"Earth may become on an instant all faery . . .
and earth and air resound with the music of its invisible people...
You may see the palace chambers of nature where the wise ones dwell in secret . . .
and know an eternal love is within and around you,
pressing upon you and sustaining with infinite tenderness
your body, soul and spirit." – A.E.
Thursday, 8 November 2012
Wild Wales: In the Footsteps of George Borrow
When I was about twelve years old I used to sit in school
wanting to be outside walking on the hills with the wind in my hair – far, far away from the stifling confinement of
the classroom. Somewhere I came across a quotation from a book called,
mysteriously, Lavengro, written by the 19th century writer, George Borrow. I’d never heard of him
before, but meticulously copied out his words in my school exercise book:
and day, brother, both sweet things; sun, moon, and stars, brother, all sweet
things; there's likewise a wind on the heath.
Life is very sweet, brother; who would wish to die?"
Much later I was to learn that George Borrow walked all over
the land in the days before it was sliced up by motorways, and gathered his
adventures into a few memorable books. In
the words of an early biographer, “All his major works are journeys,
interspersed with travellers’ tales, strange encounters, and graphic scenes in
taverns and hostelries along his way.” He chronicled “his wanderings in green
lanes, his "love of Nature unconfined," his acquaintance with the
gypsies, his passion for The Wild.” Borrow was deeply inspired by a landscape
free from “dark satanic mills,” and by the gypsies he met, the Romani people
who made the road their home. One of them gave him those words I wrote in my
In 1862, Borrow transformed his notebooks written on a walk
through Wales into a book, Wild Wales,
which today is considered to be one of the best accounts of the country in that
era. This was in my mind last Sunday when David and I stayed at the George
Borrow Inn in mid-Wales, a 17th century hotel in the foothills of
the Cambrian Mountains, perched on the edge of what Borrow called “a deep and
awful chasm, at the bottom of which chafed and foamed the Rheidol.”
He recounted staying there on a “rainy and boisterous night which
was succeeded by a bright and beautiful morning,” and oddly enough we had the
same weather: We awoke to a single, miraculous
day of pure sunlight, the only one in an endless march of dull grey skies.
As soon as the sun burst over the hills we drove a few miles to Devil’s Bridge,
where Borrow had walked on another November morning over 150 years ago, as he
described in his book with Gothic relish:
To view it properly,
and the wonders connected with it, you must pass over the bridge above it, and
descend a precipitous dingle on the eastern side till you come to a small
platform in a crag. Below you now is a frightful cavity, at the bottom of which
the waters of the Monks’ River, which comes tumbling from a glen to the east,
whirl, boil, and hiss in a horrid pot or cauldron, called in the language of
the country Twll yn y graig, or the hole in the rock, in a manner truly
tremendous. On your right is a slit, probably caused by volcanic force, through
which the waters after whirling in the cauldron eventually escape. The slit is
wonderfully narrow, considering its altitude which is very great — considerably
upwards of a hundred feet. Nearly above you, crossing the slit, which is
partially wrapt in darkness, is the far-famed bridge, the Bridge of the Evil
Man . . .
Gaze on these objects, namely, the horrid seething pot or cauldron,
the gloomy volcanic slit, and the spectral, shadowy Devil’s Bridge for about three
minutes, allowing a minute to each, then scramble up the bank and repair to
your inn, and have no more sight-seeing that day, for you have seen enough. And
if pleasant recollections do not haunt you through life of the noble falls and
the beautiful wooded dingles to the west of the bridge of the Evil One, and
awful and mysterious ones of the monks’ boiling cauldron, the long, savage,
shadowy cleft, and the grey, crumbling, spectral bridge, I say boldly that you
must be a very unpoetical person indeed.
Since we were made of sterner stuff than to retire to the
inn for the rest of the day, we made our way to the wild beauty of the Hafod Uchtryd Estate in the Ystwyth Valley. Less
dramatic than the Devil’s Bridge, it is a remote and lovely place, originally the
hunting-grounds of Welsh chieftains. In later times it became home to the landed
gentry, where splendid house-parties were held, its walls resounding to the
music of harpers and the poems of bards. Sadly, in the year 1807, a terrible
fire broke out and burned it to the ground. Gone forever was its magnificent octagonal
library full of irreplaceable treasures and rare books, including manuscripts
on natural history, medicine, poetry and literature, in Welsh, French and
Latin, some dating from the Middle Ages. Borrow remembered this tragic event on
This fire is generally called the great fire
of Hafod, and some of those who witnessed it have been heard to say that its
violence was so great that burning rafters mixed with flaming books were hurled
high above the summits of the hills. The loss of the house was a matter of
triviality compared with that of the library.
Today the estate is
owned by the Forestry Commission who are working at restoring the original landscaped
walks. Borrow described it very much as we experienced it on Monday:
The scenery was
exceedingly beautiful. Below me was a bright green valley, at the bottom of
which the Ystwyth ran brawling, now hid amongst groves, now showing a long
stretch of water. Beyond the river to the east was a noble mountain, richly
Since he too visited it in November, he must have seen the
glorious colours of the autumn trees, the dying fall of a bygone era . . .and
maybe also a red kite, wheeling through a hallowed sky of impossible, infinite blue.