WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to hide? Part I
Updated: Feb 23, 2022
THE FOLLOWING INCESTUOUS TRAGEDY is a big fish in the Welsh folklore pond, swimming cockily alongside the tale of the duelling red and white dragons and that of Gelert, the martyred hound.
It’s a tale of love, ancient traditions and a man’s innate ability to overlook romantic details. It’s the tale of Rhys and Meinir (Welsh: Rhys a Meinir). A well-known story throughout Wales, it has made its way into Welsh popular culture on numerous occasions, parents tell it to their children and they even teach them about it in school.
In 2017, a musical interpretation of Rhys a Meinir brought S4C’s ‘Legends’ season to a dramatic close. It was composed by Cian Ciaran, of Super Furry Animals, who offered a different spin on the Welsh classic. The composition was first performed by the BBC National Orchestra of Wales, in 2016. In the film, Rhys Ifans also read 'englynion', written by Gruffudd Antur.
But why did Ciaran choose Rhys a Meinir to be his first subject to break his ‘classical music composition virginity’? Because his father used to recite the tale to him when he was a young boy, and he loved it! Cian, a father himself, hoped his son would grow to appreciate his interpretation of the tale, just as he enjoyed listening to his father’s. He added: "A legend shared is a legend made."
I, myself, first heard the story of Rhys a Meinir in primary school. I remember having to sum up the tale into a four-pic comic strip. Mine went something like this:
1. Little boy and girl cwtch up in the shade of a great oak tree
2. The girl, now an adult and wearing a bridal gown, runs off to hide inside the old oak
3. The boy, now a full-grown man in a suit, searches the hills for his childhood sweetheart
4. Crying on his knees, he looks up at the old oak tree, now ablaze and looking very Biblical, the skeleton remains of his bride-to-be, still wearing her wedding dress, standing over him
The story itself goes a little something like this; in the year 1750, in the secluded valley of Nant Gwrtheyrn on the Llyn Peninsula (Welsh: Penllyn) in north-west Wales, lived a young boy and girl named Rhys and Meinir. They lived nearby each other at Nant, spending many days playing in the hills of Yr Eifl, which looms over the village. At the time there were only three farms in the valley: Ty Uchaf, Ty Canol and Ty Hen. This has led some to claim that the pair were cousins. Their favourite spot to play was beneath the shade of an old oak tree up on Yr Eifl.
Eventually, their friendship blossomed into love, and the pair decided to marry. Meinir immediately went about setting a date and making plans. The ‘inviter’ was an Ifan y Cilie, who spread the word to the locals that Rhys and Meinir were to get married at nearby Clynnog Church on a Saturday.
Some of those locals headed down to the Nant the day before the wedding to present the young couple with gifts. One gave a piece of cloth, another brought some yeast flour… all things that were considered handy to have around at the time. A time during which the people of Nant Gwrtheyrn celebrated an old tradition called the ‘Wedding Quest’, whereby the bride would play hide-and-seek on the morning of the wedding and the groom’s friends had to go and find her.
Thus, on that morning, when everyone was gathered at Clynnog Church, Meinir legged it and headed for the hills. Rhys’ mates played their part and went after her, but couldn’t find her anywhere. They returned to Rhys, waiting at the church with all the other guests, empty-handed.
He decided to go look for her himself, and set out on a solo search party that would last years and send him down the path of insanity. He spent the rest of his days roaming Yr Eifl in search of his childhood sweetheart, only to stumble upon her skeletal remains one night when a storm broke out and he sought cover underneath the old oak tree and lightning struck, splitting it apart. Meinir had seemingly gotten stuck in her hiding spot. A heartbroken Rhys died at the very sight of her.
The original tale ends there, but reports tell of strange goings-on at Nant Gwrtheyrn… there is now a symbolic tree in the village commemorating the couple, but of the original tree, wherever it may be, it is alleged that no bird will ever land on its bark, except for owls and cormorants. Visitors have also reported seeing the ghosts of Rhys and Meinir, walking hand-in-hand along the beach late at night. They describe them as being “a man with a beard and long hair and a woman with hollow sockets for her eyes.”
It is for these reasons, and the fact that Rhys a Meinir is such a popular tale that has had a strong presence in Welsh popular culture over the years, that I decided to head to Nant Gwrtheyrn with my family to see the place for myself. The plan was to tell the story of Rhys a Meinir then snap a few photos of the valley and of the split tree down in the village, but I ended up going back to Nant Gwrtheyrn weeks later with my father, climbing Yr Eifl and exploring the hillside fort of Tre’s Ceiri and nearby Clynnog Church, where Rhys and Meinir were intending on getting married.
