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Dylan Jones

Llanhilleth
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Llanhilleth is located between Newbridge and Abertillery on the B4471.

The Ghost on the Mountainside

 

Every summer, thousands of hikers enjoy the spectacular views from the Offa’s Dyke footpath running along Hatterall Hill.  This is the highest and most easterly ridge of the Black Mountains and forms the border between Wales and Herefordshire.  Most of them will be unaware that they may have unseen company.  The ghost of a poor old woman dressed in an oblong four- cornered hat, tatty clothes and apron, is said to roam the mountainside around Llanhilleth. It is thought to be the ghost of one Joan White, who locals claim to have been a witch in centuries past.

oldwoman.jpg

In the early years of the last century, the celebrated Herefordshire folklorist, Ella Mary Leather, recorded this strange tale: 

 

“A few years ago a man was driving a lady from Longtown to Llanveyno, and she, being a stranger, questioned him concerning the “Apparition of our Lady” at Llanthony [which occurred in 1881].  He replied that he did not believe in it at all; there were indeed spirits to be seen on the mountain, but they were different.  He had seen, and he knew.  Once he went to see friends at Llanthony, and was returning directly over the mountain to Longtown, when a fog came on suddenly and he lost his way.  He was standing, quite at a loss, when a man came towards him, wearing a large broad-brimmed hat and a cloak.  He did not speak but beckoned, and the man followed him, until he found himself in the right path.  Turning round, he thanked his unknown friend, but received no reply; he vanished quickly in the fog.  This seemed strange, but he thought no more till, on visiting his friends at Llanthony later, they asked if he reached home in safety that evening, as they had been anxious.  When the stranger in the broad-brimmed hat was described they looked at each other in surprise.  “What!” they said, “tell us exactly what his face was like.”  He described the stranger more minutely.  “It was T— H—, for sure,” they cried, “he knew the mountain well, and he has been dead these two years.” [Leather 1912, pp. 36-37]

 

This story of a helpful spirit stands in stark contrast to an older and much darker belief in the ghostly guides who haunt the mountains of Blaenau Gwent.  In the 18th century, the wind-swept moorland around Brynithel, on the mountain between Abertillery and Pontypool, was home to a less benevolent creature – a strange apparition who led travellers astray across the bleak mountains.  Our most detailed accounts date from 1767 and come (once again!) from Rev. Edmund Jones’s A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the County of Monmouth and the Principality of Wales: 

 

“The Apparition was the resemblance of a poor old woman, with an oblong four-cornered hat, ash-coloured clothes, her apron thrown a-cross her shoulder, with a pot or wooden Can in her hand, such as poor people carry to fetch milk with, always going be fore them, sometimes crying out wow up.  Who ever saw this Apparition, whether by night or in a misty day, though well acquainted with the road, they would be sure to lose their way; for the road appeared quite different to what it really was; and so far sometimes the fascination was, that they thought they were going to their journey's end when they were really going the contrary way.  Sometimes they heard her cry wow up, when they did not see her.  Sometimes, when they went out by night to fetch coal, water, &c. they would hear the cry very near them, and presently would hear it a-far off, as if it was on the opposite Mountain, in the Parish of Aberystruth, and sometimes passing by their ears.” [Jones 1780, p.35]

 

Unlike so many other apparitions, her victims knew the “Old Woman of the Mountain” by name and ancient repute: 

 

“The people have it by tradition, that it was the Spirit of one Juan White, who lived time out of mind in these parts, and was thought to be a Witch; because the Mountain was not haunted with her apparition until after her death. When people first lost their way, and saw her, they thought it was a real woman which knew the way; they were glad to see her, and endeavoured to overtake her to enquire about the way; but they could never over-take her, neither would she ever look back to see them; so that they never saw her face.” [op. cit., pp. 35-36]

 

 In 1880, a Monmouthshire man, who had been born in about 1850, reported that: 

 

“Juan White is an old acquaintance of my boyhood . . . a ruined cottage on Lasgarn hill near Pontypool was understood by us boys to have been her house, and there she appeared at 12 p.m., carrying her head under her arm.” [Sikes 1880, p. 50]

