Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 26

Ceiniog Mawr — Pentre Voelas — The Old Conway — Stupendous Pass — The Gwedir Family — Capel Curig — The Two Children — Bread — Wonderful Echo — Tremendous Walker.

I WALKED on briskly over a flat uninteresting country, and in about an hour’s time came in front of a large stone house. It stood near the road, on the left-hand side, with a pond and pleasant trees before it, and a number of corn-stacks behind. It had something the appearance of an inn, but displayed no sign. As I was standing looking at it, a man with the look of a labourer, and with a dog by his side, came out of the house and advanced towards me.

“What is the name of this place?” said I to him in English as he drew nigh.

“Sir,” said the man, “the name of the house is Ceiniog Mawr.”

“Is it an inn?” said I.

“Not now, sir; but some years ago it was an inn, and a very large one, at which coaches used to stop; at present it is occupied by an amaethwr — that is a farmer, sir.”

“Ceiniog Mawr means a great penny,” said I, “why is it called by that name?”

“I have heard, sir, that before it was an inn it was a very considerable place, namely a royal mint, at which pennies were made, and on that account it was called Ceiniog Mawr.”

I was subsequently told that the name of this place was Cernioge Mawr. If such be the real name the legend about the mint falls to the ground, Cernioge having nothing to do with pence. Cern in Welsh means a jaw. Perhaps the true name of the house is Corniawg, which interpreted is a place with plenty of turrets or chimneys. A mile or two further the ground began to rise, and I came to a small village at the entrance of which was a water-wheel — near the village was a gentleman’s seat almost surrounded by groves. After I had passed through the village, seeing a woman seated by the roadside knitting, I asked her in English its name. Finding she had no Saesneg I repeated the question in Welsh, whereupon she told me that it was called Pentre Voelas.

“And whom does the ‘Plas’ belong to yonder amongst the groves?” said I.

“It belongs to Mr Wynn, sir, and so does the village and a great deal of the land about here. A very good gentleman is Mr Wynn, sir; he is very kind to his tenants and a very good lady is Mrs Wynn, sir; in the winter she gives much soup to the poor.”

After leaving the village of Pentre Voelas I soon found myself in a wild hilly region. I crossed a bridge over a river, which, brawling and tumbling amidst rocks, shaped its course to the north-east. As I proceeded, the country became more and more wild; there were dingles and hollows in abundance, and fantastic-looking hills, some of which were bare, and others clad with trees of various kinds. Came to a little well in a cavity, dug in a high bank on the left-hand side of the road, and fenced by rude stone work on either side; the well was about ten inches in diameter, and as many deep. Water oozing from the bank upon a slanting tile fastened into the earth fell into it. After damming up the end of the tile with my hand, and drinking some delicious water, I passed on and presently arrived at a cottage, just inside the door of which sat a good-looking middle-aged woman engaged in knitting, the general occupation of Welsh females.

“Good-day,” said I to her in Welsh. “Fine weather.”

“In truth, sir, it is fine weather for the harvest.”

“Are you alone in the house?”

“I am, sir, my husband has gone to his labour.”

“Have you any children?”

“Two, sir; but they are out at service.”

“What is the name of this place?”

“Pant Paddock, sir.”

“Do you get your water from the little well yonder?”

“We do, sir, and good water it is.”

“I have drunk of it.”

“Much good may what you have drunk do you, sir!”

“What is the name of the river near here?”

“It is called the Conway, sir.”

“Dear me; is that river the Conway?”

“You have heard of it, sir?”

“Heard of it! it is one of the famous rivers of the world. The poets are very fond of it — one of the great poets of my country calls it the old Conway.”

“Is one river older than another, sir?”

“That’s a shrewd question. Can you read?”

“I can, sir.”

“Have you any books?”

“I have the Bible, sir.”

“Will you show it me?”

“Willingly, sir.”

Then getting up she took a book from a shelf and handed it to me, at the same time begging me to enter the house and sit down. I declined, and she again took her seat and resumed her occupation. On opening the book the first words which met my eye were: “Gad i mi fyned trwy dy dir! — Let me go through your country” (Numb. XX. 22).

