Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 88

The Guide — The Great Plynlimmon — A Dangerous Path — Source of the Rheidol — Source of the Severn — Pennillion — Old Times and New — The Corpse Candle — Supper.

LEAVING the inn, my guide and myself began to ascend a steep hill just behind it. When we were about halfway up I asked my companion, who spoke very fair English, why the place was called the Castle.

“Because, sir,” said he, “there was a castle here in the old time.”

“Whereabouts was it?” said I.

“Yonder,” said the man, standing still and pointing to the right. “Don’t you see yonder brown spot in the valley? There the castle stood.”

“But are there no remains of it?” said I. “I can see nothing but a brown spot.”

“There are none, sir; but there a castle once stood, and from it the place we came from had its name, and likewise the river that runs down to Pont Erwyd.”

“And who lived there?” said I.

“I don’t know, sir,” said the man; “but I suppose they were grand people, or they would not have lived in a castle.”

After ascending the hill and passing over its top, we went down its western side and soon came to a black, frightful bog between two hills. Beyond the bog and at some distance to the west of the two hills rose a brown mountain, not abruptly, but gradually, and looking more like what the Welsh call a rhiw, or slope, than a mynydd, or mountain.

“That, sir,” said my guide, “is the grand Plynlimmon.”

“It does not look much of a hill,” said I.

“We are on very high ground, sir, or it would look much higher. I question, upon the whole, whether there is a higher hill in the world. God bless Pumlummon Mawr!” said he, looking with reverence towards the hill. “I am sure I have a right to say so, for many is the good crown I have got by showing gentlefolks like yourself to the top of him.”

“You talk of Plynlimmon Mawr, or the great Plynlymmon,” said I; “where are the small ones?”

“Yonder they are,” said the guide, pointing to two hills towards the north; “one is Plynlimmon Canol, and the other Plynlimmon Bach — the middle and the small Plynlimmon.”

“Pumlummon,” said I, “means five summits. You have pointed out only three; now, where are the other two?”

“Those two hills which we have just passed make up the five. However, I will tell your worship that there is a sixth summit. Don’t you see that small hill connected with the big Pumlummon, on the right?”

“I see it very clearly,” said I.

“Well, your worship, that’s called Bryn y Llo — the Hill of the Calf, or the Calf Plynlimmon, which makes the sixth summit.”

“Very good,” said I, “and perfectly satisfactory. Now let us ascend the Big Pumlummon.”

In about a quarter of an hour we reached the summit of the hill, where stood a large carn or heap of stones. I got upon the top and looked around me.

A mountainous wilderness extended on every side, a waste of russet coloured hills, with here and there a black, craggy summit. No signs of life or cultivation were to be discovered, and the eye might search in vain for a grove or even a single tree. The scene would have been cheerless in the extreme had not a bright sun lighted up the landscape.

“This does not seem to be a country of much society,” said I to my guide.

“It is not, sir. The nearest house is the inn we came from, which is now three miles behind us. Straight before you there is not one for at least ten, and on either side it is an anialwch to a vast distance. Plunlummon is not a sociable country, sir; nothing to be found in it, but here and there a few sheep or a shepherd.”

“Now,” said I, descending from the carn, “we will proceed to the sources of the rivers.”

“The ffynnon of the Rheidol is not far off,” said the guide; “it is just below the hill.”

We descended the western side of the hill for some way; at length, coming to a very craggy and precipitous place, my guide stopped, and pointing with his finger into the valley below, said:-

“There, sir, if you look down you can see the source of the Rheidol.”

I looked down, and saw far below what appeared to be part of a small sheet of water.

“And that is the source of the Rheidol?” said I.

“Yes, sir,” said my guide; “that is the ffynnon of the Rheidol.”

“Well,” said I; “is there no getting to it?”

“Oh yes! but the path, sir, as you see, is rather steep and dangerous.”

“Never mind,” said I. “Let us try it.”

“Isn’t seeing the fountain sufficient for you, sir?”

“By no means,” said I. “It is not only necessary for me to see the sources of the rivers, but to drink of them, in order that in after times I may be able to harangue about them with a tone of confidence and authority.”

“Then follow me, sir; but please to take care, for this path is more fit for sheep or shepherds than gentlefolk.”

And a truly bad path I found it; so bad indeed that before I had descended twenty yards I almost repented having ventured. I had a capital guide, however, who went before and told me where to plant my steps. There was one particularly bad part, being little better than a sheer precipice; but even here I got down in safety with the assistance of my guide, and a minute afterwards found myself at the source of the Rheidol.

