During our extended stay in North Wales after the Quest, we went for a comparatively short stroll around the beautiful village of Beddgelert. Sitting snugly among the mountains of Snowdonia, this quaint little place offers some awe-inspiring views, but for many visitors the real attraction is the site of a medieval dog’s grave and its lasting legend.
We wandered through the village, making our way towards the bridge at its heart, where we crossed over and then followed the course of the River Glaslyn. Today though, it wasn’t so much a walk as a ‘Templeton ten-foot stop’ as we call them when, owing to one distraction or another, progress is slow. This time we couldn’t walk far without pausing to either drink in the scenery or photograph it. Everywhere you look is gorgeous. The framing mountains stand like giant guardians around Beddgelert, and I have to admit to having a special soft spot for ‘rivers with rocks in’, another of my wandering terms. There’s something very magical about water gushing around rocks and boulders, especially when the banks are lined with moss-covered trees and ancient woodland.
With all this natural beauty, it’s unsurprising that this is a place of significant religious and mystical origins. On one side lies Dinas Emrys, an important site in Welsh mythology where the stories of Merlin and the Welsh red dragon were born, and on the other is Gwlad y Tylwyth Teg, the legendary land of the fairies. It’s worth pointing out here that these weren’t the pretty and tiny winged people of popular fantasy, but an ancient form of non-human, mischievous child-sized folk that long ago were a powerful aspect of the local people’s beliefs.
Eventually, after capturing as much of the scenery as we could on camera, we crossed back over another bridge alongside a stretch of the Welsh Mountain Railway, and followed the gently winding path that returns to the village. It was on this stretch that we found the all-important final resting place of the 13th Century faithful hound.
According to local tradition, Gelert was the favourite hunting dog and loyal companion of Llewelyn ab Iorweth, or Llewelyn ‘the Great’, the grandfather of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd of my Welsh Quest fame, who cropped up in the Conwy Castle post. The story goes that he once had a hunting lodge here, and one day he went on an expedition without Gelert. On his return, he was greeted by the hound but saw blood on his fangs and his baby’s bed overturned. There was no sign of the child but after finding more spilled blood, Llywelyn leapt to the conclusion that Gelert had killed his young son. Without thinking, he plunged his sword into Gelert’s side. With a pitying cry the dog died, and the sound woke the baby who was hidden under the bed, asleep and unharmed. Further investigation in the next room revealed a dead wolf that had entered the house during the master’s absence. Gelert had, in fact, saved the baby and slain the true predator. When Llywelyn realised his mistake he became distraught and inconsolable, and is said never to have smiled again. He raised a fine tomb with a sculpture as a tribute to the beloved hound he’d betrayed by acting in haste.
Of course, it’s a legend that has little basis in reality. It’s a moral, cautionary tale about acting on impulse. Similar stories have been told across the centuries and across the world of heroic pets meeting an untimely end at the hands of their erroneous owners who then regret their hasty actions when the truth is uncovered. One such fable dates from the 1st Century AD, involving a Hindu priest leaving his baby in the charge of his beloved mongoose with the same outcome, only this time the real offender was a black cobra.
But with such a rich mystical heritage enveloping this quietly captivating place, it’s hardly surprising that the timeless tale has so firmly dug its paws in here. The story is even reflected in the village’s name which means ‘Gelert’s grave’. But whatever lies behind the legend, it’s impossible not to be moved by the faithful hound’s tranquil burial place beside its lonely trees as his memorial keeps an eternal vigil nearby. And there’s no denying the sense of melancholic peace that imbues this little haven and it’s hauntingly beautiful setting. It wouldn’t be a bad place to spend eternity…