Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 54

Chirk — The Middleton Family — Castell y Waen — The Park — The Court Yard — The Young Housekeeper — The Portraits — Melin y Castell — Humble Meal — Fine Chests for the Dead — Hales and Hercules.

THE weather having become fine, myself and family determined to go and see Chirk Castle, a mansion ancient and beautiful, and abounding with all kinds of agreeable and romantic associations. It was founded about the beginning of the fifteenth century by a St John, Lord of Bletsa, from a descendant of whom it was purchased in the year 1615 by Sir Thomas Middleton, the scion of an ancient Welsh family who, following commerce, acquired a vast fortune, and was Lord Mayor of London. In the time of the great civil war it hoisted the banner of the king, and under Sir Thomas, the son of the Lord Mayor, made a brave defence against Lambert, the Parliamentary General, though eventually compelled to surrender. It was held successively by four Sir Thomas Middletons, and if it acquired a war-like celebrity under the second, it obtained a peculiarly hospitable one under the fourth, whose daughter, the fruit of a second marriage, became Countess of Warwick and eventually the wife of the poet and moralist Addison. In his time the hospitality of Chirk became the theme of many a bard, particularly of Huw Morris, who, in one of his songs, has gone so far as to say that were the hill Cefn Uchaf turned into beef and bread, and the rill Ceiriog into beer or wine, they would be consumed in half a year by the hospitality of Chirk. Though no longer in the hands of one of the name of Middleton, Chirk Castle is still possessed by one of the blood, the mother of the present proprietor being the eldest of three sisters, lineal descendants of the Lord Mayor, between whom in default of an heir male the wide possessions of the Middleton family were divided. This gentleman, who bears the name of Biddulph, is Lord Lieutenant of the county of Denbigh, and notwithstanding his war-breathing name, which is Gothic, and signifies Wolf of Battle, is a person of highly amiable disposition, and one who takes great interest in the propagation of the Gospel of peace and love.

To view this place, which, though in English called Chirk Castle, is styled in Welsh Castell y Waen, or the Castle of the Meadow, we started on foot about ten o’clock of a fine bright morning, attended by John Jones. There are two roads from Llangollen to Chirk, one the low or post road, and the other leading over the Berwyn. We chose the latter. We passed by the Yew Cottage, which I have described on a former occasion, and began to ascend the mountain, making towards its north-eastern corner. The road at first was easy enough, but higher up became very steep, and somewhat appalling, being cut out of the side of the hill which shelves precipitously down towards the valley of the Dee. Near the top of the mountain were three lofty beech-trees growing on the very verge of the precipice. Here the road for about twenty yards is fenced on its dangerous side by a wall, parts of which are built between the stems of the trees. Just beyond the wall a truly noble prospect presented itself to our eyes. To the north were bold hills, their sides and skirts adorned with numerous woods and white farm-houses; a thousand feet below us was the Dee and its wondrous Pont y Cysultau. John Jones said that if certain mists did not intervene we might descry “the sea of Liverpool”; and perhaps the only thing wanting to make the prospect complete, was that sea of Liverpool. We were, however, quite satisfied with what we saw, and turning round the corner of the hill, reached its top, where for a considerable distance there is level ground, and where, though at a great altitude, we found ourselves in a fair and fertile region, and amidst a scene of busy rural life. We saw fields and inclosures, and here and there corn-stacks, some made, and others not yet completed, about which people were employed, and waggons and horses moving. Passing over the top of the hill, we began to descend the southern side, which was far less steep than the one we had lately surmounted. After a little way, the road descended through a wood, which John Jones told us was the beginning of “the Park of Biddulph.”

“There is plenty of game in this wood,” said he; “pheasant cocks and pheasant hens, to say nothing of hares and coneys; and in the midst of it there is a space sown with a particular kind of corn for the support of the pheasant hens and pheasant cocks, which in the shooting-season afford pleasant sport for Biddulph and his friends.”

Near the foot of the descent, just where the road made a turn to the east, we passed by a building which stood amidst trees, with a pond and barns near it.

“This,” said John Jones, “is the house where the bailiff lives who farms and buys and sells for Biddulph, and fattens the beeves and swine, and the geese, ducks, and other poultry which Biddulph consumes at his table.”

