Of Vampires & Werewolves
For most of us, monsters have a strange fascination, reaching far beyond the confines of film and print, and embedding themselves deep within our imagination. Sometimes even returning to haunt us in our most vulnerable hours. Tellingly, the word ‘monster’ comes from the Latin word ‘monere’ (or ‘monstrum’) meaning ‘to warn.’ Over the years there have been countless stories of weird and wonderful creatures prowling the Welsh countryside. One of the most culturally significant so-called monsters, especially to the Twilight generation, is the vampire. But the vampire legend isn't real. Is it?
In Glamorgan, there once stood an old farmhouse. Some time in the 18 th century, one of its rooms was rented out to a minister who was preaching in the locality. The minister was in the habit of waking early to compose his sermon for the day. When he arose from the chair he had been sitting in, he found his hand had been bleeding. At breakfast, the minister complained to the landlord, suggesting that there was a nail sticking out of the chair. The owner replied that this was not the first complaint of its kind he had received. Two days later, the minister awoke in the early hours with an unbearable pain in his left side. He found that his torso was covered with deep scratches and bite-marks, and the bed sheets were soaked with blood. He panicked and raced to the stables to get his horse, but found that the animal had also been savagely attacked about the neck.
As mentioned, the minister was not the first person to be attacked in this manner. A number of other lodgers had logged complaints, several of whom were also ministers. It would appear that the phantom vampire had a strong dislike for God-fearing folk. This theory was compounded in 1850 when a dignitary of the Church of England had the same frightening experience, suffering terrible injuries to his left hand and leg. After this, the owner sold off the farmhouse and the phantom vampire was never heard of again.
The term ‘vampire’ came into English usage in around 1734, handed down from German and French accounts of vampire superstition from its spiritual home of Eastern Europe. It would appear that many rumours of vampirism originated from sheer naivety. A few centuries ago, if a body was exhumed after burial, it was sometimes said that there were signs indicating that it was still alive. For example, its hair or nails could have grown, or it could have moved position. Nowadays, these ‘signs’ would instantly be recognised as being caused by the muscles and skin retracting and tightening as part of the decomposition process. In less enlightened times, however, they could easily be misinterpreted. The body would then be promptly ‘staked,’ whereupon it would possibly sigh, groan, or break wind, apparently offering further proof of guilt when in actual fact, the noises would simply be the result of gas exiting the body.
Another possible explanation for the vampire legend is some kind of psychological disorder. In 2002, 17-year old Mathew Hardman was jailed for life at Mold Crown Court after being found guilty of murdering 90-year old widow Mabel Leyshon. After developing an unhealthy obsession with vampires, the teenager broke into the old lady's home in Pwllgwyngyll, Anglesey, stabbed her 22 times, cut out her heart, and drank her blood.
There are several tales in Wales that speak of ‘wild men’ not dissimilar to the Yeti of Tibet, or the Bigfoot of America, that lived (or live) in the darker reaches of the sparsely populated Welsh countryside. The representation of one of these figures is carved into a pillar near the altar of Mold parish church, and reported sightings have come from Bylchau, Clwyd, Snowdonia and Gloddaeth. According to to popular folklore, the creature was twice as tall as a man, had glowing red eyes, and a thick coat of shaggy black hair. Its chilling cry was often likened to that of a drowning man. One of the most famous tales comes from the Cambrian coast, where there had been a spate of robberies at secluded farmhouses. Witnesses said that the 'man' responsible was huge and covered with shaggy reddish brown hair. One night, the women of Nanhrynan farm were left alone while the man of the house made an overnight trip to market. The mother, Megan, decided to sleep downstairs. During the night, she was startled by strange noises coming from outside. Looking through the window, she could just make out a shape moving around and quicly snatched up a bible with one hand and a hefty axe with the other. Seconds later, a long, muscular, hairy arm reached in through the window and Megan brought the axe down on it with all her might, chopping off the hand. The creature staggered off into the darkness holding its bleeding stump. The next day, a small gang of locals followed a trail of blood leading from Nanhrynan farm to a cave. There, they found a large pool of blood, but the wild man was gone. The cave came to be called the Cave of Owen Langoch (the Cave of the Red-Haired Man) and it is still there today.
