Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 19

The Vicar and his Family — Evan Evans — Foaming Ale — Llam y Lleidyr — Baptism — Joost Van Vondel — Over to Rome — The Miller’s Man — Welsh and English.

WE had received a call from the Vicar of Llangollen and his lady; we had returned it, and they had done us the kindness to invite us to take tea with them. On the appointed evening we went, myself, wife, and Henrietta, and took tea with the vicar and his wife, their sons and daughters, all delightful and amiable beings — the eldest son a fine intelligent young man from Oxford, lately admitted into the Church, and now assisting his father in his sacred office. A delightful residence was the vicarage, situated amongst trees in the neighbourhood of the Dee. A large open window in the room, in which our party sat, afforded us a view of a green plat on the top of a bank running down to the Dee, part of the river, the steep farther bank covered with umbrageous trees, and a high mountain beyond, even that of Pen y Coed clad with wood. During tea Mr E. and I had a great deal of discourse. I found him to be a first-rate Greek and Latin scholar, and also a proficient in the poetical literature of his own country. In the course of discourse he repeated some noble lines of Evan Evans, the unfortunate and eccentric Prydydd Hir, or tall poet, the friend and correspondent of Gray, for whom he made literal translations from the Welsh, which the great English genius afterwards wrought into immortal verse.

“I have a great regard for poor Evan Evans,” said Mr E., after he had finished repeating the lines, “for two reasons: first, because he was an illustrious genius, and second, because he was a South–Wallian like myself.”

“And I,” I replied, “because he was a great poet, and like myself fond of a glass of cwrw da.”

Some time after tea the younger Mr E. and myself took a walk in an eastern direction along a path cut in the bank, just above the stream. After proceeding a little way amongst most romantic scenery, I asked my companion if he had ever heard of the pool of Catherine Lingo — the deep pool, as the reader will please to remember, of which John Jones had spoken.

“Oh yes,” said young Mr E.: “my brothers and myself are in the habit of bathing there almost every morning. We will go to it if you please.”

We proceeded, and soon came to the pool. The pool is a beautiful sheet of water, seemingly about one hundred and fifty yards in length, by about seventy in width. It is bounded on the east by a low ridge of rocks forming a weir. The banks on both sides are high and precipitous, and covered with trees, some of which shoot their arms for some way above the face of the pool. This is said to be the deepest pool in the whole course of the Dee, varying in depth from twenty to thirty feet. Enormous pike, called in Welsh penhwiaid, or ducks-heads, from the similarity which the head of a pike bears to that of a duck, are said to be tenants of this pool.

We returned to the vicarage, and at about ten we all sat down to supper. On the supper-table was a mighty pitcher full of foaming ale.

“There,” said my excellent host, as he poured me out a glass, “there is a glass of cwrw, which Evan Evans himself might have drunk.”

One evening my wife, Henrietta, and myself, attended by John Jones, went upon the Berwyn, a little to the east of the Geraint or Barber’s Hill, to botanize. Here we found a fern which John Jones called Coed llus y Bran, or the plant of the Crow’s berry. There was a hard kind of berry upon it, of which he said the crows were exceedingly fond. We also discovered two or three other strange plants, the Welsh names of which our guide told us, and which were curious and descriptive enough. He took us home by a romantic path which we had never before seen, and on our way pointed out to us a small house in which he said he was born.

The day after, finding myself on the banks of the Dee in the upper part of the valley, I determined to examine the Llam Lleidyr or Robber’s Leap, which I had heard spoken of on a former occasion. A man passing near me with a cart I asked him where the Robber’s Leap was. I spoke in English, and with a shake of his head he replied “Dim Saesneg.” On my putting the question to him in Welsh, however, his countenance brightened up.

“Dyna Llam Lleidyr, sir!” said he, pointing to a very narrow part of the stream a little way down.

“And did the thief take it from this side?” I demanded.

“Yes, sir, from this side,” replied the man.

