WHERE THE FOLK is the Propa' Valley Girl of the Lake, 'en?
THE FOLLOWING TALE IS, HAZY... not just in the details, but, if truth be told, I’m not even sure if I’ve come to the right place to tell it…
Llyn-y-Forwyn, or the “Maiden’s Lake”, here in Ferndale, is said to be the dwelling of the ghostly enchantress Nelferch, whom, at one point, married a local mortal man. However, the tale of their encounter varies depending on whom you ask, ranging from a happy-ever-after romance to stories of murder and lust and evil spirits. To add further confusion, Llyn y Fan Fach, located some forty-six miles away from here in the Black Mountains, as well as numerous other lakes all over Wales, claims to be the haunting spot of an elusive and seductive ‘Femme Fatale of the Lake’; from Llyn Barfog (a hundred-and-twelve miles north, in Snowdonia) to the red-haired lady of Llyn Eiddwen (some ninety-five miles west), to Llyn Syfaddan, Llyn y Morwynion, Felin Wern Millpond, Llyn Du’r Ardu, Llyn Dwythuch, Llyn Corwrion, Llyn Coch, the Pool of Avarice at Twmbarlwm and the Taff Whirpool, to name but a few...
Oddly, many of these Lake Women come accompanied by herds of white cattle, and they are often associated with Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, as well as Arthurian legends. Indeed, it would seem that many llynnoedd (lakes) across Wales share links with the Tylwyth Teg, or Verry Volk, and are often reported to serve as some sort of ‘portals’ to the Otherworld.
But one could write an entire book about each llyn and its Lady of the Lake. As such, I shall limit my attention to Llyn-y-Forwyn, here at Ferndale, and Llyn y Fan Fach.
The small town of Ferndale, or ‘Glynrhedynog’ in Welsh, is located deep in the Rhondda Valley, in the county borough of Rhondda Cynon Taff (RCT). North of the town lies the end of the line for the bus service from Cardiff- Maerdy, with Tylorstown to the south. To get there, I drove up the A470 from Cardiff through the famous town on Pontypridd, birthplace of the Welsh national anthem, Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau, and famous singer, Tom Jones. Turning off the A470, I headed into the Rhondda Valley through Porth, taking the road to Tylorstown.
It takes less than an hour to get there from the bustling streets of central Cardiff, but you truly do get the feeling that you are somewhere else the deeper you get into the Rhondda Valley- the place is a caricature of a Wales that everyone in the world is familiar with; narrow streets of densely-packed terraced houses, numerous churches and chapels, social clubs and community halls, rugby pitches with their towering floodlights, remnants of the Industrial Era; namely ironworks and mine shafts, all surrounded by rolling hills of green.
I used to court a girl from Ferndale, and lived in nearby Ynysybwl for a while, so I know the area fairly well… there is a strong sense of community here- family is very important, and most people would never uproot and leave, despite years of economic strife following the reign of the 'Iron Lady'- Thatcher. Indeed, there remains a strong sense of abandonment by both the Senedd and Westminster here in the Valleys (or 'cymoedd' in Welsh). Go for a pint in one of the social clubs and it won’t be long before someone says something along the lines of “…none of the money makes it past Cardiff, mun!” and it is very clear that their concept of time is divided into two eras- when the mines were open and the time they shut.
The 'Valleys Accent' is renowned across Wales and the world- ask someone to do an impersonation of the Welsh accent and they’re more than likely to do the Valleys one. Indeed, the place left a mark on me following my relatively short time there, and I adopted words and phrases such as “cwtch”, “I’ll do it now in a minute”, “by ‘ere”, “by there” and “is it?” into my everyday vocabulary.
High up in the hills above Ferndale, if you were to climb over into the next valley into Ynysybwl, sits the tiny hamlet of Llanwonno (Welsh: Llanwynno), consisting of St Gwynno’s Church and the old inn, Brynffynon Hotel. The 1993 BBC film ‘Selected Exits’ was filmed here, starring Anthony Hopkins, as well as the 2010 Doctor Who episode ‘The Hungry Earth’. But Llanwonno is best known as the final resting place of legendary athlete and cross-country runner Griffith Morgan (1700-1737), better known as ‘Guto Nyth Bran’ (English: Guto Crow’s Nest), deriving from the name of his parents’ farm near Porth.
The tales of Guto’s running abilities are legendary, from the one of him chasing down a hare as a young boy, not to mentions various horses, foxes and even birds, to the one that claims he ran to Pontypridd and back, a distance of some seven miles, by the time his mother’s kettle had boiled, or the claim that he could blow out a candle and be in bed before the light faded out. Guto was trained and managed by local shopkeeper ‘Sian o’r Siop’ (English: Sian from the Shop) and died at the young age of 37, dropping dead after covering the twelve miles from Newport to Bedwas Church in just fifty-three minutes. His achievements and legends are celebrated in the nearby town of Mountain Ash on New Year’s Eve in an event known as the ‘Nos Galan Road Races’, in which runners from all over the world race through the local streets, finishing near the bronze statue of the legendary runner on ‘Guto Square’, on Oxford Street.
