High on a cliff stands a lone statue of a saint.
He stares north over a bay where a dark stack rises out of the sea. It is actually a tooth of a giant.
The saint was Carannog, son of Coran. The giant was called Bica.
Such is the landscape and the stories of Wales, forever connected.
This is a post about a community on the Ceredigion coastline, Llangrannog, and the stories locked in the surrounding landscape of sea and rock.
On a calm sunny day there is a sense of tranquillity here, a whisper of sanctity and well being. Once upon a time saints and poets walked upon its beautiful and dramatic cliffs. Perhaps some do still. When the storms come in the elements fully endorse our vulnerability. The skies are dark, waves crashing against black rocks sometimes capturing the little houses lining the front before letting them go. A sound like angry giants roars around the cliffs; it’s easy to imagine one strolling around the corner of the little bay.
If the giant Bica and Carannog ever did meet it has been forgotten yet their stories connect us to the extraordinary history and legendary past of the area. this is the case of most places we visit. Such connections and imaginings can enhance a visit to even the most mundane environs but Llangrannog is certainly not mundane.
Llangrannog was once a small fishing village and, like other coastal settlements, the sea was important to its community. Seafaring provided a living through fishing, especially for herrings, trade and transportation. It also provided a living for pirates and smugglers once known along this coastline for smuggling especially salt from Ireland.
This coastline is spectacular. The Wales Coast Path https://www.wales.com/visit/wales-coast-path meanders up and over cliffs formed out of rock named after two ancient tribes, Silurian and Ordovician. Just beyond the beach a dark, sea-weathered stack rises from the waves composed of Ordovician rock and a popular resting place for seabirds. This is Carreg Bica or Bica’s stone. Bica was a local giant who wandered about here
One day Bica had a terrible headache. Nothing relieved his pain so in a desperate attempt he spat out a tooth which landed in the sea. I have not been able to discover any provenance for this tale before the 20th century so if anyone can enlighten me I would be very grateful.
The antics and tantrums of giants were often held responsible for carving out the British landscape. Wales, with its dramatic mountains and twisting shoreline, has, unsurprisingly, its share of giants: Idris, Bendigeidfren (or Bran), Ysbaddaden, Grinwr, Cefn Cribwr, Gogrfan, names to twist tongues and minds. The Age of Giants passed long ago and now they are reduced to odd characters in tall tales and ancient memory.
There is evidence of human settlement around Llangrannog back into prehistory. This ‘sea highway’ has an ancient pedigree connecting Britain with communities in France, Spain and beyond. In the 6th century Irish settlers came to trade and settled leaving behind ‘ogham stones’, monuments to their presence in West Wales.
Ogham is an early form of writing. It’s a complex collection of horizontal, vertical and diagonal notches cut into stone, a representation of an early form of the Irish language. In Wales Ogham can be found alongside Latin inscriptions. In St Dogmael’s further down the coast, one such stone on its ‘discovery’ in the 19th century became of type of ‘Rosetta Stone’, the bilingual inscription of Ogham and Latin making it possible to decipher the script.
Around the time Irish settlers were carving their ogham stones Carannog left his family to devote his life to the Christian God. Carannog’s family were high status: his grandfather was Ceredig who supposedly gave his name to this region and his father was Coran, a king. Carannog did not want to be king and instead wandered before founding a monastic cell high on a cliff near the River Hawen as it tumbles down towards the sea.
Carannog was not alone at this time in relinquishing his destiny for the sake of God. There are other examples: St. Cadog refused a kingdom for a life of prayer and St. Melangell, an Irish princess, avoiding an royal marriage fled to Wales where she founded a nunnery.
This was the ‘Age of the Saints’ a time when many communities in Wales had a ‘local’ saint. Sometimes this was someone who had donated land for the llan or enclosure where the community could bury their dead. Later, such enclosures contained a church dedicated to the local ‘saint’, hence Llan– grannog.
Carannog’s cave is thought to have looked westward over the village of modern Llangrannog. One day, he was sitting outside whittling pieces of wood. His dove (many monks had animal companions) was fussing with the wood shavings, picking them up and flying away with them. Carannog followed the dove to a spot near the fall of the River Hawen where he found the shavings lain on the ground. Carannog took this as a sign from God and built a church. Its successor stands there today.
Near to the church is a holy well, Ffynnon Fair or St Mary’s Well, believed to have been used and blessed by Carannog. It was used for healing until early last century before falling into disrepair. Today the well is being restored by the local community.
Eventually Carannog left Llangrannog as a missionary to spread the word of God. He headed down to Cornwall where he met King Arthur. A local dragon had been giving some trouble and Arthur was looking to kill it. Carannog found the dragon first forbidding any harm to be done. When he had calmed and tamed the dragon he let it go, a lesson in compassion and the triumph of good over evil.
Carannog later travelled north to Ireland to continue his work as a missionary. Here he founded a monastery where he settled, returning once to Llangrannog before he died in Ireland on May 16, 540.
Llangrannog quietly expanded and, for a while, thrived building boats and exporting goods along the coast.
Sarah Jane Rees was the daughter of a local sea captain, born near Llangrannog in 1836. She refused to train as a dressmaker and accompanied her father on his sail boat or ketch, working as a sailor. Sarah went to London where she trained and became a master mariner. A passionate advocate for women, she was also a teacher, campaigner and a poet known as Cranogwen. In 1865 Sarah Jane was the first woman to win the National Eisteddfod. Today she is known as one of ‘the most outstanding Welsh women of the nineteenth century’. Llangrannog is in the process of erecting a statue in her memory
Most of the fishing boats have disappeared and many cottages are holiday lets. Tourists walk the paths of fishermen and traders while surfers have replaced poets and composers. (Elgar once stayed at the Pentre Arms where years later Dylan Thomas was supposedly asked to leave for helping himself to drinks behind the bar).
Visitors drift down the little lane connecting the ‘church village’ to the ‘beach village’ with their dogs, surf boards and walking boots. Some walk, others swim and many just enjoy that feeling of unique ‘otherness’, the sensation of existing between worlds we get when we idle between land and sea.
At the end of the day for me it is all about the giant and the saint . The pull and the push of the ‘other’, this liminal coastline where both felt at home.