This is the second part of my article on Borrow’s journal. For the first part, please see the entry posted on 15th September 2015.
Early the next morning I departed from Chester for Llangollen, distant about twenty miles; I passed over the noble bridge and proceeded along a broad and excellent road, leading in a direction almost due south through pleasant meadows. I felt very happy — and no wonder; the morning was beautiful, the birds sang merrily, and a sweet smell proceeded from the new-cut hay in the fields, and I was bound for Wales. I passed over the river Allen and through two villages called, as I was told, Pulford and Marford, and ascended a hill; from the top of this hill the view is very fine. To the east are the high lands of Cheshire, to the west the bold hills of Wales, and below, on all sides a fair variety of wood and water, green meads and arable fields.
Travelling on foot was the best way to experience the country, with all the glorious countryside and interesting towns and villages. Borrow travelled through Wrexham and eventually arrived at Llangollen, which was to be his home for much of his stay in Wales. Stopping off at a farmhouse to ask for directions, he got into conversation with the farmer, who was impressed with his knowledge of Welsh and offered to show him a book that he thought would be of interest. Borrow was soon to discover that the farmer himself was more interesting because, just by luck, he was a relative of one of the poets that Borrow was keen to investigate.
I asked him if the Welsh had any poets at the present day. “Plenty,” said he, “and good ones — Wales can never be without a poet.” Then after a pause he said, that he was the grandson of a great poet.
“Do you bear his name?” said I.
“I do,” he replied.
“What may it be?”
“Hughes,” he answered.
“Two of the name of Hughes have been poets,” said I — “one was Huw Hughes, generally termed the Bardd Coch, or red bard; he was an Anglesea man, and the friend of Lewis Morris and Gronwy Owen — the other was Jonathan Hughes, where he lived I know not.”
“He lived here, in this very house,” said the man. “Jonathan Hughes was my grandfather!” and as he spoke his eyes flashed fire.
“Dear me!” said I; “I read some of his pieces thirty-two years ago when I was a lad in England. I think I can repeat some of the lines.” I then repeated a quartet which I chanced to remember.
“Ah!” said the man, “I see you know his poetry. Come into the next room and I will show you his chair.” He led me into a sleeping-room on the right hand, where in a corner he showed me an antique three-cornered arm-chair. “That chair,” said he, “my grandsire won at Llangollen, at an Eisteddfod of Bards. Various bards recited their poetry, but my grandfather won the prize. Ah, he was a good poet. He also won a prize of fifteen guineas at a meeting of bards in London.”
An ‘Eisteddfod’ is a festival of poetry, music and literature, a tradition dating back to the 12th Century. The grandfather of the farmer Borrow met was a well-respected poet who attended several eisteddfodau, including one in Llangollen in 1789. The prize his grandson mentioned was won when a decision could not be made between three poets, one of whom was Hughes, at an eisteddfod in Corwen, also in 1789, and their works were sent to the Gwyneddigion Society in London for a decision to be made. By the time of Borrow’s tour of Wales, the Gwyneddigion Society had already been dissolved. The father of the farmer, also named Jonathan Hughes, was a published poet of lesser success.
Borrow soon found that he really needed the services of a guide, to help him find his way around. A man named John Jones offered to take him to visit some places of interest.
We now walked to the west, in the direction of Llangollen, along the bank of the river. Presently we arrived where the river, after making a bend, formed a pool. It was shaded by lofty trees, and to all appearance was exceedingly deep. I stopped to look at it, for I was struck with its gloomy horror. “That pool, sir,” said John Jones, “is called Llyn y Meddwyn, the drunkard’s pool. It is called so, sir, because a drunken man once fell into it, and was drowned. There is no deeper pool in the Dee, sir, save one, a little below Llangollen, which is called the pool of Catherine Lingo. A girl of that name fell into it, whilst gathering sticks on the high bank above it.”
John Jones proved to be a very useful companion, especially when dealing with some of the locals who refused to speak to Borrow in English (which they could not speak) or in Welsh (which they did not approve of him speaking).
We turned off to the “tafarn,” which was a decent public-house of rather an antiquated appearance. We entered a sanded kitchen, and sat down by a large oaken table. “Please to bring us some bread, cheese and ale,” said I in Welsh to an elderly woman, who was moving about.
“Sar?” said she.
”Bring us some bread, cheese and ale,” I repeated in Welsh.
“I do not understand you, sar,” said she in English.
“Are you Welsh?” said I in English.
“Yes, I am Welsh!”
“And can you speak Welsh?”
“Oh yes, and the best.”
“Then why did you not bring what I asked for?”
“Because I did not understand you.”
“Tell her,” said I to John Jones, “to bring us some bread, cheese and ale.”
“Come, aunt,” said John, “bring us bread and cheese and a quart of the best ale.”
The woman looked as if she was going to reply in the tongue in which he addressed her, then faltered, and at last said in English that she did not understand.
“Now,” said I, “you are fairly caught: this man is a Welshman, and moreover understands no language but Welsh.”
“Then how can he understand you?” said she.
“Because I speak Welsh,” said I.
“Then you are a Welshman?” said she.
“No I am not,” said I, “I am English.”
“So I thought,” said she, “and on that account I could not understand you.”
“You mean that you would not,” said I. “Now do you choose to bring what you are bidden?”
“Come, aunt,” said John, “don’t be silly and cenfigenus, but bring the breakfast.”