I thanked him, and passing over the dry part of the river’s bed, came to the Llam Lleidyr. The whole water of the Dee in the dry season gurgles here through a passage not more than four feet across, which, however, is evidently profoundly deep, as the water is as dark as pitch. If the thief ever took the leap he must have taken it in the dry season, for in the wet the Dee is a wide and roaring torrent. Yet even in the dry season it is difficult to conceive how anybody could take this leap, for on the other side is a rock rising high above the dark gurgling stream. On observing the opposite side, however, narrowly, I perceived that there was a small hole a little way up the rock, in which it seemed possible to rest one’s foot for a moment. So I supposed that if the leap was ever taken, the individual who took it darted the tip of his foot into the hole, then springing up seized the top of the rock with his hands, and scrambled up. From either side the leap must have been a highly dangerous one — from the farther side the leaper would incur the almost certain risk of breaking his legs on a ledge of hard rock, from this of falling back into the deep horrible stream, which would probably suck him down in a moment.

From the Llam y Lleidyr I went to the canal and walked along it till I came to the house of the old man who sold coals, and who had put me in mind of Smollett’s Morgan; he was now standing in his little coal-yard, leaning over the pales. I had spoken to him on two or three occasions subsequent to the one on which I made his acquaintance, and had been every time more and more struck with the resemblance which his ways and manners bore to those of Smollett’s character, on which account I shall call him Morgan, though such was not his name. He now told me that he expected that I should build a villa and settle down in the neighbourhood, as I seemed so fond of it. After a little discourse, induced either by my questions or from a desire to talk about himself, he related to me his history, which, though not one of the most wonderful, I shall repeat. He was born near Aberdarron in Caernarvonshire, and in order to make me understand the position of the place, and its bearing with regard to some other places, he drew marks in the coal-dust on the earth. His father was a Baptist minister, who when Morgan was about six years of age, went to live at Canol Lyn, a place at some little distance from Port Heli. With his father he continued till he was old enough to gain his own maintenance, when he went to serve a farmer in the neighbourhood. Having saved some money young Morgan departed to the foundries at Cefn Mawr, at which he worked thirty years with an interval of four, which he had passed partly in working in slate quarries, and partly upon the canal. About four years before the present time he came to where he now lived, where he commenced selling coals, at first on his own account and subsequently for some other person. He concluded his narration by saying that he was now sixty-two years of age, was afflicted with various disorders, and believed that he was breaking up.

Such was Morgan’s history; certainly not a very remarkable one. Yet Morgan was a most remarkable individual, as I shall presently make appear.

Rather affected at the bad account he gave me of his health I asked him if he felt easy in his mind? He replied perfectly so, and when I inquired how he came to feel so comfortable, he said that his feeling so was owing to his baptism into the faith of Christ Jesus. On my telling him that I too had been baptized, he asked me if I had been dipped; and on learning that I had not, but only been sprinkled, according to the practice of my church, he gave me to understand that my baptism was not worth three halfpence. Feeling rather nettled at hearing the baptism of my church so undervalued, I stood up for it, and we were soon in a dispute, in which I got rather the worst, for though he spuffled and sputtered in a most extraordinary manner, and spoke in a dialect which was neither Welsh, English nor Cheshire, but a mixture of all three, he said two or three things rather difficult to be got over. Finding that he had nearly silenced me, he observed that he did not deny that I had a good deal of book learning, but that in matters of baptism I was as ignorant as the rest of the people of the church were, and had always been. He then said that many church people had entered into argument with him on the subject of baptism, but that he had got the better of them all; that Mr P., the minister of the parish of L., in which we then were, had frequently entered into argument with him, but quite unsuccessfully, and had at last given up the matter, as a bad job. He added that a little time before, as Mr P. was walking close to the canal with his wife and daughter and a spaniel dog, Mr P. suddenly took up the dog and flung it in, giving it a good ducking, whereupon he, Morgan, cried out: “Dyna y gwir vedydd! That is the right baptism, sir! I thought I should bring you to it at last!” at which words Mr P. laughed heartily, but made no particular reply.

After a little time he began to talk about the great men who had risen up amongst the Baptists, and mentioned two or three distinguished individuals.

I said that he had not mentioned the greatest man who had been born amongst the Baptists.

“What was his name?” said he.

“His name was Joost Van Vondel,” I replied.

“I never heard of him before,” said Morgan.

“Very probably,” said I: “he was born, bred, and died in Holland.”

“Has he been dead long?” said Morgan.

“About two hundred years,” said I.

“That’s a long time,” said Morgan, “and maybe is the reason that I never heard of him. So he was a great man?”

