Cantre’r Gwaelod, The Welsh Atlantis?: Stories From The Heart(h)

island CANTRER GWAELOD THE WELSH ATLANTIS STORIES FROM THE HEARThWe live in a mysterious universe, and on an even more mysterious planet. That mystery opens up and yields its treasure to those who are fortunate to have eyes that see and ears that hear, as it says in ancient sacred text. Mystery is ‘shy’ and only the respectful may gaze upon her.

Hy Braesil, as mentioned recently in an article, is a mysterious island that appears and disappears, allegedly, off the coast of north-west Scotland. Rather like an oceanic Brigadoon – a Scottish village that is supposed to appear for one day per century in Scotland, and which was the theme of a 1947 musical and a movie some seven years later – it is an elusive place and is yet another mystery to encourage you to visit these ancient Celtic kingdoms.

And so, as I sit here in London, in my small ‘town garden’ (a backyard?) with a glass of cold mineral water in my hand (I really like the effervescent kind), and with my eyes half closing, I begin to relax even more.

My mind ‘circles’ around the idea of water, and my imagination starts to ‘dance’, and it’s as though I’m transported back in time to grandmother Rhianwen’s cottage. There, as a wee lad,  I would sit beside the hearth in the evening, and she would tell another story. She was a seanchie, a Celtic story-teller, and a good one at that. I loved hearing her timeless, mysterious and deep stories. Stories full of meaning. And, the memory of them, even today, is pure gold.

‘There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.’ G K Chesterton

‘There was a time’, my grandmother said, ‘when there was a great city off the western coast of Wales, an island-city, but it had sunk beneath the waves some time ago’. Perhaps seeing my alarm at this she added, that it all took place in the seventh century, and so allayed my fears.  Something like that, she assured me, wouldn’t happen to Capel Curig as we’re inland, and the sea is some twenty-eight miles away. That relieved my childhood concerns, and she continued.

Her rocking chair creaked as she gently rocked back and forth, the fire in the hearth was ‘baking’ one side of my face, and so I moved from the side of the rocking chair to face her. ‘The great city’s name was Cantre’r Gwaelod’, she said. ‘It was a good mile off the mainland coast, and could be reached on foot at low tide. Then it’s gates would open, only to close as high tide approached’.

O dan y môr â’i donnau
Mae llawer dinas dlôs

Beneath the sea and its waves
Are many cities fair

But, on that particular evening one of the watchmen, whose task it was to close one of the sluice gates as the tide came up, got careless’, she said. ‘His name was Seithennin. He was madly in love with the King’s daughter, and when she got married to someone else he couldn’t bear the thought, and spent too much time in a tavern, got even more careless, and got drunk.’

‘A storm arose that night, the sea crept higher and higher, and lapped at the city wall of Cantre’r Gwaelod, but Seithennin was unaware. All the other city sluice gates had been closed, except for one – the one that Seithinnin was in charge of. He was in a deep, drunken stupor in the tavern.’

‘He was awoken abruptly by screams, and staggering out into the street, he could see water rushing toward him at great force. Sadly, Seithinnin lost his life that night. Some of the city people made it to the mainland, but the city was flooded and sank beneath the waves.’

Aeth clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod
Ô’r golwg dan y dwr.

The bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod
Vanished beneath the water.

My grandmother could obviously see that such an unhappy ending was perhaps too much for me, and added, ‘But, the city of Cantre’r Gwaelod was, and is, a special place. And some say a magical place. Even now, especially when a storm arises off the western coast, there are some who say they have heard music and singing, much merriment, and churchbell sounds coming from Cantre’r Gwaelod, miles out to sea.

A chlychau Cantre’r Gwaelod
Yn canu dan y dwr.

And the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod
Ringing beneath the water.

It seems’, she said and smiled, ‘that life goes on there and is eternal now, even though many on the mainland can’t see it or hear it. But some can! Yes, Cantre’r Gwaelod is a place of mystery, and some would say magic.’

Hyd fedd mi gofia’r tywod
Ar lawer nos ddi-stwr,
A chlychau Cantre’r Gwaelod
Yn canu dan y dwr.

On sand till the grave I’ll remember
Many a peaceful night
And the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod
Ringing beneath the water.

Did Cantre’r Gwaelod actually exist? Was it a myth full of meaning? Does it matter if was a tangible place or is a spiritual place only? Sometimes, isn’t it enough to just accept mystery?

There is no solid, reliable evidence of the physical kind of this Welsh Atlantis ever having existed. But, we’re talking about Wales, and the whole of that realm is liminal, a place of mystery where anything can happen to those who look gently upon the landscape. Sometimes, the most we can hope for are imaginal-prompts, peripheral fleeting glances  or spiritual ‘glimpses’.

In 1770, a Welsh antiquarian scholar William Owen Pughe said that he witnessed sunken dwelling places about four miles off the coast of Ceredigion. And in 1846 The Topographical Dictionary of Wales described a feature of stone walls and causeways beneath the shallow waters off Cardigan Bay. Even today there are those who will tell you that they have heard the sound of many conversations on the wind that blows from that part of the sea, or have heard the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod.

Years later, as I sit here, now, in my little garden on a balmy London evening, with my eyes now wide open and with a now empty glass in my hand, that story heartens me. It tells us that that life goes on, seen or unseen, it goes on in another realm – a place of eternal peace. Okay, Seithennin was distraught and got careless in that story, and perhaps one moral from it is that we should not neglect the day of small things (tasks), as it says in ancient sacred text, for such tasks may have the biggest effects.

‘Sin is behovely’. The Lady Julian of Norwich

But the story also assures us that we are altogether very human and that’s not a bad thing, and as humans we will sometimes make mistakes, but through them the Universe, the Source of All is able to turn them around to the benefit of all, and they become blessings.

Yes, the voice of grandmother Rhianwen, who ‘borrowed’ the words of Julian of Norwich on many occasions and reiterated them in a north Welsh accent, continues to echo in my mind, even now, and even here in London: ‘All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’.

 

[The poem extracts in Welsh with an English translation, above, are from Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod), a poem by John James Williams (1869-1954) who was a pastor and a poet. J. J. is his bardic name.

4 thoughts on “Cantre’r Gwaelod, The Welsh Atlantis?: Stories From The Heart(h)

    • Thank you for reading the article and for your kind comment. I do believe that one day you will walk on welsh soil, see much and fall in love with the realm. It is a magical place. Much light and love be to you and yours, Tadhg.

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    • It’s the time we live in that encourages us to want to always know, but the ‘fun’, faith and growth happens when we embrace the Mystery. Many blessings, Tadhg.

      Like

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