Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 48

The Bill — The Two Mountains — Sheet of Water — The Afanc–Crocodile — The Afanc–Beaver — Tai Hirion — Kind Woman — Arenig Vawr — The Beam and Mote — Bala.

AFTER breakfasting I demanded my bill. I was curious to see how little the amount would be, for after what I had heard from the old barber the preceding evening about the utter ignorance of the landlady in making a charge, I naturally expected that I should have next to nothing to pay. When it was brought, however, and the landlady brought it herself, I could scarcely believe my eyes. Whether the worthy woman had lately come to a perception of the folly of undercharging, and had determined to adopt a different system; whether it was that seeing me the only guest in the house she had determined to charge for my entertainment what she usually charged for that of two or three — strange by-the-bye that I should be the only guest in a house notorious for undercharging — I know not, but certain it is the amount of the bill was far, far from the next to nothing which the old barber had led me to suppose I should have to pay, who perhaps after all had very extravagant ideas with respect to making out a bill for a Saxon. It was, however, not a very unconscionable bill, and merely amounted to a trifle more than I had paid at Beth Gelert for somewhat better entertainment.

Having paid the bill without demur and bidden the landlady farewell, who displayed the same kind of indifferent bluntness which she had manifested the day before, I set off in the direction of the east, intending that my next stage should be Bala. Passing through a tollgate I found myself in a kind of suburb consisting of a few cottages. Struck with the neighbouring scenery, I stopped to observe it. A mighty mountain rises in the north almost abreast of Festiniog; another towards the east divided into two of unequal size. Seeing a woman of an interesting countenance seated at the door of a cottage I pointed to the hill towards the north, and speaking the Welsh language, inquired its name.

“That hill, sir,” said she, “is called Moel Wyn.”

Now Moel Wyn signifies the white, bare hill.

“And how do you call those two hills towards the east?”

“We call one, sir, Mynydd Mawr, the other Mynydd Bach.”

Now Mynydd Mawr signifies the great mountain and Mynydd Bach the little one.

“Do any people live in those hills?”

“The men who work the quarries, sir, live in those hills. They and their wives and their children. No other people.”

“Have you any English?”

“I have not, sir. No people who live on this side the talcot (tollgate) for a long way have any English.”

I proceeded on my journey. The country for some way eastward of Festiniog is very wild and barren, consisting of huge hills without trees or verdure. About three miles’ distance, however, there is a beautiful valley, which you look down upon from the southern side of the road, after having surmounted a very steep ascent. This valley is fresh and green and the lower parts of the hills on its farther side are, here and there, adorned with groves. At the eastern end is a deep, dark gorge, or ravine, down which tumbles a brook in a succession of small cascades. The ravine is close by the road. The brook after disappearing for a time shows itself again far down in the valley, and is doubtless one of the tributaries of the Tan y Bwlch river, perhaps the very same brook the name of which I could not learn the preceding day in the vale.

As I was gazing on the prospect an old man driving a peat cart came from the direction in which I was going. I asked him the name of the ravine and he told me it was Ceunant Coomb or hollow-dingle coomb. I asked the name of the brook, and he told me that it was called the brook of the hollow-dingle coomb, adding that it ran under Pont Newydd, though where that was I knew not. Whilst he was talking with me he stood uncovered. Yes, the old peat driver stood with his hat in his hand whilst answering the questions of the poor, dusty foot-traveller. What a fine thing to be an Englishman in Wales!

