Journals 8.4 – Wild Wales by George Borrow (Part 4)

This is the final part of my article on Borrow’s journal.  For the previous parts, please see the entries posted on 15th, 19th and 23rd September 2015.

George Borrow

George Borrow, painted by Henry Wyndham Phillips in 1843.

Borrow was not above the occasional moment of rudeness himself. On one occasion, he was feeling thirsty and looked for somewhere to have a drink. And the only drink he was ever really interested in was ale. Unfortunately for Borrow, all he could find was a tea room. Even more unfortunately for the owner of the tea room, he was ready and willing to voice his opinion about this state of affairs.

“The bill of fare does not tempt you, sir,” said a woman who made her appearance at the door, just as I was about to turn away with an exceedingly wry face.

” It does not,” said I, “and you ought to be ashamed of yourself to have nothing better to offer to a traveller than a cup of tea. I am faint; and I want good ale to give me heart, not wishy-washy tea to take away the little strength I have.”

“What would you have me do, sir ? Glad should I be to have a cup of ale to offer you, but the magistrates, when I applied to them for a licence, refused me one, so I am compelled to make a cup of tea, in order to get a crust of bread. And if you choose to step in, I will make you a cup of tea, not wishy-washy, I assure you, but as good as ever was brewed.”

“I had tea for my breakfast at Beth Gelert,” said I, “and want no more till to-morrow morning.”

It was not just at inns and tea rooms that Borrow was displeased by locals. Although most people were happy to chat to him, the Welsh people he met while hiking through the countryside and villages were not always helpful or particularly communicative.

I was overtaken by an old fellow with a stick in his hand, walking very briskly. He had a crusty and rather conceited look. I spoke to him in Welsh, and he answered in English, saying that I need not trouble myself by speaking Welsh, as he had plenty of English, and of the very best. We were from first to last at cross purposes. I asked him about Rhys Goch and his chair. He told me that he knew nothing of either, and began to talk of Her Majesty’s ministers and the fine sights of London. I asked him the name of a stream which, descending a gorge on our right, ran down the side of a valley, to join the river at its bottom. He told me that he did not know, and asked me the name of the Queen’s eldest daughter. I told him I did not know, and remarked that it was very odd that he could not tell me the name of a stream in his own vale. He replied that it was not a bit more odd than that I could not tell him the name of the eldest daughter of the Queen of England; I told him that when I was in Wales I wanted to talk about Welsh matters, and he told me that when he was with English he wanted to talk about English matters. I returned to the subject of Rhys Goch and his chair, and he returned to the subject of Her Majesty’s ministers, and the fine folks of London. I told him that I cared not a straw about Her Majesty’s ministers and the fine folks of London, and he replied that he cared not a straw for Rhys Goch, his chair or old women’s stories of any kind.

Regularly incensed against the old fellow, I told him he was a bad Welshman, and he retorted by saying I was a bad Englishman. I said he appeared to know next to nothing. He retorted by saying I knew less than nothing, and almost inarticulate with passion added that he scorned to walk in such illiterate company, and suiting the action to the word sprang up a steep and rocky footpath on the right, probably a short cut to his domicile, and was out of sight in a twinkling.

Returning to Llangollen, Borrow was reunited with his guide John Jones. A frequent source of conversation among the local people they met, particularly in the public houses, was the Crimean War, which had begun the year before. News spread slowly, and was not always accurate, sometimes based on misunderstood rumours.

On the third of October— I think that was the date— as my family and myself, attended by trusty John Jones, were returning on foot from visiting a park not far from Rhiwabon we heard, when about a mile from Llangollen, a sudden ringing of the bells of the place, and a loud shouting. Presently we observed a postman hurrying in a cart from the direction of the town. “Peth yw y matter?” said John Jones. “Y matter, y matter!” said the postman in a tone of exultation, “Sebastopol wedi cymmeryd. Hurrah!”

“What does he say?” said my wife anxiously to me.
“Why, that Sebastopol is taken,” said I.

This was in fact a misunderstanding. Sevastopol did not fall until the following year, and instead had just come under siege at this point. A local church clerk related to Borrow the bravery of the Welsh troops in the Crimean War.

The Welsh highly distinguished themselves. The Welsh fusileers were the first to mount the hill. They suffered horribly — indeed almost the whole regiment was cut to pieces; but what of that? they showed that the courage of the Ancient Britons still survives in their descendants.

Reluctantly saying goodbye to his guide for the last time, Borrow departed from Llangollen on a walking tour of South Wales. At this point his wife and step-daughter returned home, as the holiday would be all on foot from this point onwards. Travelling to Llansilin in search of the burial place of Huw Morus, he stopped off at an ‘old-fashioed public-house’, and fell into conversation with an old man who was drinking there.

Just then in burst a rabble rout of game-keepers and river-watchers who had come from the petty sessions, and were in high glee, the two poachers whom the landlord had mentioned having been convicted and heavily fined. Two or three of them were particularly boisterous, running against some of the guests who were sitting or standing in the kitchen, and pushing the landlord about, crying at the same time that they would stand by Sir Watkin to the last, and would never see him plundered. One of them, a fellow of about thirty, in a hairy cap, black coat, dirty yellow breeches, and dirty white top-boots, who was the most obstreperous of them all, at last came up to the old chap who disliked South Welshmen and tried to knock off his hat, swearing that he would stand by Sir Watkin; he, however, met a Tartar. The enemy of the South Welsh, like all crusty people, had lots of mettle, and with the stick which he held in his hand forthwith aimed a blow at the fellow’s poll, which, had he not jumped back, would probably have broken it.

