Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 83

Wild Scenery — Awful Chasm — John Greaves — Durham County — Queen Philippa — The Two Aldens — Welsh Wife — The Noblest Business — The Welsh and the Salve — The Lad John.

A RAINY and boisterous night was succeeded by a bright and beautiful morning. I arose and having ordered breakfast went forth to see what kind of country I had got into. I found myself amongst wild, strange-looking hills, not, however, of any particular height. The house, which seemed to front the east, stood on the side of a hill, on a wide platform abutting on a deep and awful chasm, at the bottom of which chafed and foamed the Rheidol. This river enters the valley of Pont Erwyd from the north-west, then makes a variety of snake-like turns, and at last bears away to the south-east just below the inn. The banks are sheer walls, from sixty to a hundred feet high, and the bed of the river has all the appearance of a volcanic rent. A brook, running from the south past the inn, tumbles into the chasm at an angle, and forms the cascade whose sound had lulled me to sleep the preceding night.

After breakfasting I paid my bill, and set out for the Devil’s Bridge without seeing anything more of that remarkable personage in whom were united landlord, farmer, poet, and mighty fine gentleman — the master of the house. I soon reached the bottom of the valley, where are a few houses and the bridge from which the place takes its name, Pont Erwyd signifying the bridge of Erwyd. As I was looking over the bridge, near which are two or three small waterfalls, an elderly man in a grey coat, followed by a young lad and dog, came down the road which I had myself just descended.

“Good day, sir,” said he, stopping, when he came upon the bridge. “I suppose you are bound my road?”

“Ah,” said I, recognising the old mining captain with whom I had talked in the kitchen the night before, “is it you? I am glad to see you. Yes, I am bound your way, provided you are going to the Devil’s Bridge.”

“Then, sir, we can go together, for I am bound to my mine, which lies only a little way t’other side of the Devil’s Bridge.”

Crossing the bridge of Erwyd, we directed our course to the south-east.

“What young man is that,” said I, “who is following behind us?”

“The young man, sir, is my son John, and the dog with him is his dog Joe.”

“And what may your name be, if I may take the liberty of asking?”

“Greaves, sir; John Greaves from the county of Durham.”

“Ah! a capital county that,” said I.

“You like the county, sir? God bless you! John!” said he in a loud voice, turning to the lad, “why don’t you offer to carry the gentleman’s knapsack?”

“Don’t let him trouble himself,” said I. “As I was just now saying, a capital county is Durham county.”

“You really had better let the boy carry your bag, sir.”

“No,” said I, “I would rather carry it myself. I question upon the whole whether there is a better county in England.”

“Is it long since your honour was in Durham county?”

“A good long time. A matter of forty years.”

“Forty years! — why that’s the life of a man. That’s longer than I have been out of the county myself. I suppose your honour can’t remember much about the county.”

“Oh yes, I can! I remember a good deal.”

“Please, your honour, tell me what you remember about the county. It would do me good to hear it.”

“Well, I remember it was a very fine county in more respects than one. One part of it was full of big hills and mountains, where there were mines of coal and lead, with mighty works with tall chimneys spouting out black smoke, and engines roaring, and big wheels going round, some turned by steam, and others by what they call forces, that is, brooks of water dashing down steep channels. Another part was a more level country, with beautiful woods, happy-looking farm-houses well-filled fields and rich, glorious meadows, in which stood stately, with brown sides and short horns, the Durham ox.”

“Oh dear, oh dear!” said my companion. “Ah! I see your honour knows everything about Durham county. Forces? none but one who had been in Durham county would have used that word. I haven’t heard it for five-and-thirty years. Forces! there was a force close to my village. I wonder if your honour has ever been in Durham city?”

“Oh yes! I have been there.”

“Does your honour remember anything about Durham city?”

“Oh yes! I remember a good deal about it.”

“Then, your honour, pray tell us what you remember about it — pray do I perhaps it will do me good.”

“Well then, I remember that it was a fine old city standing on a hill with a river running under it, and that it had a fine old church, one of the finest in the of Britain; likewise a fine old castle; and last, not least, a capital old inn, where I got a capital dinner off roast Durham beef, and a capital glass of ale, which I believe was the cause, of my being ever after fond of ale.”

“Dear me! Ah, I see your honour knows all about Durham city. And now let me ask one question. How came your honour to Durham, city and county? I don’t think your honour is a Durham man either of town or field.”

“I am not; but when I was a little boy I passed through Durham county with my mother and brother to a place called Scotland.”

“Scotland! a queer country that, your honour!”

“So it is,” said I; “a queerer country I never saw in all my life.”

“And a queer set of people, your honour.”

“So they are,” said I; “a queerer set of people than the Scotch you would scarcely see in a summer’s day.”

