WHERE THE FOLK did King Arthur, his Sleeping Army and the Giant Caveman go?
“Yet some men say in many parts of England that King Arthur is not dead, but had by the will of our Lord Jesus into another place; and men say that he shall come again, and he shall win the holy cross.” ― Thomas Malory, Le Morte d'Arthur
THE LEGEND OF KING ARTHUR is renowned world-over, in some shape or form. Camelot, Sir Lancelot and the other Knights of the Round Table, Excalibur, the Holy Grail… he is the epitome of medieval romanticism, a base model for all the great kings, leaders and knights in shining armour who protected the Britons from homeland enemies, Saxon invaders and the supernatural forces of the Otherworld.
Although most scholars and historians now agree that (although there’s a possibility there may have been a rogue warlord around in the 5th or 6th centuries whose life may have inspired legend) King Arthur probably wasn’t a real person, the Welsh (Brenin Arthur), Cornish (Arthur Gernow) and English have always tried to lay claim to this legendary king, and rumours of his final resting place are rife throughout England and Wales.
But a Welshman can lay claim to be the one responsible for popularizing the legend of King Arthur, at least; Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain), completed in 1138, threw King Arthur into mainstream popular culture, and he’s never left. Whether or not Geoffrey of Monmouth invented ol’ Archie or if he adapted the character from earlier works or oral narrations is debatable.
Although Arthurian legends vary greatly across the UK, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of events often serve as a starting point for most tales. He depicted Archie as being a British king who defeated the Saxons and established a vast empire, stretching across Europe. It is in his version of events that we were first introduced to Uther Pendragon; Archie’s dad, whom some later attributed to Merlin. We were also introduced to Archie’s wife, Guinevere (Welsh: Gwenhwyfawr) and the legendary sword, Excalibur. Geoff proposed that his final resting place was in Avalon, being a legendary island. It was the 12th-century French writer Chretien de Troyes who later added Lancelot and the Holy Grail to the mix.
Archie was also a key character in the tale of Culhwch and Olwen, an old Welsh tale that survives only in two manuscripts (there’s a complete version in the Red Book of Hergest c. 1400 and a fragmented version in the White Book of Rhydderch c. 1325). The longest of all the Welsh prose tales, Culhwch and Olwen certainly deserve a post of their own, for the story unfolds all over Wales and the UK, giving birth to many place-names, and became one of the most renowned pieces of literature in the world. Lady Charlotte Guest included it in her version of The Mabinogion.
It tells of Culhwch, a Welsh hero whom is cursed by his evil stepmother so that he can only love Olwen, daughter of the fierce giant, Ysbaddaden Pencawr. In order to gain her hand in marriage, Culhwch must complete a list of forty impossible tasks, and he asks his cousin Archie to help him out. Arthur brings six of his best men along with him for the ride.
Indeed, there are far too many destinations dotted throughout Wales (it is said that his main headquarters were in Caerleon, and he is said to have killed a giant on top of Yr Wyddfa/Mt Snowdon) associated with King Arthur to possibly include in a single blog post. If you’re interested, however, check out the link in the References (bottom) that will take you to a site which shows a trail you can follow over a period of several days that will take you to all the locations in Wales associated with Arthurian legends…
For this post, I intended to focus on a particular rumour regarding Archie’s final resting place, one that involves him and an army of slumbering knights resting in a cave somewhere, guarding treasure and waiting for the day when they may rise again and take Wales back from her oppressors… as such, I travelled to Dinas Rock (Welsh: Craig y Ddinas), in Waterfall Country, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons National Park.
The area comprises of four rivers, which wind their way down through tree-lined gorges over a series of waterfalls before joining up to form the River Neath. Nowhere else in Wales has such a rich diversity of cascades and waterfalls.
Dinas Rock is a large, rocky outcrop of Carboniferous Limestone which rises between the Afon Mellte and the Afon Sychryd, on the border between the counties of Powys and Neath Port Talbot. Its name (dinas: city) refers to the Iron Age earthworks that sit on its summit.
Several short caves descend into Dinas Rock, including Ogof Pont Sychryd, Ogof Bwa Maen and Will’s Hole, the latter also being referred to as “Arthur’s Cave”, extending just under 400 metres (1,300 ft) below Dinas Rock. It is down there that legend states King Arthur lies in wait with his loyal army of knights, ready to rise again once disturbed.
According to rumour, two men discovered the hidden chamber, and were subsequently chased away by the knights. This story is reminiscent of that of Ifor Bach's, discussed in WHERE THE FOLK's the party at?
It took me just under an hour to get there from Cardiff, heading up the A470 before turning up the Heads of the Valleys road. I had been to the village of Pontneddfechan in Waterfall Country before, to walk one of the many waterfall trails with a friend of mine.
As I drove by the car park where we had set off from, I recalled the couple we saw furiously going at it on one of the boulders in front of the falls. It had been in broad daylight, and they were going for gold!
