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A Guide to Welsh Ghostlore
By Richard Holland
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Richard Holland
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Some years ago, a woman now living in Buckley told me about an extraordinary ghost which haunted the neighbourhood of Broughton and which terrified her parents and her aunt and uncle during the early 1930s. In those days the favourite place for courting couples to promenade was the Old Warren, a lonely and wooded stretch of road which was conveniently dark and unfrequented in the evening. One night my correspondent's parents, then young and yet to marry, were enjoying each other's company in the Old Warren when they were startled by something swooping down upon them. It was the apparition of a very tall man dressed in black, with a cape, and 'an old-fashioned clergyman's hat' upon his head. He glided past and cast upon the terrified young couple a highly disapproving look, which upset them greatly.
Some time later, the creepy clergyman also appeared to my correspondent's aunt and her future husband. The boy had a motorbike which he had propped up against a wall as they said goodnight. But then – 'The same apparition glided past and the bike's light went off and on, off and on. They jumped on the bike and rode away!'
Asking around the neighbourhood, they learnt that the ghost was that of an old rector from one of the local churches and that others had seen him, too. Today the Old Warren is even less frequented. Since a modern trunk road was built, the Old Warren has become a dead end, leading nowhere, and has subsequently become even more overgrown. This can hardly have diminished its suitability for couples seeking privacy – and it is therefore even more likely to attract the unwanted attentions of this phantom prude!
Bryn Ellis, in compiling his excellent The History of Halkyn Mountain, uncovered the following snippet about a ghost with arsonist tendencies. It comes from the Flintshire Observer of 8 October 1880:
Some of the people of Halkyn are much exercised at present respecting the doings of a reputed ghost who is said to have shown such a strong liking for fire, especially that of an incendiary character, that it has made either five or six attempts to fire the stackyard of one of the farmers in the parish. Strangely enough the ghost does not stalk forth at dead of night, the hour when ghosts are reputed to hold high revelry, but at 'early morn and dewy eve' and fortunately its mischievous pranks have been each time discovered in time to prevent serious loss. Possibly in the course of a short time a charm may be found that will lay the spirit and prevent its too liberal indulgence in frolics over other people's goods.
Once upon a time, possibly in the 1740s but details are vague, a ghost was seen in the laundry at Hawarden Castle. A 'misty form' resembling that of a deceased steward called John drifted past several maidservants, driving them into hysterics. John had been an unpopular bully during life, an absolute tyrant to those he considered his inferior, and this may have explained their extreme reactions.
Lady Marshall, who learnt of the incident from a ninety-year-old servant whose mother had been one of the maids, wrote it up in the form of a whimsical ballad. The ballad is very long but the story is slight, and it took some time to dissect it from Lady Marshall's intentionally rococo language and shamelessly bad rhymes. We learn that the staff were very distressed –
'And they, for want of public ghost inspector,
Resolved to lay the case before the Rector.' (You get the idea!)
The rector told them they were all 'tom-fools', so instead the servants sought out the services of a sympathetic priest, who agreed to perform the rites of exorcism.
The ghost was duly conjured up among the sheets and smalls in the laundry, and John-as-was told the priest that thanks to inflicting 'so much wrong' on his fellows, his spirit was unable to find a resting place. He did not explain why, of all places, he chose to haunt the laundry, and on being told 'he must be laid', he begged that it be in somewhere more salubrious. Initially he suggested his spirit be conjured into a crow (which seems even less salubrious to me) but the priest rejected this idea because he thought it might lead to 'mischief'. John then suggested he be turned into a harmless leaf, but the priest also disapproved of this plan. He argued that an unfortunate cow might chance to eat the leaf – and the cow become possessed! Finally, John agreed to be secured inside a block of granite. This was done, the stone buried, and John's spirit no longer troubled the living.
Through the course of this book there will be many accounts of visual ghosts, or apparitions, and a great many of spooky noises; phantom smells, however, are comparatively rare. Near Llanasa there were a couple of cottages haunted by an aroma which, though pleasant enough to smell, actually recalled a foul murder. It was said that many, many years ago two children were done away with here and their bodies concealed under a bed of thyme in the garden. By 1891, when this story was recorded by folklorist Elias Owen, a strong smell of thyme would sometimes still be smelt by passers-by, even though it had been a very long time (no pun intended) since the herb was grown there.
I was unable to find the name of these cottages, Yr-ardd-ddu, on the 1:25,000 map. Owen states that they stood on the road to Penyffordd and Pen-y-Glasdir. This places them in the vicinity of Glan-yr-Afon (birthplace of the playwright Emlyn Williams). A local person may be able to find them, or the ruin of them. Perhaps they are still identifiable by the lingering smell of thyme ...
Deiniol's Ash, now called Ash Farm, was the old manor house of Mancot. Here, in the early eighteenth century, there lived the Cratchley family, who had a feud with the Glynne family of Broadlanes, a nearby mansion which was later converted into Hawarden's 'Castle'. In true Romeo and Juliet style, a young member of the Glynne family fell in love with a daughter of the house of Cratchley. William and Rebecca tried to keep their love a secret but inevitably they were discovered, and the relationship brutally ended when William was packed off on the 'Grand Tour'. Poor Rebecca was heartbroken and waited long years in vain for her beloved's return. Sadly, he died in Europe and she never saw him again. Her forlorn spirit is said to still haunt Deiniol's Ash and this belief is largely supported by the following sighting of an apparition, which took place here in 1935.
