Travellers in Wales
Llangollen and Encounters
with the Welsh Language
Travellers in Wales
This treatise is follow-on from the previous article on Giraldus Cambrensis, which
dealt with the journey made around Wales in the company of Archbishop Baldwyn of
Canterbury in the year 1188.
George Borrow made a similar journey around Wales in 1854, mostly on foot.
The traveller and writer, George Borrow (1803 - 1881) was born in Dumpling Green,
a small hamlet on the outskirts of East Dereham, 15 miles west of Norwich of a Cornish
father and Norfolk mother. He was educated in Edinburgh High School and in Norwich
at the King Edward VI Grammar School in the Cathedral Close.
In Norwich, on the hills of Mousehold, above the Cathedral, he spent time in the
company of the gypsies. It was probably from listening to their tales of wandering
that his urge to travel came.
Education over, he was articled to a solicitor. During his apprenticeship, he edited
Celebrated Trials, and Remarkable Cases of Criminal Jurisprudence (1825),
and then he packed his bags and travelled not only all over the British Isles, but
also as an agent for the Bible Society across Europe.
Finally he married a well-to-do widow and settled near Oulton Broad in Suffolk. He
published a number of books based partly on his own experiences and travels. In 1841
came 'The Gipsies of Spain' followed in 1843 by the 'Bible in Spain', 'Lavengro'
in 1851 and 'Romany Rye' in 1857. As a result of his travels Borrow wrote "Wild
Wales", in 1862. An enthusiastic traveler and eccentric, Borrow had an extraordinary
talent for languages. Welsh was one of many languages he learned in Norwich as a
young man, taking lessons from a Welsh groom. He must have been an ideal learner
to have mastered the intricacies of Welsh grammar.
Many years later, in the summer of 1854, he came with his family to Wales - to enjoy
its people, language and scenery, in that order. That he enjoyed himself immensely
will be apparent to any reader: 'wherever I have been in Wales I have experienced
nothing but kindness and hospitality'.
Wild Wales is neither a factual nor a sober account of picturesque scenery: it is
too dramatic and cheerful a book to be categorised so easily. Borrow looked for the
wildness of Wales not only in the scenery but also in the people, and he found it
in 'the real Welsh' and in tinkers, gypsies and other down and outs.
His encounters with these people read like scenes from a novel or a piece of theatre.
In his introduction to 'Wild Wales' Borrow described Wales as an interesting country
in many respects, and deserving of more attention than it had hitherto met with.
Though not very extensive, it is one of the most picturesque countries in the world,
a country in which Nature displays herself in her wildest, boldest, and occasionally
loveliest forms. The inhabitants, who speak an ancient and peculiar language, do
not call this region Wales, nor themselves Welsh. They call themselves Camry, and
their country Cymru, or the land of the Cymry. Wales or Wallia, however, is the true,
proper, and without doubt original name, as it relates not to any particular race,
which at present inhabits it, or may have sojourned in it at any long bygone period,
but to the country itself. Wales signifies a land of mountains, of vales, of dingles,
chasms, and springs. It is connected with the Cumbric bal, a protuberance, a springing
forth; with the Celtic beul or beal, a mouth; with the old English welle, a fountain;
with the original name of Italy, still called by the Germans Welschland; with Balkan
and Vulcan, both of which signify a casting out, an eruption; with Welint or Wayland,
the name of the Anglo-Saxon god of the forge; with the Chaldee val, a forest, and
the German wald; with the English bluff, and the Sanscrit palava - startling assertions,
no doubt, at least to some; which are, however, quite true, and which at some future
time will be universally acknowledged so to be.
In the summer of the year 1854 myself, wife, and daughter determined
upon going into Wales, to pass a few months there. We are country people of a corner
of East Anglia, and, at the time of which I am speaking, had been residing so long
on our own little estate, that we had become tired of the objects around us, and
conceived that we should be all the better for changing the scene for a short period.
We were undetermined for some time with respect to where we should go. I proposed
Wales from the first, but my wife and daughter, who have always had rather a hankering
after what is fashionable, said they thought it would be more advisable to go to
Harrowgate, or Leamington.
On my observing that those were terrible places for expense, they replied that, though
the price of corn had of late been shamefully low, we had a spare hundred pounds
or two in our pockets, and could afford to pay for a little insight into fashionable
life. I told them that there was nothing I so much hated as fashionable life, but
that, as I was anything but a selfish person, I would endeavour to stifle my abhorrence
of it for a time, and attend them either to Leamington or Harrowgate.