“I may say these words,” said I, pointing to the passage. “Let me go through your country.”

“No one will hinder you, sir, for you seem a civil gentleman.”

“No one has hindered me hitherto. Wherever I have been in Wales I have experienced nothing but kindness and hospitality, and when I return to my own country I will say so.”

“What country is yours, sir?”

“England. Did you not know that by my tongue?”

“I did not, sir. I knew by your tongue that you were not from our parts — but I did not know that you were an Englishman. I took you for a Cumro of the south country.”

Returning the kind woman her book, and bidding her farewell I departed, and proceeded some miles through a truly magnificent country of wood, rock, and mountain. At length I came to a steep mountain gorge, down which the road ran nearly due north, the Conway to the left running with great noise parallel with the road, amongst broken rocks, which chafed it into foam. I was now amidst stupendous hills, whose paps, peaks, and pinnacles seemed to rise to the very heaven. An immense mountain on the right side of the road particularly struck my attention, and on inquiring of a man breaking stones by the roadside I learned that it was called Dinas Mawr, or the large citadel, perhaps from a fort having been built upon it to defend the pass in the old British times. Coming to the bottom of the pass I crossed over by an ancient bridge, and, passing through a small town, found myself in a beautiful valley with majestic hills on either side. This was the Dyffryn Conway, the celebrated Vale of Conway, to which in the summer time fashionable gentry from all parts of Britain resort for shade and relaxation. When about midway down the valley I turned to the west, up one of the grandest passes in the world, having two immense door-posts of rock at the entrance. the northern one probably rising to the altitude of nine hundred feet. On the southern side of this pass near the entrance were neat dwellings for the accommodation of visitors with cool apartments on the ground floor, with large windows, looking towards the precipitous side of the mighty northern hill; within them I observed tables, and books, and young men, probably English collegians, seated at study.

After I had proceeded some way up the pass, down which a small river ran, a woman who was standing on the right-hand side of the way, seemingly on the look-out, begged me in broken English to step aside and look at the fall.

“You mean a waterfall, I suppose?” said I.

“Yes, sir.”

“And how do you call it?” said I.

“The Fall of the Swallow, sir.”

“And in Welsh?” said I.

“Rhaiadr y Wennol, sir.”

“And what is the name of the river?” said I.

“We call the river the Lygwy, sir.”

I told the woman I would go, whereupon she conducted me through a gate on the right-hand side and down a path overhung with trees to a rock projecting into the river. The Fall of the Swallow is not a majestic single fall, but a succession of small ones. First there are a number of little foaming torrents, bursting through rocks about twenty yards above the promontory on which I stood. Then come two beautiful rolls of white water, dashing into a pool a little way above the promontory; then there is a swirl of water round its corner into a pool below on its right, black as death, and seemingly of great depth; then a rush through a very narrow outlet into another pool, from which the water clamours away down the glen. Such is the Rhaiadr y Wennol, or Swallow Fall; called so from the rapidity with which the waters rush and skip along.

On asking the woman on whose property the fall was, she informed me that it was on the property of the Gwedir family. The name of Gwedir brought to my mind the “History of the Gwedir Family,” a rare and curious book which I had read in my boyhood, and which was written by the representative of that family, a certain Sir John Wynne, about the beginning of the seventeenth century. It gives an account of the fortunes of the family, from its earliest rise; but more particularly after it had emigrated, in order to avoid bad neighbours, from a fair and fertile district into rugged Snowdonia, where it found anything but the repose it came in quest of. The book which is written in bold graphic English, flings considerable light on the state of society in Wales, in the time of the Tudors, a truly deplorable state, as the book is full of accounts of feuds, petty but desperate skirmishes, and revengeful murders. To many of the domestic sagas, or histories of ancient Icelandic families, from the character of the events which it describes and also from the manner in which it describes them, the “History of the Gwedir Family,” by Sir John Wynne, bears a striking resemblance.

