Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 46

The Valley of Gelert — Legend of the Dog — Magnificent Scenery — The Knicht — Goats in Wales — The Frightful Crag — Temperance House — Smile and Curtsey.

BETH GELERT is situated in a valley surrounded by huge hills, the most remarkable of which are Moel Hebog and Cerrig Llan; the former fences it on the south, and the latter, which is quite black and nearly perpendicular, on the east. A small stream rushes through the valley, and sallies forth by a pass at its south-eastern end. The valley is said by some to derive its name of Beddgelert, which signifies the grave of Celert, from being the burial-place of Celert, a British saint of the sixth century, to whom Llangeler in Carmarthenshire is believed to have been consecrated, but the popular and most universally received tradition is that it has its name from being the resting-place of a faithful dog called Celert or Gelert, killed by his master, the warlike and celebrated Llywelyn ab Jorwerth, from an unlucky misapprehension. Though the legend is known to most people, I shall take the liberty of relating it.

Llywelyn during his contests with the English had encamped with a few followers in the valley, and one day departed with his men on an expedition, leaving his infant son in a cradle in his tent, under the care of his hound Gelert, after giving the child its fill of goat’s milk. Whilst he was absent a wolf from the neighbouring mountains, in quest of prey, found its way into the tent, and was about to devour the child, when the watchful dog interfered, and after a desperate conflict, in which the tent was torn down, succeeded in destroying the monster. Llywelyn returning at evening found the tent on the ground, and the dog, covered with blood, sitting beside it. Imagining that the blood with which Gelert was besmeared was that of his own son devoured by the animal to whose care he had confided him, Llywelyn in a paroxysm of natural indignation forthwith transfixed the faithful creature with his spear. Scarcely, however, had he done so when his ears were startled by the cry of a child from beneath the fallen tent, and hastily removing the canvas he found the child in its cradle, quite uninjured, and the body of an enormous wolf, frightfully torn and mangled, lying near. His breast was now filled with conflicting emotions, joy for the preservation of his son, and grief for the fate of his dog, to whom he forthwith hastened. The poor animal was not quite dead, but presently expired, in the act of licking his master’s hand. Llywelyn mourned over him as over a brother, buried him with funeral honours in the valley, and erected a tomb over him as over a hero. From that time the valley was called Beth Gelert.

Such is the legend, which, whether true or fictitious, is singularly beautiful and affecting.

The tomb, or what is said to be the tomb, of Gelert, stands in a beautiful meadow just below the precipitous side of Cerrig Llan: it consists of a large slab lying on its side, and two upright stones. It is shaded by a weeping willow, and is surrounded by a hexagonal paling. Who is there acquainted with the legend, whether he believes that the dog lies beneath those stones or not, can visit them without exclaiming with a sigh, “Poor Gelert!”

After wandering about the valley for some time, and seeing a few of its wonders, I inquired my way for Festiniog, and set off for that place. The way to it is through the pass at the south-east end of the valley. Arrived at the entrance of the pass I turned round to look at the scenery I was leaving behind me; the view which presented itself to my eyes was very grand and beautiful. Before me lay the meadow of Gelert with the river flowing through it towards the pass. Beyond the meadow the Snowdon range; on the right the mighty Cerrig Llan; on the left the equally mighty, but not quite so precipitous, Hebog. Truly, the valley of Gelert is a wondrous valley — rivalling for grandeur and beauty any vale either in the Alps or Pyrenees. After a long and earnest view I turned round again and proceeded on my way.

Presently I came to a bridge bestriding the stream, which a man told me was called Pont Aber Glas Lyn, or the bridge of the debouchement of the grey lake. I soon emerged from the pass, and after proceeding some way stopped again to admire the scenery. To the west was the Wyddfa; full north was a stupendous range of rocks; behind them a conical peak seemingly rivalling the Wyddfa itself in altitude; between the rocks and the road, where I stood, was beautiful forest scenery. I again went on, going round the side of a hill by a gentle ascent. After a little time I again stopped to look about me. There was the rich forest scenery to the north, behind it were the rocks and behind the rocks rose the wonderful conical hill impaling heaven; confronting it to the south-east, was a huge lumpish hill. As I stood looking about me I saw a man coming across a field which sloped down to the road from a small house. He presently reached me, stopped and smiled. A more open countenance than his I never saw in all the days of my life.

“Dydd dachwi, sir,” said the man of the open countenance, “the weather is very showy.”

“Very showy, indeed,” said I; “I was just now wishing for somebody, of whom I might ask a question or two.”

“Perhaps I can answer those questions, sir?”

“Perhaps you can. What is the name of that wonderful peak sticking up behind the rocks to the north?”

“Many people have asked that question, sir, and I have given them the answer which I now give you. It is called the ‘Knicht,’ sir; and a wondrous hill it is.”

“And what is the name of yonder hill opposite to it, to the south, rising like one big lump.”

“I do not know the name of that hill, sir, farther than that I have heard it called the Great Hill.”

“And a very good name for it,” said I; “do you live in that house?”

“I do, sir, when I am at home.”

“And what occupation do you follow?”

“I am a farmer, though a small one.”

“Is your farm your own?”

“It is not, sir: I am not so far rich.”

“Who is your landlord?”

“Mr Blicklin, sir. He is my landlord.”

“Is he a good landlord?”

“Very good, sir, no one can wish for a better landlord.”

“Has he a wife?”

“In truth, sir, he has; and a very good wife she is.”

“Has he children?”

“Plenty, sir; and very fine children they are.”

“Is he Welsh?”

“He is, sir! Cumro pur iawn.”

“Farewell,” said I; “I shall never forget you; you are the first tenant I ever heard speak well of his landlord, or any one connected with him.”