“He was indeed,” said I. “He was not only the greatest man that ever sprang up amongst the Baptists, but the greatest, and by far the greatest, that Holland ever produced, though Holland has produced a great many illustrious men.”

“Oh I daresay he was a great man if he was a Baptist,” said Morgan. “Well, it’s strange I never read of him. I thought I had read the lives of all the eminent people who lived and died in our communion.”

“He did not die in the Baptist communion,” said I.

“Oh, he didn’t die in it,” said Morgan; “What, did he go over to the Church of England? a pretty fellow!”

“He did not go over to the Church of England,” said I, “for the Church of England does not exist in Holland; he went over to the Church of Rome.”

“Well, that’s not quite so bad,” said Morgan; “however, it’s bad enough. I daresay he was a pretty blackguard.”

“No,” said I: “he was a pure virtuous character, and perhaps the only pure and virtuous character that ever went over to Rome. The only wonder is that so good a man could ever have gone over to so detestable a church; but he appears to have been deluded.”

“Deluded indeed!” said Morgan. “However, I suppose he went over for advancement’s sake.”

“No,” said I; “he lost every prospect of advancement by going over to Rome: nine-tenths of his countrymen were of the reformed religion, and he endured much poverty and contempt by the step he took.”

“How did he support himself?” said Morgan.

“He obtained a livelihood,” said I, “by writing poems and plays, some of which are wonderfully fine.”

“What,” said Morgan, “a writer of Interludes? One of Twm o’r Nant’s gang! I thought he would turn out a pretty fellow.” I told him that the person in question certainly did write Interludes, for example Noah, and Joseph at Goshen, but that he was a highly respectable, nay venerable character.

“If he was a writer of Interludes,” said Morgan, “he was a blackguard; there never yet was a writer of Interludes, or a person who went about playing them, that was not a scamp. He might be a clever man, I don’t say he was not. Who was a cleverer man than Twm o’r Nant with his Pleasure and Care, and Riches and Poverty, but where was there a greater blackguard? Why, not in all Wales. And if you knew this other fellow — what’s his name — Fondle’s history, you would find that he was not a bit more respectable than Twm o’r Nant, and not half so clever. As for his leaving the Baptists I don’t believe a word of it; he was turned out of the connection, and then went about the country saying he left it. No Baptist connection would ever have a writer of Interludes in it, not Twm o’r Nant himself, unless he left his ales and Interludes and wanton hussies, for the three things are sure to go together. You say he went over to the Church of Rome; of course he did, if the Church of England were not at hand to receive him, where should he go but to Rome? No respectable church like the Methodist or the Independent would have received him. There are only two churches in the world that will take in anybody without asking questions, and will never turn them out however bad they may behave; the one is the Church of Rome, and the other the Church of Canterbury; and if you look into the matter you will find that every rogue, rascal and hanged person since the world began, has belonged to one or other of those communions.”

In the evening I took a walk with my wife and daughter past the Plas Newydd. Coming to the little mill called the Melyn Bac, at the bottom of the gorge, we went into the yard to observe the water-wheel. We found that it was turned by a very little water, which was conveyed to it by artificial means. Seeing the miller’s man, a short dusty figure, standing in the yard, I entered into conversation with him, and found to my great surprise that he had a considerable acquaintance with the ancient language. On my repeating to him verses from Taliesin he understood them, and to show me that he did, translated some of the lines into English. Two or three respectable-looking lads, probably the miller’s sons, came out, and listened to us. One of them said we were both good Welshmen. After a little time the man asked me if I had heard of Huw Morris, I told him that I was well acquainted with his writings, and enquired whether the place in which he had lived was not somewhere in the neighbourhood. He said it was; and that it was over the mountains not far from Llan Sanfraid. I asked whether it was not called Pont y Meibion. He answered in the affirmative, and added that he had himself been there, and had sat in Huw Morris’s stone chair which was still to be seen by the road’s side. I told him that I hoped to visit the place in a few days. He replied that I should be quite right in doing so, and that no one should come to these parts without visiting Pont y Meibion, for that Huw Morris was one of the columns of the Cumry.

“What a difference,” said I to my wife, after we had departed, “between a Welshman and an Englishman of the lower class. What would a Suffolk miller’s swain have said if I had repeated to him verses out of Beowulf or even Chaucer, and had asked him about the residence of Skelton.

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