Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 32

Leave Pentraeth — Tranquil Scene — The Knoll — The Miller and his Wife — Poetry of Gronwy — Kind Offer — Church of Llanfair — No English — Confusion of Ideas — The Gronwy — Notable Little Girl — The Sycamore Leaf — Home from California.

THE village of Pentraeth Goch occupies two sides of a romantic dell — that part of it which stands on the southern side, and which comprises the church and the little inn, is by far the prettiest, that which occupies the northern is a poor assemblage of huts, a brook rolls at the bottom of the dell, over which there is a little bridge: coming to the bridge I stopped, and looked over the side into the water running briskly below. An aged man who looked like a beggar, but who did not beg of me, stood by.

“To what place does this water run?” said I in English.

“I know no Saxon,” said he in trembling accents.

I repeated my question in Welsh.

“To the sea,” he said, “which is not far off, indeed it is so near, that when there are high tides, the salt water comes up to this bridge.”

“You seem feeble?” said I.

“I am so,” said he, “for I am old.”

“How old are you?” said I.

“Sixteen after sixty,” said the old man with a sigh; “and I have nearly lost my sight and my hearing.”

“Are you poor?” said I.

“Very,” said the old man.

I gave him a trifle which he accepted with thanks.

“Why is this sand called the red sand?” said I.

“I cannot tell you,” said the old man, “I wish I could, for you have been kind to me.”

Bidding him farewell I passed through the northern part of the village to the top of the hill. I walked a little way forward and then stopped, as I had done at the bridge in the dale, and looked to the east, over a low stone wall.

Before me lay the sea or rather the northern entrance of the Menai Straits. To my right was mountain Lidiart projecting some way into the sea; to my left, that is to the north, was a high hill, with a few white houses near its base, forming a small village, which a woman who passed by knitting told me was called Llan Peder Goch or the Church of Red Saint Peter. Mountain Lidiart and the Northern Hill formed the headlands of a beautiful bay into which the waters of the Traeth dell, from which I had come, were discharged. A sandbank, probably covered with the sea at high tide, seemed to stretch from mountain Lidiart a considerable way towards the northern hill. Mountain, bay and sandbank were bathed in sunshine; the water was perfectly calm; nothing was moving upon it, nor upon the shore, and I thought I had never beheld a more beautiful and tranquil scene.

I went on. The country which had hitherto been very beautiful, abounding with yellow corn-fields, became sterile and rocky; there were stone walls, but no hedges. I passed by a moor on my left, then a moory hillock on my right; the way was broken and stony; all traces of the good roads of Wales had disappeared; the habitations which I saw by the way were miserable hovels into and out of which large sows were stalking, attended by their farrows.

“Am I far from Llanfair?” said I to a child.

“You are in Llanfair, gentleman,” said the child.

A desolate place was Llanfair. The sea in the neighbourhood to the south, limekilns with their stifling smoke not far from me. I sat down on a little green knoll on the right-hand side of the road; a small house was near me, and a desolate-looking mill at about a furlong’s distance, to the south. Hogs came about me grunting and sniffing. I felt quite melancholy.

“Is this the neighbourhood of the birth-place of Gronwy Owen?” said I to myself. “No wonder that he was unfortunate through life, springing from such a region of wretchedness.”

Wretched as the region seemed, however, I soon found there were kindly hearts close by me.

As I sat on the knoll I heard some one slightly cough very near me, and looking to the left saw a man dressed like a miller looking at me from the garden of the little house, which I have already mentioned.

I got up and gave him the sele of the day in English. He was a man about thirty, rather tall than otherwise, with a very prepossessing countenance. He shook his head at my English.

“What,” said I, addressing him in the language of the country, “have you no English? Perhaps you have Welsh?”

“Plenty,” said he, laughing “there is no lack of Welsh amongst any of us here. Are you a Welshman?”

“No,” said I, “an Englishman from the far east of Lloegr.”

“And what brings you here?” said the man.

“A strange errand,” I replied, “to look at the birth-place of a man who has long been dead.”

“Do you come to seek for an inheritance?” said the man.

“No,” said I. “Besides the man whose birth-place I came to see, died poor, leaving nothing behind him but immortality.”

