WHERE THE FOLK has the Most Extortionate Toll Charge Ever?
Updated: Feb 23
I’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE, or at least came close- I went to a nearby village to pick up a tiny black kitten, whom I’ve since named ‘Loki’. I asked a friend to join me so as to make sure he was alright on the two-hour drive back to Cardiff. Ten minutes in, he got car-sick. Pulling up in a layby, I got out to sort out the mess and saw the sign for Devil’s Bridge.
It is said that around the eleventh century, Satan went on a tour of Wales, seeing as he had never been before and had heard that the scenery was amazing. No bull! Whilst exploring Ceredigion, he came across Megan Llandunach, an elderly local woman. She seemed upset, so he asked her what was up.
She told him that her cow had wandered into the river, and that she couldn’t get it back. To this, the Devil replied: “What you need my dear, is a bridge, and I am just the man to build you one! Why don’t you go home, and in the morning there will be a bridge waiting for you… all I ask in return is to keep the first living thing to cross the bridge…”
“Deal!” she said. “Nos da!”
But Megan regretted it later, and didn’t sleep a wink all night. But by morning she had a cunning plan… taking her faithful dog with her, she headed back to the river, where stood the best bridge she had ever seen!
“Told you I could do it!” the Devil gloated, appearing out of nowhere. “Now it’s your turn to keep your end of the bargain…”
He had spent the entire night gathering stones from all over Wales and Ireland, stopping only once, when he was preached at by the Vicar of Llanarth.
Megan walked up to the bridge, stopped and threw a large loaf of bread over to the other side. Bewildered, the Devil watched and frowned as her poor, innocent dog ran after it, ultimately becoming the “first living thing to cross the bridge”. Fuming, he threw a hissy fit and vanished, taking the dog’s soul with him. He was never seen around these parts again, despite the amazing scenery.
I, however, vowed to return one day so as to cover the story of Devil’s Bridge for this blog. Now here I am, together with a certain special lady on our first weekend away together…
We had taken the scenic route up from Cardiff, taking the A470 to Llanwrthwl, north of Builth Wells, then turning off onto the B4518 and entering the Elan Valley. ‘Cwm Elan’ is a ‘river valley’ found to the west of Rhayader, in Powys. Covering an area of seventy square miles, it is often referred to as the “Welsh Lake District”. Aside from the nice scenery, the valley also houses the Elan Valley Trail, popular with cyclists, the Elan Valley Reservoirs and Elan Village, designed by architect Herbert Tudor Buckland, being the only ‘model village’ in Wales.
We didn’t have time to visit any of those places, but we did stop for a break in the picnic area next to ‘The Arch’ (pictured), built in 1810 by Thomas John (owner of the nearby Hafod Estate, who we shall get to in a minute!) to mark the Golden Jubilee of King George III. It is situated about a mile and a half from Devil’s Bridge, on the A4574, and marks the point where the road across the Cambrians to Rhayader becomes a ‘mountain road’. The road once ran straight under the arch, but has since been moved so as to protect it from an ever-growing flow of traffic.
Parking up near the train station, we realize that we’ve got a couple of hours to kill before we can check ourselves in at the glamping pod we’ve got booked for the night (complete with fire pit and hot tub, which I’m very excited about, despite the rain!). As such, we decide to head straight to the bridge, passing a quaint little chocolate shop and tiny post office along the way. Turning the corner, we are faced with the magnificent view of a heavily-forested valley. An old, grand hotel dominates the village, with visitors wearing raincoats and ponchos sat drinking outside, admiring the view. Just around the corner, crossing over the Afon Mynach, lies the infamous bridge itself…
It’s special in that it is compiled of three separate bridges, each built on top of the other. At the bottom you have the original medieval bridge, the one rumoured to have been built by the Devil, then you have stone bridge on top of that, built in 1753 and upgraded in 1777, then again in 1814. The most recent bridge, the one we now stand on, is an iron bridge built in 1901 that was further strengthened in 1971. The resulting structure was Grade II Listed on January 21st, 1964. It stands over Mynach Falls, a point where the Afon Mynach joins Afon Rheidol, dropping ninety metres (or three hundred feet) in five steps into a steep and narrow ravine.
Paying the £2 fee at the booth, we head down a steep set of stone steps, following a long queue of shuffling tourists. Unfortunately, due to COVID for some bizarre reason, the more famous stone steps on the other side of the bridge, known as “Jacob’s Ladder”, is closed to visitors, but going down this side gives us an opportunity to pose for a silly ‘Head-in-Hole’ photo on the way down, masquerading as a tiny devil (and simultaneously looking like The Bear from Bo’ Selecta!) and a monk, whom I somehow mistake for Megan Llandunach.
You see, the Welsh (being the original) name for Devil’s Bridge is ‘Pontarfynach’, which means “the bridge over the Mynach”. ‘Mynach’ is the Welsh word for monk. Some believe that Afon Mynach got its name because it ran through land owned by a nearby monastery, and that the original bridge, the one allegedly built by the Devil, was actually built by the Monks of Strata Florida. This was to help them get to their abbey in Pontrhyfendigaid, nine miles away. The name “Devil’s Bridge’ didn’t appear in official records until 1734. So why the sudden shift from the holy to the satanic? Money.