 

She once led a local poet “to and fro in a misty day at Pen y ddoi-gae Mountain” and:

 

“After travelling much, he came to a bush of rushes; this gave him so great a concern, that he afterwards made a song of complaint and reproach against her, in which he mentioned her four-cornered hat, &c.” [Jones 1767, p. 36]

 

 As with his descriptions of the fairies, Edmund Jones was not solely reliant on accounts handed down by others.  He also had first-hand, personal experience of the “Old Woman of the Mountains”: 

 

“I once met a woman of the next Parish, who, together with her young daughter, had lost her way in the day-time, and was very weary, especially the young lass, whom I put in the way. I lost the way myself two or three times, in the day-time, on this Mountain, though I knew it very well, and that it is no more than a mile and a half long, and about half-a-mile broad.”  

“Once I lost my way — as I came from the Mountain I called at a house where I had never been; and finding an uncommon inclination to it, I offered to go to prayer, which they admitted, and I was greatly welcomed.  I was then about twenty-three years of age, and had begun to preach the everlasting Gospel.  They seemed to admire that a person so young should be so warmly disposed; few young men of my age being religious in this Country then.  Much good came into this house, and still continues in it.  I think the Lord answered my earnest prayer, and if so the old hag got nothing by leading me astray that time.  Often it is, that the malignity of evil Spirits is turned for good to them that fear God; and wonderful is the mercy that makes all things to work for good.”

 

“Another time, on going over the Mountain on horseback, on a misty day, and thinking she might be near me, (for she was very busy on that Mountain observing who passed over it) I said in faith, “Do thy worst thou Old Devil, I will not loose my way”; and I did not at that time.” [op. cit., pp. 36-37]

 

Further north, along the same ridge towards the Brecon Beacons, is Mynydd Milfraen or - to give it its 18th century guise - Milvre.  Here, the appearances of Juan White took a more spectacular turn:

 

“JOHN AB JOHN, of Coome Celin, in the valley of the Church, was travelling very early in the morning, before day, towards Caerleon Fair, and, on going up hill on Milvre Mountain, he heard a shouting behind him as if it were on Bryn Mawr, — which is a part of the black mountain in Breconshire, and soon after heard the shouting at Bwlch y Llwyn on his left hand, nearer to him; upon which, he became oppressed with fear, and heavy in walking; and began to suspect it was no human but a diabolical voice, designed to frighten him; having wondered before what people could be shouting on the mountain so early in the morning.  Being come up to the higher part of the mountain, be heard the shouting at Gilvach fields on the right — before him, which confirmed his fear: but, being past the Gilvach fields, in the way to the cold springs, he heard [p. 20] something coming behind him like the noise of a coach; and what increased his fear the more, was the voice of a woman with the coach which he heard crying WOW UP.  Now, as he knew that no coach could go that way, and hearing the noise of a coach approaching nearer and nearer, he was certain it must be an evil Spirit following him; he was very much terrified; and fearing he should see some horrid appearance, he walked a short distance from the path and lay down with his face towards the heath, fearing to look about until it had passed him: when it was gone out of hearing — he arose; and hearing the birds singing as the day began to break, also seeing some sheep before him, his fear went quite off.” [op. cit., p. 19] 

 

The ghost of Juan White was not confined to northwestern Monmouthshire.  She was also often seen in the Black Mountains – especially on Hatterall Hill, which forms the border between Wales and Herefordshire: 

 

“Robert Williams, of Langattock Crickhowel, a substantial man and of undoubted veracity; as he was travelling one night over part of the Black Mountain, saw her; and having lost his way, called her to stay for him; but receiving no answer, thought she was deaf: he then hastened his pace, thinking to over-take her, but could not; for the swifter he ran the farther he was behind; — at which he wondered very much, neither did he know the reason of it, not thinking it was a Spirit which he saw and heard.  In trying to over-take her his foot happened to slip in a marshy place, at which his vexation increased; he then heard her laugh at it, like an old woman: he was now much wearied and his mind greatly troubled, having some thoughts of an Apparition; and happening to draw out his knife for some purpose, she vanished: he then perceived he was in a most dangerous place; but he soon found his way home, and was very glad to find himself delivered from the unmerciful delusion.” [op. cit., p. 36]

