Thursday, March 1, 2018

Legends of Llangollen

Nestled within the beautiful Dee Valley, the Welsh town of Llangollen is a living postcard bisected by a raging river and laced with Victorian charm.

Towering above it all, on a craggy hillock, lay the ruined remains of Castell Dinas Brân, a 13th century stronghold of Gruffydd Maelor II, the Prince of Powys Fadog. Although the site's military history likely dates back to the Iron Age. It was destroyed in 1277 and never rebuilt, giving it a far more ruinous form that other castles that survive from the era.
Yet for a castle that is these days little more than a pile of stones, legends surround it like the mists that cling thickly to the craggy hillsides.
A knight by the name of Pain Peveril and his retinue sought shelter one stormy night amid the ruins. The men hadn't been there long before a giant known as Gogmagog emerged, wielding a deadly mace. Pain protected his men by deflecting the giant's fierce blows with his shield. Expecting fear instead of ferocity, the giant was taken aback—a hesitation that cost him his life. Pain stabbed Gogmagog with his sword. As he laid dying, the giant revealed to Pain that a great treasure was buried beneath the hill. Some believe that treasure to be the Holy Grail, as Dinas Brân is steeped in Grail lore by its association with King Brân.
Myth tells that the castle was built by the giant king, Brân Fendigaidd, which means Blessed Crow in Welsh. During a great battle in Ireland, Brân is mortally wounded. Before perishing, he asks that he head be severed and returned to Britain. As requested, his head is severed, and his men travel across the sea to Wales. There, they live on for more 80 years as it were only a day. All the while the continually talking head of Brân entertains them. Eventually, the head grows silent and the men take it to London where it is buried within the White Hill where many believe the Tower of London now stands. It is said that as long as his head remains buried there, Britain will be safe from invaders. The Tower also has a long-held legend about its attendant crows, which many believe has much to do with the Blessed Crow himself. However, King Arthur comes along, digs up the head, and proclaims that it is he that will keep Britain safe. The Brân legend has many parallels to Arthurian legend. In the legend of Perceval and the Grail, it is the Fisher King who is the keeper of the Grail. For this reason, some believe this holy relic is buried at his castle.
There is also the tale of St. Collen (a 7th century saint for whom Llangollen is named) who had been invited to the court of the fairy King Gwyn ap Nudd high atop the hill where the castle now stands. It was, as legend tells, a resplendent spectacle: the king sitting upon his golden throne while all around myriad fairies danced to magical music and feasted upon a bounty of food and drink. But St. Collen refused to believe the fairy illusion and so doused it with holy water. Once revealed for the trick it was, the fairies fled into the night. Fairies are thick in the legends of the British Isles, especially in Wales.
St. Collen wasn't the only one to encounter their trickery. A shepherd named Tudur ap Einion Gloff was tending his flock in a small hollow nearby known as Nant Yr Ellyllon, or Goblin Hollow. While there, the Shepherd came upon a small, strange man dressed in pants made of moss and a coat of birch leaves. He was playing a fiddle while a host of fairies danced enthusiastically. The shepherd was uncharacteristically caught up in their revelry and began to dance himself. He simply danced and danced and danced all night long. As the night progressed, the enchanting creatures about him slowly revealed their truer nature. The tiny, charming fiddler was now a vile-looking horned beast with cloven hooves. Still, the Shepherd danced. He danced until his body nearly gave out. He danced until he almost died of exhaustion. Fortunately for the shepherd, his master found him the next morning and was able to rouse him, breaking the spell.

There's another fairy-related story about that area. According to an account from 1817, there was once a tremendous walnut tree that grew from the rock at Llandyn Farm, on the southeast slope of the castle hill. So large and ancient it was that a local 95 year-old man said he recalled that as a small boy his grandfather told him that fairies would celebrate their weddings at night beneath the tree.

And all of that is just about one hill with a ruined castle. Llangollen has more to offer in the way of legends.

The haunted Hand Hotel dates to the 17th century, so of course it has some tales to tell. Sometime in the 1980s, a worker spotted a man in a leather apron tapping away at a barrel in the hotel's basement. He seemed so solid and real that the witness was disturbed later to learn that there was no one else down in the cellar at the time. A lady named Sara in a grey dress wanders the hotel late at night. Her brother, Albert, worked as a stable boy at the hotel before he died of tuberculosis. He haunts one of the rooms. Another room is haunted by a former employee who hanged himself there. So does his wife. She died giving birth to a child conceived during an affair, which likely led to the aforementioned hanging. There are also other, less defined spirits wandering the property. A presence is sometimes seen leaning against the hotel's organ. Others have reported the sensation of being followed only to turn around and find no one there.

Valle Crucis Abbey is just a short ways down the road from Llangollen. It was built in 1201 by Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor, Prince of Powys Fadog. Here, spectral voices chanting in Latin have been reported within the ruined confines of the old church. Ghostly faces have been seen peering from the windows. Some even claim to have caught these on camera.

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