Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 20

Huw Morris — Immortal Elegy — The Valley of Ceiriog — Tangled Wilderness — Perplexity — Chair of Huw Morris — The Walking Stick — Huw’s Descendant — Pont y Meibion.

Two days after the last adventure I set off, over the Berwyn, to visit the birth-place of Huw Morris under the guidance of John Jones, who was well acquainted with the spot.

Huw Morus or Morris, was born in the year 1622 on the banks of the Ceiriog. His life was a long one, for he died at the age of eighty-four, after living in six reigns. He was the second son of a farmer, and was apprenticed to a tanner, with whom, however, he did not stay till the expiration of the term of his apprenticeship, for not liking the tanning art, he speedily returned to the house of his father, whom he assisted in husbandry till death called the old man away. He then assisted his elder brother, and on his elder brother’s death, lived with his son. He did not distinguish himself as a husbandman, and appears never to have been fond of manual labour. At an early period, however, he applied himself most assiduously to poetry, and before he had attained the age of thirty was celebrated, throughout Wales, as the best poet of his time. When the war broke out between Charles and his parliament, Huw espoused the part of the king, not as soldier, for he appears to have liked fighting little better than tanning or husbandry, but as a poet, and probably did the king more service in that capacity than he would if he had raised him a troop of horse, or a regiment of foot, for he wrote songs breathing loyalty to Charles, and fraught with pungent satire against his foes, which ran like wild-fire through Wales, and had a great influence on the minds of the people. Even when the royal cause was lost in the field, he still carried on a poetical war against the successful party, but not so openly as before, dealing chiefly in allegories, which, however, were easy to be understood. Strange to say the Independents, when they had the upper hand, never interfered with him though they persecuted certain Royalist poets of far inferior note. On the accession of Charles the Second he celebrated the event by a most singular piece called the Lamentation of Oliver’s men, in which he assails the Roundheads with the most bitter irony. He was loyal to James the Second, till that monarch attempted to overthrow the Church of England, when Huw, much to his credit, turned against him, and wrote songs in the interest of the glorious Prince of Orange. He died in the reign of good Queen Anne. In his youth his conduct was rather dissolute, but irreproachable and almost holy in his latter days — a kind of halo surrounded his old brow. It was the custom in those days in North Wales for the congregation to leave the church in a row with the clergyman at their head, but so great was the estimation in which old Huw was universally held, for the purity of his life and his poetical gift, that the clergyman of the parish abandoning his claim to precedence, always insisted on the good and inspired old man’s leading the file, himself following immediately in his rear. Huw wrote on various subjects, mostly in common and easily understood measures. He was great in satire, great in humour, but when he pleased could be greater in pathos than in either; for his best piece is an elegy on Barbara Middleton, the sweetest song of the kind ever written. From his being born on the banks of the brook Ceiriog, and from the flowing melody of his awen or muse, his countrymen were in the habit of calling him Eos Ceiriog, or the Ceiriog Nightingale.

So John Jones and myself set off across the Berwyn to visit the birthplace of the great poet Huw Morris. We ascended the mountain by Allt Paddy. The morning was lowering and before we had half got to the top it began to rain. John Jones was in his usual good spirits. Suddenly taking me by the arm he told me to look to the right across the gorge to a white house, which he pointed out.

“What is there in that house?” said I.

“An aunt of mine lives there,” said he.

Having frequently heard him call old women his aunts, I said, “Every poor old woman in the neighbourhood seems to be your aunt.”

“This is no poor old woman,” said he, “she is cyfoethawg iawn, and only last week she sent me and my family a pound of bacon, which would have cost me sixpence-halfpenny, and about a month ago a measure of wheat.”

