Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 42

Gage of Suffolk — Fellow in a Turban — Town of Holyhead — Father Boots — An Expedition — Holy Head and Finisterrae — Gryffith ab Cynan — The Fairies’ Well.

LEAVING the pier I turned up a street to the south, and was not long before I arrived at a kind of market-place, where were carts and stalls, and on the ground, on cloths, apples and plums, and abundance of greengages, — the latter, when good, decidedly the finest fruit in the world, a fruit, for the introduction of which into England, the English have to thank one Gage of an ancient Suffolk family, at present extinct, after whose name the fruit derives the latter part of its appellation. Strolling about the market-place I came in contact with a fellow dressed in a turban and dirty blue linen robes and trowsers. He bore a bundle of papers in his hand, one of which he offered to me. I asked him who he was.

“Arap,” he replied.

He had a dark, cunning, roguish countenance, with small eyes, and had all the appearance of a Jew. I spoke to him in what Arabic I could command on a sudden, and he jabbered to me in a corrupt dialect, giving me a confused account of a captivity which he had undergone amidst savage Mahometans. At last I asked him what religion he was of.

“The Christian,” he replied.

“Have you ever been of the Jewish?” said I.

He returned no answer save by a grin.

I took the paper, gave him a penny, and then walked away. The paper contained an account in English of how the bearer, the son of Christian parents, had been carried into captivity by two Mahometan merchants, a father and son, from whom he had escaped with the greatest difficulty.

“Pretty fools,” said I, “must any people have been who ever stole you; but oh what fools if they wished to keep you after they had got you!”

The paper was stuffed with religious and anti-slavery cant, and merely wanted a little of the teetotal nonsense to be a perfect specimen of humbug.

I strolled forward, encountering more carts and more heaps of greengages; presently I turned to the right by a street, which led some way up the hill. The houses were tolerably large and all white. The town, with its white houses placed by the seaside, on the skirt of a mountain, beneath a blue sky and a broiling sun, put me something in mind of a Moorish piratical town, in which I had once been. Becoming soon tired of walking about, without any particular aim, in so great a heat, I determined to return to the inn, call for ale, and deliberate on what I had best next do. So I returned and called for ale. The ale which was brought was not ale which I am particularly fond of. The ale which I am fond of is ale about nine or ten months old, somewhat hard, tasting well of malt and little of the hop — ale such as farmers, and noblemen too, of the good old time, when farmers’ daughters did not play on pianos and noblemen did not sell their game, were in the habit of offering to both high and low, and drinking themselves. The ale which was brought me was thin washy stuff, which though it did not taste much of hop, tasted still less of malt, made and sold by one Allsopp, who I am told calls himself a squire and a gentleman — as he certainly may with quite as much right as many a lord calls himself a nobleman and a gentleman; for surely it is not a fraction more trumpery to make and sell ale than to fatten and sell game. The ale of the Saxon squire, for Allsopp is decidedly an old Saxon name, however unakin to the practice of old Saxon squires the selling of ale may be, was drinkable for it was fresh, and the day, as I have said before, exceedingly hot; so I took frequent draughts out of the shining metal tankard in which it was brought, deliberating both whilst drinking, and in the intervals of drinking, on what I had next best do. I had some thoughts of crossing to the northern side of the bay, then, bearing the north-east, wend my way to Amlwch, follow the windings of the sea-shore to Mathafarn eithaf and Pentraeth Coch, and then return to Bangor, after which I could boast that I had walked round the whole of Anglesey, and indeed trodden no inconsiderable part of the way twice. Before coming, however, to any resolution, I determined to ask the advice of my friend the boots on the subject. So I finished my ale, and sent word by the waiter that I wished to speak to him; he came forthwith, and after communicating my deliberations to him in a few words I craved his counsel. The old man, after rubbing his right forefinger behind his right ear for about a quarter of a minute, inquired if I meant to return to Bangor, and on my telling him that it would be necessary for me to do so, as I intended to walk back to Llangollen by Caernarvon and Beth Gelert, strongly advised me to return to Bangor by the railroad train, which would start at seven in the evening, and would convey me thither in an hour and a half. I told him that I hated railroads, and received for answer that he had no particular liking for them himself, but that he occasionally made use of them on a pinch, and supposed that I likewise did the same. I then observed, that if I followed his advice I should not see the north side of the island nor its principal town Amlwch, and received for answer that if I never did, the loss would not be great — that as for Amlwch it was a poor poverty-stricken place — the inn a shabby affair — the master a very so-so individual, and the boots a fellow without either wit or literature. That upon the whole he thought I might be satisfied with what I had seen for after having visited Owen Tudor’s tomb, Caer Gybi and his hotel, I had in fact seen the cream of Mona. I then said that I had one objection to make, which was that I really did not know how to employ the time till seven o’clock, for that I had seen all about the town.

