The Bells of Cantre'r Gwaelod

The Bells of Cantre'r Gwaelod

A Story by Sean M. Palfrey

A man ventures into the lost kingdom of Cantre'r Gwaelod.




Borth in the summertime was always completely packed with tourists. Some came to walk, some to surf, others came for the scenery and wildlife, and a lot came with children in small off-white caravans, (complete with the obligatory old, battered and leaking awnings) by the field-load, year after year. In the winter however, the sea is rough, the wind strong, and the rain constant. All of which turn Borth into a quiet and bleak place - an old western ghost town, in wild west of Wales. Some surfers continue to brave the weather until the sea beats them back to dry land. Otherwise it remains bereft of all but the locals, until the tourist season comes around again in the spring.
It was during the off-season, late on a Saturday night or early on a Sunday morning, depending on your view of time, that I was sat on the hard shingle on the southern end of the beach looking out over the waters of Cardigan Bay. High tide, like last orders had been several hours ago and apart from the infrequent sound of a car going through the village, or a bird overhead, the night was quiet and still. Despite the many layers of clothes I was wearing, it was bitterly cold, and I’d been sat there for so long my legs and face had gone numb. The waves, in their ceaseless repetitive motion, of swelling and crashing soon lulled me into a lethargy, whilst off in the distance the sound of church bells began to sound. At first I thought it was the bells of the local church echoing through the village, but soon I realised that it was still too dark and therefore too early, even for the most devoted of parishioners to make their once-a-week devotions in the draughty church behind the railway. I tried to wiggle my legs and encourage the blood to return to them, but my fatigue caught up with me.
‘You ok mate?’ I awoke to a man and his dog standing over me. As my eyesight got used to being awake I saw it was my employer the pub landlord Mr Evens.
‘Yeah, what time is it?’
‘It’s about seven-thirty, I think.’ I sat up and resumed my attempts to send the blood back to my extremities.
‘Are you going to be ok?’
‘What? Yeah, I’m ok. I just fell asleep stargazing.’ He looked at me with some scepticism.
‘Ok. I’ll see you later.’ I stood up and he began to walk away. As I got to my feet I began to hear the bells off in the distance once again.
‘It’s a bit early for church isn’t it?’ He turned back with a puzzled look on his face and a crooked top lip.
‘What do you mean?’
‘The bells?’ I was in turn puzzled by his reaction.
‘What bells?’
‘Those bells, off in the distance.’ He smiled as if he’d just got a joke I wasn’t actually making.
‘Ok, I’ll see you later.’ He chuckled to himself and continued to walk away with his dog at his heels.
Being a Sunday, and unsociably early in the morning, only the dog walkers and fitness buffs were out in the cold mist. As I walked back to my house along the high street the sound of the bells began to fade away despite the fact I was getting closer and closer to the church. By the time I’d reached my home the sound of the bells had disappeared and the tide had come all the way in. I ran myself a hot bath to try and chase the coldness out of my body, which didn’t work. The first symptoms of either a cold or flu virus soon made themselves at home as my temperature rose to a fever, and I was forced to consign myself to the sofa with the remnants of various cold and flu remedies from previous years stacked on the coffee table beside me. The sea outside was getting rougher and the wind was battering the windows, the sound of which, when coupled with the headache that accompanies all bouts of flu, was pure agony to me. I knocked back a shooter comprised of the dregs of the bottles of three different remedies and was sinking into my makeshift ‘Intensive Care Unit’ as the phone began to ring - aggravating my throbbing head. I reached for the receiver and ibuprofen in the same movement.
‘Hello?’ I struggled to cover up the disdain in my voice for whoever was on the other end of the phone.
‘Where were you last night?’
‘I’ve just seen Mr Evens on my way to church, and he said he found you on the beach this morning. He said you’d been there all night!’
‘Please, don’t shout, I’m sick.’ I curled into the foetal position.
‘I’ll say, staying out all night drinking on the beach, It‘s a disgrace. What would the vicar say?’
‘I wasn’t drinking, mother… I was stargazing.’
‘Is that some new drug slang?! You know Mrs Jones’ son was arrested last month for drug dealing in Aberystwyth!’ (incidentally Mrs Jones’ son Owain had only been caught smoking weed on constitution hill, and received a caution due to being fifteen).
‘Mum what are you talking about? I fell asleep on the beach watching the stars.’ My mother, pillar of the community, flower arranger at the local church, former head of the local Parent-Teacher Association, and classically overbearing as my indiscretions, no matter how minor or private, would inevitably reflect back on her. Therefore her need to regulate every single aspect of my life was always her highest priority, especially since I‘d become unexpectedly single after nearly ten years of someone else doing the job. And a poor job at that, in her humble opinion.
