Rhydderch and the Red Book of Hergest. Some say that his final resting place is at Bedd-yr-Afanc (The Afanc’s Grave) in Cardigan.
The Afanc’s (sometimes spelled ‘Addanc’, and pronounced ‘avank’) appearance varies greatly between these tales, from a beaver/crocodile hybrid to a humanoid dwarf. Some people have even compared it to a platypus, although this would have been relatively recently. Indeed, the reason why I referenced ‘The Beast of Craggy Island’ is because it almost feels as though people weren’t sure where to go with the Afanc, and he became more and more extravagant with each description. But he has consistently proven himself to be a big player and renowned villain in Welsh mythology, and is associated with the origins of many place names in Wales.
In popular culture, he has made an appearance in Silver on the Tree, the final book in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising collection, in an episode of the BBC’s Merlin, where he spreads a deadly disease across Britain, in China Mieville’s book The Scar, in which he hauls a floating city-state, and also in the October Daye series by Seanan McGuire.
Needless to say, the Afanc’s a pretty big deal here in Wales, or was, at least. I suspect he’ll be a recurring character in this blog. For my first post on the Afanc, I visit Llyn-yr-Afanc, near Betws-y-Coed, in my home county of Gwynedd. The lake (or pool, rather) is part of the Afon Cowny, which flows beneath nearby Pont-yr-Afanc (Afanc’s Bridge), being a Grade II listed building, over which goes the A470.
I’m joined by my good friend Danny Hanks, the Welsh artist who provides illustrations for this blog. You can check out his official Facebook page here.
It is believed that the Afanc was relocated from this lake to Llyn Glaslyn on the fringes of Yr Wyddfa (Mount Snowdon) so as not to be a nuisance to the residents of the Conwy Valley, who were tired of him drowning their crops and eating anyone who was foolish enough to go swimming in the river.
Of course, approaching him would be suicide, but luckily, they were aware that the Afanc had a certain soft spot- they enlisted the help of a beautiful young maiden, who sat by the riverbank and sang a soft melody to the beast. Entranced, the Afanc swam ashore and fell asleep by her side. The local men seized their moment and tied him up in iron chains, made by the best blacksmith in Wales. But an enraged Afanc jumped back into the pool, and it took the might of all the men plus two oxen to pull him back ashore.
It took so much might, in fact, that it caused one of the oxen’s eyes to pop out of its socket! Its tears were said to have formed Pwll Llygad yr Ych (Pool of the Ox’s Eye), which sits on nearby Moel Siabod. They dragged the Afanc over the mountain then dumped him over at Glaslyn, a place already shrouded in myth and legend, from the Tylwyth Teg to King Arthur’s famous sword, Excalibur, which is said to be lying at the bottom of the lake.
Indeed, I shall have to visit Glaslyn one day and cover other tales associated with Yr Wyddfa at the same time- from vampires to giants, the highest peak in Wales is brimming with juicy stories!
As well as wanting to see Llyn-yr-Afanc, I fancied checking out Pwll Llygad yr Ych as well, so we began our journey by climbing Moel Siabod. ‘Moel’ is the Welsh word for ‘bare hill’, but the meaning of the word ‘siabod’ has been widely debated. It is sometimes translated as ‘shapely hill’, although William Williams suggested in his 1802 book Observations on the Snowdon Mountains that the mountain’s name translates to ‘the bare hill whose head or crown is covered in new-fallen snow’. A more recent Welsh author named J. Lloyd-Jones M.A., B.Litt, proposed in his Enwau Lleoedd Sir Gaernarfon (1928) that the name has Middle English origins: 'shabbèd', 'shcabbèd', 'shabbid', 'sceabbed' (Modern English: scabbed), meaning a ‘shabby’, ‘scabby’ or ‘scarred’ mountain.
We parked up at Capel Curig, where you can find Plas-y-Brenin, the UK National Mountain Centre, currently ran by Sport England, oddly enough! From Plas-y-Brenin, we followed the track across Nant Gwryd over the ancient bridge of Pont-y-Bala and into the wooded Forestry Commission land. There’s a great view of Llynnau Mymbyr, being the two lakes found at Dyffryn Mymbyr, the valley which runs from Capel Curig to the Pen-y-Gwryd hotel. Before long, we arrived at some open access land, which took us up the northern side of the mountain.
