WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part IV
THE FINAL STOP on our “Magical Mystery Tour” of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi is the small village of Maentwrog, which lies just up the road from Llech Ronw and Tomen y Mur, where my father and I went this morning for WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part III.
Check out WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part I, in which we depart from Dinas Dinlle, for a full synopsis of the Fourth Branch, as well as a bit more background information on the Mabinogion themselves. In WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part II, we stopped off at Dyffryn Nantlle and learned all about a mysterious floating island that once existed there.
The final part of our tour focuses on the death of Pryderi, King of Dyfed. He is the only character to feature in all four branches of the Mabinogi; from his birth in the First Branch to his death at the hands of the powerful sorcerer, Gwydion, in the Fourth. In the latter branch, he travels up north to wage a brutal war against Gwydion and his uncle Math, King of Gwynedd. This was all the result of Gwydion’s scheming…
You see, Math believed that his feet had to be continually held by a virgin, and his nephew Gilfaethwy was infatuated with Goewin, his latest virginal “royal maiden foot-holder”. Gwydion, Gilfaethwy’s older brother, decides to help him out, and comes up with quite a nasty plan- using magic, he tricks Pryderi into giving him his beloved pigs (which were a gift given to his father in the First Branch of the Mabinogi by Arawn, king of the Welsh Otherworld of Annwn/Annwfn) in exchange for horses and dogs. But these turned out to be nothing more than an illusion…
He and Gilfaethwy popped down to South Wales incognito, travelling with a band of minstrels and bards. Seemingly impressed by the entertainment, Pryderi offered them a gift for the effort, to which Gwydion asks him for his herd of pigs, even offering to buy them instead. Pryderi reluctantly agrees, but makes him promise never to sell them to anyone else.
However, the previous morning, Gwydion had gone into the woods at the Moelwyns and picked twenty-four mushrooms, transforming them into twelve steeds and twelve hunting hounds. He had then decorated them in gold before presenting them to Pryderi.
What follows is a long journey that tells of how Gwydion and Gilfaethwy herded the pigs back up north, stopping at various places along the way. This section inspired many place-names of today.
Meanwhile, Pryderi goes to fetch his new dogs and horses to go for a hunt, only to find a bunch of mushrooms in their place. It dawns on him who the leader of the travelling minstrels was, and rallies his troops and heads up to Math’s kingdom to declare war.
Math rises to the challenge, leaving Goewin unattended. While he’s away sorting things out with Pryderi, the two brothers violently rape her. That’s right- they started a brutal and bloody war that results in great loss on both sides just so that they could rape a virgin- not your typical “heroes”, as they are often referred to as!
The war comes to a climax when Pryderi and Gwydion meet at Y Felenrhyd, at a spot chosen by Gwydion called the “Yellow Ford”, being a long stretch of sand along the Dwyryd estuary that appears at low tides. He chose this spot for a reason, for the places where the land meets the sea and the sea meets the sky are magical hotspots, apparently, so his spells were powerful enough to kill Pryderi, himself but a mortal man, but a fierce warrior who fought bravely until the end.
Pryderi fell in the woods outside Maentwrog, Y Felenrhyd, which is classed as a genuine rainforest- that’s where we’re headed. But first, we are stopping off at the churchyard in Maentwrog, for there lies a boulder with a peculiar past…
It is said that Pryderi was laid to rest at this spot- “Maen Tyfiawg”. However, years later, people would claim that the standing rock was thrown there by a saint (though some say a giant) named ‘Twrog’ when he faced off against the Devil himself (though others say a she-devil), who lived here with his or her worshippers, who were the original settlers. The area is certainly associated more-so with this tale these days. Worth a look for this blog, that’s for sure!
Twrog was a missionary, and came to rid the place of its evil and set up a good, law-abiding Christian community in its place. Now, we’ve spoken of many saints in this blog, and in WHERE THE FOLK can I find a Pirate-Fighting Monk? we learned of just how badass some of these saints could be. Twrog was one of those badass saints; he squared up to the devil head-on, spending half a day engaged in a wrestling match with him! Or her.
Retreating to the Moelwyn Mountains, Twrog sat and prayed, and an angel appeared. She showed him a clearing in the woods where unearthly fruits grew. Upon eating one of those fruits, Twrog gained superhuman strength and abilities. Perhaps this is why some people mistakenly refer to him as a “giant”.
