Of Afancs & Mermaids
As 71% of the earth's surface covered by water, it's little surprise that lakes, seas and oceans have been responsible for countless monster sightings and even encounters through the ages. With Wales boasting an incredible 870-plus miles of coastline, much of which you can walk in a continuous path if you are feeling superhuman (1), plus numerous lakes, ponds, rivers and reservoirs, the likelihood of this happening in the principality are statistically higher than in most countries. This is reflected in the sheer number and variety of reported sightings.
The most famous lake monster in the world is supposedly resident in Loch Ness, deep in the Scottish Highlands. But sightings of similar creatures continue to be made all over the world. The single most remarkable aspect of most of these accounts is the fact that the general description given by witnesses are virtually identical, despite vast geographical and cultural differences. Typically, the beasts appear to be three to ten metres long, with a horse-like head attached to a long slender neck, two pairs of diamond shaped flippers, a bloated body, one or two humps and a long tail. This image closely resembles the prehistoric aquatic reptiles known as plesiosaurs (2), which supposedly died out over sixty million years ago.
In Wales, this type of monster is known as an afanc, and such a creature is often spotted in Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid) in Snowdonia National Park (3). At an impressive 3.7 miles long, half-a-mile wide and 150 feet deep, this freshwater lake is easily the largest in Wales. The first tentative reports that something was lurking therein began to emerge at the beginning of the twentieth century. The sightings gathered momentum, peaking in the 1960's, then dwindling to virtually nil within twenty years. This lack of activity could be explained by an old local legend that says that the monster periodically nests. Whatever the cause of the phenomenon, the majority of reports were convincing to say the least. Most were made by local people who knew the lake well, and were familiar with the tricks the unique environment can play on the senses. The best description was given by a teacher, Gareth Wyn Jones, and his wife Jill, from Ysgol y Berwyn, who had gone to the lake to paint. As the couple sketched, they were disturbed by a loud splashing sound and looked up to see a huge creature the colour of an eel moving across the water’s surface. Two distinct humps were visible about 24 feet apart, suggesting that the creature was of immense proportions. Gareth and Jill watched it for about fifteen minutes before it abruptly sank back into the murky depths a mere stone’s throw away from them.
An even more reliable witness is Dewi Bowen, once a warden of the lake. He can relate numerous stories he has heard down the years, and remembers vividly the day in September 1976 when he and a car park attendant saw something resembling a massive crocodile break the surface. The two men immediately jumped in a car and rushed to the water’s edge, only to find that whatever it was had disappeared without a trace. Although sightings of the monster have waned, an occasional glimpse is still caught. In March 1995, visiting Londoners Andrew and Paul Delaney, who knew nothing of the history of Bala, were fishing in a boat. Suddenly, a small head broke the surface and raised itself about three metres out of the water. Six months later, a Japanese TV crew arrived in the hope of filming the monster. They did not succeed. However, they did manage to obtain a sonar trace of a very large unidentifiable object moving swiftly beneath the surface. This afanc was christened ‘Llabgoch’ by locals many years ago, but has recently picked up the more snappy monicker of ‘Teggie.’
Sceptics who insist that nothing unusual lives in the lake may be interested to learn that Bala is the home of a species of fish called the Gwyniad, which until a recent rescue effort to boost it's declining numbers, was found nowhere else on earth (4). If these creatures can exist undetected for so long, why not others? It could be that through millions of years of isolation, Bala Lake has developed its own unique, self-supporting eco system. As a curious postscript to the story of Teggie, Bala Lake is known to have been the site of secret experiments by the Ministry of Defence rumoured to involve training sea lions to carry explosives. Any theories that sea lions could be the cause of the sightings, however, are quickly quashed when one considers that sea lions would need to surface regularly for air and any colony still living in the lake couldn't do so for long without being discovered. Who is to say though, that the secret experiments ended with sea lions?
The inhospitable Dovey Valley is an area awash with tales of monsters and magic, and is often associated with Arthurian legend. Cader Idris (seat of the giant Idris) may sound like a creature from a H. P. Lovecraft story, but in fact is the name of one of the mountains in this distinctive range. The mountain itself was said to be frequented by fairies, and legend has it that the ‘bottomless’ glacial lake on its southern side, known as Llyn Cau, holds an even darker secret. It is said to be home to another afanc, which once snatched a swimmer in the act of crossing the lake.
Glaslyn, or Lyn Ffynnon Las, is the name given to the enchanting lake located just below the summit of Snowdon. It is said to be occupied by an enormous afanc with supernatural powers, which it used to flood land and kill prey. It supposedly came from Lyn yr Afanc near Betws-y-coed originally, where it was such a menace that the locals captured the monster using a fair maiden as bait. Instead of killing it, they used oxen to drag the creature to the most remote place they could find, which happened to be Glaslyn. Coincidentally or otherwise, Brynberian claims to have the remains of an afanc buried in a prehistoric chambered tomb situated on moorland southeast of the village. Legend has it that the monster was caught near a bridge and slaughtered, then carried to the mountains where it was disposed of. Intriguingly, this legend also mentions using a fair maiden as bait and oxen to subdue the monster (5). One can’t help but wonder what the results would be if the remains, if there are any, were someday analysed using modern technology.
It would appear that afancs are not exclusive to lakes. A whirlpool in the River Taff was also said to have been the hunting ground of one. Legend has it that if a victim managed to escape the clutches of the monster, or if his mangled body rose to the surface should he not, then he must surely have been a righteous man. For what little consolation that may hold!