In about an hour I came to a wild moor; the moor extended for miles and miles. It was bounded on the east and south by immense hills and moels. On I walked at a round pace, the sun scorching me sore, along a dusty, hilly road, now up, now down. Nothing could be conceived more cheerless than the scenery around. The ground on each side of the road was mossy and rushy — no houses — instead of them were neat stacks, here and there, standing in their blackness. Nothing living to be seen except a few miserable sheep picking the wretched herbage, or lying panting on the shady side of the peat clumps. At length I saw something which appeared to be a sheet of water at the bottom of a low ground on my right. It looked far off — “Shall I go and see what it is?” thought I to myself. “No,” thought I. “It is too far off” — so on I walked till I lost sight of it, when I repented and thought I would go and see what it was. So I dashed down the moory slope on my right, and presently saw the object again — and now I saw that it was water. I sped towards it through gorse and heather, occasionally leaping a deep drain. At last I reached it. It was a small lake. Wearied and panting I flung myself on its bank and gazed upon it.

There lay the lake in the low bottom, surrounded by the heathery hillocks; there it lay quite still, the hot sun reflected upon its surface, which shone like a polished blue shield. Near the shore it was shallow, at least near that shore upon which I lay. But farther on, my eye, practised in deciding upon the depths of waters, saw reason to suppose that its depth was very great. As I gazed upon it my mind indulged in strange musings. I thought of the afanc, a creature which some have supposed to be the harmless and industrious beaver, others the frightful and destructive crocodile. I wondered whether the afanc was the crocodile or the beaver, and speedily had no doubt that the name was originally applied to the crocodile.

“Oh, who can doubt,” thought I, “that the word was originally intended for something monstrous and horrible? Is there not something horrible in the look and sound of the word afanc, something connected with the opening and shutting of immense jaws, and the swallowing of writhing prey? Is not the word a fitting brother of the Arabic timsah, denoting the dread horny lizard of the waters? Moreover, have we not the voice of tradition that the afanc was something monstrous? Does it not say that Hu the Mighty, the inventor of husbandry, who brought the Cumry from the summer-country, drew the old afanc out of the lake of lakes with his four gigantic oxen? Would he have had recourse to them to draw out the little harmless beaver? Oh, surely not. Yet have I no doubt that when the crocodile had disappeared from the lands, where the Cumric language was spoken, the name afanc was applied to the beaver, probably his successor in the pool, the beaver now called in Cumric Llostlydan, or the broad-tailed, for tradition’s voice is strong that the beaver has at one time been called the afanc.” Then I wondered whether the pool before me had been the haunt of the afanc, considered both as crocodile and beaver. I saw no reason to suppose that it had not. “If crocodiles,” thought I, “ever existed in Britain, and who shall say that they have not, seeing that there remains have been discovered, why should they not have haunted this pool? If beavers ever existed in Britain, and do not tradition and Giraldus say that they have, why should they not have existed in this pool?

“At a time almost inconceivably remote, when the hills around were covered with woods, through which the elk and the bison and the wild cow strolled, when men were rare throughout the lands and unlike in most things to the present race — at such a period — and such a period there has been — I can easily conceive that the afanc-crocodile haunted this pool, and that when the elk or bison or wild cow came to drink of its waters the grim beast would occasionally rush forth, and seizing his bellowing victim, would return with it to the deeps before me to luxuriate at his ease upon its flesh. And at a time less remote, when the crocodile was no more, and though the woods still covered the hills, and wild cattle strolled about, men were more numerous than before, and less unlike the present race, I can easily conceive this lake to have been the haunt of the afanc-beaver, that he here built cunningly his house of trees and clay, and that to this lake the native would come with his net and his spear to hunt the animal for his precious fur. Probably if the depths of that pool were searched relics of the crocodile and the beaver might be found, along with other strange things connected with the periods in which they respectively lived. Happy were I if for a brief space I could become a Cingalese that I might swim out far into that pool, dive down into its deepest part and endeavour to discover any strange things which beneath its surface may lie.” Much in this guise rolled my thoughts as I lay stretched on the margin of the lake.

Satiated with musing I at last got up and endeavoured to regain the road. I found it at last, though not without considerable difficulty. I passed over moors, black and barren, along a dusty road till I came to a valley; I was now almost choked with dust and thirst, and longed for nothing in the world so much as for water; suddenly I heard its blessed sound, and perceived a rivulet on my left hand. It was crossed by two bridges, one immensely old and terribly dilapidated, the other old enough, but in better repair — went and drank under the oldest bridge of the two. The water tasted of the peat of the moors, nevertheless I drank greedily of it, for one must not be over-delicate upon the moors.

