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by George Borrow
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
George Henry Borrow (1803-1881) from East Dereham, Norfolk, the son of Army recruiting officer, wrote novels and travelogues based on his experiences travelling around Europe and who developed a particular affinity with the Romany Gipsies who figure prominently in his work.
For more works by George Borrow, see The Index
Although the tour in Wales upon which this work was founded took place in 1854, and although the book was completed in 1857, it was not published until 1862. It received curt treatment from most of the critics, but the "Spectator" declared that Borrow (see Fiction) had written "the best book about Wales ever published." This verdict has been endorsed by admirers of Wales and of Borrow. Less imaginative than his earlier works, it is more natural and cheerful; it is a faithful record of studies of Welsh scenery and characteristics, and affords many a delightful glimpse of the quaint personality of its author.
In the summer of the year 1854, myself, wife and daughter determined upon going into Wales to pass a few months there. It was my knowledge of Welsh, such as it was, that made me desirous that we should go to Wales. In my boyhood I had been something of a philologist, and had learnt some Welsh, partly from books and partly from a Welsh groom. I was well versed in the compositions of various of the old Welsh bards, especially those of Dafydd ab Gwilym, whom I have always considered as the greatest poetical genius that has appeared in Europe since the revival of literature.
So our little family started for Wales on July 27, and next day we arrived at Chester. Three days later I sent my wife and daughter by train to Llangollen, and on the following morning I left Chester for Llangollen on foot. After passing through Wrexham, I soon reached Rhiwabon, whence my way lay nearly west. A woman passed me going towards Rhiwabon. I pointed to a ridge to the east, and asked its name. The woman shook her head and replied, "Dim Saesneg" (No English).
"This is as it should be," said I to myself; "I now feel I am in Wales." I repeated the question in Welsh.
"Cefn bach," she replied-which signifies the little ridge.
"Diolch iti," I replied, and proceeded on my way.
On arriving at Llangollen I found my wife and daughter at the principal inn. During dinner we had music, for a Welsh harper stationed in the passage played upon his instrument "Codiad yr ehedydd." "Of a surety," said I, "I am in Wales!"
The beautiful valley of the Dee, or Dwy, of which the Llangollen district forms part, is called in the British tongue Glyndyfrdwy. The celebrated Welsh chieftain, generally known as Owen Glendower, was surnamed after the valley, which belonged to him.
Connected with the Dee there is a wonderful Druidical legend to the following effect. The Dee springs from two fountains, high up in Merionethshire, called Dwy Fawr and Dwy Fach, or the great and little Dwy, whose waters pass through those of the lake of Bala without mingling with them, and come out at its northern extremity. These fountains had their names from two individuals, Dwy Fawr and Dwy Fach, who escaped from the Deluge, and the passing of the waters of the two fountains through the lake, without being confounded with its flood, is emblematic of the salvation of the two individuals from the Deluge, of which the lake is a type.
I remained at Llangollen for nearly a month, first of all ascending to Dinas Bran, a ruined stronghold of unknown antiquity, which crowns the top of the mighty hill on the northern side of the valley; then walking more than once over the Berwyn hills; then visiting the abbey of the Vale of the Cross, where lies buried the poet Iolo Goch, the friend of Owen Glendower; then making an expedition on foot to Ruthin.
Before leaving Llangollen I went over the Berwyn again to the valley of Ceiriog, to see the birthplace of Huw Morris, the great Royalist poet, whose pungent satires of King Charles's foes ran like wild fire through Wales. Through a maze of tangled shrubs, in pouring rain, I was led to his chair-a mouldering stone slab forming the seat, and a large slate stone the back, with the poet's initials cut in it. I uncovered, and said in the best Welsh I could command, "Shade of Huw Morris, a Saxon has come to this place to pay that respect to true genius which he is ever ready to pay." I then sat down in the chair, and commenced repeating the verses of Huw Morris. The Welsh folk who were with me listened patiently and approvingly in the rain, for enthusiasm is never scoffed at by the noble, simple-minded, genuine Welsh, whatever treatment it may receive from the coarse-hearted, sensual, selfish Saxon.
On a brilliant Sunday morning in late August, I left Llangollen on foot for Bangor, Snowdon and Anglesey. I walked through Corwen to Cerrig y Drudion, within sight of Snowdon. At the inn, where I spent the night, the landlady remarked that it was odd that the only two people not Welshmen she had ever known who could speak Welsh should be in her house at the same time. The other man, I found, was an Italian of Como, with whom I conversed in his native tongue.
Next morning I started to walk to Bangor, a distance of thirty-four miles. After passing across a stretch of flat country, I reached Pentre Voelas, and soon found myself in a wild hilly region. Presently I arrived at a cottage just inside the door of which sat a good-looking, middle-aged woman, engaged in knitting, the general occupation of Welsh females.
"Good-day," said I to her in Welsh. "Fine weather."
"In truth, sir, it is fine weather for the harvest."
"Are you alone in the house?"
"I am, sir; my husband has gone to his labour."
"Have you any children?"