“But has your honour ascended the Head?” demanded Father Boots.

“No,” said I; “I have not.”

“Then,” said he, “I will soon find your honour ways and means to spend the time agreeably till the starting of the train. Your honour shall ascend the Head under the guidance of my nephew, a nice intelligent lad, your honour, and always glad to earn a shilling or two. By the time your honour has seen all the wonders of the Head and returned, it will be five o’clock. Your honour can then dine, and after dinner trifle away the minutes over your wine or brandy-and-water till seven, when your honour can step into a first-class for Bangor.”

I was struck with the happy manner in which he had removed the difficulty in question, and informed him that I was determined to follow his advice. He hurried away, and presently returned with his nephew, to whom I offered half-a-crown provided he would show me all about Pen Caer Gyby. He accepted my offer with evident satisfaction, and we lost no time in setting out upon our expedition.

We had to pass over a great deal of broken ground, sometimes ascending, sometimes descending, before we found ourselves upon the side of what may actually be called the headland. Shaping our course westward we came to the vicinity of a lighthouse standing on the verge of a precipice, the foot of which was washed by the sea.

Leaving the lighthouse on our right we followed a steep winding path which at last brought us to the top of the pen or summit, rising, according to the judgment which I formed, about six hundred feet from the surface of the sea. Here was a level spot some twenty yards across, in the middle of which stood a heap of stones or cairn. I asked the lad whether this cairn bore a name, and received for answer that it was generally called Bar-cluder y Cawr Glas, words which seem to signify the top heap of the Grey Giant.

“Some king, giant, or man of old renown lies buried beneath this cairn,” said I. “Whoever he may be, I trust he will excuse me for mounting it, seeing that I do so with no disrespectful spirit.” I then mounted the cairn, exclaiming:-

“Who lies ‘neath the cairn on the headland hoar, His hand yet holding his broad claymore, Is it Beli, the son of Benlli Gawr?”

There stood I on the cairn of the Grey Giant, looking around me. The prospect, on every side, was noble: the blue interminable sea to the west and north; the whole stretch of Mona to the east; and far away to the south the mountainous region of Eryri, comprising some of the most romantic hills in the world. In some respects this Pen Santaidd, this holy headland, reminded me of Finisterrae, the Gallegan promontory which I had ascended some seventeen years before, whilst engaged in battling the Pope with the sword of the gospel in his favourite territory. Both are bold, bluff headlands looking to the west, both have huge rocks in their vicinity, rising from the bosom of the brine. For a time, as I stood on the cairn, I almost imagined myself on the Gallegan hill; much the same scenery presented itself as there, and a sun equally fierce struck upon my head as that which assailed it on the Gallegan hill. For a time all my thoughts were of Spain. It was not long, however, before I bethought me that my lot was now in a different region, that I had done with Spain for ever, after doing for her all that lay in the power of a lone man, who had never in this world anything to depend upon, but God and his own slight strength. Yes, I had done with Spain, and was now in Wales; and, after a slight sigh, my thoughts became all intensely Welsh. I thought on the old times when Mona was the grand seat of Druidical superstition, when adoration was paid to Dwy Fawr, and Dwy Fach, the sole survivors of the apocryphal Deluge; to Hu the Mighty and his plough; to Ceridwen and her cauldron; to Andras the Horrible; to Wyn ab Nudd, Lord of Unknown, and to Beli, Emperor of the Sun. I thought on the times when the Beal fire blazed on this height, on the neighbouring promontory, on the cope-stone of Eryri, and on every high hill throughout Britain on the eve of the first of May. I thought on the day when the bands of Suetonius crossed the Menai strait in their broad-bottomed boats, fell upon the Druids and their followers, who with wild looks and brandished torches lined the shore, slew hundreds with merciless butchery upon the plains, and pursued the remainder to the remotest fastnesses of the isle. I figured to myself long-bearded men with white vestments toiling up the rocks, followed by fierce warriors with glittering helms and short broad two-edged swords; I thought I heard groans, cries of rage, and the dull, awful sound of bodies precipitated down rocks. Then as I looked towards the sea I thought I saw the fleet of Gryffith Ab Cynan steering from Ireland to Aber Menai, Gryffith, the son of a fugitive king, born in Ireland, in the Commot of Columbcille, Gryffith the frequently baffled, the often victorious; once a manacled prisoner sweating in the sun, in the market-place of Chester, eventually king of North Wales; Gryffith, who “though he loved well the trumpet’s clang loved the sound of the harp better”; who led on his warriors to twenty-four battles, and presided over the composition of the twenty-four measures of Cambrian song. Then I thought —. But I should tire the reader were I to detail all the intensely Welsh thoughts which crowded into my head as I stood on the Cairn of the Grey Giant.