After giving the woman sixpence I left the fall, and proceeded on my way. I presently crossed a bridge under which ran the river of the fall, and was soon in a wide valley on each side of which were lofty hills dotted with wood, and at the top of which stood a mighty mountain, bare and precipitous, with two paps like those of Pindus opposite Janina, but somewhat sharper. It was a region of fairy beauty and of wild grandeur. Meeting an old bleared-eyed farmer I inquired the name of the mountain and learned that it was called Moel Siabod or Shabod. Shortly after leaving him, I turned from the road to inspect a monticle which appeared to me to have something of the appearance of a burial heap. It stood in a green meadow by the river which ran down the valley on the left. Whether it was a grave hill or a natural monticle, I will not say; but standing in the fair meadow, the rivulet murmuring beside it, and the old mountain looking down upon it, I thought it looked a very meet resting-place for an old Celtic king.

Turning round the northern side of the mighty Siabod I soon reached the village of Capel Curig, standing in a valley between two hills, the easternmost of which is the aforesaid Moel Siabod. Having walked now twenty miles in a broiling day I thought it high time to take some refreshment, and inquired the way to the inn. The inn, or rather the hotel, for it was a very magnificent edifice, stood at the entrance of a pass leading to Snowdon, on the southern side of the valley, in a totally different direction from the road leading to Bangor, to which place I was bound. There I dined in a grand saloon amidst a great deal of fashionable company, who, probably conceiving from my heated and dusty appearance that I was some poor fellow travelling on foot from motives of economy, surveyed me with looks of the most supercilious disdain, which, however, neither deprived me of my appetite nor operated uncomfortably on my feelings.

My dinner finished, I paid my bill, and having sauntered a little about the hotel garden, which is situated on the border of a small lake and from which, through the vista of the pass, Snowdon may be seen towering in majesty at the distance of about six miles, I started for Bangor, which is fourteen miles from Capel Curig.

The road to Bangor from Capel Curig is almost due west. An hour’s walking brought me to a bleak moor, extending for a long way amidst wild sterile hills.

The first of a chain on the left, was a huge lumpy hill with a precipice towards the road probably three hundred feet high. When I had come nearly parallel with the commencement of this precipice, I saw on the left-hand side of the road two children looking over a low wall behind which at a little distance stood a wretched hovel. On coming up I stopped and looked at them; they were a boy and girl; the first about twelve, the latter a year or two younger; both wretchedly dressed and looking very sickly.

“Have you any English?” said I, addressing the boy in Welsh.

“Dim gair,” said the boy; “not a word; there is no Saesneg near here.”

“What is the name of this place?”

“The name of our house is Helyg.”

“And what is the name of that hill?” said I, pointing to the hill of the precipice.

“Allt y Gog — the high place of the cuckoo.”

“Have you a father and mother?”

“We have.”

“Are they in the house?”

“They are gone to Capel Curig.”

“And they left you alone?”

“They did. With the cat and the trin-wire.”

“Do your father and mother make wire-work?”

“They do. They live by making it.”

“What is the wire-work for?”

“It is for hedges to fence the fields with.”

“Do you help your father and mother?”

“We do; as far as we can.”

“You both look unwell.”

“We have lately had the cryd” (ague).

“Is there much cryd about here?”

“Plenty.”

“Do you live well?”

“When we have bread we live well.”

“If I give you a penny will you bring me some water?”

“We will, whether you give us a penny or not. Come, sister, let us go and fetch the gentleman water.”

They ran into the house and presently returned, the girl bearing a pan of water. After I had drunk I gave each of the children a penny, and received in return from each a diolch or thanks.

“Can either of you read?”

“Neither one nor the other.”

“Can your father and mother read?”

“My father cannot, my mother can a little.”

“Are there books in the house?”

“There are not.”

“No Bible?”

“There is no book at all.”

“Do you go to church?”

“We do not.”

“To chapel?”

“In fine weather.”

“Are you happy?”

“When there is bread in the house and no cryd we are all happy.”

“Farewell to you, children.”

“Farewell to you, gentleman!” exclaimed both.

