Picture of George Borrow

George Borrow

places mentioned

Bala to Llangollen

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Tom Jenkins - Ale of Bala - Sober Moments - Local Prejudices - The States - Unprejudiced Man - Welsh Pensilvanian Settlers - Drapery Line - Evening Saunter.

SCARCELY had I entered the door of the inn when a man presented himself to me with a low bow. He was about fifty years of age, somewhat above the middle size, and had grizzly hair and a dark, freckled countenance, in which methought I saw a considerable dash of humour. He wore brown clothes, had no hat on his head, and held a napkin in his hand. "Are you the master of this hotel?" said I.

"No, your honour," he replied, "I am only the waiter, but I officiate for my master in all things; my master has great confidence in me, sir."

"And I have no doubt," said I, "that he could not place his confidence in any one more worthy."

With a bow yet lower than the preceding one the waiter replied with a smirk and a grimace, "Thanks, your honour, for your good opinion. I assure your honour that I am deeply obliged."

His air, manner, and even accent, were so like those of a Frenchman, that I could not forbear asking him whether he was one.

He shook his head and replied, "No, your honour, no, I am not a Frenchman, but a native of this poor country, Tom Jenkins by name."

"Well," said I, "you really look and speak like a Frenchman, but no wonder; the Welsh and French are much of the same blood. Please now to show me into the parlour."

He opened the door of a large apartment, placed a chair by a table which stood in the middle, and then, with another bow, requested to know my farther pleasure. After ordering dinner I said that as I was thirsty I should like to have some ale forthwith.

"Ale you shall have, your honour," said Tom, "and some of the best ale that can be drunk. This house is famous for ale."

"I suppose you get your ale from Llangollen," said I, "which is celebrated for its ale over Wales."

"Get our ale from Llangollen?" said Tom, with sneer of contempt, "no, nor anything else. As for the ale it was brewed in this house by your honour's humble servant."

"Oh," said I, "if you brewed it, it must of course be good. Pray bring me some immediately, for I am anxious to drink ale of your brewing."

"Your honour shall be obeyed," said Tom, and disappearing returned in a twinkling with a tray on which stood a jug filled with liquor and a glass. He forthwith filled the glass, and pointing to its contents said:

"There, your honour, did you ever see such ale? Observe its colour! Does it not look for all the world as pale and delicate as cowslip wine?"

"I wish it may not taste like cowslip wine," said I; "to tell you the truth, I am no particular admirer of ale that looks pale and delicate; for I always think there is no strength in it."

"Taste it, your honour," said Tom, "and tell me if you ever tasted such ale."

I tasted it, and then took a copious draught. The ale was indeed admirable, equal to the best that I had ever before drunk - rich and mellow, with scarcely any smack of the hop in it, and though so pale and delicate to the eye nearly as strong as brandy. I commended it highly to the worthy Jenkins, who exultingly exclaimed:

"That Llangollen ale indeed! no, no! ale like that, your honour, was never brewed in that trumpery hole Llangollen."

"You seem to have a very low opinion of Llangollen?" said I.

"How can I have anything but a low opinion of it, your honour? A trumpery hole it is, and ever will remain so."

"Many people of the first quality go to visit it," said I.

"That is because it lies so handy for England, your honour. If it did not, nobody would go to see it. What is there to see in Llangollen?"

"There is not much to see in the town, I admit," said I, "but the scenery about it is beautiful: what mountains!"

"Mountains, your honour, mountains! well, we have mountains too, and as beautiful as those of Llangollen. Then we have our lake, our Llyn Tegid, the lake of beauty. Show me anything like that near Llangollen?"

"Then," said I, "there is your mound, your Tomen Bala. The Llangollen people can show nothing like that."

Tom Jenkins looked at me for a moment with some surprise, and then said: "I see you have been here before, sir."

"No," said I, "never, but I have read about the Tomen Bala in books, both Welsh and English."