A group of young women were on their way to a New Year's dance in Hawarden when they saw the insubstantial figure of a girl, which they immediately recognised as a ghost, emerging from the gateway leading to Ash Farm. Much to their dismay, the ghost began to approach them down the lane, but before it reached them it vanished. The women were so frightened that they dropped their handbags in the road and ran home. A young man had to prove his valour a short while later by retrieving their things – the girls absolutely refused to pass that way again that night.
MOLD (YR WYDDGRUG)
One of the most famous ghost stories from Wales is that of the Golden Spectre of Goblin Hill. Its fame is due largely to the fact that the ghost is authenticated not just by witness testimony but also by a real, solid artefact which survives today, and which just happens to be one of the prized possessions of the British Museum. Goblin Hill, or to give it its correct Welsh name Bryn yr Ellyllon, rises to the east of Mold in an area of the town called Pentre. As a child I lived in a house on its summit, but no one I knew called the place Bryn yr Ellyllon, for that name went out of fashion in the nineteenth century, long after the 'goblin' itself had ceased to appear.
On the left-hand side of the hill, as one leaves Mold, a stone plaque has been fixed to a wall, commemorating an important archaeological discovery. Near the plaque there was once a prominent mound called the Tomen. On 11 October 1833, Mr John Langford, who rented the field, ordered that the mound be levelled and the stones composing it be taken to fill in a hole by the side of the road. In the base of the mound the labourers came across a cist, or slab-lined grave, and in this grave they uncovered the largest piece of prehistoric goldwork ever found in Europe. The so-called 'Mold Cape' is an exquisitely ornamented sheet of gold which would have fitted round the shoulders of the Bronze Age chieftain or priest whose crumbling bones were interred here. Initially its value wasn't recognised, and it was thrown to one side. When someone noticed it was made of gold, however, something of a free-for-all took place and chunks of it were ripped off, and taken away as souvenirs, the result being that it survives today in a sadly mutilated form.
Prior to the opening of the ancient grave, the area around the Tomen was the haunt of a ghost called the Brenin yr Allt, or King of the Hillside. He was described as taking the appearance of a man of huge stature – a man who was seen to be 'glittering and shining in gold'! John Langford was well aware of the stories of the Golden Spectre and made a point of visiting an old lady named Nancy, who claimed to have seen it fourteen years previously while fetching home her cows one moonlit night. Nancy was delighted to learn that the 'ghost was raised' and her story substantiated.
A contemporary student of local history and folklore, Angharad Llwyd, learnt of other sightings of the Golden Spectre. She heard that in about the year 1810, 'a female was leading her drunken husband through the Goblyn field, when they saw the Golden Spectre standing on the Tommen, which scared the woman into fits and the man into sobriety'. She also learnt of a dressmaker who had seen the ghost in 1828 and who had been left 'crazed' by the experience.
That Bryn yr Ellyllon was a famously haunted spot is evident from a letter by a man who actually saw the open grave and the golden cape soon after its discovery. His memory of the ghost is quite different to those supplied by Mr Langford and Miss Llwyd, but then he was only a boy of thirteen at the time, and his letter was written sixty-eight years after the event. He wrote:
I certainly heard it rumoured a year or two before 1833 that Bryn yr Ellyllon and Cae'r Yspryd [Field of the Ghost] were haunted as well as the adjacent main road by an apparition – 'A Headless Warrior riding a grey horse.' You may imagine the excitement which arose when something was found. In the afternoon I and many others, young and old, saw the Corselet doubled up and somewhat damaged, and placed in a [wheel-] barrow, where it was the 'observed of all observers'. The great lesson I learned from that discovery was that through a labyrinth of old ghost stories, miracles, poetry, and legend there is more real history than we have yet comprehended.
Also supporting the presence of the ghost is the story of a woman who encountered it three years before the grave was discovered:
In 1830 a respectable woman was returning home on horseback on a fine summer's evening, after having finished her marketing at Mold. When she came near the tumulus she perceived some of the trees in a wood on the opposite side of the road to be illumined, as we see the blades of grass to be lit up by the phosphoric light of a glow-worm. As she looked intently on this phenomenon, she perceived an apparition of unusual size, and clothed with a suit of golden armour, emerge from the wood, and approaching, cross the road, and disappear in the tumulus. She was so struck by this extraordinary occurrence that she determined to return to Mold and tell the circumstance to the then vicar, the Revd C.B. Clough. This gentleman wrote down what she told him, and got three other respectable persons to witness it.
Given the date of the sighting, this tale is compelling: it is evidence that the Golden Spectre was a real phenomenon, and that vice versa the gold cape is evidence of the existence of a ghost! However, this story didn't find print until 1885, more than thirty years after the cape was found. It would be an exciting find indeed should the woman's testimony ever come to light.
