Poets and rebels at Llyn Llech Owain

August 30, 2019 0 Comments

At the ‘six ways’ junction in Gorslas, at the head of the Gwendraeth Fawr, I’ve driven past the sign to Llyn Llech Owain hundreds of times without ever taking up its invitation – to follow the minor road up the hill, past the church and chapel, to the lake and the country park that surrounds it.  Today we put that omission right.  It’s a warm Sunday afternoon.  There are plenty of families gathered round the playgrounds and café, but once we start walking along the ‘pink route’ we’re mainly on our own.

Watcyn Wyn

The path makes a leisurely circuit of Llyn Llech Owain, helped on the south side by a wooden boardwalk across the damp peat bog.  In 1889 Watcyn Wyn, writing in Y Geninen, calls the lake ‘llyn lled fychan o faint, ac – ar ben y mynydd, ond yn llawn o’r lilïau prydferthaf yn y wlad, gyda dail gleision mawrion yn nofio ar wyneb y dwr’ (‘a smallish lake in size, and on top of the mountain, but full of the loveliest lilies in the country, their big blue-green leaves floating on the water’s surface’).  The lake is still small (about 5.3 hectares), the lilies are still there, and today the surface of the lake is calm.  There are few birds on in the hot stillness of the day, and none to be seen or heard in the surrounding peat bog.  This land is quite rare in Wales as low-lying peatland, and was designated in 1993 as a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  Unlike most farmed habitats these days, bog and lake lack most of the nutrients needed for all but the best-adapted plants (the current scientific description is ‘dystrophic’)

Most visitors are made aware of the old legend about how the lake came into being. This is how William Howells gives the oral tradition in his book Cambrian superstitions, published in 1831:

Among other traditions related by the Welsh, of the valiant opposition of their ancestors to the Saxons and other enemies, is one respecting the brave and noble chieftain Owen Lawgoch, said to be one of the last who fought against the Saxons and who with his gallant troops being compelled to retreat, retired to a cave on the northern side of Mynydd Mawr near Llandilo, Carmarthenshire, where they obtained food by foraging; every morning it is said, the chief watered his horse at a fine spring, (on the summit of the mountain,) covered with a large stone, which required gigantic strength to lift it up; after watering his horse as usual one morning, he forgot to replace the stone, and coming there the next day was terrified at sight of a lake of water, covering a large tract of ground where the well stood.  This was occasioned by his neglecting to cover the well.  – After relating the circumstance to his men, they all laid themselves down in their armour, and were so overpowered by sleep that they never awoke, and still lie dormant in the bowels of the mountain, where, as legend goes, they are to remain until awaked by the sound of a trumpet and the clang of arms on Rhiw-goch, when they will resume their pristine vigour, and issuing from the cave will conquer their Saxon enemies, and drive them from their land.

You might regard the myth as aetiological: an attempt to explain the lake’s title, ‘The lake of Owain’s stone’.  Howells chooses Owain Lawgoch – other Owains were available – and places the story in the context of the Norman conquest of south Wales.  But its motifs, of the catastrophic watery consequences of neglectful behaviour, and of the redeemer sleeping under the hill, are common to many legends, in Welsh and other traditions.

Sir Lewis Morris

Not surprisingly, the story attracted poets, especially those writing in the ‘Celtic Twilight’ period at the turn of the nineteenth century.  Sir Lewis Morris, who was born in Carmarthen and lived at Penbryn nearby, is now almost totally forgotten, but was once expected to follow Tennyson as Poet Laureate.  He was not an economical writer and his verse was described by a biographer as ‘wholesome, fluent but uninspired’.  In his hefty collected works is a shorter poem, originally published in 1896, called ‘Llyn Owain: a legend of the Vale of Towy’.  It begins,

Amid the folded hills
   The lake lies darkly clear;
A death-like calmness stills
   The deep-set mere.

Morris injects a note of late Victorian morbidity (’death-like’), but defies the geography of the area (Llyn Llech Owain is actually very shallow and at no point deeper than two metres, not ‘deep-set’ or ‘fathom-deep’.  And the water, thanks to the dissolved peat, is far from clear.  The lilies get a mention (no Victorian poet could resist them) and then Morris tells a version of the legend.  ‘Sir Owain of Arthur’s court’ is the horseman, and he falls asleep after slaking his thirst at the well, forgetting to replace the slate.  Good Anglican that he is, Morris has his knight under the hill revive obediently on the Day of Judgement:

Fair legend which can bring
   A god-like voice and arm,
To curb the unfettered spring
   Of age-long harm.

Come soon, blest Presence strong;
   Bring wisdom in thy train;
The earth lies sunk in Wrong –
   Come thou again!

Earlier, Watcyn Wyn (his full name was Watkin Hezekiah Williams) had written a poem on ‘The lake of Owen’s stone’, published in Y Cymro.  He too is little remembered today, but was a poet, preacher, eisteddfodwr and educationalist of renown in his day.  He came from Brynamman, so would have been familiar with the legend of Llyn Llech Owain from his childhood.


Another notable local poet of the time was Gwili (John Jenkins), who was born in 1872. He had been a teacher in Gwynfryn, Watcyn Wyn’s school in Ammanford, and on his death in 1908 followed him as its headmaster.  In 1897 he became friends with the writer and future poet Edward Thomas.  He shared long walks with Thomas and taught him about the Welsh literature and culture of his parents’ native land.  Llyn Llech Owain and its legend make an appearance in Thomas’s 1905 book Beautiful Wales (in his typically flowery, dreamy prose style):

[I] have wondered that only one legend should be remembered of those that have been born of all the gloom and the golden lilies and the plover that glories in its loneliness; for I stand in need of a legend when I come down to it through rolling heathery land, through bogs, among blanched and lichened crags, and the deep sea of heather, with a few fliowers and many withered ones, of red and purple whin, of gorse and gorse-flower, and (amongst the gorse) a grey curling dead grass, which all together make a desolate colour of a “black mountain”; and when I see the water for ever waved except among the weeds in the centre, and see the water-lily leaves lifted and resembling a flock of wild-fowl, I cannot always be content to see it so remote, so entirely inhuman, and like a thing a poet might make to show a fool what solitude was, and as it remains with its one poor legend of a man who watered his horse at a well … and this it is a thing from the beginning of the world that has never exchanged a word with men, and now never will, since we have forgotten the language, though on some days the lake seems not to have forgotten it.

