Friday, 13 June 2014

George Borrow...The day he went to Bangor

Moel Siabod-Instagram image

Wild Wales published in 1862 remains one of THE greatest British travelogues of all time. Its author, George Borrow harnessing a rare-for a Victorian Englishman- ability to understand and converse in the Welsh Language... then the dominant tongue in north and mid Wales... with an acute observational eye,an enthusiasm to engage with local people and a passion for local history and culture.. Combined with his remarkable energy and capacity for long walks-like Coleridge, covering great distances in a single day- These physical and creative attributes came together in a book which has never been out of print in 162 years! This extract offers a brief example of his incredible walking powers. Describing a walk in a single day between Cerrigydrudion in North east Wales to Bangor on the North Wales coast. Passing several landmarks familiar to modern outdoor folk. The climbing crag of Dinas Mawr, Swallow Falls, Plas y Brenin and the ‘hovel’, Helyg, which became of the UK’s first climbing huts.

After leaving the village of Pentre Voelas I soon found myself in a wild hilly region.  I crossed a bridge over a river, which, brawling and tumbling amidst rocks, shaped its course to the north-east.  As I proceeded, the country became more and more wild; there were dingles and hollows in abundance, and fantastic-looking hills, some of which were bare, and others clad with trees of various kinds.Came to a little well in a cavity, dug in a high bank on the left-hand side of the road, and fenced by rude stone work on either side; the well was about ten inches in diameter, and as many deep.  Water oozing from the bank upon a slanting tile fastened into the earth fell into it.  After damming up the end of the tile with my hand, and drinking some delicious water, I passed on and presently arrived at a cottage just inside the door of which sat a good-looking middle-aged woman engaged in knitting, the general occupation of Welsh females.

I departed, and proceeded some miles through a truly magnificent country of wood,rock,and mountain.  At length I came to a steep mountain gorge, down which the road ran nearly due north, the Conway to the left running with great noise parallel with the road, amongst broken rocks, which chafed it into foam.  I was now amidst stupendous hills, whose paps, peaks, and pinnacles seemed to rise to the very heaven. 
An immense mountain on the right side of the road particularly struck my attention, and on inquiring of a man breaking stones by the roadside I learned that it was called Dinas Mawr, or the large citadel, perhaps from a fort having been built upon it to defend the pass in the old British times.  Coming to the bottom of the pass I crossed over by an ancient bridge, and, passing through a small town,(Betws y Coed) found myself in a beautiful valley with majestic hills on either side.  This was the Dyffryn Conway, the celebrated Vale of Conway, to which in the summer time fashionable gentry from all parts of Britain resort for shade and relaxation.  When about midway down the valley I turned to the west, up one of the grandest passes in the world,having two immense door-posts of rock at the entrance, the northern one probably rising to the altitude of nine hundred feet. 
 On the southern side of this pass near the entrance were neat dwellings for the  accommodation of visitors with cool apartments on the ground floor, with large windows, looking towards the precipitous side of the mighty northern hill; within them I observed tables, and books, and young men, probably English collegians, seated at study.

After I had proceeded some way up the pass, down which a small river ran, a woman who was standing on the right-hand side of the way, seemingly on the look-out, begged me in broken English to step aside and look at the fall. “You mean a waterfall, I suppose?” said I. “Yes, sir.” “And how do you call it?” said I. “The Fall of the Swallow, sir.” “And in Welsh?” said I.“Rhaiadr y Wennol, sir.” “And what is the name of the river?” said I.“We call the river the Lygwy, sir.”

I told the woman I would go, whereupon she conducted me through a gate on the right hand side and down a path overhung with trees to a ro projecting into the river.  The Fall of the Swallow is not a majestic single fall, but a succession of small ones.  First there are a number of little foaming torrents, bursting through rocks about twenty yards above the promontory on which I stood.  Then come two beautiful rolls of white water, dashing into a pool a little way above the promontory; then there is a swirl of water round its corner into a pool below on its right, black as death, and seemingly of great depth; then a rush through a very narrow outlet into another pool, from which the water clamours away down the glen.  Such is the Rhaiadr y Wennol, or Swallow Fall; called so from the rapidity with which the waters rush and skip along.

On asking the woman on whose property the fall was, she informed me that it was on the property of the Gwedir family.  The name of Gwedir brought to my mind the “History of the Gwedir Family,” a rare and curious book which I had read in my boyhood, and which was written by the representative of that family, a certain Sir John Wynne, about the beginning of the seventeenth century.  It gives an account of the fortunes of the family, from it earliest rise; but more particularly after it had emigrated, in order to avoid bad neighbours, from a fair and fertile district into rugged Snowdonia, where it found anything but the repose it came in quest of.  The book which is written in bold graphic English, flings considerable light on the state of society in Wales, in the time of the Tudors, a truly deplorable state, as the book is full of accounts of feuds, petty but desperate skirmishes, and revengeful murders.  To many of the domestic sagas, or histories of ancient Icelandic families, from the character of the events which it describes and also from the manner in which it describes them, the “History of the Gwedir Family,” by Sir John Wynne, bears a striking resemblance.

After giving the woman sixpence I left the fall, and proceeded on my way.
I presently crossed a bridge under which ran the river of the fall, and was soon in a wide valley on each side of which were lofty hills dotted with wood, and at the top of which stood a mighty mountain, bare and precipitous, with two paps like those of Pindus opposite Janina, but somewhat sharper.  It was a region of fairy beauty and of wild grandeur. Meeting an old bleared-eyed farmer I inquired the name of the mountain and learned that it was called Moel Siabod or Shabod.  Shortly after leaving him, I turned from the road to inspect a monticle which appeared to me to have something of the appearance of a burial heap.  It stood in a green meadow by the river which ran down the valley on the left. Whether it was a grave hill or a natural monticle, I will not say; but standing in the fair meadow, the rivulet murmuring beside it, and the old mountain looking down upon it, I thought it looked a very meet resting-place for an old Celtic king.

