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:

George Borrow
"There's night 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 school book.

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 his visit:

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 wooded.

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.
 Photos by David J. Watkins