Picture of George Borrow

George Borrow

places mentioned

Around Llangollen

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The Berwyn - Mountain Cottage - The Barber's Pole.

ON the following morning I strolled up the Berwyn on the south-west of the town, by a broad winding path, which was at first very steep, but by degrees became less so. When I had accomplished about three parts of the ascent I came to a place where the road, or path, divided into two. I took the one to the left, which seemingly led to the top of the mountain, and presently came to a cottage from which a dog rushed barking towards me; an old woman, however, coming to the door called him back. I said a few words to her in Welsh, whereupon in broken English she asked me to enter the cottage and take a glass of milk. I went in and sat down on a chair which a sickly-looking young woman handed to me. I asked her in English who she was, but she made no answer, whereupon the old woman told me that she was her daughter and had no English. I then asked her in Welsh what was the matter with her, she replied that she had the cryd or ague. The old woman now brought me a glass of milk, and said in the Welsh language that she hoped I should like it. What further conversation we had was in the Cambrian tongue. I asked the name of the dog, who was now fondling upon me, and was told that his name was Pharaoh. I inquired if they had any books, and was shown two, one a common Bible printed by the Bible Society, and the other a volume in which the book of prayer of the Church of England was bound up with the Bible, both printed at Oxford, about the middle of the last century. I found that both mother and daughter were Calvinistic-Methodists. After a little further discourse I got up and gave the old woman twopence for the milk; she accepted it, but with great reluctance. I inquired whether by following the road I could get to the Pen y bryn or the top of the hill. They shook their heads, and the young woman said that I could not, as the road presently took a turn and went down. I asked her how I could get to the top of the hill. "Which part of the top?" said she. "I'r goruchaf," I replied. "That must be where the barber's pole stands," said she. "Why does the barber's pole stand there?" said I. "A barber was hanged there a long time ago," said she, "and the pole was placed to show the spot." "Why was he hanged?" said I. "For murdering his wife," said she. I asked her some questions about the murder, but the only information she could give me was, that it was a very bad murder and occurred a long time ago. I had observed the pole from our garden, at Llangollen, but had concluded that it was a common flagstaff. I inquired the way to it. It was not visible from the cottage, but they gave me directions how to reach it. I bade them farewell, and in about a quarter of an hour reached the pole on the top of the hill. I imagined that I should have a glorious view of the vale of Llangollen from the spot where it stood; the view, however, did not answer my expectations. I returned to Llangollen by nearly the same way by which I had come.

The remainder of the day I spent entirely with my family, whom at their particular request I took in the evening to see Plas Newydd, once the villa of the two ladies of Llangollen. It lies on the farther side of the bridge, at a little distance from the back part of the church. There is a thoroughfare through the grounds, which are not extensive. Plas Newydd or the New Place is a small gloomy mansion, with a curious dairy on the right-hand side, as you go up to it, and a remarkable stone pump. An old man whom we met in the grounds, and with whom I entered into conversation, said that he remembered the building of the house, and that the place where it now stands was called before its erection Pen y maes, or the head of the field.


Welsh Farm-House - A Poet's Grandson - Hospitality - Mountain Village - Madoc - The Native Valley - Corpse Candles - The Midnight Call.

MY curiosity having been rather excited with respect to the country beyond the Berwyn, by what my friend, the intelligent flannel- worker, had told me about it, I determined to go and see it. Accordingly on Friday morning I set out. Having passed by Pengwern Hall I turned up a lane in the direction of the south, with a brook on the right running amongst hazels, I presently arrived at a small farm-house standing on the left with a little yard before it. Seeing a woman at the door I asked her in English if the road in which I was would take me across the mountain - she said it would, and forthwith cried to a man working in a field who left his work and came towards us. "That is my husband," said she; "he has more English than I."