We went on a scorching-hot summer’s day in 2020, and the climb to the top was long and gruelling. It’s a simple, straight path to the summit from there, but you’re open to the elements. You can enjoy a great view of Yr Wyddfa and other mountains along the way, as well as Llynnau Mymbyr below.
Ascending Moel Siabod:
Beneath the blazing sun, the scramble over rocks and boulders to the top was even worse. At 872 metres (or 2,861 ft), it’s the highest peak of the Moelwynion mountain range. On a clear day, looking in a certain direction, you can see thirteen of the highest peaks in all of Wales without ever having to turn your head!
From there, we also had a great view of Pwll Llygad yr Ych, known on all the maps as ‘Llyn-y-Foel’, which means ‘lake of the bare hill’. Water trickling down its south-eastern side forms one of the main tributaries of Afon Ystumiau, which feeds into Afon Lledr and then the Afon Conwy, where lies Llyn-yr-Afanc, our final destination. There is a brownish tint to Llyn-y-Foel, caused by the peat found up on the mountain. Because of this, there is a unique species of trout found there that isn’t found anywhere else in the world.
Descending Moel Siabod:
Navigating the steep rockfalls to the bottom seemed too risky, considering our weary legs, so we decided to head back down the mountain to the other end of Capel Curig, instead. There, we passed by the village’s famous stage coach.
Standing across the road from the Ty’n-y-Coed Inn, the horse-drawn coach is an example of the vehicles which the London to Holyhead road (now the A5), among other roads, were engineered for in the early 19th century. There has been a stage coach there for generations, with the first featuring in the 1939 Alfred Hitchcock film, Jamaica Inn. The local landlady at the time, a Mrs Newman, had bought the coach in the early 1950s. It was then replaced in the 1980s by the Yorkshire Rose, a stage coach that has seen more new components than Trigger’s broom (one for the Only Fools and Horses fans this time). In 2016, the Yorkshire Rose was refurbished, with new bodywork supplied by craft-workers from Anglesey Wood Products. They used measurements from original Royal Mail drawings, and the coach was painted in traditional Royal Mail red.
It was there that I noticed I had lost my cap, which I had ‘borrowed’ off my autistic brother, who features in my other blog, Brawd Autistico (Welsh version: Brawd Awtistico)- gutted! Once back at the car, we took the A5 towards Betws-y-Coed, passing the well-known ‘Tŷ Hyll’ along the way.
Tŷ Hyll (‘Ugly House’) is brimming with history and lore. No one is entirely sure who built it, but it is thought to have been a ‘tŷ unnos/un nôs’, or a ‘one-night house’. It was tradition at the time that a house built on common land over the period of a single night, with a functional smoking chimney by dawn, could be claimed by the builders as their own, free of charge. Some claim that it was built by bandits in the 15th century, who would prey upon vulnerable travellers taking the main road through Snowdonia, their ‘ugly’ or fearsome appearance giving the place its reputation. Indeed, historians have often debated the origins of the house’s name, with some arguing that it is a corruption of ‘Llugwy’, being the name of the river which flows nearby.
The house wasn’t mentioned much in history nor travel books until the 1800s, when it became a Victorian folly for holidaymakers. It may also have been used by Irish labourers constructing Telford’s bridge over Afon Llugwy in 1820.
The first recorded resident was John Roberts, a local shepherd, in the year 1900. Mr Roberts didn’t alter the house much, and it is believed the interior was pretty basic. But Lilian and Ted Riley, who lived there the longest, from 1928 to 1961, transformed it completely. They installed an upstairs with bedrooms, a bathroom, a separate parlour and also a scullery downstairs. The husband and wife team also welcomed many visitors into their home over the years, showing off their pet cockatoo and reciting bold tales.
Then from 1989 to 2010, it existed as the Snowdonia Society’s main headquarters. When the Rileys died prior to that, the house had passed through the hands of several owners, existing as a tea room, antiques shop and a tourist attraction before getting close to being declared derelict. Then in 1988 it was bought by the Snowdonia Society, and the listed building was delicately renovated by a group of volunteers. In 2010, the society’s headquarters moved to Caban in Brynrefail, just outside Llanberis. And so, in 2012, they turned Tŷ Hyll into a tearoom and honeybee exhibition. Today, they see an average of 35,000 visitors a year!
