Journals 8.3 – Wild Wales by George Borrow (Part 3)

This is the third part of my article on Borrow’s journal.  For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 15th and 19th September 2015.


Mount Snowdon (source:

Leaving Llangollen, albeit on a temporary basis, Borrow travelled to Bangor, which would serve as a base of operations to visit Anglesey and the surrounding countryside. For the time-being he had to bid farewell to his guide, and rely on his own abilities to find his way. Once again, his wife and step-daughter would travel by rail, while Borrow journeyed on foot. Borrow had chatted a few times to people who complained of the Irish travelling community visiting the region, and most of the locals seemed to object to their presence. At Anglesey, he was able to see some of the Irish and judge for himself.

As I was standing in the middle of one of the business streets I suddenly heard a loud and dissonant gabbling, and glancing around beheld a number of wild-looking people, male and female. Wild looked the men, yet wilder the women. The men were very lightly clad, and were all barefooted and bareheaded; they carried stout sticks in their hands. The women were barefooted too, but had for the most part headdresses; their garments consisted of blue cloaks and striped gingham gowns. All the females had common tin articles in their bands which they offered for sale with violent gestures to the people in the streets, as they walked along, occasionally darting into the shops, from which, however, they were almost invariably speedily ejected by the startled proprietors, with looks of disgust and almost horror. Two ragged, red-haired lads led a gaunt pony, drawing a creaking cart, stored with the same kind of articles of tin, which the women bore. Poorly clad, dusty and soiled as they were, they all walked with a free, independent, and almost graceful carriage.

“Are those people from Ireland?” said I to a decent looking man, seemingly a mechanic, who stood near me, and was also looking at them, but with anything but admiration.

“I am sorry to say they are, sir;” said the man, who from his accent was evidently an Irishman, “for they are a disgrace to their country.”

I did not exactly think so. I thought that in many respects they were fine specimens of humanity.

Borrow was perhaps inclined to be more sympathetic towards the Irish due to his own past. His father Thomas Borrow had been an army recruiting officer, who had served in Ireland, and George had accompanied him there. He spend some of his teenage years studying at the Protestant Academy in Clonmel, where he had developed his love of languages, learning Latin and Greek, and picking up some Irish from a fellow student.

In common with many tourists in Wales, Borrow wanted to climb Mount Snowdon. The ascent was beyond the abilities of his wife, but his step-daughter was keen to accompany him. At one point Henrietta seemed to be struggling and Borrow thought she might have to give up and go back down, but she was a ‘gallant girl’ and managed to climb all the way to the summit. The mountain was very busy, and ‘groups of people, or single individuals, might be seen going up or descending the path as far as the eye could reach.’ Snowdon is now considered to be the busiest mountain in Britain.

There we stood enjoying a scene inexpressibly grand, comprehending a considerable part of the mainland of Wales, the whole of Anglesey, a faint glimpse of part of Cumberland; the Irish Channel, and what might be either a misty creation or the shadowy outline of the hills of Ireland. Peaks and pinnacles and huge moels stood up here and there, about us and below us, partly in glorious light, partly in deep shade. Manifold were the objects which we saw from the brow of Snowdon, but of all the objects which we saw, those which filled us with delight and admiration, were numerous lakes and lagoons, which, like sheets of ice or polished silver, lay reflecting the rays of the sun in the deep valleys at his feet.

Travelling to Llanfair, Borrow looked for the birthplace of another noted Welsh poet, Goronwy Owen (1723-1769). He found a miller to ask, who showed him the house where Owen was born, and then kindly asked him to join his family for an afternoon meal. Such was the hospitality that Borrow often found amongst perfect strangers in Wales. He was frequently offered refreshments on his travels, and few people minded him turning up on their doorsteps to ask for directions and local information. It was his custom to award them with small amounts of money, but the majority of people were quite willing to help without any expectation of reward.

“Pray, gentleman, walk in!” said the miller; “we are going to have our afternoon’s meal, and shall be rejoiced if you will join us.”

“Yes, do, gentleman,” said the miller’s wife, for such the good woman was; “and many a welcome shall you have.”

I hesitated, and was about to excuse myself.

“Don’t refuse, gentleman!” said both, ”surely you are not too proud to sit down with us?”

“I am afraid I shall only cause you trouble,” said I.

“Dim blinder, no trouble,” exclaimed both at once; “pray do walk in!”

I entered the house, and the kitchen, parlour, or whatever it was, a nice little room with a slate floor.

They made me sit down at a table by the window, which was already laid for a meal. There was a clean cloth upon it, a tea-pot, cups and saucers, a large plate of bread-and-butter, and a plate, on which were a few very thin slices of brown, watery cheese.