The man came up and addressed me in very good English: he had a brisk, intelligent look, and was about sixty. I repeated the question, which I had put to his wife, and he also said that by following the road I could get across the mountain. We soon got into conversation. He told me that the little farm in which he lived belonged to the person who had bought Pengwern Hall. He said that he was a good kind of gentleman, but did not like the Welsh. I asked him, if the gentleman in question did not like the Welsh, why he came to live among them. He smiled, and I then said that I liked the Welsh very much, and was particularly fond of their language. He asked me whether I could read Welsh, and on my telling him I could, he said that if I would walk in he would show me a Welsh book. I went with him and his wife into a neat kind of kitchen, flagged with stone, where were several young people, their children. I spoke some Welsh to them which appeared to give them great satisfaction. The man went to a shelf and taking down a book put it into my hand. It was a Welsh book, and the title of it in English was "Evening Work of the Welsh." It contained the lives of illustrious Welshmen, commencing with that of Cadwalader. I read a page of it aloud, while the family stood round and wondered to hear a Saxon read their language. I entered into discourse with the man about Welsh poetry and repeated the famous prophecy of Taliesin about the Coiling Serpent. I asked him if the Welsh had any poets at the present day. "Plenty," said he, "and good ones - Wales can never be without a poet." Then after a pause he said, that he was the grandson of a great poet.

"Do you bear his name?" said I.

"I do," he replied.

"What may it be?"

"Hughes," he answered.

"Two of the name of Hughes have been poets," said I - "one was Huw Hughes, generally termed the Bardd Coch, or red bard; he was an Anglesea man, and the friend of Lewis Morris and Gronwy Owen - the other was Jonathan Hughes, where he lived I know not."

"He lived here, in this very house," said the man. "Jonathan Hughes was my grandfather!" and as he spoke his eyes flashed fire.

"Dear me!" said I; "I read some of his pieces thirty-two years ago when I was a lad in England. I think I can repeat some of the lines." I then repeated a quartet which I chanced to remember.

"Ah!" said the man, "I see you know his poetry. Come into the next room and I will show you his chair." He led me into a sleeping- room on the right hand, where in a corner he showed me an antique three-cornered arm-chair. "That chair," said he, "my grandsire won at Llangollen, at an Eisteddfod of Bards. Various bards recited their poetry, but my grandfather won the prize. Ah, he was a good poet. He also won a prize of fifteen guineas at a meeting of bards in London."

We returned to the kitchen, where I found the good woman of the house waiting with a plate of bread-and-butter in one hand, and a glass of buttermilk in the other - she pressed me to partake of both - I drank some of the buttermilk, which was excellent, and after a little more discourse shook the kind people by the hand and thanked them for their hospitality. As I was about to depart the man said that I should find the lane farther up very wet, and that I had better mount through a field at the back of the house. He took me to a gate, which he opened, and then pointed out the way which I must pursue. As I went away he said that both he and his family should be always happy to see me at Ty yn y Pistyll, which words, interpreted, are the house by the spout of water.

I went up the field with the lane on my right, down which ran a runnel of water, from which doubtless the house derived its name. I soon came to an unenclosed part of the mountain covered with gorse and whin, and still proceeding upward reached a road, which I subsequently learned was the main road from Llangollen over the hill. I was not long in gaining the top which was nearly level. Here I stood for some time looking about me, having the vale of Llangollen to the north of me, and a deep valley abounding with woods and rocks to the south.

Following the road to the south, which gradually descended, I soon came to a place where a road diverged from the straight one to the left. As the left-hand road appeared to lead down a romantic valley I followed it. The scenery was beautiful - steep hills on each side. On the right was a deep ravine, down which ran a brook; the hill beyond it was covered towards the top with a wood, apparently of oak, between which and the ravine were small green fields. Both sides of the ravine were fringed with trees, chiefly ash. I descended the road which was zigzag and steep, and at last arrived at the bottom of the valley, where there was a small hamlet. On the further side of the valley to the east was a steep hill on which were a few houses - at the foot of the hill was a brook crossed by an antique bridge of a single arch. I directed my course to the bridge, and after looking over the parapet for a minute or two upon the water below, which was shallow and noisy, ascended a road which led up the hill: a few scattered houses were on each side. I soon reached the top of the hill, where were some more houses, those which I had seen from the valley below. I was in a Welsh mountain village, which put me much in mind of the villages which I had strolled through of old in Castile and La Mancha; there were the same silence and desolation here as yonder away - the houses were built of the same material, namely stone. I should perhaps have fancied myself for a moment in a Castilian or Manchegan mountain pueblicito, but for the abundance of trees which met my eye on every side.

In walking up this mountain village I saw no one, and heard no sound but the echo of my steps amongst the houses. As I returned, however, I saw a man standing at a door - he was a short figure, about fifty. He had an old hat on his head, a stick in his hand, and was dressed in a duffel greatcoat.

"Good-day, friend," said I; "what be the name of this place?"

"Pont Fadog, sir, is its name, for want of a better."

"That's a fine name," said I; "it signifies in English the bridge of Madoc."

