WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part III
Updated: Mar 18
HELLO. SORRY TO DISTURB YOU...
“…we’re looking for ‘Llech Ronw’…”
“…the slate with the hole in it?”
“…then you take a left down there…”
“…back the way you came…”
“Llech Ronw… from the Mabiniogion?”
“Haven’t been for years!”
“…keep going up that lane to the top of the hill- maybe leave your car by the side of the road, if I were you…”
“This must be the place… go knock and ask them, look!”
“Bloody hell! We’ve knocked every door in the village! Do we really need to?”
“Well you’re the one who keeps getting the directions wrong- I was right! Go ahead!”
Sighing, I approach the small farmhouse on top of the hill and knock the front door. It’s too early in the morning for this! An elderly woman with a headful of white hair answers and asks “Here for the slate?”
She points to the small gate leading into the field directly opposite her house. “Through there.”
Then she raises her finger slightly, pointing towards the far corner of the field. “Then over there.”
“Diolch yn fawr!”
“It’s a good thing you asked- saw a young couple walking in the opposite direction the other week. I did try shouting at them from up here, but they just waved at me and wandered off. Oh well!” she shrugs.
We have come to the tiny village of Bont-Newydd, on the outskirts of Blaenau Ffestiniog in my home county of Gwynedd, for the next stop on our “Magical Mystery Tour” of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. We departed from Dinas Dinlle in WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part I (check it out for a full synopsis of the Fourth Branch and a bit of background information on the Mabinogion themselves) then stopped at Dyffryn Nantlle for WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part II.
In this part, we will be visiting Llech Ronw, said to be the stone through which Lleu’s spear pierced when he killed Gronw Pebr, his wife Blodeuwedd’s bit-on-the-side, after Gronw and Blodeuwedd had previously made an attempt on his own life. After that, we’ll head up the road to Tomen y Mur/Mur-y-Castell, where some say Lleu and Blodeuwedd once lived.
“Hmm… get that plastic bag out of the way so I can get a picture!”
“Gronw’s Slate” is essentially a standing piece of slate with a hole in it, found along the banks of Afon Bryn Saeth, which leads to the much larger Afon Cynfal, at the bottom of the hill. The village owes its name to the bridge crossing this river. It measures around forty inches by thirty, with the hole being about an inch in diameter.
A man named Frank Ward found the stone along the banks of Afon Cynfal in 1934 and left it there. He reckoned it must have washed downstream from nearby Ceunant Coch, because a local woman said to have seen it there beforehand. Then, years later, a stone similar to the one described, possibly the same one, seeing as there is no such stone found along Afon Cynfal these days, was spotted along Afon Bryn Saeth, where we now stand. ‘Bryn Saeth’, coincidentally, translates to “Hill of the Arrow”.
According to the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, Lleu’s mother, Arianrhod, puts a curse on him the moment his uncle Gwydion reveals him to her. One of the conditions of that curse was that he could never marry a human woman. To help his nephew out, Gwydion sought the help of his own uncle, Math ap Mathonwy, a great sorcerer just like him. Together, they create Blodeuwedd.
But Lleu turns out not to be Blodeuwedd’s true love- her true love is a man named Gronw Pebr. Gronw and Blodeuwedd end up having an affair, and the pair come up with a plot to murder Lleu.
The trouble was, Lleu was protected by magic and was therefore very hard to kill. They needed to know how to defeat him, and Blodeuwedd got it out of him in bed one night, saying that she needed to know so as to be able to protect him from his “enemies”. It wasn’t going to be easy. Turns out, he couldn’t be killed during day or night, indoors nor outdoors, whilst riding nor walking, not naked nor clothed, nor by any weapon that had been lawfully crafted. The only way to kill him was at dusk, wrapped in a net with one foot on a cauldron and the other on a goat, and the only weapon that would kill him was a spear forged over the course of a year only when everyone else was at mass.
Most people would have given up right then and there, but the two lovers prevailed, and they somehow tricked the gullible Lleu into getting into this most ridiculous position. But even after all that, he transforms into an eagle, leaving his human body behind, and flies away! Gronw and Blodeuwedd leg it, and Gwydion sets out on a quest to find his nephew, using a pig he finds munching on maggots in Lleu’s rotting body. Singing a magic poem, he turns Lleu back into a human and the two set off after Gronw and Blodeuwedd.
