Morton: In Search of Wales
H.V. MORTON, In Search Of Wales
(London: Methuen) 12th edition 1932, 1941.
 It was a morning of sheer enchantment, cold, sunny with high gold clouds, when I took the road that runs north-west from Shrewsbury into Wales.
I could feel something new in the air. It was the same thing you feel when you cross into Scotland over Carter Bar: the wildness of a No Man’s Land between two countries.
Beside the road in Whittington stands a castle that might have come straight from a ballad. Its round towers flank a drawbridge that lies above a moat. On the green water of the moat swim two swans. I knocked at the castle gate and saw a pretty girl bending over a wash-tub. The castle is now a laundry!
I went along the road for a few miles until it ran steeply downhill towards the bridge at Chirk. I was now on the boundary of Wales.
‘Tell me,’ I asked a man who was sweeping the road, ‘where Wales begins.’
He looked at my car.
‘Your front wheels are in Wales,’ he replied, ‘and your back wheels in England.’
 ‘There is nothing to indicate that.’
‘You are Welsh,’ I said, because of his quick sing-song voice.
‘No–English! ‘ he said quickly.
I had touched his Border pride.
He continued to sweep the dust of Wales into England over Telford’s Bridge at Chirk. I suppose his ancestors had been raiders. I suppose they had gone to Taffy’s house to steal a leg of mutton and the Welsh had come to his house to steal a rib of beef. It was rather like being in Northumberland or Cumberland.
I wonder why there is no sign-post on the Welsh boundary, as there is on the line between England and Scotland. Wales should see to this. Two million people, many of whom speak their own language, and all of whom are proud of their country and its traditions, should tell the traveller where it begins.
I ran over the bridge into Wales.
IN WHICH I GO TO LLANGOLLEN, HEAR ABOUT THE OLD LADIES, VISIT THE HUNTING-LODGE OF A WELSH PRINCE AND COME AT EVENING TO THE VALLEY OF THE CROSS, ENDING WITH SOME REMARKS ON WELSH RAREBIT
I went into a shop. The shopman was talking to a customer in Welsh. He broke off and said in that precise English which you hear also in the Hebrides:
‘And what can I get for you, please?’
He then resumed his Welsh in a pretty sing-song voice, talking as swiftly as an excited Frenchman.
‘How have you managed to keep your language on the very borders of England?’ I asked him.
‘We had to fight to keep it,’ he said. ‘The chapels saved Welsh for us years ago.’
‘You prefer to speak in Welsh?’
‘I can say more in my own language. The words come quickly and are better.’
‘How many people speak Welsh?’
‘I do not know. It varies in districts. Everyone speaks it in Caernarvonshire. . . .’
I went out into the streets of Llangollen, which seemed  more than ever foreign streets lying in the shadow of their mountains. It was even strange to realize that letters collected by the postman that night in Llangollen would be in London the next day.
I walked beside the Dee all the afternoon, reading what John Rhys and David Brynmor Jones say about the Welsh language. The survival of this language — the ancient speech of the Britons — is a remarkable thing. It is the most marvellous survival in Great Britain. When the Romans conquered Britain under Claudius Caesar in A.D. 43, Latin became the official language for nearly four hundred years: Wales, unlike Ireland and Scotland, was Romanized. Roman castles were dotted about the country; the legions drove their roads through Wales; they based their legions at Deva on the north and Caerleon on the south. Still the speech of the Britons endured.
Many words in Welsh are Latin words. ‘Ceffyl’ is horse, ‘cwlltwr’ is ploughshare, ‘ffos’ is ditch, ‘mur’ is wall, ‘ffenestr’ is window, ‘sebon’ is soap, ‘cyllell’ is knife, ‘tarw’ is bull, ‘pont’ is bridge.
It is surprising that the British, or Welsh, tongue should have lived on for four centuries with the Latin language that conquered Gaul and Spain, but it is something of a miracle that in after years it should have stubbornly refused to be vanquished by French and, later, by English. No doubt a continuous struggle against invaders, bent on breaking down the barriers of nationalism, causes a people to cling with greater strength to the speech of their fathers. It is still surely a great romance that thousands of men, women and children use to-day words that would probably be understood by Boadicea and King Arthur.