Edward Thomas

Thomas’s instinct that the lake was too primeval to have anything to say to us humans has turned out to be right.  Samples of the soil taken by Lampeter archaeologists show that Llyn Llech Owain existed long before humans, and indeed it lay undisturbed for thousands of years before any living thing began to colonise it.

After Thomas’s death on the first day of the Battle of Arras on Easter Monday 1917 Gwili wrote an elegiac poem in his memory (in English, not his first language), which was published in 1920. Its title was ‘To Edward Eastaway’: Edward Eastaway was Thomas’s occasional pen name.  The second stanza reads:

I miss thee on th’undesecrated moor
That shelters Llyn Llech Owen, where the cry
Of curlews give us welcome, and the Lake
Of legend led thy dreaming spirit far
To some grey Past, where thou again couldst see
The heedless horseman gallop fiercely home,
And the well drown the moorland with its spate…
Again I cross through sedges, and the gorse
Burns like the bush of Horeb unconsumed…
The golden lilies in their silver bed
Rustle, and whisper something faint and sad.
Can some maimed wanderer from the fields of France
Have lingered by these waters on his way,
And murmured to the lilies and the reeds
That thou had’st passed along another road
Far to the west, where Llyn Llech Owen woos
No longer, and where lilies are unheard?

It’s possible, though, that Edward Thomas may have been wrong in thinking that only ‘one poor legend’ attached to Llyn Llech Owain.  If, that is, we can link the lake with the place name ‘Llwch Ewen’, in the medieval Mabinogi tale Culhwch and Olwen.  The last part of the story describes in detail the murderous career, across south-west Wales, of the great king-turned-boar Twrch Trwyth, pursued by Arthur and his fellow hunters.  Twrch lands from Ireland at Port Clais on the Pembrokeshire coast and roars helter-skelter, slaughtering troops as he goes, to Preseli, Narberth, the Tywi valley and the Loughor and Amman valleys.  At ‘Llwch Ewin’ Arthur catches up with the boar, who nevertheless kills ‘Echel Fordydd Twll and Arwyli son of Gwyddog Gwyr, and many men and hounds beside’.  After that the boar moves to Cwm Tawe, so it’s entirely possible that he passed from the Amman and Loughor valleys south via Llyn Llech Owain.

But before the ‘Twilight poets’ came the activists.  On 13 September 1843, towards the end of the widespread social unrest conventionally known as the Rebecca Riots, a meeting or demonstration was held at Llyn Llech Owain.  Despite the ‘wet and miserable’ weather around six hundred men, ‘mostly respectable farmers’, came during the morning. Later their number was swelled so that the final total was two or three thousand.  The site was well chosen: it was remote enough to be beyond the easy reach of the authorities, and it lay between the populated Loughor and Gwendraeth valleys.  Hugh Williams, the radical lawyer from Carmarthen and Chartist leader, addressed the meeting:

It was well known that the people had for a great length of time been suffering under serious grievances, and that they had borne their various burdens, if not with contentment, at least in silence, until at length their poverty had reduced them to such a low estate that their discontent had broken out into loud complaints. Their object therefore was to endeavour to ascertain their grievances and then to adopt some method for obtaining redress.

He then placed before the meeting a petition to the Queen, gathered from six local parishes, to use her royal prerogative to attend to the farmers’ grievances, chief among them the road tolls, the poor law, tithes and high rents. 

The meeting was one of many in south-west Wales – a larger one had already taken place on Mynydd Sylen, north of Llanelli, on 25 August – designed to put pressure on the authorities, beyond the violent destruction of tollgates and accompanying intimidation that preceded them, to introduce reform.  In part the agitation, a mix of extra-legal and constitutional methods, was successful.  A commission of enquiry was set up, which took evidence from complainants, the turnpike system was replaced by one of county roads, and the working of the poor law was modified.

The Welshman newspaper carried a detailed report of the Llyn Llech Owain event on 15 September.  The writer begins by commenting on the beauty of the spot:

The scenery around the spot where the meeting was held is exceedingly romantic. The brown heath, relieved by rocky crags, erecting their stupendous heads on all sides; the large sheet of water known as Owen’s lake, and the wood-crowned heights in the distance, all tend to impress the mind with a vivid sense of the singular beauty of the prospect.

Then he goes on to narrate in detail a version of the Owain legend: ‘a curious legend attaches to this spot and its recital may not prove uninteresting’.  He identifies Owain as Owain Lawgoch and ends with the sentence ‘There he subsisted for a length of time on roots and herbs, and for many years after his death the popular belief was that he was only in a slumber, from which he would awake when his country was so oppressed as to need his assistance. Such is the legend of Owen with the Red Hand.’  This leads directly into an account of the meeting.  The reporter leaves us in no doubt of the relevance of the story to the just cause of the demonstrators.

In 2019, as the Amazon forests burn, I suspect we might be tempted to interpret the Owain legend in a different way – as an eco-allegory, a warning of what happens when humans take the ‘lidstone’ off the planet’s carbon.  And our prince is still barely shifting in his sleep under the hill.

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