“The Durham folks, neither of town or field, have much reason to speak well of the Scotch, your honour.”

“I dare say not,” said I; “very few people have.”

“And yet the Durham folks, your honour, generally contrived to give them as good as they brought.”

“That they did,” said I; “a pretty licking the Durham folks once gave the Scots under the walls of Durham city, after the scamps had been plundering the country for three weeks — a precious licking they gave them, slaying I don’t know how many thousands, and taking their king prisoner.”

“So they did, your honour, and under the command of a woman too.”

“Very true,” said I; “Queen Philippa.”

“Just so, your honour! The idea that your honour should know so much about Durham, both field and town!”

“Well,” said I, “since I have told you so much about Durham, perhaps you will tell me something about yourself. How did you come here?”

“I had better begin from the beginning, your honour. I was born in Durham county close beside the Great Force, which no doubt your honour has seen. My father was a farmer, and had a bit of a share in a mining concern. I was brought up from my childhood both to farming and mining work, but most to mining, because, do you see, I took most pleasure in it, being the more noble business of the two. Shortly after I had come to man’s estate my father died, leaving me a decent little property, whereupon I forsook farming altogether and gave myself up, body, soul, and capital, to mining, which at last I thoroughly understand in all its branches. Well, your honour, about five-and-thirty years ago — that was when I was about twenty-eight — a cry went through the north country that a great deal of money might be made by opening Wales, that is, by mining in Wales in the proper fashion, which means the north country fashion, for there is no other fashion of mining good for much. There had long been mines in Wales, but they had always been worked in a poor, weak, languid manner, very different from that of the north country. So a company was formed, at the head of which were the Aldens, George and Thomas, for opening Wales, and they purchased certain mines in these districts which they knew to be productive, and which might be made yet more so, and settling down here called themselves the Rheidol United. Well, after they had been here a little time they found themselves in want of a man to superintend their concerns, above all in the smelting department. So they thought of me, who was known to most of the mining gentry in the north country, and they made a proposal to me through George Alden, afterwards Sir George, to come here and superintend. I said no at first, for I didn’t like the idea of leaving Durham county to come to such an outlandish place as Wales; howsomeover, I at last allowed myself to be overpersuaded by George Alden, afterwards Sir George, and here I came with my wife and family — for I must tell your honour I had married a respectable young woman of Durham county, by whom I had two little ones — here I came and did my best for the service of the Rheidol United. The company was terribly set to it for a long time, spending a mint of money and getting very poor returns. To my certain knowledge, the two Aldens, George and Tom, spent between them thirty thousand pounds. The company, however, persevered, chiefly at the instigation of the Aldens, who were in the habit of saying, ‘Never say die!’ and at last got the better of all their difficulties and rolled in riches, and had the credit of being the first company that ever opened Wales, which they richly deserved, for I will uphold it that the Rheidol United, particularly the Aldens, George and Thomas, were the first people who really opened Wales. In their service I have been for five-and-thirty years, and daresay shall continue so till I die. I have been tolerably comfortable, your honour, though I have had my griefs, the bitterest of which was the death of my wife, which happened about eight years after I came to this country. I thought I should have gone wild at first, your honour; having, however, always plenty to do, I at last got the better of my affliction. I continued single till my English family grew up and left me, when, feeling myself rather lonely, I married a decent young Welshwoman, by whom I had one son, the lad John who is following behind with his dog Joe. And now your honour knows the whole story of John Greaves, miner from the county of Durham.”

“And a most entertaining and instructive history it is,” said I. “You have not told me, however, how you contrived to pick up Welsh: I heard you speaking it last night with the postman.”

“Why, through my Welsh wife, your honour! Without her I don’t think I should ever have picked up the Welsh manner of discoursing — she is a good kind of woman, my Welsh wife, though — ”

“The loss of your Durham wife must have been a great grief to you,” said I.

“It was the bitterest grief, your honour, as I said before, that I ever had; my next worst I think was the death of a dear friend.”

“Who was that?” said I

“Who was it, your honour? why, the Duke of Newcastle.”

“Dear me!” said I, “how came you to know him?”

“Why, your honour, he lived at a place not far from here, called Hafod, and so — ”

“Hafod?” said I; “I have often heard of Hafod and its library; but I thought it belonged to an old Welsh family called Johnes.”