‘For five centuries,’ writes W. Llewelyn Williams in The Making of Modern Wales, ‘Welsh has lived as the close neighbour of this all-powerful, all-pervading language. (English.) It has been divided from it by no range of Cheviot Hills, still less by a St. George’s Channel. For centuries English has crossed Offa’s Dyke, and even in the poems of Dafydd ap Gwilym there are to be found many words taken from the English. Yet to-day Welsh not only survives as a spoken tongue; its literature is more versatile and its students and readers more numerous than ever before.’
 In the morning I looked out at a pocket paradise. Llangollen in one stride takes you right into Wales. There is nothing of the Border Marches about it. It is definitely a foreign country.
The broad Dee flows through meadowland with the majestic leisure of a salmon river. It cascades over rocks and, beneath the lovely old bridge which Bishop Trevor built five centuries ago, it rushes madly, foaming at the arches.
The mountains lift themselves all round, some long and gentle, some sharp and rugged, some dark with trees, some green with grass, and others bare and brown, lit up with patches of bright gorse.
To anyone with an eye for landscape its charm is in compression. Here is a little masterpiece in mountains; an exercise in the blending of hill against hill, woodland against moorland. The Vale of Llangollen looks as though Nature had made a scale model for a section of the milder Scottish Highlands, and, liking it very well, had also gained a few ideas for Switzerland and the German Rhine. It is a country that is neat and well-groomed. Every meadow, it seems, has its valet and every tree its lady’s maid.
Beauty, of course, is one of the basic industries of North Wales. The fame of places like the Vale of Llangollen brings every year a steady river of money from the Midlands and the North. It has suffered, like many another beauty-spot in these islands, from over-praise by writers such as Ruskin, who employed superlatives in days when travel was not easy and a man could not be expected to know every valley in the kingdom. While I prefer the beauty of Glen Shiel and Glen Moriston in the Highlands of Scotland, I admit that the Vale of Llangollen has a gentle, gracious beauty of its own which puts it high up in the list of valleys, but not, as Ruskin and Browning believed, first on that list.
One of the glories of Llangollen that could never grow stale, though a man spent all his days there, is the early fifteenth-century bridge over the Dee. Its four pointed arches are set at a part of the river designed, so it seems, to give them full battle with the swift current. I have a passion for looking from bridges into swift mountain streams, especially when, as with this bridge, it spans a river scooped out of a rocky bed. I could lean for hours over Bishop Trevor’s bridge admiring the dark pools, the sudden eddies, the quick  shallow channels of the nut-brown Dee. It is a great thing for a town to have a salmon river whispering at its walls day and night, just as the other Dee whispers to Ballater. In past ages this bridge was one of the Seven Wonders of Wales and the old rhyme goes:
Pistyll Rhaiadr and Wrexham steeple,
Snowdon’s mountain without its people,
Overton yew-trees, St, Winefride’s Wells,
Llangollen Bridge and Gresford bells.
I suppose the Seven Wonders to-day would include the Birmingham Water Works and the Menai Bridge! Still Llangollen Bridge, although no ‘wonder’ in the sense that it causes astonishment, is one of those bridges that a man never forgets. There are still some of us who would rather lean over it than admire the greatest engineering feat in the world.
I feel about Llangollen that it must have been — possibly still is — a great place for honeymoons. It suggests to me Victorian honeymoons: men with side-whiskers and check trousers; brides with little waists and puffed sleeves. The stiles round Llangollen and the shady reaches of the Dee seem sacred to the rather formal love-affairs of our fathers and our grandfathers, who, I feel sure, sat sententiously on rustic seats, reading Sesame and the Lilies to their obedient and reverent brides.
On a bright morning I set off to climb the conical hill on whose summit stands the ruined castle of Dinas Bran. A path led up the slope and zigzagged over the open moor. George Borrow climbed this hill at least twice, but did not seem impressed with the view, although he appeared to have had clear weather on both occasions.
I mounted steadily, with the butterflies flickering over the gorse, larks in the sky and the wind coming cool from the hill. A labourer passed me on his way down. He carried a spade and a sack. He was a sallow, good-looking fellow with a dark rim round his face where his beard would have been before the invention of the safety razor. He was a pure-blooded Iberian, the very man who occupied England and Wales when the Romans came. I suppose the dark  Welshman is the purest-bred individual in Great Britain. In Wales as in Ireland the uncouth bumpkin is unknown. The yokel is a Saxon creation. The Celt, no matter how humble he may be, is always quick-brained, easy-mannered and fluent in his speech. I spoke to this man and discovered that he came from the south.
