The Devil's Bridge, Ceredigion, Wales
Water is rather on my mind at the moment. Due to extremely heavy rain, my county – Gloucestershire – has been flooded. Rain has lashed down from huge clouds dragged over our towns and fields by an anticyclonic weather system. Torrents of water flow down every road, lightening flashes across the sky, thunder rolls through the air and people panic on the streets below. The power supplies have been spasmodic at best and the River Severn looks set to rise again. It is against this backdrop that my thoughts turn to another place where I have really felt the power of water. Up the Severn and to the west, past the Pumlumon Mountains, there flows the River Mynach, which, in ancient times, sliced a narrow chasm between two towering and jagged cliffs.
Such was the steepness of the rocks and the power of the river that to cross would have been a perilous task. One could try and jump the gap but they would risk death from the fall. One could alternatively try and ford the river, but the current is strong, and drowning the near certain consequence. Naturally, in such a place of power and evil, it may have been said that the Devil himself stopped any and all from crossing.
There are many versions of the Legend of Devil's bridge; this is my interpretation of them. Nearly thousand years ago, monks came to a spot near the mighty gorge. They were holy men and sought a life of prayer and solitude away from the trappings of a mortal life. To this end they built the Strata Florida Abbey where they could devote their lives to God. But the Devil makes work for idle hands, and the Monks desired a task to keep their minds away from worldly temptations. Seeing that the chasm was the Devil's work, the decided they would construct a bridge across it, glorifying God, and defeating Satan. For many years they worked at the perilous task, the great arch gradually taking shape, and taming the once deadly gorge. Eventually it was finished, and the monks retired to their Abbey without crossing, satisfied that they had won a victory for God.
Of course, the Devil did not believe that he was beaten. As yet, none had crossed the river and he hatched an evil plot to keep it so. Time passed, and one day, an old woman from the village wished to make the journey across the river to the next town. As she came to the bridge, the Devil appeared in front of her.
"You have no right to stop me," she said, "the monks have built the bridge and, in the name of God, I may cross your chasm."
"Fool!" cried the Devil, "this gorge is too wide and deep for mere mortals to have spanned. It was I who built this bridge, and it I who set the price for crossing! The first soul to cross this bridge will be mine for eternity!" And having told this lie, he vanished.
The old woman merely stood calmly for a moment before walking back to her village. A short time later she returned to the canyon, bringing with her a dog. Taking around loaf of bread from her bag, she threw it to the other end of the Devil's Bridge, causing the hungry dog to cross. The Devil sensed that a soul had dared to take his challenge and appeared to collect his prize, but was furious when he discovered that he had been tricked. In a rage he left the bridge and has never been seen there again.
Since that time
The ancient bridge is still there to this day, but with the passing centuries it has become worn out and dangerous. By the end of the seventeenth century it was clear to the people of Pontarfynach, the local village, that the Devil might soon begin collecting souls again. To thwart him and provide a safe crossing, they built a larger bridge, supported by great brickwork walls, right across where the old bridge stood. But, they did not forget the work of their predecessors whether they were the Monks or the Devil, and cut steep stone steps into the rock face, allowing the curious or foolhardy to climb down the great chasm, into the gorge and look up at the Norman arch of the old bridge.
With the industrial revolution came tourism. Coastal towns, once surviving only on their merchants or fishermen, now found themselves swarming with the gentry from the cities, come to take the fresh sea air. Twelve miles from Devil's Bridge lies the resort town of Aberystwyth, which could now be reached using the new steam railway. People who came to Aber would hear strange stories of a bridge that the Devil built, and, naturally they wished to see it. The influx of tourists brought many carriages to the site, and each of them took their toll on the bridge, which, even in though it had been completed in the eighteenth century had only been designed to take pedestrians and possibly the occasional horse and cart.
Realising that if the newer bridge fell, it would take the old bridge with it, Ceredigion County Council raised the funds to build yet another crossing, once again, higher, longer and wider, directly above the original two. It was opened in 1901, just in time, for the next year the narrow gauge Vale of Rhiedol railway opened. It was by this train, which still runs today, that I first visited Devil's Bridge.
I am afraid I have been slightly disingenuous. The Devil's Bridge is not the main attraction in the area, the real attraction are the Mynach waterfalls, where the water plunges three hundred feet down to join the River Rhiedol. They are a spectacular sight and were what initially drew me to the place. Although I had heard the name Devil's Bridge, I had assumed it was simply a made up anachronism to bring in tourists, as you know now, I was wrong. Actually, what encouraged me to make the trip at all was the prospect of riding on the Vale of Rhiedol steam railway.
There is something wonderfully elemental about the journey. Minerals burn, the fire heats the water which vaporises into steam, and the steam powers the engine. In my opinion, given the destination, there is no better way to make the journey to Devil's Bridge. Once there, having made your way from the station to the chasm itself, you are presented with two old iron turnstiles. It costs £2 to walk to the waterfalls, a journey I may describe in another writeup, and £1 to carefully climb down the steep staircase to view the torrential river and the original and ancient Devil's Bridge.
It was raining when I first visited, not hard, but enough to give the rocks a darkened, colourful shine. Viewed from above, the power of the river is not immediately apparent. Three layers of bridge muffle the noise and you could be forgiven for thinking it was just a small trickling stream. Nevertheless, the sheer height and danger of the place is breathtaking, the rocks are slate-like; jagged, sharp and evil looking. A fall from such a place would undoubtedly be fatal.
Clambering down the wet stairs was not particularly easy. I habitually wear large leather combat boots, but even then I had some difficulty gripping. As you descend, the crashing of the water becomes suddenly louder, the sheer force of nature making itself known. Gushing down rocks and gulleys, the crevice that has been carved through the rocks is narrow and deep, the water flowing at high pressure, throwing up great clouds of spray. Breaking from one strata to another it flows in a bend, carving out a circular depression in the rock itself. This thundering, swirling pool is known as the Devil's Punchbowl and lies in the shadow of the original bridge some seventy feet above.
From below, the three bridges look quite unreal. The brickwork supporting them has in some areas replaced the cliff itself, as if it had sprouted naturally from the stone. The slightly pointed Norman Arch still stands, a testimony to those who built it, its rough hewn simplicity contrasting not unpleasantly with the iron and steel latices and girders of the later constructions. It is an incredible place to visit; the natural, supernatural and the artificial all meeting in rocks and water.
A picture of Devil's Bridge can be found here: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/4/4e/Devils-bridge-pano.JPG