Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 39

Oats and Methodism — The Little Girl — Ty Gwyn — Bird of the Roof — Purest English — Railroads — Inconsistency — The Boots.

IT might be about four in the afternoon when I left L— bound for Pen Caer Gybi, or Holyhead, seventeen miles distant. I reached the top of the hill on the west of the little town, and then walked briskly forward. The country looked poor and mean — on my right was a field of oats, on my left a Methodist chapel — oats and Methodism! what better symbols of poverty and meanness?

I went onward a long way, the weather was broiling hot, and I felt thirsty. On the top of a long ascent stood a house by the roadside. I went to the door and knocked — no answer — “Oes neb yn y ty?” said I.

“Oes!” said an infantine voice.

I opened the door and saw a little girl. “Have you any water?” said I.

“No,” said the child, “but I have this,” and she brought me some butter-milk in a basin. I just tasted it, gave the child a penny and blessed her.

“Oes genoch tad?”

“No,” said she; “but I have a mam.” Tad in mam; blessed sounds; in all languages expressing the same blessed things.

After walking for some hours I saw a tall blue hill in the far distance before me. “What is the name of that hill?” said I to a woman whom I met.

“Pen Caer Gybi,” she replied.

Soon after I came to a village near to a rocky gully. On inquiring the name of the village, I was told it was Llan yr Afon, or the church of the river. I passed on; the country was neither grand nor pretty — it exhibited a kind of wildness, however, which did not fail to interest me — there were stones, rocks and furze in abundance. Turning round the corner of a hill, I observed through the mists of evening, which began to gather about me, what seemed to be rather a genteel house on the roadside; on my left, and a little way behind it a strange kind of monticle, on which I thought I observed tall upright stones. Quickening my pace, I soon came parallel with the house, which as I drew nigh, ceased to look like a genteel house, and exhibited an appearance of great desolation. It was a white, or rather grey structure of some antiquity. It was evidently used as a farm-house, for there was a yard adjoining to it, in which were stacks and agricultural implements. Observing two men in the yard, I went in. They were respectable, farm-looking men, between forty and fifty; one had on a coat and hat, the other a cap and jacket. “Good evening,” I said in Welsh.

“Good evening,” they replied in the same language, looking inquiringly at me.

“What is the name of this place?” said I.

“It is called Ty gwyn,” said the man of the hat.

“On account of its colour, I suppose?” said I.

“Just so,” said the man of the hat.

“It looks old,” said I.

“And it is old,” he replied. “In the time of the Papists it was one of their chapels.”

“Does it belong to you?” I demanded.

“Oh no, it belongs to one Mr Sparrow from Liverpool. I am his bailiff, and this man is a carpenter who is here doing a job for him.”

Here ensued a pause, which was broken by the man of the hat saying in English, to the man of the cap:

“Who can this strange fellow be? he has not a word of English, and though he speaks Welsh his Welsh sounds very different from ours. Who can he be?”

“I am sure I don’t know,” said the other.

“I know who he is,” said the first, “he comes from Llydaw, or Armorica, which was peopled from Britain estalom, and where I am told the real old Welsh language is still spoken.”

“I think I heard you mention the word Llydaw?” said I, to the man of the hat.

“Ah,” said the man of the hat, speaking Welsh, “I was right after all; oh, I could have sworn you were Llydaweg. Well, how are the descendants of the ancient Britons getting on in Llydaw?”

“They are getting on tolerably well,” said I, “when I last saw them, though all things do not go exactly as they could wish.”

“Of course not,” said he of the hat. “We too have much to complain of here; the lands are almost entirely taken possession of by Saxons, wherever you go you will find them settled, and a Saxon bird of the roof must build its nest in Gwyn dy.”

“You call a sparrow in your Welsh a bird of the roof, do you not?” said I.

“We do,” said he of the hat. “You speak Welsh very well considering you were not born in Wales. It is really surprising that the men of Llydaw should speak the iaith so pure as they do.”

“The Welsh when they went over there,” said I, “took effectual means that their descendants should speak good Welsh, if all tales be true.”

“What means?” said he of the hat.

“Why,” said I; “after conquering the country they put all the men to death, and married the women, but before a child was born they cut out all the women’s tongues, so that the only language the children heard when they were born was pure Cumraeg. What do you think of that?”

“Why, that it was a cute trick,” said he of the hat.

“A more clever trick I never heard,” said the man of the cap.

“Have you any memorials in the neighbourhood of the old Welsh?” said I.

“What do you mean?” said the man of the hat.

“Any altars of the Druids?” said I; “any stone tables?”

“None,” said the man of the hat.

“What may those stones be?” said I, pointing to the stones which had struck my attention.

“Mere common rocks,” said the man.

“May I go and examine them?” said I.

“Oh yes!” said he of the hat, “and we will go with you.”

We went to the stones, which were indeed common rocks, and which when I reached them presented quite a different appearance from that which they presented to my eye when I viewed them from afar.

“Are there many altars of the Druids in Llydaw?” said the man of the hat.

“Plenty,” said I, “but those altars are older than the time of the Welsh colonists, and were erected by the old Gauls.”

“Well,” said the man of the cap, “I am glad I have seen the man of Llydaw.”

“Whom do you call a man of Llydaw?” said I.

“Whom but yourself?” said he of the hat.

“I am not a man of Llydaw,” said I in English, “but Norfolk, where the people eat the best dumplings in the world, and speak the purest English. Now a thousand thanks for your civility. I would have some more chat with you, but night is coming on, and I am bound to Holyhead.”

