WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part II
I REMEMBER PULLING PINTS when working behind a bar in my hometown of Caernarfon that were named after various characters from the Mabinogion. They were all brewed locally and one of the most popular of the craft breweries was Bragdy Lleu, based in Dyffryn Nantlle. Their website states that they are “passionate about the culture, history and language of Dyffryn Nantlle- the land of the Mabinogi. Every beer we brew is named after characters from the world-famous Welsh folklore legends, with elements of those characters conveyed in the unique character of each beer” (see References).
They have a golden ale called ‘Blodeuwedd’ made from the various flowers used by Gwydion and his uncle Math to create the famous “Flower-Faced” girl, as stated in the Mabinogion themselves: “…the flowers of the oak, and the flowers of the broom, and the flowers of the meadowsweet, and from those they conjured up the fairest and most beautiful maiden anyone had ever seen. And they baptized her in the way that they did at that time, and named her Blodeuwedd.”
Blodeuwedd appears in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi and in the Book of Taliesin, where a first-person account of her creation is given. She has had a profound impact of Welsh culture in recent years and often pops up in literature and popular culture. A beautiful girl made from flowers and forced into a marriage with a man she does not love- Lleu Llaw Gyffes. Her true love was a man named Gronw Pebr, and the two ended up having a deadly affair.
Considering Lleu to be a “unique, strong, appealing and memorable character”, the amber ale dedicated to him has an interesting mash of flavours to convey this. He is often referred to as the Welsh equivalent of Lugh, a huge god from Irish mythology, and Lugus, an old Celtic deity. His brother was Dylan Ail Don, the Welsh God of the Sea. The two were born when the sorcerer Math, their uncle, used magic to test their mother Arianrhod’s virginity. Lleu came out as a weird, lump of a thing and was spotted by Gwydion. He raised him in secret before eventually revealing him to his repulsed mother, who instantly cast a curse on him, being the reason why he needed to create a wife for himself in the first place, which ended up being Blodeuwedd. One of the conditions was that he could never marry a human girl, you see.
Many scholars believe that he, like Pryderi (from the first, third and fourth Branches), is a descendant of Mabon ap Modron, another big name in Welsh mythology, who came from a long line of Welsh deities, himself. Mabon was a member of King Arthur’s war band, and featured in How Culhwch won Olwen, another tale told in the Mabinogion, which I shall discuss in a future post.
Then there’s the darker, more traditional Welsh ale dedicated to Gwydion. Often referred to as a “hero”, this Welsh sorcerer was also a devious rapist who enjoyed inciting wars and getting involved in other people’s affairs. He features heavily in the Welsh Triads, being a medieval collection (made up of three groups) of Welsh myths and legends, the Book of Taliesin, being an ancient collection of poems, and the Stanzas of the Graves/Englynion y Beddau, a Middle Welsh list of the locations of the final resting places of many legendary heroes. Featured in the Book of Taliesin is a medieval Welsh poem called Cad Goddeu, which means ‘Battle of the Trees’. It stars many of the characters mentioned above, and involves Gwydion raising an army of walking trees to help him face off against Arawn, king of Annwn/Annwfn, being the Welsh Otherworld.
There’s also a red IPA dedicated to Bendigeidfran, the giant king discussed in WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part I and WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part II.
Blodeuwedd, Gwydion and Lleu are all characters from the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, otherwise known as “Math fab Mathonwy”. This is the branch that I am currently covering on my Magical Mystery Tour of North Wales- check out WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part I for a better synopsis of the great tale, as well as a little bit of background information on the Mabinogion themselves. In that post, we departed on our tour from Dinas Dinlle, rumoured to have been the place resided by Lleu and Blodeuwedd. Just offshore was the legendary reef of Caer Arianrhod.
Our first stop on our Magical Mystery Tour is Dyffryn Nantlle(‘lleu’), the so-called “land of the Mabinogi”. Growing up in nearby Caernarfon, my only reference point for Dyffryn Nantlle was the local secondary school, as we knew some of the pupils from there from going to Welsh-language gigs in sixth form. Then, when we went to Shagaluf in the summer before uni, John Lennon Airport was evacuated due to a terrorist threat and we had to spend the night wrapped in foil blankets on the floor in the local leisure centre. Camped out next to us were a group of girls from that school. Other than that, I had virtually no connection to the place, despite it only being on the other side of the mountain from my childhood home.
