Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 44

National School — The Young Preacher — Pont Bettws — Spanish Words — Two Tongues, Two Faces — The Elephant’s Snout — Llyn Cwellyn — The Snowdon Ranger — My House — Castell y Cidwm — Descent to Beth Gelert.

IT might be about three o’clock in the afternoon when I left Caernarvon for Beth Gelert, distant about thirteen miles. I journeyed through a beautiful country of hill and dale, woods and meadows, the whole gilded by abundance of sunshine. After walking about an hour without intermission I reached a village, and asked a man the name of it.

“Llan — something,” he replied.

As he was standing before a long building, through the open door of which a sound proceeded like that of preaching, I asked him what place it was, and what was going on in it, and received for answer that it was the National School, and that there was a clergyman preaching in it. I then asked if the clergyman was of the Church, and on learning that he was, I forthwith entered the building, where in one end of a long room I saw a young man in a white surplice preaching from a desk to about thirty or forty people, who were seated on benches before him. I sat down and listened. The young man preached with great zeal and fluency. The sermon was a very seasonable one, being about the harvest, and in it things temporal and spiritual were very happily blended. The part of the sermon which I heard — I regretted that I did not hear the whole — lasted about five-and-twenty minutes: a hymn followed, and then the congregation broke up. I inquired the name of the young man who preached, and was told that it was Edwards, and that he came from Caernarvon. The name of the incumbent of the parish was Thomas.

Leaving the village of the harvest sermon I proceeded on my way which lay to the south-east. I was now drawing nigh to the mountainous district of Eryri; a noble hill called Mount Eilio appeared before me to the north; an immense mountain called Pen Drws Coed lay over against it on the south, just like a couchant elephant with its head lower than the top of its back. After a time I entered a most beautiful sunny valley, and presently came to a bridge over a pleasant stream running in the direction of the south. As I stood upon that bridge I almost fancied myself in Paradise; everything looked so beautiful or grand — green, sunny meadows lay all around me, intersected by the brook, the waters of which ran with tinkling laughter over a shingly bottom. Noble Eilio to the north; enormous Pen Drws Coed to the south; a tall mountain far beyond them to the east. “I never was in such a lovely spot!” I cried to myself in a perfect rapture. “Oh, how glad I should be to learn the name of this bridge, standing on which I have had ‘Heaven opened to me,’ as my old friends the Spaniards used to say.” Scarcely had I said these words when I observed a man and a woman coming towards the bridge in the direction in which I was bound. I hastened to meet them in the hope of obtaining information. They were both rather young, and were probably a couple of sweethearts taking a walk or returning from meeting. The woman was a few steps in advance of the man; seeing that I was about to address her, she averted her head and quickened her steps, and before I had completed the question, which I put to her in Welsh, she had bolted past me screaming “Ah Dim Seasneg,” and was several yards distant.

I then addressed myself to the man who had stopped, asking him the name of the bridge.

“Pont Bettws,” he replied.

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

“Afon — something,” said he.

And on my thanking him he went forward to the woman who was waiting for him by the bridge.

“Is that man Welsh or English?” I heard her say when he had rejoined her.

“I don’t know,” said the man — “he was civil enough; why were you such a fool?”

“Oh, I thought he would speak to me in English,” said the woman, “and the thought of that horrid English puts me into such a flutter; you know I can’t speak a word of it.”

They proceeded on their way and I proceeded on mine, and presently coming to a little inn on the left side of the way, at the entrance of a village, I went in.

A respectable-looking man and woman were seated at tea at a table in a nice clean kitchen. I sat down on a chair near the table, and called for ale — the ale was brought me in a jug — I drank some, put the jug on the table, and began to discourse with the people in Welsh. A handsome dog was seated on the ground; suddenly it laid one of its paws on its master’s knee.

“Down, Perro,” said he.

“Perro!” said I; “why do you call the dog Perro?”

“We call him Perro,” said the man, “because his name is Perro.”

“But how came you to give him that name?” said I.

“We did not give it to him,” said the man — “he bore that name when he came into our hands; a farmer gave him to us when he was very young, and told us his name was Perro.”

“And how came the farmer to call him Perro?” said I.