“Who was he?” said the miller.

“Did you ever hear a sound of Gronwy Owen?” said I.

“Frequently,” said the miller; “I have frequently heard a sound of him. He was born close by in a house yonder,” pointing to the south.

“Oh yes, gentleman,” said a nice-looking woman, who holding a little child by the hand was come to the house-door, and was eagerly listening, “we have frequently heard speak of Gronwy Owen; there is much talk of him in these parts.”

“I am glad to hear it,” said I, “for I have feared that his name would not be known here.”

“Pray, gentleman, walk in!” said the miller; “we are going to have our afternoon’s meal, and shall be rejoiced if you will join us.”

“Yes, do, gentleman,” said the miller’s wife, for such the good woman was; “and many a welcome shall you have.”

I hesitated, and was about to excuse myself.

“Don’t refuse, gentleman!” said both, “surely you are not too proud to sit down with us?”

“I am afraid I shall only cause you trouble,” said I.

“Dim blinder, no trouble,” exclaimed both at once; “pray do walk in!”

I entered the house, and the kitchen, parlour, or whatever it was, a nice little room with a slate floor. They made me sit down at a table by the window, which was already laid for a meal. There was a clean cloth upon it, a tea-pot, cups and saucers, a large plate of bread-and-butter, and a plate, on which were a few very thin slices of brown, watery cheese.

My good friends took their seats, the wife poured out tea for the stranger and her husband, helped us both to bread-and-butter and the watery cheese, then took care of herself. Before, however, I could taste the tea, the wife, seeming to recollect herself, started up, and hurrying to a cupboard, produced a basin full of snow-white lump sugar, and taking the spoon out of my hand, placed two of the largest lumps in my cup, though she helped neither her husband nor herself; the sugar-basin being probably only kept for grand occasions.

My eyes filled with tears; for in the whole course of my life I had never experienced so much genuine hospitality. Honour to the miller of Mona and his wife; and honour to the kind hospitable Celts in general! How different is the reception of this despised race of the wandering stranger from that of —. However, I am a Saxon myself, and the Saxons have no doubt their virtues; a pity that they should be all uncouth and ungracious ones!

I asked my kind host his name.

“John Jones,” he replied, “Melinydd of Llanfair.”

“Is the mill which you work your own property?” I inquired.

“No,” he answered, “I rent it of a person who lives close by.”

“And how happens it,” said I, “that you speak no English?”

“How should it happen,” said he, “that I should speak any? I have never been far from here; my wife who has lived at service at Liverpool can speak some.”

“Can you read poetry?” said I.

“I can read the psalms and hymns that they sing at our chapel,” he replied.

“Then you are not of the Church?” said I.

“I am not,” said the miller; “I am a Methodist.”

“Can you read the poetry of Gronwy Owen?” said I.

“I cannot,” said the miller, “that is with any comfort; his poetry is in the ancient Welsh measures, which make poetry so difficult that few can understand it.”

“I can understand poetry in those measures,” said I.

“And how much time did you spend,” said the miller, “before you could understand the poetry of the measures?”

“Three years,” said I.

The miller laughed.

“I could not have afforded all that time,” said he, “to study the songs of Gronwy. However, it is well that some people should have time to study them. He was a great poet as I have been told, and is the glory of our land — but he was unfortunate; I have read his life in Welsh and part of his letters; and in doing so have shed tears.”

“Has his house any particular name?” said I.

“It is called sometimes Ty Gronwy,” said the miller; “but more frequently Tafarn Goch.”

“The Red Tavern?” said I. “How is it that so many of your places are called Goch? there is Pentraeth Goch; there is Saint Pedair Goch, and here at Llanfair is Tafarn Goch.”

The miller laughed.

“It will take a wiser man than I,” said he, “to answer that question.”

The repast over I rose up, gave my host thanks, and said, “I will now leave you, and hunt up things connected with Gronwy.”

“And where will you find a lletty for night, gentleman?” said the miller’s wife. “This is a poor place, but if you will make use of our home you are welcome.”

“I need not trouble you,” said I, “I return this night to Pentraeth Goch where I shall sleep.”