We passed over the top of the mountain, and descending the other side reached Llansanfraid, and stopped at the public-house where we had been before, and called for two glasses of ale. Whilst drinking our ale Jones asked some questions about Huw Morris of the woman who served us; she said that he was a famous poet, and that people of his blood were yet living upon the lands which had belonged to him at Pont y Meibion. Jones told her that his companion, the gwr boneddig, meaning myself, had come in order to see the birth-place of Huw Morris, and that I was well acquainted with his works, having gotten them by heart in Lloegr, when a boy. The woman said that nothing would give her greater pleasure than to hear a Sais recite poetry of Huw Morris, whereupon I recited a number of his lines addressed to the Gof Du, or blacksmith. The woman held up her hands, and a carter who was in the kitchen somewhat the worse for liquor, shouted applause. After asking a few questions as to the road we were to take, we left the house, and in a little time entered the valley of Ceiriog. The valley is very narrow, huge hills overhanging it on both sides, those on the east side lumpy and bare, those on the west precipitous, and partially clad with wood; the torrent Ceiriog runs down it, clinging to the east side; the road is tolerably good, and is to the west of the stream. Shortly after we had entered the gorge, we passed by a small farm-house on our right hand, with a hawthorn hedge before it, upon which seems to stand a peacock, curiously cut out of thorn. Passing on we came to a place called Pandy uchaf, or the higher Fulling mill. The place so called is a collection of ruinous houses, which put me in mind of the Fulling mills mentioned in “Don Quixote.” It is called the Pandy because there was formerly a fulling mill here, said to have been the first established in Wales; which is still to be seen, but which is no longer worked. Just above the old mill there is a meeting of streams, the Tarw from the west rolls down a dark valley into the Ceiriog.

At the entrance of this valley and just before you reach the Pandy, which it nearly overhangs, is an enormous crag. After I had looked at the place for some time with considerable interest we proceeded towards the south, and in about twenty minutes reached a neat kind of house, on our right hand, which John Jones told me stood on the ground of Huw Morris. Telling me to wait, he went to the house, and asked some questions. After a little time I followed him and found him discoursing at the door with a stout dame about fifty-five years of age, and a stout buxom damsel of about seventeen, very short of stature.

“This is the gentleman” said he, “who wishes to see anything there may be here connected with Huw Morris.”

The old dame made me a curtsey, and said in very distinct Welsh, “We have some things in the house which belonged to him, and we will show them to the gentleman willingly.”

“We first of all wish to see his chair,” said John Jones.

“The chair is in a wall in what is called the hen ffordd (old road),” said the old gentlewoman; “it is cut out of the stone wall, you will have maybe some difficulty in getting to it, but the girl shall show it to you.” The girl now motioned to us to follow her, and conducted us across the road to some stone steps, over a wall to a place which looked like a plantation.

“This was the old road,” said Jones; “but the place has been enclosed. The new road is above us on our right hand beyond the wall.”

We were in a maze of tangled shrubs, the boughs of which, very wet from the rain which was still falling, struck our faces, as we attempted to make our way between them; the girl led the way, bare-headed and bare-armed, and soon brought us to the wall, the boundary of the new road. Along this she went with considerable difficulty, owing to the tangled shrubs, and the nature of the ground, which was very precipitous, shelving down to the other side of the enclosure. In a little time we were wet to the skin, and covered with the dirt of birds, which they had left while roosting in the trees; on went the girl, sometimes creeping, and trying to keep herself from falling by holding against the young trees; once or twice she fell and we after her, for there was no path, and the ground, as I have said before very shelvy; still as she went her eyes were directed towards the wall, which was not always very easy to be seen, for thorns, tall nettles and shrubs, were growing up against it. Here and there she stopped, and said something, which I could not always make out, for her Welsh was anything but clear; at length I heard her say that she was afraid we had passed the chair, and indeed presently we came to a place where the enclosure terminated in a sharp corner.

“Let us go back,” said I; “we must have passed it.”

I now went first, breaking down with my weight the shrubs nearest to the wall.

“Is not this the place?” said I, pointing to a kind of hollow in the wall, which looked something like the shape of a chair.

“Hardly,” said the girl, “for there should be a slab on the back, with letters, but there’s neither slab nor letters here.”

