The wood so softly singing
In a language strange to hear
And the song it sings will find you
As the twilight draws you near


Tunnels and Secret Passages

In the cliffs along the coast of Cardigan Bay there is a deep gash through the rock known as the ‘Monks’ Cave’. It is difficult to get to except from a boat as the tide comes right up to the cliffs and to walk along the beach would be to risk getting cut off before you could get back again. But it’s possible to see it from above, where the coastal path passes an opening allowing you to look down into it and to hear the waves rushing in at high tide, near the remnant ancient oak woodland of Penderi which clings to the cliff edge. But why is it called the ‘Monks’ Cave’? Legend has it that a secret passage runs from the cave inland to the medieval monastery at Strata Florida. This lies more or less due south-east of the cave in a straight line, but the tunnel would have to be nearly fifteen miles long to get there. There are many such legends of tunnels to or from abbeys, castles, prehistoric monuments and other such places; from sea caves to significant sites inland; from wells or springs feeding underground water courses; to caves under hills where treasure is buried or heroic figures like Arthur lie sleeping biding their time to awaken.

On the other side of Wales on the border with Shropshire is a place called ‘The Giant’s Grave’ beneath a site where a cromlech once stood. Although the place was reputed to contain treasure, legend has it that those looking for it have either disappeared or died in the attempt. On the other side of the same hill a legend tells of a blind fiddler from the village of Llanmynech who wandered into the ‘Ogo’ (Welsh for cave) and was never seen again, though the sounds of a fiddle playing could be heard deep below the cellar of the village inn. It was said that he had been captured to play for the fairy folk.

So one explanation of such tunnels is that they are ways to the Otherworld, either underground or somewhere under the sea or on an unseen island off the coast. Sometimes these legends are linked to leats of old mine workings or other underground constructions. Visiting such places such as the Roman gold mines at Dolaucothi which I went into recently often evokes memories of passages traversed in meditations or path workings which in turn resonate with some of the great stories of visits to the Netherworld such as that recounted in Virgil’s Aeneid.

I have a definite sense of the memory of a tunnel under the cliffs near where I live which I have walked through in the past, but which is now closed. But I don’t know where it is. Did I dream these walks and the subsequent closure of the tunnel? I really don’t know. But images of the tunnel and the place where it emerges into woodland are clear in my mind. Legends, dreams, psychic journeys, winding ways into the Otherworld : tunnels persist in the cognitive landscape.


Lorna Smithers said...

There is a legend that there is / was a tunnel running beneath the river Ribble joining the sites of Penwortham Castle and Priory and Tulketh Castle and Priory (12th C).

My journeys from Castle Hill (Penwortham) have led to a cave within the hill, empty now the aquifer is shattered, empty tunnels where streams once ran, and strange shapes on the walls, once what looked like a stone figure... but no Tunnel.

I think perhaps because the Ribble was shifted 500m to create Riversway Dockland. The tunnel was destroyed (as above so below?).

One place I had a sense of underneath tunnels was beneath Nodens' temple at Lydney, you probably know there were mines there and he was Lord of the Mines.

I also have a sense of running through catacombs beneath Preston, which has a history of tunnels and priestholes. And there being some kind of deep well underneath. Which I can't explain at all!

Heron Mist said...

Lorna, your sense of "running through the catacombs" sounds a little like my tunnel which I have a sense of having walked through: a mysterious presence in the half-memory.