"You have, sir," said Tom. "Well, I am rejoiced to see so book- learned a gentleman in our house. The Tomen Bala has puzzled many a head. What do the books which mention it say about it, your honour?"

"Very little," said I, "beyond mentioning it; what do the people here say of it?"

"All kinds of strange things, your honour."

"Do they say who built it?"

"Some say the Tylwyth Teg built it, others that it was cast up over a dead king by his people. The truth is, nobody here knows who built it, or anything about it, save that it is a wonder. Ah, those people of Llangollen can show nothing like it."

"Come," said I, "you must not be so hard upon the people of Llangollen. They appear to me upon the whole to be an eminently respectable body."

The Celtic waiter gave a genuine French shrug. "Excuse me, your honour, for being of a different opinion. They are all drunkards."

"I have occasionally seen drunken people at Llangollen," said I, "but I have likewise seen a great many sober."

"That is, your honour, you have seen them in their sober moments; but if you had watched, your honour, if you had kept your eye on them, you would have seen them reeling too."

"That I can hardly believe," said I.

"Your honour can't! but I can who know them. They are all drunkards, and nobody can live among them without being a drunkard. There was my nephew - "

"What of him?" said I.

"Why he went to Llangollen, your honour, and died of a drunken fever in less than a month."

"Well, but might he not have died of the same, if he had remained at home?"

"No, your honour, no! he lived here many a year, and never died of a drunken fever; he was rather fond of liquor, it is true, but he never died at Bala of a drunken fever; but when he went to Llangollen he did. Now, your honour, if there is not something more drunken about Llangollen than about Bala, why did my nephew die at Llangollen of a drunken fever?"

"Really," said I, "you are such a close reasoner, that I do not like to dispute with you. One observation however, I wish to make: I have lived at Llangollen, without, I hope, becoming a drunkard."

"Oh, your honour is out of the question," said the Celtic waiter with a strange grimace. "Your honour is an Englishman, an English gentleman, and of course could live all the days of your life at Llangollen without being a drunkard, he, he! Who ever heard of an Englishman, especially an English gentleman, being a drunkard, he, he, he. And now, your honour, pray excuse me, for I must go and see that your honour's dinner is being got ready in a suitable manner."

Thereupon he left me with a bow yet lower than any I had previously seen him make. If his manners put me in mind of those of a Frenchman, his local prejudices brought powerfully to my recollection those of a Spaniard. Tom Jenkins swears by Bala and abuses Llangollen, and calls its people drunkards, just as a Spaniard exalts his own village and vituperates the next and its inhabitants, whom, though he will not call them drunkards, unless indeed he happens to be a Gallegan, he will not hesitate to term "una caterva de pillos y embusteros."

The dinner when it appeared was excellent, and consisted of many more articles than I had ordered. After dinner, as I sat "trifling" with my cold brandy and water, an individual entered, a short thick dumpy man about thirty, with brown clothes and a broad hat, and holding in his hand a large leather bag. He gave me a familiar nod, and passing by the table at which I sat, to one near the window, he flung the bag upon it, and seating himself in a chair with his profile towards me, he untied the bag, from which he poured a large quantity of sovereigns upon the table and fell to counting them. After counting them three times he placed them again in the bag which he tied up, then taking a small book, seemingly an account-book, out of his pocket, he wrote something in it with a pencil, then putting it in his pocket he took the bag and unlocking a beaufet which stood at some distance behind him against the wall, he put the bag into a drawer; then again locking the beaufet he sat down in the chair, then tilting the chair back upon its hind legs he kept swaying himself backwards and forwards upon it, his toes sometimes upon the ground, sometimes mounting until they tapped against the nether side of the table, surveying me all the time with a queer kind of a side glance, and occasionally ejecting saliva upon the carpet in the direction of place where I sat.

"Fine weather, sir," said I, at last, rather tired of being skewed and spit at in this manner.

"Why yaas," said the figure; "the day is tolerably fine, but I have seen a finer."

"Well, I don't remember to have seen one," said I; "it is as fine a day as I have seen during the present season, and finer weather than I have seen during this season I do not think I ever saw before."