Gronw apologizes and offers to compensate him, but Lleu insists that he has a pop at him with a spear, which seems fair. Gronw hides behind a stone, but the spear pierces it and kills him. Gwydion then turns his attention to his creation, the beautiful Blodeuwedd, whom he turns into an owl as punishment. She flies off into the night, never to be seen again…
It seems that the events of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi have had a huge influence over place-names in this area; as well as Llech Ronw and Bryn Saeth, there is also a farmstead down the road called Llech Goronwy. Interestingly, nearby Bryn Cyfergyd may also have been ‘Bryn Cygergyr’, or the “Hill of Battle”, from where Gronw Pebr initially threw the spear towards Lleu, instigating the whole thing.
But could this really be the slate from the tale? Could it be proof that these extraordinary events really did take place?!
Doubtful, but it is odd how this thing keeps popping up in different places! But don't freak out if you ever spot it down by Afon Dyfi, the river once considered to be the border between North and South Wales, for the one found there is but a replica of this one, made by local stone mason Edward Rowlands for the filming of The Owl Service, a Granada Television series from 1969. It was based on the novel of the same name written by English novelist Alan Garner in 1967- essentially, a modern re-telling of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. Rowlands would later carve his name onto the sculpture to stop it being mistaken for an actual ancient monument.
So what the folk could it be then, really?
“Hag Stones” are formed when water erodes through stone, creating a natural hole. Spiritualists have held them dear for centuries, believing them to be powerful protection amulets when worn. As such, they have always gone by such names as “Witch Stones”, “Adder Stones”, “Snake Eggs”, “Hex Stones”, “Fairy Stones”, “Holy Stones”, “Holeys” and “Eye Stones” and so forth.
But these are usually smaller stones, small enough to be worn. The important detail here is that they were formed naturally through erosion, and that Llech Ronw was found along the banks of a river, so there’s a good chance it was created by natural means.
But we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that the hole is man-made- it is a pretty perfect hole! That is to say, that it’s either a ‘hoax’, or perhaps was never meant to be “discovered” nor made a big deal of in the first place. People interpret things in different ways, after all!
Some also believe that it could have once been used for target practice, that is to say that archers could have used it to perfect their aim (breaking arrows is expensive, so they had better get it through the hole!). But others argue that breaking arrows is too expensive for this to be a viable theory.
Another, more plausible theory is that it was simply a stone gate post. Indeed, stone gate posts with holes in them are found everywhere in the countryside!
Who the folk knows, but it seems unlikely that it was pierced by the spear of a shape-shifting sorcerer, that’s for sure! After snapping a few photos, we make our way back across the field then back down the hill again.
We have a busy day ahead of us, as we will be visiting all the locations for WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part III as well as WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part IV today. It’s early in the morning; the sun is out but the air is bitterly cold, our breaths rising in clouds behind our heads as we make our way back towards the car. The roads, so far untouched by sunlight, are white with frost.
“Take it easy with the driving, now!” he huffs.
“I will!” I puff.
Tomen y Mur is actually a Roman fort dating back to the 1st Century AD. It is found along the slopes of an isolated hill northeast of Llyn Trawsfynydd. These days, Trawsfynydd is famous for its nuclear power plant. The A470 runs between the Roman fort and the power plant, a road I have driven countless times, yet I had no idea Tomen y Mur even existed until I started writing this blog!
Sarn Helen, the Roman road named after the wife of Emperor Magnus Maximus from The Dream of Macsen Wledig, also runs nearby. I shall discuss those two in more detail in my upcoming post, WHERE THE FOLK is the Girl of My Dreams, cont?, where I will explore the folklore and legends of my own hometown.
The site was built during the campaigns of governor Gnaeus Julies Agricola in AD 78, and was abandoned around AD 140. It stood as a ghost town for many years, the land perhaps used by local farmers, until the Normans built a motte there in the 11th Century. Today, the site is owned and managed by the Snowdonia National Park Authority.
The name “Tomen y Mur” means “Mound of the Wall”, probably being a nod to the old Norman motte. As such, the place couldn’t have got its name until the 11th Century, being too late to have been called that during the age of the Mabinogion. There are no records of the name given to the place by the Roman occupiers.
The local Celtic tribe of the time, the Ordovices, weren’t comfortable with the idea of Roman occupation, and with the help of the Silures from South-east Wales, under the leadership of the chieftain Caratacus, they waged a bloody guerrilla war against them in the AD 50s. When the fort was eventually built in AD 78, the Ordovices were still proving to be a huge pain in the backside for the Romans. After they massacred an entire Roman Cavalry, Agricola came down so hard on them that they were practically wiped off the face of the Earth.
In the years that followed, Tomen y Mur existed to maintain Roman hold on the area. From here, they could keep one eye on the local population and another on their precious roads. Built with earthworks and timber, it likely housed as many as a thousand Roman troops at one time, mainly cavalry.