The girl now again went forward, and we retraced our way, doing the best we could to discover the chair, but all to no purpose; no chair was to be found. We had now been, as I imagined, half-an-hour in the enclosure, and had nearly got back to the place from which we had set out, when we suddenly heard the voice of the old lady exclaiming, “What are ye doing there, the chair is on the other side of the field; wait a bit, and I will come and show it you;” getting over the stone stile, which led into the wilderness, she came to us, and we now went along the wall at the lower end; we had quite as much difficulty here as on the other side, and in some places more, for the nettles were higher, the shrubs more tangled, and the thorns more terrible. The ground, however, was rather more level. I pitied the poor girl who led the way, and whose fat naked arms were both stung and torn. She at last stopped amidst a huge grove of nettles, doing the best she could to shelter her arms from the stinging leaves.

“I never was in such a wilderness in my life,” said I to John Jones, “is it possible that the chair of the mighty Huw is in a place like this; which seems never to have been trodden by human foot. Well does the Scripture say ‘Dim prophwyd yw yn cael barch yn ei dir ei hunan.’”

This last sentence tickled the fancy of my worthy friend, the Calvinistic–Methodist, he laughed aloud and repeated it over and over again to the females, with amplifications.

“Is the chair really here,” said I, “or has it been destroyed? if such a thing has been done it is a disgrace to Wales.”

“The chair is really here,” said the old lady, “and though Huw Morus was no prophet, we love and reverence everything belonging to him. Get on Llances, the chair can’t be far off;” the girl moved on, and presently the old lady exclaimed, “There’s the chair, Diolch i Duw!”

I was the last of the file, but I now rushed past John Jones, who was before me, and next to the old lady, and sure enough there was the chair, in the wall, of him who was called in his day, and still is called by the mountaineers of Wales, though his body has been below the earth in the quiet church-yard one hundred and forty years, Eos Ceiriog, the Nightingale of Ceiriog, the sweet caroller Huw Morus, the enthusiastic partizan of Charles and the Church of England, and the never-tiring lampooner of Oliver and the Independents. There it was, a kind of hollow in the stone wall, in the hen ffordd, fronting to the west, just above the gorge at the bottom of which murmurs the brook Ceiriog, there it was, something like a half barrel chair in a garden, a mouldering stone slab forming the seat, and a large slate stone, the back, on which were cut these letters —

H. M. B.

signifying Huw Morus Bard.

“Sit down in the chair, Gwr Boneddig,” said John Jones, “you have taken trouble enough to get to it.”

“Do, gentleman,” said the old lady; “but first let me wipe it with my apron, for it is very wet and dirty.”

“Let it be,” said I; then taking off my hat I stood uncovered before the chair, and said in the best Welsh I could command, “Shade of Huw Morus, supposing your shade haunts the place which you loved so well when alive — a Saxon, one of the seed of the Coiling Serpent, has come to this place to pay that respect to true genius, the Dawn Duw, which he is ever ready to pay. He read the songs of the Nightingale of Ceiriog in the most distant part of Lloegr, when he was a brown-haired boy, and now that he is a grey-haired man he is come to say in this place that they frequently made his eyes overflow with tears of rapture.”

I then sat down in the chair, and commenced repeating verses of Huw Morris. All which I did in the presence of the stout old lady, the short, buxom and bare-armed damsel, and of John Jones the Calvinistic weaver of Llangollen, all of whom listened patiently and approvingly, though the rain was pouring down upon them, and the branches of the trees and the tops of the tall nettles, agitated by the gusts from the mountain hollows, were beating in their faces, for enthusiasm is never scoffed at by the noble simple-minded, genuine Welsh, whatever treatment it may receive from the coarse-hearted, sensual, selfish Saxon.