"Just so, sir; I see you know Welsh."

"And I see you know English," said I.

"Very little, sir; I can read English much better than I can speak it."

"So can I Welsh," said I. "I suppose the village is named after the bridge."

"No doubt it is, sir."

"And why was the bridge called the bridge of Madoc?" said I.

"Because one Madoc built it, sir."

"Was he the son of Owain Gwynedd?" said I.

"Ah, I see you know all about Wales, sir. Yes, sir; he built it, or I daresay he built it, Madawg ap Owain Gwynedd. I have read much about him - he was a great sailor, sir, and was the first to discover Tir y Gorllewin or America. Not many years ago his tomb was discovered there with an inscription in old Welsh - saying who he was, and how he loved the sea. I have seen the lines which were found on the tomb."

"So have I," said I; "or at least those which were said to be found on a tomb: they run thus in English:-

"'Here, after sailing far I Madoc lie, Of Owain Gwynedd lawful progeny: The verdant land had little charms for me; From earliest youth I loved the dark-blue sea.'"

"Ah, sir," said the man, "I see you know all about the son of Owain Gwynedd. Well, sir, those lines, or something like them, were found upon the tomb of Madoc in America."

"That I doubt," said I.

"Do you doubt, sir, that Madoc discovered America?"

"Not in the least," said I; "but I doubt very much that his tomb was ever discovered with the inscription which you allude to upon it."

"But it was, sir, I do assure you, and the descendants of Madoc and his people are still to be found in a part of America speaking the pure iaith Cymraeg better Welsh than we of Wales do."

"That I doubt" said I. "However, the idea is a pretty one; therefore cherish it. This is a beautiful country."

"A very beautiful country, sir; there is none more beautiful in all Wales."

"What is the name of the river, which runs beneath the bridge?"

"The Ceiriog, sir."

"The Ceiriog," said I; "the Ceiriog!"

"Did you ever hear the name before, sir?"

"I have heard of the Eos Ceiriog," said I; "the Nightingale of Ceiriog."

"That was Huw Morris, sir; he was called the Nightingale of Ceiriog."

"Did he live hereabout?"

"Oh no, sir; he lived far away up towards the head of the valley, at a place called Pont y Meibion."

"Are you acquainted with his works?" said I.

"Oh yes, sir, at least with some of them. I have read the Marwnad on Barbara Middleton; and likewise the piece on Oliver and his men. Ah, it is a funny piece that - he did not like Oliver nor his men."

"Of what profession are you?" said I; "are you a schoolmaster or apothecary?"

"Neither, sir, neither; I am merely a poor shoemaker."

"You know a great deal for a shoemaker," said I.

"Ah, sir; there are many shoemakers in Wales who know much more than I."

"But not in England," said I. "Well, farewell."

"Farewell, sir. When you have any boots to mend or shoes, sir - I shall be happy to serve you."

"I do not live in these parts," said I.

"No, sir; but you are coming to live here."

"How do you know that?" said I.

"I know it very well, sir; you left these parts very young, and went far away - to the East Indies, sir, where you made a large fortune in the medical line, sir; you are now coming back to your own valley, where you will buy a property, and settle down, and try to recover your language, sir, and your health, sir; for you are not the person you pretend to be, sir: I know you very well, and shall be happy to work for you."

"Well," said I, "if I ever settle down here, I shall be happy to employ you. Farewell."

I went back the way I had come, till I reached the little hamlet. Seeing a small public-house, I entered it. A good-looking woman, who met me in the passage, ushered me into a neat sanded kitchen, handed me a chair and inquired my commands; I sat down, and told her to bring me some ale; she brought it, and then seated herself by a bench close by the door.

"Rather a quiet place this," said I, "I have seen but two faces since I came over the hill, and yours is one."

"Rather too quiet, sir," said the good woman, "one would wish to have more visitors."

"I suppose," said I, "people from Llangollen occasionally come to visit you."

"Sometimes, sir, for curiosity's sake; but very rarely - the way is very steep."

"Do the Tylwyth Teg ever pay you visits?"

"The Tylwyth Teg, sir?"

"Yes; the fairies. Do they never come to have a dance on the green sward in this neighbourhood?"

"Very rarely, sir; indeed, I do not know how long it is since they have been seen."

"You have never seen them?"

"I have not, sir; but I believe there are people living who have."

"Are corpse candles ever seen on the bank of that river?"