‘Don’t snap at me!’
‘Mother I’m not snapping at you. I have the flu really bad, and feel like death warmed up.’
‘Well it’s your own fault…’ Her voice softened slightly but continued to reverberate through my aching skull , ‘Have you got enough medicines?’
‘I’ll be fine mum. I really should try to get some sleep.’
‘Do you think you’ll be ok for work tomorrow?’
‘Probably not.’
‘Do you want me to call them for you tomorrow morning?’
‘No thanks mum. I’ll be ok.’
It had been roughly six hours (according to the clock above the wood burner) since I’d fallen asleep on the sofa, so it was once again dark outside. As I got up I could tell that my mother had let herself in at some point in the day and left several bags of shopping on the kitchen table. I rolled my eyes and riffled through their contents before swallowing another couple of ibuprofen that I washed down with a mouthful of the new flu potion courtesy of mother‘s meddling tinged concern.
In the distance I began to hear the sound of church bells. Initially I put it down to the late service, but as I got closer to the back door the sound of bells got stronger which was odd considering the church is several hundred yards in the opposite direction. I knew this time it couldn’t be the church. I opened the door and was hit by a blast of cold air. The sound of bells was strongest down by the water, which was approaching low tide. I followed the sound down the shore until I was close to where I slept the previous night. The surf lapped around my feat as I stepped into the sea, which felt surprisingly warm given the time of year, and latitude. A few stars flickered through the black clouds that hung over the bay, creating an almost mirror image of the village underneath the waves. The sound of the bells was getting louder and louder until the sea was drowned out completely by them. The water was beginning to feel hot, and a mist was rising from its surface. The ancient tree stumps that litter the shore were exposed by the sea and shimmered in the occasional flashes of white moonlight. The sea looked as if it was boiling; the waves had turned to bubbles that released pillars of steam into the night air washed away the clouds, revealing a nearly full moon. The sand beneath my feat was solidifying, and darkening into soil and the ancient tree stumps were growing bark and rising from the ground. I looked out over the bay and as far as I could make out in the poor light the sea was evaporating into the air and beginning to expose the seabed, which in turn was covered in soil out of which grew grass and tall, gnarled trees. Until as far as the horizon there was nothing but trees and fields separated by a network of dykes and drains. I turned around and looked through the forest on the beach and saw that the flickering lights of Borth remained behind me, oblivious to the new landscape that had replaced the usual seascape.
I walked forward into the dark autumnal woodland along an old track way eroded by centuries of walkers, where there should have been water, with frosty leaves crunching under my feet where there should have been sand. The wood was wild and overgrown, the gloam only broken up by the moonlight shining through the bare limbs of the trees. The smell of rotting vegetation and hard, frosty ground filled my lungs and cleared my head and shifting the phlegm from my lungs, and when I grew more accustomed to my surroundings I began to make out the shapes of animals darting through the trees - some of familiar size and shape, and others of more unfamiliar construction. I kept walking, following the winding track, and tripping over stumps, crowned with magical and poisonous, porcelain hard fungi, and the roots of the primordial trees that loomed over me until eventually the woodland came to an end and I was surrounded by a shadowy patchwork of farmland and meadows.
The horizon in all directions was littered with curious landmarks - off in the north was a causeway flanked by torches, ahead of me in the west was the silhouette of a bell tower, and to the south the faint glimmer of a fort surrounded by small villages. I continued along the old track as it began to make it’s way through the fields and over the deep dykes that drained the land. I tried to take it all in as my mind’s grasp of logic struggled with what my senses were bombarding it with. I walked for a little way more, debating whether or not I was awake, or still on my sofa having a medicine induced dream, until a rustling from the meadow of wild grass to right of me caused me to stop in my tracks. I heard the instantly identifiable, careless joy of a child’s laughter and turned towards it as a little girl in a woollen dress and apron, ran out from the meadow and straight into me. Despite her small stature, the force with which she hit me managed to knock me to the floor, the ensuing shock of pain as my coccyx collided with the hard ground convinced me I was very much awake. She stood up, seeming none the worse for it and dusted herself off. As I sat up, she stared down at me with a confused look on her face. I must have looked slightly confused as well.