Now I find myself going there on the hunt for places associated with the Mabingoion. Turns out, Dyffryn Nantlle is renowned for its rich folklore that stretches beyond the Mabinogi, which was compiled together by John Owen Huws throughout the 1970s and 80s. These were published over three volumes in 2008 (Straeon Gwerin Ardal Eryri, Gwasg Carreg Gwalch).
Joining me today are Mam, Dad (the driver) and my younger, autistic brother. I discuss my experiences of growing up with him in my other blog, BRAWD AUTISTICO. It's grey and miserable and the wind howls loudly in the sky above us, slowly drenching our faces in light drizzle whenever we stop to get out the car. We are driving around the trunk of Elephant Mountain. At least, that’s what us locals call it- its official name is Mynydd Mawr, which literally means “big mountain”. We call it “Mynydd Eliffant” because, well, it kind of looks like an elephant...
...from our side, perhaps, because as soon as you wind around the trunk towards Drws-y-Coed (Door of the Trees), the elephant turns into one side of a huge glacial valley, part of an enormous half-pipe, if you will.
Indeed, the Nantlle Valley offers dramatic views all around. It’s an important location, geologically- in the 19th Century, it helped fuel a fierce debate between believers of the "Biblical Great Flood", the ‘Diluvialists’ and the ‘Glacialists’, supporters of the more… scientific... Glacial Theory, which was founded on studies made on the sedimentary drifts of Moel Tryfan.
The original path through the eastern end of the valley, where we are now, was constructed by Edward I’s men not long after his conquest of Wales. Eddie had such a profound impact on our nation that he very often makes an appearance on this blog! It was a busy area in those days, with material here used to build nearby castles. An ecclesiastical college was also built at nearby Clynnog Fawr. Furthermore, one of the first recorded jousting events in Britain was held here in the fields of Baladeulyn, down near Nantlle. It was held as a bit of a celebration for the royal army as they marched from Nefyn following a bloody war. Some scholars believe that rules were written up here that later became the basis of the Statute of Arms (1292), which regulated the sport of jousting.
Before all that, the dense woods of the valley were used as hunting grounds by the kings and princes of Gwynedd.
Dotted all around up this end of the valley are old copper mining shafts and various abandoned ruins. But one house in particular stands out (it does help that there’s a plaque on the wall, mind!)- that which belonged to Y Brodyr Francis/The Francis Brothers…
Dyffryn Nantlle has a long literary and musical history, and many Welsh poets, writers and singers hail from the valley. You may know of Bryn Terfel, who grew up just on the outskirts, and Welsh singer Bryn Fôn, from nearby Llanllyfni. In the early 20th Century, however, the Francis Brothers were the local celebrities. Griffith William Francis and his brother Owen William Francis, like most men from Dyffryn Nantlle at the time, worked in the local quarries, but they became prestigious singers known across Wales. They were born in Cwm Pennant to William and Mary Francis of Bron-y-Wern. Their dad was an officer at the quarry in Moelfre, and an excellent musician. He moved the family to Clogwyn Brwnt in Drws-y-Coed, then to Gelliffrydiau and finally to the village of Nantlle, where he taught the brothers to sing.
He must have taught them well, for they ended up touring Wales and other places throughout the 1920s and 30s, booking out halls and chapels all over the country. They took part in the first-ever Welsh concert that was broadcast over radio (at Dublin, in March, 1927) and they came up with a new and unique way of singing using two voices. Griff was also a poet on the side, and his work Telyn Eryri was published by Hughes and Son in 1932, being a series of songs depicting the hardships of the people who lived and worked at Dyffryn Nantlle.
Both brothers died the same year, in 1936, but were buried in separate local cemeteries, for some reason (Griff at Pen-y-Groes and Ows at Llanllyfni).