"Two, sir, but they are out in service."
"What is the name of the river near here?"
"It is called the Conway. You have heard of it, sir?"
"Heard of it! It is one of the famous rivers of the world. One of the great poets of my country calls it the old Conway."
"Is one river older than another, sir?"
"That's a shrewd question. Can you read?"
"I can, sir."
"Have you any books?"
"I have the Bible, sir."
"Will you show it me?"
On opening the book the first words which met my eye were "Gad i my fyned trwy dy dir!" (Let me go through your country. Numbers xx. 22.)
"I may say these words," said I-"let me go through your country."
"No one will hinder you, sir, for you seem a civil gentleman."
"No one has hindered me hitherto. Wherever I have been in Wales I have experienced nothing but kindness."
"What country is yours, sir?"
"England. Did you not know that by my tongue?"
"I did not, sir. I took you for a Cumro of the south."
I departed, and proceeded through a truly magnificent country to the celebrated Vale of Conway. Then I turned westwards to Capel Curig, and from there walked through a bleak moor amidst wild, sterile hills, and down a gloomy valley with enormous rock walls on either hand, to Bethesda and Bangor, where my family awaited me.
On the third morning after our arrival at Bangor, we set out for Snowdon. Snowdon is interesting on various accounts. It is interesting for its picturesque beauty; it is interesting from its connection with Welsh history.
But it is from its connection with romance that Snowdon derives its chief interest. Who, when he thinks of Snowdon, does not associate it with the heroes of romance, Arthur and his knights?
We went through Carnarvon to Llanberis, and there I started with Henrietta, my daughter, to ascend the hill, my wife not deeming herself sufficiently strong to encounter the fatigue of the expedition. For some way the ascent was anything but steep, but towards the summit the path became much harder; at length, however, we stood safe and sound upon the very top of Snowdon.
"Here," said I to Henrietta, "you are on the top crag of Snowdon, which the Welsh consider, and perhaps with justice, to be the most remarkable crag in the world; which is mentioned in many of their old wild romantic tales, and some of the noblest of their poems, amongst others, in the 'Day of Judgment,' by the illustrious Goronwy Owen."
To this harangue Henrietta listened with attention; three or four English, who stood nigh, with grinning scorn, and a Welsh gentleman with much interest.
The Welshman, coming forward, shook me by the hand, exclaiming, "Wyt ti Lydaueg?" (Are you from Brittany?)
"I am not a Llydauan," said I; "I wish I was, or anything but what I am, one of a nation amongst whom any knowledge, save what relates to money-making, is looked upon as a disgrace. I am ashamed to say that I am an Englishman."
My family then returned to Llangollen, whilst I took a trip into Anglesey to visit Llanfair, the birth-place of the great poet, Goronwy Owen, whose works I had read with enthusiasm in my early years. I went on to Holyhead, and ascended the headland. The prospect, on every side, was noble, and in some respects this Pen Santaidd reminded me of Finisterra, the Gallegan promontory which I had ascended some seventeen years before.
Next morning I departed for Beddgelert by way of Carnarvon. After passing by Lake Cwellyn, where I conversed with the Snowdon ranger, an elderly man who is celebrated as the tip-top guide to Snowdon, I reached Beddgelert, and found the company at the hotel there perhaps even more disagreeable than that which I had left behind at Bangor. Beddgelert is the scene of the legend of Llywelyn ab Jorwerth's dog Gelert, a legend which, whether true or fictitious, is singularly beautiful and affecting. On the way to Festiniog next day I entered a refreshment-place, where I was given a temperance drink that was much too strong for me. By mixing it with plenty of water, I made myself a beverage tolerable enough; a poor substitute, however, to a genuine Englishman for his proper drink, the liquor which, according to the Edda, is called by men ale, and by the gods, beer. Between this place and Tan-y-Bwlch I lost my way. I obtained a wonderful view of the Wyddfa towering in sublime grandeur to the west, and of the beautiful but spectral mountain Knicht in the north; to the south the prospect was noble indeed-waters, forests, hoary mountains, and, in the far distance, the sea. But I underwent sore hardships ere I found my way again, and I was feeling much exhausted when I entered the Grapes Inn at Tan-y-Bwlch.
In the parlour was a serious-looking gentleman, with whom, as I sipped my brandy-and-water, I entered into a discourse that soon took a religious turn. He told me that he believed in Divine pre-destination, and that he did not hope to be saved; he was pre-destined to be lost. I disputed the point with him for a considerable time, and left him looking very miserable, perhaps at finding that he was not quite so certain of eternal damnation as he had hitherto supposed.
An hour's walking brought me to Festiniog, the birth-place of Rhys Goch, a celebrated bard, and a partisan of Owen Glendower. Next morning I crossed a wild and cheerless moor that extended for miles and miles, and entered a valley with an enormous hill on my right. Presently meeting four men, I asked the foremost of them its name.
"Arenig Vawr," he replied, or something like it. I asked if anybody lived upon it.
"No," he replied; "too cold for man."
"Fox?" said I.
"No! too cold for fox."