Satiated with looking about and thinking, I sprang from the cairn and rejoined my guide. We now descended the eastern side of the hill till we came to a singular looking stone, which had much the appearance of a Druid’s stone. I inquired of my guide whether there was any tale connected with this stone.

“None,” he replied; “but I have heard people say that it was a strange stone, and on that account I brought you to look at it.”

A little farther down he showed me part of a ruined wall.

“What name does this bear?” said I.

“Clawdd yr Afalon,” he replied. “The dyke of the orchard.”

“A strange place for an orchard,” I replied. “If there was ever an orchard on this bleak hill, the apples must have been very sour.”

Over rocks and stones we descended till we found ourselves on a road, not very far from the shore, on the south-east side of the hill.

“I am very thirsty,” said I, as I wiped the perspiration from my face; “how I should like now to drink my fill of cool spring water.”

“If your honour is inclined for water,” said my guide, “I can take you to the finest spring in all Wales.”

“Pray do so,” said I, “for I really am dying of thirst.”

“It is on our way to the town,” said the lad, “and is scarcely a hundred yards off.”

He then led me to the fountain. It was a little well under a stone wall, on the left side of the way. It might be about two feet deep, was fenced with rude stones, and had a bottom of sand.

“There,” said the lad, “is the fountain. It is called the Fairies’ Well, and contains the best water in Wales.”

I lay down and drank. Oh, what water was that of the Fairies’ Well! I drank and drank, and thought I could never drink enough of that delicious water; the lad all the time saying that I need not be afraid to drink, as the water of the Fairies’ Well had never done harm to anybody. At length I got up, and standing by the fountain repeated the lines of a bard on a spring, not of a Welsh but a Gaelic bard, which are perhaps the finest lines ever composed on the theme. Yet MacIntyre, for such was his name, was like myself an admirer of good ale, to say nothing of whiskey, and loved to indulge in it at a proper time and place. But there is a time and place for everything, and sometimes the warmest admirer of ale would prefer the lymph of the hill-side fountain to the choicest ale that ever foamed in tankard from the cellars of Holkham. Here are the lines most faithfully rendered:-

“The wild wine of nature, Honey-like in its taste, The genial, fair, thin element Filtering through the sands, Which is sweeter than cinnamon, And is well known to us hunters. O, that eternal, healing draught, Which comes from under the earth, Which contains abundance of good And costs no money!”

Returning to the hotel I satisfied my guide and dined. After dinner I trifled agreeably with my brandy-and-water till it was near seven o’clock, when I paid my bill, thought of the waiter and did not forget Father Boots. I then took my departure, receiving and returning bows, and walking to the station got into a first-class carriage and soon found myself at Bangor.


Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51