“Well,” said the miller, “whilst you are at Llanfair I will accompany you about. Where shall we go to first?”

“Where is the church?” said I. “I should like to see the church where Gronwy worshipped God as a boy.”

“The church is at some distance,” said the man; “it is past my mill, and as I want to go to the mill for a moment, it will be perhaps well to go and see the church, before we go to the house of Gronwy.”

I shook the miller’s wife by the hand, patted a little yellow-haired girl of about two years old on the head, who during the whole time of the meal had sat on the slate floor looking up into my face, and left the house with honest Jones.

We directed our course to the mill, which lay some way down a declivity, towards the sea. Near the mill was a comfortable-looking house, which my friend told me belonged to the proprietor of the mill. A rustic-looking man stood in the mill-yard, who he said was the proprietor. The honest miller went into the mill, and the rustic-looking proprietor greeted me in Welsh, and asked me if I was come to buy hogs.

“No,” said I; “I am come to see the birth-place of Gronwy Owen;” he stared at me for a moment, then seemed to muse, and at last walked away saying, “Ah! a great man.”

The miller presently joined me, and we proceeded farther down the hill. Our way lay between stone walls, and sometimes over them. The land was moory and rocky, with nothing grand about it, and the miller described it well when he said it was tir gwael — mean land. In about a quarter of an hour we came to the churchyard into which we got, the gate being locked, by clambering over the wall.

The church stands low down the descent, not far distant from the sea. A little brook, called in the language of the country a frwd, washes its yard-wall on the south. It is a small edifice with no spire, but to the south-west there is a little stone erection rising from the roof, in which hangs a bell — there is a small porch looking to the south. With respect to its interior I can say nothing, the door being locked. It is probably like the outside, simple enough. It seemed to be about two hundred and fifty years old, and to be kept in tolerable repair. Simple as the edifice was, I looked with great emotion upon it; and could I do else, when I reflected that the greatest British poet of the last century had worshipped God within it, with his poor father and mother, when a boy?

I asked the miller whether he could point out to me any tombs or grave-stones of Gronwy’s family, but he told me that he was not aware of any. On looking about I found the name of Owen in the inscription on the slate slab of a respectable-looking modern tomb, on the north-east side of the church. The inscription was as follows:

Er cof am JANE OWEN Gwraig Edward Owen, Monachlog Llanfair Mathafam eithaf, A fu farw Chwefror 28 1842 Yn 51 Oed.

I.E. “To the memory of JANE OWEN Wife of Edward Owen, of the monastery of St Mary of farther Mathafarn, who died February 28, 1842, aged fifty-one.”

Whether the Edward Owen mentioned here was any relation to the great Gronwy, I had no opportunity of learning. I asked the miller what was meant by the monastery, and he told that it was the name of a building to the north-east near the sea, which had once been a monastery but had been converted into a farm-house, though it still retained its original name. “May all monasteries be converted into farm-houses,” said I, “and may they still retain their original names in mockery of popery!”

Having seen all I could well see of the church and its precincts I departed with my kind guide. After we had retraced our steps some way, we came to some stepping-stones on the side of a wall, and the miller pointing to them said:

“The nearest way to the house of Gronwy will be over the llamfa.”

I was now become ashamed of keeping the worthy fellow from his business, and begged him to return to his mill. He refused to leave me, at first, but on my pressing him to do so, and on my telling him that I could find the way to the house of Gronwy very well by myself, he consented. We shook hands, the miller wished me luck, and betook himself to his mill, whilst I crossed the llamfa. I soon, however, repented having left the path by which I had come. I was presently in a maze of little fields with stone walls over which I had to clamber. At last I got into a lane with a stone wall on each side. A man came towards me and was about to pass me — his look was averted, and he was evidently one of those who have “no English.” A Welshman of his description always averting his look when he sees a stranger who he thinks has “no Welsh,” lest the stranger should ask him a question and he be obliged to confess that he has “no English.”

“Is this the way to Llanfair?” said I to the man. The man made a kind of rush in order to get past me.

“Have you any Welsh?” I shouted as loud as I could bawl.

The man stopped, and turning a dark sullen countenance half upon me said, “Yes, I have Welsh.”

