Did you know about the woman who accidentally swallowed a toothbrush? The dream that saved the life of a traveller in peril? The dog that accidentally shot its master? The girl who sleepwalked barefooted for four miles? The sailor who was washed overboard by a wave during a storm and washed back on board by another large wave? The woman who grew a four inch horn on her forehead? Neither did I until I started looking for remarkable Welsh oddities!
I have always had a fascination for odd facts since I became enamoured of the wonderful Ripley’s Believe It or Not television series starring Jack Palance many years ago. Since I loved to read of curious oddities I began to research and collect them. In the past few years I have written several books on the oddities and curious stories of Ireland, England, Scotland and Australia and it was only natural that I turn my gaze towards Wales – not least because my agent is a proud Welshman who encouraged me to do so! Unfortunately I never made it to Wales on a research trip. Instead I had to make do researching through old newspapers, magazines and books. This can be tiresome at times and involves a great deal of research before suitable gems are mined. It is always worth it when I find some extraordinary story and I never cease to be amazed by what I discover. Wales can certainly compete with any other country for bizarre oddities.
I am particularly fond of stories of close shaves and was lucky enough to find several Welsh tales.
Anne Williams was crossing a wooden bridge that spanned the River Usk at Caerleon on the night of 29 October 1772 when a large surge destroyed the bridge and bore away a large piece of the bridge with her on it. The poor woman clung to the railing and screamed for help. The bridge section was later smashed to pieces against another bridge downstream, but Anne managed to straddle a beam and stay safe. When the beam was swept down the river Anne resigned herself to being swept out to sea. When she saw a flickering light in a barge she shouted for help, and the occupants heard her and chased after the poor woman in a row boat. By the time they reached and rescued Anne they were almost at the mouth of the river.
A man literally escaped by a hair’s-breadth on 13 May 1869 after a train passed over him while he lay asleep on the track. The incident happened on the track between Bala and Dolgellau. About a mile and a half from Dolgellau the train was speeding down an incline when the train driver suddenly caught sight of a man, apparently fast asleep, lying with his head on the iron rails. The driver frantically blew the whistle to warn the man and tried to slow down the train to give him time to roll away. None of the driver’s efforts made any difference. The sleeping man did not stir and it looked certain that a shocking fatality would occur. By a stroke of luck, the man turned his head slightly just as the engine wheels reached him, and the train passed over him, only severing some hair from his head. Awakened by the noise of the passing train, the man saw the terrible fate he had just escaped and fled down the track.
The bravery of individuals such as the Anglesey fishermen who tied a rope around a whale stranded near the Menai Bridge on 9 December 1883 and fastened it to a boat can only be marvelled at. They were trying to kill the creature when the tide returned and the whale took off at speed, towing the boat and the four men, who were terrified at the unexpected turn of events. The boat nearly capsized several times before the whale beached itself again. This time the whale was dragged out of the water’s reach and it died soon afterwards.
In more recent times, the bravery of Stuart Crane from Carmarthen who was impaled by a large wooden post when his car crashed in November 2000 is astonishing. The accident happened at night and Stuart calmly phoned the emergency services and guided them to his location when they could not find him in the dark. Stuart suffered enormous injuries, but four months later was allowed home.
I also love quirky characters such as Dr Richard Griffiths (1758-1826). He was a wealthy eccentric from Llanwonno, a hamlet north of Pontypridd, Glamorganshire, who once won five hundred guineas on a snail race, by an underhanded trick. He fooled his opponent, pretending to prick his snail to make it go faster. The other man followed suit and actually pricked his snail, making it curl up and come to a standstill. Griffiths had a mischievous sense of humour. He left eccentric instructions for his funeral, directing that he was to be carried by six specifically named people, who were all lame.
I have been writing books of oddities for some years now and including this Welsh volume, have had six published so far. I don’t know when I will stop, for there is always more interesting stories to be found and I have a lot of research material to delve into. I know such obscure information or where to find it I can research a book by categories of oddities. For example, there is scarcely a country that a parachutist has not survived an incredible fall from thousands of feet if their parachute has not opened up! I would love to write more oddities books, for I never get tired of finding new gems of oddities that fascinate me.
Foster’s Welsh Oddities will be published by Robert Hale on 30 September.