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Medieval Separator

Lost Lands of Cardigan Bay

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  Seithennin sunk his teeth into the chicken leg, then drained his goblet and belched lustily. He banged it down on the table, calling for more wine and shrugged off a restraining hand on his shoulder.
         "My lord, please, no more ... no more," implored his wife in a whisper.
         "Mind your place, woman!" Seithennin retorted moodily, and banged his goblet on the table again to draw the attention of one of the waiting-men. "Am I not Keepe
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of the Embankment by royal appointment of Gwyddno Garanhir himself? I do as I like in my own house." He waved a hand drunkenly round the banqueting hall, and his guests glanced back uneasily at him.

      The Keeper's reputation for drinking was a popular joke among the people of the sixteen towns of the Cantre'r Gwaelod in Dyfed, west Wales. But few, though, would dare to openly offer a rebuke for fear of the consequences. Many, however, had privately questioned Gwyddno Garanhir's wisdom in appointing this man to such a responsible position. The Keeper, after all, was in charge of making sure the sea did not breach the embankment, threatening to flood the entire low-lying lands of the Cantre'r Gwaelod.
        Seithennin's red-rimmed eyes glowered blearily round the hall. He had a vague feeling that something was very wrong. There was a strange silence in which he seemed to hear distant church bells ringing out as if in alarm. He shook his head and shouted again for more wine. Why were they so slow to obey him?
      "Don't you hear me, you fools, the Keeper of the Embankment wants more wine..."
      His voice was interrupted by a mighty thundering roar, which broke above the screams of his terrified guests. The icy North Sea, in noisy torrents, poured mercilessly into the banqueting hall, sweeping away the Keeper and his guests.

      Such was the fate, according to legend, of the Lowland Hundred of Cantre'r Gwaelod, a tract of fertile land stretching northwards from Ramsey Island to Bardsey Island over what is now Cardigan Bay. It was about 40 miles long and 20 miles across (at its widest), being low and level, highly populated and cultivated, with sixteen fortified towns which included the principal city of Caer Wyddno, seat of its ruler, Gwyddno Garanhir. It was defended from the sea by a strong sea wall or embankment called Sarn Badrig, in charge of which Gwyddno placed Seithennin. He was responsible for the floodgates or sluices controlling the estuaries.
      One evening there was a great banquet, and Seithennin, drinking too much as usual, failed to close the floodgates. The sea poured through the embankment at high tide, flooding the entire Lowland Hundred and drowning at least 1000 people.
      It is recorded in a collection of ancient Welsh bardic poems that: "Seithennin the Drunkard let in the sea over Cantre'r Gwaelod, so that all the houses and lands contained in it were lost. And the people who escaped from that inundation came and landed in Ardudwy, the country of Arvon, the Snowdon Mountains, and other places not before inhabited."

        The Lowland Hundred was divided by four main roads, which still exist as causeways visible at low tide. They are Sarn Bwch (the Goat's Causeway), extending for about one and a half miles into the sea from the coast at Aberdysyni in Merionethshire; Sarn Cyngelyn (Cymberline's Causeway), going seven miles into the sea from Gwallawg; Sarn Ddewi (St. David's Causeway), aligned upon the church of Llan Ddewi Aberarth (St. David's) at the mouth of the river Arth; and Sarn Cadwgan (Cadogan's Causeway), half a mile from Sarn Ddewi, which runs into the sea for about a mile and a quarter. The capital of Caer Wyddno was reached by way of Sarn Cyngelyn.
      In addition, there was Sarn Badrig (St. Patrick's Causeway), the actual sea wall or embankment itself. The antiquary Robert Vaughan, writing in the Cambrian Register in 1795, described it as "a great stone wall, made as a fence against the sea, may be clearly seen ... and is called Sarn Badrig, i.e. St. Patrick's Street or Bad-rwgg, i.e. the boat or ship-breaking causeway." Another source described it as "a stone wall which runs out into the sea from Mochras, a point of land a few miles to the south of Harlech, in a south-westerly direction, for nearly twenty miles; it is a wonderful work, being throughout twenty-four foot thick."  

      The antiquary Edward W. Cox commented: "This causeway or embankment [Sarn Badrig] is now seen only at low tide, and there is no escaping the conviction if this be an artificial structure, which from this small portion I have been able to see, I think it is that the legend is true."
      The bleak remains of the Lowland Hundred become visible at low tide, when access to parts of Gwyddno's sunken domain becomes possible via the causeways. As late as 1770 there were remains of human habitation reputed to be Caer Wyddno. William Owen Pughe wrote that "three or four miles in the sea between the outlets of the rivers Ystwyth and Teivi ... in the summer of 1770 I sailed over the ruins, on a very calm day and thus for about three minutes I had a clear view of them."

      Another remarkable feature of the sunken lands of the Cantre'r Gwaelod is the inundated or submerged forests. The blackened stumps of trees can sometimes be seen in certain parts of Cardigan Bay at low tide. It is a surreal landscape, which conjures up images of mighty primeval forests. The first scientific study was undertaken in the 19th-century when the Reverend James Yates read a paper titled A Notice of a Submarine Forest in Cardigan Bay before a meeting of the Geological Society of London. "This forest," he said, "extends along the coast of Merionethshire and Cardiganshire, being divided into two parts by the estuary of the Dovey, which separates those two counties. It is bounded on the land side by a sandy beach and a wall of shingles ... Among the trees of which this forest consisted is the Pinus Sylvestris, or Scotch Fir; and it is shown that this ancient tree once abounded in several Northern counties of England."
       It is sometimes said that when the evening is still, the sea is quietly stirred by tidal currents, making the church bells of Cantre'r Gwaelod sound faintly from below. And according to folklore, they are supposed to ring out in times of trouble.

 

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