Merlin the magician was also rumoured to have been a ‘wild man of the woods’ at one point in his life, though this could obviously mean any number of things. Interestingly enough, some sources indicate that Merlin mysteriously retired into the woods at regular intervals in the lunar cycle – when there was a full moon, perhaps? Werewolf stories are among the oldest in the world. They probably began with the prehistoric custom of hunters wrapping themselves in animal skins, either for camouflage or in the belief that it would enhance their hunting prowess. This aspect seems to have persisted in later werewolf legend, which generally speak of humans changing into wolf-like creatures if they wear a magic cloak. There are also documented cases of individuals suffering from ‘lycanthropy’ (‘wolf-man condition’). These unfortunates genuinely believed that they were capable of changing into animals and, depending on the severity of their condition, howled at the moon or devoured raw flesh.
Reports of an enormous, wolf-like creature stalking the north Wales countryside date from 1790, when a stagecoach travelling from Denbigh to Wrexham was attacked and overturned. The terrifying beast ripped one of the horses to shreds and ate it. Then, in the winter of 1791, a farmer entered a snow-covered field near Gresford and discovered a set of strange tracks. He followed them to a farmstead where every animal had been attacked. One field was said to have been a ‘lake of blood.’ The owner of the farm was found barricaded in his house, and told of seeing his dog’s throat ripped out by a ‘black animal that resembled a wolf.’ The farmer ran to his house, but the animal stood on its hind legs and looked through the windows with eyes said to be blue and human-like.
Seven years later, the horribly mutilated bodies of two men were discovered some woods east of the Bickerton Hills in the Wales-England border county of Cheshire. In an unbelievably terrifying feat of brutality, one of the men had been decapitated, and the other torn limb from limb. One of their faces had been torn off like a mask and was found a few miles away. Despite the considerable efforts of police and investigators, the gruesome double-murder was never solved. Superstitious locals, however, insisted that the men were the latest victims of a werewolf that had been terrorising the border counties for over a century. An anonymous letter sent to a local minister claimed the werewolf was driven in its bloodlust by the spirit of a warlock that had been burned at the stake by villagers in 1400.
After the double murder of 1798, attacks by the mysterious beast gradually subsided, until over 200 years later when they returned with a vengeance. In February 1992, a farmer told the Western Mail that during a full moon, he saw a large ‘bear-like’ creature, and later found two of his lambs slaughtered. Over the next two years there were at least 70 further reports. Eventually, special traps were installed in the area in the hope of catching the beast. One trap had been sprung but whatever had been caught escaped. Strangely, an American expert on animal tracks said the tracks left at the scene most resembled those of a long-extinct sabre-toothed tiger. The identity of the mystery beast was never solved.
According to folklore, the region of Snowdonia is home to several mysterious beasts. Glaslyn, the lake where some versions of the Arthurian legend claim his body was placed on a boat and cast away to Avalon, is apparently home to an afanc (lake monster) and back on dry land the ‘Bwbach Llwyd’ is an entity (variously described as goblin or yeti-like) that roams the barren hillsides in search of weary travellers, which it leads astray. Even more terrifying is ‘Brenin Llwyd’ (The Grey King), a huge, blood-thirsty entity that hides among the mountains, swathed in mist and cloud, waiting to devour anyone unfortunate enough to get lost on the peaks. Stories of the Brenin Llwyd were rife throughout the mountainous regions of Wales until relatively recently.
While most monsters bear at least some resemblance to creatures described in legend and folklore, others simply defy classification. There is a charming glen near the town of Corwen in present-day Denbighshire, which has been the scene of many horrific encounters over the years. Since the 18 th century, it has built up a long history of murder, suicide, and subsequent hauntings. In the middle of the glen is a ravine, and at its bottom a stream traversed by a bridge called Pont-y-Glyn. This has apparently been the focus of many of the peculiar incidents. In the 1890’s, a bailiff who worked on a farm in Llangwm, Pembrokeshire, was passing through. He noticed the figure of a young woman in traditional Welsh dress sitting on a pile of stones. This in itself was unremarkable, but what happened next would haunt the man until his dying day. The petite little figure began to grow. And grow. Soon, its massive bulk filled the entire road, blocking the bailiff’s way. Not one to force the issue, the man turned around and ran, never looking back.
In the same location, people have encountered the ugliest creature imaginable. It had only one eye in the centre of a bloated face, large sharp teeth, and long withered arms ending in talons. It was said to approach passing travellers wailing and holding out its arms, before sailing up into the air and away. Even today, the place is treated with care by locals and avoided after darkness falls.
