In 1779, the Rev.
Edmund Jones (1702-1793), a local Independent minister, published A Geographical, Historical, and Religious Account of the
Parish of Aberystruth. Chapter XIV of this now very rare book is entitled "Of Apparitions and Agencies of the Fairies &c."
and gives an invaluable first-hand account of the beliefs of the local people before the disruption of their rural society
by the advent of the Industrial Revolution in the 1790s. To Edmund Jones and his neighbours, the reality of the fairies and
other "agents of Hell" was not some quaint eccentricity, but a fact of everyday life:
"Abundance of people
saw them, and heard their musick, which every one said was low and pleasant, but none could ever learn the Tune.”(p.
The fairies had various
ways of appearing to mortals, but:
". . . their most
frequent way of appearing was like dancing Companies with Musick, and in the form of Funerals. When they appeared like dancing
Companies they were desirous to entice persons into their Company, and some were drawn among them and remained among them
some time; usually a whole year; as did Edmund William Rees, a Man whom I well knew, and was a Neighbour, who came back at
the years end, and looked very bad.” (Ibid., 70)
Other local people
Rosser, born at Hen-dy in this Parish, a very religious young man, on going very early in the morning to feed the Oxen, at
a Barn called Ysgybor y lann, and having fed the Oxen, he lay himself down upon the hay to rest; while he lay he heard like
the sound of music coming near the Barn; presently a large company came in the Barn with striped cloaths – some appeared
more gay than others – and there danced at their music. He lay there quiet as he could, thinking they would not see
him, but in vain; for one of them, a woman, appearing better than the rest, brought him a striped cushion with four tassels,
one at each corner of it, to put under his head. After some time the Cock crew at the house of Blaen y Coome hard by, upon
which they appeared as if they were either surprised or displeased; the cushion was then hastily taken away from under his
head, and they went away. The Spirits of darkness do not like the crowing of the cock, because it gives notice of the approach
of day; for they love darkness rather than light.” (Jones 1767, 33-34)
When not dancing and
enticing people away from hearth and home, they very often appeared like funeral processions:
"But very often they
appeared in the form of a Funeral before the death of many persons, with a Bier, and a Black Cloth, in the midst of a Company
about it, on every side, before and after it. The instances of this were so numerous, that it is plain, and past all dispute
that they infallibly foreknew the time of Men's death . . . They must therefore have this knowledge from the position of the
Stars at the time of Birth, and their influence, which they perfectly understand beyond what mortal Men can do. We have a
constant proof of this in the Corps Candles, whose appearance is an infallible sign that Death will follow, and they never
fail going the way that the Corps will go to be buried . . . In former times several have seen the likeness of human Skulls
carrying the Corps Candles, which may be some confirmation of the truth of this extraordinary thing." (Jones 1779, 72)
Many of the parishioners
had first-hand knowledge of the fairy funerals:
"Isaac William Thomas
. . . being at one time at Havodavel and seeing, as it appeared to him, a Funeral coming down the Mountain; as it were to
go towards Aberbeeg, or Lanithel Church. He stood in a Field by a wall which was between him and the high-way leading to Aberbeeg.