Following the river, I arrived at Dinas Rock. The formation stands right next to the car park, and as a result, many photos don’t do it justice. Arriving early in the morning, with the sun rising behind it, it reminded me of when I visited Uluru in Australia. The car park was already full, and rock-climbing enthusiasts were busy scrambling up to the top.
There are two walking trails leading away from the car park. I took the Sychryd Trail first; a quick, twenty-minute stroll along the river through a narrow, wooded gorge to another rock formation known as ‘Bwa Maen’ and the Sychryd Cascades.
Arriving back at the car park, I managed to twist my ankle walking on the gravel, and spent five minutes sitting on my bonnet wondering if I’d be able to do the other walk, the main attraction, at all. Luckily, the pain subsided and I headed on my way, along the Sgwd yr Eira Trail.
A two-hour hike, there and back, you can either climb up alongside Craig y Ddinas and follow the path along the hillside, or go along the river past the old gunpowder works and what a fellow hiker referred to as “Looney’s Lake”, a popular local swimming spot. The trail takes you to the famous Sgwd yr Eira waterfall (translation: Fall of Snow).
Once there, you can climb down a natural path that takes you into an alcove behind the curtain of water. It’s a popular spot, and it was already difficult to snap a photo without any people in the frame by the time I arrived.
It falls into the Afon Hepste, forming a large pool before snaking down what is referred to as “Devil’s Glen”. All manner of supernatural beings are said to inhabit the glen, from ghosts to Tylwyth Teg (see: WHERE THE FOLK can I find a genuine Fairy Tale Castle?). Indeed, looking down at it from the trail, the place truly looks like something out of a fantasy film! The path leading through the alcove behind the waterfall was once used by local farmers when moving their sheep and cattle from one side of the river to the other.
In my search for Archie’s cave, I came across a red herring. King Arthur’s Cave- located at the north-western end of Lord’s Wood in The Doward, near Symonds Yat in Herefordshire, about four miles north-east of Monmouth, in the Wye Valley, is a limestone cave with a very interesting history, but lacking any connection to King Arthur, whatsoever.
The cave sits on a hillside above the River Wye, and consists of a double inter-connected entrance, and two main chambers. It is protected as a nature reserve by the Herefordshire Nature Trust. I wasn’t sure if it was eligible to feature in this blog, seeing as the border lines are quite blurry in that area, and I might be stealing an English tale here, but I decided to go, in any case. Like I said, the cave has an interesting history, and it’s located in a beautiful area within the Forest of Dean with plenty to see around it, including a large Iron Age hillfort.
After completing my walk, I was none-the-wiser as to the location of the cave. Disheartened, I headed back to the car, only to discover that I had done the walk the wrong way around- the cave sits tucked away below a rocky outcrop not five minutes from the car park! There is a small hillfort sitting at the top, hidden amongst the trees.
Nobody is certain how the cave got its name, but it has always been shrouded in local superstition and urban legends. It has been linked to one of the earliest legends involving King Vortigern, who fought off the Anglo-Saxons. He is said to have made his last stand against Aurelius at nearby Ganarew. This is the same Vortigern who had trouble with the red and white dragons in WHERE THE FOLK did the Welsh get their flag from?
Helen Hill Miller (not Helen Mirren!), in her 1969 book The Realms of Arthur, argued that the cave was, indeed, used for military purposes, saying that the cave’s "recesses penetrate very far into the hill, and could hide a substantial force".
Another cave tucked below a human settlement named after the legendary king, capable of hiding a small force of men!
But I went to Herefordshire for a completely different reason, altogether; it is said that, around 1700, the skeleton of a “giant human” was found in the cave, which was lost when a local surgeon named ‘Mr Pye’ took the skeleton with him on a voyage to Jamaica and the ship sank on the way over.
Later, in 1871, Reverend (and Sheriff) William S. Symonds (whose name was attributed to nearby Symonds Yat) led an excavation of the cave after he learned that a group of miners has recently raided the small system. They unearthed hyena, lion, brown bear, red deer, rhinoceros, Irish Elk, reindeer and horse bones, dating back to the Late Pleistocene period. There was evidence that the bones had been crunched up, and later, tools were found, meaning it was once occupied by humans… or a giant.
In the years that followed, they unearthed elephant bones, ox, beavers, badgers and wolves. Mammoth bones were also found in the area. The chambers were subsequently referred to as “The Bear’s Den” and “The Lion’s Cave”.
In between archaeological digs, several hermits and other cave-dwellers also made the cave their home. Here is a picture of one such couple, featured on the information board in the car park:
I didn’t find King Arthur, nor did I awaken his army of valiant knights. But I did learn more about Archie’s Welsh connections, and of the abundance of locations dotted around Wales linked to this legendary hero king.
Better get my walking boots on!
Thanks for reading.
I’m interested to learn more about King Arthur and his role in Welsh history and folklore; can anyone recommend a particular spot to go to?