Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 107

Caerfili Castle — Sir Charles — The Waiter — Inkerman.

I SLEPT well during the night. In the morning after breakfast I went to see the castle, over which I was conducted by a woman who was intrusted with its care. It stands on the eastern side of the little town, and is a truly enormous structure, which brought to my recollection a saying of our great Johnson, to be found in the account of his journey to the Western Islands, namely “that for all the castles which he had seen beyond the Tweed the ruins yet remaining of some one of those which the English built in Wales would find materials.” The original founder was one John De Bryse, a powerful Norman who married the daughter of Llewellyn Ap Jorwerth, the son-inlaw of King John, and the most war-like of all the Welsh princes, whose exploits, and particularly a victory which he obtained over his father-inlaw, with whom he was always at war, have been immortalized by the great war-bard, Dafydd Benfras. It was one of the strongholds which belonged to the Spencers, and served for a short time as a retreat to the unfortunate Edward the Second. It was ruined by Cromwell, the grand foe of the baronial castles of Britain, but not in so thorough and sweeping a manner as to leave it a mere heap of stones. There is a noble entrance porch fronting the west — a spacious courtyard, a grand banqueting room, a corridor of vast length, several lofty towers, a chapel, a sally-port, a guard-room and a strange underground vaulted place called the mint, in which Caerfili’s barons once coined money, and in which the furnaces still exist which were used for melting metal. The name Caerfili is said to signify the Castle of Haste, and to have been bestowed on the pile because it was built in a hurry. Caerfili, however, was never built in a hurry, as the remains show. Moreover, the Welsh word for haste is not fil but ffrwst. Fil means a scudding or darting through the air, which can have nothing to do with the building of a castle. Caerfili signifies Philip’s City, and was called so after one Philip a saint. It no more means the castle of haste than Tintagel in Cornwall signifies the castle of guile, as the learned have said it does, for Tintagel simply means the house in the gill of the hill, a term admirably descriptive of the situation of the building.

I started from Caerfili at eleven for Newport, distant about seventeen miles. Passing through a toll-gate I ascended an acclivity, from the top of which I obtained a full view of the castle, looking stern, dark and majestic. Descending the hill I came to a bridge over a river called the Rhymni or Rumney, much celebrated in Welsh and English song — thence to Pentref Bettws, or the village of the bead-house, doubtless so called from its having contained in old times a house in which pilgrims might tell their beads.

The scenery soon became very beautiful — its beauty, however, was to a certain extent marred by a horrid black object, a huge coal work, the chimneys of which were belching forth smoke of the densest description. “Whom does that work belong to?” said I to a man nearly as black as a chimney sweep.

“Who does it belong to? Why, to Sir Charles.”

“Do you mean Sir Charles Morgan?”

“I don’t know. I only know that it belongs to Sir Charles, the kindest-hearted and richest man in Wales and in England too.”

Passing some cottages I heard a group of children speaking English. Asked an intelligent-looking girl if she could speak Welsh.

“Yes,” said she, “I can speak it, but not very well.” There is not much Welsh spoken by the children hereabout. The old folks hold more to it.

I saw again the Rhymni river, and crossed it by a bridge; the river here was filthy and turbid, owing of course to its having received the foul drainings of the neighbouring coal works. Shortly afterwards I emerged from the coom or valley of the Rhymni, and entered upon a fertile and tolerably level district. Passed by Llanawst and Machen. The day which had been very fine now became dark and gloomy. Suddenly, as I was descending a slope, a brilliant party, consisting of four young ladies in riding-habits, a youthful cavalier and a servant in splendid livery — all on noble horses, swept past me at full gallop down the hill. Almost immediately afterwards, seeing a road-mender who was standing holding his cap in his hand — which he had no doubt just reverentially doffed — I said in Welsh: “Who are those ladies?”

“Merched Sir Charles — the daughters of Sir Charles,” he replied.

“And is the gentleman their brother?”

“No! the brother is in the Crim — fighting with the Roosiaid. I don’t know who yon gentleman be.”

“Where does Sir Charles live?”

“Down in the Dyfryn, not far from Basallaig.”

“If I were to go and see him,” I said, “do you think he would give me a cup of ale?”

“I daresay he would; he has given me one many a time.”

I soon reached Basallaig, a pleasant village standing in a valley and nearly surrounded by the groves of Sir Charles Morgan. Seeing a decent public-house I said to myself, “I think I shall step in and have my ale here, and not go running after Sir Charles, whom perhaps after all I shouldn’t find at home.” So I went in and called for a pint of ale. Over my ale I trifled for about half-an-hour, then paying my groat I got up and set off for Newport, in the midst of a thick mist which had suddenly come on, and which speedily wetted me nearly to the skin.

I reached Newport at about half-past four, and put up at a large and handsome inn called the King’s Head. During dinner the waiter, unasked, related to me his history. He was a short thick fellow of about forty, with a very disturbed and frightened expression of countenance. He said that he was a native of Brummagen, and had lived very happily at an inn there as waiter, but at length had allowed himself to be spirited away to an establishment high up in Wales amidst the scenery. That very few visitors came to the establishment, which was in a place so awfully lonesome that he soon became hipped, and was more than once half in a mind to fling himself into a river which ran before the door and moaned dismally. That at last he thought his best plan would be to decamp, and accordingly took French leave early one morning. That after many frights and much fatigue he had found himself at Newport, and taken service at the King’s Head, but did not feel comfortable, and was frequently visited at night by dreadful dreams. That he should take the first opportunity of getting to Brummagen, though he was afraid that he should not be able to get into his former place, owing to his ungrateful behaviour. He then uttered a rather eloquent eulogium on the beauties of the black capital, and wound up all by saying that he would rather be a brazier’s dog at Brummagen than head waiter at the best establishment in Wales.

After dinner I took up a newspaper and found in it an account of the battle of Inkerman, which appeared to have been fought on the fifth of November, the very day on which I had ascended Plynlimmon. I was sorry to find that my countrymen had suffered dreadfully, and would have been utterly destroyed but for the opportune arrival of the French. “In my childhood,” said I, “the Russians used to help us against the French; now the French help us against the Russians. Who knows but before I die I may see the Russians helping the French against us?”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 14:50