‘And what does Dinas Bran mean in Welsh?’ I asked him.
‘Dinas Bran means the City of Bran,’ he replied.
‘Some books call it the City of Crows,’ I said.
‘Bran is the Welsh word for crow,’ he said, ‘but it is wrong to call Dinas Bran the City of Crows, for Bran was the name of the King who lived long ago in the castle on the hill-top.
‘And what did he do?’
He smiled a slow, mischievous smile:
‘I think you may know better than I do,’ he said.
I felt utterly rebuked. The man knew that I was pumping him. I covered my confusion with a bad joke and went on up the hill.
All that is left of the castle of Dinas Bran is like an old tooth sticking out of the earth. But what a spot for a castle! Nowhere, except perhaps on the Rhine or on the eastern slopes of the Apennines, have I seen a castle so impregnably planted on a hill. How harsh and difficult life must have been up there in the clouds. Water, they had, of course, and their cattle would have been herded on the hill-side, but even so life in the City of Bran must at its best have seemed like a siege.
Bran, from whom the castle takes its name, was a Welsh king who reigned over the district of Powys in the sixth century. It was not, however, until Norman times that the castle became famous. The man who fortified Dinas Bran held the key to the Dee Valley. But, strangely enough, it is not of war that these ruins speak, but of a fair lady, Myfanwy Fechan, a daughter of the house of Trevor, the family which occupied Bran towards the end of the Middle Ages.
Welsh poetry from early times down to that of John Ceiriog Hughes, the great lyric poet of Wales, is full of tributes to her beauty.
 ‘Would that I were a gust of wind blowing through the garden of Dinas Bran,’ cries Ceiriog, ‘whispering mine secret in thine ear, making ringlets of thine hair.’
The story goes that a young Welsh troubadour named Howell ap Eynion Llygliw believed himself to be dying of love for Myfanwy. This is the very best delusion from which any poet can suffer. It brings out any talent that may lie hidden in him, especially if the girl, like Myfanwy, gives him the cold shoulder, turns up her nose at him and says in the rudest manner that almost any other man of her acquaintance could make rings round him with a harp. It is to Myfanwy’s coldness and to Howell’s ardour that we are indebted for the only intimate glimpse of the people who inhabited this queer eyrie in the old times. Myfanwy walked abroad, we learn, ‘in scarlet robes with queenly gait, all bowing before her’. Her face was ‘fair as the snow new fallen on Aran’s crest’. Even Howell’s horse, says the poet, shared his master’s enthusiasm and pawed the ground, eager to climb the great hill where this scornful paragon of beauty lived. Howell’s last words to his beautiful iceberg were:
O bid me sing, as well I may,
Nor scorn my melody in vain,
Or ‘neath the walls of Dinas Bran
Behold me perish in my pain.
Of course he did nothing of the sort. He behaved like an eminently sensible poet. After immortalizing his lady, he forgot her at the festive board of the Abbey of Valle Crucis. . . .
What a view is that from the hill-top! I looked west where the Dee twisted its silver course to Corwen; to the north were the queer, pink limestone terraces of the Eglwyseg Rocks; to the south-west the massive Berwyn Hills; but, best of all, was the wide vista of the magnificent green plain of Shropshire. I cannot imagine why Borrow, normally so ready to appreciate good things, failed to be inspired by this view. It is to my mind a magnificent hill-top view. Perhaps it is the influence of those dead Welshmen who manned this height for centuries which causes one to turn east and gaze with a certain expectancy towards the distant Marches.
There is one place in Llangollen visited by every stranger. It is a queer black and white house called Plâs Newydd. I was rather amused to find it described in an excellent book on Wales as a ‘perfect example of black and white architecture’. It is nothing of the sort. It is a perfect example of the ease with which an ordinary building can, with the aid of whitewash, half-inch timber and pitch, be converted into an impressive Elizabethan manor-house!
In this house there lived 150 years ago those two strange women — ‘the most celebrated virgins in Europe’ — Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Sarah Ponsonby, the famous ‘Ladies of Llangollen’.