The woman stood still for a moment or two, and then biting her lips went away.
“What made the woman behave in this manner?” said I to my companion.
“Oh, she was cenfigenus, sir,” he replied; “she did not like that an English gentleman should understand Welsh; she was envious; you will find a dozen or two like her in Wales; but let us hope not more.”
Presently the woman returned with the bread, cheese and ale, which she placed on the table.
“Oh,” said I, “you have brought what was bidden, though it was never mentioned to you in English, which shows that your pretending not to understand was all a sham. What made you behave so?”
“Why I thought,” said the woman, “that no Englishman could speak Welsh, that his tongue was too short.”
“Your having thought so,” said I, “should not have made you tell a falsehood, saying that you did not understand, when you knew that you understood very well. See what a disgraceful figure you cut.”
‘Cenfigenus’ is the Welsh for ‘jealous’ or ‘envious’.
One of the most important destinations that Borrow wanted Jones to guide him to was Cadair Huw Morus, the ‘chair of Huw Morus’, a stone seat with the initials of the poet carved into the back. Morus was a popular 17th Century Welsh poet, whose works Borrow had studied and enjoyed. The chair can still be seen today, near Pont y Meibion, but it was a much more difficult thing to find in 1854. Jones could not find it himself, and the travellers had to ask some locals for help.
At the entrance of this valley and just before you reach the Pandy, which it nearly overhangs, is an enormous crag. After I had looked at the place for some time with considerable interest we proceeded towards the south, and in about twenty minutes reached a neat kind of house, on our right hand, which John Jones told me stood on the ground of Huw Morris. Telling me to wait, he went to the house, and asked some questions. After a little time I followed him and found him discoursing at the door with a stout dame about fifty-five years of age, and a stout buxom damsel of about seventeen, very short of stature.
“This is the gentleman,” said he, “who wishes to see anything there may be here connected with Huw Morris.”
The old dame made me a curtsey, and said in very distinct Welsh, “We have some things in the house which belonged to him, and we will show them to the gentleman willingly.”
“We first of all wish to see his chair,” said John Jones.
“The chair is in a wall in what is called the hen ffordd (old road),” said the old gentlewoman; “it is cut out of the stone wall, you will have maybe some difficulty in getting to it, but the girl shall show it to you.” The girl now motioned to us to follow her, and conducted us across the road to some stone steps, over a wall to a place which looked like a plantation.
“This was the old road,” said Jones; “but the place has been enclosed. The new road is above us on our right hand beyond the wall.”
We were in a maze of tangled shrubs, the boughs of which, very wet from the rain which was still falling, struck our faces, as we attempted to make our way between them; the girl led the way, bare-headed and bare-armed, and soon brought us to the wall, the boundary of the new road. Along this she went with considerable difficulty, owing to the tangled shrubs, and the nature of the ground, which was very precipitous, shelving down to the other side of the enclosure. In a little time we were wet to the skin, and covered with the dirt of birds, which they had left while roosting in the trees; on went the girl, sometimes creeping, and trying to keep herself from falling by holding against the young trees; once or twice she fell and we after her, for there was no path, and the ground, as I have said before, very shelvy; still as she went her eyes were directed towards the wall, which was not always very easy to be seen, for thorns, tall nettles and shrubs, were growing up against it. Here and there she stopped, and said something, which I could not always make out, for her Welsh was anything but clear; at length I heard her say that she was afraid we had passed the chair, and indeed presently we came to a place where the enclosure terminated in a sharp corner.
“Let us go back,” said I ; “we must have passed it.”
I now went first, breaking down with my weight the shrubs nearest to the wall.
“Is not this the place?” said I, pointing to a kind of hollow in the wall, which looked something like the shape of a chair.
“Hardly,” said the girl, “for there should be a slab on the back, with letters, but there’s neither slab nor letters here.”
The girl now again went forward, and we retraced our way, doing the best we could to discover the chair, but all to no purpose; no chair was to be found. We had now been, as I imagined, half-an-hour in the enclosure, and had nearly got back to the place from which we had set out, when we suddenly heard the voice of the old lady exclaiming, “What are ye doing there, the chair is on the other side of the field; wait a bit, and I will come and show it you;” getting over the stone stile, which led into the wilderness, she came to us, and we now went along the wall at the lower end; we had quite as much difficulty here as on the other side, and in some places more, for the nettles were higher, the shrubs more tangled, and the thorns more terrible. The ground, however, was rather more level. I pitied the poor girl who led the way, and whose fat naked arms were both stung and torn. She at last stopped amidst a huge grove of nettles, doing the best she could to shelter her arms from the stinging leaves.
“I never was in such a wilderness in my life,” said I to John Jones, “is it possible that the chair of the mighty Huw is in a place like this; which seems never to have been trodden by human foot.”
Eventually the old lady announced that she had spotted the chair with the exclamation Diolch I Duw! (‘Thank God!’). Borrow described ‘something like a half barrel chair in a garden, a mouldering stone slab forming the seat, and a large slate stone, the back,’ and saw the letters ‘H.M.B.’ carved into the back. He was delighted to have finally reached his goal, and sat in the chair reading verses from Huw Morus.
The third part of this article, in which Borrow climbs Snowdon and spends an unhappy night with a snorer in his hotel room, will follow in a few days. I welcome comments and suggestions for the blog.