The city beneath the lake

Llangasty Retreat House – the base for our Brecon Beacons Beano – sits near the shores of Llangorse Lake, the largest natural lake in South Wales. As previous Beanoers will testify, it’s a mesmerising place and it’s possible to lose hours watching the play of sun and shade across the water and surrounding hills, the wildfowl skittering over the surface and the fishermen standing silently on their boats.

Inevitably the lake has attracted more than its fair share of myths and legends. Perhaps the most famous of these is the story of a drowned city beneath the waters. (This is slightly ironic, as Wales is full of man-made reservoirs that genuinely do contain drowned villages and homesteads beneath the surface.) There are many versions of the legend; the following is one of them – more or less.

Boy Meets Girl. Girl Not Impressed.

Let us go back to a time when this whole region of Wales is a Celtic kingdom controlled by the Kings of Brycheiniog (Brecon). In the Llangorse valley there stands a great castle with a bustling town surrounding it. From the castle, a wealthy aristocratic lady rules over the surrounding area. A peasant man from the town sees the lady and falls instantly in love with her (as you do). She haughtily rejects his advances, saying there is no way a woman in her position would even consider a match with one so poor.

Driven to distraction, the peasant ambushes and kills an affluent merchant who has inexplicably gone for a lone stroll in the hills with all his gold on him. The peasant shows his new-found riches to his beloved. She’s like, “Wow, I suddenly realised how handsome you are,” they get married, he moves into the castle and they live happily ever after with no questions asked.

Moaning and groaning

Well, not quite. Within a few months, the ghost of the murdered merchant begins to appear about the castle, moaning and groaning and demanding his money back – or at least a credit note. Finally confronting the happy couple themselves, the ghost warns that unless the peasant confesses his crime publicly, he will curse them and their family. “Vengeance will come!” he cries, evidently having watched too much Game of Thrones.

Nervously the murderer asks, “When will this vengeance come?” The ghost tells them that it will be visited on their descendants in nine generations’ time. The lady responds along the lines of “Oh well, that’s ages away, we’ll be long dead by then,” and they go off to get on with their lives. It’s not recorded what the ghost thinks about this: he is never heard from again.

Time passes. [Insert wibbly-wobbly special effects here]

Nine generations later, the couple’s great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandchildren are still living in and around the castle. One dark winter night, a great earthquake shakes the land. The hills around Llangorse crack open and a deluge of water pours out, flooding the valley, submerging both castle and town  and drowning all the couple’s descendants, together with anyone else who happens to be in town at the time. The water settles and Llangorse Lake is born.

Church bells

Nowadays, all that remains is the seemingly-peaceful lake, though strange events here are not unknown. 12th-century travel writer Gerald of Wales recorded that the lake had

miraculous properties such that local inhabitants have witnessed it completely covered with buildings, that in winter when covered with ice it emits a loud groaning noise and that the lake sometimes turns green.”

Other local tales say that church bells can sometimes be heard ringing beneath the waves. (Admittedly this is pretty much standard procedure for any sunken city.)

As with all the best legends, there may be a grain of truth in there somewhere. For Llangorse Lake’s most distinctive feature is the Crannog, a man-made island some 40 metres across out on the lake, thought to have been constructed in the 9th or early 10th century as one of the royal residences of the Kings of Brycheiniog. Crannogs are common in Scotland and Ireland, but as far as anyone knows this is the only one in the whole of England and Wales. Archaeological evidence suggests that a palisade fence of timber stakes surrounded the island, enclosing a great hall and numerous small buildings. A single wooden causeway linked the island to the shore, providing a highly defensible residence.
But not, it seems, defensible enough.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle contains this brief entry for 916 AD:

“Aethelflaed sent an army into Wales and stormed Brecenanmere and there captured the wife of the king and thirty-three other persons.”

Aethelflaed was “The Lady of the Mercians”, daughter of Alfred the Great and absolute ruler of the kingdom of Mercia (and incidentally, the only recorded female ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom). Brecenanmere (“Brecon mere”) was the Saxon name for Llangorse lake, and the king in question was the King of Brycheiniog, so it seems that Llangorse was a royal residence of some importance.

Remains of burnt timbers have been found on the island, suggesting that Aethelflaed’s men put the buildings to the torch before they left. There is no evidence of rebuilding after that, and the Crannog remains deserted to this day.

So yes, there really was a town of sorts in Llangorse Lake, and yes, it did disappear.

If you stay at Llangasty with us, listen carefully late at night when the air is still. Sometimes you can just make out the cries of the King’s family as they were dragged away across the causeway.

Or maybe it’s just the geese on the lake.

Further reading: BBC Wales; The Journal of Antiquities; National Museum Wales; Llangors Community Council (PDF document)

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