THE YNYSLAS AREA
This area is redolent with ghosts as it was here that the Borth crew of the sloop Venus lost their lives, save only for the captain. Recently a few wrecks just opposite the old Leri mouth have been discovered, amongst which could be the Venus. This location must have been hazardous as not only did the Leri have a small sandbar, but nearby was the large and potentially more dangerous one at the Dyfi river entrance. It was here at the Dyfi mouth that disaster struck on a February night in 1839. A ships boat taking a party of four young ladies and three crew members out to the anchored brigantine Favorite missed the vessel in the dark and the ferocious ebb took them to their doom on the Dyfi Bar. All seven drowned and only the bodies of able seaman John Angel of Aberdyfi and young ships apprentice, Lewis of Tywyn, were recovered. The latter was found on the beach between Moelynys and Borth. Hugh, the 18 year old son of Master Mariner Enoch James was set for a glorious maritime career. Unfortunately in 1846 he slipped as he stepped into a boat from his father's vessel and plummeted into the Dyfi; his body was never recovered.
It was not only ships and their crews that were lost offshore in this vicinity, but adding to its sinister reputation is the following tale. It was somewhere on the seaward side of the dunes opposite Moelynys that a Barmouth doctor disappeared in the early 19th century (Morgan, 1948, p.79). Having crossed the estuary he disembarked with the rest of the passengers on the south side to make for the inn at Moelynys guided by marker poles driven into the sand-flats. However, the doctor wandered off, not to be seen again. A search on the following day revealed a neatly stacked pile of his clothes near the edge of the sea. It was reported as being misadventure through swimming but there was speculation that it may have been suicide. There have been innumerable drownings in the area up to the present. The previously mentioned marker poles can be seen in an 1840 etching of the Dyfi environs that appears in W.D. Morgan's Brief Glory. Another illustration in the same book depicts sheep being herded into the ferryboat on the Borth side of the estuary.
On the maps of the 18th and 19th century Twyni Mawr (Large Dunes), and Twyni Bach (Small Dunes), at Ynyslas, are marked as being quite separate with a substantial beach area between them, which does not exist today. This suggests that at an earlier time there were no Twyni Bach, and so Traeth Maelgwyn was a much bigger beach. Traeth Maelgwyn is the strip of beach running from the sea edge up the estuary alongside the Dyfi river to the Clettwr stream. It is named after the Welsh king who died of the plague in 547a.d. who was buried in Llandrillo-yn- Rhos, near Llandudno. It was on this beach that the kingship of North Wales was once decided, so an ancient tale tells us. This is the version I know:
On the Borth side of the Dyfi estuary there is a beach known as Traeth Maelgwyn. It was named after Maelgwyn Gwynedd who was elected King at this site around A.D. 500. At this time efforts were being made to unite the Britons against the incursions of the Angles, Saxons and sea Vikings. Maelgwyn had already become famous for defending Anglesey against the Vikings and he was known as the Island Dragon. He marched southwards determined to unite the warring princes of Wales under his leadership. The meeting place was the mouth of the Dyfi estuary on the south side along the sea-front and into the estuary itself. All the princes had their entourage of courtiers and advisers. Maelgwyn’s chief advisor was Maeldaf who was descended from the Princes of the sons of Coel who refused ever to be English. Maeldaf knew the tidal idiosyncrasies of the Dyfi well and used this knowledge to his master's advantage. No doubt the election of the king was settled by the sword with the opposition thwarted or drowned by their ignorance of the swift tidal flow whose treacherous path they had been manoeuvred into by Maeldaf. Tradition has it that Maeldaf built a chair for his master that floated on a raft of waxed feathers gathered from a nearby bird roosting rock, still known to this day as Craig y Deryn, (Bird Rock). Folklore states that the person appointed king would be the one who remained seated last. This device saw the king float safely amidst all the disarray..... thus Maelgwyn was duly elected and the event was commemorated in the beach name.
From this beach at the dunes end one has a clear view of Aberdyfi. There is only about three hundred yards of water at low ebb dividing the two shores, but what a division of time and memory between the peoples of Borth and Aberdyfi. In the 19th century it was a busy route, with mariners travelling backwards and forwards between the two places. Up until half a century ago there was a metal tower that one stood on to wave to the ferryman near Cerrig y Penrhyn....nowadays there is no ferry.
Eastwards up the estuary lie the vast cockle grounds that would have been more accessible for the cockling and shrimping ladies of the early 19th century as the then non-existent Leri river did not provide the barrier that it does today. There was only a slight seepage stream called Pil yr Ynys. Today there is a boat building yard just below the road bridge across the Leri. This is in a sense a resurrection as there was a small ship yard here from the middle of the 19th century. To the north of the boatyard there is a good cockle ground, often marked by the appearance from under the sand of the ribs of two unidentified old sloops that were sunk there to form a revetment. This was to prevent the re-routed Leri river flow from silting. It is a sad and poignant monument to a glorious era; but the one consolation is that these vessels are buried in their home region within a mile or so of where they were creatively and skilfully constructed.
