Aberystwyth – A Place for History
Aberystwyth is a town rich in history, with its ruined castle erected in 1277 captured by Owain Glyndŵr at the start of the 15th century and taken by Oliver Cromwell during the English Civil War. But some of its most famous stories are amongst its oldest.
The story of the Drowned Hundred has several different versions, as a story so old is prone to do. But the simple outline is that the land of Cantre’r Gwaelod was a beautiful, fertile part of the realm. This land was protected from the sea by sluice gates, which were opened at low tide and closed again when it returned. However, one night a huge storm rolled in and the watchman, Seithennin, was too busy partying at King Gwyddno Garahir‘s palaces near Aberystwyth to shut the gates. Anybody remotely acquainted with the nightlife of Aberystwyth will understand how the unfortunate Seithennin could have been caught out in this manner, but the result of his night of frivolity was the flooding of Cantre’r Gwaelod, jewel of the land of Wales, which was drowned during the storm.
Only a few members of the Royal Court managed to escape the deluge: over sixteen villages were drowned, and the people living within them. In other versions of the story, Seithennin is a visiting monarch and drunkenly seduces Mererid, the fair maiden in charge of the sluice gates, allowing the storm to do its worst to the lands and people. Today, on still nights, it is said that one can still hear the bells of the old city tolling beneath the waves: tolling to remind the people of Borth and Aberdyfi of the loss of Gwyddno Garahir’s ancient kingdom.
This version of the legend is contained within the Black Book of Carmarthen (Llyfr Du Caerfyrddin), which is held at the National Library of Wales (Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru) in Aberystwyth. The manuscript is not only one of the oldest known works written in the Welsh language, it is designated one of the Four Ancient Books of Wales, and was written by a single scribe. The manuscript has been digitised by the National Library and is therefore available online via their website, where you can view folios from it, or access an image gallery. It was also part of the Library’s 4 Books exhibition in 2014, which united for the first time the Black Book of Carmarthen and Book of Taliesin, also held at the Library, with the Book of Aneirin from Cardiff Central Library and the Red Book of Hergest from Jesus College, Oxford.
In January 2014 the biggest storm in 100 years hit the town of Aberystwyth, stripping the sand away from the shore and revealing, for the first time in millennia, the ancient forest that legend transformed into Cantre’r Gwaelod. This storm provided the legend with another layer of resonance: we understand, now, the power of the sea and the inconsistency of nature: how it can turn on us, and take away something we thought was permanent. It has also physically returned Cantre’r Gwaelod to us, by stripping away the layers of sand and peat bog that have covered the area for over 4,000 years. Legend is made real once more.