The Tale of Taliesin in the Landscape
Place names and monuments close to Bedd Taliesin, the bronze age cairn in the Cletwr Valley, could throw a little light on why it bares the name of a popular Welsh folk hero. It’s impossible to tell whether this was originally the grave of the historic Taliesin, chief bard to Urien Rheged, although there’s no reason why (no matter how unlikely) he couldn’t have been buried there at a later date. Such ancient cairns were used time and again throughout their history. But regardless of whether the real Taliesin was buried in the mound or not, what’s important is its relationship to the myth of Taliesin.
The cairn itself is situated in a place called Pen y Sarn Ddu, or ‘End of the Black Road’, a name still retained by the old farm next to the cairn. This could refer to the old ‘Roman’ road, or Sarn Helen, that runs along the coastal highland from Machynlleth to Aberystwyth. But that ancient highway doesn’t end at Bedd Taliesin, so why call it the ‘End of the Black Road’?
It’s more likely that the farm’s name refers to the old track that runs at right angles to the Roman road, following the Cletwr Valley east towards Moel-y-Llyn. So if this is the ‘End of the Black Road’, where is its beginning? The present track runs along the south side of the valley through Cae’r Arglwyddes Farm and due east up the slope of Moel-y-Llyn through the pass into the Einion Valley. If the Black Road originally followed a similar path, we can see it takes a straight line from Bedd Taliesin, through Cae’r Arglwyddes Farm to the pass into the Einion Valley. If we extend that straight line down the other side of Moel-y-Llyn we come to a small farmstead called Bronwion, or ‘Gwion’s Hill’. Is this where the Black Road begins?
Not all of the ancient monuments in the Cletwr Valley have been marked on the OS map – the valley itself and the surrounding landscape is littered with what were probably covered mounds at one time, many of which are in fields around the old farm called Cae’r Arglwyddes, or ‘The Lady’s Field’. Heading east up the Sarn Ddu (the ‘Black Road’) from Bedd Taliesin there are several suspicious piles of stones on either side of the road, including many fallen standing stones, several of which clearly mark the old way. Was Cae’r Arglwyddes once the sight of a complex of intact burial mounds through which the Sarn Ddu passed?
Long stones are clearly seen supporting the southern bank of the road, and there is a line of large boulders further along just before Cae’r Arglwyddes farm house. All of the stone piles in the valley contain large quartz stones, just like the ones that cap the cairn that overlooks the Cletwr Valley from the top of Moel-y-Llyn and that kerb the cairns over on Foel Goch on the northern slopes.
If the Cletwr Valley once contained many obvious burial mounds, it could give one explanation to what the name ‘Y Sarn Ddu’ is referring to. It’s easy to see how black has an almost universal association with death, especially in Europe, and probably has done so for a very long time. Y Sarn Ddu may preserve the connotation of a Death Road or a Road of the Dead. The fact that this name still survives suggests that its processional use, or at least its association with burial and death, may have continued into the early medieval period.
So what of the name Cae’r Arglwyddes (‘The Lady’s Field’)? After some digging around in the National Library and County Archive, I am yet to discover if it was ever owned by a lady. There is no record of a church here so it’s unlikely to be St Mary. It could refer to a now forgotten noble woman, but usually an owners personal name is preserved in place names.
The lady referred to may not actually be a historical person. I’ve spoken to a woman who’s father had been born at Cae’r Arglwyddes, and according to her the name of the farm refers to a ‘lady of the lake’ that inhabits the small llyn that gives Moel-y-llyn its name. Such folktales are common throughout Wales, and feature an otherworldly woman who comes out of the lake, usually followed by an abundance of farm animals. These ladies of the lake could well be late versions of earlier water deities. It would be afir enough to ask if Taliesin’s connection to this place had anything to do with this piece of folklore. Is there an otherworldly ‘Lady’ associated with Taliesin and the rights of the dead?
One possibility is that the Sarn Ddu between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin corresponds in some way with the mythical bard’s life-journey. If so, this could offer an explanation as to who this Lady is. In the tale, Ceridwen stands between Gwion and Taliesin, and directly between Bronwion and Bedd Taliesin is Cae’r Arglwyddes. Is this where Ceridwen chases the magically enlightened Gwion Bach? Was it here that she swallowed him in the guise of a large black hen and then gave birth to him as the beautiful infant Taliesin? Is this the place of his symbolic death and rebirth? If so, was it the River Cletwr that she set him adrift upon, carrying him down through the vulva-like ravines of Gwar-y-Cwm waterfalls before spilling him into the Dyfi? It would make sense if he was then washed up on Borth beach.