From up on the hill, he spotted the devil down in the valley and hurled a boulder at him/her. It landed between their legs, embedding itself in the ground. The devil realised it must have been some divine intervention, and turned into his/her true form, growing wings and horns and flew off into the distance, never to be seen in the area again.
Twrog then built his church there, setting up his little Christian community. I’m not sure what happened to all the Satanists- whether they fled or converted- but it’s safe to say that everyone lived happily ever after.
But Twrog was actually a real person; he was a 6th-Century saint who came to Wales during the Age of the Saints. His feast day is on 26th June and several place-names are dedicated to him, including Bodwrog on Anglesey, the village of Llandwrog on the mainland and the old ruins on Chapel Rock. Many scholars believe he was the son of an “Ithel Hael o Lydaw” of Brittany and that his siblings included Saint Tanwg (of Llandanwg), Saint Tecwyn (Llandecwyn), Saint Tegai (Llandegai) and Saint Baglan (Llanfaglan). He was a member of the College of Bardsey, a monastery founded in 516 AD.
“Here we are, down this turning- look!”
Maentwrog lies in the Vale of Ffestiniog in Gwynedd, tucked away between the foothills of Blaenau Ffestiniog within the borders of Snowdonia National Park. Afon Dwyryd slithers down the valley just outside the village. Around 631 people live here, according to the 2011 Census. Also included in the community, however, is the nearby village of Gellilydan. Maentwrog itself sits on the A496 between Blaenau Ffestiniog and Harlech, where I visited in WHERE THE FOLK can I listen to Talking Starlings and a Welsh Banger? PART II. The Roman road Sarn Helen also runs through here.
You’ve also got two pubs- the Grade II-listed, 17th-Century The Grapes Hotel, being an old coaching inn, and the Oakeley Arms, which I’ve passed many a time whilst travelling between north and south Wales.
Crossing the stone bridge and parking up in a lay-by overlooking the snaking river, it is hard to miss the domineering presence of Plas Tan-y-Bwlch, originally built in the 17th Century then seriously refurbished by the wealthy Oakeley family in the 19th Century. The imposing building sits on the side of a hill, overlooking the village. It has its own unmanned stop along the Ffestiniog Railway (Plas Halt) and nearby Tan-y-Bwlch Railway Station is the railway’s main stop along this section.
Entering the churchyard of St Twrog’s Church in search of the stone, we are amazed by the beauty of the place. The church was restored by William Oakeley in 1896 with the help of his wife Mary, a talented wood carver who made most of the interior wooden features seen here today. Growing all around the church are a cluster of yew trees, the oldest of which is around 1300 years old!
Some historians believe they were planted so as to be a source of wood that people once used to make longbows. Others say it was part of an old pagan tradition of planting yew trees around important meeting places or areas or spiritual significance. In the Mabinogion, Pryderi is buried at a “Maen Tyfiawg” just above Y Felenrhyd. The ‘Stanzas of the Graves’ from The Black Book of Carmarthen, however, states that Pryderi’s grave is found at Aber Gwenoli, which lies in a nearby woodland now referred to as “Coed Felinrhyd”.
“Maentwrog” translates to “Twrog’s Stone”. Perhaps Twrog come across it and thought to himself “…kind of sounds like my name- I could do something with that!”
Perhaps, but it’s important to remember that although the oral tradition of the tales of the Mabinogi go back a very long time, they weren’t written down until the 12th Century, several centuries after Saint Twrog was alive.
The origins of the word ‘maen’ also lie in the word ‘menhir’, being a monolith that is neither longer nor taller than it is broad. Indeed, it would seem that this place has held some form of significance for a very long time. Perhaps it was the beacon for a safe crossroad or haven for people travelling from north to south Wales, a route that would ultimately become Sarn Helen, or perhaps it was a sacred stone of sorts, and a point of pilgrimage.
