Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 21

The Gloomy Valley — The Lonely Cottage — Happy Comparison — Clogs — The Alder Swamp — The Wooden Leg — The Militiaman — Death-bed Verses.

ON reaching the ruined village where the Pandy stood I stopped, and looked up the gloomy valley to the west, down which the brook which joins the Ceiriog at this place, descends, whereupon John Jones said, that if I wished to go up it a little way he should have great pleasure in attending me, and that he should show me a cottage built in the hen ddull, or old fashion, to which he frequently went to ask for the rent; he being employed by various individuals in the capacity of rent-gatherer. I said that I was afraid that if he was a rent-collector, both he and I should have a sorry welcome. “No fear,” he replied, “the people are very good people, and pay their rent very regularly,” and without saying another word he led the way up the valley. At the end of the village, seeing a woman standing at the door of one of the ruinous cottages, I asked her the name of the brook, or torrent, which came down the valley. “The Tarw,” said she, “and this village is called Pandy Teirw.”

“Why is the streamlet called the bull?” said I. “Is it because it comes in winter weather roaring down the glen and butting at the Ceiriog?”

The woman laughed, and replied that perhaps it was. The valley was wild and solitary to an extraordinary degree, the brook or torrent running in the middle of it covered with alder trees. After we had proceeded about a furlong we reached the house of the old fashion — it was a rude stone cottage standing a little above the road on a kind of platform on the right-hand side of the glen; there was a paling before it with a gate, at which a pig was screaming, as if anxious to get in. “It wants its dinner,” said John Jones, and opened the gate for me to pass, taking precautions that the screamer did not enter at the same time. We entered the cottage, very glad to get into it, a storm of wind and rain having just come on. Nobody was in the kitchen when we entered, it looked comfortable enough, however, there was an excellent fire of wood and coals, and a very snug chimney corner. John Jones called aloud, but for some time no one answered; at last a rather good-looking woman, seemingly about thirty, made her appearance at a door at the farther end of the kitchen. “Is the mistress at home,” said Jones, “or the master?”

“They are neither at home,” said the woman, “the master is abroad at his work, and the mistress is at the farm-house of — three miles off to pick feathers (trwsio plu).” She asked us to sit down.

“And who are you?” said I.

“I am only a lodger,” said she, “I lodge here with my husband who is a clog-maker.”

“Can you speak English?” said I.

“Oh yes,” said she, “I lived eleven years in England, at a place called Bolton, where I married my husband, who is an Englishman.”

“Can he speak Welsh?” said I.

“Not a word,” said she. “We always speak English together.”

John Jones sat down, and I looked about the room. It exhibited no appearance of poverty; there was plenty of rude but good furniture in it; several pewter plates and trenchers in a rack, two or three prints in frames against the wall, one of which was the likeness of no less a person than the Rev. Joseph Sanders, on the table was a newspaper. “Is that in Welsh?” said I.

“No,” replied the woman, “it is the BOLTON CHRONICLE, my husband reads it.”

I sat down in the chimney-corner. The wind was now howling abroad, and the rain was beating against the cottage panes — presently a gust of wind came down the chimney, scattering sparks all about. “A cataract of sparks!” said I, using the word Rhaiadr.

“What is Rhaiadr?” said the woman; “I never heard the word before.”

“Rhaiadr means water tumbling over a rock,” said John Jones — “did you never see water tumble over the top of a rock?”

“Frequently,” said she.

“Well,” said he, “even as the water with its froth tumbles over the rock, so did sparks and fire tumble over the front of that grate when the wind blew down the chimney. It was a happy comparison of the Gwr Boneddig, and with respect to Rhaiadr it is a good old word, though not a common one; some of the Saxons who have read the old writings, though they cannot speak the language as fast as we, understand many words and things which we do not.”

“I forgot much of my Welsh in the land of the Saxons,” said the woman, “and so have many others; there are plenty of Welsh at Bolton, but their Welsh is sadly corrupted.”

She then went out and presently returned with an infant in her arms and sat down. “Was that child born in Wales?” I demanded.

“No,” said she, “he was born at Bolton, about eighteen months ago — we have been here only a year.”

“Do many English,” said I, “marry Welsh wives?”

“A great many,” said she. “Plenty of Welsh girls are married to Englishmen at Bolton.”

