Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 15

The Turf Tavern — Don’t Understand — The Best Welsh — The Maids of Merion — Old and New — Ruthyn — The Ash Yggdrasill.

WE now emerged from the rough and narrow way which we had followed for some miles, upon one much wider, and more commodious, which my guide told me was the coach road from Wrexham to Ruthyn, and going on a little farther we came to an avenue of trees which shaded the road. It was chiefly composed of ash, sycamore and birch, and looked delightfully cool and shady. I asked my guide if it belonged to any gentleman’s house. He told me that it did not, but to a public-house, called Tafarn Tywarch, which stood near the end, a little way off the road. “Why is it called Tafarn Tywarch?” said I, struck by the name which signifies “the tavern of turf.”

“It was called so, sir,” said John, “because it was originally merely a turf hovel, though at present it consists of good brick and mortar.”

“Can we breakfast there,” said I, “for I feel both hungry and thirsty?”

“Oh yes, sir,” said John, “I have heard there is good cheese and cwrw there.”

We turned off to the “tafarn,” which was a decent public-house of rather an antiquated appearance. We entered a sanded kitchen, and sat down by a large oaken table. “Please to bring us some bread, cheese and ale,” said I in Welsh to an elderly woman, who was moving about.

“Sar?” said she.

“Bring us some bread, cheese and ale,” I repeated in Welsh.

“I do not understand you, sar,” said she in English.

“Are you Welsh?” said I in English.

“Yes, I am Welsh!”

“And can you speak Welsh?”

“Oh yes, and the best.”

“Then why did you not bring what I asked for?”

“Because I did not understand you.”

“Tell her,” said I to John Jones, “to bring us some bread, cheese and ale.”

“Come, aunt,” said John, “bring us bread and cheese and a quart of the best ale.”

The woman looked as if she was going to reply in the tongue in which he addressed her, then faltered, and at last said in English that she did not understand.

“Now,” said I, “you are fairly caught: this man is a Welshman, and moreover understands no language but Welsh.”

“Then how can he understand you?” said she.

“Because I speak Welsh,” said I.

“Then you are a Welshman?” said she.

“No I am not,” said I, “I am English.”

“So I thought,” said she, “and on that account I could not understand you.”

“You mean that you would not,” said I. “Now do you choose to bring what you are bidden?”

“Come, aunt,” said John, “don’t be silly and cenfigenus, but bring the breakfast.”

The woman stood still for a moment or two, and then biting her lips went away.

“What made the woman behave in this manner?” said I to my companion.

“Oh, she was cenfigenus, sir,” he replied; “she did not like that an English gentleman should understand Welsh; she was envious; you will find a dozen or two like her in Wales; but let us hope not more.”

Presently the woman returned with the bread, cheese and ale, which she placed on the table.

“Oh,” said I, “you have brought what was bidden, though it was never mentioned to you in English, which shows that your pretending not to understand was all a sham. What made you behave so?”

“Why I thought,” said the woman, “that no Englishman could speak Welsh, that his tongue was too short.”

“Your having thought so,” said I, “should not have made you tell a falsehood, saying that you did not understand, when you knew that you understood very well. See what a disgraceful figure you cut.”

“I cut no disgraced figure,” said the woman: “after all, what right have the English to come here speaking Welsh, which belongs to the Welsh alone, who in fact are the only people that understand it.”

“Are you sure that you understand Welsh?” said I.

“I should think so,” said the woman, “for I come from the Vale of Clwyd, where they speak the best Welsh in the world, the Welsh of the Bible.”

“What do they call a salmon in the Vale of Clwyd?” said I.

“What do they call a salmon?” said the woman. “Yes,” said I, “when they speak Welsh.”

“They call it — they call it — why a salmon.”

“Pretty Welsh!” said I. “I thought you did not understand Welsh.”

“Well, what do you call it?” said the woman.

“Eawg,” said I, “that is the word for a salmon in general — but there are words also to show the sex — when you speak of a male salmon you should say cemyw, when of a female hwyfell.”

“I never heard the words before,” said the woman, “nor do I believe them to be Welsh.”

“You say so,” said I, “because you do not understand Welsh.”

“I not understand Welsh!” said she. “I’ll soon show you that I do. Come, you have asked me the word for salmon in Welsh, I will now ask you the word for salmon-trout. Now tell me that, and I will say you know something of the matter.”

“A tinker of my country can tell you that,” said I. “The word for salmon-trout is gleisiad.”

The countenance of the woman fell.

“I see you know something about the matter,” said she; “there are very few hereabouts, though so near to the Vale of Clwyd, who know the word for salmon-trout in Welsh, I shouldn’t have known the word myself, but for the song which says:

Glan yw’r gleisiad yn y llyn.”

“And who wrote that song?” said I.

“I don’t know,” said the woman.

“But I do,” said I; “one Lewis Morris wrote it.’

“Oh,” said she, “I have heard all about Huw Morris.”

“I was not talking of Huw Morris,” said I, “but Lewis Morris, who lived long after Huw Morris. He was a native of Anglesea, but resided for some time in Merionethshire, and whilst there composed a song about the Morwynion bro Meirionydd or the lasses of County Merion of a great many stanzas, in one of which the gleisiad is mentioned. Here it is in English:

“‘Full fair the gleisiad in the flood,

Which sparkles ‘neath the summer’s sun,

And fair the thrush in green abode

Spreading his wings in sportive fun,

But fairer look if truth be spoke,

The maids of County Merion.’”

The woman was about to reply, but I interrupted her.

“There,” said I, “pray leave us to our breakfast, and the next time you feel inclined to talk nonsense about no Englishman’s understanding Welsh, or knowing anything of Welsh matters, remember that it was an Englishman who told you the Welsh word for salmon, and likewise the name of the Welshman who wrote the song in which the gleisiad is mentioned.”

