Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 91

Pont y Rhyd Fendigaid — Strata Florida — The Yew–Tree — Idolatry — The Teivi — The Llostlydan.

AND now for the resting-place of Dafydd Ab Gwilym! After wandering for some miles towards the south over a bleak moory country I came to a place called Fair Rhos, a miserable village, consisting of a few half-ruined cottages, situated on the top of a hill. From the hill I looked down on a wide valley of a russet colour, along which a river ran towards the south. The whole scene was cheerless. Sullen hills were all around. Descending the hill I entered a large village divided into two by the river, which here runs from east to west, but presently makes a turn. There was much mire in the street; immense swine lay in the mire, who turned up their snouts at me as I passed. Women in Welsh hats stood in the mire, along with men without any hats at all, but with short pipes in their mouths; they were talking together; as I passed, however, they held their tongues, the women leering contemptuously at me, the men glaring sullenly at me, and causing tobacco smoke curl in my face; on my taking off my hat, however and inquiring the way to the Monachlog, everybody was civil enough, and twenty voices told me the way the Monastery. I asked the name of the river:

“The Teivi, sir: the Teivi.”

“The name of the bridge?”

“Pony y Rhyd Fendigaid — the Bridge of the Blessed Ford, sir.”

I crossed the Bridge of the Blessed Ford, and presently leaving the main road, I turned to the east by a dung-hill, up a narrow lane parallel with the river. After proceeding a mile up the lane, amidst trees and copses, and crossing a little brook, which runs into the Teivi, out of which I drank, I saw before me in the midst of a field, in which were tombstones and broken ruins, a rustic-looking church; a farm-house stood near it, in the garden of which stood the framework of a large gateway. I crossed over into the churchyard, ascended a green mound, and looked about me. I was now in the very midst of the Monachlog Ystrad Flur, the celebrated monastery of Strata Florida, to which in old times Popish pilgrims from all parts of the world repaired. The scene was solemn and impressive: on the north side of the river a large bulky hill looked down upon the ruins and the church, and on the south side, some way behind the farm-house, was another which did the same. Rugged mountains formed the background of the valley to the east, down from which came murmuring the fleet but shallow Teivi. Such is the scenery which surrounds what remains of Strata Florida: those scanty broken ruins compose all which remains of that celebrated monastery, in which saints and mitred abbots were buried, and in which, or in whose precincts, was buried Dafydd Ab Gwilym, the greatest genius of the Cimbric race and one of the first poets of the world.

After standing for some time on the mound I descended, and went up to the church. I found the door fastened, but obtained through a window a tolerable view of the interior, which presented an appearance of the greatest simplicity. I then strolled about the churchyard looking at the tombstones, which were humble enough and for the most part modern. I would give something, said I, to know whereabouts in this neighbourhood Ab Gwilym lies. That, however, is a secret that no one can reveal to me. At length I came to a yew-tree which stood just by the northern wall, which is at a slight distance from the Teivi. It was one of two trees, both of the same species, which stood in the churchyard, and appeared to be the oldest of the two. Who knows, said I, but this is the tree that was planted over Ab Gwilym’s grave, and to which Gruffydd Gryg wrote an ode? I looked at it attentively, and thought that there was just a possibility of its being the identical tree. If it was, however, the benison of Gruffydd Gryg had not had exactly the effect which he intended, for either lightning or the force of wind had splitten off a considerable part of the head and trunk, so that though one part of it looked strong and blooming, the other was white and spectral. Nevertheless, relying on the possibility of its being the sacred tree, I behaved just as I should have done had I been quite certain of the fact. Taking off my hat I knelt down and kissed its root, repeating lines from Gruffydd Gryg, with which I blended some of my own in order to accommodate what I said to present circumstances:-

“O tree of yew, which here I spy, By Ystrad Flur’s blest monast’ry, Beneath thee lies, by cold Death bound, The tongue for sweetness once renown’d. Better for thee thy boughs to wave, Though scath’d, above Ab Gwilym’s grave, Than stand in pristine glory drest Where some ignobler bard doth rest; I’d rather hear a taunting rhyme From one who’ll live through endless time, Than hear my praises chanted loud By poets of the vulgar crowd.”

I had left the churchyard, and was standing near a kind of garden, at some little distance from the farm-house, gazing about me and meditating, when a man came up attended by a large dog. He had rather a youthful look, was of the middle size, and dark complexioned. He was respectably dressed, except that upon his head he wore a common hairy cap.