Still, it was meant to be a fairly straightforward post, but then something terrible happened which actually lead to far greater discoveries: after writing the blog post, I accidentally deleted the entire thing! Devastated, it took me a while to decide to write it all again. When I did, when doing my research, I discovered a whole four more tales set in Nant!
Upon realizing I had a lot more to write about, I decided to split the post in two, much like the famous oak tree. Therefore, in this blog post, I shall cover tales from Nant Gwrtheyrn itself, and explore Yr Eifl and Clynnog Church in WHERE THE FOLK do Disgraced Kings, Skeleton Brides and Nazi Spies go to hide? Part II.
Joining me on my trip to Nant Gwrtheyrn were my mother, father and younger brother, whom I discuss in my other blog, Brawd Autistico (also available to read in Welsh: Brawd Awtistico).
From my family’s home near Caernarfon, we turned off the A487 at Llanwnda and headed down the A499, passing Clynnog Church along the way. At the village of Llanaelhaearn, we took a sharp right off a mini roundabout and dragged ourselves up the B4417, which runs alongside Yr Eifl, to the village of Llithfaen. From there, another sharp right took us up a narrow country lane to the famous Nant.
My father had been warning us about the steep and perilous road down to the village for weeks. The so-called “corkscrew road”. Driving past a car park at the base of Yr Eifl, we stopped at the top of the hill and the craggy landscape suddenly gave way to a magnificent sea view. Waves crashed against rugged cliffs and devoured the rocky beach below, the surrounding hills themselves scarred by years of heavy industrialism. At the foot of the hill was Nant Gwrtheyrn, hiding in the shadows of Yr Eifl. It was a long and winding road down, and reminded me of something out of Top Gear or The Italian Job.
When we eventually parked up at the village, we were presented with something of a ghost town. We went there around the time lockdown restrictions were beginning to ease up, and there was only a handful of other visitors about. The café and visitor centre were shut, and the rows of holiday cottages lay empty and cold. Taking our time, we made our way towards the seafront, eyes peeled for the symbolic torn tree which commemorates the famous lovers.
The village’s heyday was between the years 1860 and 1920, when it was a booming mining town. At one point, over two thousand men worked the granite at Nant, and their families lived in the rows of newly-built houses down in the village. Shops, offices and a chapel were also constructed at this time.
But the quarries eventually shut and ran into ruin, and by the 1970s, Nant Gwrtheyrn was quite literally a ghost town, officially abandoned. Then, a local GP by the name of Dr Carl Clowes, aided by others, formed a registered charity called ‘Ymddiriedolaeth Nant Gwrtheyrn’, eventually saving up enough money to buy the village outright. They quickly set about renovating the crumbling old buildings, developing a centre and retreat from where to teach Welsh to adults. The renovation also helped bring other visitors to the valley, much like ourselves.
Nant Gwrtheyrn is still managed by Ymddiriedolaeth Nant Gwrtheyrn, now a charity and company listed by guarantee. Between 2007 and 2010, a £5 million grant was given to renovate the listed village, giving rise to a residential centre and a day visitor attraction.
The valley’s name pays homage to Brenin Gwrtheyrn, fifth century ‘King of the Bretons’, otherwise known as Vortigern, the same king who faced construction issues at Dinas Emrys and ended up releasing the red and white dragons (see: WHERE THE FOLK did the Welsh get their flag from?).
Despite featuring in a tale held so dear by the Welsh, Vortigern was actually a “disgraced king” for seeking the help of Saxon mercenaries in a desperate attempt to hold onto power. Naturally, this made him very unpopular amongst the Welsh. Then he added salt to the wound by falling in love with Alys Rhonwen, daughter of the Saxon leader, Hengist.
He asked for her hand in marriage, and Hengist organised a huge banquet attended by everyone who mattered to the Britons. But Hengist had a cunning plan- on his command, each Saxon present stood up and stabbed the Briton sitting next to him. It was a wedding massacre worthy of Game of Thrones.
Vortigern fled to the secluded Nant Gwrtheyrn with his tail between his legs, where it is said he spent the remainder of his life, hiding in shame. For you see, his actions were blamed for the Saxon invasion of what is now England, and he was forever known as the king who betrayed his own people.
What happened to Vortigern next is widely debated. Some say he lost his mind roaming the hills of Yr Eifl, much like Rhys did. Indeed, the concept of a nutter roaming the mountains seems to be a recurring theme in Welsh folktales…
Others say that when Vortigern fled to Nant Gwrtheyrn, God Himself (for see terrible was his betrayal of working with the Saxons) shot fire down from Heaven to burn him (some attribute this to the frequent lightning storms that occur in the valley, which also play an important role in Rhys a Meinir). As Vortigern and his men attempted to flee, he and his son, Gwrthefyr Fendigaid, were killed by a local leader named Garmon.
