Old tales and fairy stories

Let’s get it over and done with, then. England have won the Six Nations Rugby championship. Not only did they win the title but they got the Grand Slam – for anyone who doesn’t know, that means that they didn’t just win on points but they beat every other team in the tournament. They didn’t lose a single game – and to be fair, they never looked in danger of losing one. So to all my English friends, congratulations, I love you all – now please shut up about it!

It’s a shame that it’s all over for another year but at least it means that it’s late March and spring is well and truly on its way, even if it hasn’t completely arrived. The fields are starting to fill with lambs and they are pretty cute.mar 2016 15

Determined to get out and enjoy the weather, we tackled a new walk this week. It’s still muddy underfoot, as you can see in the picture below.mar 2016 5.jpg

On the way we met this lovely fellamar 2016 11

We always mean to take a handful of carrots out with us but we forgot, yet again. I’ll have to tie a knot in a handkerchief or something. Anyway the views were pretty, as always.mar 2016 8

This path eventually climbs up to Llangattock escarpment, a massive limestone cliff that dominates the southern side of the valley. We’d been up there last summer and were rewarded with this view:may 2015 3

I’m sorry to say that I know nothing about the chemistry of industrial processes but apparently limestone was used in iron making; the presence of huge quantities of the stuff (which I can tell you is a type of sedimentary rock composed of different forms of calcium carbonate because I just looked it up) so close to the South Wales coal fields was an opportunity not to be missed by greedy entrepreneurs. There’s still evidence of where the stone was gouged from the mountainside, and the path follows the disused tramway.may 2015 5On the tramway

may 2015 6

There’s a nature reserve up here – Craig y Cilau – and there are hundreds of plant species (including several rare ones) as well as an extensive cave system. The passages that have been explored extend for forty miles and somewhere inside there’s a colony of lesser horseshoe bats. So here we have two of my least favourite things – caves and bats. Anyone choosing to deliberately go into the first knowing they might encounter the second has to be some kind of lunatic and nobody will ever convince me otherwise.

There’s also a local legend that ghostly choirs have been heard singing within the caves on Midsummer’s Eve. There must be hundreds of stories like this in Wales, from bells ringing out from lost cities beneath the sea to folk being enticed away from their homes and lives by fairies or by the devil himself.  For example, take care if you ever climb up the path to this escarpment because there’s a fairy circle at Craig y Cilau. Here unwary humans may become enchanted by the music of the tylwyth teg (fairies who look like little people – Welsh leprechauns?), following them into the circle, dancing mindlessly. Once inside the circle time will lose all meaning and the unfortunate soul will only get out again if someone outside the circle pulls them out with the branch of a rowan tree.

Of the many other local tales, my favourite is the one about the man who saw a ghostly funeral procession in the lane between Llangatwg and Llangynidr. He moved aside to let the mourners pass, not realising there was anything odd about them until he saw that they were walking several feet above the ground, at the level of the hedgerows (you may wonder – as do I – why he didn’t spot this in the first place, but we’ll let that go so that we don’t spoil the fun). Clearly this was an omen because several days later there was a heavy snowfall, filling the lanes; when a resident died later that week his funeral procession along the same route was difficult, to say the least. The mourners were obliged to tread along heavily packed snow, which brought their feet level with the tops of the hedges…

Enough of this for today but I can’t promise I won’t come back to it some other time. Having evaded the tylwyth teg and got away with our minds intact, we decided to head back down. When we reached the village of Llangatwg we were distracted by the church and went inside for a nose around. Despite the multitude of fairies and ghosts around about there’s been a place of worship here for over a thousand years. It’s named for St Catwg, another of the seemingly enormous band of 6th century Welsh holy men that made it to the top – though he was far from being a nobody as he was the grandson of Brychan, king of the ancient kingdom of Brycheiniog.mar 2016 13St Catwg’s church, Llangatwg

Despite the ancient Christian site here the building only claims to be 13th century – with a tower that was rebuilt in the 16th and  a couple of Victorian porches. The most interesting things inside are the stocks and whipping post displayed on the north wall. Only here for their historical interest these days (honest), they used to be outside, against the south wall of the tower – in other words, facing the lane that runs through the village, in full view of passers-by.

Now then, how long do you think a set of stocks would last? Judging by the working life of gadgets and household equipment we have today, I’m guessing that three years would be a good bet, just after the warranty expires. Not so – quality was much better in Ye Olden Days. There’s an 18th century map showing the position of the stocks against the tower wall and an entry in the church records from May 1817 showing that a local carpenter was paid 18 shillings to repair the stocks and gates. In 1850 a new set was made which cost £3.10.00 and these are the set displayed on the wall.

This particular punishment was reserved for men guilty of drunkenness and disorderly conduct – I assume there were no drunken disorderly women around at the time but I could be wrong. The residents of Llangatwg must have been  a pretty debauched lot because there’s room for four people in this one set of stocks – or eight legs, anyway. It strikes me that the holes are set very close together; did they have trouble fitting everyone in after a party? I suppose if they were all skinny it would work but otherwise they’d have had to face them in different directions.llangattock 2 2016

I can think of a few reasons I might like to put people in stocks – dropping litter for a start – but the whipping post is a bit more unpleasant. According to the Whipping Act passed by Henry VIII in 1530, a vagrant should be tied to the end of a cart naked and ‘beaten with whips throughout the market town until the body be bloody’. Lovely man, Henry. His daughter Elizabeth had the law modified – instead of being naked the miscreant was merely stripped to the waist. And instead of being tied to the cart-tail, the whipping post was introduced. Positively saintly in comparison with her father, don’t you think?

PS The ghost stories are from a compilation done for the BBC by John Short – sadly I’m still waiting for personal experience of the haunted lanes and hills x

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