The seaside town of Barmouth near Cardigan Bay and the surrounding coastline has a long association with sea monsters. According to a book called ‘The Greal,’ in October 1805 a huge sea serpent attacked a ship in the Menai Straits. The creature slithered up the tiller and coiled itself around the mast before attacking the crew. They retaliated, eventually driving the serpent overboard. In 1937 a man reported seeing a ‘crocodile-like’ creature in the Mawddach estury and in 1971, two people holidaying from Colwyn Bay found a set of very strange footprints at the water's edge just north of Llanaber. The imprints measured some 12-18 inches in diameter. Then, in the summer of 1975, Marjorie and Vernon Bennett were sailing their sloop near Harlech when they saw what they believed to be a seal. But as their boat drew closer, they realised that what they were looking at was no seal. A badly shaken Mr. Bennett later recalled that the creature ‘had a fairly short neck like a turtle’s and an egg shaped head.’ Its back had two spines, which were sharply ridged, and it was about seven feet long.
Just a few months before the Harlech incident, six local schoolgirls had a strange experience on Barmouth beach when they saw an enormous creature rise momentarily out of the water before suddenly plunging back into the sea. Several of the girls described how the creature was about three metres long, with a noticeably long tail, and ‘feet like huge saucers.’ Just this year, the Daily Express newspaper printed a picture of the alleged monster taken by Llanarth resident Mohammad Tahla in the estury of the River Aeron 60 miles away (5), sparking speculation that the Barmouth Monster had been caught in the act of migrating south. Wales was in the weird news again recently, when the acarcass of an unidentified creature 11-feet long washed up on Morfa beach in Port Talbot (7).
Not strictly monstrous but interesting non-the-less, is the legend of the mermaid. Stories of mermaids are widespread and persist in almost every major culture, especially those with established links to the sea. The earliest known account of mer-folk dates from as early as the 3 rd century BC, when the Babylonian priest Berosus described observing a fish-tailed deity called Oannes rising from the Red Sea. Such legends are especially popular in Scandinavia where a vast kingdom full of mer-folk is said to exist beneath the sea where they can live freely and breath normal air. Interestingly, the seaport of Milford Haven is also believed to be frequented by mermaids who use a secret road on the seabed to reach the town on market day.
In a place called St Dogmaels on the Teifi estuary, a story is often told in which a fisherman by the name of Pergrin encountered a mermaid sometime in the 1700’s. He was sailing his boat around the rocky protrusion of Cemaes Head, when he saw a beautiful half-naked girl with golden hair sunning herself on the rocks. Pergrin tried to pull the girl onto his boat, and in the process was shocked to find that her lower half consisted of a long silver tale. Nevertheless enchanted, Pergrin eventually succeeded in pulling the creature onto his boat. There, the mermaid pleaded with the fisherman to be set free. At first Pergrin was reluctant, but agreed to her demands when she promised to look after him during his perilous time at sea. No sooner had she returned to the water, the mermaid warned Pergrin of imminent bad weather. Hours later, an unforeseen storm swept the area, killing eighteen people.
On a bright sunny day in July 1826, a farmer from Aberystwyth made his way to the beach where he spied a beautiful young woman washing herself in the sea. As he looked on, he realised that the water in which the woman was standing must have been more then six feet deep, yet he could plainly see her arms, head and torso protruding from the water. The man raced home to fetch his family, and returned with around a collection of around a dozen witnesses who all watched as with a swish of a black tail, the young woman swam off. She was described as being unnaturally pale, though very attractive, and made what sounded like sneezing noises as she made her escape.
Local legend has it that Conwy is a town under curse. It is said that long ago, a group of fishermen caught a mermaid in their nets. Many townsfolk came to see her as she struggled and begged to be returned to the sea, but the cruel fishermen wanted revenge for all the friends they had lost. Just as a man drowns in water, a mermaid suffocates in the open air, and soon she was dead. With her dying breath she cursed Conwy, promising that many disasters would befall the town. It proved no idle threat, because on Christmas Day 1806, a ferry sank causing the deaths of 11 people (8).
There are several popular legends in Wales involving a similar but ultimately different creature to the mermaid. The ‘sea witch’ is said to be a beautiful, ghostly woman who lurks in treacherous waters and beckons onlookers to join her. The unfortunate victims would undoubtedly drown, but not before they saw the beautiful woman vanish before their very eyes. Despite the name, sea witches are seldom encountered at sea. More often than not they haunt secluded pools or quiet, slow-moving stretches of river, especially if there is a whirlpool in close proximity. Notable stories of sea witches come from the River Taff, Pontypridd, and the Black Pool in Cefn, Merthyr Tydfil.
A similar entity often associated with fairies is the Gwragedd Annwn (Woman of the Underworld). Although the title can be used when referring to virtually any female fairy-folk who live in or around water, it is usually used in relation to the kind of disturbing encounter experienced by a young man walking along the coast from Diserth to Rhyl one summer’s day. At some point on his journey, he met a strikingly beautiful young lady dressed from head to foot in white, who engaged him in polite conversation. The young man thoroughly enjoyed this unexpected interaction, until they came to a deep pool. There, the radiant young lady suddenly bid her farewells and burst into flames before plunging into the water and disappearing beneath the surface with a loud hiss. The boy fainted dead away.