“Which is the way to Llanfair?” said I.

“Llanfair, Llanfair?” said the man, “what do you mean?”

“I want to get there,” said I.

“Are you not there already?” said the fellow stamping on the ground, “are you not in Llanfair?

“Yes, but I want to get to the town.”

“Town, town! Oh, I have no English,” said the man; and off he started like a frighted bullock. The poor fellow was probably at first terrified at seeing an Englishman, then confused at hearing an Englishman speak Welsh, a language which the Welsh in general imagine no Englishman can speak, the tongue of an Englishman as they say not being long enough to pronounce Welsh; and lastly utterly deprived of what reasoning faculties he had still remaining by my asking him for the town of Llanfair, there being properly no town.

I went on, and at last getting out of the lane, found myself upon the road, along which I had come about two hours before; the house of the miller was at some distance on my right. Near me were two or three houses and part of the skeleton of one, on which some men, in the dress of masons, seemed to be occupied. Going up to these men I said in Welsh to one, whom I judged to be the principal, and who was rather a tall fine-looking fellow:

“Have you heard a sound of Gronwy Owain?”

Here occurred another instance of the strange things people do when their ideas are confused. The man stood for a moment or two, as if transfixed, a trowel motionless in one of his hands, and a brick in the other; at last giving a kind of gasp, he answered in very tolerable Spanish:

“Si, senor! he oido.”

“Is his house far from here?” said I in Welsh.

“No, senor!” said the man, “no esta muy lejos.”

“I am a stranger here, friend, can anybody show me the way?”

“Si senor! este mozo luego — acompanara usted.”

Then turning to a lad of about eighteen, also dressed as a mason, he said in Welsh:

“Show this gentleman instantly the way to Tafarn Goch.”

The lad flinging a hod down, which he had on his shoulder, instantly set off, making me a motion with his head to follow him. I did so, wondering what the man could mean by speaking to me in Spanish. The lad walked by my side in silence for about two furlongs till we came to a range of trees, seemingly sycamores, behind which was a little garden, in which stood a long low house with three chimneys. The lad stopping flung open a gate which led into the garden, then crying to a child which he saw within: “Gad roi tro” — let the man take a turn; he was about to leave me, when I stopped him to put sixpence into his hand. He received the money with a gruff “Diolch!” and instantly set off at a quick pace. Passing the child who stared at me, I walked to the back part of the house, which seemed to be a long mud cottage. After examining the back part I went in front, where I saw an aged woman with several children, one of whom was the child I had first seen. She smiled and asked me what I wanted.

I said that I had come to see the house of Gronwy. She did not understand me, for shaking her head she said that she had no English, and was rather deaf. Raising my voice to a very high tone I said:

“Ty Gronwy!”

A gleam of intelligence flashed now in her eyes.

“Ty Gronwy,” she said, “ah! I understand. Come in sir.”

There were three doors to the house; she led me in by the midmost into a common cottage room, with no other ceiling, seemingly, than the roof. She bade me sit down by the window by a little table, and asked me whether I would have a cup of milk and some bread-and-butter; I declined both, but said I should be thankful for a little water.

This she presently brought me in a teacup, I drank it, the children amounting to five standing a little way from me staring at me. I asked her if this was the house in which Gronwy was born. She said it was, but that it had been altered very much since his time — that three families had lived in it, but that she believed he was born about where we were now.

A man now coming in who lived at the next door, she said I had better speak to him and tell him what I wanted to know, which he could then communicate to her, as she could understand his way of speaking much better than mine. Through the man I asked her whether there was any one of the blood of Gronwy Owen living in the house. She pointed to the children and said they had all some of his blood. I asked in what relationship they stood to Gronwy. She said she could hardly tell, that tri priodas, three marriages stood between, and that the relationship was on the mother’s side. I gathered from her that the children had lost their mother, that their name was Jones, and that their father was her son. I asked if the house in which they lived was their own; she said no, that it belonged to a man who lived at some distance. I asked if the children were poor.

“Very,” said she.

I gave them each a trifle, and the poor old lady thanked me with tears in her eyes.