The name ‘Glynrhedynog’ (formerly ‘Trerhondda’, after the large chapel that was built here), derives from one of the original farms on which Ferndale is built. The name comprises of the Welsh words ‘glyn’, meaning ‘valley/glen’, and ‘rhedynog’, meaning ‘ferny’. Marketing the coal exported from the pits here to an English-speaking market proved rather difficult, and so, the place became known as ‘Ferndale’.
The coal pits, like most towns and villages in the Valleys, are what drew the original settlers here, and thanks to them, the place became a bustling, thriving town by the 1880s. Unfortunately, thanks mainly to strict regulations at the workplace, the Welsh language diminished in Ferndale, same as most of the other towns in the Valleys, but is now on the rise again, with a Welsh-language school situated near our watery destination- ‘Ysgol Llyn-y-Forwyn’.
Ferndale was one of the first Valley Towns to be heavily-industrialized, and was the subject of two large coal-mining disasters during the 19th century; the first on 8th November, 1867, when a hundred-and-seventy-eight miners died in an underground explosion at the Ferndale Colliery, then another explosion on 10th June, 1869, which killed fifty-three miners.
After the hardships of the mining days came those of economic unrest following the Thatcher years, so as you can imagine, politics here has been firmly-embedded in unionism for years, although, support for Plaid is on the increase as of late.
But years of economic hardship resulted in a rise in crime and drug use, so in December 2006, the Ferndale Skate Park opened as an incentive to distract the local youth from such things, receiving funding from the National Lottery and the Rhondda Trust. Sadly, it closed in 2014. Not far from Llyn-y-Forwyn, which is found near the woods in Darran Park, itself lost in a maze of terraced houses, is the home of rugby union club Ferndale RFC, as well as an astro-turf football field, a tennis court and a bowling green. The 2012-2017 television series 'Stella', created by Ruth Jones, one of the stars of Gavin and Stacey, was also filmed here.
Now, the story of the Lady of Llyn-y-Forwyn changes drastically depending on whom you ask... Peter Stevenson’s Welsh Folk Tales (2017) paints a rather simple picture; a local farmer falls in love with a young woman who lived beneath the lake, where she tended to her herd of milk-white cattle. The locals would often hear her singing to her cows every morning. The pair married and lived happily ever after at Rhondda Fechan Farm.
However, several websites tell a much a bolder story; one day, a local farmer took his pony down to the lake for a drink, when the beautiful but mysterious Lady of the Lake appeared. She told the bewildered young man that her name was ‘Nelferch’ and that she lived beneath the lake’s surface with her family and her herd of white cattle. The farmer immediately fell head-over-heels for her, and using his trusty Welsh singing voice, serenaded her, and she naturally fell for him in the process.
But she had one condition if they were to marry; that if they should argue three times, she would return to the lake with her cattle, never to be seen again. Other versions state that the condition was that she would leave should the farmer hit her three times. Desperate to marry her, the farmer agreed.
They lived happily for a while, then one day, Nelferch let the fire go out in their home, and the farmer raised his voice/struck her. She reminded him of his promise and he apologized, then a few months later, she spilled a milk churn, and an argument ensued (or he hit her again, depending on the narrator). Sternly, she warned him that he only had one more chance left.
A year passed by, then one night, a fox came and slaughtered some of their lambs. The farmer blamed his wife for not locking the young animals away. But this time, before he had time to apologize, she vanished before his very eyes, along with her mysterious white cattle.
From that day on, the farmer would return to the lake in search of his wife, spending the rest of his days pining for her love, eventually going insane with grief.
However, another lake holds claim to this version of events; Llyn y Fan Fach (meaning ‘little lake by the peak’), found in the northern margin of the Black Mountains, lying within the Brecon Beacons National Park...
This version of the tale provides far more details, and the reasons why Nelferch was struck are different; it tells of a romantic young poet named Rhiwallon (though, in some versions, he is called ‘Gwyn’) whom, one, day, saw a herd of milk-white cows grazing on the hills near his home. He went to investigate and saw a beautiful young girl standing in the water of the lake, platting her red hair. Struggling for conversation, he offered her some of his stale bread to break the ice. She smiled at him, told him that he needed to try a lot harder than that, and disappeared.
He asked his Mam to prepare some fresh bread then took it back to her the following day. Unimpressed, she laughed at his efforts and vanished once more. Third time lucky, Rhiwallon's mam's bread eventually managed to impress her and she agreed to marry him, under the condition, of course, that he did not strike her three times...
Time passed, the pair married and they had three sons (Cadwgan, Gruffudd and Einion), whom she taught all about the medicinal properties of water and the curative nature of herbs. Then, one day, the melancholy Nelferch (although, in some versions, the mysterious lady of the lake remains nameless) told the mother at a christening they attended that the child would die before his fifth birthday, and Rhiwallon struck her. Further on down the line, the couple found themselves at a wedding, during which Nelferch burst into tears, claiming the marriage would never last, and she was struck again. Then, when she laughed at a friend’s funeral (happy that the person was now free of all earthly worries), Rhiwallon struck her for the third and final time. She whistled for her cattle to follow her, and she led them all back into the lake, never to be seen again.