"The weather is fine enough for Britain," said the figure, "but there are other countries besides Britain."

"Why," said I, "there's the States, 'tis true."

"Ever been in the States, Mr?" said the figure quickly.

"Have I ever been in the States," said I, "have I ever been in the States?"

"Perhaps you are of the States, Mr; I thought so from the first."

"The States are fine countries," said I.

"I guess they are, Mr."

"It would be no easy matter to whip the States."

"So I should guess, Mr."

"That is, single-handed," said I.

"Single-handed, no nor double-handed either. Let England and France and the State which they are now trying to whip without being able to do it, that's Russia, all unite in a union to whip the Union, and if instead of whipping the States they don't get a whipping themselves, call me a braying jackass - "

"I see, Mr," said I, "that you are a sensible man, because you speak very much my own opinion. However, as I am an unprejudiced person, like yourself, I wish to do justice to other countries - the States are fine countries - but there are other fine countries in the world. I say nothing of England; catch me saying anything good of England; but I call Wales a fine country; gainsay it who may, I call Wales a fine country."

"So it is, Mr."

"I'll go farther," said I; "I wish to do justice to everything: I call the Welsh a fine language."

"So it is, Mr. Ah, I see you are an unprejudiced man. You don't understand Welsh, I guess."

"I don't understand Welsh," said I; "I don't understand Welsh. That's what I call a good one."

"Medrwch siarad Cumraeg?" said the short figure spitting on the carpet.

"Medraf," said I.

"You can, Mr! Well, if that don't whip the Union. But I see: you were born in the States of Welsh parents."

"No harm in being born in the States of Welsh parents," said I.

"None at all, Mr; I was myself, and the first language I learnt to speak was Welsh. Did your people come from Bala, Mr?"

"Why no! Did yourn?"

"Why yaas - at least from the neighbourhood. What State do you come from? Virginny?"

"Why no!"

"Perhaps Pensilvany country?"

"Pensilvany is a fine State," said I.

"So it is, Mr. Oh, that is your State, is it? I come from Varmont."

"You do, do you? Well, Varmont is not a bad state, but not equal to Pensilvany, and I'll tell you two reasons why; first it has not been so long settled, and second there is not so much Welsh blood in it as there is in Pensilvany."

"Is there much Welsh blood in Pensilvany then?"

"Plenty, Mr, plenty. Welsh flocked over to Pensilvany even as far back as the time of William Pen, who as you know, Mr, was the first founder of the Pensilvany State. And that puts me in mind that there is a curious account extant of the adventures of one of the old Welsh settlers in Pensilvania. It is to be found in a letter in an old Welsh book. The letter is dated 1705, and is from one Huw Jones, born of Welsh parents in Pensilvany country, to a cousin of his of the same name residing in the neighbourhood of this very town of Bala in Merionethshire, where you and I, Mr, now are. It is in answer to certain inquiries made by the cousin, and is written in pure old Welsh language. It gives an account of how the writer's father left this neighbourhood to go to Pensilvania; how he embarked on board the ship WILLIAM PEN; how he was thirty weeks on the voyage from the Thames to the Delaware. Only think, Mr, of a ship now-a-days being thirty weeks on the passage from the Thames to the Delaware river; how he learnt the English language on the voyage; how he and his companions nearly perished with hunger in the wild wood after they landed; how Pensilvania city was built; how he became a farmer and married a Welsh woman, the widow of a Welshman from shire Denbigh, by whom he had the writer and several other children; how the father used to talk to his children about his native region and the places round about Bala, and fill their breasts with longing for the land of their fathers; and finally how the old man died leaving his children and their mother in prosperous circumstances. It is a wonderful letter, Mr, all written in the pure old Welsh language."

"I say, Mr, you are a cute one and know a thing or two. I suppose Welsh was the first language you learnt, like myself?"

"No, it wasn't - I like to speak the truth - never took to either speaking or reading the Welsh language till I was past sixteen."