I asked whether the children could read; she said they all could, with the exception of the two youngest. The eldest she said could read anything, whether Welsh or English; she then took from the window-sill a book, which she put into my hand, saying the child could read it and understand it. I opened the book; it was an English school-book treating on all the sciences.

“Can you write?” said I to the child, a little stubby girl of about eight, with a broad flat red face and grey eyes, dressed in a chintz gown, a little bonnet on her head, and looking the image of notableness.

The little maiden, who had never taken her eyes off of me for a moment during the whole time I had been in the room, at first made no answer; being, however, bid by her grandmother to speak, she at length answered in a soft voice, “Medraf, I can.”

“Then write your name in this book,” said I, taking out a pocket-book and a pencil, “and write likewise that you are related to Gronwy Owen — and be sure you write in Welsh.”

The little maiden very demurely took the book and pencil, and placing the former on the table wrote as follows:

“Ellen Jones yn perthyn o bell i gronow owen.”

That is, “Ellen Jones belonging from afar to Gronwy Owen.”

When I saw the name of Ellen I had no doubt that the children were related to the illustrious Gronwy. Ellen is a very uncommon Welsh name, but it seems to have been a family name of the Owens; it was borne by an infant daughter of the poet whom he tenderly loved, and who died whilst he was toiling at Walton in Cheshire, —

“Ellen, my darling, Who liest in the Churchyard at Walton.”

says poor Gronwy in one of the most affecting elegies ever written.

After a little farther conversation I bade the family farewell and left the house. After going down the road a hundred yards I turned back in order to ask permission to gather a leaf from one of the sycamores. Seeing the man who had helped me in my conversation with the old woman standing at the gate, I told him what I wanted, whereupon he instantly tore down a handful of leaves and gave them to me. Thrusting them into my coat-pocket I thanked him kindly and departed.

Coming to the half-erected house, I again saw the man to whom I had addressed myself for information. I stopped, and speaking Spanish to him, asked how he had acquired the Spanish language.

“I have been in Chili, sir,” said he in the same tongue, “and in California, and in those places I learned Spanish.”

“What did you go to Chili for?” said I; “I need not ask you on what account you went to California.”

“I went there as a mariner,” said the man; “I sailed out of Liverpool for Chili.”

“And how is it,” said I, “that being a mariner and sailing in a Liverpool ship you do not speak English?”

“I speak English, senor,” said the man, “perfectly well.”

“Then how in the name of wonder,” said I, speaking English, “came you to answer me in Spanish? I am an Englishman thorough bred.”

“I can scarcely tell you how it was, sir,” said the man scratching his head, “but I thought I would speak to you in Spanish.”

“And why not English?” said I.

“Why, I heard you speaking Welsh,” said the man; “and as for an Englishman speaking Welsh —”

“But why not answer me in Welsh?” said I.

“Why, I saw it was not your language, sir,” said the man, “and as I had picked up some Spanish I thought it would be but fair to answer you in it.”

“But how did you know that I could speak Spanish?” said I.

“I don’t know indeed, sir,” said the man; “but I looked at you, and something seemed to tell me that you could speak Spanish. I can’t tell you how it was sir,” said he, looking me very innocently in the face, “but I was forced to speak Spanish to you. I was indeed!”

“The long and the short of it was,” said I, “that you took me for a foreigner, and thought that it would be but polite to answer me in a foreign language.”

“I daresay it was so, sir,” said the man. “I daresay it was just as you say.”

“How did you fare in California?” said I.

“Very fairly indeed, sir,” said the man. “I made some money there, and brought it home, and with part of it I am building this house.”

“I am very happy to hear it,” said I, “you are really a remarkable man — few return from California speaking Spanish as you do, and still fewer with money in their pockets.”

The poor fellow looked pleased at what I said, more especially at that part of the sentence which touched upon his speaking Spanish well. Wishing him many years of health and happiness in the house he was building, I left him, and proceeded on my path towards Pentraeth Goch.

After walking some way, I turned round in order to take a last look of the place which had so much interest for me. The mill may be seen from a considerable distance; so may some of the scattered houses, and also the wood which surrounds the house of the illustrious Gronwy. Prosperity to Llanfair! and may many a pilgrimage be made to it of the same character as my own.

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