 

The ghosts and fairies of Wales seem to harbour a particular horror of knives and steel implements and exorcising malevolent spirits with a knife seems to be a particularly Cambrian notion confined [Sikes 1880, pp. 51-52].  By the 1760s, the visitations of Juan White had become less frequent: 

 

“Of late years there is but little talk about her, the light of the Gospel has driven her to closer quarters — in the coal-pits and holes of the earth, until the day when she shall be gathered in the body to receive the everlasting curse, Math. xxv. 41.  “ Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels” [op. cit., p. 37]

 

By 1912, belief in the “Old Woman” seems to have been almost extinct on the Herefordshire side of the Black Mountains.  Gathering material for her Folk-Lore of Herefordshire, Ella Mary Leather could find no trace of the apparition except that a bowl of water placed at the foot of the Maypole at Crasswall (in the hills to the south of Hay on Wye) was said to be for the purpose of keeping the “Old Woman of the Mountain” away; she being afraid of water [Leather 1912, p. 49]. 

 

However, a strong belief in will o’ the wisps persisted in the district and, at a farm between Hay and Crasswall, a woman told the folklorist that there were many bogs on the Black Mountain itself, where the old folks said people were led astray by them [ibid.].  Lower down the valley, she was informed that old people at Longtown used to tell how travellers coming over the Black Mountains were led astray by the Devil, in the shape of a large black crow, which put out their lights and caused them to lose their way [op. cit., p. 40].

 

The Black Mountains crows that seem to have usurped the Old Woman’s place were obviously creatures with many powerful supernatural abilities.  In May 1903, Mrs. Leather interviewed a Mr. W. Parry, at Walterstone.  He was 80 years of age and a native of Longtown.  He had been a shepherd on the Black Mountains all his life and told her this tale of the crows and their extraordinary powers:  

 

“Years ago, on the Black Mountain above Longtown, there lived a hired shepherd, who managed a little farm for his master.  There were on either side of this farm two brothers, farming for their father.  I can remember, in my time, there was terrible jealousy and animosity between the shepherds on the mountain, where the sheep all run together.  I could always tell my sheep; if I whistled they would all come running to me, every one, while the strangers took no notice.  A good shepherd knows his sheep and they know him.  Well, it was worse nor ever for this man, because the brothers were together, and they hated him.  He stuck to his master, and they to their father.  At last, one day, they got him alone on the mountain, and caught him, and said they would murder him.  They told him there was no one about, and it would never be known.  “If you kill me,” he said, “the very crows will cry out and speak it.”  Yet they murdered and buried him.  The body was found, after some time, but there was no evidence to show whom the murderers were.  Well, not long after, the crows took to come whirling round the heads of those two brothers, “crawk, crawk, crawk,” there they were, all day long — when they were together, when they were apart.  At last they could scarcely bear it, and one said to the other, “Brother, do you remember when we killed the poor shepherd on the mountain top there, he said that the very crows would cry out against us?”  These words were overheard by a man in the next field, and the matter was looked into, so that in the end the brothers were both hanged for the murder.” [op. cit., p. 168].

 

So, to all hikers out there, may we give one piece of advice - keep to the path at all times . . .

 

Refs:

 

Bradney, J. 1906.  A History of Monmouthshire: The Hundred of Abergavenny Vol. I, Pt 2b (9 vols; repr. Academy Books, 1992).

Jones, Edmund.  1767.  A Relation of Apparitions of Spirits in the County of Monmouth and the Principality of Wales (repr. Trefeca, 1780; 2nd repr. Newport, 1813).

Leather, Ella Mary. 1912.  Folk-Lore of Herefordshire (repr. Wakefield, 1970).

Roderick, Alan () Ghosts of Gwent, Handpost Books, Gwent.

Sikes,Wirt. 1880.  British Goblins: the Realm of Faerie (repr. Llannerch 1991).

All material on this site is copyright to Dylan Jones, unless otherwise stated.