Picture of William Gilpin

William Gilpin

places mentioned

To the source of the Wye

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HAVING thus navigated the Wye between Ross and Chepstow, we had such pleasing accounts of its beautiful scenery above Ross, that if our time had permitted, we could have wished to have explored it.

A journal, however, fell into my hands (since the first edition of this book was printed) of a tour to the source of the Wye; and thence through the midland counties of Wales; which I shall put into a little form; and making a few picturesque remarks, which the subject may occasionally suggest, shall insert for the benefit of those who may have more time than we had.

From Ross to Hereford the great road leaves the river, which is hardly once seen. But it is not probable that much is lost; for the whole country here has a tame appearance.

The cathedral of Hereford consists, in many parts, of rich Gothic. The west-front is falling fast to decay, and is every year receiving more the form of a fine ruin.1

At Hereford we again meet the Wye; of which we have several beautiful views from the higher grounds. The road now follows the course of the river to the Hay; winding along its northern banks.

About six miles from Hereford, and but little out of the road, stands Foxley. The form of the grounds about it, and the beautiful woods that surround it, are said to be worth seeing. My journalist says it contains a choice collection of pictures; and some good drawings of landscape by the late Mr. Price.

The ruins of Bradwardine-castle appear soon in view; though but little of them remains. At a bridge near them you cross the Wye, and now traverse the south-side of the river. The country, which had been greatly varied before, begins now to form bolder swells. Among these Mirebich-hill, which rises full in front, front, continues some time before the eye, as a considerable object.

Leaving Witney-bridge on the right, you still continue your course along the southern bank of the river, and come soon in view of the ruins of Clyfford-castle; where tradition informs us the celebrated Rosamond spent her early life.

Soon after you arrive at the Hay, a town pleasantly seated on the Wye. It was formerly a Roman station, and was long afterwards considered as a place of great strength, being defended by a castle and lofty walls, till Owen Glendouer laid it in ashes in one of those expeditions in which he drove Harry Bolingbroke

——thrice from the banks of Wye,
And sandy-bottomed Severn——

If you have time to make a little excursion, you will find, about half way between the Hay and Abergavenny, the ruins of Llantony-priory. Dugdale describes it, in his Monasticon, as a scene richly adorned with wood. But Dugdale lived a century ago; which is a term that will produce or destroy the finest scenery. It has had the latter effect here, for the woods about Llantony-priory are now totally destroyed; and the ruin is wholly naked and desolate.

After this excursion you return again to the Hay, and continue your route to Bualt, still on the south-side of the river.

On the north-side, about four miles beyond the Hay, stands Maeslough, the ancient seat of the Howarths. The house shews the neglect of its possessor; though the situation is in its kind perhaps one of the finest in Wales. The view from the hall-door is spoken of as wonderfully amusing. A lawn extends to the river; which encircles it with a curve, at the distance of half a mile. The banks are enriched with various objects; among which, two bridges, with winding roads, and the tower of Glasbury-church, surrounded by a wood, are conspicuous. A distant country equally enriched, fills the remote parts of the landscape, which is terminated by mountains. One of the bridges in this view, that at Glasbury, is remarkably light and and elegant, consisting of several arches.—How these various objects are brought together I know not. I should fear there are too many of them.

AS you continue your route to Bualt, the country grows grander and more picturesque. The valley of the Wye becomes contracted, and the road runs at the bottom, along the edge of the water.

It is possible, I think, the Wye may in this place be more beautiful than in any other part of its course. Between Ross and Chepstow, the grandeur and beauty of its banks are its chief praise. The river itself has no other merit than that of a winding surface of smooth water. But here, added to the same decoration from its banks, the Wye itself assumes a more beautiful character; pouring over shelving rocks, and forming itself into eddies and cascades, which a solemn parading stream through a flat channel cannot exhibit.

An additional merit also accrues to such a river from the different forms it assumes, according to the fulness or emptiness of the stream. There are rocks of all shapes and sizes, which continually vary the appearance of the water as it rushes over or plays among them; so that such a river, to a picturesque eye, is a continued fund of new entertainment.

The Wye also, in this part of its course, still receives farther beauty from the woods which adorn its banks, and which the navigation of the river, in its lower reaches, forbids. Here the whole is perfectly rural and unincumbered. Even a boat, I believe, is never seen beyond the Hay. The boat itself might be an ornament; but we should be sorry to exchange it for the beauties of such a river as will not suffer a boat.

Some beauties, however, the smooth river possesses above the rapid one. In the latter you cannot have those reflections which are so ornamental to the former: nor can you have in the rapid river the opportunity of contemplating the grandeur of its banks from the surface of the water, unless indeed the road winds close along the river at the bottom, when perhaps you may see them with additional advantage.