“I will not be insulted by you, you vagabond,” said the old chap, “nor by Sir Watkin either; go and tell him so.”

The fellow looked sheepish, and turning away proceeded to take liberties with other people less dangerous to meddle with than old crabstick. He, however, soon desisted, and sat down evidently disconcerted.

Carrying a stick could clearly be quite handy, although Borrow found an umbrella was often more useful, as it served bizarrely as a sort of badge of honour and class.

Moreover, who doubts that you are a respectable character provided you have an umbrella? You go into a public-house and call for a pot of beer, and the publican puts it down before you with one hand without holding out the other for the money, for he sees that you have an umbrella and consequently property. And what respectable man, when you overtake him on the way and speak to him, will refuse to hold conversation with you, provided you have an umbrella? No one. The respectable man sees you have an umbrella, and concludes that you do not intend to rob him, and with justice, for robbers never carry umbrellas. Oh, a tent, a shield, a lance, and a voucher for character is an umbrella. Amongst the very best friends of man must be reckoned an umbrella.

Travelling to the coal mining region of Gutter Fawr, Borrow found a local miner who was willing to tell him all about life in the mines, including some supernatural ‘noises in the hill’, which we will look at separately in a forthcoming series of articles in the lead-up to Halloween. Travelling around this area was treacherous, particularly in bad weather.

This place was at a considerable altitude, and commanded an extensive view to the south, west, and north. Heights upon heights rose behind it to the east. From here the road ran to the south for a little way nearly level, then turned abruptly to the east, and was more steep than ever. After the turn, I had a huge chalk cliff towering over me on the right, and a chalk precipice on my left. Night was now coming on fast, and, rather to my uneasiness, masses of mist began to pour down the sides of the mountain. I hurried on, the road making frequent turnings. Presently the mist swept down upon me, and was so thick that I could only see a few yards before me. I was now obliged to slacken my pace, and to advance with some degree of caution. I moved on in this way for some time, when suddenly I heard a noise, as if a number of carts were coming rapidly down the hill. I stopped, and stood with my back close against the high bank. The noise drew nearer, and in a minute I saw distinctly through the mist, horses, carts, and forms of men passing. In one or two cases the wheels appeared to be within a few inches of my feet. I let the train go by, and then cried out in English, “Am I right for Gutter Vawr?”

“Hey?” said a voice, after a momentary interval.
“Am I right for Gutter Vawr?” I shouted yet louder.
“Yes sure!” said a voice, probably the same.
Then instantly a much rougher voice cried, “Who the Devil are you?”

I made no answer, but went on, whilst the train continued its way rumbling down the mountain. At length I gained the top, where the road turned and led down a steep descent towards the south-west. It was now quite night, and the mist was of the thickest kind. I could just see that there was a frightful precipice on my left, so I kept to the right, hugging the side of the hill. As I descended I heard every now and then loud noises in the vale, probably proceeding from stone quarries. I was drenched to the skin, nay, through the skin, by the mist, which I verily believe was more penetrating than that described by Ab Gwilym. When I had proceeded about a mile I saw blazes down below, resembling those of furnaces, and soon after came to the foot of the hill. It was here pouring with rain, but I did not put up my umbrella, as it was impossible for me to be more drenched than I was.

Finally reaching an inn, Borrow did not find a very friendly welcome, as here were some more of what his guide in Llangollen had described ‘cenfigenus’ or ‘envious’ Welsh, who objected to his knowledge of their own language.

“Well, sir, that is speaking plain, and I will tell you plainly that we don’t like to have strangers among us who understand our discourse, more especially if they be gentlefolks.”

“That’s strange,” said I; “a Welshman or foreigner, gentle or simple, may go into a public-house in England, and nobody cares a straw whether he understands the discourse of the company or not.”

“That may be the custom in England,” said the old man, “but it is not so in Wales.”

“What have you got to conceal?” said I; “I suppose you are honest men.”

“I hope we are, sir,” said the old man; “but I must tell you, once for all, that we don’t like strangers to listen to our discourse.”

The final destination for Borrow before returning home was Chepstow. Unlike many journal writers, he did not end his journal with any general reflection on his travels, merely mentioning briefly his last visit to an inn and his journey home.

I went to the principal inn, where I engaged a private room and ordered the best dinner which the people could provide. Then leaving my satchel behind me I went to the castle, amongst the ruins of which I groped and wandered for nearly an hour, occasionally repeating verses of the Norman Horseshoe. I then went to the Wye and drank of the waters at its mouth, even as some time before I had drunk of the waters at its source. Then returning to my inn I got my dinner, after which I called for a bottle of port, and placing my feet against the sides of the grate I passed my time drinking wine and singing Welsh songs till ten o’clock at night, when I paid my reckoning, amounting to something considerable. Then shouldering my satchel I proceeded to the railroad station, where I purchased a first-class ticket, and ensconcing myself in a comfortable carriage, was soon on the way to London, where I arrived at about four o’clock in the morning, having had during the whole of my journey a most uproarious set of neighbours a few carriages behind me, namely, some hundred and fifty of Napier’s tars returning from their expedition to the Baltic.

Although this concludes the Wild Wales essay, I will be returning to the book briefly next month as part of a new series of blog posts in the run-up to Halloween, titled Creepy History, in which I will cover Borrow’s discoveries about ‘Corpse Candles’ and ‘Spirits of the Hill’.

About Roger Pocock

Co-writer on Author of Editor of
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