"'Stonishing! but see the force of blood at last. In any line of business?"

"No, Mr, can't say I am."

"Have money in your pocket, and travel for pleasure. Come to see father's land."

"Come to see old Wales. And what brings you here, Hiraeth?"

"That's longing. No, not exactly. Came over to England to see what I could do. Got in with house at Liverpool in the drapery business. Travel for it hereabouts, having connections and speaking the language. Do branch business here for a banking-house besides. Manage to get on smartly."

"You look a smart 'un. But don't you find it sometimes hard to compete with English travellers in the drapery line?"

"I guess not. English travellers! set of nat'rals. Don't know the language and nothing else. Could whip a dozen any day. Regularly flummox them."

"You do, Mr? Ah, I see you're a cute 'un. Glad to have met you."

"I say, Mr, you have not told me from what county your forefathers were."

"From Norfolk and Cornwall counties."

"Didn't know there were such counties in Wales."

"But there are in England."

"Why, you told me you were of Welsh parents."

"No, I didn't. You told yourself so."

"But how did you come to know Welsh?"

"Why, that's my bit of a secret."

"But you are of the United States?"

"Never knew that before."

"Mr, you flummox me."

"Just as you do the English drapery travellers. Ah, you're a cute 'un - but do you think it altogether a cute trick to stow all those sovereigns in that drawer?"

"Who should take them out, Mr?"

"Who should take them out? Why, any of the swell mob that should chance to be in the house might unlock the drawer with their flash keys as soon as your back is turned, and take out all the coin."

"But there are none of the swell mob here."

"How do you know, that?" said I, "the swell mob travel wide about - how do you know that I am not one of them?"

"The swell mob don't speak Welsh, I guess."

"Don't be too sure of that," said I - "the swell coves spare no expense for their education - so that they may be able to play parts according to circumstances. I strongly advise you, Mr, to put that bag somewhere else lest something should happen to it."

"Well, Mr, I'll take your advice. These are my quarters, and I was merely going to keep the money here for convenience' sake. The money belongs to the bank, so it is but right to stow it away in the bank safe. I certainly should be loth to leave it here with you in the room, after what you have said." He then got up, unlocked the drawer, took out the bag, and with a "Goodnight, Mr," left the room.

I "trifled" over my brandy and water till I finished it, and then walked forth to look at the town. I turned up a street, which led to the east, and soon found myself beside the lake at the north- west extremity of which Bala stands. It appeared a very noble sheet of water stretching from north to south for several miles. As, however, night was fast coming on I did not see it to its full advantage. After gazing upon it for a few minutes I sauntered back to the square, or marketplace, and leaning my back against a wall, listened to the conversation of two or three groups of people who were standing near, my motive for doing so being a desire to know what kind of Welsh they spoke. Their language as far as I heard it differed in scarcely any respect from that of Llangollen. I, however, heard very little of it, for I had scarcely kept my station a minute when the good folks became uneasy, cast side- glances at me, first dropped their conversation to whispers, next held their tongues altogether, and finally moved off, some going to their homes, others moving to a distance and then grouping together - even certain ragged boys who were playing and chattering near me became uneasy, first stood still, then stared at me, and then took themselves off and played and chattered at a distance. Now what was the cause of all this? Why, suspicion of the Saxon. The Welsh are afraid lest an Englishman should understand their language, and, by hearing their conversation, become acquainted with their private affairs, or by listening to it, pick up their language which they have no mind that he should know - and their very children sympathise with them. All conquered people are suspicious of their conquerors, The English have forgot that they ever conquered the Welsh, but some ages will elapse before the Welsh forget that the English have conquered them.


The Breakfast - The Tomen Bala - El Punto de la Vana.

