Archives For Mabinogion

Menai Bridge (Pont Grog y Borth), Wales, U.K.  The legends of the collection of Welsh tales, the Mabinogion, are still very much alive in the principality, including a proposal for a new bridge held up by a statue of the mythical giant Brân the Blessed.

The proposed bridge is to cross the Menai Straits, separating the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn) – often seen as the last stand of Britain’s Druids against the Romans – from the North Welsh mainland.

The most famous tale involving this giant hero/god concerns the marriage of his sister, Branwen. Hoping for an alliance with other countries and tribes, Brân gave his sister Branwen’s hand in marriage to King Matholwch of Ireland – a common practice among tribes, to cement alliances. This was not a completely popular move and Bran’s brother, Efnisien, was furious – perhaps because he wanted Branwen for himself (incest being not unknown in such legends and  depending whether Efnisien was, in fact, a foster brother). Efnisien caused so much offence that Bran felt obliged to give Matholwch his magic cauldron, which could restore the dead to life, in apology.

Branwen, by Christopher Williams, 1915 [Source: Public Domain]

Matholwch accepted the apology, but his people were still not happy and even though Branwen gave birth to a son, Gwern, unfriendly forces within the court persuaded Matholwch to send Branwen down to work in the kitchens. Branwen dispatched her pet starling to fly to her brother and plead for his help. Bran, outraged at his sister’s treatment, took an army and waded over the Irish Sea to rescue her. Matholwch fled westward and Brân went after him. In one version of the legend, the Irish army fled across the river Shannon and burnt all the bridges, but Brân lay across the river so that his own army could cross over his body, reputedly commenting ‘a fo ben bid bont’ – he who is a leader should be a bridge. Matholwch was forced to offer to abdicate and was replaced by Gwern.

Unfortunately, at the feast to celebrate the truce, Efnisien threw Gwern into the fire. In the ensuing battle, the Irish re-animated their dead using Bran’s magic cauldron, thus gaining the advantage. Only seven of the British warriors escaped and they did not include Brân himself, since he had been wounded in the foot by a poisoned dart. He lasted long enough to ask that his head should be cut off and buried on Gwynfryn (the ‘White Mount’ where the Tower of London now stands) in Caer-Lundein (London). Upon his death the harvests back in Britain failed and the land became barren. Perhaps this whole story is a folk memory of a disastrous series of tribal raids.

The seven survivors did as their leader told them and returned to Britain with Bran’s head, which remained animated. For seven years they stayed in Harlech, entertained by the head. They later moved on to Grassholm Island off the coast of Dyfed where they lived for eighty years. Eventually, one of the men opened the door of the hall which faced Cornwall and this broke the time-spell. The men went on to London where they finally buried Bran’s head under what is now the Tower, facing the Continent to ward off the nation’s enemies.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the Cult of the Head was popular amongst the Celts. It’s even possible that there was a temple on Tower Hill, but the legend persists in the presence of the ravens of the Tower – said to be the birds of Bran.

A hero who is big enough to wade the Irish Sea is surely large enough to hold up a bridge on the comparatively shallow Menai Straits! At least, this is the reasoning of engineer Benji Poulton, from Bangor, who was unimpressed with existing designs for the new bridge. He has put forward a proposal to the Welsh Government for a bridge which would be upheld by a statue of Bran. Poulton is a Chartered Civil Engineer at Mott MacDonald and a Civil Engineering Consultant with an interest in coastal engineering.

“They are fairly standard options.,” he says of existing proposals. “There is nothing special there that could live alongside the other bridges. So I went away thinking what could they do to create additional benefit, additional interest with the new bridge. I did some research and found that there are a lot of additional benefits to [create] something a little bit special, a little bit different. It would bring in additional tourism to the area and promote Welsh culture.

He added: “It is definitely iconic and definitely a world first.”

In a presentation to the Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE), Poulton says “Split supports and even curved concrete supports can be found on many other bridges. All we are really doing is adding a head.”

A spokesperson for the Welsh Government stated that “Given the nature and sensitivity of the Menai Strait, further analysis will now be undertaken to develop a suitable form of structure that best fits within the existing landscape. All proposals will be considered during this next stage.”

Menai Bridge [Source: WikiMedia Commons]

The Menai Straits currently have two bridges: the Menai Bridge, built by Thomas Telford in the 1820s, and Robert Stephenson’s Britannia Bridge. The latter was opened for rail traffic in 1850 but was rebuilt in the 20th Century for road traffic.Plans for a third crossing have been in the works since a consultation was held in 2007.

The preferred route is the so-called ‘purple route’ announced by the First Minister Carwyn Jones in 2018, with a new bridge planned to the east of the Britannia Bridge. So if Poulton’s proposal is accepted, rail passengers on the lower part of that bridge would find themselves face to face with the legendary giant as they cross the Menai.

Poulton has petitioned the Welsh Assembly to encourage the Welsh Government to consider his proposal. His design has won the Welsh regional final of Pitch 200, a competition run by the ICE, and he will be competing in the final on 26 November against other engineers from around the world.

Benji Poulton’s ideas can be seen in a YouTube video: