Cantre’r Gwaelod is a legendary ancient sunken kingdom said to have occupied a tract of fertile land lying between Ramsey Island and Bardsey Island in what is now Cardigan Bay to the west of Wales. It has been described as a ‘Welsh Atlantis’ and has featured in folklore, literature and song. Many versions of the Cantre’r Gwaelod legend exist; having been passed down from generation to generation. There was a time when, if you looked out towards Ireland from the Dyfi Estuary, you would see fertile lands stretching out some 20 miles into what is now Cardigan Bay. Until the 17th Century, this lost land was called Maes Gwyddno (the land of Gwyddno) ruled as part of the Kingdom of Meirionnydd by King Gwyddno Garanhir (Longshanks), who was born circa 520 AD. But the legend which is known and told today, calls the land Cantre’r Gwaelod (the Lowland Hundred). This early legend has it that the land was drowned when the priestess of a fairy well allowed the water to overflow. Even today, it is said in the nearby town of Aberdyfi that if you listen closely you can hear the bells of the lost city ringing out from under the sea, especially on quiet Sunday mornings…
There are several versions of the myth, the earliest form of which is said to appear in the Black Book of Carmarthen. The lost land of Maes Gwyddno was said to be extremely fertile, so much so that it was said that any acre there was worth four acres elsewhere. In this version of the legend, the land was lost to floods when a well-maiden named Mererid neglected her duties and allowed the well to overflow. In another, more prosaic tale, it was said that the land depended on a dyke to protect it from the sea. Two princes of the realm held charge over the dyke. One of these princes, called Seithenyn, is described as a notorious drunkard and carouser, and it was through his negligence that the sea swept through the open floodgates one stormy night, ruining the land. The sea rushed in to flood the land of the Cantref, drowning over 16 villages. The King and some of his court managed to escape by running to safety along Sarn Cynfelin. Forced to leave the lowlands, Gwyddno Garahir and his followers made a poorer living in the hills and valleys of Wales. They never forgot their drowned homeland, however, and it was remembered in song and story ever after.
How much truth is there in the legend of this lost land? One of the features of Cardigan Bay, which can be seen at particularly low tides is Caer-Wyddno (“the fort, or palace, of Gwyddno”). This is a collection of large stones and boulders, seven miles out to sea, west of Aberystwyth, that, it is speculated, may be all that is left of Gwyddno Garanhir’s lost kingdom. The legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod also bears similarities to other tales of sunken kingdoms lost beneath the waves, most notably that of Atlantis. Many of these global legends that feature flooding, or inundation by water, are thought to refer to the drastic changes in land formations after the last Ice Age. It is thought that stories were handed down from generation to generation in remembrance of those distant times, and have resulted in the myriad of myths that feature the loss of lands due to coastal flooding and sea level rises. This illustrates how changes in the natural world provide food for the imagination, and tales of the hearthside.
Whether it is based on truth or not, the legend of Cantre’r Gwaelod remains firmly established in the collective imagination of the Welsh and has served as an inspiration to many. For example, the story inspired a poem that appears in the aforementioned Black Book of Camarthen; a Victorian era-novel, The Misfortunes of Elphin (1829), by Thomas Love Peacock; and the folk song Clychau Aberdyfi (“The Bells of Aberdovey”), popularised in the 18th Century, which relates to the part of the legend about the bells being heard ringing beneath the waves in the town of Aberdyfi. Cantre’r Gwaelod is also featured in modern children’s literature: the kingdom plays a major role in Silver on the Tree, the last book of The Dark Is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper, parts of which are set in Aberdyfi. The Atlantis of Wales may be gone, therefore, but it appears that it is not forgotten.