The foundation of these criticisms on smooth and agitated water is this: when water is exhibited in small quantities it wants the agitation of a torrent, a cascade, or some other adventitious circumstance to give it consequence; but when it is spread out in the reach of some capital river , in a lake , or an arm of the sea , it is then able to support its own dignity: in the former case it aims at beauty; in the latter at grandeur. Now the Wye has in no part of its course a quantity of water sufficient to give it any great degree of grandeur; so that of consequence the smooth part must, on the whole, yield to the more agitated , which possesses more beauty.

In this wild enchanting country stands Llangoed. the house of Sir Edward Williams. It is adorned, like the house at Foxley, with woods and playing grounds; but is a scene totally different. Here, however, the trees are finer than those at Foxley; and, when examined as individuals, appear to great advantage; though my journalist has heard that some of the best of them have lately been cut down.

The road still continues through the same beautiful country along the banks of the Wye; and in a few miles farther brings you to Bualt. This town is seated in a pleasant vale surrounded with woods.

A little beyond Bualt, where the river Irvon falls into the Wye, is a field, where, tradition says, Llewellin, the last prince of Wales, was put to death. Some historians say he was killed in battle; but the traditional account of his being killed near Bualt seems more probable, and that he fell by the hands of an assassin. When Edward invaded Wales, Llewellin had entrenched himself in the fastnesses of Snowden. Here he might probably have foiled his adversary; but some of his troops having been successful against the Earl of Surrey, one of Edward's generals, Llewellin came down from his strong holds, with the hope of improving his advantage, and offered Edward battle. Llewellin was totally routed; and, in his flight into Glamorganshire, slept, the night before he was murdered, at Llechryd, which is now a farm-house. Here the farrier who shod his horse knew him under his disguise, and betrayed him to the people of Bualt, who put him to death; and are to this day stigmatized with the name of Brad wyr y Bualbt , the traitors of Bualt .

At Bualt you cross the Wye again, and now pursue your rout along the north-side of the river. The same grand scenery continues, lofty banks, woody vales, a rocky channel, and a rapid stream.

Soon after you come to the sulphureous springs of Llanydrindod, which you leave on the right; and crossing the river Ithon, reach Rhaader, a town about thirteen miles beyond Bualt.—To a Welshman the appearance of the Wye at Rhaader need not be described. The word signifies a waterfall . There is no cascade indeed of consequence near the place; but the river being pent up within close rocky banks, and the channel being steep, the whole is a succession of waterfalls.

As you leave Rhaader you begin to approach the sources of the Wye. But the river having not yet attained its chief supplies, is rather insignificant; and as the country becomes wilder and more mountainous, the scenery of the river is now disproportioned . There is not a sufficiency of water in the landscape to balance the land.

Llangerig, which is about twelve miles from Rhaader, is the last village you find on the banks of the Wye. Soon after all signs of inhabitancy cease. You begin to ascend the skirts of es a waterfall . There is no cascade indeed of consequence near the place; but the river b Plinlimmon; and after rising gradually about ten miles from Llangerig, you arrive at the sources of a river, which through a course of so many leagues hath afforded you so much entertainment.

It is a singular circumstance, that within a quarter of a mile of the well-head of the Wye, arises the Severn. The two springs are nearly alike; but the fortunes of rivers, like those of men, are owing to various little circumstances, of which they take the advantage in the early parts of their course. The Severn meeting with a tract of ground rising on the right, soon after it leaves Plinlimmon, receives a push towards the north-east. In this direction it continues its course to Shrewsbury. There, taking the advantage of other circumstances, it makes a turn to the southeast. Afterwards, still meeting with favorable opportunities, it successfully improves them; enlarging its circle; sweeping from one country to another; receiving large accessions everywhere of wealth and grandeur; till at length, with a full tide, it enters the ocean under the character of an arm of the sea.—In the meantime the Wye, meeting with no opportunities of any consequence to improve its fortunes, never makes any figure as a capital river; and at length becomes subservient to that very Severn, whose birth and early setting out in life were exactly similar to its own.—Between these two rivers is comprehended a district, consisting of great part of the counties of Montgomery, Radnor, Salop, Worcester, Hereford, and Glocester: of the last county only that beautiful portion which forms the forest of Dean.

The country about Plinlimmon, vast, wild, and unfurnished, is neither adorned with accompaniments to be a scene of beauty; nor affords the materials of a scene of grandeur.—Though grandeur consists in simplicity, it must take some form of landscape ; otherwise it is a shapeless waste; monstrous without proportion.&mdashAs there is nothing therefore in these inhospitable regions to detain you long, and no refreshment to be had, except a draught of pure water from the fountains of the Wye, you will soon be inclined to return to Rhaader.