Capel Curig-Instagram image

Turning round the northern side of the mighty Siabod I soon reached the village of Capel Curig, standing in a valley between two hills, the easternmost of which is the aforesaid Moel Siabod.  Having walked now twenty miles in a broiling day I thought it high time to take some refreshment, and inquired the way to the inn.  The inn, or rather the hotel,(Plas y Brenin) for it was a very magnificent edifice, stood at the entrance of a pass leading to Snowdon, on the southern side of the valley, in a totally different direction from the road leading to Bangor, to which place I was bound. 

 There I dined in a grand saloon amidst a great deal of fashionable company, who, probably conceiving from my heated and dusty appearance that I was some poor fellow travelling on foot from motives of economy, surveyed me with looks of the most supercilious disdain, which, however, neither deprived me of my appetite nor operated uncomfortably on my feelings.

My dinner finished, I paid my bill, and having sauntered a little about the hotel garden, which is situated on the border of a small lake and from which, through the vista of the pass, Snowdon may be seen towering in majesty at the distance of about six miles, I started for Bangor, which is fourteen miles from Capel Curig. The road to Bangor from Capel Curig is almost due west.  An hour’s walking brought me to a bleak moor, extending for a long way amidst wild sterile hills.

The first of a chain on the left, was a huge lumpy hill with a precipice towards the road probably three hundred feet high.  When I had come nearly parallel with the commencement of this precipice, I saw on the left-hand side of the road two children looking over a low wall behind which at a little distance stood a wretched hovel.(Helyg) 

The 'wretched hovel' Helyg: Photo Pete Sterling/Climbers Club

I had passed the first and second of the hills which stood on the left, and a huge long mountain on the right which confronted both, when a young man came down from a gully on my left hand, and proceeded in the same direction as myself.  He was dressed in a blue coat and corduroy trowsers, and appeared to be of a condition a little above that of a labourer.  He shook his head and scowled when I spoke to him in English, but smiled on my speaking Welsh, and said: “Ah, you speak Cumraeg: I thought no Sais could speak Cumraeg.”  I asked him if he was going far. “About four miles,” he replied. “On the Bangor road?” “Yes,” said he; “down the Bangor road.”

I learned that he was a carpenter, and that he had been up the gully to see an acquaintance—perhaps a sweetheart.  We passed a lake on our right which he told me was called Llyn Ogwen, and that it abounded with fish. He was very amusing, and expressed great delight at having found an Englishman who could speak Welsh; “it will be a thing to talk of,” said he, “for the rest of my life.”  He entered two or three cottages by the side of the road, and each time he came out I heard him say: “I am with a Sais who can speak Cumraeg.”  At length we came to a gloomy-looking valley trending due north; down this valley the road ran, having an enormous wall of rocks on its right and a precipitous hollow on the left, beyond which was a wall equally high as the other one.  When we had proceeded some way down the road my guide said.  “You shall now hear a wonderful echo,” and shouting “taw, taw,” the rocks replied in a manner something like the baying of hounds.  “Hark to the dogs!” exclaimed my companion.  “This pass is called Nant yr ieuanc gwn,(Nant Francon) the pass of the young dogs, because when one shouts it answers with a noise resembling the crying of hounds.”

The sun was setting when we came to a small village at the bottom of thepass.  I asked my companion its name.  “Ty yn y maes,” he replied, adding as he stopped before a small cottage that he was going no farther, as he dwelt there.

After drinking some tolerably good ale in the public house I again started.  As I left the village a clock struck eight.  The evening was delightfully cool; but it soon became nearly dark.  I passed under high rocks, by houses and by groves, in which nightingales were singing, to listen to whose entrancing melody I more than once stopped.  On coming to a town, lighted up and thronged with people, I asked one of a group of young fellows its name.

“Bethesda,” he replied. “A scriptural name,” said I. “Is it?” said he; “well, if its name is scriptural the manners of its people are by no means so.”

A little way beyond the town a man came out of a cottage and walked beside me.  He had a basket in his hand.  I quickened my pace; but he was a tremendous walker, and kept up with me.  On we went side by side for more than a mile without speaking a word.  At length, putting out my legs in genuine Barclay fashion, I got before him about ten yards, then turning round laughed and spoke to him in English.  He too laughed and spoke, but in Welsh.  We now went on like brothers, conversing, but always walking at great speed.  I learned from him that he was a market-gardener living at Bangor, and that Bangor was three miles off.One by one, the stars were shining out, we began to talk about them.

Pointing to Charles’s Wain I said, “A good star for travellers.” Whereupon pointing to the North star, he said: “I forwyr da iawn—a good star for mariners.”

We passed a large house on our left.“Who lives there?” said I.“Mr Smith,” he replied.  “It is called Plas Newydd; milltir genom etto—we have yet another mile.” In ten minutes we were at Bangor.  I asked him where the Albion Hotel was. “I will show it you,” said he, and so he did As we came under it I heard the voice of my wife, for she, standing on balcony and distinguishing me by the lamplight, called out.  I shook hands with the kind six-mile-an-hour market-gardener, and going into the inn found my wife and daughter, who rejoiced to see me.  We presently had tea.

George Borrow. Wild Wales