‘Where am I?’ I asked her, and her expression didn’t change. I tried again in Welsh. ‘Ble wi?’ Which, judging from the softening of her expression, she seemed to understand.
‘Cantre’r Gwaelod.’
‘What?’ She smiled and ran off through the next field.
‘Wait a minute! Come back!’
Cantre’r Gwaelod? A legendary lost kingdom that was allegedly swallowed by the sea in the dark ages, that had materialised before my eyes and I was now walking around in, and being knocked over by the local children. My brain was overloading itself trying to make sense of this and I sat for a while pinching myself until the wind once again began to feel bitter and I picked myself up and looked around for somewhere warm and dry to escape from the cold. The track seemed to end at a village a mile or so away. I made up my mind that the village may hold the answer as to why I was walking around in a semi-mythical land where there should be brine, dog-fish and lobster pots. My buzzing head began to ache again as the wind picked up and the dark clouds began to reform over head. By the time I made my way to the outskirts of the village, some four miles from where I started in the wood on the shore the heavens opened and after only a minute I was soaked and shivering.
The village was deserted. All that signified any presence of human inhabitants was the old oil lamp with its flame flickering in its death throws in the middle of the village before a final gust of rain saturated rain snuffed it out. Te absence of its warm glow revealed how dark it had become now that the clouds had returned to block out the moon. The child that knocked me over, ran between me and a house in the gloom, and disappeared into the only house that emitted a warm and inviting glow from the briefly open door. I walked towards it. The closer I got, the more apparent it became that it was full of people; laughing, chatting and swearing, as you do. I raised my hand to knock on the door.
‘I said what are you doing out there?! Can you hear me?!’
I was stood up to my chest in freezing sea water, shivering and with a blinding sinus-headache, that throbbed with every intake of icy air.
‘Do you need any help?!’
I turned around and tried to focus on the dark shape of a man against the amber glow of the street lights. I lifted my hand to wave at him.
‘Stay there, I’ll get some help.’
He ran off toward the pub. I turned back to look out over the water and as I did a wave struck me knocking me back and filling my mouth with water. I coughed hard until I began to gag.
I turned around again to see the silhouette of my mother alongside the previous figure on the top of the beach. I had to summon what little strength left in my numbed body in order to shout over to her.
‘I’m ok mother! It’s all ok!’
‘What the hell are you doing?! Come back in before you catch your death!’
‘I said it’s ok!’
The sound of bells returned in the distance, only this time my curiosity was replaced with a yearning to find those bells, to return the land below the waves.
‘You’re delirious, come back home with me and I’ll make you a nice cup of tea, before I call the doctor. How about that?! Just come out of the water, please!’
‘It’s all ok. I’ll be fine.’
‘Please, for the love of God come back!’
I turned back to the water for the last time. I wasn’t shivering anymore and my symptoms once again began to melt away as did the world around me until I began to feel the water start to evaporate and recede. The calls from the shore were drowned out by the deafening sound of bells rising from the deep. I finally gave into the urge in my heart, and started to walk back toward the village, through the ancient woodland and the fields, that once again came back to life as the cold sea faded away once more into the land of Cantre’r Gwaelod. I found myself back in front of the house in the village. The voices that emanated from inside it seemed to beckon me in. I summoned my courage and knocked on the door, it opened slowly, the warmth from inside spilled out into the night air filled my pores. I didn’t feel numb anymore. The shapes in the light signalled for me to enter and I walked in.

© 2008 Sean M. Palfrey

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Very good. Nice twist and interesting imagery. I really enjoyed this story. Who know what it is some of us believe when the mind is lost. Very interesting, however, check your grammear and spelling. Overall, very good!

Posted 13 Years Ago

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Added on April 14, 2008


Sean M. Palfrey
Sean M. Palfrey

Scunthorpe, United Kingdom

I'm 21, and am a former Creative Writing and English student at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth where I was fortunate enough to be taught by (among others) Jem Poster, Matthew Francis, and Tiffan.. more..