• Christine Dorman

Wales: Land of the Dragon and the Bear

An ancient Celtic land, Wales is rich in wild beauty and mystic folklore.

Explore a 5,000 year old petrified forest. Visit the ruins of a castle buried in sand by wrathful faeries. Decide for yourself which one of three lakes hides the legendary Excalibur in its depths. Stand on the side of a hill where a young boy named Merlin prophesied about two dragons locked in a fierce battle. Welcome to Wales!

Like its cousins, Ireland and Scotland, Wales is an ancient Celtic land filled with folklore, legend, and mythical places. One such place is Cantre’r Gwaelod. According to legend, it had been a part of the kingdom of Meirionnydd, but was lost when flood waters drowned it. Now Cantre’r Gwaelod is said to lie beneath Cardigan Bay in Wales. Gwyddno Garanhir, a historical figure born in the mid-6th century A.D., ruled the sixteen cities of Cantre’r Gwaelod. The story of how his kingdom was flooded exists in variants. One of the oldest, which calls the land Maes Gwyddno, places the blame on a priest who allowed a faerie well to overflow. The most commonly told version, however, blames Seithennin, friend of the king and keeper of the gates.

Situated below sea level, Cantre’r Gwaelod had a wall to protect it from flooding. This wall had gates which were opened at low tide then closed before the high tide came in. In the spring of 600 A.D., Seithennin went to a party at the king’s palace near what is now Aberystwyth, Wales. He had a bit too much to drink and, when he returned to his post at the sea wall, he fell asleep without closing the gates. A storm came in from the southwest. Waters surged through the open gates. Some of the people, including the king, managed to flee to the nearby hills, but the kingdom was lost. Over the centuries and even today, people report hearing bells coming from the sea, an alarm to warn the citizens of Cantre’r Gwaelod of the impending flood.

Tree stumps poke up through the sand at low tide on the beach at Ynyslas.

While the exact location of the lost kingdom has not been pinpointed, many people suggest the part of Cardigan Bay just beyond Ynyslas. There, 5000 years ago according to scientists, existed a forest on a floodplain of an estuary. Today, at low tide at Borth Beach, stumps of dead trees stick up from the sand. This site, known as Cors Fochno, is located in the Dyfi National Nature Preserve in Ynyslas, Wales.

Water definitely can be dangerous but, sometimes, it’s what lives underneath the water that’s the real threat. The Afanc of Welsh mythology is a lake monster akin to Scotland’s Nessie, only meaner. Said to have the form of a crocodile or a giant beaver, it attacks anyone who comes near its watery home. Several sites in Wales claim to be the Afanc’s home, including Llyn Barfog near the River Dyfi in Snowdonia and Llyn-yr-Afanc in the Snowdonia National Park. You can decide which one is the Afanc’s true home…if you’re brave enough to get that close to the water!

Pennard Castle in South Wales was buried as well, but not by water. The remains of the first Pennard Castle, built in the 12th century by Henry de Beaumont, first earl of Warwick, can barely be seen now. According to folklore, it was covered with sand by wrathful faeries. In the early 13th or 14th century, a new castle was built on the spot. Only ruins are left. A brief glimpse at Celtic folklore is enough to teach anyone not to upset faeries!

It’s never wise to mess with ghosts either and Wales is full of them. Click here to read my post “The Hanging Pub and Other Haunted Stories of Wales.”

It's unwise to mess with dragons!

Avoiding dragons is another wise thing to do. In Wales, though, that’s impossible. They’re everywhere! At least, statues, drawing, and flags of the mythical creature are. Just as Scotland is the land of the unicorn, Wales is the land of the dragon. Wales’ national symbol is the Red Dragon.

Despite this, the people of one Welsh village got rid of their dragon. Permanently. Gwybr, the Dragon of Llanrhaeadr at Rhaeadr Falls enjoyed terrorizing the people of the village. He had fun regularly swooping down on them, spewing fire. Finally, the villagers had enough. They somehow tricked Gwybr (details on this are sketchy) into thinking he saw another dragon. Maybe they did it with mirrors. Maybe they used actual magic. It doesn’t matter. The ruse worked. Gwybr flew towards the virtual dragon and ended up impaled on spikes hidden behind the mirage. The villagers lived happily ever after but I have to say it: Poor Gwbyr! The falls, Pistyll Rhaeadr, still exist (and they’re dragon-free!). They can be accessed by car from the town of Llanrhaeadr-ym-Mochnant in Powys County.

Beddgelert, in Gwynedd is the site of the most important Welsh story about a dragon. There is a sweet and touching story about how the town got its name from Gelert, a faithful dog who died saving the lord’s son from wolves, but the really significant story associated with the area is about Dinas Emrys and the Red Dragon. Yes, the Red Dragon.

Dinas Emyrs, the hill on which Merlin foretold the victory of the Red Dragon over the White.

