Wild Wales, by George Borrow

Chapter 89

A Morning View — Hafod Ychdryd — The Monument — Fairy-looking Place — Edward Lhuyd.

THE morning of the sixth was bright and glorious. As I looked from the window of the upper sitting-room of the hospice the scene which presented itself was wild and beautiful to a degree. The oak-covered tops of the volcanic crater were gilded with the brightest sunshine, whilst the eastern sides remained in dark shade and the gap or narrow entrance to the north in shadow yet darker, in the midst of which shone the silver of the Rheidol cataract. Should I live a hundred years I shall never forget the wild fantastic beauty of that morning scene.

I left the friendly hospice at about nine o’clock to pursue my southern journey. By this time the morning had lost much of its beauty, and the dull grey sky characteristic of November began to prevail. The way lay up a hill to the south-east; on my left was a glen down which the river of the Monk rolled with noise and foam. The country soon became naked and dreary, and continued so for some miles. At length, coming to the top of a hill, I saw a park before me, through which the road led after passing under a stately gateway. I had reached the confines of the domain of Hafod.

Hafod Ychdryd, or the summer mansion of Uchtryd, has from time immemorial been the name of a dwelling on the side of a hill above the Ystwyth, looking to the east. At first it was a summer boothie or hunting lodge to Welsh chieftains, but subsequently expanded to the roomy, comfortable dwelling of Welsh squires, where hospitality was much practised and bards and harpers liberally encouraged. Whilst belonging to an ancient family of the name of Johnes, several members of which made no inconsiderable figure in literature, it was celebrated, far and wide, for its library, in which was to be found, amongst other treasures, a large collection of Welsh manuscripts on various subjects — history, medicine, poetry and romance. The house, however, and the library were both destroyed in a dreadful fire which broke out. This fire is generally called the great fire of Hafod, and some of those who witnessed it have been heard to say that its violence was so great that burning rafters mixed with flaming books were hurled high above the summits of the hills. The loss of the house was a matter of triviality compared with that of the library. The house was soon rebuilt, and probably, phoenix-like, looked all the better for having been burnt, but the library could never be restored. On the extinction of the family, the last hope of which, an angelic girl, faded away in the year 1811, the domain became the property of the late Duke of Newcastle, a kind and philanthrophic nobleman, and a great friend of agriculture, who held it for many years, and considerably improved it. After his decease it was purchased by the head of an ancient Lancashire family, who used the modern house as a summer residence, as the Welsh chieftains had used the wooden boothie of old.

I went to a kind of lodge, where I had been told that I should find somebody who would admit me to the church, which stood within the grounds and contained a monument which I was very desirous of seeing, partly from its being considered one of the masterpieces of the great Chantrey, and partly because it was a memorial to the lovely child, the last scion of the old family who had possessed the domain. A good-looking young woman, the only person whom I saw, on my telling my errand, forthwith took a key and conducted me to the church. The church was a neat edifice with rather a modern look. It exhibited nothing remarkable without, and only one thing remarkable within, namely, the monument, which was indeed worthy of notice, and which, had Chantrey executed nothing else, might well have entitled him to be considered, what the world has long pronounced him, the prince of British sculptors.

This monument, which is of the purest marble, is placed on the eastern side of the church, below a window of stained glass, and represents a truly affecting scene: a lady and gentleman are standing over a dying girl of angelic beauty, who is extended on a couch, and from whose hand a volume, the Book of Life, is falling. The lady is weeping.

Beneath is the following inscription —

To the Memory of MARY The only child of THOMAS and JANE JOHNES Who died in 1811 After a few days’ sickness This monument is dedicated By her parents.

An inscription worthy, by its simplicity and pathos, to stand below such a monument.

After presenting a trifle to the woman, who, to my great surprise, could not speak a word of English, I left the church, and descended the side of the hill, near the top of which it stands. The scenery was exceedingly beautiful. Below me was a bright green valley, at the bottom of which the Ystwyth ran brawling, now hid amongst groves, now showing a long stretch of water. Beyond the river to the east was a noble mountain, richly wooded. The Ystwyth, after a circuitous course, joins the Rheidol near the strand of the Irish Channel, which the united rivers enter at a place called Aber Ystwyth, where stands a lovely town of the same name, which sprang up under the protection of a baronial castle, still proud and commanding even in its ruins, built by Strongbow, the conqueror of the great western isle. Near the lower part of the valley the road tended to the south, up and down through woods and bowers, the scenery still ever increasing in beauty. At length, after passing through a gate and turning round a sharp corner, I suddenly beheld Hafod on my right hand, to the west at a little distance above me, on a rising ground, with a noble range of mountains behind it.

A truly fairy place it looked, beautiful but fantastic, in the building of which three styles of architecture seemed to have been employed. At the southern end was a Gothic tower; at the northern an Indian pagoda; the middle part had much the appearance of a Grecian villa. The walls were of resplendent whiteness, and the windows, which were numerous, shone with beautiful gilding. Such was modern Hafod, a strange contrast, no doubt, to the hunting lodge of old.

After gazing at this house of eccentric taste for about a quarter of an hour, sometimes with admiration, sometimes with a strong disposition to laugh, I followed the road, which led past the house in nearly a southerly direction. Presently the valley became more narrow, and continued narrowing till there was little more room than was required for the road and the river, which ran deep below it on the left-hand side. Presently I came to a gate, the boundary in the direction in which I was going of the Hafod domain.

Here, when about to leave Hafod, I shall devote a few lines to a remarkable man whose name should be ever associated with the place. Edward Lhuyd was born in the vicinity of Hafod about the period of the Restoration. His father was a clergyman, who after giving him an excellent education at home sent him to Oxford, at which seat of learning he obtained an honourable degree, officiated for several years as tutor, and was eventually made custodiary of the Ashmolean Museum. From his early youth he devoted himself with indefatigable zeal to the acquisition of learning. He was fond of natural history and British antiquities, but his favourite pursuit, and that in which he principally distinguished himself, was the study of the Celtic dialects; and it is but doing justice to his memory to say, that he was not only the best Celtic scholar of his time, but that no one has arisen since worthy to be considered his equal in Celtic erudition. Partly at the expense of the university, partly at that of various powerful individuals who patronized him, he travelled through Ireland, the Western Highlands, Wales, Cornwall and Armorica, for the purpose of collecting Celtic manuscripts. He was particularly successful in Ireland and Wales. Several of the most precious Irish manuscripts in Oxford, and also in the Chandos Library, were of Lhuyd’s collection, and to him the old hall at Hafod was chiefly indebted for its treasures of ancient British literature. Shortly after returning to Oxford from his Celtic wanderings he sat down to the composition of a grand work in three parts, under the title of Archaeologia Britannica, which he had long projected. The first was to be devoted to the Celtic dialects; the second to British Antiquities, and the third to the natural history of the British Isles. He only lived to complete the first part. It contains various Celtic grammars and vocabularies, to each of which there is a preface written by Lhuyd in the particular dialect to which the vocabulary or grammar is devoted. Of all these prefaces the one to the Irish is the most curious and remarkable. The first part of the Archaeologia was published at Oxford in 1707, two years before the death of the author. Of his correspondence, which was very extensive, several letters have been published, all of them relating to philology, antiquities, and natural history.


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