From Rhaader my journal leads into Cardiganshire. Crossing the Wye you ascend a very steep mountain, about seven miles over. Then skirting the banks of a sweet little river, the Elan, which falls into the Wye, you pass through a corner of Montgomeryshire, which brings you to the verge of Cardiganshire.

The passage into this county is rather tremendous. You stand on very high ground, and fee extending far below, a long contracted traded valley. The perspective from the top gives it rather the appearance of a chasm. Down one of the precipitous sides of this valley the road hurries you; while the river Istwith at the hottom is ready to receive you, if your foot should flip, or your horse stumble.

Having descended safely into the bottom of the valley, and having passed through it, you cross the river over a handsome bridge, and arrive at the village of Pentre. Near this place is Havod, the seat of Mr. Johnes, member for Radnorshire, which affords so much beautiful scenery that you should by no means pass by it. It will open suddenly upon you, at the close of a well-conducted approach. The house is new, built in a style between Gothic and Moorish. It is a style of building I am not acquainted with; but I am informed it has a good effect. It is a large commodious mansion, richly furnished. One thing is worth observing: over the chimney of the dining-room is placed a neat tablet of white marble with this inscription:

      ——Prout cuique libido est,
Siccat inequales cyathos.——

The Welsh gentry are remarkable for their hospitality; which sometimes, I have heard, will not allow the inequalcs cfathos ; but brings all to a brdes imming level . The spirit of this inscription, I hope, is diffusing itself more a say nd more over the country. But elegant houses and rich furniture are everywhere to be found. The scenery at Havod is the object; and such scenery is rarely met with.—The walks are divided into what is called the lady's-walk , a circuit of about three miles; and the gentleman's-walk, about six. To these is added a more extensive round, which might properly come under the denomination of a riding , if in all parts it was accessible to horse-men.

The general ground-plot of these walks, and the scenery through which they convey you, are much beyond what we commonly meet with.

The river Istwith runs at the distance of about a quarter of a mile from the house, which stands upon a lawn consisting of varied grounds descending to the river. It is a rapid stream, and its channel is rilled with rocks, like many other Welsh streams, which form cataracts and cascades in various parts, pans, more broken and convulsed than the Wye about Bualt.

Its banks consist of great variety of wooded recesses, hills, sides of mountains, and contracted vallies, thwarting and opposing each other in various forms; and adorned with little cascades running everywhere among them in guttered chasms. Of the grandeur and beauty of these scenes 1 can speak as an eye-witness: for though I was never on the spot, I have seen a large collection of drawings and sketches (not fewer than between twenty and thirty) which were taken from them.

Through this variety of grand scenery the several walks are conducted. The views shift rapidly from one to another; each being characterized by some circumstance peculiar to itself.

The artificial ornaments are such chiefly as are necessary. Many bridges are wanted, both in crossing the Istwith and the several - streams which run into it from the surrounding hills; and they are varied as much as that species of architecture will admit, from the stone arch to the Alpine plank.—In one place you see a cottage pleasantly seated among the thickets of a woody hill, which Mr. Johnes intends to fit up for the accommodation of a band of musicians; for so a pack of hounds may be called among the hills, and dales, and echoing rocks of these grand scenes.

Among the natural curiosities of the place is a noble cascade sixty feet high, which is seen through a cavern, partly natural and partly artificial. You enter it by a passage cut through a rock four feet broad and seven high; which continues about twenty yards, and brings you into a very lofty perforated cavern, through which you see the cascade to great advantage.

From the scenes of Havod you continue your excursions, among some other grand and beautiful exhibitions of landscape.

You are carried first to the Devil's-Bridge , about four miles from Havod. I do not clearly understand the nature of the scenery here from the account given in my journal; but I should suppose it is only one grand piece of fore-ground, without any distance or accompaniments; and probably one of those scenes which is itself sufficient to form a picture. The plan of it is a rocky chasm, over which is thrown an arch. Between the cheeks of this chasm, and just beneath the bridge, the river Funnach falls abruptly down the space of several yards; and afterwards meeting with other steeps, makes its way, after a few of these interruptions, into the Rhydol. a little below. The bridge, I should suppose, is an interesting object. It consists of two arches, one thrown over the other; the under one, which is that said to be built by the devil, was not thought sufficiently strong. The common people suppose, when he built it he had some mischief in his head.

From the Devil's-Bridge you visit Monk's bridge ; where the same kind of scenery is exhibited under a different modification.

From this place you descend into the vale of Rhydol, called so from the river of that name, which passes through it.