“Do the Englishmen make good husbands?” said I.

The woman smiled and presently sighed.

“Her husband,” said Jones, “is fond of a glass of ale and is often at the public-house.”

“I make no complaint,” said the woman, looking somewhat angrily at John Jones.

“Is your husband a tall bulky man?” said I.

“Just so,” said the woman.

“The largest of the two men we saw the other night at the public-house at Llansanfraid,” said I to John Jones.

“I don’t know him,” said Jones, “though I have heard of him, but I have no doubt that was he.”

I asked the woman how her husband could carry on the trade of a clog-maker in such a remote place — and also whether he hawked his clogs about the country.

“We call him a clog-maker,” said the woman, “but the truth is that he merely cuts down the wood and fashions it into squares, these are taken by an under-master who sends them to the manufacturer at Bolton, who employs hands, who make them into clogs.”

“Some of the English,” said Jones, “are so poor that they cannot afford to buy shoes; a pair of shoes cost ten or twelve shillings, whereas a pair of clogs only cost two.”

“I suppose,” said I, “that what you call clogs are wooden shoes.”

“Just so,” said Jones — “they are principally used in the neighbourhood of Manchester.”

“I have seen them at Huddersfield,” said I, “when I was a boy at school there; of what wood are they made?”

“Of the gwern, or alder tree,” said the woman, “of which there is plenty on both sides of the brook.”

John Jones now asked her if she could give him a tamaid of bread; she said she could, “and some butter with it.”

She then went out and presently returned with a loaf and some butter.

“Had you not better wait,” said I, “till we get to the inn at Llansanfraid?”

The woman, however, begged him to eat some bread and butter where he was, and cutting a plateful, placed it before him, having first offered me some which I declined.

“But you have nothing to drink with it,” said I to him.

“If you please,” said the woman, “I will go for a pint of ale to the public-house at the Pandy, there is better ale there than at the inn at Llansanfraid. When my husband goes to Llansanfraid he goes less for the ale than for the conversation, because there is little English spoken at the Pandy however good the ale.”

John Jones said he wanted no ale — and attacking the bread and butter speedily made an end of it; by the time he had done the storm was over, and getting up I gave the child twopence, and left the cottage with Jones. We proceeded some way farther up the valley, till we came to a place where the ground descended a little. Here Jones touching me on the shoulder pointed across the stream. Following with my eye the direction of his finger, I saw two or three small sheds with a number of small reddish blocks in regular piles beneath them. Several trees felled from the side of the torrent were lying near, some of them stripped of their arms and bark. A small tree formed a bridge across the brook to the sheds.

“It is there,” said John Jones, “that the husband of the woman with whom we have been speaking works, felling trees from the alder swamp and cutting them up into blocks. I see there is no work going on at present or we would go over — the woman told me that her husband was at Llangollen.”

“What a strange place to come to work at,” said I, “out of crowded England. Here is nothing to be heard but the murmuring of waters and the rushing of wind down the gulleys. If the man’s head is not full of poetical fancies, which I suppose it is not, as in that case he would be unfit for any useful employment, I don’t wonder at his occasionally going to the public-house.”

After going a little further up the glen and observing nothing more remarkable than we had seen already, we turned back. Being overtaken by another violent shower just as we reached the Pandy I thought that we could do no better than shelter ourselves within the public-house, and taste the ale, which the wife of the clog-maker had praised. We entered the little hostelry which was one of two or three shabby-looking houses, standing in contact, close by the Ceiriog. In a kind of little back room, lighted by a good fire and a window which looked up the Ceiriog valley, we found the landlady, a gentlewoman with a wooden leg, who on perceiving me got up from a chair, and made me the best curtsey that I ever saw made by a female with such a substitute for a leg of flesh and bone. There were three men, sitting with jugs of ale near them on a table by the fire, two were seated on a bench by the wall, and the other on a settle with a high back, which ran from the wall just by the door, and shielded those by the fire from the draughts of the doorway. He of the settle no sooner beheld me than he sprang up, and placing a chair for me by the fire bade me in English be seated, and then resumed his own seat. John Jones soon finding a chair came and sat down by me, when I forthwith called for a quart of cwrw da. The landlady bustled about on her wooden leg and presently brought us the ale with two glasses, which I filled, and taking one drank to the health of the company who returned us thanks, the man of the settle in English rather broken. Presently one of his companions getting up paid his reckoning and departed, the other remained, a stout young fellow dressed something like a stone-mason, which indeed I soon discovered that he was — he was far advanced towards a state of intoxication and talked very incoherently about the war, saying that he hoped it would soon terminate, for that if it continued he was afraid he might stand a chance of being shot, as he was a private in the Denbighshire Militia. I told him that it was the duty of every gentleman in the militia to be willing at all times to lay down his life in the service of the Queen. The answer which he made I could not exactly understand, his utterance being very indistinct and broken; it was, however, made with some degree of violence, with two or three Myn Diawls, and a blow on the table with his clenched fist. He then asked me whether I thought the militia would be again called out. “Nothing more probable,” said I.