After some time, our party returned to the house — which put me very much in mind of the farm-houses of the substantial yeomen of Cornwall, particularly that of my friends at Penquite; a comfortable fire blazed in the kitchen grate, the floor was composed of large flags of slate. In the kitchen the old lady pointed to me the ffon, or walking-stick, of Huw Morris; it was supported against a beam by three hooks; I took it down and walked about the kitchen with it; it was a thin polished black stick, with a crome cut in the shape of an eagle’s head; at the end was a brass fence. The kind creature then produced a sword without a scabbard; this sword was found by Huw Morris on the mountain — it belonged to one of Oliver’s officers who was killed there. I took the sword, which was a thin two-edged one, and seemed to be made of very good steel; it put me in mind of the blades which I had seen at Toledo — the guard was very slight like those of all rapiers, and the hilt the common old-fashioned English officer’s hilt — there was no rust on the blade, and it still looked a dangerous sword. A man like Thistlewood would have whipped it through his adversary in a twinkling. I asked the old lady if Huw Morris was born in this house; she said no, but a little farther on at Pont y Meibion; she said, however, that the ground had belonged to him, and that they had some of his blood in their veins. I shook her by the hand, and gave the chubby bare-armed damsel a shilling, pointing to the marks of the nettle stings on her fat bacon-like arms. She laughed, made me a curtsey, and said: “Llawer iawn o diolch.”

John Jones and I then proceeded to the house at Pont y Meibion, where we saw two men, one turning a grind-stone, and the other holding an adze to it. We asked if we were at the house of Huw Morris, and whether they could tell us anything about him; they made us no answer but proceeded with their occupation; John Jones then said that the Gwr Boneddig was very fond of the verses of Huw Morris, and had come a great way to see the place where he was born. The wheel now ceased turning, and the man with the adze turned his face full upon me — he was a stern-looking, dark man, with black hair, of about forty; after a moment or two he said that if I chose to walk into the house I should be welcome. He then conducted us into the house, a common-looking stone tenement, and bade us be seated. I asked him if he was a descendant of Huw Morus; he said he was; I asked him his name, which he said was Huw —. “Have you any of the manuscripts of Huw Morus?” said I.

“None,” said he, “but I have one of the printed copies of his works.”

He then went to a drawer, and taking out a book, put it into my hand, and seated himself in a blunt, careless manner. The book was the first volume of the common Wrexham edition of Huw’s works; it was much thumbed — I commenced reading aloud a piece which I had much admired in my boyhood. I went on for some time, my mind quite occupied with my reading; at last lifting my eyes I saw the man standing bolt upright before me, like a soldier of the days of my childhood, during the time that the adjutant read prayers; his hat was no longer upon his head, but on the ground, and his eyes were reverently inclined to the book. After all what a beautiful thing it is, not to be, but to have been a genius. Closing the book, I asked him whether Huw Morris was born in the house where we were, and received for answer that he was born about where we stood, but that the old house had been pulled down, and that of all the premises only a small out-house was coeval with Huw Morris. I asked him the name of the house, and he said Pont y Meibion.

“But where is the bridge?” said I.

“The bridge,” he replied, “is close by, over the Ceiriog. If you wish to see it, you must go down yon field, the house is called after the bridge.” Bidding him farewell, we crossed the road and going down the field speedily arrived at Pont y Meibion. The bridge is a small bridge of one arch which crosses the brook Ceiriog — it is built of rough moor stone; it is mossy, broken, and looks almost inconceivably old; there is a little parapet to it about two feet high. On the right-hand side it is shaded by an ash. The brook when we viewed it, though at times a roaring torrent, was stealing along gently, on both sides it is overgrown with alders, noble hills rise above it to the east and west, John Jones told me that it abounded with trout. I asked him why the bridge was called Pont y Meibion, which signifies the bridge of the children. “It was built originally by children,” said he, “for the purpose of crossing the brook.”

“That bridge,” said I, “was never built by children.”

“The first bridge,” said he, “was of wood, and was built by the children of the houses above.”

Not quite satisfied with his explanation, I asked him to what place the little bridge led, and was told that he believed it led to an upland farm. After taking a long and wistful view of the bridge and the scenery around it, I turned my head in the direction of Llangollen. The adventures of the day were, however, not finished.

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