The legend of Cantre’r Gawelod and the bells of Aberdovey

The bells of Aberdovey are the most famous actors in a number a number of local legends.  The legends are captured in poems and songs, and will be very familiar to any regular visitors to Aberdovey.  They concern a piece of very fertile low land that was said to be several miles out from the shoreline of Cardigan Bay, and was swallowed by the sea.

The most common of the legends, the one favoured today, tells the story of the bells that belonged to wealthy towns that stood in rich, fertile land that was protected by sea walls but was eventually drowned by the sea.  In the tradition, the land, called Maes Gwyddno (Maes, meaning land or plain; Gwyddno, meaning of Gwyddno), was part of the kingdom of Meirionydd and ruled by Gwyddno Garanhir (Garanhir, meaning long limbs or Longshanks).  Meirionnydd was a kingdom and then cantref, the southern part of what is now Gwynedd, between the Mawddach river at Borth in the north and the Dfyi at Aberdovey in the south.

Meirionnydd in mid west Wales (Source: Map of cantrefi of Wales by XrysD CC-BY-SA-4.0)

Aberdovey is supposed to the be the nearest place on dry land to the former location of Maes Gwyddno.  The legend refers to Maes Gwyddno as Cantre’r Gawelod, which translates as The Bottom Hundred, or Lowland Hundred. The translation “hundred” comes from the word cantref itself, which was a way of dividing up the land for administrative purposes, like counties.  Cantref is a concatenation of two words, cant (meaning hundred) and tref (meaning town).  A hundred in English is also an administrative area.  The term is first recorded in the 10th Century, but the etymology of the word is unclear and the Oxford English Dictionary sits firmly on the fence in this matter.

The best known story is that the low land of Maes Gwyddno, or Cantre’r Gawelod,  with its 16 wealthy towns or villages, the most prestigious of which was Manua, was protected by dykes or sea walls.  The land was drained at low tide by opening sluice gates.  The sluice gates were closed as the tide began to rise, a task overseen by a watchman.  One night the spring tide was whipped into a frenzy by a bad storm and beat against the sea walls.  Instead of tending the open sluice gate the appointed watchman, the King’s knight Seithennin/Seithenyn, was attending revels in the King’s palace, also protected by the sea wall.  This dereliction of duty doomed the land.  As the sea rushed in, the King escaped with some of the revellers along the Sarn Cynfelyn causeway, which remains today (sarnau, meaning stones, are remnants of glacial moraines, now only visible at low tide), and the farmers and villagers were driven away from their rich lands into the far poorer fields and hills behind Cardigan Bay.

A page from the Black Book of Carmarthen (Source: National Library of Wales)

Another version, captured in the poem Boddi Maes Gwyddno (The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno) is captured in the 13th Century Black Book of Carmarthen, which is the earliest known collection of Welsh verse, bringing together many earlier poems and legends, agrees that Seithennin was at the King’s palace at the time of the storm, but that it was a girl named Mererid who was in charge of the sluice gates.  Seithennin seduced Mererid who failed to close the sluice gates, causing the lands to be submerged beneath the sea.

A different legend says that a fairy well was located near the land, tended to by a priestess.  For reasons unknown, she decided to allow the well to overflow, with the same consequences.

Finally, another tradition has it that a giant called Idris Gawr, whose throne was Cadair Idris (cadair meaning chair) roamed the hills around Aberdovey carrying a massive bell.  Like most of us, he liked to paddle and he sometimes left his mountain eyrie to stride in the waters of the River Dyfi.  One day he was surprised by a great storm and drowned, but his bell continues to ring to this day.

All versions of the legend agree that if you listen carefully, particularly on a quiet night, a Sunday morning or in times of danger, the bells of Cantre’r Gawelod can still be heard from Aberdovey and Ynys-las ringing under the sea.

The English version of Boddi Maes Gwyddno (The Drowning of the Land of Gwyddno) poem is reproduced here, copied from the Cantre’r Gwaelog website, where it is also printed in original and modern Welsh.  I don’t read or speak Welsh but I found the English version incredibly powerful:

Seithennin, stand forth
And behold the seething ocean:
It has covered Gwyddno’s lands.

Cursed be the maiden
Who let it loose after the feast,
The cup-bearer of the mighty sea.

Cursed be the girl
Who let it loose after battle,
The cup-bearer of the desolate ocean.

Mererid’s cry from the city’s heights
Reaches even God.
After pride comes a long ending.

Mererid’s cry from the city’s heights today,
Implores God.
After pride comes remorse.

Mererid’s cry overcomes me tonight,
And I cannot prosper.
After pride comes a fall.

Mererid’s cry from strong wines;
Bountiful God has made this.
After excess comes poverty.

Mererid’s cry drives me
From my chamber.
After pride comes devastation.

The grave of high-minded Seithennin,
Between Caer Genedr and the sea:
Such a great leader was he.

The poem Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod) shown here is taken from the the Glaemscrafu website, where the following details are given: “Clychau Cantre’r Gwaelod (The Bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod) is a poem of John James Williams (1869-1954), J. J. by his bardic name. A pastor and a poet, he composed secular poems, many hymns and two scriptural plays. He competed in the poetry contest of the Eisteddfod Genedlaethol Cymru (National Eisteddfod of Wales), the most important of the yearly festivals of Welsh culture, and won the chair awarded to the best bard in 1906 and 1908.”  Interesting that the story was interpreted by The Guardian as one of a series of 21 poems that speak to issues of climate change.

The poem Cantre’r Gwaelod shown here is taken from the the Glaemscrafu website at https://www.jrrvf.com/glaemscrafu/english/cantrergwaelod.html

The probably better known love song The Bells of Aberdyfi (Clychau Aberdyfi), beginning “If to me you can be true, Just as true as I to you, It’s one, two, three, four, five and six Sing the Bells of Aberdovey” is often cited as a Welsh poem, but its origins lie in the 18th Century English theatre.  In the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, folk music expert Frank Kidson wrote: ” Charles Dibdin, who, writing a song for it in broken Welsh, used it in his opera Liberty Hall (1786). Miss [Jane] Williams, hearing it traditionally, published a version of it in her collection of 1844, and from that time onward it has been accepted as genuine Welsh. There is certainly no evidence to show that Dibdin used an existing tune (it was quite opposed to his practice), and no copy can be found except Dibdin’s of a date prior to 1844.”  The lyrics are available in both English and Welsh on the Musica International website, and the song can be heard on YouTube, a beautifully sung gentle and lyrical version in Welsh by Cass Meurig and Nial Cain at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d2knRU0–dQ.  Here are the English lyrics:

If to me you can be true,
Just as true as I to you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the Bells of Aberdovey.
One, two, three, four, five and six
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the bells of Aberdovey.
Boys do love to be in love,
And girls do love to marry.
But my love’s for only one,
For Bess of Aberdovey.
If your love is just as true
As this love I have for you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six,
From the bells of Aberdovey.

Bold with love I’m back once more
Just to camp against your door.
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the Bells of Aberdovey.
One, two, three, four, five and six
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six
Sing the bells of Aberdovey.
Here’s and end to all faint hearts,
Till truth it is you’re pleading.
If you just meet be half way,
It wil be all I’m needing.
If your love is half as true
As this love I have for you,
It’s one, two, three, four, five and six,
From the bells of Aberdovey.

The legends of the bells of Aberdovey have become part of the literary and folk music landscapes of Wales, and a fine tradition it is too.

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