So our little family, consisting of myself, my wife Mary, and my daughter Henrietta,
for daughter I shall persist in calling her, started for Wales in the afternoon of
the 27th July, 1854. We flew through part of Norfolk and Cambridgeshire in a train
which we left at Ely, and getting into another, which did not fly quite so fast as
the one we had quitted, reached the Peterborough station at about six o'clock of
a delightful evening. We proceeded no farther on our journey that day, in order that
we might have an opportunity of seeing the cathedral: and so towards Wales they travelled.
On arriving at Chester, at which place we intended to spend two or three days, we
put up at an old-fashioned inn in Northgate Street, to which we had been recommended;
my wife and daughter ordered tea and its accompaniments, and I ordered ale, and that
which always should accompany it, cheese. "The ale I shall find bad," said
I; Chester ale had a villainous character in the time of old Sion Tudor, who made
a first-rate englyn upon it, and it has scarcely improved since; "but I shall
have a treat in the cheese, Cheshire cheese has always been reckoned excellent, and
now that I am in the capital of the cheese country, of course I shall have some of
the very prime." Well, the tea, loaf and butter made their appearance, and with
them my cheese and ale. To my horror the cheese had much the appearance of soap of
the commonest kind, which indeed I found it much resembled in taste, on putting a
small portion into my mouth. "Ah," said I, after I had opened the window
and ejected the half-masticated morsel into the street, "those who wish to regale
on good Cheshire cheese must not come to Chester,
Having walked round the city for the second time, I returned to the inn. In the evening
I went out again, passed over the bridge, and then turned to the right in the direction
of the hills. Near the river, on my right, on a kind of green, I observed two or
three tents resembling those of gypsies. Some ragged children were playing near them,
who, however, had nothing of the appearance of the children of the Egyptian race,
their locks being not dark, but either of a flaxen or red hue, and their features
not delicate and regular, but coarse and uncouth, and their complexions not olive,
but rather inclining to be fair. I did not go up to them, but continued my course
till I arrived near a large factory. I then turned and retraced my steps into the
town. It was Saturday night, and the streets were crowded with people, many of whom
must have been Welsh, as I heard the Cambrian language spoken on every side.
Llangollen and Encounters with the Welsh Language
On the afternoon of Monday I sent my family off by the train to Llangollen,
which place we had determined to make our head-quarters during our stay in Wales.
I intended to follow them next day, not in train, but on foot, as by walking I should
be better able to see the country, between Chester and Llangollen, than by making
the journey by the flying vehicle. As I returned to the inn from the train I took
refuge from a shower in one of the rows or covered streets, to which, as I have already
said, one ascends by flights of steps; stopping at a book-stall I took up a book
which chanced to be a Welsh one.
The proprietor, a short red-faced man, observing me reading the book, asked me if
I could understand it. I told him that I could.
"If so," said he, "let me hear you translate the two lines on the
"Are you a Welshman?" said I.
"I am!" he replied.
"Good!" said I, and I translated into English the two lines, which were
a couplet by Edmund Price, an old archdeacon of Merion, celebrated in his day for
wit and poetry.
The man then asked me from what part of Wales I came, and when I told him that I
was an Englishman was evidently offended, either because he did not believe me, or,
as I more incline to think, did not approve of an Englishman's understanding Welsh.
The book was the life of the Rev. Richards, and was published at Caerlleon, or the
city of the legion, the appropriate ancient British name for the place now called
Chester, a legion having been kept stationed there during the occupation of Britain
by the Romans.
Llangollen is a small town or large village of white houses with slate roofs, it
contains about two thousand inhabitants, and is situated principally on the southern
side of the Dee. At its western end it has an ancient bridge and a modest unpretending
church nearly in its centre, in the chancel of which rest the mortal remains of an
old bard called Gryffydd Hiraethog. From some of the houses on the southern side
there is a noble view - Dinas Bran and its mighty hill forming the principal objects.
The view from the northern part of the town, which is indeed little more than a suburb,
is not quite so grand, but is nevertheless highly interesting. The eastern entrance
of the vale of Llangollen is much wider than the western, which is overhung by bulky
hills. There are many pleasant villas on both sides of the river, some of which stand
a considerable way up the hill; of the villas the most noted is Plas Newydd at the
foot of the Berwyn, built by two Irish ladies of high rank, who resided in it for
nearly half a century, and were celebrated throughout Europe by the name of the Ladies
Next morning I set out to ascend Dinas Bran, a number of children, almost entirely
girls, followed me. I asked them why they came after me. "In the hope that you
will give us something," said one in very good English. I told them that I should
give them nothing, but they still followed me. A little way up the hill I saw some
men cutting hay. I made an observation to one of them respecting the fineness of
the weather; he answered civilly, and rested on his scythe, whilst the others pursued
their work. I asked him whether he was a farming man; he told me that he was not;
that he generally worked at the flannel manufactory, but that for some days past
he had not been employed there, work being slack, and had on that account joined
the mowers in order to earn a few shillings. I asked him how it was he knew how to
handle a scythe, not being bred up a farming man; he smiled, and said that, somehow
or other, he had learnt to do so.
