Issue 2

Deluge and flashpoint

By David Leigh-Ellis

The average motorist would find little other than the spectacular scenery to distinguish the A4212 from any of the hundreds of other rural roads that wind their way between the towns and villages of the British countryside, but every day, drivers meander their way past the site of a national point of crisis. Here, the politics of localism, national infrastructure and regional identity converged on the now invisible village of Capel Celyn in the foothills of Snowdonia.

Standing at the eastern edge of the valley, there is little to distinguish the lake below from any Scottish loch or the other lakes of Snowdonia. The deep, resolutely green grass rolls down the steep hills until it reaches the deep oily black and chillingly cold surface of Llyn Celyn. Yet we are not standing on a natural shore, but on the sculpted crest of a vast hydroelectric dam. The lake below is not the ancient mere it appears to be, but a thoroughly modern example of utilitarian project making, directed by a faraway industrial power.

Usually, the surface of the lake is placid and contains no hint of the story it hides within its depths. The dam is well hidden from the roadside and the only clue that belies the artificial origins of the water is the small tower that emerges from the centre of the lake. Coupled with the bowl-like concrete structure that peers over the surface at the far end of the dam, it looks just another post-war architectural adventure, albeit somewhat out of place in this ancient countryside.

View of the tower and 'bowl' structure

From the far end of the lake, the dam appears as the artificially horizontal horizon that it is, revealing Llyn Celyn as a mere imitation of a natural lake. The water does not date from the movements of the once great glaciers that carved out the landscape like many of the UK’s other mountain lakes: Llyn Celyn has in fact filled the Tryweryn valley for a little less than half a century. The effects of this contrived local deluge have rippled outwards through regional borders and across the subsequent decades.

Capel Celyn has long held a personal resonance for me. I was born in England, yet my entire paternal line stems from the fishing and mining communities of the Lleyn Peninsular in North Wales. Three or four times a year for the last three decades I have made the journey to Lleyn and back again the same way. I have known that journey as long as I have known myself, and when younger would look forward with anticipation to that moment when we would cross the cusp of the ridge of the valley and I would glimpse Treweryn. My father would tell the mysterious and entrancing story that the water shrouded. Of course I already knew the story - as he had told it a thousand times before - of the flooded village below. If the summer was hot, I would strain my eyes for a glimpse of an ancient spire that I knew could be seen if the water was low. At the same time my ears would search the silence beyond the car engine for the tolling of the ancient bell. I never saw or heard anything, but I always imagined I did.

The story of Capel Celyn entered its final act in 1956 when the English city of Liverpool, facing pressure from the demands of its post-war industrial boom, faced an increasing demand for water. The city council sought a solution in a bill they presented to Parliament. The bill proposed flooding the Welsh valley of Afon Tryweryn in order to provide a cheap, reliable and secure water supply for the burgeoning industrial developments of Liverpool. The city required consent from its citizens before taking the bill to Parliament, and so on 17 December 1956 a vote was held at St George’s Hall in Liverpool. The Tryweryn residents who had journeyed to make their voices heard reported significant anti-Welsh utterances from the Council members. Later, the Council was also accused of summoning council employees, many of whom had no interest in or knowledge of the project, to vote at the final call. As such the council claimed victory as 262 voted for the project whilst 161 voted against. In Parliament, despite the opposition of 35 of the 36 Welsh MPs at the time, the village was doomed by the project. The status granted to the project by the Protection of Parliament Act meant that there was no need to further consult local residents on the plans. As such, no manner of local planning permission was required and the eviction of the residents and destruction of the valley moved from a fear to an inevitability.

The valley was finally flooded in 1965 following a shambolic opening ceremony in which the local dignitaries were loudly jeered and their cars pelted with stones. Much has been made of the political repercussions of the Celyn project on both sides of the border. Plaid Cymru, the Welsh national party, experienced a jump in its voter share as a result of of the Celyn project, rising from a 0.7 percent share in the 1951 election to 3.1 percent by 1955 and 5.2 percent in 1959, the election in which the party’s appeal had spread far enough to allow it to field a candidate in every Welsh constituency. Many Welsh nationalists see Celyn as a breakthrough point for the cause, cementing the image of the uncaring English imperialist and the oppression of Saxon over Celtic culture.

However, Celyn also has greater resonance. There is an appeal in the story that goes back beyond the Industrial Revolution to something older and deeper, a motif that has recurred in Welsh story and memory as far back as the legends go.

Welsh has been spoken in the British Isles for millennia. It is the closest modern descendent of the ancient British tongue and shares characteristics with the Breton, Cornish and extinct Cumbric languages. It has also been argued that it shares characteristics of the more ancient pan-European tongues linking it to the Basque cultures. Some have even argued that Welsh sailors landing in the New World were able to communicate effectively with the natives, although this is arguably a matter of conjecture.

For many centuries however, Welsh existed only in a spoken form and was not communicated in the written fashion. It is unclear whether this was down to a Druidic enforcement of written language as sacrilegious or simply illiteracy, but overall the orally-focused language served to create a strong and vibrant oral culture that came to manifest itself in the plethora of song, poetry and storytelling that eventually resulted in masterpieces such as the Mabinogion.

The experience of reading a story is fundamentally different to the experience of listening to one. A story told orally must be told by a voice to a person or group. The transition is direct, and unlike the written word, the voice brings intonation and emotion as part of the package. Pauses, subtle hints of suspense or distress and breaks in the teller’s cadence can all contribute to the experience of the story. Even non-direct stimuli can add to the atmosphere as the wind outside may rise or fall causing candles or a fireplace to send shadows flickering across a wall. A teller can transmit an ancient story in the same way that they first heard it told, no matter how many years ago. If they are able to create a similar environment, the story will remain the same.

