Category Archives: Literature

A history of Cambrian News, established 1860

I was in the Aberdyfi Village Stores a couple of days ago and asked if there was such a thing as a local newspaper.  I came away with the Cambrian News (www.cambrian-news.co.uk) for the Meirionnydd district, which is absolutely bursting with information about Meirionnydd (or Merioneth in English).

Meirionnydd is the southernmost part of Gwynedd and used to be a separate cantref, lying between the River Dyfi to the south and the River Mawddach in the north.  In 1889 it was officially renamed Merionethshire and in 1284 assimilated the cantrefs Penllyn and Ardudwy to its north.  In 1974 it was amalgamated with Caernarfon and Angelsey to become Gwynedd.  However, Meirionnydd is still considered to be an entity in its own right, and this is the area served by Meirionnydd version of Cambrian News, although the newspaper has issues for other districts as well, taking in much of Gwynedd and Ceredigion.

The Cambrian News itself has both heritage and pedigree,  celebrating its 150th anniversary in 2010.  It first appeared in October 1860, at that stage just a four-page supplement in The Oswestry Advertiser, and was called The Merioneth Herald.  It developed into a newspaper in its own right, still in Oswestry, and in 1864 became The Merionethshire Standard and Mid-Wales Herald.  It was only in 1864, that the name Cambrian entered the name, when it became the Cambrian News and Merionethshire Standard. At times it also included The Welsh Farmers’ Gazette.

Sir John Gibson. Source: The Western Mail, Monday 19th July 1915, p.7

In 1873 it was put under the management and editorship of a John Gibson (1941-1915), and was moved to Aberystwyth as The Cambrian News.  Gibson was clearly a force to be reckoned with.  He was the son of a Lanaster hatter who, according to John Gibson’s obituary in the Western Mail (19th July 1915) made the first silk hat in Lancaster.   Gibson started out as an errand boy in the newspaper trade and went to the Oswestry Advertiser first as a printer and then as a journalist.  In 1879 Gibson published Agriculture in Wales.   His obituary in the Western Mail says that “his outspoken and negative criticism occasioned great commotion in town and district and gave rise to considerable opposition.” In 1880 his outspoken remarks resulted in a number of libel actions against the newspaper, and rather than apologize he resigned.  However, in the same year a consortium of Gibson’s friends and supporters formed a consortium to purchase the newspaper, and reappointed him.  He eventually became the newspaper’s proprietor.   He had strong views on political and social issues, which permeated the newspaper.  In a column in the newspaper on the 26th October 1885 he  stated that women were “either slaves or are legally, socially and politically non-existent,” and followed this up in 1891 with a book entitled The Emancipation of Women, a treatise that came down very strongly in support of women’s suffrage.  An article on Wales Online describes how in the first decade of the 20th Century he was strongly opposed to the establishment of the newly proposed Welsh National Agricultural Society and its Royal Welsh Show, arguing vociferously that it would lead to the demise of the North Cardiganshire show and other similarly long-established events.The Welsh National Library’s Dictionary of Welsh Biography says that under Gibson’s supervision, “and through his vigorous personality and fearless independent views on local and national affairs, the Cambrian News became one of the most influential weekly newspapers in Wales.”

Advert from the 30th December 1910 edition, Cambrian News page 2

A measure of its success under Gibson is provided by a piece in the Cambrian Times of 11th July 1874, where a column describes how the Cambrian News and Aberystwyth Times had steadily increased over the previous few years throughout the district.  In 1873 there were 1590 more advertisements placed than in 1872 and in 1874 there were 1721 more than in 1873.  This is explained in the column by the standards to which the newspaper was held by its editor:  “The Cambrian News is characterized by the independent tone of its articles and the fearless spirit in which public affairs of local and general interest are criticized.  It is full of impartial reports, local sketches, nearly two columns of markets and general intelligence etc, and the proprietors do not spare expense in making it a good family, commercial and general newspaper.”  Advertisements were more expensive than other local newspapers, and this was discussed in the July 23rd 1909 issue of the Cambrian News and Welsh Farmers’ Gazette on page 3:  “We are frequently told that charges for advertisements in this paper are higher than those made by other local papers.  This is true.  We publish two editions every week in order to give al the news of the district, and our price for advertisements is high in order to keep space for news.  If reckoned by so much per thousand copies sold, advertisements should be included in the ‘Cambrian News’ will be found to be worth all that is paid for them.”

The tone of the Cambrian News under John Gibson was, to say the least, forthright.  On December 30th 1881 in the Almanac for the Year 1882, just beneath the newspaper’s header, the following statement was printed: “The Cambrian News aims at being all that a pure, honest and upright family newspaper should be.  Impure advertisements and reports are rigorously excluded.  The reports are impartial, the criticism is just and the politics Liberal.” It goes on to say that it gives “special attention” to agricultural subjects and that as well as a wide regional circulation it had agents in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool.  By 1909 two editions were going out per week.

John Gibson was knighted in the same year in which he died, becoming Sir John Gibson, not a bad achievement for the son of a Lancaster hatter.  He died on Saturday 17th July, aged 74.  In his will be specified that his funeral his funeral “should be of the simplest form and no mourning worn at it or afterwards” (Cambrian News, 20th November 1915, page 6).  He was buried in Llangarwen churchyard.

Today the weekly Cambrian News is  owned by Tindle Newspapers Ltd.  It is full of local stories and has an active letters page.  It is a great way to find out about local government issues, problems with services and transport, innovations made by local businesses, upcoming and previous events and the outcomes of recent sports fixtures.  I had no idea, for example, that there are plans afoot to put a new bridge over the River Dyfi, that there is a Merioneth County Show (very sorry to have missed that), that there is a shortage of both firefighters and train drivers in the area, that there is a move to set up a Dyf Valley palliative care service, or that Tywyn has a netball team.  I also enjoyed the piece about the life of Marguerite Jervis who lived intermittently at The Lodge of Plas Pentedal near Aberdovey.  The newsaper is very people-focused, with a strong emphasis on human interest stories.   Its website says that Cambrian News is the biggest-selling weekly newspaper in Wales with six editions that cover Aberystwyth, south Ceredigion, Cardigan & Newcastle Emlyn, Montgomeryshire, Meirionnydd and Arfon/Dwyfor, spanning five Welsh counties.  Cambrian News was voted Welsh Weekly Newspaper of the Year for 2015 and has been awarded the title of BT Welsh Weekly Newspaper of the Year twice.  The price has just risen from 80p to £1.00.  Worth every penny.

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.