“I have learnt something,” said I, “of Welsh cottage life and feeling from that poor sickly child.”

I had passed the first and second of the hills which stood on the left, and a huge long mountain on the right which confronted both, when a young man came down from a gully on my left hand, and proceeded in the same direction as myself. He was dressed in a blue coat and corduroy trowsers, and appeared to be of a condition a little above that of a labourer. He shook his head and scowled when I spoke to him in English, but smiled on my speaking Welsh, and said: “Ah, you speak Cumraeg: I thought no Sais could speak Cumraeg.” I asked him if he was going far.

“About four miles,” he replied.

“On the Bangor road?”

“Yes,” said he; “down the Bangor road.”

I learned that he was a carpenter, and that he had been up the gully to see an acquaintance — perhaps a sweetheart. We passed a lake on our right which he told me was called Llyn Ogwen, and that it abounded with fish. He was very amusing, and expressed great delight at having found an Englishman who could speak Welsh; “it will be a thing to talk of,” said he, “for the rest of my life.” He entered two or three cottages by the side of the road, and each time he came out I heard him say: “I am with a Sais who can speak Cumraeg.” At length we came to a gloomy-looking valley trending due north; down this valley the road ran, having an enormous wall of rocks on its right and a precipitous hollow on the left, beyond which was a wall equally high as the other one. When we had proceeded some way down the road my guide said. “You shall now hear a wonderful echo,” and shouting “taw, taw,” the rocks replied in a manner something like the baying of hounds. “Hark to the dogs!” exclaimed my companion. “This pass is called Nant yr ieuanc gwn, the pass of the young dogs, because when one shouts it answers with a noise resembling the crying of hounds.”

The sun was setting when we came to a small village at the bottom of the pass. I asked my companion its name. “Ty yn y maes,” he replied, adding as he stopped before a small cottage that he was going no farther, as he dwelt there.

“Is there a public-house here?” said I.

“There is,” he replied, “you will find one a little farther up on the right hand.”

“Come, and take some ale,” said I.

“No,” said he.

“Why not?” I demanded.

“I am a teetotaler,” he replied.

“Indeed,” said I, and having shaken him by the hand, thanked him for his company and bidding him farewell, went on. He was the first person I had ever met of the fraternity to which he belonged, who did not endeavour to make a parade of his abstinence and self-denial.

After drinking some tolerably good ale in the public house I again started. As I left the village a clock struck eight. The evening was delightfully cool; but it soon became nearly dark. I passed under high rocks, by houses and by groves, in which nightingales were singing, to listen to whose entrancing melody I more than once stopped. On coming to a town, lighted up and thronged with people, I asked one of a group of young fellows its name.

“Bethesda,” he replied.

“A scriptural name,” said I.

“Is it?” said he; “well, if its name is scriptural the manners of its people are by no means so.”

A little way beyond the town a man came out of a cottage and walked beside me. He had a basket in his hand. I quickened my pace; but he was a tremendous walker, and kept up with me. On we went side by side for more than a mile without speaking a word. At length, putting out my legs in genuine Barclay fashion, I got before him about ten yards, then turning round laughed and spoke to him in English. He too laughed and spoke, but in Welsh. We now went on like brothers, conversing, but always walking at great speed. I learned from him that he was a market-gardener living at Bangor, and that Bangor was three miles off. On the stars shining out we began to talk about them.

Pointing to Charles’s Wain I said, “A good star for travellers.”

Whereupon pointing to the North star, he said:

“I forwyr da iawn — a good star for mariners.”

We passed a large house on our left.

“Who lives there?” said I.

“Mr Smith,” he replied. “It is called Plas Newydd; milltir genom etto — we have yet another mile.”

In ten minutes we were at Bangor. I asked him where the Albion Hotel was.

“I will show it you,” said he, and so he did.

As we came under it I heard the voice of my wife, for she, standing on a balcony and distinguishing me by the lamplight, called out. I shook hands with the kind six-mile-an-hour market-gardener, and going into the inn found my wife and daughter, who rejoiced to see me. We presently had tea.

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