"I have never heard of more than one being seen, sir, and that was at a place where a tinker was drowned a few nights after - there came down a flood; and the tinker in trying to cross by the usual ford was drowned."

"And did the candle prognosticate, I mean foreshow his death?"

"It did, sir. When a person is to die his candle is seen a few nights before the time of his death."

"Have you ever seen a corpse candle?"

"I have, sir; and as you seem to be a respectable gentleman, I will tell you all about it. When I was a girl I lived with my parents a little way from here. I had a cousin, a very good young man, who lived with his parents in the neighbourhood of our house. He was an exemplary young man, sir, and having a considerable gift of prayer, was intended for the ministry; but he fell sick, and shortly became very ill indeed. One evening when he was lying in this state, as I was returning home from milking, I saw a candle proceeding from my cousin's house. I stood still and looked at it. It moved slowly forward for a little way, and then mounted high in the air above the wood, which stood not far in front of the house, and disappeared. Just three nights after that my cousin died."

"And you think that what you saw was his corpse candle?"

"I do, sir! what else should it be?"

"Are deaths prognosticated by any other means than corpse candles?"

"They are, sir; by the knockers, and by a supernatural voice heard at night."

"Have you ever heard the knockers, or the supernatural voice?"

"I have not, sir; but my father and mother, who are now dead, heard once a supernatural voice, and knocking. My mother had a sister who was married like herself, and expected to be confined. Day after day, however, passed away, without her confinement taking place. My mother expected every moment to be summoned to her assistance, and was so anxious about her that she could not rest at night. One night, as she lay in bed, by the side of her husband, between sleeping and waking, she heard of a sudden a horse coming stump, stump, up to the door. Then there was a pause - she expected every moment to hear some one cry out, and tell her to come to her sister, but she heard no farther sound, neither voice nor stump of horse. She thought she had been deceived, so, without awakening her husband, she tried to go to sleep, but sleep she could not. The next night, at about the same time, she again heard a horse's feet come stump, stump, up to the door. She now waked her husband and told him to listen. He did so, and both heard the stumping. Presently, the stumping ceased, and then there was a loud "Hey!" as if somebody wished to wake them. "Hey!" said my father, and they both lay for a minute expecting to hear something more, but they heard nothing. My father then sprang out of bed, and looked out of the window; it was bright moonlight, but he saw nothing. The next night, as they lay in bed both asleep, they were suddenly aroused by a loud and terrible knocking. Out sprang my father from the bed, flung open the window, and looked out, but there was no one at the door. The next morning, however, a messenger arrived with the intelligence that my aunt had had a dreadful confinement with twins in the night, and that both she and the babes were dead."

"Thank you," said I; and paying for my ale, I returned to Llangollen.


A Calvinistic-Methodist - Turn for Saxon - Our Congregation - Pont y Cyssyltau - Catherine Lingo.

I HAD inquired of the good woman of the house, in which we lived, whether she could not procure a person to accompany me occasionally in my walks, who was well acquainted with the strange nooks and corners of the country, and who could speak no language but Welsh; as I wished to increase my knowledge of colloquial Welsh by having a companion who would be obliged, in all he had to say to me, to address me in Welsh, and to whom I should perforce have to reply in that tongue. The good lady had told me that there was a tenant of hers who lived in one of the cottages, which looked into the perllan, who, she believed, would be glad to go with me, and was just the kind of man I was in quest of. The day after I had met with the adventures, which I have related in the preceding chapter, she informed me that the person in question was awaiting my orders in the kitchen. I told her to let me see him. He presently made his appearance. He was about forty-five years of age, of middle stature, and had a good-natured open countenance. His dress was poor, but clean.

"Well," said I to him in Welsh, "are you the Cumro who can speak no Saxon?"

"In truth, sir, I am."

"Are you sure that you know no Saxon?"

"Sir! I may know a few words, but I cannot converse in Saxon, nor understand a conversation in that tongue."

"Can you read Cumraeg?"

"In truth, sir, I can."

"What have you read in it?"

"I have read, sir, the Ysgrythyr-lan, till I have it nearly at the ends of my fingers."

"Have you read anything else besides the holy Scripture?"

"I read the newspaper, sir, when kind friends lend it to me."

"In Cumraeg?"

"Yes, sir, in Cumraeg. I can read Saxon a little but not sufficient to understand a Saxon newspaper."

"What newspaper do you read?"

"I read, sir, Yr Amserau."