The girls were born into the hectic Ireland of the eighteenth century.
‘Lady Eleanor’s family, though degraded from their ancient rank for political reasons, lived in the unrefined splendour of those days in the castle of Kilkenny,’ states Caroline Hamilton in her Journal. ‘Mr. Butler — her father — one day entertaining his neighbours with lavish hospitality, a servant in gaudy livery standing behind every chair, spent the next day drinking in an ale house. One of his contemporaries told me that he was completely governed by his wife, who went by the name of old Madam Butler. She was a bigoted Roman Catholic, ashamed of her family, for whom she would never go into mourning. She was proud and overbearing, always surrounded by priests, and prevailed upon her husband to send his daughter to be educated in a convent in France. Madam Butler’s funeral it is said was magnificent, but the drivers of the Hearse, getting drunk along with the rest of the Company, carried the corpse in a gallop to the family burying-place, and a looker-on, knowing, the lady’s furious temper, exclaimed: “O if Madam Butler could see you what a passion she would be in!” ’
The daughter, Eleanor, was tall, handsome and masculine. Sarah Ponsonby, with whom she had enjoyed a friendship that dated from their schooldays, was feminine and attractive, with eyes like speedwells, a mischievous face, arched brows and a jolly little nose. They lived apparently in a state of nervous irritation with their homes and relatives, and discovered in each other a passion for solitude and retirement.  When Eleanor was thirty and Sarah was slightly younger, they decided to shake the dust of fashionable Ireland from their feet and escape together, pledged to resist matrimony and to devote their lives to friendship and celibacy.
‘Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler were without any visible means of support — dependent creatures and unable to earn a penny,’ writes Mrs. G.H. Bell in The Hamwood Papers. ‘Nevertheless they ventured forth into a world which holds strict conventions as to payment for daily bread. Society could make neither head nor tail of such a proceeding. It was a rebellion in which all that is sensitive braved all that is harsh, for the sake of a terribly sought peace of mind. Two fiery young hearts had no notion of a quiet and unromantic flight. They were nothing if not romantic. Despising doors they jumped out of windows, carried firearms, bribed servants. Everything was extremely secret. They had a secret correspondence, and hid, stuffily, in cupboards or, freezingly, in barns. Sarah, very becomingly, nearly died of it. But, through all the domestic drama which they so simply and so ardently contrived, they remained resolute. They knew their own minds.’
On an April night in the year 1778 Sarah climbed out of the parlour window carrying a pistol under her arm. She went to a barn, where she met Eleanor. The runaways were soon afterwards captured on their way to Waterford, where they hoped to take ship. Eleanor was dressed as a man and Sarah was suffering from an appalling cold. They were taken home.
‘There were no gentlemen concerned,’ wrote a friend, ‘nor does it appear to be anything more than a scheme of Romantic Friendship.’
Their second attempt was successful. They took boat from Waterford to Milford Haven. They journeyed across Wales until they came to Llangollen, where they lodged with the postmaster until they settled in the little cottage which, with additions and alterations, is now Plâs Newydd. Their first act was to send to Ireland for their faithful servant, Mary Caryll, who was something of an Amazon, having been discharged for flinging a candlestick at a fellow-servant. She was known as Molly the Bruiser.
The strange establishment then took on the form which it was to keep for half a century.
 In flying from the world, however, they had planted themselves on one of its main roads! The Holyhead coach road — the main road from London to Ireland — passed through Llangollen. Quite naturally the strange ménage became the talk of dinner-tables in London and Dublin. The ‘Ladies of Llangollen’ were poor as church mice, but their personalities were so powerful that their retreat in an obscure Welsh village became a kind of court at which all the great ones of their time presented themselves. The Duke of Wellington, De Quincey as a boy, Wordsworth, Madame de Genlis and Walter Scott stayed with the Platonists. Every coach that passed through Llangollen brought the exiles some gossip from London or Dublin. They were extraordinarily well-informed. Although their main recreations were mutual admiration, literature and gardening and an appreciation of Nature, they enjoyed the news of the world which they had renounced.