Along Llanrhos Road near Llandudno, there is the withered remains of an old oak tree known by locals as the ‘Devil’s Tree.’ The tree had an unsavoury reputation for being haunted, so one wonders why a humble shoemaker called Cadwalader Williams should choose to challenge the any dark entity resident in the tree to show itself. But this is exactly what he did one night, whilst full of Dutch courage. No sooner had he uttered those foolishly defiant words, something hot and hairy fell from the tree and landed on the man's shoulders, wrapping its sinewy limbs around him. He lashed out and spun around to throw the creature off, but it clung to him with a grip of iron, panting foul breath down the back of his neck. Unable to shake off the unseen monster, Cadwalader proceeded on his journey. With every step he took the thing weighed heavier, until he teetered on the brink of exhaustion. Eventually, he reached a friend’s house in the nearby village of Towyn. There, he used the last of his strength to rap on the door before collapsing in a heap. Even as he hit the ground the weight of the thing on his shoulders disappeared, leaving what looked like scorch marks on his neck.
Strangely enough, there was another so-called Devil’s, or Demon’s Tree (Ceubren yr Ellyll) in Wales, this one situated in Nannau Park, Llanfachreth. This was also an old oak, and scores of locals claimed it was the home of vicious demons who prowled the area. A skeleton was once found nearby, which was rumoured to be that of Hywel Sele, the cousin of Owain Glyndwr, who was allegedly murdered because of his allegiance to Henry IV, the sworn enemy of the fabled Welsh prince. The tree was all but destroyed by lightning in July 1813.
Not surprisingly, there are many old stories and superstitions circulating in Wales which relate to the Devil, who must be considered the original monster. Until the end of the 19 th century, it was common practice in Wales to whitewash the front doorsteps of houses as protection against his presence, and painting a house red supposedly had the same effect. The Devil was able to take on the appearance of a range of creatures from dragonflies to black hogs, or even a boulder rolling down a hill. However, his undisguised appearance was that of the classic goat-like beast found in Medieval manuscripts, with horns, hoofed feet and a long, pointed tail. It was once considered blasphemous to refer to the Devil directly, so he went by a variety of other names in Welsh literature and folklore. Diafol and Diawl are the Welsh equivalents, while in north Wales he was often known as Andras, and Biblical names like Lucifer and Satan were also used. Most commonly of all, however, he was simply called ‘the Evil One.’
One of the most interesting ‘Devil stories’ to emerge from Wales concerns a house called Bachegraig, which was built in Flintshire in 1567 by a Sir Richard Clough. It was originally designed in old Dutch style, but the dwelling ended up looking more like an Egyptian pyramid, with six stories gradually diminishing in width from the ground floor to the apex. This unique building was constructed so quickly, some say in the space of a single night, that from the outset it was associated with evil. A nearby stream is still called Nant-y-Cythraul (the Evil One’s Brook), for it was here that Satan was said to have cooled the bricks baked in his furnace in hell.
Sir Richard Clough was a noted astrologer, and had an observatory at the top of the house. One night, his wife listened at the door. Inside, she could hear her husband’s voice along with that of a stranger. Intrigued, she put her eye to the lock and peered through. To her horror, inside she could see her husband in consultation with the devil himself. She threw open the door and barged in, only to see the devil grab Sir Richard around the waste and charge through a solid wall with him. After that, nobody else would live at Bachegraig, and consequently it fell into ruin. As an interesting footnote to this story, a representative from Buckley brickworks reportedly took away one of the bricks used in the house's construction and had it analysed. The tests revealed that the main component of the brick was an unusual variety of lava, unobtainable anywhere in Wales.
The Evil One’s most notable contribution to Welsh folklore has been in the construction of Devil’s Bridge (Pontarfynach) in Ceredigion. The story goes that the devil built the bridge for an old woman in order to rescue her prized cow which had found itself on the opposite side of the river. Ever the trickster, his only condition was that he would take the first living thing to cross the bridge. In order that she and her cow would escape with their souls intact, the old woman threw a crust of bread across the bridge and allowed a dog to go after it, thereby escaping unscathed. After the construction of the bridge, people intending to cross it at night were urged to take with them a Crucifix or a bible, or they were liable to be attacked by a terrifying apparition that loomed up behind them and shoved them into the River Mynach below. Today the Devil’s Bridge, a growing tourist attraction, is three bridges in one, the oldest dating from the 11 th century.
Welsh vampire killer
Merlin - Wild man of the woods
Sir Richard Clough