"Is that a good newspaper?"

"Very good, sir, it is written by good men."

"Who are they?"

"They are our ministers, sir."

"Of what religion are you?"

"A Calvinistic Methodist, sir."

"Why are you of the Methodist religion?"

"Because it is the true religion, sir."

"You should not be bigoted. If I had more Cumraeg than I have, I would prove to you that the only true religion is that of the Lloegrian Church."

"In truth, sir, you could not do that; had you all the Cumraeg in Cumru you could not do that."

"What are you by trade?"

"I am a gwehydd, sir."

"What do you earn by weaving?"

"About five shillings a week, sir."

"Have you a wife?

"I have, sir."

"Does she earn anything?"

"Very seldom, sir; she is a good wife, but is generally sick."

"Have you children?"

"I have three, sir."

"Do they earn anything?"

"My eldest son, sir, sometimes earns a few pence, the others are very small."

"Will you sometimes walk with me, if I pay you?"

"I shall be always glad to walk with you, sir, whether you pay me or not."

"Do you think it lawful to walk with one of the Lloegrian Church?"

"Perhaps, sir, I ought to ask the gentleman of the Lloegrian Church whether he thinks it lawful to walk with the poor Methodist weaver."

"Well, I think we may venture to walk with one another. What is your name?"

"John Jones, sir."

"Jones! Jones! I was walking with a man of that name the other night."

"The man with whom you walked the other night is my brother, sir, and what he said to me about you made me wish to walk with you also."

"But he spoke very good English."

"My brother had a turn for Saxon, sir; I had not. Some people have a turn for the Saxon, others have not. I have no Saxon, sir, my wife has digon iawn - my two youngest children speak good Saxon, sir, my eldest son not a word."

"Well; shall we set out?"

"If you please, sir."

"To what place shall we go?"

"Shall we go to the Pont y Cyssylltau, sir?"

"What is that?"

"A mighty bridge, sir, which carries the Camlas over a valley on its back."

"Good! let us go and see the bridge of the junction, for that I think is the meaning in Saxon of Pont y Cyssylltau."

We set out; my guide conducted me along the bank of the Camlas in the direction of Rhiwabon, that is towards the east. On the way we discoursed on various subjects, and understood each other tolerably well. I asked if he had been anything besides a weaver. He told me that when a boy he kept sheep on the mountain. "Why did you not go on keeping sheep?" said "I would rather keep sheep than weave."

"My parents wanted me at home, sir," said he; "and I was not sorry to go home; I earned little, and lived badly."

"A shepherd," said I, "can earn more than five shillings a week."

"I was never a regular shepherd, sir," said he. "But, sir, I would rather be a weaver with five shillings a week in Llangollen, than a shepherd with fifteen on the mountain. The life of a shepherd, sir, is perhaps not exactly what you and some other gentlefolks think. The shepherd bears much cold and wet, sir, and he is very lonely; no society save his sheep and dog. Then, sir, he has no privileges. I mean gospel privileges. He does not look forward to Dydd Sul, as a day of llawenydd, of joy and triumph, as the weaver does; that is if he is religiously disposed. The shepherd has no chapel, sir, like the weaver. Oh, sir, I say again that I would rather be a weaver in Llangollen with five shillings a week, than a shepherd on the hill with fifteen."

"Do you mean to say," said I, "that you live with your family on five shillings a week?"

"No, sir. I frequently do little commissions by which I earn something. Then, sir, I have friends, very good friends. A good lady of our congregation sent me this morning half-a-pound of butter. The people of our congregation are very kind to each other, sir."

"That is more," thought I to myself, "than the people of my congregation are; they are always cutting each other's throats." I next asked if he had been much about Wales.

"Not much, sir. However, I have been to Pen Caer Gybi, which you call Holy Head, and to Beth Gelert, sir."

"What took you to those places?"

"I was sent to those places on business, sir; as I told you before, sir, I sometimes execute commissions. At Beth Gelert I stayed some time. It was there I married, sir; my wife comes from a place called Dol Gellyn near Beth Gelert."

"What was her name?"

"Her name was Jones, sir."

"What, before she married?"

"Yes, sir, before she married. You need not be surprised, sir; there are plenty of the name of Jones in Wales. The name of my brother's wife, before she married, was also Jones."

"Your brother is a clever man," said I.

"Yes, sir, for a Cumro he is clebber enough."

"For a Cumro?"

"Yes, sir, he is not a Saxon, you know."

