In this month’s column, Helia Phoenix explores the river monsters and pirates of Cardiff’s past.
Did you know that Cardiff’s River Taff has its own Nessie, patrolling the waters, keeping wronguns away? Or at least it used to — an afanc of its very own. The afanc is a complicated thing to translate from Welsh, having been represented in Celtic mythology as anything from demon crocodile to barbarous beaver. It’s basically some sort of terrible beastie from the deep; a river monster that would attack and kill anyone who fancied a paddle or quick slurp from its waters.
Other parts of Wales have much more established afanc legends, the most famous being Llamrai – King Arthur’s horse who allegedly dragged the monster out from the waters of Llyn Barfog (also known as ‘Bearded Lake’, in Happy Valley in Snowdonia).
But why should north Wales get all the monster fun? The River Taff’s afanc reached the height of its fame towards the end of the 1500s — a time when Cardiff was the stronghold for some of the world’s most infamous pirates. The town fulfilled vital conditions for a shady sea port: lots of nearby coves to offload ill-gotten gains; a big market; townspeople happy to buy ripped-off goods at bargain prices; the Welsh language — which made it impossible for investigators from London to work out what was going on — and a good supply of ‘bawdy houses’, run by single women at a time when prostitution wasn’t fully criminalised.
Most importantly of all, Cardiff had officials with a flexible attitude towards the law – happy to let the buccaneers do what they wanted, as long as there were some sweet kickbacks.
Back then, the River Taff flowed a different course. Looking on modern maps, you can trace this easily, as it’s now Westgate Street: a stretch that houses Cardiff Arms Park and the Millennium Stadium, and runs through the area where the new BBC headquarters are currently being built.
The river was moved by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the 1800s, as it was inconveniently placed for his very Great Western Railway. But more on Brunel and his magical river-moving powers another time. Back in the 1500s, ships could sail along the curving river right into the centre of town: the quay for docking was at the intersection between Quay Street (clue’s in the name, eh) and Westgate Street. Today, it’s the location of Tiny Rebel, one of my favourite Cardiff pubs.
While making notes for this piece, I spend a couple of days exploring the area. Somehow, in this time, Cardiff has an unseasonably hot period – it’s a total scorcher. Some people are saying 23 degrees, others 26. In the sun, it feels like mid 30s – crazy-making weather for the sun-starved Welsh. Everywhere you look, lads have their tops off and girls are half naked and bright red. It’s a classic British summertime scene.
Another of the days I decide to do some research is (stupidly) the day of the Champions League Final – easily the biggest sporting event Cardiff has ever held. I’ve never seen it so busy. Town is absolutely crammed full of Italians (black and white for Juventus) and Spaniards (jaunty purple for Real Madrid). Around Quay and Womanby Streets the humanity is a colourful mixture of Spanish and Welsh – mostly Welsh, as far as I can see – sat on windowsills, drinking pints, bare feet, fags hanging out of smiling mouths, singing and dancing and stamping. These folk would be easy pickings for an afanc today.
But this is not my final destination: I started off talking to you about river monsters, and this is what I’m off to find. I went on an amazing walking tour of Cardiff at Christmas (Bill O’Keefe is your man, if you’re interested – and I highly recommend it) and Bill showed us the spot where the legendary Cardiff afanc lived: it’s in the waters just by the bridge connecting Cowbridge Road East to Castle Street, to the west of Cardiff castle. When I wrote about the Millennium Walk’s graffiti wall in my last column, I actually stood on the exact same spot to take the main photograph, just facing in the opposite direction.
The river was a different beast back in the sixteenth century, as was Cardiff. Although the pirates also used nearby Barry and Penarth as places to offload booty, the truly audacious ones could creep up the Taff late at night and deposit their goods much closer to the action on Town Quay, whether on their own ships or in ones they had seized somewhere in the Bristol Channel.
And this area is where the afanc was said to lie in wait, in the deep murky waters of the Taff, waiting to leap out and snatch some small child or unwary passerby.
My mother, an ever-practical type, maintains that legends and superstitions are pure nonsense, invented by parents to stop kids from doing silly or dangerous things, like wandering around in dodgy areas late at night. Back then, I expect some adults would probably have been wary of river monsters too, so it has the double-whammy of deterring anyone from wandering around and bothering the pirates while they were trying to offload.
Eventually corruption in Cardiff was so rife the town earned itself the reputation of “general resort of pirates”: customs officers, controllers, prominent land-owning citizens, the Sheriff of Glamorgan – everyone was in on it. The Privy Council (advisors to the crown) sent several commissions from London to investigate wrongdoing in the city, but each one was turned over or ignored by the locals that were meant to be supporting them.
Through the seventeenth century, Cardiff suffered an enormous flood, civil war, and rebellion, but managed to keep its pirates: in 1635, Henry Morgan (the rum guy) was born in Llanrumney. But as the town grew, the river was dredged, Town Quay rebuilt and improved, and in 1774 an Act was passed for ‘the better paving, cleansing and lighting of the streets of Cardiff’. Slowly, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Cardiff was less and less under the rule of pirates, and with their decline, stories of the River Taff afanc dispersed, and disappeared.
Today, this area is relatively clear of river monsters. It was so busy on the day of the Champions League I couldn’t actually make it down, so I return the day after, when all the wonderfully tanned Europeans have gone and huge construction crews are dismantling the city. Down by the water, two teenage girls with round sunglasses pass a spliff between them, flicking their hair and giggling. A couple sit on a bench, folded into each other, smooching occasionally, then looking around to check if anyone is watching them.
The weather is hot and oppressive. I sit on the river bank and watch some lads, wandering up along the river, swigging from cans. They’re topless and sweaty, pushing each other around in a friendly — if forceful — way. One is a bit close to the bank and slips, almost down to the water, but recovers his footing. They all bowl into the park, howling at each other.
Year after year, for as long as I can remember, police have pulled out one (or several) bodies from this river on an annual basis. Most of the victims slipped into its waters in mysterious circumstances, usually after dark. Information about the victims is sparse, but occasionally their stories feature drink, or drugs, or just back luck.
Under my feet, small fish glitter by under the surface. Maybe we could do with more supernatural deterrents around the waters these day, to keep us stupid humans safer. The threat of a demonic, murderous croco-beaver on patrol might keep us high and dry. For a while longer, anyway.
Helia Phoenix has written for Rolling Stone, The Guardian, and Kruger Magazine, and now runs the We Are Cardiff project. The previous instalments of her column can be found here. You could also take a peek at her website or follow her on Twitter, if you felt like it.