When the Funeral, which came close to the side of the wall, was just over against him, he reached his hand and took off the
black vail which was over the Bier, and carried it home it him. It was made of some exceeding fine Stuff, so that when folded
it was a very little substance, and very light. He told this to several. I knew the Man myself, and in my youthful days conversed
with him several times." (Ibid., 73-4)
Others saw them at
sunset flying from hill to hill across Cwm Beeg - a sure portent of disharmony:
"Edmund Daniel of
the Arail, an honest Man, and a constant speaker of truth, and of much observation, told me, that he often saw them after
Sun-set, crossing the Keven Bach, from the Valley of the Church, towards Havodavel; and that before any falling out in the
Parish, they passed on, leaping and frisking in the Air, making a path in the Air, much of this form." (Ibid., 75)
Some declared that
the Fairies had a leader among them:
"Thomas William Edmund
of Havodavel an honest pious man, who often saw them, declared, that they appeared with one bigger then the rest going before
them in the Company." (Ibid., 72)
In this regard, Edmund
Jones was able to give his own experiences of the fairies as eyewitness testimony to the reality of what he saw:
"If any think I am
too credulous in these relations, and speak of things, of which I myself have no experience, I must let them know they are
mistaken: For when I was a very young Boy. Going with my Aunt Eliz. Roger, my Mother's Sister, in the day time, somewhat early
in the Morning, but after Sun rising, from Havodavel towards my father's house at Pen y Llwyn. At the end of the upper Field
of Kae yr Keven, by the way side which we were passing, I saw the likeness of a sheep-fold with the door towards the South;
and over the door, instead of a lintel, the resemblance of a dried branch of a Tree, I think of a Hazel Tree; And within the
fold a company of many people. Some sitting down, and some going in, and coming out, bowing their heads as they passed under
the branch. It seemed to me as if they had lately been dancing, and there was Musician among them. Among the rest, over against
the door, I well remember the resemblance of a fair woman with a high crown Hat, and a red Jacket, who made a better appearance
than the rest, and whom I think they seemed to honour. I still have a pretty clear idea of her white Face, and well formed
countenance: The men wore white Cravats . . . I wondered at my Aunt going before me, that she did not look towards them, and
we going so near them. As for me, I was loath to speak until I had passed them some way, and then told my Aunt what I had
seen, at which she wondered, and said, "I dreamed". However she came to believe me, and told my mother of it when we came
home. It was sometime, before I could be persuaded that there was no fold in that place." (Ibid., 75-6)
The fairies had definite
preferences regarding where they appeared:
"The Fairies seem
not to delight in open plain grounds of any kind, far from stones and wood, nor in watery, but in dry grounds, not far from
Trees and Hedges, and the shade of grown Trees, the female Oak especially . . . Of all the places in the Parish of Aberystruth,
they most frequently appeared at Havodavel, and Keven Bach, which are dry lightsome pleasant places." (Ibid., 76-7)
In "tempestuous bad
weather", they often came into people's houses for shelter and "into some particular Houses more than others":
"And the poor ignorant
people, for fear of them, made them welcome by providing clean Water in the House; taking care that no Knife was near the
Fire, or other Iron instruments, such as they knew were offensive to them, were left in the corner near the Fire; for want
of which care many were hurt by them: and for cutting down the female Oaks, . . . Some were afraid . . . to enter their Gardens
by night;" (Ibid., 77)
The fairies were also
capable of carrying grown men long distances across country:
"They sometimes took
Men in the night and carried them insensibly into other places. Sometimes very far; of which the following instance. Henry
Edmund of Havodavel having been with the before mentioned Charles Hugh, of Coed y Pame, the said Charles Hugh, came with him
as far as Lanhithel, and persuaded him to stay with him, at Lanhithel that night, which Henry Edmund would not agree to; but
chose to go home; upon which Charles Hugh told him he had better stay with him, and not go farther. He went, but was taken
up on the way, and carried so far as to the town of Landovery in Carmarthen-shire, which he well knew, and called at a Publick-house
where he had been before, and the people earnestly persuaded him to stay with them; to which he would not comply, and going
out into the street he was taken up again, and carried back to Lanhithel next morning, where he met with Charles Hugh, who
saluted him saying "Did not I tell you, you had better stay with me?" (Ibid., 80)
The Hounds of Hell
The stretch of road
from Cwm to Aberbeeg has many ghostly sightings to its credit. In the 18th century, one Llanhilleth man had a very unnerving
“Thomas Andrew, living at a place called the Farm, in this Parish, coming home by night, saw, by
the side of a wall, the similitude of a dark man, creeping on all fours, scraping the ground, and looking aside one way and
another, also making a dreadful noise; at which he was terribly frightened; for it was, to every one that will consider it,
a dreadful appearance.”(Jones 1767, 33)
The same Thomas Andrew
was also unfortunate enough to meet the Cŵn Wybr (“Sky Hounds”), also known as Cŵn Annwn (the Hounds
of Hell). These were a pack of spectral hounds lead out at night by the King of the Otherworld to hunt the souls of the damned:
Andrew was coming home one night, with some persons with him, he heard, as he thought, the sound of hunting: he was afraid
it was some person hunting the sheep, so he hastened on to meet and hinder them: he heard them coming towards him, though
he saw them not: when they came near him, their voices were small, but increasing as they went from him: they went down the
steep towards the River Ebwy, dividing between this parish and Mynydduslwyn, wherby he knew that they were what are called
Cwn wybir, - (Sky dogs) but in the inwards parts of wales, Cwn-annwn, - (Dogs of Hell). I have heard say that these Spiritual
Hunting Dogs have been heard to pass by the eaves of several houses before the death of someone in the family. Thomas Andrew
was an honest religious man, who would not have told an untruth either for fear or for favour.” (Jones 1767, 38-39)
The Ghost of P.C. Pope
Since the 1950s,
a tall cloaked figure has been seen walking along this stretch of the road before disappearing without trace. Is this the ghost of one P.C. Hosea Pope killed in a brawl at Aberbeeg in 1911? While moving on a drunk late at night at Aberbeeg, he was attacked and struck with a stone, a violent arrest
ensued during which the officer secured one handcuff before he was knocked to
the ground and died soon after.