“I don’t know,” said the man — “why do you ask?”

“Perro,” said I, “is a Spanish word, and signifies a dog in general. I am rather surprised that a dog in the mountains of Wales should be called by the Spanish word for dog.” I fell into a fit of musing. “How Spanish words are diffused! Wherever you go you will find some Spanish word or other in use. I have heard Spanish words used by Russian mujiks and Turkish fig-gatherers — I have this day heard a Spanish word in the mountains of Wales, and I have no doubt that were I to go to Iceland I should find Spanish words used there. How can I doubt it; when I reflect that more than six hundred years ago, one of the words to denote a bad woman was Spanish. In the oldest of Icelandic domestic Sagas, Skarphedin, the son of Nial the seer, called Hallgerdr, widow of Gunnar, a puta — and that word so maddened Hallgerdr that she never rested till she had brought about his destruction. Now, why this preference everywhere for Spanish words over those of every other language? I never heard French words or German words used by Russian mujiks and Turkish fig-gatherers. I question whether I should find any in Iceland forming part of the vernacular. I certainly never found a French or even a German word in an old Icelandic Saga. Why this partiality everywhere for Spanish words? the question is puzzling; at any rate it puts me out — ”

“Yes, it puts me out!” I exclaimed aloud, striking my fist on the table with a vehemence which caused the good folks to start half up from their seats. Before they could say anything, however, a vehicle drove up to the door, and a man getting out came into the room. He had a glazed hat on his head, and was dressed something like the guard of a mail. He touched his hat to me, and called for a glass of whiskey. I gave him the sele of the evening and entered into conversation with him in English. In the course of discourse I learned that he was the postman, and was going his rounds in his cart — he was more than respectful to me, he was fawning and sycophantic. The whiskey was brought, and he stood with the glass in his hand. Suddenly he began speaking Welsh to the people; before, however, he had uttered two sentences the woman lifted her hand with an alarmed air, crying “Hush! he understands.” The fellow was turning me to ridicule. I flung my head back, closed my eyes, opened my mouth and laughed aloud. The fellow stood aghast; his hand trembled, and he spilt the greater part of the whiskey upon the ground. At the end of about half a minute I got up, asked what I had to pay, and on being told twopence, I put down the money. Then going up to the man I put my right forefinger very near to his nose, and said “Dwy o iaith dwy o wyneb, two languages, two faces, friend!” Then after leering at him for a moment I wished the people of the house good-evening and departed.

Walking rapidly on towards the east I soon drew near the termination of the valley. The valley terminates in a deep gorge or pass between Mount Eilio — which by-the-bye is part of the chine of Snowdon — and Pen Drws Coed. The latter, that couchant elephant with its head turned to the north-east, seems as if it wished to bar the pass with its trunk; by its trunk I mean a kind of jaggy ridge which descends down to the road. I entered the gorge, passing near a little waterfall which with much noise runs down the precipitous side of Mount Eilio; presently I came to a little mill by the side of a brook running towards the east. I asked the miller-woman, who was standing near the mill, with her head turned towards the setting sun, the name of the mill and the stream. “The mill is called ‘The mill of the river of Lake Cwellyn,’” said she, “and the river is called the river of Lake Cwellyn.”

“And who owns the land?” said I.

“Sir Richard,” said she. “I Sir Richard yw yn perthyn y tir. Mr Williams, however, possesses some part of Mount Eilio.”

“And who is Mr Williams?” said I.

“Who is Mr Williams?” said the miller’s wife. “Ho, ho! what a stranger you must be to ask me who is Mr Williams.”

I smiled and passed on. The mill was below the level of the road, and its wheel was turned by the water of a little conduit supplied by the brook at some distance above the mill. I had observed similar conduits employed for similar purposes in Cornwall. A little below the mill was a weir, and a little below the weir the river ran frothing past the extreme end of the elephant’s snout. Following the course of the river I at last emerged with it from the pass into a valley surrounded by enormous mountains. Extending along it from west to east, and occupying its entire southern part lay an oblong piece of water, into which the streamlet of the pass discharged itself. This was one of the many beautiful lakes, which a few days before I had seen from the Wyddfa. As for the Wyddfa I now beheld it high above me in the north-east looking very grand indeed, shining like a silver helmet whilst catching the glories of the setting sun.

