Somerville & Ross


Beggars on Horseback: A Riding Tour in
North Wales
(Edinburgh and London: William Blackwood and Sons) 1895.

Reading like fiction, Somerville and Ross’ expedition on horseback (surely based in part on experience) through North Wales ends with the protagonists – the unnamed narrator and her companion Miss O’Flannigan – en route from Snowdonia to Llangollen. The “Arch-Druid” is their stern-eyed driver; these comments point up the droller aspects of Somerville and Ross’ best writing. “The Tommies” are the horses (one named Tom, the other Tommy) the pair hired in Welshpool. This extract is from chapter XI.

[167] Among other chief tenets of Corwen morality is the necessity of seeing Llangollen. We had, indeed, been ourselves something fired by quotations from Wordsworth and other competent judges in the guide-book, and yielding to the serious representations of the landlady on the subject, we ordered a small trap in which we might thither drive ourselves and the drab Tommy. As we sat in the embrasure of the coffee-room window, waiting for the entrapped Tommy, we perceived a vehicle resembling a [168] mammoth governess-cart at the hotel door, with an old man, dressed in what we had learned to regard as the height of Welsh religious fashion, standing by it. His beard was long and white, his face was cross, with a crossness that momentarily deepened as he glanced at the hotel. We studied him with the refined observation of idleness.

“An Arch-Druid, evoluted into an elder of the straitest of the Rehoboths,” remarked Miss O’Flannigan, easily; “his wives and daughters had better not keep him waiting much longer, there is the flame of human sacrifice in his eye, pleasantly blended with the confidence of their eternal—-”

At this juncture, Ellen, the coffee-room-maid, came into the room.

“If you please, ladies, the driver is waiting, and wants to know when you will be ready.”

So we were his wives and daughters! We went forth anxiously to accept the situation, too depressed even to wrangle as to which was which.

That no trap was available for Tommy was, in [169] some abstruse way, known to Ellen and explained by her at some length, the result of the day being Sunday, as was also the attendance of the Arch-Druid. We ventured a suggestion that we should forego the latter privilege and ourselves drive the stolid black mare, whose massive beam barely filled the shafts; but, with a contempt apparently too deep for words, the Arch-Druid mounted to the prow of the governess-cart as to a pulpit, and, manipulating the mouth of the black mare with the ceaseless, circular action of a hurdy-gurdy grinder, started at a round pace for Llangollen.

It was a nine-mile drive, and by the time the eighth milestone had been passed, we began to look for some startling development of the calmly pretty valley of the Dee, along which we had driven. Large, but by no means stupendous, hills swelled prosperous and green on either side of it, pine-woods thatched them warmly and liberally, the Dee was irreproachably devious in its advance and charming in its manners, but no climax was arrived at, nor yet was contrast laying [170] in wait. If the poets had spared it their fine speeches, and their compliments fledged with suave metre, Llangollen could be appraised with a fresher eye and admired to the utmost of its mild deserving without antagonism and without disappointment. Also, if it is seen on the way into Wales instead of on the way out of it, it will occupy with fitting distinction its place in the crescendo of Welsh scenery, undiscounted by the coming fortissimo: to be one of the last notes in a diminuendo is quite a different thing.

Probably it was the two unparalleled persons known as the Ladies of Llangollen who did most for its fame. They ran away from their Irish homes to go and live there, which in itself, from our point of view, suggests eccentricity. Perhaps it was in lifelong penance for this act that ever after they wore riding-habits, summer and winter, indoors and out. After a fortnight spent in riding-habits we could appreciate such an expiation, even though the equipment we had dedicated to the Tommies did not include powdered hair and cart-[171]wheel felt hats. Pardonable curiosity might well have caused any traveller by the Holyhead coach who could scrape up an introduction to climb the hill to Plas Newydd; but it was not upon curiosity alone that the ladies relied for society. They had the agreeability that could at will turn the sightseer into an acquaintance, the means to weld with good dinners such acquaintanceships into permanence; and æsthetic taste, the best part of a century ahead of their time, that taught them to frame the grotesque romance of their lives and appearance in antique and splendid surroundings — the leisurely collection of many years — till the poets and other people of distinction turned, somewhat dazed, from the marvels of silver and brass and carved oak, and, looking over the pleasant vale of Llangollen from windows set deep in wood-carving, pronounced it to be unique.

The sun was very hot that afternoon as we climbed on foot the steep hill up to Plas Newydd, and it was difficult to receive with sangfroid, either moral or physical, the intelligence that visitors [172] were not admitted on Sunday. All that remained was to sit exhausted on the grass, and stare with amazement at the lacework of black carved wood spread upon the white walls. Not a nook without a satyr head or a writhing animal, not a doorway without its bossy pent-house, not a window without its special pattern of lattice panes, each representing a special acquisition, and doubtless a vast wear and tear of riding-habit. Their work is respected, and the plain two-storey house still holds like a casket the treasures of their finding, and stands, crusted with ornament, as freshly white and black as when the ladies took tea in their porch with Wordsworth or Sir Walter Scott. We hung about the small pleasure-grounds for a little, among antique stone fonts and sundials, and tried to find it pleasant; but the exasperation induced by a narrow vision of strange and lovely things, half seen through a lancet-window, would not be denied, and we presently went sulkily back to the Grapes Hotel. The Arch-Druid was awaiting us: we saw from afar his white beard, throned [173] high in the governess-cart, and felt its reproof and suitability for pulpit denunciation; his cough asserted his wrongs indignantly outside, during an otherwise unalloyed tea in the Grapes drawing-room; and his thoughts were, it was easy to suppose, back in the brave old Druidic days, when he would have driven forth to meet the tourist with scythes shining on the splinter-bar of the governess-cart, and discouraged his vicious trifling by utilizing him as a burnt-offering.

He found, however, a poor nineteenth-century revenge in obliging the black mare to consume, at our expense, three feeds of corn. Such, at least, was the astonishing item in the bill; and, it a temporary lapse from the austerity of the sacerdotal mood, he stooped to a refection that called itself tea, and, judging by its price, must have been of considerable extent.

* * *

BONUS: Somerville on Wikipedia {check out the signature!}; Ross on Wikipedia


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