Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 90

An Adventure — Spytty Ystwyth — Wormwood.

SHORTLY after leaving the grounds of Hafod I came to a bridge over the Ystwyth. I crossed it, and was advancing along the road which led apparently to the south-east, when I came to a company of people who seemed to be loitering about. It consisted entirely of young men and women, the former with crimson favours, the latter in the garb of old Wales, blue tunics and sharp crowned hats. Going up to one of the young women, I said, “Petti yw? what’s the matter!”

“Priodas (a marriage),” she replied, after looking at me attentively. I then asked her the name of the bridge, whereupon she gave a broad grin, and after some, little time replied: “Pont y Groes (the bridge of the cross).” I was about to ask her some other question when she turned away with a loud chuckle, and said something to another wench near her, who, grinning yet more uncouthly, said something to a third, who grinned too, and lifting up her hands and spreading her fingers wide, said: “Dyn oddi dir y Gogledd — a man from the north country, hee, hee!” Forthwith there was a general shout, the wenches crying: “A man from the north country, hee, hee!” and the fellows crying: “A man from the north country, hoo, hoo!”

“Is this the way you treat strangers in the south?” said I. But I had scarcely uttered the words when with redoubled shouts the company exclaimed: “There’s Cumraeg! there’s pretty Cumraeg. Go back, David, to shire Fon! That Cumraeg won’t pass here.”

Finding they disliked my Welsh I had recourse to my own language. “Really,” said I in English, “such conduct is unaccountable. What do you mean?” But this only made matters worse, for the shouts grew louder still, and every one cried: “There’s pretty English! Well, if I couldn’t speak better English than that I’d never speak English at all. No, David; if you must speak at all, stick to Cumraeg.” Then forthwith, all the company set themselves in violent motion, the women rushing up to me with their palms and fingers spread out in my face, without touching me, however, as they wheeled round me at about a yard’s distance, crying: “A man from the north country, hee, hee!” and the fellows acting just in the same way, rushing up with their hands spread out, and then wheeling round me with cries of “A man from the north country, hoo, hoo!” I was so enraged that I made for a heap of stones by the road-side, intending to take some up and fling them at the company. Reflecting, however, that I had but one pair of hands and the company at least forty, and that by such an attempt at revenge I should only make myself ridiculous, I gave up my intention, and continued my journey at a rapid pace, pursued for a long way by “hee, hee,” and “hoo, hoo,” and: “Go back, David, to your goats in Anglesey, you are not wanted here.”

I began to descend a hill forming the eastern side of an immense valley, at the bottom of which rolled the river. Beyond the valley to the west was an enormous hill, on the top of which was a most singular-looking crag, seemingly leaning in the direction of the south. On the right-hand side of the road were immense works of some kind in full play and activity, for engines were clanging and puffs of smoke were ascending from tall chimneys. On inquiring of a boy the name of the works I was told that they were called the works of Level Vawr, or the Great Level, a mining establishment; but when I asked him the name of the hill with the singular peak, on the other side of the valley, he shook his head and said he did not know. Near the top of the hill I came to a village consisting of a few cottages and a shabby-looking church. A rivulet descending from some crags to the east crosses the road, which leads through the place, and tumbling down the valley, joins the Ystwyth at the bottom. Seeing a woman standing at the door, I inquired the name of the village.

“Spytty Ystwyth,” she replied, but she, no more than the boy down below, could tell me the name of the strange-looking hill across the valley. This second Spytty or monastic hospital, which I had come to, looked in every respect an inferior place to the first. Whatever its former state might have been, nothing but dirt and wretchedness were now visible. Having reached the top of the hill I entered upon a wild moory region. Presently I crossed a little bridge over a rivulet, and seeing a small house on the shutter of which was painted “cwrw,” I went in, sat down on an old chair, which I found vacant, and said in English to an old woman who sat knitting by the window: “Bring me a pint of ale!”

“Dim Saesneg!” said the old woman.

“I told you to bring me a pint of ale,” said I to her in her own language.

“You shall have it immediately, sir,” said she, and going to a cask, she filled a jug with ale, and after handing it to me resumed her seat and knitting.

“It is not very bad ale,” said I, after I had tasted it.

“It ought to be very good,” said the old woman, “for I brewed it myself.”

“The goodness of ale,” said I, “does not so much depend on who brews it as on what it is brewed of. Now there is something in this ale which ought not to be. What is it made of?”

“Malt and hop.”

“It tastes very bitter,” said I. “Is there no chwerwlys 13 in it?”

“I do not know what chwerwlys is,” said the old woman.

“It is what the Saxons call wormwood,” said I.

“Oh, wermod. No, there is no wermod in my beer, at least not much.”

“Oh, then there is some; I thought there was. Why do you put such stuff into your ale?”

“We are glad to put it in sometimes when hops are dear, as they are this year. Moreover, wermod is not bad stuff, and some folks like the taste better than that of hops.”

“Well, I don’t. However, the ale is drinkable. What am I to give you for the pint?”

“You are to give me a groat.”

“That is a great deal,” said I, “for a groat I ought to have a pint of ale made of the best malt and hops.”

“I give you the best I can afford. One must live by what one sells. I do not find that easy work.”

“Is this house your own?”

“Oh no! I pay rent for it, and not a cheap one.”

“Have you a husband?

“I had, but he is dead.”

“Have you any children?”

“I had three, but they are dead too, and buried with my husband at the monastery.”

“Where is the monastery?”

“A good way farther on, at the strath beyond Rhyd Fendigaid.”

“What is the name of the little river by the house?”

“Avon Marchnad (Market River).”

“Why is it called Avon Marchnad?”

“Truly, gentleman, I cannot tell you.”

I went on sipping my ale and finding fault with its bitterness till I had finished it, when getting up I gave the old lady her groat, bade her farewell, and departed.

13 Bitter root.

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