By the time Wild Wales was published in 1862, George Henry Borrow was already a well-established travel writer, known principally for his Bible in Spain and works looking at the Romany people in Europe. He was not a particularly acclaimed writer in his lifetime, and was even the victim of a book burning, when Norwich public library took exception to his mockery of the town.
The subject of Wild Wales is a walking tour of Wales in the year 1854, at which time Borrow was 51 years old. Travelling with him were his wife Mary and step-daughter Henrietta, although they did not accompany him for the full journey, avoiding the longest and most physically demanding walks, but Henrietta did accompany the author up Mount Snowdon. Borrow expressed his great love for his family and pleasure being reunited with them each time they were parted, and it was important for them all to agree on the choice of holiday destination.
We were undetermined for some time with respect to where we should go. I proposed Wales from the first, but my wife and daughter, who have always had rather a hankering after what is fashionable, said they thought it would be more advisable to go to Harrowgate, or Leamington. On my observing that those were terrible places for expense, they replied that, though the price of corn had of late been shamefully low, we had a spare hundred pounds or two in our pockets, and could afford to pay for a little insight into fashionable life. I told them that there was nothing I so much hated as fashionable life, but that, as I was anything but a selfish person, I would endeavour to stifle my abhorrence of it for a time, and attend them either to Leamington or Harrowgate. By this speech I obtained my wish, even as I knew I should, for my wife and daughter instantly observed, that, after all, they thought we had better go into Wales, which, though not so fashionable as either Leamington or Harrowgate, was a very nice picturesque country, where, they had no doubt, they should get on very well, more especially as I was acquainted with the Welsh language.
Borrow was particularly keen to visit Wales, as he wanted to make use of his knowledge of the Welsh language. He had studied Welsh texts and had a great enthusiasm and respect for Welsh poets, and was keen to visit some of their birthplaces and resting places. He seemed to have been born with a natural talent for languages, and was in the highly unusual position of being an Englishman who spoke fluent Welsh. He had learnt the language while working as an articled clerk to a solicitor in East Anglia, where he made the acquaintance of a Welsh groom.
At length a whisper ran about the alley that the groom was a Welshman; this whisper much increased the malice of my brother clerks against him, who were now whenever he passed the door, and they happened to be there by twos or threes, in the habit of saying something, as if by accident, against Wales and Welshmen, and, individually or together, were in the habit of shouting out “Taffy,” when he was at some distance from them, and his back was turned, or regaling his ears with the harmonious and well-known distich of “Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief: Taffy came to my house and stole a piece of beef.” It had, however, a very different effect upon me. I was trying to learn Welsh, and the idea occurring to me that the groom might be able to assist me in my pursuit; I instantly lost all desire to torment him, and determined to do my best to scrape acquaintance with him, and persuade him to give me what assistance he could in Welsh. I succeeded; how I will not trouble the reader with describing; he and I became great friends, and he taught me what Welsh he could. In return for his instructions I persuaded my brother clerks to leave off holloing after him, and to do nothing further to hurt his feelings, which had been very deeply wounded, so much so, that after the first two or three lessons he told me in confidence that on the morning of the very day I first began to conciliate him he had come to the resolution of doing one of two things, namely, either to hang himself from the balk of the hayloft, or to give his master warning, both of which things he told me he should have been very unwilling to do, more particularly as he had a wife and family….
He was really a remarkable character, and taught me two or three things besides Welsh pronunciation; and to discourse a little in Cumraeg. He had been a soldier in his youth, and had served under Moore and Wellington in the Peninsular campaigns, and from him I learnt the details of many a bloody field and bloodier storm, of the sufferings of poor British soldiers, and the tyranny of haughty British officers; more especially of the two commanders just mentioned, the first of whom he swore was shot by his own soldiers, and the second more frequently shot at by British than French.
Sir John Moore commanded British forces in the Spanish War, after Wellington was recalled to face an inquiry about the Convention of Cintra. He was struck by a cannon shot in 1809 and died from his injuries. The opinion expressed of his treatment of his troops is quite an unusual and interesting perspective, as history remembers him as a man who looked after his men, and kept them in good morale. Wellington, on the other hand, was not inclined to inspire his troops with speeches and even objected to being cheered by them, so perhaps the claim of him being unpopular with his soldiers is more credible. There are two sides to every story, and history tends to be told from the perspective of the victor, so it is interesting to find such a negative, first-hand account of two great war heroes.
