At the end of the mountain road we had taken lies a small community clinging to the sides of the gorge above the River Rheidol. Pontarfynach, though, is named for the Afon Mynach, one of its tributaries, that tumbles, roars and swirls its way down the mountainside, spanned by a bridge built, so the story goes, by the Devil himself.
Many waterfalls and streams lead into the Mynach. Megan’s cow had strayed to the far side of the river and the water had risen, flooding the deep ravine. She did not know how the cow had crossed, only that she could not get it back. The cow and her dog were all that she had in the world and Megan was devastated.
A kindly monk saw her distress and asked her what was wrong. Hearing the sorry tale, the monk offered to build a bridge across the raging waters so that Megan might recover her errant cow. The old lady, however, was suspicious. She had seen that the monk’s robes covered knees that seemed to bend the wrong way and a cloven foot. Still, she needed the cow… and she could not cross alone. The water cut deep cauldrons in the rock as it churned and sent a great waterfall spewing beyond the crevice…
She asked what the monk would require in return for his services. He asked for the first living thing that crossed the bridge once it was built. Reluctantly, Megan agreed to his terms and went back to her cottage to wait until the bridge was completed.
She came when he called and saw a span of stone across the ravine and her cow happily grazing, but still on the other side. The monk demanded his payment. “Is it strong enough to bear my weight?” asked the dame, who had hatched a plan of her own whilst she waited. In spite of the monk’s assurances, she continued to eye the bridge with doubt, while its builder became more and more impatient.
“Is it strong enough to hold the weight of a loaf?” asked Megan, drawing a loaf of bread from beneath her shawl. The Devil laughed, “Of course it is! Try it and see!” Megan threw the loaf right across the bridge… and her little dog, used to chasing the morsels of bread that she threw for him in play, ran straight across the bridge after the loaf.
The dog was the first living soul to cross the bridge… the Devil was furious! What use was the soul of a silly little dog to him? With a foul stench of brimstone, he vanished into thin air, his plans thwarted by the old dame. Megan recovered her cow and kept her dog… and the Devil was never seen again in Wales. Or so the old tales tell…
Today the Devil’s Bridge still stands. The best view is obtained by descending the damp, stone steps of Jacob’s Ladder, where the noise of the water becomes deafening and exhilarating and the rocks, worn by the force of the water, shine like glass. Above the original bridge is another stone bridge, built in 1753. It was left in place when the third, the iron bridge that is in use today, was built in 1901.
Archaeologists and historians, giving little credence to Megan’s perspicacity or the presence of the Devil, have dated the original bridge to some time between AD 1075 and 1200. They believe it to have been built by the monks of Strata Florida where, oddly enough, we were going next.
Personally, I like Megan’s story better… and wonder about the symbolism of a loaf of bread that saved a soul.