I proceeded slowly along the road, the lake below me on my right hand, whilst the shelvy side of Snowdon rose above me on the left. The evening was calm and still, and no noise came upon my ear save the sound of a cascade falling into the lake from a black mountain, which frowned above it on the south, and cast a gloomy shadow far over it.

This cataract was in the neighbourhood of a singular-looking rock, projecting above the lake from the mountain’s side. I wandered a considerable way without meeting or seeing a single human being. At last when I had nearly gained the eastern end of the valley I saw two men seated on the side of the hill, on the verge of the road, in the vicinity of a house which stood a little way up the hill. The lake here was much wider than I had hitherto seen it, for the huge mountain on the south had terminated and the lake expanded considerably in that quarter, having instead of the black mountain a beautiful hill beyond it.

I quickened my steps and soon came up to the two individuals. One was an elderly man, dressed in a smock frock and with a hairy cap on his head. The other was much younger, wore a hat, and was dressed in a coarse suit of blue nearly new, and doubtless his Sunday’s best. He was smoking a pipe. I greeted them in English and sat down near them. They responded in the same language, the younger man with considerable civility and briskness, the other in a tone of voice denoting some reserve.

“May I ask the name of this lake?” said I, addressing myself to the young man who sat between me and the elderly one.

“Its name is Llyn Cwellyn, sir,” said he, taking the pipe out of his mouth. “And a fine lake it is.”

“Plenty of fish in it?” I demanded.

“Plenty, sir; plenty of trout and pike and char.”

“Is it deep?” said I.

“Near the shore it is shallow, sir, but in the middle and near the other side it is deep, so deep that no one knows how deep it is.”

“What is the name,” said I, “of the great black mountain there on the other side?”

“It is called Mynydd Mawr or the Great Mountain. Yonder rock, which bulks out from it, down the lake yonder, and which you passed as you came along, is called Castell Cidwm, which means Wolf’s rock or castle.”

“Did a wolf ever live there?” I demanded.

“Perhaps so,” said the man, “for I have heard say that there were wolves of old in Wales.”

“And what is the name of the beautiful hill yonder, before us across the water?”

“That, sir, is called Cairn Drws y Coed,” said the man.

“The stone heap of the gate of the wood,” said I.

“Are you Welsh, sir?” said the man.

“No,” said I, “but I know something of the language of Wales. I suppose you live in that house?”

“Not exactly, sir, my father-inlaw here lives in that house, and my wife with him. I am a miner, and spend six days in the week at my mine, but every Sunday I come here and pass the day with my wife and him.”

“And what profession does he follow?” said I; “is he a fisherman?”

“Fisherman!” said the elderly man contemptuously, “not I. I am the Snowdon Ranger.”

“And what is that?” said I.

The elderly man tossed his head proudly, and made no reply.

“A ranger means a guide, sir,” said the younger man; “my father-inlaw is generally termed the Snowdon Ranger because he is a tip-top guide, and he has named the house after him the Snowdon Ranger. He entertains gentlemen in it who put themselves under his guidance in order to ascend Snowdon and to see the country.”

“There is some difference in your professions,” said “he deals in heights, you in depths, both, however, are break-necky trades.”

“I run more risk from gunpowder than anything else,” said the younger man. “I am a slate-miner, and am continually blasting. I have, however, had my falls. Are you going far to-night, sir?”

“I am going to Beth Gelert,” said I.

“A good six miles, sir, from here. Do you come from Caernarvon?”

“Farther than that,” said I. “I come from Bangor.”

“To-day, sir, and walking?”

“To-day, and walking.”

“You must be rather tired, sir, you came along the valley very slowly.”

“I am not in the slightest degree tired,” said I; “when I start from here, I shall put on my best pace, and soon get to Beth Gelert.”

“Anybody can get along over level ground,” said the old man, laconically.

“Not with equal swiftness,” said I. “I do assure you, friend, to be able to move at a good swinging pace over level ground is something not to be sneezed at. Not,” said I, lifting up my voice, “that I would for a moment compare walking on the level ground to mountain ranging, pacing along the road to springing up crags like a mountain goat, or assert that even Powell himself, the first of all road walkers, was entitled to so bright a wreath of fame as the Snowdon Ranger.”