Although the Golden Spectre has not been seen since the Tomen was opened, there is still evidence of hauntings in the area. A house in Ffordd Pentre experienced poltergeist activity during the mid-1970s, with mysterious knocks, rappings, footsteps and eerie groans being frequently heard.
One dark night in December 1988, a Mr Paul Adams suffered the unnerving experience of being followed by an invisible 'Something' as he traversed the rugby field adjacent to the site of the burial mound. The sound of footsteps, crunching as if on frosty grass, approached him through the darkness but no one was seen to be causing them. Mr Adams stopped dead in the field, and the sound of the footsteps stopped, too – only to start up again when he reluctantly continued on his way. Now feeling distinctly jittery, Mr Adams turned on his heel and headed back the way he had come ... but the footsteps suddenly switched to a position somewhere ahead of him and began to march his way!
'Immediately, I turned back, but still they came on,' Mr Adams told me a day or two after the incident. 'I turned again – and there they were still coming toward me. I was really scared by this time and the footsteps started walking round and round me, continually, hemming me in. Finally, I just ran for it!'
* * *
A mile or so outside Mold, on the road to Gwernaffield, there was once an old well which, like Tomen yr Ellyllon, was destroyed by road works. This was the equally haunted Ffynnon Ellyllon, or Goblin Well. In 1861, a Mrs Clough recounted a tale of the Goblin Well in a tiny, pink-bound book called Scenes and Stories Little Known. Unfortunately, she chose to tell her tale, and the others in the book, in the same manner as Lady Marshall at Hawarden – in the form of very poor verse. This seems to have been a bad habit among the mid-Victorians, for I have been forced to grimace my way through many other rotten poems of the period to extract (rather like teeth) the legends contained within them. But on with the story.
As the name suggests, the Goblin Well had an eerie reputation, one that was sufficient to impel most people to avoid it after dark. One young man, however, had no choice but to walk past it night after night, for he lived in Gwernaffield and his girlfriend lived in Mold. The lady was the hostess of a public house Mrs Clough calls the Fish, and John would invariably spend his evenings there, feasting his eyes on his beloved while simultaneously feasting on her onion stew and ale. At eleven o'clock, she would gently eject him with the stern reminder not to forget to say a prayer as he passed the haunted well. One night, as he stumbled drunkenly home, he forgot the warning and was startled by the sudden appearance of 'a lady bright ... arrayed in white'.
The woman begged that she might accompany John up the hill, for she was afraid of the spirits 'in their midnight revelry'. It seemed a reasonable request and John bowed politely in acknowledgement, but he couldn't help feeling there was something uncanny about his new companion. The Lady in White wore a hood over her head (a 'snowy mantilla of satin rare', no less) and her face was entirely hidden in its dark enclosure. With a thrill of fear, John peered in and saw those fears confirmed. The woman had no face – there was no head under the hood!
'See, here is my beautiful head!' cried the lady, and she pulled aside her mantle to reveal it, tucked in traditional style under one arm, its long hair trailing to her feet. Before John could run away from this nightmarish apparition, the detached head ordered him to stay, or suffer unpleasant consequences. John stayed put and the spirit exercised some sort of charm over him, Lamia-like, so that he found himself now rather taken with her than otherwise. The spirit explained that she had been dead for hundreds of years and was doomed to walk at night until a youth could be found brave enough to help her. She continued that there was 'a precious store of sparkling gems, and of golden ore' buried near the well, all of which could be his if he were to return on the following midnight, suitably equipped with pick and shovel. All she wanted from the treasure was a necklace – one that would reattach her head.
'Aye,' she continued:
No more will it tumble off when set,
In its ancient place on my shoulders, wet
With the blood of the sacrifice shed.
John readily agreed to this and promised to help in any way he could. But just then an evening breeze made John sneeze (yes, that's another of Mrs Clough's rhymes!) and he automatically followed it with a 'Heaven keep me!' At those unintentionally uttered holy words, the spirit's spell was broken and John came out of his trance. The first thing he saw was the look of fury on the face of the severed head, and it was quite enough to convince him to end this weird conversation at once.
Excerpted from Haunted Wales by Richard Holland. Copyright © 2013 Richard Holland. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsAbout the Author,
About the Book,
A Survey of Welsh Ghostlore,
Chapter One Flintshire,
Chapter Two Wrexham,
Chapter Three Denbighshire,
Chapter Four Conwy,
Chapter Five Anglesey,
Chapter Six Gwynedd,
Chapter Seven Ceredigion,
Chapter Eight Pembrokeshire,
Chapter Nine Carmarthenshire,
Chapter Ten Swansea,
Chapter Eleven Neath Port Talbot,
Chapter Twelve Rhondda Cynon Taff,
Chapter Thirteen Bridgend,
Chapter Fourteen Vale of Glamorgan,
Chapter Fifteen Cardiff,
Chapter Sixteen Caerphilly,
Chapter Seventeen Merthyr Tydfil,
Chapter Eighteen Blaenau Gwent,
Chapter Nineteen Torfaen,
Chapter Twenty Newport,
Chapter Twenty-one Monmouthshire,
Chapter Twenty-two Powys,