I SLEPT soundly that night, as well I might, my bed being good and my body weary. I arose about nine, dressed and went down to the parlour which was vacant. I rang the bell, and on Tom Jenkins making his appearance I ordered breakfast, and then asked for the Welsh American, and learned that he had breakfasted very early and had set out in a gig on a journey to some distance. In about twenty minutes after I had ordered it my breakfast made its appearance. A noble breakfast it was; such indeed as I might have read of, but had never before seen. There was tea and coffee, a goodly white loaf and butter; there were a couple of eggs and two mutton chops. There was broiled and pickled salmon - there was fried trout - there were also potted trout and potted shrimps. Mercy upon me! I had never previously seen such a breakfast set before me, nor indeed have I subsequently. Yes, I have subsequently, and at that very house when I visited it some months after.

After breakfast I called for the bill. I forget the exact amount of the bill, but remember that it was very moderate. I paid it and gave the noble Thomas a shilling, which he received with a bow and truly French smile, that is a grimace. When I departed the landlord and landlady, highly respectable-looking elderly people, were standing at the door, one on each side, and dismissed me with suitable honour, he with a low bow, she with a profound curtsey.

Having seen little of the town on the preceding evening, I determined before setting out for Llangollen to become better acquainted with it, and accordingly took another stroll about it.

Bala is a town containing three or four thousand inhabitants, situated near the northern end of an oblong valley, at least two- thirds of which are occupied by Llyn Tegid. It has two long streets, extending from north to south, a few narrow cross ones, an ancient church, partly overgrown with ivy, with a very pointed steeple, and a town-hall of some antiquity, in which Welsh interludes used to be performed. After gratifying my curiosity with respect to the town, I visited the mound - the wondrous Tomen Bala.

The Tomen Bala stands at the northern end of the town. It is apparently formed of clay, is steep and of difficult ascent. In height it is about thirty feet, and in diameter at the top about fifty. On the top grows a gwern or alder-tree, about a foot thick, its bark terribly scotched with letters and uncouth characters, carved by the idlers of the town who are fond of resorting to the top of the mound in fine weather, and lying down on the grass which covers it. The Tomen is about the same size as Glendower's Mount on the Dee, which it much resembles in shape. Both belong to that brotherhood of artificial mounds of unknown antiquity, found scattered, here and there, throughout Europe and the greater part of Asia, the most remarkable specimen of which is, perhaps, that which stands on the right side of the way from Adrianople to Stamboul, and which is called by the Turks Mourad Tepehsi, or the tomb of Mourad. Which mounds seem to have been originally intended as places of sepulture, but in many instances were afterwards used as strongholds, bonhills or beacon-heights, or as places on which adoration was paid to the host of heaven.

From the Tomen there is a noble view of the Bala valley, the Lake of Beauty up to its southern extremity, and the neighbouring and distant mountains. Of Bala, its lake and Tomen, I shall have something to say on a future occasion.

Leaving Bala I passed through the village of Llanfair and found myself by the Dee, whose course I followed for some way. Coming to the northern extremity of the Bala valley, I entered a pass tending due north. Here the road slightly diverged from the river. I sped along, delighted with the beauty of the scenery. On my left was a high bank covered with trees, on my right a grove, through openings in which I occasionally caught glimpses of the river, over whose farther side towered noble hills. An hour's walking brought me into a comparatively open country, fruitful and charming. At about one o'clock I reached a large village, the name of which, like those of most Welsh villages, began with Llan. There I refreshed myself for an hour or two in an old-fashioned inn, and then resumed my journey.

I passed through Corwen; again visited Glendower's monticle upon the Dee, and reached Llangollen shortly after sunset, where I found my beloved two well and glad to see me.

That night, after tea, Henrietta played on the guitar the old muleteer tune of "El Punto de la Vana," or the main point at the Havanna, whilst I sang the words -

"Never trust the sample when you go your cloth to buy:
The woman's most deceitful that's dressed most daintily.
The lasses of Havanna ride to mass in coaches yellow,
But ere they go they ask if the priest's a handsome fellow.
The lasses of Havanna as mulberries are dark,
And try to make them fairer by taking Jesuit's bark."

George Borrow, Wild Wales: Its People, Language and Scenery (Oxford, Mississippi, 1996)

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