"Are Saxons then so very clever?"

"Oh yes, sir; who so clebber? The clebberest people in Llangollen are Saxons; that is, at carnal things - for at spiritual things I do not think them at all clebber. Look at Mr A., sir."

"Who is he?"

"Do you not know him, sir? I thought everybody knew Mr A. He is a Saxon, sir, and keeps the inn on the road a little way below where you live. He is the clebberest man in Llangollen, sir. He can do everything. He is a great cook, and can wash clothes better than any woman. Oh, sir, for carnal things, who so clebber as your countrymen!"

After walking about four miles by the side of the canal we left it, and bearing to the right presently came to the aqueduct, which strode over a deep and narrow valley, at the bottom of which ran the Dee. "This is the Pont y Cysswllt, sir," said my guide; "it's the finest bridge in the world, and no wonder, if what the common people say be true, namely that every stone cost a golden sovereign."

We went along it; the height was awful. My guide, though he had been a mountain shepherd, confessed that he was somewhat afraid. "It gives me the pendro, sir," said he, "to look down." I too felt somewhat dizzy, as I looked over the parapet into the glen. The canal which this mighty bridge carries across the gulf is about nine feet wide, and occupies about two-thirds of the width of the bridge and the entire western side. The footway is towards the east. From about the middle of the bridge there is a fine view of the forges on the Cefn Bach and also of a huge hill near it called the Cefn Mawr. We reached the termination, and presently crossing the canal by a little wooden bridge we came to a village. My guide then said, "If you please, sir, we will return by the old bridge, which leads across the Dee in the bottom of the vale." He then led me by a romantic road to a bridge on the west of the aqueduct, and far below. It seemed very ancient. "This is the old bridge, sir," said my guide; "it was built a hundred years before the Pont y Cysswllt was dreamt of." We now walked to the west, in the direction of Llangollen, along the bank of the river. Presently we arrived where the river, after making a bend, formed a pool. It was shaded by lofty trees, and to all appearance was exceedingly deep. I stopped to look at it, for I was struck with its gloomy horror. "That pool, sir," said John Jones, "is called Llyn y Meddwyn, the drunkard's pool. It is called so, sir, because a drunken man once fell into it, and was drowned. There is no deeper pool in the Dee, sir, save one, a little below Llangollen, which is called the pool of Catherine Lingo. A girl of that name fell into it, whilst gathering sticks on the high bank above it. She was drowned, and the pool was named after her. I never look at either without shuddering, thinking how certainly I should be drowned if I fell in, for I cannot swim, sir."

"You should have learnt to swim when you were young," said I, "and to dive too. I know one who has brought up stones from the bottom, I daresay, of deeper pools than either, but he was a Saxon, and at carnal things, you know, none so clebber as the Saxons."

I found my guide a first-rate walker and a good botanist, knowing the names of all the plants and trees in Welsh. By the time we returned to Llangollen I had formed a very high opinion of him, in which I was subsequently confirmed by what I saw of him during the period of our acquaintance, which was of some duration. He was very honest, disinterested, and exceedingly good-humoured. It is true, he had his little skits occasionally at the Church, and showed some marks of hostility to the church cat, more especially when he saw it mounted on my shoulders; for the creature soon began to take liberties, and in less than a week after my arrival at the cottage, generally mounted on my back, when it saw me reading or writing, for the sake of the warmth. But setting aside those same skits at the Church, and that dislike of the church cat, venial trifles after all, and easily to be accounted for, on the score of his religious education, I found nothing to blame, and much to admire, in John Jones, the Calvinistic Methodist of Llangollen.


Divine Service - Llangollen Bells - Iolo Goch - The Abbey - Twm o'r Nant - Holy Well - Thomas Edwards

SUNDAY arrived - a Sunday of unclouded sunshine. We attended Divine service at church in the morning. The congregation was very numerous, but to all appearance consisted almost entirely of English visitors, like ourselves. There were two officiating clergymen, father and son. They both sat in a kind of oblong pulpit on the southern side of the church, at a little distance below the altar. The service was in English, and the elder gentleman preached; there was good singing and chanting.

