Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 11

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.

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