“Well, so it did, your honour, but the family died away, and the estate was put up for sale, and purchased by the Duke, who built a fine house upon it, which he made his chief place of residence — the old family house, I must tell your honour, in which the library was, had been destroyed by fire. Well, he hadn’t been long settled there before he found me out and took wonderfully to me, discoursing with me and consulting me about his farming and improvements. Many is the pleasant chat and discourse I have had with his Grace for hours and hours together, for his Grace had not a bit of pride, at least he never showed any to me, though perhaps the reason of that was that we were both north country people. Lord! I would have laid down my life for his Grace and have done anything but one which he once asked me to do. ‘Greaves,’ said the Duke to me one day, ‘I wish you would give up mining and become my steward.’ ‘Sorry I can’t oblige your Grace,’ said I, ‘but give up mining I cannot. I will at any time give your Grace all the advice I can about farming and such like, but give up mining I cannot; because why? — I conceive mining to be the noblest business in the ‘versal world.’ Whereupon his Grace laughed, and said he dare say I was right, and never mentioned the subject again.”

“Was his Grace very fond of farming and improving?”

“Oh yes, your honour. Like all the great gentry, especially the north country gentry, his Grace was wonderfully fond of farming and improving; and a wonderful deal of good he did, reclaiming thousands of acres of land which was before good for nothing, and building capital farm-houses and offices for his tenants. His grand feat, however, was bringing the Durham bull into this country, which formed a capital cross with the Welsh cows. Pity that he wasn’t equally fortunate with the north country sheep.”

“Did he try to introduce them into Wales?”

“Yes, but they didn’t answer, as I knew they wouldn’t. Says I to the Duke: ‘It won’t do, your Grace, to bring the north country sheep here: because why? the hills are too wet and cold for their constitutions’; but his Grace, who had sometimes a will of his own, persisted and brought the north country sheep to these parts, and it turned out as I said — the sheep caught the disease, and the wool parted and — ”

“But,” said I, “you should have told him about the salve made of bran, butter and oil; you should have done that.”

“Well, so I did, your honour. I told him about the salve, and the Duke listened to me, and the salve was made by these very hands; but when it was made, what do you think? the foolish Welsh wouldn’t put it on, saying that it was against their laws and statties and religion to use it, and talked about Devil’s salves and the Witch of Endor, and the sin against the Holy Ghost, and such like nonsense. So to prevent a regular rebellion, the Duke gave up the salve, and the poor sheep pined away and died, till at last there was not one left.”

“Who holds the estate at present?” said I.

“Why, a great gentleman from Lancashire, your honour, who bought it when the Duke died; but he doesn’t take the same pleasure in it which the Duke did, nor spend so much money about it, the consequence being that everything looks very different from what it looked in the Duke’s time. The inn at the Devil’s Bridge and the grounds look very different from what they looked in the Duke’s time, for you must know that the inn and the grounds form part of the Hafod estate, and are hired from the proprietor.”

By this time we had arrived at a small village, with a toll-bar and a small church or chapel at some little distance from the road, which here made a turn nearly full south. The road was very good, but the country was wild and rugged; there was a deep vale on the right, at the bottom of which rolled the Rheidol in its cleft, rising beyond which were steep, naked hills.

“This village,” said my companion, “is called Ysbytty Cynfyn. Down on the right, past the church, is a strange bridge across the Rheidol, which runs there through a horrid kind of a place. The bridge is called Pont yr Offeiriad, or the Parson’s Bridge, because in the old time the clergyman passed over it every Sunday to do duty in the church here.”

“Why is this place called Ysbytty Cynfyn?” said I, “which means the hospital of the first boundary; is there a hospital of the second boundary near here?”

“I can’t say anything about boundaries, your honour; all I know is, that there is another Spytty farther on beyond Hafod called Ysbytty Ystwyth, or the ‘Spytty upon the Ystwyth. But to return to the matter of the Minister’s Bridge: I would counsel your honour to go and see that bridge before you leave these parts. A vast number of gentry go to see it in the summer time. It was the bridge which the landlord was mentioning last night, though it scarcely belongs to his district, being quite as near the Devil’s Bridge inn as it is to his own, your honour.”

We went on discoursing for about half a mile farther, when, stopping by a road which branched off to the hills on the left, my companion said. “I must now wish your honour good day, being obliged to go a little way up here to a mining work on a small bit of business; my son, however, and his dog Joe will show your honour the way to the Devil’s Bridge, as they are bound to a place a little way past it. I have now but one word to say, which is, that should ever your honour please to visit me at my mine, your honour shall receive every facility for inspecting the works, and moreover have a bellyful of drink and victuals from Jock Greaves, miner from the county of Durham.”

I shook the honest fellow by the hand, and went on in company with the lad John and his dog as far as the Devil’s Bridge. John was a highly-intelligent lad, spoke Welsh and English fluently, could read, as he told me, both languages, and had some acquaintance with the writings of Twm o’r Nant, as he showed by repeating the following lines of the carter poet, certainly not the worst which he ever wrote:-

“Twm or Nant mae cant a’m galw, Tomas Edwards yw fy enw,”

Tom O Nant is a nickname I’ve got, My name’s Thomas Edwards, I wot.”

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