After dinner I sat in an arbour in the perllan, thinking of many things, amongst others, spiritual. Whilst thus engaged, the sound of the church bells calling people to afternoon service came upon my ears. I listened, and thought I had never heard bells with so sweet a sound. I had heard them in the morning, but without paying much attention to them, but as I now sat in the umbrageous arbour, I was particularly struck with them. Oh how sweetly their voice mingled with the low rush of the river, at the bottom of the perllan. I subsequently found that the bells of Llangollen were celebrated for their sweetness. Their merit indeed has even been admitted by an enemy; for a poet of the Calvinistic Methodist persuasion, one who calls himself Einion Du, in a very beautiful ode, commencing with -

"Tangnefedd i Llangollen,"

says that in no part of the world do bells call people so sweetly to church as those of Llangollen town.

In the evening, at about half-past six, I attended service again, but without my family. This time the congregation was not numerous, and was composed principally of poor people. The service and sermon were now in Welsh, the sermon was preached by the younger gentleman, and was on the building of the second temple, and, as far as I understood it, appeared to me to be exceedingly good.

On the Monday evening, myself and family took a walk to the abbey. My wife and daughter, who are fond of architecture and ruins, were very anxious to see the old place. I too was anxious enough to see it, less from love of ruins and ancient architecture, than from knowing that a certain illustrious bard was buried in its precincts, of whom perhaps a short account will not be unacceptable to the reader.

This man, whose poetical appellation was Iolo Goch, but whose real name was Llwyd, was of a distinguished family, and Lord of Llechryd. He was born and generally resided at a place called Coed y Pantwn, in the upper part of the Vale of Clwyd. He was a warm friend and partisan of Owen Glendower, with whom he lived, at Sycharth, for some years before the great Welsh insurrection, and whom he survived, dying at an extreme old age beneath his own roof- tree at Coed y Pantwn. He composed pieces of great excellence on various subjects; but the most remarkable of his compositions are decidedly certain ones connected with Owen Glendower. Amongst these is one in which he describes the Welsh chieftain's mansion at Sycharth, and his hospitable way of living at that his favourite residence; and another in which he hails the advent of the comet, which made its appearance in the month of March, fourteen hundred and two, as of good augury to his darling hero.

It was from knowing that this distinguished man lay buried in the precincts of the old edifice, that I felt so anxious to see it. After walking about two miles we perceived it on our right hand.

The abbey of the vale of the cross stands in a green meadow, in a corner near the north-west end of the valley of Llangollen. The vale or glen, in which the abbey stands, takes its name from a certain ancient pillar or cross, called the pillar of Eliseg, and which is believed to have been raised over the body of an ancient British chieftain of that name, who perished in battle against the Saxons, about the middle of the tenth century. In the Papist times the abbey was a place of great pseudo-sanctity, wealth and consequence. The territory belonging to it was very extensive, comprising, amongst other districts, the vale of Llangollen and the mountain region to the north of it, called the Eglwysig Rocks, which region derived its name Eglwysig, or ecclesiastical, from the circumstance of its pertaining to the abbey of the vale of the cross.

We first reached that part of the building which had once been the church, having previously to pass through a farmyard, in which was abundance of dirt and mire.

The church fronts the west and contains the remains of a noble window, beneath which is a gate, which we found locked. Passing on we came to that part where the monks had lived, but which now served as a farmhouse; an open doorway exhibited to us an ancient gloomy hall, where was some curious old-fashioned furniture, particularly an ancient rack, in which stood a goodly range of pewter trenchers. A respectable dame kindly welcomed us and invited us to sit down. We entered into conversation with her, and asked her name, which she said was Evans. I spoke some Welsh to her, which pleased her. She said that Welsh people at the present day were so full of fine airs that they were above speaking the old language - but that such was not the case formerly, and that she had known a Mrs Price, who was housekeeper to the Countess of Mornington, who lived in London upwards of forty years, and at the end of that time prided herself upon speaking as good Welsh as she did when a girl. I spoke to her about the abbey, and asked if she had ever heard of Iolo Goch. She inquired who he was. I told her he was a great bard, and was buried in the abbey. She said she had never heard of him, but that she could show me the portrait of a great poet, and going away, presently returned with a print in a frame.

"There," said she, "is the portrait of Twm o'r Nant, generally called the Welsh Shakespeare."

I looked at it. The Welsh Shakespeare was represented sitting at a table with a pen in his hand; a cottage-latticed window was behind him, on his left hand; a shelf with plates, and trenchers behind him, on his right. His features were rude, but full of wild, strange expression; below the picture was the following couplet:-

"Llun Gwr yw llawn gwir Awen;
Y Byd a lanwodd o'i Ben."

"Did you ever hear of Twm o'r Nant?" said the old dame.