The scenery was now very lovely, consisting of a mixture of hill and dale, open space and forest, in fact the best kind of park scenery. We caught a glimpse of a lake in which John Jones said there were generally plenty of swans, and presently saw the castle, which stands on a green grassy slope, from which it derives its Welsh name of Castell y Waen; gwaen in the Cumrian language signifying a meadow or uninclosed place. It fronts the west, the direction from which we were coming; on each side it shows five towers, of which the middlemost, which protrudes beyond the rest, and at the bottom of which is the grand gate, is by far the bulkiest. A noble edifice it looked, and to my eye bore no slight resemblance to Windsor Castle.

Seeing a kind of ranger, we inquired of him what it was necessary for us to do, and by his direction proceeded to the southern side of the castle, and rung the bell at a small gate. The southern side had a far more antique appearance than the western; huge towers with small windows, and partly covered with ivy, frowned down upon us. A servant making his appearance, I inquired whether we could see the house; he said we could, and that the housekeeper would show it to us in a little time but that at present she was engaged. We entered a large quadrangular court: on the left-hand side was a door and staircase leading into the interior of the building, and farther on was a gateway, which was no doubt the principal entrance from the park. On the eastern side of the spacious court was a kennel, chained to which was an enormous dog, partly of the bloodhound, partly of the mastiff species, who occasionally uttered a deep magnificent bay. As the sun was hot, we took refuge from it under the gateway, the gate of which, at the further end, towards the park, was closed. Here my wife and daughter sat down on a small brass cannon, seemingly a six-pounder, which stood on a very dilapidated carriage; from the appearance of the gun, which was of an ancient form, and very much battered, and that of the carriage, I had little doubt that both had been in the castle at the time of the siege. As my two loved ones sat, I walked up and down, recalling to my mind all I had heard and read in connection with this castle. I thought of its gallant defence against the men of Oliver; I thought of its roaring hospitality in the time of the fourth Sir Thomas; and I thought of the many beauties who had been born in its chambers, had danced in its halls, had tripped across its court, and had subsequently given heirs to illustrious families.

At last we were told that she housekeeper was waiting for us. The housekeeper, who was a genteel, good-looking young woman, welcomed us at the door which led into the interior of the house. After we had written our names, she showed us into a large room or hall on the right-hand side on the ground floor, where were some helmets and ancient halberts, and also some pictures of great personages. The floor was of oak, and so polished and slippery, that walking upon it was attended with some danger. Wishing that John Jones, our faithful attendant, who remained timidly at the doorway, should participate with us in the wonderful sights we were about to see, I inquired of the housekeeper whether he might come with us. She replied with a smile that it was not the custom to admit guides into the apartments, but that he might come, provided he chose to take off his shoes; adding, that the reason she wished him to take off his shoes was, an apprehension that if he kept them on he would injure the floors with their rough nails. She then went to John Jones, and told him in English that he might attend us, provided he took off his shoes; poor John, however, only smiled and said “Dim Saesneg!”

“You must speak to him in your native language,” said I, “provided you wish him to understand you — he has no English.”

“I am speaking to him in my native language,” said the young housekeeper, with another smile — “and if he has no English, I have no Welsh.”

“Then you are English?” said I.

“Yes,” she replied, “a native of London.”

“Dear me,” said I. “Well, it’s no bad thing to be English after all; and as for not speaking Welsh, there are many in Wales who would be glad to have much less Welsh than they have.” I then told John Jones the condition on which he might attend us, whereupon he took off his shoes with great glee and attended us, holding them in his hand.

We presently went upstairs, to what the housekeeper told us was the principal drawing-room, and a noble room it was, hung round with the portraits of kings and queens, and the mighty of the earth. Here, on canvas, was noble Mary, the wife of William of Orange, and her consort by her side, whose part like a true wife she always took. Here was wretched Mary of Scotland, the murderess of her own lord. Here were the two Charleses and both the Dukes of Ormond — the great Duke who fought stoutly in Ireland against Papist and Roundhead; and the Pretender’s Duke who tried to stab his native land, and died a foreign colonel. And here, amongst other daughters of the house, was the very proud daughter of the house, the Warwick Dowager who married the Spectator, and led him the life of a dog. She looked haughty and cold, and not particularly handsome; but I could not help gazing with a certain degree of interest and respect on the countenance of the vixen, who served out the gentility worshipper in such prime style. Many were the rooms which we entered, of which I shall say nothing, save that they were noble in size and rich in objects of interest. At last we came to what was called the picture gallery. It was a long panelled room, extending nearly the whole length of the northern side. The first thing which struck us on entering was the huge skin of a lion stretched out upon the floor; the head, however, which was towards the door, was stuffed, and with its monstrous teeth looked so formidable and life-like, that we were almost afraid to touch it. Against every panel was a portrait; amongst others was that of Sir Thomas Middleton, the stout governor of the castle, during the time of the siege. Near to it was the portrait of his rib, Dame Middleton. Farther down on the same side were two portraits of Nell Gwynn; the one painted when she was a girl; the other when she had attained a more mature age. They were both by Lely, the Apelles of the Court of wanton Charles. On the other side was one of the Duke of Gloucester, the son of Queen Anne, who, had he lived, would have kept the Georges from the throne. In this gallery on the southern side was a cabinet of ebony and silver, presented by Charles the Second to the brave warrior Sir Thomas, and which, according to tradition, cost seven thousand pounds. This room, which was perhaps the most magnificent in the castle, was the last we visited. The candle of God, whilst we wandered through these magnificent halls, was flaming in the firmament, and its rays, penetrating through the long narrow windows, showed them off, and all the gorgeous things which they contained to great advantage. When we left the castle we all said, not excepting John Jones, that we had never seen in our lives anything more princely and delightful than the interior.

After a little time, my wife and daughter complaining of being rather faint, I asked John Jones whether there was an inn in the neighbourhood where some refreshment could be procured. He said there was, and that he would conduct us to it. We directed our course towards the east, rousing successively, and setting a-scampering, three large herds of deer — the common ones were yellow and of no particular size — but at the head of each herd we observed a big old black fellow with immense antlers; one of these was particularly large, indeed as huge as a bull. We soon came to the verge of a steep descent, down which we went, not without some risk of falling. At last we came to a gate; it was locked; however, on John Jones shouting, an elderly man with his right hand bandaged, came and opened it. I asked him what was the matter with his hand, and he told me that he had lately lost three fingers whilst working at a saw-mill up at the castle. On my inquiring about the inn he said he was the master of it, and led the way to a long neat low house, nearly opposite to a little bridge over a brook, which ran down the valley towards the north. I ordered some ale and bread-and-butter, and whilst our repast was being got ready John Jones and I went to the bridge.

“This bridge, sir,” said John, “is called Pont y Velin Castell, the bridge of the Castle Mill; the inn was formerly the mill of the castle, and is still called Melin y Castell. As soon as you are over this bridge you are in shire Amwythig, which the Saxons call Shropshire. A little way up on yon hill is Clawdd Offa or Offa’s dyke, built of old by the Brenin Offa in order to keep us poor Welsh within our bounds.”

As we stood on the bridge I inquired of Jones the name of the brook which was running merrily beneath it.

“The Ceiriog, sir,” said John, “the same river that we saw at Pont y Meibion.”

“The river,” said I, “which Huw Morris loved so well, whose praises he has sung, and which he has introduced along with Cefn Uchaf in a stanza in which he describes the hospitality of Chirk Castle in his day, and which runs thus:

“Pe byddai ‘r Cefn Ucha, Yn gig ac yn fara, A Cheiriog fawr yma’n fir aml bob tro, Rhy ryfedd fae iddyn’ Barhau hanner blwyddyn, I wyr bob yn gan-nyn ar ginio.”

“A good penill that, sir,” said John Jones. “Pity that the halls of great people no longer flow with rivers of beer, nor have mountains of bread and beef for all comers.”

“No pity at all,” said I; “things are better as they are. Those mountains of bread and beef, and those rivers of ale merely encouraged vassalage, fawning and idleness; better to pay for one’s dinner proudly and independently at one’s inn, than to go and cringe for it at a great man’s table.”

We crossed the bridge, walked a little way up the hill which was beautifully wooded, and then retraced our steps to the little inn, where I found my wife and daughter waiting for us, and very hungry. We sat down, John Jones with us, and proceeded to despatch our bread-and-butter and ale. The bread-and-butter were good enough, but the ale poorish. Oh, for an Act of Parliament to force people to brew good ale! After finishing our humble meal, we got up and having paid our reckoning went back into the park, the gate of which the landlord again unlocked for us.

We strolled towards the north along the base of the hill. The imagination of man can scarcely conceive a scene more beautiful than the one which we were now enjoying. Huge oaks studded the lower side of the hill, towards the top was a belt of forest, above which rose the eastern walls of the castle; the whole forest, castle and the green bosom of the hill glorified by the lustre of the sun. As we proceeded we again roused the deer, and again saw three old black fellows, evidently the patriarchs of the herds, with their white enormous horns; with these ancient gentlefolks I very much wished to make acquaintance, and tried to get near them, but no! they would suffer no such thing; off they glided, their white antlers, like the barked top boughs of old pollards, glancing in the sunshine, the smaller dapple creatures following them bounding and frisking. We had again got very near the castle, when John Jones told me that if we would follow him he would show us something very remarkable; I asked him what it was.

“Llun Cawr,” he replied. “The figure of a giant.”

“What giant?” said I.

But on this point he could give me no information. I told my wife and daughter what he had said, and finding that they wished to see the figure, I bade John Jones lead us to it. He led us down an avenue just below the eastern side of the castle; noble oaks and other trees composed it, some of them probably near a hundred feet high; John Jones observing me looking at them with admiration, said:

“They would make fine chests for the dead, sir.”

What an observation! how calculated, amidst the most bounding joy and bliss, to remind man of his doom! A moment before I had felt quite happy, but now I felt sad and mournful. I looked at my wife and daughter, who were gazing admiringly on the beauteous scenes around them, and remembered that in a few short years at most we should all three be laid in the cold narrow house formed of four elm or oaken boards, our only garment the flannel shroud, the cold damp earth above us, instead of the bright glorious sky. Oh, how sad and mournful I became! I soon comforted myself, however, by reflecting that such is the will of Heaven, and that Heaven is good.

After we had descended the avenue some way John Jones began to look about him, and getting on the bank on the left side disappeared. We went on, and in a little time saw him again beckoning to us some way farther down, but still on the bank. When we drew nigh to him he bade us get on the bank; we did so and followed him some way, midst furze and lyng. All of a sudden he exclaimed, “There it is!” We looked and saw a large figure standing on a pedestal. On going up to it we found it to be a Hercules leaning on his club, indeed a copy of the Farnese Hercules, as we gathered from an inscription in Latin partly defaced. We felt rather disappointed, as we expected that it would have turned out to be the figure of some huge Welsh champion of old. We, however, said nothing to our guide. John Jones, in order that we might properly appreciate the size of the statue by contrasting it with his own body, got upon the pedestal and stood up beside the figure, to the elbow of which his head little more than reached.

I told him that in my country, the eastern part of Lloegr, I had seen a man quite as tall as the statue.

“Indeed, sir,” said he; “who is it?”

“Hales the Norfolk giant,” I replied, “who has a sister seven inches shorter than himself, who is yet seven inches taller than any man in the county when her brother is out of it.”

When John Jones got down he asked me who the man was whom the statue was intended to represent.

“Erchwl,” I replied, “a mighty man of old, who with club cleared the country of thieves, serpents, and monsters.”

I now proposed that we should return to Llangollen, whereupon we retraced our steps, and had nearly reached the farm-house of the castle when John Jones said that we had better return by the low road, by doing which we should see the castle-lodge and also its gate which was considered one of the wonders of Wales. We followed his advice and passing by the front of the castle northwards soon came to the lodge. The lodge had nothing remarkable in its appearance, but the gate which was of iron was truly magnificent.

On the top were two figures of wolves which John Jones supposed to be those of foxes. The wolf of Chirk is not intended to be expressive of the northern name of its proprietor, but as the armorial bearing of his family by the maternal side, and originated in one Ryred, surnamed Blaidd or Wolf from his ferocity in war, from whom the family, which only assumed the name of Middleton in the beginning of the thirteenth century, on the occasion of its representative marrying a rich Shropshire heiress of that name, traces descent.

The wolf of Chirk is a Cambrian not a Gothic wolf, and though “a wolf of battle,” is the wolf not of Biddulph but of Ryred.


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