Eleanor Butler, who was, of course, the dominant character, began a diary in 1788 which gives a fairly clear impression of life in New Place. This is the sort of thing:
‘Thin blue transparent smoke curling and spiring up the mountain side through the trees from the village. Writing. The Joiner came to fasten the back board of the book case by Lady Anne Wesley’s picture. . . . Artichokes coming up for the winter. Evans of Oswestry’s man came previous to this most hated Chester Fair. We had nothing to give him. Lord help us. . . . Reading, working. My Beloved and I walked to the white gate, delicious calm warm dark evening. Met a little Boy coming down the field with a Basket of Potatoes on his head. We asked him his name. “Peter Jones, son of Thomas the Lime Burner.” “Where do you get those potatoes?” “On the Bank beyond yonder wood, they are my Father’s.” “Shall we take one or two?” “Yes and welcome; I am very much obliged to you.” “For what, my good boy? — It is we who should thank you for your generosity.” “Indeed you are kindly welcome to the whole basket.” “Will you come to our house, and we will give you Something?” “No, indeed, I will not take anything, but you are welcome to the Basket, and I am greatly obliged to you.” We made him come with us, took 3 potatoes and gave him a huge piece of Bread and Butter. We shall always reflect with pleasure on this instance of the kindness and generosity of this poor child.’
 They could, while lavishing praise on the beauties of Nature and feeling compassion for all animals and humble folk, be exceedingly cruel.
‘Peggy, our undermaid’ (wrote Eleanor in 1789), ‘who has lived with us three years, was this day discharged our service. Unfortunate girl. Her Pregnancy she could no longer conceal, nor could she plead in her excuse that she had been seduced by promises of marriage. Nine till Twelve in the Dressing Room concerning that Poor Peggy Jones. Her father would not admit her to return to his House. We prevailed on the Weaver and his wife to receive her. What is to become of her?’
Murmurs of the great world whispered about the queer little house in Llangollen and came to rest in brief sentences in Eleanor’s diary. The ‘ladies’ were much concerned about the ‘illness’ of the King and the fractiousness of the Prince of Wales. The trials of their own uneasy country worried them, and they received first-hand accounts of everything from the distinguished ones who stepped out of the London coach. As time went on they became eccentric in appearance. They dressed in riding-habits and wore tall hats. Mathews, the actor, who performed locally, left an account of them in which he confessed that he nearly choked with laughter when he caught sight of them in the audience.
‘Oh, such curiosities!’ he wrote. ‘I was nearly convulsed. I could scarcely get on for the first ten minutes after my eye caught them. As they are seated there is not one point to distinguish them from men; the dressing and powdering of the hair; their well-starched neck-cloths; the upper part of their habits, which they always wear, even at a dinnerparty, made precisely like men’s coats; and regular black beaver hats. They looked exactly like two respectable, superannuated clergymen.’
But they maintained their hold on the imagination, and even the affection, of Society until the end. The two queer old women were one of life’s side-shows: Eleanor died in 1829 and her ‘better half ’– as she sometimes called Sarah — two years afterwards. They lie in Llangollen churchyard.
When you explore Plâs Newydd to-day you find yourself among a hushed crowd of varied tourists who have no idea  why they are there beyond the fact that it is the thing to do.
The gardener, who is also the guide, will leave his lawnmower and take you round the house, explaining, as he does so, the placid life of the two friends. There is nothing in the house worth seeing except the incredible assortment of old oak-bits of chests, rood-screens, choir-stalls, and so forth — which have been so skilfully fitted together that the whole place is panelled with them. They had an insatiable passion for oddments, and it was the recognized custom for their many friends to contribute to the collection.
The vague tourists regard all that is visible of this spectacular friendship with dull eyes. They are faintly interested to be told that towards the end of her life Mary Caryll - ‘Molly the Bruiser’ — saved enough money to present the freehold of New Place to her mistress.
I wonder if the’ Ladies of Llangollen’ ever visited the neighbouring mansion of Plâs Eglwyseg and reflected with a shocked expression how very untidy and difficult life can be when a man takes control of things. The memories of Plâs Newydd and Plâs Eglwyseg could not be more sharply different.
Seven miles by lovely narrow lanes bring you to a green fairyland at the foot of the Eglwyseg Rocks, and here, well hidden, is an attractive Tudor manor-house that is built on haunted earth. Over the door its an inscription which states that ‘This Manor of Eglwyseg was inherited by the Princess of Powys from Bleddyn ap Cynvyn, King of North Wales, who fell in Battle 1073.’ Beneath a shield are the words ‘Ovna na ovno angau,’ which mean ‘Fear him who fears not death’.
