The Buried City of Kenfig



Kenfig was once nothing more than a collection of wooden huts by the edge of marshy land, hence it’s original Welsh name Cefn-y-ffignon, a corruption meaning a ridge on a marsh (Gray maintained it was Cen-y-fig, head of the swamp.) The Welsh lord Iestyn ap Cwrgan had been the owner of this land but he was defeated by the Norman conqueror of Glamorgan, Robert FitzHamon, who built a motte and bailey to defend the area (probably on the site of Iestyn’s earlier castle). The motte was later converted into a stone shell keep around which the medieval town of Kenfig grew. The town itself was then developed by the Normans with the deliberate intention of making it the trading area of mid-Glamorgan-- ‘A towne for marchandize upon the sea bankes of Kynfege’.

This points to the fact that Kenfig in those days had an outlet to the sea, probably via the Kenfig River.

Kenfig suffered badly from the raids of the disinherited Welsh Lords of Afon, especially Morgan Gam. It was burned down so often that the inhabitants built a stockade around the perimeter of the town only to have it struck by lightening and burnt down again. Even the great Llywelyn had a go at it, leaving the place in ruins and later Owain Glyndwr destroyed it. Once again the town was built but as time went on the enemy became not the Welsh but sand.  A series of great storms, beginning about the year 1300, followed by a long period of drifting sand, slowly but surely made life impossible for the inhabitants; and by the end of the fifteenth century it was  a ghost town. In Leland’s time (the sixteenth century) it was nothing more than ‘a little village on the est side of Kenfik and a castel booth in ruine and almost shokid (chocked) and devoured with the Sandes that the Severn Se there castith up’.

Any buried city is bound to have a legend, especially if it is situated near a large expanse of still water. Such pools or lakes invariably have legends in their own right, but before relating this it would be as well to ascertain certain facts. Kenfig was indeed a town of importance in the Middle Ages. By a charter its burgesses were allowed to levy their own taxes and make their own laws. The town had a High Street which had to be kept clean (‘Noe butchers shat cast noe heads, feet nor none other garbage’); a Guildhall, which they were so proud of that they would not allow base prisoners to enter its cells; and even a hospital. They had strict ordinances about food and drink (‘Brewers must brew good ale’ and ‘bakers good bread’) and weights and measures were carefully controlled by correct master-measures. The more east-going inhabitants might have objected to the law which said ‘Noe manner of person shall play dice, cardes, bowles nor no other unlawful games’ but surely could not have quarrelled with the rules against ‘brawlers and fighters who drew blood’. That menace, the talkative woman was  dealt with too:‘If six men find any woman guilty of scolding or railing…. she is to sit on the cucking (ducking) stool one hour and for the seconds fault two hours…’ They had the right to hold fairs and the big event was the mabsant, the annual holiday on Saint’s day, kept in Kenfig in November, for their patron and benefactor was St. James, after whom the town’s buried church had been named.

Nearby were the marshes. The great storms of the fourteenth century threw up a surrounding ridge of sand hills and the marsh gradually became a lake of between seventy and eighty acres about 1000 yards form the sea shore. The water is fresh from springs and there must be some sort of drainage under the continually moving sand. Like the dew ponds of Cornwall and other lakes of Wales this quiet stretch of water is the centre of a legendary story connected, as might be expected, with the nearby buried ‘city’.


Illustration by Margaret Wooding


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