Others go as far as to say that the stone could have been used by a witch of sorts, or pagan priestess- the one that would later inspire the tale of Twrog and the she-devil. Whatever the reason, it’s safe to say that this rock was once pretty important. It stands just outside the back of the church- some say that if you rub the stone, then you are destined to one day return to Maentwrog. Some also say that you can see the mark of Twrog’s hand on the stone if you look closely enough…
I had no idea I was driving past such an important monolith all this time! A lot of the information I gathered for this post came from #FolkloreThursday, in an article written by artist and author Remy Dean. In it, he acknowledged: “These stories were found during research into local folklore undertaken as part of my Writer’s Residency at Plas Tan y Bwlch, and a ‘thank you’ of legendary proportions goes to Twm Elias, who lectures there and hosts residential courses on the Mabinogion, and other fascinating topics, and has been a regular contributor to the magazine Llafar Gwlad, since its first publication in the 1980s . I am also most grateful to Andrew Oughton, for giving me the opportunity in the first place, and for access to the archives. Plas Tan y Bwlch is the Snowdonia National Park Environmental Studies Centre.” (see References).
“Come on, then!”
It’s time to move on to our next destination; Coed Felenrhyd. Along with Llennyrch and a few other woods nearby, Coed Felenrhyd are what’s left of a huge woodland that once stretched all the way from Scotland down to Portugal, and feature some of the best specimens of European Atlantic Oak. It’s officially classed as a rainforest and was barely touched by humans for centuries- that’s right, we’re heading to a genuine Celtic rainforest!
Referred to in the Mabinogion as “Melenrhyd” or “Y Felen Rhyd”, Coed Felenrhyd, together with Llennyrch, cover an area of 765 acres and stretch from Llyn Trawsfynydd in the east to where the Prysor and Dwyryd rivers meet in the west. Living along the many streams and craggy gullies of Y Felenrhyd are a number of rare lichens (including 42 rare UK species), mosses (some 25 rare UK species) and liverworts. They thrive in the forest’s uniquely humid air, which is what makes these woods so special.
At this point, I’d just like to point out that you should definitely come here in the spring or summertime, not the middle of winter like we did!
It is among the best places to see rare lichen in all of Wales, and you can find barnacle lichen and acid-bark specialists here the likes of which you would normally only find in the jungle. You can find these types on the British Isles here at North Wales and parts of south-west Ireland.
It’s also a great place to see bluebells in the spring, and an excellent birdwatching spot; you can see ravens nesting on the cliffs above the rocky gorges, and dippers fishing by the riverbanks. Native jays sing above you in the treetops, and summer brings migrant species such as redstarts and the pied flycatcher.
Otters hunt in the rivers and badgers and foxes roam the woods at night, when several species of local bats swoop between the trees. Among them is the rare lesser horseshoe bat, with the woods providing an ideal environment for the species.
Like I said, these woods, boggy marshes and pockets of grassland went largely untouched for years, with the nearby Snowdonia Hall-House built some time in the 1500s. The house was occupied right up until 2009, when the last owners died. A number of other farmsteads were also built around this time, all plotted on small areas of open grassland. You can still see remnants of them here today. Perhaps the most frequented and well-known of these, however, is Ty Newydd.
Then, in 1739, the Industrial Revolution brought the timber trade to the area, and the slate quarries opened in 1760. By 1763, most of the timber was gone. World War I brought with it an increase in the demand for timber once again, so efforts were made to replant large areas of oak for future forestation.
Then, in the 1960s, other large areas were cleared completely and replanted with non-native conifers. These foreign trees blocked much of the sunlight from the forest floor, changing the ecosystem in those areas completely.
At the same time, they also cleared a lot of the woodland to make room for grazing sheep. You’d think this would only do further damage to an already battered woodland, but the sheep actually helped bring some sunlight to the forest floor, saving some of the rare lichens and bryophytes.
Alas, it would seem that this “ancient forest” isn’t really that ancient, after all! Although, some of the original trees do still exist…
We stop along the banks of a fast-flowing river to eat the little picnic Mam prepared for us earlier in the morning. There’s always heaps of cake to get through whenever I come home, and she’s made ham sandwiches and thrown in a few apples, crisps and Penguin bars, as well. The sound of the flowing river is loud all around us, but our voices echo down the nearby rocky gorge and up the tunnel of trees formed by the otherwise calm, slow-flowing stream.
It’s easy to picture Pryderi and his men stopping for a break along the banks of this river at the time of the Mabinogi, with wolves and bears and Gwydion’s men lurking in the woods… all that lurks in the woods for us is a lone lumberjack dressed in high-vis wielding a chainsaw!