“Good evening,” said I to him in Welsh.

“Good evening, gentleman,” said he in the same language.

“Have you much English?” said I.

“Very little; I can only speak a few words.”

“Are you the farmer?”

“Yes! I farm the greater part of the Strath.”

“I suppose the land is very good here?”

“Why do you suppose so?”

“Because the monks built their house here in the old time, and the monks never built their houses except on good land.”

“Well, I must say the land is good; indeed I do not think there is any so good in Shire Aberteifi.”

“I suppose you are surprised to see me here; I came to see the old Monachlog.”

“Yes, gentleman; I saw you looking about it.”

“Am I welcome to see it?”

“Croesaw! gwr boneddig, croesaw! many, many welcomes to you, gentleman!”

“Do many people come to see the monastery?”

FARMER. — Yes! many gentlefolks come to see it in the summer time.

MYSELF. — It is a poor place now.

FARMER. — Very poor, I wonder any gentlefolks come to look at it.

MYSELF. — It was a wonderful place once; you merely see the ruins of it now. It was pulled down at the Reformation.

FARMER. — Why was it pulled down then?

MYSELF. — Because it was a house of idolatry to which people used to resort by hundreds to worship images. Had you lived at that time you would have seen people down on their knees before stocks and stones, worshipping them, kissing them, and repeating pennillion to them.

FARMER. — What fools! How thankful I am that I live in wiser days. If such things were going on in the old Monachlog it was high time to pull it down.

MYSELF. — What kind of a rent do you pay for your land?

FARMER. — Oh, rather a stiffish one.

MYSELF. — Two pounds an acre?

FARMER. — Two pound an acre! I wish I paid no more!

MYSELF. — Well, I think that would be quite enough. In the time of the old monastery you might have had the land at two shillings an acre.

FARMER. — Might I? Then those couldn’t have been such bad times, after all.

MYSELF. — I beg your pardon! They were horrible times — times in which there were monks and friars and graven images, which people kissed and worshipped and sang pennillion to. Better pay three pounds an acre and live on crusts and water in the present enlightened days than pay two shillings an acre and sit down to beef and ale three times a day in the old superstitious times.

FARMER. — Well, I scarcely know what to say to that.

MYSELF. — What do you call that high hill on the other side of the river?

FARMER. — I call that hill Bunk Pen Bannedd.

MYSELF. — Is the source of the Teivi far from here?

FARMER. — The head of the Teivi is about two miles from here high up in the hills.

MYSELF. — What kind of place is the head of the Teivi?

FARMER. — The head of the Teivi is a small lake about fifty yards long and twenty across.

MYSELF. — Where does the Teivi run to?

FARMER. — The Teivi runs to the sea, which it enters at a place which the Cumri call Aber Teivi and the Saxons Cardigan.

MYSELF. — Don’t you call Cardiganshire Shire Aber Teivi?

FARMER. — We do.

MYSELF. — Are there many gleisiaid in the Teivi?

FARMER. — Plenty, and salmons too — that is, farther down. The best place for salmon and gleisiaid is a place, a great way down the stream, called Dinas Emlyn.

MYSELF. — Do you know an animal called Llostlydan?

FARMER. — No, I do not know that beast.

MYSELF. — There used to be many in the Teivi.

FARMER. — What kind of beast is the Llostlydan?

MYSELF. — A beast with a broad tail, on which account the old Cumri did call him Llostlydan. Clever beast he was; made himself house of wood in middle of the river, with two doors, so that when hunter came upon him he might have good chance of escape. Hunter often after him, because he had skin good to make hat.

FARMER. — Ha, I wish I could catch that beast now in Teivi.

MYSELF. — Why so?

Farmer. — Because I want hat. Would make myself hat of his skin.

MYSELF. — Oh, you could not make yourself a hat even if you had the skin.

FARMER. — Why not? Shot coney in Bunk Pen Banedd; made myself cap of his skin. So why not make hat of skin of broadtail, should I catch him in Teivi?

MYSELF. — How far is it to Tregaron?

FARMER. —’Tis ten miles from here, and eight from the Rhyd Fendigaid.

MYSELF. — Must I go back to Rhyd Fendigaid to get to Tregaron?

FARMER. — You must.

MYSELF. — Then I must be going, for the night is coming down. Farewell!

FARMER. — Farvel, Saxon gentleman!

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