“Won’t you walk in, sir?” said the elderly man.

“No, I thank you,” said I, “I prefer sitting out here gazing on the lake and the noble mountains.”

“I wish you would, sir,” said the elderly man, “and take a glass of something; I will charge you nothing.”

“Thank you,” said I, “I am in want of nothing, and shall presently start. Do many people ascend Snowdon from your house?”

“Not so many as I could wish,” said the ranger; “people in general prefer ascending Snowdon from that trumpery place Beth Gelert; but those who do are fools — begging your honour’s pardon. The place to ascend Snowdon from is my house. The way from my house up Snowdon is wonderful for the romantic scenery which it affords; that from Beth Gelert can’t be named in the same day with it for scenery; moreover, from my house you may have the best guide in Wales; whereas the guides of Beth Gelert — but I say nothing. If your honour is bound for the Wyddfa, as I suppose you are, you had better start from my house tomorrow under my guidance.”

“I have already been up the Wyddfa from Llanberis,” said I, “and am now going through Beth Gelert to Llangollen, where my family are; were I going up Snowdon again I should most certainly start from your house under your guidance, and were I not in a hurry at present, I would certainly take up my quarters here for a week, and every day snake excursions with you into the recesses of Eryri. I suppose you are acquainted with all the secrets of the hills?”

“Trust the old ranger for that, your honour. I would show your honour the black lake in the frightful hollow in which the fishes have monstrous heads and little bodies, the lake on which neither swan, duck nor any kind of wildfowl was ever seen to light. Then I would show your honour the fountain of the hopping creatures, where, where — ”

“Were you ever at that Wolf’s crag, that Castell y Cidwm?” said I.

“Can’t say I ever was, your honour. You see it lies so close by, just across the lake, that — ”

“You thought you could see it any day, and so never went,” said I. “Can you tell me whether there are any ruins upon it?”

“I can’t, your honour.”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” said I, “if in old times it was the stronghold of some robber-chieftain; cidwm in the old Welsh is frequently applied to a ferocious man. Castell Cidwm, I should think, rather ought to be translated the robber’s castle than the wolf’s rock. If I ever come into these parts again you and I will visit it together, and see what kind of place it is. Now farewell! It is getting late.” I then departed.

“What a nice gentleman!” said the younger man, when I was a few yards distant.

“I never saw a nicer gentleman,” said the old ranger.

I sped along, Snowdon on my left, the lake on my right, and the tip of a mountain peak right before me in the east. After a little time I looked back; what a scene! The silver lake and the shadowy mountain over its southern side looking now, methought, very much like Gibraltar. I lingered and lingered, gazing and gazing, and at last only by an effort tore myself away. The evening had now become delightfully cool in this land of wonders. On I sped, passing by two noisy brooks coming from Snowdon to pay tribute to the lake. And now I had left the lake and the valley behind, and was ascending a hill. As I gained its summit, up rose the moon to cheer my way. In a little time, a wild stony gorge confronted me, a stream ran down the gorge with hollow roar, a bridge lay across it. I asked a figure whom I saw standing by the bridge the place’s name. “Rhyd du” — the black ford — I crossed the bridge. The voice of the Methodist was yelling from a little chapel on my left. I went to the door and listened: “When the sinner takes hold of God, God takes hold of the sinner.” The voice was frightfully hoarse. I passed on: night fell fast around me, and the mountain to the south-east, towards which I was tending, looked blackly grand. And now I came to a milestone on which I read with difficulty: “Three miles to Beth Gelert.” The way for some time had been upward, but now it was downward. I reached a torrent, which coming from the north-west rushed under a bridge, over which I passed. The torrent attended me on my right hand the whole way to Beth Gelert. The descent now became very rapid. I passed a pine wood on my left, and proceeded for more than two miles at a tremendous rate. I then came to a wood — this wood was just above Beth Gelert — proceeding in the direction of a black mountain, I found myself amongst houses, at the bottom of a valley. I passed over a bridge, and inquiring of some people whom I met the way to the inn, was shown an edifice brilliantly lighted up, which I entered.

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