The ale was very good and so were the bread and cheese. The ale indeed was so good that I ordered a second jug. Observing a large antique portrait over the mantel-piece I got up to examine it. It was that of a gentleman in a long wig, and underneath it was painted in red letters “Sir Watkin Wynn: 1742.” It was doubtless the portrait of the Sir Watkin who, in 1745 was committed to the tower under suspicion of being suspected of holding Jacobite opinions, and favouring the Pretender. The portrait was a very poor daub, but I looked at it long and attentively as a memorial of Wales at a critical and long past time.

When we had dispatched the second jug of ale, and I had paid the reckoning, we departed and soon came to where stood a turnpike house at a junction of two roads, to each of which was a gate.

“Now, sir,” said John Jones, “the way straight forward is the ffordd newydd, and the one on our right hand is the hen ffordd. Which shall we follow, the new or the old?”

“There is a proverb in the Gerniweg,” said I, “which was the language of my forefathers, saying, ‘ne’er leave the old way for the new,’ we will therefore go by the hen ffordd.”

“Very good, sir,” said my guide, “that is the path I always go, for it is the shortest.” So we turned to the right and followed the old road. Perhaps, however, it would have been well had we gone by the new, for the hen ffordd was a very dull and uninteresting road, whereas the ffordd newydd, as I long subsequently found, is one of the grandest passes in Wales. After we had walked a short distance my guide said, “Now, sir, if you will turn a little way to the left hand I will show you a house, built in the old style, such a house, sir, as I daresay the original turf tavern was.” Then leading me a little way from the road he showed me, under a hollow bank, a small cottage covered with flags.

“That is a house, sir, built yn yr hen dull in the old fashion, of earth, flags and wattles and in one night. It was the custom of old when a house was to be built, for the people to assemble, and to build it in one night of common materials, close at hand. The custom is not quite dead. I was at the building of this myself, and a merry building it was. The cwrw da passed quickly about among the builders, I assure you.” We returned to the road, and when we had ascended a hill, my companion told me that if I looked to the left I should see the Vale of Clwyd.

I looked and perceived an extensive valley pleasantly dotted with trees and farm-houses, and bounded on the west by a range of hills.

“It is a fine valley, sir,” said my guide, “four miles wide and twenty long, and contains the richest land in all Wales. Cheese made in that valley, sir, fetches a penny a pound more than cheese made in any other valley.”

“And who owns it?” said I.

“Various are the people who own it, sir, but Sir Watkin owns the greater part.”

We went on, passed by a village called Craig Vychan, where we saw a number of women washing at a fountain, and by a gentle descent soon reached the Vale of Clwyd.

After walking about a mile we left the road and proceeded by a footpath across some meadows. The meadows were green and delightful and were intersected by a beautiful stream. Trees in abundance were growing about, some of which were oaks. We passed by a little white chapel with a small graveyard before it, which my guide told me belonged to the Baptists, and shortly afterwards reached Ruthyn.

We went to an inn called the Crossed Foxes, where we refreshed ourselves with ale. We then sallied forth to look about, after I had ordered a duck to be got ready for dinner, at three o’clock. Ruthyn stands on a hill above the Clwyd, which in the summer is a mere brook, but in the winter a considerable stream, being then fed with the watery tribute of a hundred hills. About three miles to the north is a range of lofty mountains, dividing the shire of Denbigh from that of Flint, amongst which, almost parallel with the town, and lifting its head high above the rest, is the mighty Moel Vamagh, the mother heap, which I had seen from Chester. Ruthyn is a dull town, but it possessed plenty of interest to me, for as I strolled with my guide about the streets I remembered that I was treading the ground which the wild bands of Glendower had trod, and where the great struggle commenced, which for fourteen years convulsed Wales, and for some time shook England to its centre. After I had satisfied myself with wandering about the town we proceeded to the castle.

The original castle suffered terribly in the civil wars; it was held for wretched Charles, and was nearly demolished by the cannon of Cromwell, which were planted on a hill about half a mile distant. The present castle is partly modern and partly ancient. It belongs to a family of the name of W— who reside in the modern part, and who have the character of being kind, hospitable and intellectual people. We only visited the ancient part, over which we were shown by a woman, who hearing us speaking Welsh, spoke Welsh herself during the whole time she was showing us about. She showed us dark passages, a gloomy apartment in which Welsh kings and great people had been occasionally confined, that strange memorial of the good old times, a drowning pit, and a large prison room, in the middle of which stood a singular-looking column, scrawled with odd characters, which had of yore been used for a whipping-post, another memorial of the good old baronial times, so dear to romance readers and minds of sensibility. Amongst other things which our conductor showed us was an immense onen or ash; it stood in one of the courts and measured, as she said, pedwar y haner o ladd yn ei gwmpas, or four yards and a half in girth. As I gazed on the mighty tree I thought of the Ash Yggdrasill mentioned in the Voluspa, or prophecy of Vola, that venerable poem which contains so much relating to the mythology of the ancient Norse.

We returned to the inn and dined. The duck was capital, and I asked John Jones if he had ever tasted a better. “Never, sir,” said he, “for to tell you the truth, I never tasted a duck before.” “Rather singular,” said I. “What, that I should not have tasted duck? Oh, sir, the singularity is, that I should now be tasting duck. Duck in Wales, sir, is not fare for poor weavers. This is the first duck I ever tasted, and though I never taste another, as I probably never shall, I may consider myself a fortunate weaver, for I can now say I have tasted duck once in my life. Few weavers in Wales are ever able to say as much.”

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