Refreshed with my draught I proceeded briskly on my way, and in a little time saw a range of white buildings, diverging from the road on the right hand, the gable of the first abutting upon it. A kind of farm-yard was before them. A respectable-looking woman was standing in the yard. I went up to her and inquired the name of the place.

“These houses, sir,” said she, “are called Tai Hirion Mignaint. Look over that door and you will see T. H. which letters stand for Tai Hirion. Mignaint is the name of the place where they stand.”

I looked, and upon a stone which formed the lintel of the middlemost door I read “T. H 1630.”

The words Tai Hirion it will be as well to say signify the long houses.

I looked long and steadfastly at the inscription, my mind full of thoughts of the past.

“Many a year has rolled by since these houses were built,” said I, as I sat down on a stepping-stone.

“Many indeed, sir,” said the woman, “and many a strange thing has happened.”

“Did you ever hear of one Oliver Cromwell?” said I.

“Oh, yes, sir, and of King Charles too. The men of both have been in this yard and have baited their horses; aye, and have mounted their horses from the stone on which you sit.”

“I suppose they were hardly here together?” said I.

“No, no, sir,” said the woman, “they were bloody enemies, and could never set their horses together.”

“Are these long houses,” said I, “inhabited by different families?”

“Only by one, sir, they make now one farm-house.”

“Are you the mistress of it,” said I.

“I am, sir, and my husband is the master. Can I bring you anything, sir?”

“Some water,” said I, “for I am thirsty, though I drank under the old bridge.”

The good woman brought me a basin of delicious milk and water.

“What are the names of the two bridges,” said I, “a little way from here?”

“They are called, sir, the old and new bridge of Tai Hirion; at least we call them so.”

“And what do you call the ffrwd that runs beneath them?”

“I believe, sir, it is called the river Twerin.”

“Do you know a lake far up there amidst the moors?”

“I have seen it, sir; they call it Llyn Twerin.”

“Does the river Twerin flow from it?”

“I believe it does, sir, but I do not know.”

“Is the lake deep?”

“I have heard that it is very deep, sir, so much so that nobody knows it’s depth.”

“Are there fish in it?”

“Digon, sir, digon iawn, and some very large. I once saw a Pen-hwyad from that lake which weighed fifty pounds.”

After a little farther conversation I got up, and thanking the kind woman departed. I soon left the moors behind me and continued walking till I came to a few houses on the margin of a meadow or fen in a valley through which the way trended to the east. They were almost overshadowed by an enormous mountain which rose beyond the fen on the south. Seeing a house which bore a sign, and at the door of which a horse stood tied, I went in, and a woman coming to meet me in a kind of passage, I asked her if I could have some ale.

“Of the best, sir,” she replied, and conducted me down the passage into a neat room, partly kitchen, partly parlour, the window of which looked out upon the fen. A rustic-looking man sat smoking at a table with a jug of ale before him. I sat down near him, and the good woman brought me a similar jug of ale, which on tasting I found excellent. My spirits which had been for some time very flagging presently revived, and I entered into conversation with my companion at the table. From him I learned that he was a farmer of the neighbourhood, that the horse tied before the door belonged to him, that the present times were very bad for the producers of grain, with very slight likelihood of improvement; that the place at which we were was called Rhyd y fen, or the ford across the fen; that it was just half way between Festiniog and Bala, that the clergyman of the parish was called Mr Pughe, a good kind of man, but very purblind in a spiritual sense; and finally that there was no safe religion in the world, save that of the Calvinistic–Methodists, to which my companion belonged.