In modern literary criticism, reader response theory dictates that a reader will bring a unique interpretation to any text based upon his own subjective interpretation. It could be argued that listening to a story diminishes the importance of what the recipient brings to the experience: the reader has only the text and themselves, but the listener has the benefit of the rising falling cadence of the storyteller’s voice, the brush of the fire and bellow of the wind and a good storyteller therefore has far greater scope to manipulate the emotional impact of the narrative than simple words upon a page.

Dafydd Davies-Hughes is a storyteller and the project manager of the Felin Uchaf centre on the Lleyn peninsular, about a 45-minute drive west of Llyn Celyn. Felin Uchaf celebrates and educates on local traditions and skills. They support the transmission of local crafts, and have recently finished the thatch on their shipbuilding centre, from where they will refurbish local boats and potentially undertake some of their own projects. Using their traditional crafts they have also completed a replica of an Iron Age roundhouse and are also working on a longhouse, from which they hope to increase the capacity of their storytelling groups.

Dafydd is perhaps an inheritor of that ancient oral culture. He is a pensive presence, probably older than he looks, initially appearing hesitant beneath his brown curls and piercing, quiet eyes.

It is a hazy summer’s day and Dafydd stands a few miles south of Felin Uchaf, upon the slopes of Rhiw, a long extinct volcano. To the south, less than half a mile away, sits the clear milk-blue of the Irish sea. The small isle of Ynys Enlli (another magical story in itself) sits off the eastern tip of the Peninsular. Rhiw is about eight miles from that tip and from here the coast continues eastwards before bearing southwards towards the great curve of Cardigan Bay.

Dafydd has brought a group up here to tell the story of Cantre‘r Gwaelod, often perceived as the Welsh version of the Atlantis myth. The most common form of the legend is retold succinctly in a 1930 book by T Gwynn Jones:

'Cantre‘r Gwaelod was a fertile territory extending from the Teifi to Bardsey Island, 40 miles in length and twenty in breadth. In it there were sixteen noble cities. It was defended from the sea by an embankment and sluices. In the time where Gwyddno Garanhir was Lord of the Cantref, Seithennin was keeper of the embankment and he was a drunkard. One evening, when there was a great banquet, Seithennin having drunk much wine, left open the sluices. The sea broke through and only a few of the inhabitants escaped.'

Dafydd tells the story in far greater detail, and this is done as a sea mist rolls quickly in below. He therefore tells the story of Cantre‘r Gwaelod through a mist that hangs so low that the sea can no longer be seen. The great deluge that is supposed to illustrate his story is hidden by a further deluge of fog but in the imaginations of his listeners this is not important as the story is told with warmth and sincerity and the shining spires are crafted for the listeners on the hillside. Gwynn’s subsequent statement becomes a reality for the listener, despite the certain physical absence of the factors described.

‘When the sea is still and the water clear, the great walls and other buildings can be seen; and the faint music of the church bells, as they are gently moved to and fro by the water in the depth, can be heard coming up in very quiet weather.’

View of the lake from the dam

These gently tolling bells are replicated in other local flood myths such as Tyno Helig, Morfa Rhianedd and the comparable Irish legend of Lough Neagh. Likewise, on those childhood drives past Capel Celyn, the thought of hearing that ancient church bell was chilling yet enticing.

Yet I know now that with Capel Celyn this could never be. The entire village was demolished before the valley was flooded and any notions of an ancient, submerged Quaker church are nothing more than legends that have sprung up over the grave of a controversial project.

As a child, the reality of that submerged village still there below the gentle water was something I knew to be true. It was as real as the road beneath the car wheels. Yet from where this vision came and how it came to be engrained within me I do not know. Perhaps my young imagination had simply thrived on the suggestive and mysterious phrase ‘sunken village’ and assumed that the village was beneath the water, still intact. Something about learning that the village had been demolished before the deluge stuck a chord with me. It meant that the time I thought I had glimpsed that spire that hot summer evening as we drove past was just a mirage, as much as I may have hoped it to be true.

Despite having been underwater for less than 50 years, the legends have already begun, and the story of Celyn has taken on the characteristics of a thousand other flood stories as this generation creates a myth of the flooded village all of its own. The image of structures beneath the water, be they palaces, church spires or simple farmhouses, beat with a common theme.

The Judeo-Christian flood myth holds that the antediluvian world was ‘bad’ and was deservedly purged, leaving no trace behind. The Celtic flood stories seem to have greater subtlety. A greater respect is accorded to what came before, and this respect then increases over the generations. A memory of a flooded village is preserved as a story and a children’s tale, regardless of the reality of the story. A tragic tale of indigenous dispossession grows into a folk memory of a greater past, when self-determination was possible and local identity formidable and celebrated. No doubt, if the story of Capel Celyn is still being told in a few centuries, it will not be the story of a sleepy agricultural community, but a knightly realm with its own tales of sluices and royal courts. Like all orally transmuted stories it will increase in adornment and ornamentation, all the while concealing its grail of wisdom, the echo imbued in Welsh culture of deep, respectful nostalgia for ancestry and a golden past.

David Leigh-Ellis is an accidental graduate of English Literature, but probably should have studied Archaeology. He writes on history, religion, and is also working on a number of science fiction projects.

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