My good friends took their seats, the wife poured out tea for the stranger and her husband, helped us both to bread-and-butter and the watery cheese, then took care of herself. Before, however, I could taste the tea, the wife, seeming to recollect herself, started up, and hurrying to a cupboard, produced a basin full of snow-white lump sugar, and taking the spoon out of my hand, placed two of the largest lumps in my cup, though she helped neither her husband nor herself; the sugar-basin being probably only kept for grand occasions.

My eyes filled with tears; for in the whole course of my life I had never experienced so much genuine hospitality.

Borrow often found a warm welcome at the country inns, and found them useful places for a bed for the night when travelling some distance from his base of operations, whether that be Llangollen or Bangor. However, the quality of the service he received could be a bit of a lottery, and his accomodation was not always comfortable. In a public house at Pentraeth, on Anglesey island, he was conducted by the landlady to a small bedroom:

There were two beds in it. The good lady pointing to one, next the window, in which there were nice clean sheets, told me that was the one which I was to occupy, and bidding me good-night, and leaving the candle, departed. Putting out the light I got into bed, but instantly found that the bed was not long enough by at least a foot. “I shall pass an uncomfortable night,” said I, “for I never yet could sleep comfortably in a bed too short. However, as I am on my travels, I must endeavour to accommodate myself to circumstances.” So I endeavoured to compose myself to sleep; before, however, I could succeed, I heard the sound of stumping steps coming upstairs, and perceived a beam of light through the crevices of the door, and in a moment more the door opened and in came two loutish farming lads whom I had observed below, one of them bearing a rushlight stuck into an old blacking-bottle. Without saying a word they flung off part of their clothes, and one of them having blown out the rushlight, they both tumbled into bed, and in a moment were snoring most sonorously. “I am in a short bed,” said I, “and have snorers close by me; I fear I shall have a sorry night of it.” I determined, however, to adhere to my resolution of making the best of circumstances, and lay perfectly quiet, listening to the snorings as they rose and fell; at last they became more gentle and I fell asleep, notwithstanding my feet were projecting some way from the bed.

Although people were normally very friendly, sometimes it was the local people that made a stay unpleasant for Borrow. On one occasion, a postman walked into an inn where Borrow was drinking, and began speaking to his friends in Welsh.

Before, however, he had uttered two sentences the woman lifted her hand with an alarmed air, crying “Hush! he understands.” The fellow was turning me to ridicule. I flung my head back, closed my eyes, opened my mouth and laughed aloud. The fellow stood aghast; his hand trembled, and he spilt the greater part of the whiskey upon the ground. At the end of about half a minute I got up, asked what I had to pay, and on being told twopence, I put down the money. Then going up to the man I put my right forefinger very near to his nose, and said “Dwy o iaith dwy o wyneb, two languages, two faces, friend!” Then after leering at him for a moment I wished the people of the house good-evening and departed.

This was far from being the normal course of events, and it was more often English visitors to Wales who were likely to cause problems for Borrow. At his usual inn at Bangor he was disappointed one Saturday night to find the place packed with English workers who had arrived by train from Manchester and Liverpool. He tried to strike up a conversation with a few of them, but was met with ‘no answers’ or ‘worse than no answers’, and recognised ‘brutality, or conceit’ in every face. According to Borrow, these were the ‘scum of manufacturing England.’ At Beddgelert, Borrow found more ‘scum of Manchester and Liverpool’ in an inn:

The company amongst which I now was, consisted of seven or eight individuals, two of them were military puppies, one a tallish fellow, who though evidently upwards of thirty, affected the airs of a languishing girl, and would fain have made people believe that he was dying of ennui and lassitude. The other was a short spuddy fellow, with a broad ugly face and with spectacles on his nose, who talked very consequentially about “the service” and all that, but whose tone of voice was coarse and his manner that of an under-bred person; then there was an old fellow about sixty-five, a civilian, with a red carbuncled face; he was father of the spuddy military puppy, on whom he occasionally cast eyes of pride and almost adoration, and whose sayings he much applauded, especially certain doubles entendres, to call them by no harsher term, directed to a fat girl, weighing some fifteen stone, who officiated in the coffee-room as waiter. Then there was a creature to do justice to whose appearance would require the pencil of a Hogarth. He was about five feet three inches and a quarter high, and might have weighed, always provided a stone weight had been attached to him, about half as much as the fat girl. His countenance was cadaverous and was eternally agitated by something between a grin and a simper. He was dressed in a style of superfine gentility, and his skeleton fingers were bedizened with tawdry rings. His conversation was chiefly about his bile and his secretions, the efficacy of licorice in producing a certain effect, and the expediency of changing one’s linen at least three times a day; though had he changed his six, I should have said that the purification of the last shirt would have been no sinecure to the laundress. His accent was decidedly Scotch: he spoke familiarly of Scott and one or two other Scotch worthies, and more than once insinuated that he was a member of Parliament.

The final part of this article, in which an old man goes on the attack with his walking stick, will follow in a few days.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
This entry was posted in 19th Century, Books, History, Journals, Travel and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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