What makes a legendary place? It’s more than just people and buildings. Just about every lake, rock and hill in Wales comes with its own legend attached.
Over the centuries, history and mythology have become intertwined - and that’s the way we like it. We make no apologies for having legends around every corner; we’re swimming in legendary people and places! But if you’re thinking ‘Well…where do I start?’ here’s a snapshot of places where you can start your Welsh adventure.
Yr Ysgwrn (Hedd Wyn’s birthplace)
Hedd Wyn was the pen-name of the great poet Ellis Evans, who died in battle in the First World War. He submitted his poem Yr Arwr (The Hero) for the 1917 Eisteddfod, where he posthumously won the bardic chair. His birthplace, ‘Yr Ysgwrn’ in Snowdonia, has a visitor centre where you can see ‘Y Gadair Ddu – The Black Chair’, the Bardic chair which was famously draped in a black cloth when it was revealed that he had been killed in battle some weeks before the chairing ceremony.
This huge Norman fortress in North Wales was designed to evoke the romance of the Roman Empire and Macsen Wledig (Magnus Maximus), the 4th-century warrior who dreamed of (and later married) a Welsh princess. Caernarfon Castle, sits grandly in a harbour-side position, a short stroll from the epic ‘Black Boy Inn’, an historic Caernarfon coaching inn where you can sup a pint and listen to the melodic Welsh language all around you.
Beddgelert is the name of one of Snowdonia’s prettiest villages, meaning ‘Gelert’s grave’, after Llywelyn the Great’s trusty dog Gelert, who saved Llywelyn’s baby son from a wolf. The faithful old dog was slain in an unfortunate case of mistaken identity. You may wish to take a hankie when you read the full story.
Bardsey Island is said to be the resting place of 20,000 saints, who share this beautiful North Wales island where grey seals bask on rocks and wildlife is abundant. The Welsh name for Bardsey (Ynys Enlli) means ‘island of the currents’ and it’s a great place for day trips. Just hop on a boat from Aberdaron or Pwllheli and sail to the place where Christians have been travelling to since the 6th century, when St Cadfan established a monastery on the island.
At low tide the remains of an ancient sunken forest appear in the sands of Borth and Ynyslas in Ceredigion. Situated at the gateway of Dyfi National Nature Reserve, the sight of 4,000 year old oak, pine and birch trees peeping through the sand is an arresting sight.
According to legend, this is the lost land of Cantre’r Gwaelod.
J.J Williams, Welsh poet
And as the sandy silence stays with me till I sleep, the bells of Cantre’r Gwaelod are ringing in the deep…"
St Davids, a 12th century cathedral built from dusky purple sandstone, is one of Wales’ most iconic religious sites and sits tucked away near the River Alun. So legendary is this site, that in the 12th century the Pope decreed that two pilgrimages to St Davids in Pembrokeshire were equal to a trip to Rome, and three matched one to Jerusalem. The legacy of Saint David (the man) lives on every 1st March in Wales – a day of concerts, eisteddfodau (festivals of literature, music and performance) and parades.
Twm Siôn Cati’s Cave
Twm Siôn Cati was a 16th century folk hero, trickster and con-artist similar to Robin Hood. Born in Tregaron in Ceredigion, his exploits led to him hiding from the long arm of the law before eventually being pardoned by the queen. During his bandit career, Twm hid himself and his booty in this cave halfway up a steep hillside overlooking the beautiful RSPB Gwenffrwd-Dinas nature reserve. You can see a copy of his will at the Red Kite Centre and even follow the Twm Siôn Cati trail in Tregaron.
Swansea is choc-full of legendary smugglers tales and creepy castles. At Pennard Castle, there are whisperings that the castle lord made the fatal error of annoying the local fairies, who took their revenge by swamping the fortress in sand. The castle ruins now perch on the edge of Pennard Pill, which leads down to stunning Three Cliffs Bay. You may have to scramble up sandy hills to reach the top but it’s hands down one of the finest views you will see at any castle in the UK, with sweeping sea and bay views across to Penmaen Burrows.
Llyn y Fan Fach
Llyn y Fan Fach lies at a lake below the peak of Black Mountain in the Brecon Beacons National Park. It's home to the beautiful Lady of the Lake, who married a local farm lad. Their sons became the first of many generations of herbalists and healers, known as the Physicians of Myddfai. It’s thought the myth of Llyn y Fan Fach inspired another famous tale – the Arthurian legend of the Lady of the Lake and Excalibur. Nowadays the lake is a great spot for wild swimming and paddling.
St Dwynwen was unlucky in love. So she went to live as a nun on Llanddwyn Island, North Wales, where she prayed for true lovers to have better luck than she did. And so St Dwynwen became the Welsh patron saint of lovers, whose day we honour every year on 25th January, very much like Valentine’s Day. Her home, Llanddwyn, is one of the most wildly romantic spots in Wales and a great stop-off spot for an Anglesey adventure.
Exploring the outdoors is fantastic fun, but please read up on the risks and make sure you are prepared.