Votigern, a real life Celtic king, who lived in the area during the Dark Ages, decided to build a castle on a hill near modern day Beddgelert. He set his workers to the task and they made good progress on the first day but the building collapsed overnight. Each day the same thing happened, over and over, until (as you can imagine) Vortigern got quite frustrated. He called his soothsayers to divine the problem. They said the gods were angry and that the king had to find a boy with no father, sacrifice him, then sprinkle his blood on the foundation to appease the gods. Vortigern ordered his people to find a fatherless boy. They succeeded and brought before the king a young boy who, local lore claimed, had been conceived without a father. The boy’s name was Myrddin Emrys. He has become better known as Merlin.

But Merlin did some divining of his own. He told Vortigern that the castle kept falling down because a lake lay beneath the foundation and, in this lake, two dragons were locked in fierce battle. One dragon was white, the other red. Merlin suggested draining the lake. This worked. The castle finally stayed up. Since he had a dragon on his standard, Vortigern took Merlin’s vision to mean that he would be successful in his own power struggle. Delighted, he named his castle Dinas Emrys.

Many scholars, however, say the Red Dragon foreshadows Uther Pendragon and the coming of the Bear, Arthur, his son, the once and future king.

Even though scholars debate about whether the historical Arthur was Welsh, Scottish or even Roman, there is no debate among the Welsh. They claim the legendary king as their own and Wales is brimming with places claiming a connection to Arthurian legend. Here are a few notable ones.

Three lakes in Snowdonia National Park claim to hide Excalibur in their depths.

In Snowdonia National Park there are three lakes which vie for the title of the resting place of Excalibur. Llyn Dinas can be explored via a path around the lake, accessed from Beddgelert. You can walk the path or ride a bicycle or motor cart. Llyn Llydaw is partway up Wales’ highest mountain, Mount Snowdon. Don’t worry; you don’t have to be a mountain climber to get there. You can drive part of the way then take the Miner’s Track, a relatively easy walk to the lake. A train also is available for a trip to the summit. The third lake is Llyn Ogwen. Wales’ National Trust website says there are no strenuous climbs required to enjoy this lake. It, like Llyn Dinas, has a path around it, and can be accessed from Ogwen Valley. Which lake has Excalibur hidden in its depths? Perhaps only the Lady of the Lake can answer that. But don’t look for her in Snowdonia National Park.

According to folklore, the Lady of the Lake resides in Llyn y Fan Fach in the Brecon Beacons, a mountain range in South Wales. Llyn y Fan Fach is a lake within the Brecon Beacons National Park. In addition to her role in Arthurian legend, the Lady of the Lake also is a principal character in another piece of folklore. According to this lore, she married a local farmer. Their sons became herbal healers who then passed their knowledge and skills onto their children. This continued for generations and the Lady’s ancestors became known as the Physicians of Myddfai.

Some people claim that Llyn y Fan Fach in the Brecon Beacons is home to the Lady of the Lake.

Also in the Brecon Beacons is Craig y Ddinas, a cave said to be Arthur’s tomb. Of course, legend says Arthur was taken by boat to Avalon to sleep until his future return. Bardsey Island, two miles north of the Llŷn Peninsula in North Wales is claimed by some to be Avalon. Others say the island is the resting place of Merlin. Perhaps it’s both.

Carmarthen, in South Wales, claims to be the birthplace of Merlin. Its Welsh name Caerfyrddin, is said to mean “Merlin’s Fort.” Nearby is a hill called Bryn Myrddin (Merlin's Hill). Carmarthen also asserts it is the oldest town in Wales.

So where is Camelot? Scholars have hotly debated that question. One possible answer is Caerleon, Wales. The first mention of Camelot is in Arthurian romances written by Chrétien de Troyes in the late 12th century, but Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his Historia Regum Britanniæ written in the 9th century says Arthur’s royal court is at Caerleon at the River Usk. He goes into a detailed description of games and feasts held just outside the confines of an old Roman fortress. Thomas Mallory, author of Le Morte d’Arthur also names Caerleon as Arthur’s headquarters. In Caerleon today are the ruins of a Roman fort built around 80 A. D. Even though the Romans left in the mid-5th century, the fort continued to be used, archaeologists say, through the middle ages. It didn’t fall to ruins until the 14th century. The building is circular and, for centuries, has been called “Arthur’s Round Table.” Hmm….

"Arthur's Round Table" in Caerleon, Wales.

Whether you want to explore Arthurian sites, follow folklore to mythical places, or just enjoy exquisite scenes of natural beauty, Wales is definitely worth visiting. There are many websites which will help you take a virtual vacation in the land of the dragon, but if this post has stirred in you a desire to see Wales in person, it’s not too soon to plan a trip for the summer or fall of next year. Cathy Kelly, an independent travel agent with InteleTravel, can help you plan, connect with tour companies, book hotels, and arrange transportation. Email her at Kcathy999@gmail.com or call her at 954-695-7308 for more information.

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Wales' National flag features the Red Dragon.

Until next week, Hwyl, gwlad y ddraig! (Bye, land of the dragon!) Byddwch yn dda, ffrindiau! (Be well, friends!)

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