Centuries ago there stood on this spot a hunting-lodge of young Prince Owen of Powys, who ruled these parts in the time of Henry I. In the year 1108 his father Cadwgan made a great feast in honour of God at Christmas-time in Ceredigion. To this feast came his turbulent son, Prince Owen. This young man was typical of his time and class. He was a violent, headstrong man, a type that goes down to posterity in ballads. After dinner the conversation turned on the  beauty of Nesta, the wife of Gerald of Windsor, the Norman baron who held Pembroke Castle for King Henry.
Nesta has been called the ‘Helen of Wales’. She was a daughter of Rhys ap Tudor, Prince of South Wales, and had been a ward, and mistress, of Henry I. The King had married her to his favourite, Gerald.
As the Christmas drink circulated, the young Prince of Powys decided to pay a visit to the beautiful Nesta. He went into Pembrokeshire, entered the newly-built castle which Gerald had just built at Cenarth in the Valley of the Teivy, and became so infatuated by the charms of Nesta that he decided to carry her off under the eyes of her husband. Owen must have been either blind with love or mad with youth. A more sober head might have seen that to abduct a woman who had borne a son to the King of England, and was now the wife of the royal Constable in Pembrokeshire, would plunge Wales into war and deny those still independent regions in the north the peace they so desperately needed. Nothing like this seems to have occurred to him.
He gathered together a band of young Welshmen as crazy as himself. They crept by night to the castle, dug their way under the gate, set fire to it and in the confusion seized Nesta and her two children and were soon galloping like madmen for Powys. Gerald, the unfortunate Menelaus, suffered the indignity of escaping down a drain-pipe.
While Owen and Nesta lived in the hunting-lodge in the shadow of the Eglwyseg cliffs, the whole of Wales and the Border Marches were on fire. King Henry was furious. Cadwgan trembled for his safety. He attempted to persuade his son to return Nesta to her husband. Owen refused. But he returned the children! Cadwgan’s lands were seized. Owen was forced to fly to Ireland. Nesta after some time returned, so it seems, to Pembroke.
She retained her sway over the hearts of men even when she was a grandmother. Her children and her grandchildren were among those stormy knights who conquered Ireland under Strong bow. So Nesta, the Beautiful, passes across a page of Welsh history like a figure in a mist. . . .
I wandered in the green lanes listening to the song of birds and watching the sunlight play over the pink limestone cliffs. Any place in which men and women have felt deeply retains a pathetic significance. It seems almost as if some part of  their passion has scorched the earth. We shall never know whether Nesta loved her stormy prince; and there is no answer to our thought but the swaying of the trees and the brightness of the primroses that have grown in her footsteps.
In the evening, if you would like to enjoy one of the most beautiful short walks in Great Britain, take the right bank of the Dee and follow the canal to the ruins of the Abbey of Valle Crucis.
You will see all that is left of a small Cistercian abbey nestling in the shelter of hills and set in that peaceful beauty which the monks loved so well. On the hills at the back the Cistercians, who were great sheep farmers, kept their flocks. The languishing flannel industry of Llangollen is an inheritance from the monks of Valle Crucis.
The evening sun pours through the ruined arches and lies in gold bars over grass. A thrush sings his evensong from the top of a larch-tree. The Lord of Powys, Madoc ap Gryffydd, built this church in the Valley of the Cross in 1201; and for centuries while the wrath of man raged in the hilltop castles, this little acre in the glen basked in the peace of the Church. They say that Myfanwy Fychan, the scornful beauty of Dinas Bran, lies buried there; but no stone marks her resting-place. Lost also is the grave of Iolo Goch, the bard of Owen Glendower.
You can think of this story as you stand in the peaceful shell of this abbey. Early one morning when the Abbot of Valle Crucis was praying on the hill at the back, the figure of a man appeared silently before him. It was Owen Glendower.
‘Sir Abbot,’ said Glendower, ‘you have risen too early.’
‘No,’ replied the Abbot, ‘it is you who have risen too early by a hundred years.’
The Welsh patriot gazed at the man of God and disappeared as silently as he had come.