If the Welsh counties, distinguished for so much beautiful scenery of various kinds, are remarkable for pre-eminence in any mode, I think it is in their vales . Their lakes are greatly exceeded, both in grandeur and beauty, by those of Cumberland, Westmoreland, and Scotland. Nor are their mountains as far as I have observed, of such picturesque form as many I have seen in those countries. They are often of a heavy lumpish kind; for there are orders of architecture in mountains as well as in palaces. Their rivers, I allow, are often very picturesque; and so are their sea-coast views. But their vales and vallies , I think, exceed those of any country I ever saw.

The vale of Rhydol is described as a very grand and extensive scene, continuing not less than ten miles, among rocks, hanging woods, and varied ground, which in some parts becomes mountainous; while the river is everywhere a beautiful object; and twice or three times, in its passage through the vale, is interrupted in its course, and formed into a cascade. This is a circumstance in a vale , I think, rather uncommon. In a contracted valley it is frequent; but an extended vale , as I apprehend this to be, is seldom so interrupted as not to give way to the river on one side or the other. I can easily however imagine, that when the -whole vale is interrupted, as I conceive it to be here, it will occasion a very beautiful scene, if the eye, from so good a foreground , hath such an elevated station as will enable it to trace the winding of the vale at a distance beyond the cascade. But this is perhaps reasoning (as we often do on higher subjects) without sufficient grounds. On the spot I should probably find that all these conceptions are wrong, that the obstructions of the river in the vale of Rhydol are no advantage to the scene, or, perhaps, after all, that the vale of Rhydol does not deserve that name; but is only" a contracted valley of considerable length.

At the end of this vale or valley , by whichsoever of these names it ought to be distinguished, stands the ruins of Abyrysthwick-castle . Of this fortress little now remains but a solitary tower, over-looking the sea. Once it was the residence of the great Cadwallader; and in all the Welsh wars was considered as a fortress of the first consequence. Even so late as the civil wars of the last century it was esteemed a place of strength.

But the rich lead-mines in its neighbourhood were the basis of its glory. These mines are said to have yielded near a hundred ounces of silver from a ton of lead; and to have produced a profit of two thousand pounds a month. Here Sir Hugh Middleton made that vast fortune, which he expended afterwards on the New-river. But a gentleman of the name of Bushel worked these mines to the most profitable extent. He was allowed by Charles the First the privilege of setting up a mint in this castle for the benefit of paying his workmen. Here therefore all the business of the mines was transacted, which made Abyrysthwick-castle a place of more consequence and resort than any other place in Wales. King Charles also appointed Mr. Bushel governor of the Isle of Lundy; where he made a harbour for the security of his vessels, which carried the produce of his mines up the Severn. When the civil wars broke out, he had an opportunity of shewing his gratitude; which he did with the magnificence of a prince. He clothed the king's whole army, and offered his majesty a loan, which was considered as a gist, of forty thousand pounds. Afterwards, when Charles was pressed by the parliament, Mr. Bushel raised a regiment in his service at his own expence.

From the vale of Rhydol, you seek again the banks of the Istwith , and enter a vale which takes its name from the river.

This scene is another proof of what I have just observed of the Welsh vales. From the accounts I have heard of it, I should suppose it a scene of extraordinary beauty, less romantic than the vale of Rhydol, but most sylvan . Nature has introduced the rock more sparingly, but has made great amends by wood; though in one part of it an immense rock forms a very grand feature.—It is much easier, however, to conceive the variety of these scenes than to describe them. Nature's alphabet consists only of four letters; wood, water, rock, and ground: and yet, with these four letters she forms such varied compositions, such infinite combinations, as no language with an alphabet of twenty-four can describe.

From the vale of Istwith you may visit the ruins of the abbey of Strata Florida : but there is little among those ruins, I should suppose, worth notice, except a Saxon gateway; and that can hardly be an object of much beauty. The painter therefore can make little use of this old abbey, and consigns it to the antiquarian, who tells you it was formerly the sacred repository of the bones of several of the Welsh princes; and that here the records, and acts of the principality were preserved for many generations.

From the ruins of Strata Florida you return to Hereford, through Rhosfair, Rhaader, Pinabout, and new Radnor; in which route I find nothing in my journal mentioned as worth notice; though it is hardly possible that in so large a tract of rough country there should not be many picturesque passages.

Here we drop our journal and return to Monmouth.

1 A subscription, I hear, is now opened to repair it.

William Gilpin, Observations of the River Wye, and several parts of South Wales (London: Cadell Junior and W. Davies, 1800) Conversion to HTML and placename mark-up by Humphrey Southall, 2012.

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