Indeed, from dragons to Saxons to God Himself, Vortigern faced off against a lot in his lifetime. But whatever happened to him in the end, shortly after his death, three monks arrived at Nant Gwrtheyrn…
...locals didn’t take kindly to the Christian trio (who were on their way to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island), the highlight of the pilgrim trail which passed through Clynnog Church up the road, and they especially didn’t take kindly to them for suggesting they help them out by building a church in their village. Needless to say, the monks were forced to flee for their lives.
Livid, they cast three curses on the valley:
1. Nant Gwrtheyrn’s ground would never be consecrated again, therefore no one could be buried there.
2. Members of the same family would not be allowed to marry each other (strange how this one’s considered a “curse”!).
3. Nant Gwrtheyrn would succeed and fail three times before forever falling into ruin
It is said that soon after the monks left, a nasty storm hit the valley and all the men who were out fishing that day perished. Without men to support them, the women eventually left. Nant Gwrtheyrn had fallen for the first time.
The story of Rhys a Meinir came after. At a time when only three houses existed in the village, were they the cousins whose marriage was forbidden?
As mentioned, Nant Gwrtheyrn would ‘fall’ again following the closure of the quarries. It now exists as a centre for teaching Welsh… is this Nant Gwrtheyrn’s last shot at redemption? People have been buried at Nant since, so perhaps not every curse will come true, right?!
But the folklore surrounding Nant Gwrtheyrn does not end there. A tale from the early 19th century tells of another interesting character from Nant Gwrtheyrn called Elis Bach (English: Small Elis), who lived at Ty Canol. A very small man indeed, his legs were said to be just thirty centimetres long!
At the time, a livestock market was held at Nant, and farmers from far and wide would come to visit. As it happens, despite his size, Elis Bach was considered the faster runner in the village, and was therefore tasked with rounding up the sheep and goats ready for market each day.
Then one day, two strangers came to the market, flashing their money and paying way over the asking price for their numerous purchases. They were invited back to Elis Bach’s home to try some of his mother’s home cooking.
But Elis was wary of the men, and hid himself in a cupboard. That’s when he overheard the strangers conspiring to steal some sheep! When he saw them scrambling up the “corkscrew road” to the top of the hill with a flock of sheep later that night, Elis set off after them with his faithful dog, Meg.
He overtook the men and lay in wait at a bend in the road, jumping out when the men appeared. The pair scarpered, heading towards Pistyll, leaving the sheep behind for Meg and Elis Bach to lead back down the track to Nant.
Was there once a man of short stature living at Nant Gwrtheyrn who rounded up sheep for the market and chased off a pair of sheep rustlers? Possibly. Were his legs only thirty centimetres long? Doubt it.
Another, more recent story from 1943, stands more of a chance of holding any truth… during the Second World War, a mysterious stranger named ‘Margaret Gladys Fisher’ moved to a lonely cottage above Carreg-y-Llam, on the western side of Nant Gwrtheyrn.
The locals reckoned Mrs Fisher behaved a bit oddly, and rumours began to spread that she may be a German spy, sent to Nant to send signals to German boats down by the beach.
But we will never know if this was simply gossip or paranoia, for in the early hours of one Sunday morning in 1943, her wooden bungalow was burnt to the ground. No one could identify the charred remains. Her dogs had never barked to alert anyone of a fire, leading some to speculate that she poisoned them before escaping to Germany on a fishing boat.
Whoever she was, her disappearance certainly is a mystery!
Honestly, I’ve never known a village to have as many folktales and urban myths as Nant Gwrtheyrn! And to think that I only went there for Rhys a Meinir!
We nearly walked past the symbolic torn tree in the end. I took my photo, and with that, we returned to the car and headed off home.
But my father and I vowed to come back by ourselves the next time I was up from Cardiff to climb Yr Eifl (my brother isn’t exactly a fan of long hikes), where Rhys supposedly went mad whilst searching endlessly for his lover. Would we come across the original split oak from the tale…?
We would also visit Clynnog Church, where Rhys and Meinir were planning on getting married, learning all about Saint Beuno, who has a few stories of his own to tell, as well as Tre’s Ceiri, the ‘Town of Giants’ that sits atop of Yr Eifl… all to be covered in WHERE THE FOLK do Skeleton Brides, Disgraced Kings and Nazi Spies go to hide? Part II.
Thanks for reading.
I’m keen to know if any of you have been to Nant Gwrtheyrn, and perhaps even seen the reunited ghosts of Rhys and Meinir?
Also, what’s your favourite tale from Nant Gwrtheyrn?
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