Then leaving the men staring after me, I bent my steps towards Holyhead.

I passed by a place called Llan something, standing lonely on its hill. The country round looked sad and desolate. It is true night had come on when I saw it.

On I hurried. The voices of children sounded sweetly at a distance across the wild champaign on my left.

It grew darker and darker. On I hurried along the road; at last I came to lone, lordly groves. On my right was an open gate and a lodge. I went up to the lodge. The door was open, and in a little room I beheld a nice-looking old lady sitting by a table, on which stood a lighted candle, with her eyes fixed on a large book.

“Excuse me,” said I; “but who owns this property?”

The old lady looked up from her book, which appeared to be a Bible, without the slightest surprise, though I certainly came upon her unawares, and answered:

“Mr John Wynn.”

I shortly passed through a large village, or rather town, the name of which I did not learn. I then went on for a mile or two, and saw a red light at some distance. The road led nearly up to it, and then diverged towards the north. Leaving the road I made towards the light by a lane, and soon came to a railroad station.

“You won’t have long to wait, sir,” said a man, “the train to Holyhead will be here presently.”

“How far is it to Holyhead?” said I.

“Two miles, sir, and the fare is only sixpence.”

“I despise railroads,” said I, “and those who travel by them,” and without waiting for an answer returned to the road. Presently I heard the train — it stopped for a minute at the station, and then continuing its course passed me on my left hand, voiding fierce sparks, and making a terrible noise — the road was a melancholy one; my footsteps sounded hollow upon it. I seemed to be its only traveller — a wall extended for a long, long way on my left. At length I came to a turnpike. I felt desolate and wished to speak to somebody. I tapped at the window, at which there was a light; a woman opened it. “How far to Holyhead?” said I in English.

“Dim Saesneg,” said the woman.

I repeated my question in Welsh.

“Two miles,” said she.

“Still two miles to Holyhead by the road,” thought I. “Nos da,” said I to the woman and sped along. At length I saw water on my right, seemingly a kind of bay, and presently a melancholy ship. I doubled my pace, which was before tolerably quick, and soon saw a noble-looking edifice on my left, brilliantly lighted up. “What a capital inn that would make,” said I, looking at it wistfully, as I passed it. Presently I found myself in the midst of a poor, dull, ill-lighted town.

“Where is the inn?” said I to a man.

“The inn, sir; you have passed it. The inn is yonder,” he continued, pointing towards the noble-looking edifice.

“What, is that the inn?” said I.

“Yes, sir, the railroad hotel — and a first-rate hotel it is.”

“And are there no other inns?”

“Yes, but they are all poor places. No gent puts up at them — all the gents by the railroad put up at the railroad hotel.”

What was I to do? after turning up my nose at the railroad, was I to put up at its hotel? Surely to do so would be hardly acting with consistency. “Ought I not rather to go to some public-house, frequented by captains of fishing smacks, and be put in a bed a foot too short for me,” said I, as I reflected on my last night’s couch at Mr Pritchard’s. “No, that won’t do — I shall go to the hotel, I have money in my pocket, and a person with money in his pocket has surely a right to be inconsistent if he pleases.”

So I turned back and entered the railroad hotel with lofty port and with sounding step, for I had twelve sovereigns in my pocket, besides a half one, and some loose silver, and feared not to encounter the gaze of any waiter or landlord in the land. “Send boots!” I roared to the waiter, as I flung myself down in an arm-chair in a magnificent coffee-room. “What the deuce are you staring at? send boots can’t you, and ask what I can have for dinner.”

“Yes, sir,” said the waiter, and with a low bow departed.

“These boots are rather dusty,” said the boots, a grey-haired, venerable-looking man, after he had taken off my thick, solid, square-toed boots. “I suppose you came walking from the railroad?”

“Confound the railroad!” said I. “I came walking from Bangor. I would have you know that I have money in my pocket, and can afford to walk. I am fond of the beauties of nature; now it is impossible to see much of the beauties of nature unless you walk. I am likewise fond of poetry, and take especial delight in inspecting the birth-places and haunts of poets. It is because I am fond of poetry, poets and their haunts, that I am come to Anglesey. Anglesey does not abound in the beauties of nature, but there never was such a place for poets; you meet a poet, or the birth-place of a poet, everywhere.”

“Did your honour ever hear of Gronwy Owen?” said the old man.

“I have,” I replied, “and yesterday I visited his birth-place; so you have heard of Gronwy Owen?”

“Heard of him, your honour; yes, and read his works. That ‘Cowydd y Farn’ of his is a wonderful poem.”

“You say right,” said I; “the ‘Cowydd of Judgment’ contains some of the finest things ever written — that description of the toppling down of the top crag of Snowdon, at the day of Judgment, beats anything in Homer.”

“Then there was Lewis Morris, your honour,” said the old man, “who gave Gronwy his education and wrote ‘The Lasses of Meirion’ — and — “

“And ‘The Cowydd to the Snail,’” said I, interrupting him — “a wonderful man he was.”

“I am rejoiced to see your honour in our house,” said boots; “I never saw an English gentleman before who knew so much about Welsh poetry, nor a Welsh one either. Ah, if your honour is fond of poets and their places you did right to come to Anglesey — and your honour was right in saying that you can’t stir a step without meeting one; you have an example of the truth of that in me — for to tell your honour the truth, I am a poet myself, and no bad one either.”

Then tucking the dusty boots under his arm, the old man with a low congee, and a “Good-night, your honour!” shuffled out of the room.

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