The morning weather was wonderful, blue sky decorated with billowing clouds like white linen sheets, fresh from the laundry drying in the breeze so we hurried our breakfast and then set off in the direction once more of nearby Aberystwyth.
I drove carefully because last time I was here five years ago I was landed with a grossly unfair speeding ticket and today I found the sneaky camera that got me and I at last understood how I missed it!
We didn’t stop at Aberystwyth but drove straight through along the Vale of Rheidol alongside the narrow gauge railway line until we reached the station at the top at Devil’s Bridge.
Railways in Britain are a national obsession. When the Victorians weren’t building piers they were building railways. And by the time that they were nationalised in 1948 there were simply too many of them to be economical. So in the 1960’s, based on a document called the ‘Beeching Report’, the Government set about a reform programme which resulted in thousands of miles of track being dismantled and hundreds of stations being closed.
Railway enthusiasts everywhere went into collective shock but quickly rallied and almost immediately started organising themselves into preservation societies and very soon they were relaying railway lines almost as quickly as British Rail contractors were tearing them up. Now, every weekend these devotees of track and steam gather together to stoke boilers, grease points and polish name plates and to run engines on restored lines or on narrow gauge railways all over the country. It is almost like an act of shared defiance against the policies of the national government.
The Devil’s Bridge is at a dramatic point in the landscape where the River Mynach tumbles ninety boiling metres in five steps down a steep and narrow ravine before it meets the River Rheidol and is unusual in that there are three separate bridges each one built over the previous as though one by one they have slipped into the gorge.
The most recent is an iron bridge (1901), which was built over a stone bridge (1753), which was built when the original bridge was declared to be unstable.
According to the legend the original bridge was built by the Devil, as it was too difficult for mere mortals to achieve this feat of engineering. Probably because of the weather the Devil had never been to Wales before but sometime around the eleventh century he dropped by. As he wandered about admiring the scenery (no one has satisfactorily explained why he didn’t go somewhere even more scenic, such as Snowdonia for example) he came across an old lady who seemed rather upset.
”What’s the matter?” he asked (or possibly roared).
“Oh, I’m in such a terrible muddle and I don’t know what to do! My cow has wandered across the river and I can’t get her back”.
“Ah!” said the Devil “What you need my dear, is a bridge, and I am just the man to build you one. Why don’t you go home, and in the morning there will be a bridge waiting for you. All I ask in return is to keep the first living thing to cross the bridge!”
“Very Well then” she said “It’s a bargain. I’ll see you in the morning. Nos da, Goodnight”
That night she wondered about this stranger who would build her a bridge. ‘What a strange request! Why should I cross the bridge to get my cow back if he gets to keep me in exchange? Mind you it is very tempting offer”
The next day she got up and called for her faithful dog. Together they went down to the river. “Well well” she couldn’t believe her eyes. In front of her was the best bridge that she had ever seen!
“I told you that I would build you a bridge” said the Devil. “Now it’s your turn to keep your side of the bargain”.
“I know, you get to keep the first living thing to cross the bridge” and she started to walk towards the bridge. But just when she got to the entrance, she stopped, took out a bone from her apron pocket and hurled it across the bridge. As quick as a flash and before the Devil could stop it, the dog chased after it.
“Aaaaaaagh!!!!!” screeched the Devil. “You stupid old woman, I don’t believe it! Your smelly, hairy farm dog has become the first living thing to cross my bridge. It’s no good to me” he screamed and then he vanished and I can understand that because I am not what you call a dog lover myself. After this the Devil was never seen in Wales again – some say it was because he was so embarrassed at being outwitted by the old lady but I suspect that it more likely had something to do with the weather!
Actually, it turns out that Satan is quite a prolific bridge builder and Wikipedia lists at least a hundred Devil’s Bridges, mostly in Europe.
The gorge and the waterfalls are probably best described by a previous visitor, the poet, William Wordsworth:
How, art thou named? In search of what strange land
From what huge height, descending? Can such force
Of waters issue from a British source,
Or hath not Pindus fed thee, where the band
Of Patriots scoop their freedom out, with hand
Desperate as thine? Or come the incessant shocks
From that young Stream, that smites the throbbing rocks
Of Viamala? There I seem to stand,
As in life’s morn; permitted to behold,
From the dread chasm, woods climbing above woods,
In pomp that fades not; everlasting snows;
And skies that ne’er relinquish their repose;
Such power possess the fitmily of floods
Over the minds of Poets, young or old!
We stayed a while at the station and watched the stream train arrive and then we returned to Aberystwyth for lunch and had seaside fish and chips and sat in the sun on the promenade to eat them.