Further down into the valley, you will find a large boulder with a memorial placed before it. Why's that? Because that’s the very boulder that crashed through the roof of the local chapel on February 17th, 1892. The chapel was then relocated to a safer location further down. If you aim your camera just right, you can make it look as though the boulder is sitting right on top of the memorial…
But the main attraction for me up this end of the valley is Llyn y Dywarchen, being the lake of the legendary floating island.
Legend goes that the floating island was once a meeting place between a fairy and her human husband after she was forbidden from ever walking on mortal land. Tales of the Tylwyth Teg and their use of lakes and other bodies of water as portals between the Welsh Otherworld to our own have come up before in this blog- check of WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Genuine Fairy Tale Castle? and WHERE THE FOLK is the Propa’ Valley Girl of the Lake, ‘en?.
But tales of a floating island may not be as “out-there” as you may think…
Gerald of Wales wrote in 1188 that the lake had “a floating island in it which is driven from one side to the other by the force of the wind.” This may be hard to believe, but it is possible- experts say that a part of the bank, itself held together by roots of various shrubbery, could at one point have broken off from the mainland. Anchored to the rest of the bank, this lump of earth could then have ended up floating in the water.
In 1698, a scientist and astronomer named Edmund Halley actually swam out to the island, and confirmed that it did, indeed, float. Then in 1784, Thomas Pennant recorded that he had seen the island, and that cattle that would wander onto it when it came close to the bank would sometimes get stuck out on the lake!
Indeed, it seems likely that there was, indeed, once a floating island of sorts at Llyn y Dywarchen, but you won’t find it here today. These days, it’s used as a fishing lake. The car park is built over the remains of a clandestine Moravian lodge and chapel, one of only 40 to have been built in Britain and therefore considered very rare. Such a tragedy, all around!
As we head further into the valley, it becomes more densely populated. Welsh is the first language of some 85-90% of Dyffryn Nantlle’s population. The valley gives off a very peaceful and serene vibe these days, but it hasn’t always been so quiet- most of the community hails from people who came over for the slate quarries in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but other lineages go as far back as the Iron and Bronze Ages. There are numerous quarries dotted around the valley, but the largest by far are Pen-yr-Orsedd and Dorothea.
The Nantlle Railway used to run through here, existing for the most part as a horse-drawn service for transporting slate from the quarries, but it was also a functioning passenger line. It became the site of the last horse-drawn British Railways service, closing in 1963 only because the branch line that it connected to closed first.
Indeed, heavy industry truly has re-shaped the land of the Nantlle Valley, and it doesn’t become more evident than when we arrive at our main point of interest, being the place linked to the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi that we came here for in the first place...
They say that this is was the location of the oak tree upon which Gwydion found his missing nephew Lleu, who was stuck in the form of an eagle as the result of a failed assassination attempt at the hands of Blodeuwedd and Gronw Pebr. Due to industrialisation, however, two man-made lakes were created, which have completely covered the site. The oak tree, if it did exist, is certainly here no more.
Oak trees feature heavily in Welsh mythology and folklore, for some reason. "Blossoms of the oak" was one of the ingredients used to create Blodeuwedd, and poor Rhys discovered his wife-to-be's skeletal remains inside one in the story of Rhys a Meinir, covered in WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to hide? Part I and WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to hide? Part II.
I mean, the spot where I stand is recognised as one of the best views in all of Snowdonia, but there’s something bugging me. Three empty lakes... I can’t get over how industrialisation has literally swallowed up all the remnants from the past linked to the folklore and some of the history of Dyffryn Nantlle, and can’t help but wonder how many other places like this are out there… we shall see!
Join me next time in WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl Go? Part III, where our Magical Mystery Tour of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi continues…
Thanks for reading.
I’m keen to see if you can figure out where the folk we’re going to next… we’ll see a Roman amphitheatre, a stone with a hole in it and a nuclear power plant… any guesses?
Also, does anyone know of anywhere else from the past in Wales that has fallen victim to industrialisation and is no longer in existence?
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATION:
Caer Arianrhod - Wicipedia (wikipedia.org)
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