After that, Rhiwallon raised their three sons alone, and they grew into fine young men. Then, one day, their Mam reappeared, urging them to use their knowledge of herbs and water to care for others. Together, they developed cures for aches and pains, charms for melancholy and miseries and potions for gloom and despondency, becoming the most famous healers in all of Wales- the 'Three Physicians of Myddfai'.
Indeed, these brothers deserve a post of their own, for their story is a fascinating one in itself, with far too much to cover here. Their first appearance dates back to the thirteenth century, when Rhiwallon the Physician and his three sons were doctors to Rhys Gryg, the then prince of Deheubarth. By all accounts, the brothers treated Rhys when he was wounded in battle near Carmarthen in 1234, although, he died of his wounds shortly afterwards at Llandeilo, and is said that the family continued to follow the profession in the direct male line until 1739, when John Jones, the last of the physicians, died. Many people have claimed to be descendants of this family, including Morgan Owen, former Bishop of Llandaff (d.1645), whom inherited much of their estate in the Myddfai parish.
You may remember me mentioning the 'Red Book of Hergest' back in my first post, Where The Folk can I find a Hungover Ghost? The book dates back to the late fourteenth century, and provided many of the tales which featured in The Mabinogion. Well, interestingly, the book also comprises of instructions for preparing herbal medicine, attributed to the same family under the title ‘Meddygon Myddfai’.
Now, it is widely accepted that this version of the tale is, indeed, attributed to Llyn y Fan Fach. So what of Llyn y Forwyn, here at Ferndale? Others tell of how her condition for marriage revolved around him not asking her about her past. When he eventually did, she aged well before her years and died, leaving him penniless.
A rather different version altogether claims that the maid of Llyn-y-Forwyn was the unfortunate victim of a deadly love triangle. She was due to marry, and on the eve of her wedding, her groom-to-be pushed her into the lake. She drowned, and the devious git claimed she ran away and he married the other woman, instead. It is said that her spirit still haunts the lake to this day, with numerous people claiming to have heard terrifying shrieks and wails coming from the waterside over the years, some even going as far as saying that they have seen a half-naked girl emerging from the water, wet hair hanging lankly over her face, like the girl from 'The Ring'!
Indeed, whatever the original story attributed to Llyn-y-Forwyn was, the one thing all these different versions have in common is the belief that the girl, whether in body or spirit, still haunts the lake today, enticing young men to join her beneath the surface...
There is even an account of a young local boy drowning in the lake at the start of the twentieth century when attempting to rescue his friend, whom had fallen in. His family were convinced that it was Nelferch whom had taken him for her own, impressed by his act of bravery. Some locals believe you can hear the singing voices of their children beneath the surface, if you listen carefully…
At present, there is no plaque at Darran Park offering an account of the attributed tale, but there is a wooden sculpture of Nelferch there, watching over the lake. Sadly, the sculpture has been charred by an act of arson.
Now, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, lakes in Wales have long been regarded as doorways to and from Annwn, the Welsh Otherworld, with some believing that they are all connected to each other by a series of subterranean tunnels. The legend of Llyn Barfog tells of how the place is associated with mythical beings known as ‘Gwragedd Annwn’ (Wives/Women of Annwn), often accompanied either by a herds of white cattle (Gwartheg y Llyn/Cattle of the Lake), or by packs of white hounds named Cwn Annwn, which appear in several Welsh myths and legends, including the Mabinogion. Both the Cwn Annwn and Gwartheg y Llyn are said to have had reddish-coloured ears. The inhabitants of Annwn are often referred to as Plant Annwn (Children of Annwn), and were led by the king of Annwn and leader of the mythical European Wild Hunt, Gwynn ap Nudd. Although, Annwn has had several leaders in its time, including Arawn, who appears in the Mabinogion.
What’s interesting about the tale of the Lady of the Lake is the focus on the number three- at Llyn y Fan Fach, it took three attempts to impress her; they had three sons, and of course, the lady of the lake put forth the condition that she should not be struck/quarrelled with three times. Numerous stories in the Mabinogion focus on this number, with the resulting success/failure undoubtedly achieved with the third attempt. It seems that the story of the Lady of the Lake shares much in common with other stories of Welsh folklore...
Indeed, when considering the numerous myths and legends surrounding lakes across Wales, the fact that Llyn-y-Forwyn is shrouded in mysterious and differing tales of an enchanting Lady of the Lake is no surprise; as mentioned in previous posts, for many years, Welsh folktales existed as an oral tradition, each account altering slightly according to the narrator, so it was inevitable that these tales would change and adapt with each generation. Furthermore, the script follows the same narrative structure (revolving around the number three) as many other Welsh legends, and is also linked in some way to real people, locations and events, just like many other Welsh folktales.
Basically, it’s a propa’ Welsh story, butt… sorry.
Thanks for reading.
Does anyone have an insight into what the original tale of Llyn-y-Forwyn might be?
And are there any locals out there with ghost stories to tell…?
Stevenson, Peter (2017), Welsh Folk Tales