Monsters, Ghosts and a Head-Munching Banshee — the Folklore of Caerphilly, Wales


Best Flights, Folklore / Saturday, November 18th, 2017

Heol-Y-Bwnsi doesn’t attract much attention. A narrow lane snaking up one side of Mynnydd Meio (“the Mountain of Blame”) from the Rhondda valley, through the hamlet of Groeswen and down into the Aber valley, it has been largely supplanted by the A roads, thank goodness. But among its handful of Welsh-speaking hikers, it generally raises a comment. Heol-Y-Bwnsi means “the path of the banshee.

Mynnydd Meio, overlooking the Rhonddda valley

Mynnydd Meio is said to be haunted by Shinny. She poses as a pathetic old woman, begging for help; or she may appear as a voluptuous young maiden summoning men to ungodly delights (well, it’s one way of getting your teenage sons to keep their pants on). When you stop is when she strikes. The point at which the lane fords a stream is where she washes the heads of her victims.

Caerphilly has its fair share of supernaturals. None of them seem very happy. It appears immortality isn’t as great as it’s cracked up to be. The builder of Caerphilly Castle, Gilbert de Clare, married the beautiful and virtuous Alice of Angouleme, who tired of her husband’s warlike habits. Desiring instead a man who would help out with the housework and change babies’ nappies, she fell in love with the young and handsome Gruffudd the Fair, Prince of Brithdir. Their affair was one of passion and joy, until Gruffudd — not the brightest star in the firmament, evidently — spilled the beans to a local monk, who promptly enlightened Gilbert that his wife was knobbing the neighbour.

Understandably furious, Gilbert took off to hang Gruffudd (although not before Gruffudd had hanged the monk), gleefully informing Alice of her lover’s demise. The poor girl’s heartbreak was such that she dropped dead on the spot.

Now her sorrowful ghost, richly adorned in the satin and velvet of her privileged position, coloured green to represent Gilbert’s jealousy, forlornly wanders the ramparts, always looking in vain for the return of her lover.

Caerphilly Castle

Welsh has a saying for anybody who wants to be rude about a woman: “Y mae mor salw a Gwrach-y-Rhibyn!” — “She’s so ugly, she’s the Rhibyn witch!” The Green Lady of Caerphilly Castle has a partner in sorrow. The hideous Gwrach-y-Rhibyn was said to appear as a harbinger of doom. With unkempt hair, wizened arms and leathery wings, she would hover outside the window of the person about to die, calling them by name. Now that nobody has lived in the castle in several centuries, she seems lonely, having been reported wandering the grounds, exclaiming: “Fy’n plentyn! Fy’n plentyn!” — “My child! My child!” Many Caerphilly residents have been known routinely to exclaim much the same.

Gwrach-y-Rhibyn

Down the road from Caerphilly lies Taffs Well, location of a hot spring that was converted into a pool many years ago. The crippled would bathe in its waters. The villagers would fill their pitchers there (with bath water! Ach-y-fi!). One regular visitor who was clearly quite something was a lady always dressed in grey. So remarkable was she that that the stories about her were passed from father to son until, about eighty years ago (it’s curious that, in every version of this story, from every era, it’s always about eighty years ago), a man came to the well to fill his pitcher when the Grey Lady emerged from the depths to seize his hand.

The thermal spring at Taffs Well

“Hold my hands,” she begged, pleading for him not to let go. Eager to assist a lady in distress, he gripped her hands, holding her out of the water, but nothing happened! He held her, she gazed at him, answering none of his questions. As his arms began to tire, her cold, wet fingers slipped from his. “Alas,” she wailed, as she slipped back into the waters: “I shall remain in bondage another hundred years! And then I must find a woman with steady hands and stronger than yours to hold me!”

Well, there’s gratitude! But here’s an appeal to the women of south Wales: have you hands steadier and stronger than a man’s? Then do the Grey Lady of Taffs Well a favour and hang around the thermal spring. She’s due for another go soon.