David Atkinson goes in search of the elusive Teggie – a monster rumoured to live in the waters of Bala Lake, Snowdonia.
The mist descends like a slow madness. Stabs of rain prick my face with icy needles as I push off my canoe and paddle gingerly through the inky blackness. The waters of Bala Lake, the largest natural lake in Wales, lap around me forbiddingly.
The lake, known locally as Llyn Tegid, forms part of a glacial landscape barely touched by the centuries. The Romans built a settlement at one end of the lake’s 3.5-mile stretch. Modern-day druids still gather on its shores for solstice celebrations.
But I’ve come to Bala, gateway to the Snowdonia National Park, on the trail of Teggie – Wales’ answer to the Loch Ness Monster.
This Celtic country has a strong storytelling tradition, with legends dating from the eleventh century first collected in the pages of the historic tome, The Mabinogion. Amid the rugged landscape of mountains, forests and valleys, ancient tales are whispered on the breeze and embedded in the geology. The story of Teggie, however, is a relatively modern tale.
Sightings of a dinosaur-like creature were reported from the 1920s onwards. People encountered strange disturbances at Bala Lake and the local rumour mill went into overdrive amid whispers of a prehistoric beast lurking some 44m below the surface.
But Teggie has always been a camera-shy beastie. A Japanese film crew descended upon the rural market town of Bala with diving equipment and a small submarine in the nineties. They flew back to Tokyo with little more than some old welly boots and flimsy footage of the peaty murk under the water.
In the fire-warmed lounge bar of Bala’s White Lion Hotel I strike up conversation with some of the locals. Over coffee, they regale me with folk tales familiar to all Welsh schoolchildren.
The cast of characters would put Game of Thrones to shame — evil kings, brave knights and mischievous elves. These stories, I learn, are passed down through the generations and integral to preserving the Welsh language and culture.
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“Every place name has an old story attached to it. These legends ground us,” explains Llinos Jones-Williams, who works in outdoor education. “Based around universal themes of love, life and death, they can still teach us something about the way we live today.”
They also inspire a frisson of spine-tingling fascination when retold on a winter’s evening by a crackling fire. The whole bar falls silent as retired schoolteacher Buddug Medi recounts her experience as a young child with whooping cough. Her father took her to drink the waters from a fabled natural spring in the mountains above Bala Lake. Within days she was cured.
“These stories lay deep in our subconscious,” she nods sagely. “I still remember how, that day, I felt a presence.”
Back at Bala Lake, I’m giving Teggie one last chance to show. Instead I find Arwel Morris, the Snowdonia National Park Warden, looking west down the lake towards the Aran and Berwyn mountain ranges. Surely, if anyone has seen Teggie, then he has?
“Most disturbances on the lake can be easily explained — a shoal of fish, trapped gas bubbling to the surface, or an otter with her kids to appear like humps,” he shrugs. But there is something living in the lake, he reveals, that is unique to Bala.
The Gwyniad is a prehistoric fish that has survived in the landlocked lake ever since the Ice Age. This herring-like plankton feeder only comes to the surface to spawn in the winter months and attracts swathes of scientific interest.
Teggie may not be lurking below the legend-inspiring waters after all. But there’s something about this landscape, swirling in the mists of Welsh folklore to transport us back to an era when we were closer to nature.
As I stand on the lakeshore and gaze across Teggie’s watery domain, I finally feel what the locals call, ‘Lle I enaid gael llonydd’.
I may not have found Teggie. But I have found ‘a place for the soul to rest’.
Five more Welsh legends to explore
1. The Welsh dragon: legends tell of two dragons – one red, one white – lurking in a cave outside modern Beddgelert. The tale of the red dragon’s victory inspired Henry VII to adopt the symbol into the Welsh flag.
2. Cader Idris: spend a night on this mountain in southern Snowdonia and, legend has it, you’ll awake either blind, mad or a poet.
3. Cantref Gwaelod: an ancient city submerged under modern-day Cardigan Bay near Borth. The bells reportedly still toll from beyond its watery grave.
4. Preseli bluestones: the stone monoliths found today at Stonehenge are said to have been transported from the Preseli Hills, Pembrokeshire, where they served as an ancient spiritual site.
5. Merlin the magician: the film King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is out this spring, and the Aurthurian legend has strong links to Wales. Carmarthen claims Merlin as its son with landmarks linked to his story part of an established tourist trail.