“And where would they be sent to?”

“Perhaps to Ireland,” was my answer, whereupon he started up with another Myn Diawl, expressing the greatest dread of being sent to Iwerddon.

“You ought to rejoice in your chance of going there,” said I, “Iwerddon is a beautiful country, and abounds with whisky.”

“And the Irish?” said he.

“Hearty, jolly fellows,” said I, “if you know how to manage them, and all gentlemen.”

Here he became very violent, saying that I did not speak truth, for that he had seen plenty of Irish camping amidst the hills, that the men were half naked and the women were three parts so, and that they carried their children on their backs. He then said that he hoped somebody would speedily kill Nicholas, in order that the war might be at an end and himself not sent to Iwerddon. He then asked if I thought Cronstadt could be taken. I said I believed it could, provided the hearts of those who were sent to take it were in the right place.

“Where do you think the hearts of those are who are gone against it?” said he — speaking with great vehemence.

I made no other answer than by taking my glass and drinking.

His companion now looking at our habiliments which were in rather a dripping condition asked John Jones if we had come from far.

“We have been to Pont y Meibion,” said Jones, “to see the chair of Huw Morris,” adding that the Gwr Boneddig was a great admirer of the songs of the Eos Ceiriog.

He had no sooner said these words than the intoxicated militiaman started up, and striking the table with his fist said: “I am a poor stone-cutter — this is a rainy day and I have come here to pass it in the best way I can. I am somewhat drunk, but though I am a poor stone-mason, a private in the militia, and not so sober as I should be, I can repeat more of the songs of the Eos than any man alive, however great a gentleman, however sober — more than Sir Watkin, more than Colonel Biddulph himself.”

He then began to repeat what appeared to be poetry, for I could distinguish the rhymes occasionally, though owing to his broken utterance it was impossible for me to make out the sense of the words. Feeling a great desire to know what verses of Huw Morris the intoxicated youth would repeat, I took out my pocket-book and requested Jones, who was much better acquainted with Welsh pronunciation, under any circumstances, than myself, to endeavour to write down from the mouth of the young fellow any verses uppermost in his mind. Jones took the pocket-book and pencil and went to the window, followed by the young man scarcely able to support himself. Here a curious scene took place, the drinker hiccuping up verses, and Jones dotting them down, in the best manner he could, though he had evidently great difficulty to distinguish what was said to him. At last, methought, the young man said — “There they are, the verses of the Nightingale, on his death-bed.”

I took the book and read aloud the following lines beautifully descriptive of the eagerness of a Christian soul to leave its perishing tabernacle, and get to Paradise and its Creator:-

“Myn’d i’r wyl ar redeg, I’r byd a beryi chwaneg, I Beradwys, y ber wiw deg, Yn Enw Duw yn union deg.”

“Do you understand those verses?” said the man on the settle, a dark swarthy fellow with an oblique kind of vision, and dressed in a pepper-and-salt coat.

“I will translate them,” said I; and forthwith put them into English — first into prose and then into rhyme, the rhymed version running thus:-

“Now to my rest I hurry away, To the world which lasts for ever and aye, To Paradise, the beautiful place, Trusting alone in the Lord of Grace” —

“Well,” said he of the pepper-and-salt, “if that isn’t capital I don’t know what is.”

A scene in a public-house, yes! but in a Welsh public-house. Only think of a Suffolk toper repeating the death-bed verses of a poet; surely there is a considerable difference between the Celt and the Saxon.

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