This makes one ponder on what the village fishermen thought of the landowners diverting the course of the Leri into the Dyfi, thus depriving them of a convenient coastal access. Working under the General Enclosure Act of 1801, local land owners diverted the Leri by cutting a channel northwards from Ynys Dwrgi (Otter Island) to Ynyslas where the river now entered the estuary and not the sea. The idea was to create new farms from the reclaimed lands so that they could be rented out. There was an ever increasing demand for new farmland as the rural, as well as the industrial population of Wales began expanding. The project began when the prime movers the Pryse's of Gogerddan and Matthew Davies of Cwmcynfelin received royal assent in 1813. The whole project took nearly 34 years to complete as legal and monetary issues were not settled until 1847. As to the matter of any local dissent, R.J. Colyer the author of a paper entitled The enclosure and drainage of Cors Fochno (Borth bog) 1813-1847, had not found any documented evidence of protest. However he was not surprised as after all, the local land owners did not consult the peasantry in decision making nor record localised dissent. However, there was a kind of people’s justice system within communities. It was expected at the time that the local community would maintain the diverted Leri and other drainage systems. Colyer noted that this had not happened; therefore it can be conjectured that there may have been some protest against the river diversion (R.J. Colyer, pers. comm. 2001).
However it would have been only the small boat owners who could have accessed the old Leri sea exit. The more ambitious may have seen the new Leri mouth as ideal for shipbuilding within a sheltered estuary near the expanding port of Aberdyfi. The maritime future was more with international trading than fishing or coastal trade as far as Borth was concerned considering its limiting location on an open beach. It is interesting to note that D. W. Morgan, a native of Aberdyfi of Borth descent, did not know that the Leri had previously flowed into the sea (Morgan, 1948, p.24). From about 1830 those fishermen who had used the Leri mouth had no option but to launch their boats from an open beach or move to a more convenient harbour such as Aberystwyth. Part of the Davies clan of fisherfolk moved to Aberystwyth around this time and went on to play a major part in that town's lifeboat and seafaring history.
The dangerous nature of the Dyfi Bar is exemplified in the massive cross sea that rises under certain weather conditions. I saw this phenomenon one autumn in the late 1960's. Brothers Gethin and Jac Evans, owners of the fishing vessel Shandala, were taking a party of fishermen to try for turbot opposite Moel Ynys on the Borth side of the Dyfi estuary. The Shandala was moored at the Leri bridge at that time. I was along as crew member. It was the end of October and the inshore sea was calm as the wind had been blowing from the land for a time. This was excellent herring netting weather with all the portents in place, including Y Dwyren Penddu cloud formation above the inland hills. The wind had been blowing from the south-east for over a week prior to the fishing trip.
After a few hours fruitless fishing with the tide at its highest we were close in to the shore when something caught my eye. I could not believe what I was witnessing as a massive wave, the length of the bar, reared up with a white crest and completely obliterated the Merionethshire landscape. Aberdyfi, Towyn and the hills disappeared behind this wall of water. It swept across from south to north and dissipated on the far shore. It lasted about a minute and then the sea became calm again. It was frightening and I turned and realised that Gethin Evans had also seen it as his eyes were larger that saucers and he said to me in Welsh “welest ti y moryn anferth na”, ( did you see that colossol wave?) So as not to alarm the fishing party I replied in Welsh that I had seen it and that we had better go in. We proceeded as quickly as possible over the bar by the middle buoy and up the Dyfi mouth looking nervously to the southern side, fearing a repeat of that giant wave. Thankfully we got back safely. I never saw that phenomenon again but did mention it to my grandfather and uncle who said that Borth fishermen kept away from the Dyfi in herring time, especially when the wind had been blowing for a time over Rhiwlas Farm; that is from a south-easterly direction.
The proof of the existence of this phenomena came many years later. Local man David Samson was fishing from a boat moored at Ynyslas Bridge, so I told him the story of the rogue wave as a warning. I do not think he believed me at the time and in the ensuing years he had forgotten about it.
Many years later he experienced exactly what I had described. This is what he said :
“I was coming back from checking my lobster pots and herring nets last autumn, at a time when strong south-easterlies had been blowing for days. As I passed the middle buoy on the starboard side all my thoughts were about what I was going to do after I tied up, when suddenly the boat tipped sideways with the port gunwale under water. Initially I had not a clue what was happening but to my horror I realised that a wall of water, God knows how high and long, like a Hawaiian surfing wave was driving me under and toward the other side of the estuary. Instinctively I swung the tiller round to get the bow in to the wave. Thankfully the boat responded, but the stern was dipping dangerously under the water, but with the engine at full revs it managed to shudder its way up the wave. I am sure the boat was almost perpendicular and was in danger of flipping completely over. After crashing down on the other side I watched the wave's progress as it broke into a mass of foam on the Aberdyfi shore. I hastily headed to the mooring. I was badly shaken and remembered you telling me about this. Funnily I looked back down the Dyfi mouth when I had reached safety and the sea looked innocent and as normal as it had been prior to the incident"
..the sly old fox.