Much like the village of Beddgelert, discussed in WHERE THE FOLK can I find Space Rock and a Martyred Mongoose?, ‘Pontarfynach’ became ‘Devil’s Bridge’ for the purpose of attracting visitors. In this case, it was so that Thomas John, owner of the Hafod Estate and builder of The Arch in the Elan Valley mentioned earlier, could entice visitors to his new hunting lodge. This lodge slowly grew to become the Hafod Hotel and coach houses, which we passed earlier to get to the bridge.
Thomas John had allegedly visited Switzerland before raising the lodge, the chalet-type architecture he saw there influencing his design. Perhaps not coincidentally, the story of old Megan’s outwitting of the Devil is very similar to a Swiss tale, in which the Devil builds a bridge so as to reach a lost goat…
In fact, there are tales from places all over Europe of a similar narrative, including the Sachsenhäuser Bridge at Frankfurt, Germany, where the Devil helps a builder meet his tight deadline. Then there's the Bamberg Cathedral and Bridge, Germany, where the Devil helps a builder win a wager, the Devil’s Bridge at Lake Galenbeck, Germany, one of Satan’s unfinished projects, and the Devil’s Bridge in Austria, the place where the Devil caused goats to have such short tails. Also in Austria you also have the Taugl Bridge, where the Devil makes a deal in which he builds a bridge in exchange for the unborn child of a miller’s wife. Then you've got the Devil’s Bridge of Switzerland, where the Devil helps a man reach his girlfriend’s place quicker, and the Devil’s Bridge on the Switzerland/France border, where he takes the soul of an Alsatian. There's the Devil’s Bridge in Tuscany, where he helps out yet another builder meet his deadline, and the Devil’s Bridge in Catalonia, where he bets a young woman that he can build a bridge before the rooster’s first call in the morning. You've also got the Devil’s Bridge at Kirkby in England, where he comes across another woman and her wandering cow, the Devil’s Bridge in Yorkshire, where the Evil One helps out a local shoemaker, Kilgrim Bridge, where he takes the soul of a shepherd’s dog named ‘Grim’, and the Bridge at Kentchurch in Herefordshire, where the Devil has the help of the legendary “Jack o’ Kent”, rumoured to be the Welsh national hero, Owain Glyndŵr.
Also known as ‘Jack-a-Kent’, Jack o’ Kent was traditionally a Welsh legend who roamed the Welsh Marches, and was well-known around Herefordshire and Monmouthshire. A cleric and a wizard who deserves his own blog post, the origins of many geological formations are attributed to his legends. He was also known for making bets and playing dangerous games with the Devil.
He first appears in print in a sixteenth-century play, when it is believed he was used as something of a ‘bogeyman’ figure. This went on until the early twentieth century. Others argue that he is based on Sion Cent, a medieval Welsh poet.
It isn’t clear which of these tales came first, but it certainly doesn’t originate from Pontarfynach! Nevertheless, Devil’s Bridge has been a popular tourist destination for over a hundred years. Many famous people have visited during this time, including William Wordsworth, who published a poem called To the Torrent at the Devil’s Bridge, North Wales, in 1824. In the 1920s, the Great Western Railway printed the story in Legend Land, a book composed of Welsh and Cornish legends made in the hope of enticing more people to visit the west by train. Recently, it featured in an episode of Hinterland (or ‘Y Gwyll’ in Welsh).
Having taken a few photos and still with an hour to spare, we head back to the Hafod Hotel for a pint. The hotel was built in the early nineteenth century, on top of Thomas John’s eighteenth-century hunting lodge. The timing was perfect- the Napoleonic wars had prevented rich holidaymakers from making their usual trips to Europe, and the Welsh landscape offered a perfect opportunity to “bring Europe home to us”, as it were, hence the hotel’s chalet-like design. Extensions were put in by the Duke of Newcastle in the 1830s, including the Alpine roof, and further work was done in 1905.
The place was a venue for many livestock auctions over the years, and you can see some memorabilia from that time at the bar area. During one sale in 1910, around two thousand animals were sold. One tourist reported that the place was “crowded with farmers and shepherds, and the sheep dogs were everywhere!”
Indeed, it’s clear to see that the village still centres around the Hafod Hotel today- the place is teeming with tourists, and we’re advised to book a table for our return later this evening. With that done and the pod all ready for us, we head back to the car, eager to get in the hot tub and pop open a bottle of bubbly.
I had no idea when I decided to cover the story of Devil’s Bridge that its origins resonated so much with the tale of Gelert, the martyred hound of Beddgelert. Nor did I think that my research would take me across the whole of Europe.
Indeed, I wonder just how many other ‘Welsh tales’ have international origins, credited to our home nation for the sole purpose of attracting visitors! We shall see. For now, excuse us as we sit and drink in the pouring rain, making the most of our temporary luxuries…
Thanks for reading.
I’m keen to know if you have ever visited one of the many ‘Devil’s bridges’ outside of Wales, and where did you first hear of such a tale, if ever?
Also, do you know of another ‘Welsh tale’ that has international origins?
GOOGLE MAPS LOCATION:
Stevenson, Peter (2017) Welsh Folk Tales
Wordsworth, William (1824) To the Torrent at the Devil’s Bridge, North Wales