"I never heard of him by word of mouth," said I; "but I know all about him - I have read his life in Welsh, written by himself, and a curious life it is. His name was Thomas Edwards, but he generally called himself Twm o'r Nant, or Tom of the Dingle, because he was born in a dingle, at a place called Pen Porchell, in the vale of Clwyd - which, by the bye, was on the estate which once belonged to Iolo Goch, the poet I was speaking to you about just now. Tom was a carter by trade, but once kept a toll-bar in South Wales, which, however, he was obliged to leave at the end of two years, owing to the annoyance which he experienced from ghosts and goblins, and unearthly things, particularly phantom hearses, which used to pass through his gate at midnight without paying, when the gate was shut."

"Ah," said the dame, "you know more about Tom o'r Nant than I do; and was he not a great poet?"

"I daresay he was," said I, "for the pieces which he wrote, and which he called Interludes, had a great run, and he got a great deal of money by them, but I should say the lines beneath the portrait are more applicable to the real Shakespeare than to him."

"What do the lines mean?" said the old lady; "they are Welsh, I know, but they are far beyond my understanding."

"They may be thus translated," said I:

"God in his head the Muse instill'd, And from his head the world he fill'd."

"Thank you, sir," said the old lady. "I never found any one before who could translate them." She then said she would show me some English lines written on the daughter of a friend of hers who was lately dead, and put some printed lines in a frame into my hand. They were an Elegy to Mary, and were very beautiful, I read them aloud, and when I had finished she thanked me and said she had no doubt that if I pleased I could put them into Welsh - she then sighed and wiped her eyes.

On our enquiring whether we could see the interior of the abbey she said we could, and that if we rang a bell at the gate a woman would come to us, who was in the habit of showing the place. We then got up and bade her farewell - but she begged that we would stay and taste the dwr santaidd of the holy well.

"What holy well is that?" said I.

"A well," said she, "by the road's side, which in the time of the popes was said to perform wonderful cures."

"Let us taste it by all means," said I; whereupon she went out, and presently returned with a tray on which were a jug and tumbler, the jug filled with the water of the holy well; we drank some of the dwr santaidd, which tasted like any other water, and then after shaking her by the hand, we went to the gate, and rang at the bell.

Presently a woman made her appearance at the gate - she was genteelly drest, about the middle age, rather tall, and bearing in her countenance the traces of beauty. When we told her the object of our coming she admitted us, and after locking the gate conducted us into the church. It was roofless, and had nothing remarkable about it, save the western window, which we had seen from without. Our attendant pointed out to us some tombs, and told us the names of certain great people whose dust they contained. "Can you tell us where Iolo Goch lies interred?" said I.

"No," said she; "indeed I never heard of such a person."

"He was the bard of Owen Glendower," said I, "and assisted his cause wonderfully by the fiery odes, in which he incited the Welsh to rise against the English."

"Indeed!" said she; "well, I am sorry to say that I never heard of him."

"Are you Welsh?" said I.

"I am," she replied.

"Did you ever hear of Thomas Edwards?"

"Oh, yes," said she; "I have frequently heard of him."

"How odd," said I, "that the name of a great poet should be unknown in the very place where he is buried, whilst that of one certainly not his superior, should be well known in that same place, though he is not buried there."

"Perhaps," said she, "the reason is that the poet, whom you mentioned, wrote in the old measures and language which few people now understand, whilst Thomas Edwards wrote in common verse and in the language of the present day."

"I daresay it is so," said I.

From the church she led us to other parts of the ruin - at first she had spoken to us rather cross and loftily, but she now became kind and communicative. She said that she resided near the ruins, which she was permitted to show, that she lived alone, and wished to be alone; there was something singular about her, and I believe that she had a history of her own. After showing us the ruins she conducted us to a cottage in which she lived; it stood behind the ruins by a fish-pond, in a beautiful and romantic place enough; she said that in the winter she went away, but to what place she did not say. She asked us whether we came walking, and on our telling her that we did, she said that she would point out to us a near way home. She then pointed to a path up a hill, telling us we must follow it. After making her a present we bade her farewell, and passing through a meadow crossed a brook by a rustic bridge, formed of the stem of a tree, and ascending the hill by the path which she had pointed out, we went through a cornfield or two on its top, and at last found ourselves on the Llangollen road, after a most beautiful walk.

George Borrow, Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery (Oxford, Mississippi, 1996)

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