The source of the Rheidol is a small beautiful lake, about a quarter of a mile in length. It is overhung on the east and north by frightful crags, from which it is fed by a number of small rills. The water is of the deepest blue, and of very considerable depth. The banks, except to the north and east, slope gently down, and are clad with soft and beautiful moss. The river, of which it is the head, emerges at the south-western side, and brawls away in the shape of a considerable brook, amidst moss, and rushes down a wild glen tending to the south. To the west the prospect is bounded, at a slight distance, by high, swelling ground. If few rivers have a more wild and wondrous channel than the Rheidol, fewer still have a more beautiful and romantic source.

After kneeling down and drinking freely of the lake I said:

“Now, where are we to go to next?”

“The nearest ffynnon to that of the Rheidol, sir, is the ffynnon of the Severn.”

“Very well,” said I; “let us now go and see the ffynnon of the Severn!”

I followed my guide over a hill to the north-west into a valley, at the farther end of which I saw a brook streaming apparently to the south, where was an outlet.

“That brook,” said the guide, “is the young Severn.” The brook came from round the side of a very lofty rock, singularly variegated, black and white, the northern summit presenting something of the appearance of the head of a horse. Passing round this crag we came to a fountain surrounded with rushes, out of which the brook, now exceedingly small, came murmuring.

“The crag above,” said my guide, “is called Crag y Cefyl, or the Rock of the Horse, and this spring at its foot is generally called the ffynnon of the Hafren. However, drink not of it, master; for the ffynnon of the Hafren is higher up the nant. Follow me, and I will presently show you the real ffynnon of the Hafren.”

I followed him up a narrow and very steep dingle. Presently we came to some beautiful little pools of water in the turf, which was here remarkably green.

“These are very pretty pools, an’t they, master?” said my companion. “Now, if I was a false guide I might bid you stoop and drink, saying that these were the sources of the Severn; but I am a true cyfarwydd, and therefore tell you not to drink, for these pools are not the sources of the Hafren, no more than the spring below. The ffynnon of the Severn is higher up the nant. Don’t fret, however, but follow me, and we shall be there in a minute.”

So I did as he bade me, following him without fretting higher up the nant. Just at the top he halted and said: “Now, master, I have conducted you to the source of the Severn. I have considered the matter deeply, and have come to the conclusion that here, and here only, is the true source. Therefore stoop down and drink, in full confidence that you are taking possession of the Holy Severn.”

The source of the Severn is a little pool of water some twenty inches long, six wide, and about three deep. It is covered at the bottom with small stones, from between which the water gushes up. It is on the left-hand side of the nant, as you ascend, close by the very top. An unsightly heap of black turf-earth stands right above it to the north. Turf-heaps, both large and small, are in abundance in the vicinity.

After taking possession of the Severn by drinking at its source, rather a shabby source for so noble a stream, I said, “Now let us go to the fountain of the Wye.”

“A quarter of an hour will take us to it, your honour,” said the guide, leading the way.

The source of the Wye, which is a little pool, not much larger than that which constitutes the fountain of the Severn, stands near the top of a grassy hill which forms part of the Great Plynlimmon. The stream after leaving its source runs down the hill towards the east, and then takes a turn to the south. The Mountains of the Severn and the Wye are in close proximity to each other. That of the Rheidol stands somewhat apart front both, as if, proud of its own beauty, it disdained the other two for their homeliness. All three are contained within the compass of a mile.

“And now, I suppose, sir, that our work is done, and we may go back to where we came from,” said my guide, as I stood on the grassy hill after drinking copiously of the fountain of the Wye.

“We may,” said I; “but before we do I must repeat some lines made by a man who visited these sources, and experienced the hospitality of a chieftain in this neighbourhood four hundred years ago.” Then taking off my hat, I lifted up my voice and sang:-

“From high Plynlimmon’s shaggy side Three streams in three directions glide; To thousands at their mouths who tarry Honey, gold and mead they carry. Flow also from Plynlimmon high Three streams of generosity; The first, a noble stream indeed, Like rills of Mona runs with mead; The second bears from vineyards thick Wine to the feeble and the sick; The third, till time shall be no more, Mingled with gold shall silver pour.”

“Nice pennillion, sir, I daresay,” said my guide, “provided a person could understand them. What’s meant by all this mead, wine, gold, and silver?”

“Why,” said I, “the bard meant to say that Plynlimmon, by means of its three channels, sends blessings and wealth in three different directions to distant places, and that the person whom he came to visit, and who lived on Plynlimmon, distributed his bounty in three different ways, giving mead to thousands at his banquets, wine from the vineyards of Gascony to the sick and feeble of the neighbourhood, and gold and silver to those who were willing to be tipped, amongst whom no doubt was himself, as poets have never been above receiving a present.”

