The village of Llanferres lies close to the River Alyn, and within its parish there are a number of fords across its shallow depths. It is at one of these fords that the warlord Urien is said to have met with a daughter of the king of Annwn.
Urien Rheged is probably best remembered today as one of Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table, a result no doubt of Urien’s fame throughout the Celtic world. In Arthurian legend, Urien’s was originally reluctant to accept Arthur as king, but was swayed by his martial skill and virtue, remaining a loyal servant to the King to the end, even, apparently marrying Arthur’s half-sister, Morgan le Fey. Urien’s fame lay in the praise poems of the famous North British poet, Taliesin, whose work remains the core of the Mabinogion. Taliesin wrote no less than eight poems in honour of this king of North Britain, whose stronghold centred in Carlisle, and whose lands stretched at its furthest from Cumbria and Strathclyde to Catterick in North Yorkshire. He was certainly at the forefront of the 6th century conflicts between the Britons and the advancing Angles of Bernicia, holding out against their expansion north and west. Taliesin makes clear his successes, embellished no doubt but perhaps not entirely inaccurate.
‘The Lloegrians [English] know him,
When they talk.
Death they received,
And frequent vexation,
Burning their homesteads,
And drawing their coverings.
And great incomprehension,
Without obtaining deliverance
From Urien Rheged.
The protector of Rheged’
It is therefore surprising to find Urien Rheged making an appearance at Llanferres, a considerable distance from his heartland of Northern Britain. The fact he does so, probably reflects both his fame and the ubiquitous nature of ford mythology. There are many similar examples of such myths from both Scottish and Irish mythology.
It should be stated here, that the tale of the Ford of the Barking Dogs has distinctly unpleasant undertones which are distinctly troubling.
The legend says that at a ford across the Alyn within the parish of Llanferres all the local dogs would gather and bark, troubled by the presence of an otherworldly figure, dogs being receptive to such things. The ford gained a fearful reputation and the locals shied away from the crossing, travelling further than they might to cross the Alyn. The ford became known thus as, Rhyd Gyfarthfa, the Ford of the Barking Dogs.
Urien Rheged, however was no common man. He was known as one of the Three Pillars of Britain, the son of Cynfarch Oer and a descendant of Coel Hen (identified by some as the legendary Old King Cole), the first known post-Roman military leader in the area of Hadrian's Wall. In passing through Llanferres, the story of the Ford became known to him, and he decided to investigate.
On arriving at the ford, he saw no dogs, but rather a beautiful woman, washing in the cold water of the Alyn. Without another thought, Urien’s seized the woman and, ‘had his will of her’. This, of course, suggests a vicious rape, but as is the way with myth, time has softened the brutality of the original tale. Indeed, it is said that the woman responded to this attack with, ‘a blessing on the feet that brought you.’ On questioning, understandably, as to why that was so, Urien’s was told,
‘Because I have been fated to wash here until I should conceive a son by a Christian. And I am a daughter to the king of Annwfn and come thou here at the end of the year and then thou shalt receive the boy.’
Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain
edited by Rachel Bromwich
As directed, Urien’s returned to the ford at Llanferres at the end of the year and was presented with not only a son and heir, Owein ap Urien, but a daughter also, Morfudd. Owein is believed to be the father of St Mungo, otherwise known as Kentigern of St Asaph, the product of another rape.
As for the ford at Llanferres, it has not been possible to locate it precisely. Some believe it is on the site of Loggerheads, a little to the north, but it remains largely guesswork. There are fords closer to the village (SJ 188 598 & 195 612), and it is probable the legend is centred on one of these, since elsewhere begins to edge into other parishes.