The website: www.policememorial.org.uk/Forces/Gwent/GwentRoll.htm states that Hosea Pope was a Police Constable in what was then Monmouthshire Constabulary. He died
on 14th July 1911, aged 33 years old.
Does his spirit still
patrol his old beat? In 1980, a local man met a figure in a top hat near the Hanbury Hotel. The figure stared him square in
the face before pulling out his pocket watch. Suddenly, a woman’s screams rang out from the woods near the Brondeg Filling
Station at Cwm Beeg. The figure walked up the road glancing in the direction from which the screams came. Overcoming his understandable
fear, the local man followed on behind until, near a place called the Rhiw, the figure in the top hat vanished into thin air!
The Man Moel
In November 1975,
not far away on Man Moel, three men driving home from work sighted a bright, flashing light floating above Rhiw Hill before
it flew eastwards at an incredible speed.
At Llanhilleth, there
once lived a giant called Ithel, who decided to build himself a house and began collecting boulders from Cefn Crib above Hafodyrynys.
As he was carrying them back to Llanhilleth in his apron, the string broke and he dropped the boulders. And that, so local
legend has it, was how the castle mound next to St. Illtyd’s church was first built!
The Golden Calf
The altar at St.
Illtyd’s chruch was once adorned with a golden statue of a calf which was stolen by two thieves. The enraged parishioners
gave chase and caught the culprits in the woods beneath Pen y Fan Uchaf Farm on the other side of the valley; they confessed
to burying the calf under a whitethorn tree. In vain the parishioners dug up every whitethorn on the hill and, to this day,
no whitethorns grow in those woods!
Halfway up the forest
path from Aberbeeg to Hafodafal stood a barn called Penrhiwllech. Here, at Hallowe’en, a coven of witches and warlocks
would meet at midnight to ride the horses sheltering in the barn. The animals’ terrified screams would keep the entire
neighbourhood awake and trembling in their beds.
In the Celtic countries,
the belief in the healing properties of certain wells or springs was widespread. The roots of this belief may lie buried in
the Late Bronze Age and Iron Age, when offerings of gold and weapons, and even human lives, were made to gods and goddesses
who dwelt in lakes, rivers and wells.
One such sacred well,
known as Ffynnon Wen (The White or Sacred Well) or Ffynnon Illtyd (Illtyd’s Well) stood near Argoed Farm at Brynithel
until its destruction by a local farmer. Local people would go there to bathe wounds and sprains in the hope of a cure (Olding
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The Hundred of Abergavenny Vol. I, Pt 2b (9 vols; repr. Academy Books, 1992).
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Cowley, F. G. 1977.
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Coxe, W. 1801. An
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Davies, E.T. 1953.
An Ecclesiastical History of Monmouthshire, Part I, p.98.
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Lewis, 1924. “Excavations
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the 14th Century.
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Roderick, Alan (1987)
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Stephens, M. 1998.
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Williams, A. H. 1971.
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Williams. D.H. 1976.
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Williams, I. 1935.
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