The holiday is coming to an end all too quickly. We’ve packed in a lot this week, perhaps I’ll go back to work for a rest. But we’ve not yet finished. On the 100 list is the challenge to take in the views or learn Welsh at Nant Gwrtheyrn. Well we couldn’t miss out on this one.
When I grew up in Tywyn, Nant Gwrtheyrn had only just been recently purchased by a trust and once the village had been refurbished it reopened as a Welsh Language Centre specialising in courses for people learning Welsh as a second language. The road back then was just a steep track down into the valley, and was very difficult to drive up and down so most people walked down to the village. In 1934 Pathe News showed a film titled “Climbing the Unclimbable”, which you can see here: http://www.britishpathe.com/video/climbing-the-unclimbable/query/wales+hill
We parked the car at the top of the valley and got out ready to walk down the steep path to the village, but then noticed that the road had been recently surfaced with Tarmac. So we drove down instead – lucky for me, because if I’d made Aunty walk down and then back up I’d have been in real trouble! And boy it was steep, and we didn’t have to drive like the Pathe News film.
In 1861 a granite quarry opened in the valley producing setts for roads and a small village grew up to service the quarry and provide labour. The finished products were shipped out via a jetty. Due to falling demand and access problems the quarry closed in the 1960s and the village became derelict until the language centre transformed it. During the residential course the students stay in the old cottages, each one has been named after a town in Wales.
One of the cottages has been furnished as it would have been when the quarry was open. The whole village is now a tranquil place, but because of sense of isolation it has a sense of mystic about it, emphasised by the steep valley walls rising up into the mist behind the vial leg and the ghosts of the industrial past.
Many places in Wales have local myths and legends. Nant Gwrtheyrn is no exception with a sad tale of lovers. Before the quarry opened Nant Gwrtheyrn was an isolated valley with three farms, Tŷ Hen, Tŷ Canol and Tŷ Ychaf respectively. Tŷ Uchaf was occupied by the orphan, Rhys Maredydd and his sister, Angharad and Tŷ Hen was inhabited by a girl named Meinir and her father. Being cousins, the three children played together, but as they grew older Rhys and Meinir would tend to wander off together. One of their favourite places to hang out was a big old oak tree on the lower slopes of the Yr Eifl, the nearby mountain.
As the years passed, Rhys and Meinir fell in love, and they were to be married. The wedding was to take place at the pilgrim church of Clynnog Fawr (St. Bueno’s) on the second Sunday in June. As the wedding day was imminent, family and friends started to arrive bringing the traditional wedding gifts and the food and drink for the wedding feast.
The evening before the wedding, it is said that Rhys and Meinir sat underneath their favourite oak tree and Rhys carved in their names to the tree trunk. Meinir told Rhys that it was bad luck to do this before they were married, but Rhys reassured her that no bad luck could ever happen to them.
It so happened that there was an ancient tradition in Nant Gwrtheyrn, known as the ‘wedding quest’ where the bride would hide on the morning of the wedding and the groom would have to hunt for her, so it’s hide and seek for adults. After breakfast, Meinir left her father’s house and ran for the hills. A short time later Rhys arrived at the house with his companions, but their way was barred by Meinir’s father, with the traditional exchange of pennillion where those on door step tried to get in, and the father tried to keep them out. When they eventually discovered that Meinir had gone, the hunt was on, but everywhere that they searched was fruitless.
By lunchtime they decided to give up the search, and they concluded that Meinir had given them the slip and must be at the church in Clynnog Fawr (St. Bueno’s). When the men reached the church, Meinir was still nowhere to be seen so they started the search again, even lighting torches and looking throughout the night.
The following day, it was obvious that something had happened to Meinir. They continued the search for a week and found no indication that Meinir had been to a particular location. The search parties gradually dwindled away, leaving only Rhys to search the valleys and mountains. He would even make pilgrimages to the ancient oak and would gaze out from there across the Nant, just as he had done in those happy days when he stood hand-in-hand with his beloved.
After more than thirty years of searching, Rhys made his way to the ancient oak one more time bearing a lighted torch. There was roll of thunder over head and a bolt of lightning that struck the oak square on its trunk. With the smell of ozone and burning wood, the tree split in two revealing the hollow tree’s heart. There was another flash of lightning, and Rhys saw the bleached skeleton of a woman wearing a wedding dress. Rhys rushed to the body and the skeleton fell into his arms. It is said that he died of a broken heart there and then, and his body was found two days later with the corpse of Meinir still in his arms. They were buried in the same grave together.