On the trail of tall tales in Glamorgan
Nearly 200-years-ago one of founding fathers of what would become the annual celebration of Welsh culture – the Eisteddfod – passed away, his name is not well known but his tall tales are legendary, intrigued, we went in search of the truth in the Vale of Glamorgan…
By Phoebe Smith, Award winning travel writer - Author / Broadcaster / Adventurer / Presenter
The standing stone rose out of the ground resolutely, shrouded in a thick yellow coat of lichen, as if it had been there longer than the town in which it stood. I was in Cowbridge, an historic market town in the Vale of Glamorgan, around 13 miles west of the capital city of Cardiff. It’s a place that few outside Wales will be familiar with, yet it is this settlement, and more specifically the spot where I was standing, that the country owes much of the preservation of its culture to.
That’s because this was home to the Gorsedd of the Bards, aka guardians of Welsh language and culture, established in 1792 which was memorialised by the placing of this huge rock at the first meeting of the group in 1795 …or was it?
You see this story is one that came from the lips of a local man called Edward Williams – more commonly known as Iolo Morgannwg – who is famed in these parts as a stonemason, a passionate romantic poet, an even more passionate Welshman, and… a complete fabricator of truth.
Always one to let the truth lead the way to a good story, I decided to follow in his footsteps on the Iolo Morgannwg Heritage Trail, a 7km(4.5mile) circular meander around the town and some of his old haunts.
I began, as he usually did, in a pub (which would also serve as my accommodation) – an old cobblestone hostelry called The Bear. Dating back to the 12century when it was a changing post for horses running mail between Swansea and the Welsh capital. Fast forward to the 1century and it became renowned as a hangout for poets and creatives who, fuelled by beer (and a touch of the opiate laudanum), would recite poetry and legends before getting into the odd brawl. Since then it’s seen something of a transformation. Now a boutique hotel and restaurant serving fine fare, it would be barely recognisable to Iolo and his brethren. Yet it has still managed to maintain something of its comely nooks and crannies, and sense of character –no two bedrooms are the same.
After raising a glass to Iolo, I headed across the street, first to the aforementioned standing stone and then through the Physic Garden, a community project completed in 2008 as a nod to the apothecary gardens of the century. Inside, the beautifully symmetrical flowerbeds were festooned with herbs, spices and even weeds, all formerly cultivated for medicinal use. It would have been through places such as this where Iolo discovered and then relied on his poppy drink as a form of inspiration.
As well as his establishment of the druidic order of the bards, he claimed to have unearthed poetry from some of the Welsh masters. They were published and celebrated – and used as shining examples of 1century work – but later, after his death in 1826, found to have been elaborate forgeries, penned by none other than Iolo himself.
There is, however, some examples of his work around the town that definitely are real. The memorial plaque at Holy Cross Church – which he as a stonemason created; the Town Hall –for which he drew the plans for its extension; as well as the first fair trade shop in Wales that he established and owned (he refused to stock sugar grown from plantations which used slaves) –now a Costa Coffee that sports a memorial plaque in his honour.
The more I learned about him, the more complex a character he became. Not simply a liar, but a man so keen to demonstrate the Welshness of South Wales (at a time when the north was renowned as the more traditional end of the country) that he went to great lengths to ‘preserve’ it, to the point where some of his tampered versions of medieval Welsh texts are actually better known than the originals.
Then, in 1819, his Gorsedd was officially merged to form the Eisteddfod, a national celebration of all things Welsh – cementing Iolo’s legacy in this Wales’ history. You’d think that his name would be famous even beyond the borders, yet few have heard of him. But then the Vale of Glamorgan itself seems to be something of a treasure trove of culturally important artefacts and people that are little known outside the county.
The following day I went in search of some of these historical riches on a hunt that felt as though it were devised by Iolo himself. My search took me first to St Illtud’s Church in Llantwit Major where – with no sign to advertise it – there is some of the best-preserved collection of and 10century Celtic crosses in Wales; then to Ewenny Priory where artist JMW Turner visited in 1795 and painted the interior arches – you can very easily recreate the image on your phone as little has changed since his visit; and finally on to St Cadoc church in Llancarfan where a collection of some of the best-preserved medieval wall paintings of St George and the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ – which happened to be unearthed accidentally when 14 years ago roofers chipped off some of the lime wash wall, and I only learned about by chance n chatting to a local.
After the ecclesiastical offerings I stumbled upon two major Neolithic burial sites called Tinkinswood (home to the largest capstone in Europe) and St Lythans. Both boasted no queues nor entrance fees (and little in the way of car parks – they were each reached via a small layby and faint footpath) yet were in incredible condition given that they are 6,000-year-oldrelics that pre-date Stonehenge by over a thousand years.
I sat by the second as the sun set and read the local legend that says that if I were here on Midsummer’s Eve I’d see the capstone spin three times while the supporting rocks would go to the river to bathe and, how a night spent at the first site at Midwinter would see me awake the following day as either a poet or mad. I wondered if Iolo had done just that.
I ended my trip at the far southeast of the Vale, on a tidal island called Sully, following another tale that sounded worthy of Iolo’s fabrications but was actually very real. This time, rather than a Welshman, I was following in the footsteps of a Norman knight turned notorious buccaneer - Alfredo de Marisco, aka ‘Night Hawk of the Bristol Channel’ – who arrived in the 1200s, turned to piracy and terrorised merchant ships arriving the nearby ports. Word has it that he famously sailed with a flag featuring a hawk’s skull which, some believe, may have spawned the idea for the infamous skull and cross bones synonymous with pirates.
Back in the present day and any sign of a Jolly Roger is long gone, in fact the only real danger is not being able to leave this place –literally – as the notorious tides cut this landmass off from the mainland twice a day.
I walked carefully over the causeway, while the water receded beneath my feet, then sat on the edge of the rocks and imagined being here completely surrounded by sea, dreaming up stories taller than the waves. There could be few better places in the world in which to be cast away. And that is definitely the truth.
Author: Phoebe Smith
Photos: Credit Phoebe Smith
Entrance to all the churches and the Neolithic sites are free.
For safe crossing to Sully Island check out Tide Charts