Borrow’s journey began on 27th July 1854, with a train journey across England, stopping off to visit Peterborough Cathedral. At Birmingham, he felt ‘proud of being a modern Englishman’, when he saw the station, ‘with its thousand trains dashing off in all directions, or arriving from all quarters’.
My modern English pride accompanied me all the way to Tipton; for all along the route there were wonderful evidences of English skill and enterprise; in chimneys high as cathedral spires, vomiting forth smoke, furnaces emitting flame and lava, and in the sound of gigantic hammers, wielded by steam, the Englishman’s slave.
This was just about the last time in the journal that Borrow had anything much positive to say about England and the English. As he travelled around Wales, chatting with the local people wherever he went, he formed a much more positive view of the Welsh than the English. At times he would meet Englishmen travelling into Wales for business or work, and would generally express a low opinion of their manners and behaviour, in comparison with the Welsh. Despite some negative encounters with the more parochial amongst the Welsh people, Borrow was about to fall in love with the country.
Approaching the Welsh border, he stopped off in Chester and wished to sample some of the local food and ale. This is a theme of the book. Every public house or tea room he visited is described, including the landlords, quality of food and drink on offer, prices, and the local people he met. In many ways these are the most interested sections of the book, because they offer insights into the lives of the local people in the mid 19th Century. In Northgate street he found an inn, where he could try the famous Cheshire cheese.
“The ale I shall find bad,” said I; Chester ale had a villainous character in the time of old Sion Tudor, who made a first-rate englyn upon it, and it has scarcely improved since; “but I shall have a treat in the cheese, Cheshire cheese has always been reckoned excellent, and now that I am in the capital of the cheese country, of course I shall have some of the very prime.” Well, the tea, loaf and butter made their appearance, and with them my cheese and ale. To my horror the cheese had much the appearance of soap of the commonest kind, which indeed I found it much resembled in taste, on putting a small portion into my mouth. “Ah,” said I, after I had opened the window and ejected the half-masticated morsel into the street, “those who wish to regale on good Cheshire cheese must not come to Chester, no more than those who wish to drink first-rate coffee must go to Mocha. I’ll now see whether the ale is drinkable;” so I took a little of the ale into my mouth, and instantly going to the window, spirted it out after the cheese.
‘Sion Tudor’ is a reference to the poet Siôn Tudur (c.1522-1602), and an ‘englyn’ is a traditional Welsh poem with a strict pattern of rhyme and syllables.
On the afternoon of Monday I sent my family off by the train to Llangollen, which place we had determined to make our head-quarters during our stay in Wales. I intended to follow them next day, not in train, but on foot, as by walking I should be better able to see the country, between Chester and Llangollen, than by making the journey by the flying vehicle. As I returned to the inn from the train I took refuge from a shower in one of the rows or covered streets, to which, as I have already said, one ascends by flights of steps; stopping at a book-stall I took up a book which chanced to be a Welsh one. The proprietor, a short red-faced man, observing me reading the book, asked me if I could understand it. I told him that I could.
”If so,” said he, “let me hear you translate the two lines on the title-page.”
“Are you a Welshman?” said I.
” I am!” he replied.
“Good!” said I, and I translated into English the two lines which were a couplet by Edmund Price, an old archdeacon of Marion, celebrated in his day for wit and poetry.
The man then asked me from what part of Wales I came, and when I told him that I was an Englishman was evidently offended, either because he did not believe me, or, as I more incline to think, did not approve of an Englishman’s understanding Welsh.
Not for the last time, a Welshman objected to Borrow’s knowledge of Welsh. Although most people he met on his travels were approving of his language skills, and often in awe of them, there was also plenty of suspicion and opposition to his abilities.
The second part of this article, in which Borrow goes to extraordinary lengths to find a chair, will follow in a few days. You can keep updated each time I post a new entry by clicking on the “follow” button on the right of the screen.