I thought I had vague memories from childhood of the exterior of the house being decorated with skulls and other eerie décor, but I’m starting to think I made this up… anyone else?
We passed through Betws-y-Coed then drove a short distance down the A470 before arriving at Llyn-yr-Afanc, sometimes referred to as ‘Pwll-yr-Afanc’, or ‘The Afanc’s Pool’. We crossed Pont-yr-Afanc and parked up in a layby on the other side, walking down a set of steps to the pebbly riverbank below, where the fair maiden was said to have sat and sung to the infamous beast.
We ended the trip with a warm beer, talking about Danny’s cancelled wedding plans (due to lockdown restrictions) and watching the Afon Conwy flow by. It was hard to imagine there once being a giant beaver monster living there- the strip of river seemed too narrow, too shallow… what is easy to imagine living there, however, is a family of actual beavers…
Beavers were once widespread across the United Kingdom, but were hunted to extinction some four hundred years ago. ‘Afanc’ is actually the Welsh word for ‘beaver’- could it be that the story of the Afanc was inspired by real beavers who would flood the valley when building their dams?
But humankind’s stance on pesky beavers has changed in recent years, as we have grown increasingly aware of their ecological benefits. They are so helpful in maintaining healthy ecosystems, in fact, that they are sometimes referred to as “The Earth’s Kidneys”, which inspired me to write The Earth’s Kidneys: The Adolescent Adventures of Castor Canadensis, in 2016. At the time of writing this, it has been just six months since the first beavers to live in Wales for four hundred years were reintroduced to a nature reserve just outside Machynlleth, in Powys. We could very well be hearing of disgruntled farmers and their newly-acquired floodplains again!
That’s all from the Afanc for now, but I’ll be sure to visit the places mentioned in this post in the near future, so look out for more from this infamous Welsh villain! Oh, and for those who haven’t heard it, here’s Dougal’s description of ‘The Beast’ of Craggy Island, which featured in an episode of Father Ted- perhaps you’ll see why it reminded me a bit of the ever-changing Afanc (note: I do not own the copyrights to this video).
Until next time!
Thanks for reading.
Which is your favourite tale that features the “Welsh Loch Ness Monster”? And what are your thoughts on the beast’s origins?
Also, did anyone see a green cap with an image of a panther on it lying on the slopes of Moel Siabod in the summer of 2020, by any chance?!
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATIONS:
About Tŷ Hyll | Snowdonia Society (snowdonia-society.org.uk)
Guest, Lady Charlotte (2002). The Mabinogion. London: Voyager. pp. 192–195. ISBN 0-261-10392-X.
^ Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru (University of Wales Dictionary), vol. I, p.41, afanc
^ Miéville, China. (2002). The scar. London: Macmillan. ISBN 0-333-78174-0. OCLC 49692277.
^ McGuire, Seanan. Ashes of Honor: An October Daye novel. Daw: 2012.
Six month anniversary for Welsh beavers | County Times
Davies, Sioned (2007) The Mabinigion: A new translation
Guest, Lady Charlotte (1838-1845) The Mabinogion
History Points - Horse-drawn coach, Capel Curig
J. Lloyd-Jones M.A., B.Litt (1928) Enwau Lleoedd Sir Gaernarfon
Perrin, Jim. Visions of Snowdonia (London: BBC Books, 1997) ISBN0-563-38302-X.
Marsh, Terry. The Summits of Snowdonia (London: Robert Hale, 1984) ISBN 0-7090-1456-2.
^ Marsh, Terry. The Mountains of Wales (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1985) ISBN 0-340-34827-5.
^ Nuttall, John & Anne (1999). The Mountains of England & Wales - Volume 1: Wales (2nd edition ed.). Milnthorpe, Cumbria: Cicerone. ISBN 1-85284-304-7.
Stevenson, Peter (2017) Welsh Folk Tales
Williams, William (1802) Observations on the Snowdon Mountains