“Nor above asking for one, your honour; there’s a prydydd in this neighbourhood who will never lose a shilling for want of asking for it. Now, sir, have the kindness to tell me the name of the man who made those pennillion.”

“Lewis Glyn Cothi,” said I; “at least, it was he who made the pennillion from which those verses are translated.”

“And what was the name of the gentleman whom he came to visit?”

“His name,” said I, “was Dafydd ab Thomas Vychan.”

“And where did he live?”

“Why, I believe, he lived at the castle, which you told me once stood on the spot which you pointed out as we came up. At any rate, he lived somewhere upon Plynlimmon.”

“I wish there was some rich gentleman at present living on Plynlimmon,” said my guide; “one of that sort is much wanted.”

“You can’t have everything at the same time,” said I; “formerly you had a chieftain who gave away wine and mead, and occasionally a bit of gold or silver, but then no travellers and tourists came to see the wonders of the hills, for at that time nobody cared anything about hills; at present you have no chieftain, but plenty of visitors, who come to see the hills and the sources, and scatter plenty of gold about the neighbourhood.”

We now bent our steps homeward, bearing slightly to the north, going over hills and dales covered with gorse and ling. My guide walked with a calm and deliberate gait, yet I had considerable difficulty in keeping up with him. There was, however, nothing surprising in this; he was a shepherd walking on his own hill, and having first-rate wind, and knowing every inch of the ground, made great way without seeming to be in the slightest hurry: I would not advise a road-walker, even if he be a first-rate one, to attempt to compete with a shepherd on his own, or indeed any hill; should he do so, the conceit would soon be taken out of him.

After a little time we saw a rivulet running from the west.

“This ffrwd,” said my guide, “is called Frennig. It here divides shire Trefaldwyn from Cardiganshire, one in North and the other in South Wales.”

Shortly afterwards we came to a hillock of rather a singular shape.

“This place, sir,” said he, “is called Eisteddfa.”

“Why is it called so?” said I. “Eisteddfa means the place where people sit down.”

“It does so,” said the guide, “and it is called the place of sitting because three men from different quarters of the world once met here, and one proposed that they should sit down.”

“And did they?” said I.

“They did, sir; and when they had sat down they told each other their histories.”

“I should be glad to know what their histories were,” said I.

“I can’t exactly tell you what they were, but I have heard say that there was a great deal in them about the Tylwyth Teg or fairies.”

“Do you believe in fairies?” said I.

“I do, sir; but they are very seldom seen, and when they are they do no harm to anybody. I only wish there were as few corpse-candles as there are Tylwith Teg, and that they did as little harm.”

“They foreshow people’s deaths, don’t they?” said I.

“They do, sir; but that’s not all the harm they do. They are very dangerous for anybody to meet with. If they come bump up against you when you are walking carelessly it’s generally all over with you in this world. I’ll give you an example: A man returning from market from Llan Eglos to Llan Curig, not far from Plynlimmon, was struck down dead as a horse not long ago by a corpse-candle. It was a rainy, windy night, and the wind and rain were blowing in his face, so that he could not see it, or get out of its way. And yet the candle was not abroad on purpose to kill the man. The business that it was about was to prognosticate the death of a woman who lived near the spot, and whose husband dealt in wool — poor thing! she was dead and buried in less than a fortnight. Ah, master, I wish that corpse-candles were as few and as little dangerous as the Tylwith Teg or fairies.”

We returned to the inn, where I settled with the honest fellow, adding a trifle to what I had agreed to give him. Then sitting down, I called for a large measure of ale, and invited him to partake of it. He accepted my offer with many thanks and bows, and as we sat and drank our ale we had a great deal of discourse about the places we had visited. The ale being finished, I got up and said:

“I must now be off for the Devil’s Bridge!”

Whereupon he also arose, and offering me his hand, said:

“Farewell, master; I shall never forget you. Were all the gentlefolks who come here to see the sources like you, we should indeed feel no want in these hills of such a gentleman as is spoken of in the pennillion.”

The sun was going down as I left the inn. I recrossed the streamlet by means of the pole and rail. The water was running with much less violence than in the morning, and was considerably lower. The evening was calm and beautifully cool, with a slight tendency to frost. I walked along with a bounding and elastic step, and never remember to have felt more happy and cheerful.

I reached the hospice at about six o’clock, a bright moon shining upon me, and found a capital supper awaiting me, which I enjoyed exceedingly.

How one enjoys one’s supper at one’s inn after a good day’s walk, provided one has the proud and glorious consciousness of being able to pay one’s reckoning on the morrow!

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