“Then you have not spoken to the other tenants of Mr Blicklin, sir. Every tenant of Mr Blicklin would say the same of him as I have said, and of his wife and his children too. Good-day, sir!”

I wended on my way; the sun was very powerful; saw cattle in a pool on my right, maddened with heat and flies, splashing and fighting. Presently I found myself with extensive meadows on my right, and a wall of rocks on my left, on a lofty bank below which I saw goats feeding; beautiful creatures they were, white and black, with long silky hair, and long upright horns. They were of large size, and very different in appearance from the common race. These were the first goats which I had seen in Wales; for Wales is not at present the land of goats, whatever it may have been.

I passed under a crag exceedingly lofty, and of very frightful appearance. It hung menacingly over the road. With this crag the wall of rocks terminated; beyond it lay an extensive strath, meadow, or marsh bounded on the cast by a lofty hill. The road lay across the marsh. I went forward, crossed a bridge over a beautiful streamlet, and soon arrived at the foot of the hill. The road now took a turn to the right, that is to the south, and seemed to lead round the hill. Just at the turn of the road stood a small neat cottage. There was a board over the door with an inscription. I drew nigh and looked at it, expecting that it would tell me that good ale was sold within, and read: “Tea made here, the draught which cheers but not inebriates.” I was before what is generally termed a temperance house.

“The bill of fare does not tempt you, sir,” said a woman who made her appearance at the door, just as I was about to turn away with an exceedingly wry face.

“It does not,” said I, “and you ought to be ashamed of yourself to have nothing better to offer to a traveller than a cup of tea. I am faint; and I want good ale to give me heart, not wishy-washy tea to take away the little strength I have.”

“What would you have me do, sir? Glad should I be to have a cup of ale to offer you, but the magistrates, when I applied to them for a licence, refused me one; so I am compelled to make a cup of tea, in order to get a crust of bread. And if you choose to step in, I will make you a cup of tea, not wishy-washy, I assure you, but as good as ever was brewed.”

“I had tea for my breakfast at Beth Gelert,” said I, “and want no more till tomorrow morning. What’s the name of that strange-looking crag across the valley?”

“We call it Craig yr hyll ddrem, sir; which means — I don’t know what it means in English.”

“Does it mean the crag of the frightful look?”

“It does, sir,” said the woman; “ah, I see you understand Welsh. Sometimes it’s called Allt Traeth.”

“The high place of the sandy channel,” said I; “did the sea ever come up here?”

“I can’t say, sir; perhaps it did; who knows?”

“I shouldn’t wonder,” said I, “if there was once an arm of the sea between that crag and this hill. Thank you! Farewell.”

“Then you won’t walk in, sir?

“Not to drink tea,” said I, “tea is a good thing at a proper time, but were I to drink it now, it would make me ill.”

“Pray, sir, walk in,” said the woman, “and perhaps I can accommodate you.”

“Then you have ale?” said I.

“No, sir; not a drop, but perhaps I can set something before you which you will like as well.”

“That I question,” said I, “however, I will walk in.”

The woman conducted me into a nice little parlour, and, leaving me, presently returned with a bottle and tumbler on a tray.

“Here, sir,” said she, “is something, which though not ale, I hope you will be able to drink.”

“What is it?” said I.

“It is — sir; and better never was drunk.”

I tasted it; it was terribly strong. Those who wish for either whisky or brandy far above proof, should always go to a temperance house.

I told the woman to bring me some water, and she brought me a jug of water cold from the spring. With a little of the contents of the bottle, and a deal of the contents of the jug, I made myself a beverage tolerable enough; a poor substitute, however, to a genuine Englishman for his proper drink, the liquor which, according to the Edda, is called by men ale, and by the gods beer.

I asked the woman whether she could read; she told me that she could, both Welsh and English; she likewise informed me that she had several books in both languages. I begged her to show me some, whereupon she brought me some half dozen, and placing them on the table left me to myself. Amongst the books was a volume of poems in Welsh, written by Robert Williams of Betws Fawr, styled in poetic language, Gwilym Du O Eifion. The poems were chiefly on religious subjects. The following lines which I copied from “Pethau a wnaed mewn Gardd,” or things written in a garden, appeared to me singularly beautiful:-

“Mewn gardd y cafodd dyn ei dwyllo; Mewn gardd y rhoed oddewid iddo; Mewn gardd bradychwyd Iesu hawddgar; Mewn gardd amdowyd ef mewn daear.”

“In a garden the first of our race was deceived; In a garden the promise of grace he received; In a garden was Jesus betrayed to His doom; In a garden His body was laid in the tomb.”

Having finished my glass of “summut” and my translation, I called to the woman and asked her what I had to pay.

“Nothing,” said she, “if you had had a cup of tea I should have charged sixpence.”

“You make no charge,” said I, “for what I have had?”

“Nothing, sir, nothing.”

“But suppose,” said I, “I were to give you something by way of present would you — “ and here I stopped. The woman smiled.

“Would you fling it in my face?” said I.

“Oh dear, no, sir,” said the woman, smiling more than before.

I gave her something — it was not a sixpence — at which she not only smiled but curtseyed; then bidding her farewell I went out of the door.

I was about to take the broad road, which led round the hill, when she inquired of me where I was going, and on my telling her to Festiniog, she advised me to go by a by-road behind the house which led over the hill.

“If you do, sir,” said she, “you will see some of the finest prospects in Wales, get into the high road again, and save a mile and a half of way.”

I told the temperance woman I would follow her advice, whereupon she led me behind the house, pointed to a rugged path, which with a considerable ascent seemed to lead towards the north, and after giving certain directions, not very intelligible, returned to her temperance temple.

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