Having finished my ale I paid for it, and leaving the Calvinistic farmer still smoking, I departed from Rhyd y fen. On I went along the valley, the enormous hill on my right, a moel of about half its height on my left, and a tall hill bounding the prospect in the east, the direction in which I was going. After a little time, meeting two women, I asked them the name of the mountain to the south.

“Arenig Vawr,” they replied, or something like it.

Presently meeting four men I put the same question to the foremost, a stout, burly, intelligent-looking fellow, of about fifty. He gave me the same name as the women. I asked if anybody lived upon it.

“No,” said he, “too cold for man.”

“Fox?” said I.

“No! too cold for fox.”

“Crow?” said I.

“No, too cold for crow; crow would be starved upon it.” He then looked me in the face, expecting probably that I should smile.

I, however, looked at him with all the gravity of a judge, whereupon he also observed the gravity of a judge, and we continued looking at each other with all the gravity of judges till we both simultaneously turned away, he followed by his companions going his path, and I going mine.

I subsequently remembered that Arenig is mentioned in a Welsh poem, though in anything but a flattering and advantageous manner. The writer calls it Arenig ddiffaith or barren Arenig, and says that it intercepts from him the view of his native land. Arenig is certainly barren enough, for there is neither tree nor shrub upon it, but there is something majestic in its huge bulk. Of all the hills which I saw in Wales none made a greater impression upon me.

Towards evening I arrived at a very small and pretty village in the middle of which was a tollgate. Seeing an old woman seated at the door of the gate-house I asked her the name of the village. “I have no Saesneg!” she screamed out.

“I have plenty of Cumraeg,” said I, and repeated my question. Whereupon she told me that it was called Tref y Talcot — the village of the tollgate. That it was a very nice village, and that she was born there. She then pointed to two young women who were walking towards the gate at a very slow pace and told me they were English. “I do not know them,” said I. The old lady, who was somewhat deaf, thinking that I said I did not know English, leered at me complacently, and said that in that case, I was like herself, for she did not speak a word of English, adding that a body should not be considered a fool for not speaking English. She then said that the young women had been taking a walk together, and that they were much in each other’s company for the sake of conversation, and no wonder, as the poor simpletons could not speak a word of Welsh. I thought of the beam and mote mentioned in Scripture, and then cast a glance of compassion on the two poor young women. For a moment I fancied myself in the times of Owen Glendower, and that I saw two females, whom his marauders had carried off from Cheshire or Shropshire to toil and slave in the Welshery, walking together after the labours of the day were done, and bemoaning their misfortunes in their own homely English.

Shortly after leaving the village of the tollgate I came to a beautiful valley. On my right hand was a river the farther bank of which was fringed with trees; on my left was a gentle ascent, the lower part of which was covered with rich grass, and the upper with yellow luxuriant corn; a little farther on was a green grove, behind which rose up a moel. A more bewitching scene I never beheld. Ceres and Pan seemed in this place to have met to hold their bridal. The sun now descending shone nobly upon the whole. After staying for some time to gaze, I proceeded, and soon met several carts, from the driver of one of which I learned that I was yet three miles from Bala. I continued my way and came to a bridge, a little way beyond which I overtook two men, one of whom, an old fellow, held a very long whip in his hand, and the other, a much younger man with a cap on his head, led a horse. When I came up the old fellow took off his hat to me, and I forthwith entered into conversation with him. I soon gathered from him that he was a horsedealer from Bala, and that he had been out on the road with his servant to break a horse. I astonished the old man with my knowledge of Welsh and horses, and learned from him — for conceiving I was one of the right sort, he was very communicative — two or three curious particulars connected with the Welsh mode of breaking horses. Discourse shortened the way to both of us, and we were soon in Bala. In the middle of the town he pointed to a large old-fashioned house on the right hand, at the bottom of a little square, and said, “Your honour was just asking me about an inn. That is the best inn in Wales, and if your honour is as good a judge of an inn as of a horse, I think you will say so when you leave it. Prydnawn da ‘chwi!”

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