"Crow?" said I.
"No; too cold for crow; crow would be starved upon it." He then looked me in the face, expecting probably that I should smile. I, however, looked at him with all the gravity of a judge, whereupon he also observed the gravity of a judge, and we continued looking at each other with all the gravity of judges till we both simultaneously turned away.
Shortly afterwards I came to a beautiful valley; a more bewitching scene I never beheld. I was now within three miles of Bala, where I spent the night at an excellent inn. The name of the lake of Bala is Llyn Tegid, which signifies Lake of Beauty; and certainly this name was not given for nothing.
Next day, shortly after sunset, I reached my family at Llangollen, and remained there for some weeks, making excursions to Chirk Castle and elsewhere. On October 21 I left my family to make preparations for their return to England, and myself departed for South Wales.
I walked first to Llan Rhyadr, visited Sycharth and Llan Silin, where Huw Morris is buried, saw the cataract of the Rhyadr, and crossed the hills to Bala. After remaining a day in this beautiful neighbourhood, I crossed a stupendous pass to Dinas Mawddwy, in the midst of the region once inhabited by the red-haired banditti of Mawddwy, the terror of the greater part of North Wales. From there I passed down a romantic gorge, through which flows the Royal Dyfi, to Mallwyd, where I spent the night.
Next morning I descended the valley of the Dyfi to Machynlleth, a thoroughly Welsh town situated among pleasant green meadows. At Machynlleth, in 1402, Owen Glendower held a parliament, and was formally crowned King of Wales. To Machynlleth came Dafydd Gam, with the view of assassinating Owen, who, however, had him seized and conducted in chains to a prison in the mountains of Sycharth.
On November 2, I left Machynlleth by a steep hill to the south, whence there is a fine view of the Dyfi valley, and set out for the Devil's Bridge. The road was at first exceedingly good, and the scenery beautiful. Afterwards I had to pass over very broken ground, and the people of whom I asked my way were Saxon-haters and uncivil. Night was coming on fast when I reached the inn of Pont Erwyd.
Next day I went on to the Devil's Bridge in the agreeable company of a Durham mining captain, who had come to this country thirty-five years before to help in opening Wales-that is, by mining in Wales in the proper fashion, which means the North-country fashion. Arrived at the Devil's Bridge, I viewed its magnificent scenery, and especially observed the cave of the Wicked Children, the mysterious Plant de Bat, sons of Bat or Bartholomew, who concealed themselves in this recess and plundered the neighbourhood. Finally, they fell upon a great gentleman on the roads by night, and not only robbed, but murdered him. "That job was the ruin of Plant de Bat," an old postman told me, "for the great gentleman's friends hunted after his murderers with dogs, and at length came to the cave, and, going in, found it stocked with riches, and the Plant de Bat sitting upon the riches, not only the boys, but their sister, who was as bad as themselves. So they took out the riches and the Plant de Bat, and the riches they did give to churches and hospitals, and the Plant de Bat they did execute, hanging the boys, and burning the girl."
After a visit to the Minister's Bridge, not far distant, a place very wild and savage, but not comparable in sublimity with the Devil's Bridge, I determined to ascend the celebrated mountain of Plynlimmon, where arise the rivers Rheidol, Severn and Wye. I caused my guide to lead me to the sources of each of the three rivers. That of the Rheidol is a small, beautiful lake, overhung on two sides by frightful crags. The source of the Severn is a little pool some twenty inches long, covered at the bottom with small stones; the source of the Wye is a pool not much larger. The fountain of the Rheidol stands apart from the others, as if, proud of its own beauty, it disdained their homeliness. I drank deeply at all three sources.
Next day I went by Hafod and Spitty Ystwith over a bleak moorland country to the valley of the Teivi, and turned reverently aside to the celebrated monastery of Strata Florida, where is buried Dafydd ab Gwilym, the greatest genius of the Cymbric race. In this neighbourhood I heard a great deal of the exploits of Twm Shone Catti, the famous Welsh robber, who became a country gentleman and a justice of the peace.
From Tregaron, eight miles beyond Strata Florida, I went on to Llan Ddewi Brefi and Lampeter, and crossed over to Llandovery in the fair valley of the Towy. From there I went over the Black Mountains, in mist and growing darkness, to Gutter Vawr, and thence to Swansea. Through a country blackened with industry, I walked to Neath; thence in rainy weather to Merthyr Tydvil, where I went to see the Cyfartha Fawr Ironworks. Here I saw enormous furnaces and heard all kinds of dreadful sounds.
From Merthyr Tydvil I journeyed to Caerfili by Pen-y-Glas; then to Newport; then by Caer Went, once an important Roman station and now a poor, desolate place, to Chepstow. I went to the Wye and drank of the waters at its mouth, even as some time before I had drunk of the waters at its source. Returning to the inn, I got my dinner, and placing my feet against the sides of the grate I drank wine and sang Welsh songs till ten o'clock. Then, shouldering my satchel, I proceeded to the railroad station and took a first-class ticket to London.
● Copyright © 2014 Glyn Hughes.
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