Then, in the early 2nd Century, troops were withdrawn from the site and a new stone structure was built to protect the remaining 500 men. No less than thirty years later, however, the fort was abandoned completely.
What remains here today are traces of a flat parade ground, a bath house, a Roman “mansio” (pub), a few roads, some burial mounds, a temple (unconfirmed) and a small military amphitheatre, which Romans rarely bothered to build over in Britain- historians reckon that one was built here to keep bored legionnaires sane whilst being based in such a bleak outpost.
In WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part II, I visited Harlech Castle, said to be the site of the giant king Bendigeidfran’s court from the Second Branch of the Mabinogi. There you will find a number of inscribed stones, believed to have originated from Tomen y Mur. Each one is dedicated to the Roman Centuria who built the fortress walls here and gives details on the length of each structure. Some of these “Centurial Stones” are also on display in the museum at the Roman fort of Segontium in my hometown of Caernarfon. Note that the north-western fortress wall here at Tomen y Mur is merely a reconstruction.
We are here today because “Mur-y-Castell”, as the place is known in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, was recognised as the legendary palace of Ardudwy at the time, way before Roman occupation. Ardudwy stretched from Tremadog Bay to the Rhinogydd mountain range. It existed under the old Kingdom of Gwynedd, first as a division of the cantref of Dunoding and then as a commote of its own. Today, it exists as an official place-name only for a village called Dyffryn Ardudwy.
You see, when good-old Eddy invaded Wales in 1283, the cantref was merged with Meirionydd, forming the new county of Meirionethshire. It remained as such, until the Welsh Local Government was reshuffled in 1974 and it became part of Gwynedd. Indeed, it’s safe to say that Ardudwy is no more!
It was once ruled by the 9th Century chieftain Collwyn ap Tango (love that name!), hailing from one of the Fifteen Noble Tribes of Gwynedd. He was Lord of Eifionydd, Ardudwy and some areas of Llŷn.
But way before then, the area featured heavily in the Mabinogion. Like I said, in WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? Part II, I mentioned that the giant king Bendigeidfran held court at Harlech, found in Ardudwy. In the Fourth Branch, Lleu built his palace in the area (Mur-y-Castell) after he was given control of both Eifionydd and Ardudwy by Math, king of Gwynedd.
Alas, we currently have no evidence of such a palace being built here, so again, who the folk knows!
Join us in WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-faced Girl go? Part IV for the final stop on our “Magical Mystery Tour” of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi, where we visit the proposed final resting place of Pryderi, Prince of Dyfed, who met his end in the Fourth Branch at the hands of Gwydion- a site made famous by a whole other folktale entirely. We will also visit a genuine Celtic rainforest, considered the place where Pryderi met his end.
Can you tell where the folk we’re going to yet?!
Thanks for reading.
I’m interested to know what you think the origins of Llech Ronw are. Also, do you think that a Welsh palace existed at Tomen y Mur prior to Roman occupation?
See you in Part IV for the final stop on our “Magical Mystery Tour” of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi… can you tell where the folk we’re going to yet?!
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATION:
The Mabinogion: Branwen the Daughter of Llyr, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest. Online at www.sacred-texts.com.
^ The Mabinogion (op. cit.): Math the son of Mathonwy
Guest, Lady Charlotte (1838-1845) The Mabinogion
1. The Hob Goblin. "Lud's Church (XII)." Web log post. Clas Merdin: Tales from the Enchanted Island. Blogger, 28 Feb. 2009. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://clasmerdin.blogspot.com/2009_02_01_archive.html>.
2. ^ Jump up to:a b Harvey, Michael (1999). "Intimate Listening: Stories, the Marketplace, and Imagination". Celtic Well. Archived from the original on January 17, 2012. Retrieved November 21, 2010.
3. ^ Ford, Patrick K., trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California, 2008. Print. 108-109.
4. ^ Ford, Patrick K., trans. The Mabinogi and Other Medieval Welsh Tales. Berkeley: University of California, 2008. Print. 109.
5. ^ "Places Mentioned in the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi." Gwefan Swyddogol Dyffryn Nantlle / The Drffryn Nantlle Website. Web. 21 Nov. 2010. <http://www.nantlle.com/mabinogi-saesneg-places-mentioned-in-the-fourth-branch.htm>.
Red Book of Hergest (Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Jesus College III), 1382-1410
Tomen y Mur". Archaeologia Cambrensis (Fourth ed.). Cambrian Archaeological Association. ii: 194–196. 1871
White Book of Rhydderch (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 4-5), 1350