We have stopped here because we believe it to be Huw Llwyd’s pulpit, but as thingd would turn out, we are mistaken. We should have headed to Afon Cynfal when we visited Llech Ronw earlier on in the day for WHERE THE FOLK did the Flower-Faced Girl go? Part III. Still, it made for some boyish fun!
I shall discuss Huw Llwyd in more detail in a future post, for he is one of the “Dynion Hysbys” I mentioned in WHERE THE FOLK did the “Mad Doctor” go to burn the Baby Welsh Messiah?. At the height of his fame, he would exorcise those believed to be possessed by demons at his pulpit here at Y Felenrhyd, where crowds of people would come to witness the many spectacles.
Huw Llwyd’s daughter apparently threw his book of spells into a river following his death, which was subsequently grabbed and taken by an unearthly, demonic hand or claw…
We manage to lose each other on the other side of the river- I stopped to try and get some phone signal and Dad kept going along the path a short while, saying he would return. After failing to find any reception, I climbed back down to the path and waited. He didn’t come, so I went on up the path that he went up.
I call out a few times, then head back to the spot where I stopped to look for phone signal. Not here, either. “Dad?!”
I wait a short while, then head back up the path. That’s when I spot him, marching towards me in his camouflaged jacket.
“Where did you go?” he asks, opening his arms and shaking his head.
“I waited there for a while, even came up to look for you!”
“I saw you- you were walking up the path, straight towards me! I turned to read a bloody information board, looked again and you were gone!”
“You looked straight at me!”
“Argh, bollo- as if!”
“Russ, I’m serious!”
“Must have been that camouflage-print jacket of yours- I told you about wearing that!”
“Come on, let’s go!”
We stop by Rheadr Ddu along the way, then join a narrow country lane that takes us down towards the Maentwrog hydro-electric power station, near where we’re parked. Just off the road, in the woods, we see tents and shelters made of large branches, with fire pits and clothes lines dotted all around the place. It would seem that some people have taken to living in the jungle again…
“Hm… can’t blame them!” says Dad.
We passed the power station on our way into the woods, snapping a photo of a small bridge leading to the plant that had become overgrown (pictured) along the way. It was opened in 1928 and still produces electricity for the local Welsh Power network to this day, powered by water from nearby Llyn Trawsfynydd, itself a man-made reservoir found near the village of Trawsfynydd as well as, of course, the nuclear power plant. The water plant also controls the water level in the lake.
“Right, where to next?”
“Home,” I say.
And so ends my coverage of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi- those of you who have read the Mabinogion will have spotted what I did there… I hope you have enjoyed our little “Magical Mystery Tour” of North Wales, but there are plenty more places to see, as far as the story of the Flower-Faced Girl goes… too many for this blog, unfortunately.
But we’ve seen just how much influence the Mabinogion have had on Welsh place-names, and this is just one tale! Furthermore, we’ve seen how the places we visit often accommodate more than one folktale, and that their true histories can be just as fascinating as these fantastic legends.
I wonder how many other different stories are out there that are attributed to the same location… we shall see!
Thanks for joining me on this “Magical Mystery Tour” of the Fourth Branch of the Mabinogi. I’m keen to know where your favourite destination was on this trip, and which part of the tale of the Flower-Faced Girl intrigues you the most…?
Also, do you know of a place that has more than one folktale attributed to it?
Until next time,
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATION:
Guest, Lady Charlotte (1838-1845) The Mabinogion
Merfyn Williams and Twm Elias, 2015, Plas Tan y Bwlch, Snowdonia National Park Centre, ISBN 978-1-84524-237-4
Evangeline Walton, 2012, The Mabinogion Tetralogy (collected), Duckworth Overlook.
^ The Journal of The Ffestiniog Railway Society, Issue 201, Page 611, Summer 2008
White Book of Rhydderch (Aberystwyth, National Library of Wales, MS Peniarth 4-5), 1350
^ Enwogion Cymru, A Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen, from the Earliest Times to the Present, and Including Every Name Connected with the Ancient History of Wales By Robert Williams, Llandovery, 1852. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=_wMGAAAAQAAJ
^ The Lives of the British Saints: The Saints of Wales, Cornwall and Irish Saints By S. Baring-Gould, John Fisher, Honourable Society of Cymmrodorion (London, England) Edition: illustrated Published by Kessinger Publishing, 2005, ISBN 0-7661-8767-5. URL: https://books.google.com/books?id=0jLjYgygkB0C