"You speak very good English," said I, "have you much Welsh?"
"Plenty," said he; "I am a real Welshman."
"Can you read Welsh?" said I.
"Oh, yes!" he replied.
"What books have you read?" said I.
"I have read the Bible, sir, and one or two other books."
"Did you ever read the Bardd Cwsg?" said I.
He looked at me with some surprise. "No," said he, after a moment or two,
"I have never read it. I have seen it, but it was far too deep Welsh for me."
"I have read it," said I.
"Are you a Welshman?" said he.
"No," said I; "I am an Englishman."
"And how is it," said he, "that you can read Welsh without being a
"I learned to do so," said I, "even as you learned to mow, without
being bred up to farming work."
"Ah! "said he, "but it is easier to learn to mow than to read the
( the reference is to 'Gwledigaeth Y Bardd Cwsg ñ The Vision of the Sleeping Bard;
a deep and philosophical book by Ellis Wynne, published in 1703 )
"I don't think that," said I; "I have taken up a scythe a hundred
times but I cannot mow."
"Will your honour take mine now, and try again?" said he.
"No," said I, "for if I take your scythe in hand I must give you a
shilling, you know, by mowers' law."
He gave a broad grin, and I proceeded up the hill. When he rejoined his companions
he said something to them in Welsh, at which they all laughed. I reached the top
of the hill, the children still attending me.
The view over the vale is very beautiful; but on no side, except in the direction
of the west, is it very extensive; Dinas Bran being on all other sides overtopped
by other hills: in that direction, indeed, the view is extensive enough, reaching
on a fine day even to the Wyddfa or peak of Snowdon, a distance of sixty miles, at
least as some say, who perhaps ought to add to very good eyes, which mine are not.
The day that I made my first ascent of Dinas Bran....
George Borrow must have been fortunate to find someone who could understand what
must have been his obvious English accent, even though he claimed to understand the
varying dialects he would have had to cope with in his conversations with the local
The travelogue continues as George Borrow and his family make their way from North
Wales to the south where by the mid-nineteenth century the Industrial Revolution
was in full swing. Nowhere would he find more pollution and desecration of the land
than in the Lower Swansea Valley.
Swansea is called by the Welsh Abertawe, which signifies the mouth of
the Tawy. Aber, as I have more than once had occasion to observe, signifies
the place where a river enters into the sea or joins another. It is a Gaelic as well
as a Cymric word, being found in the Gaelic names Aberdeen and Lochaber, and there
is good reason for supposing that the word harbour is derived from it. Swansea or
Swansey is a compound word of Scandinavian origin, which may mean either a river
abounding with swans, or the river of Swanr, the name of some northern adventurer
who settled down at its mouth. The final ea or ey is the Norwegian aa, which signifies
a running water; it is of frequent occurrence in the names of rivers in Norway, and
is often found, similarly modified, in those of other countries where the adventurous
Norwegians formed settlements.
Swansea first became a place of some importance shortly after the beginning of the
twelfth century. In the year 1108, the greater part of Flanders having been submerged
by the sea an immense number of Flemings came over to England, and entreated of Henry
the First the king then occupying the throne, that he would all allot to them lands
in which they might settle, The king sent them to various parts of Wales, which had
been conquered by his barons or those of his predecessors: a considerable number
occupied Swansea and the neighbourhood; but far the greater part went to Dyfed, generally
but improperly called Pembroke, the south-eastern part of which, by far the most
fertile, they entirely took possession of, leaving to the Welsh the rest, which is
very mountainous and barren. I have already said that the people of Swansea stand
out in broad distinctness from the Cymry, differing from them in stature, language,
dress, and manners, and wished to observe that the same thing may be said of the
inhabitants of every part of Wales, which the Flemings colonised in any considerable
I reached Llan(samlet?); a small village half-way between Swansea and
Neath, and without stopping continued my course, walking very fast. I had surmounted
a hill, and had nearly descended that side of it which looked towards the east, having
on my left, that is to the north, a wooded height, when an extraordinary scene presented
itself to my eyes. Somewhat to the south rose immense stacks of chimneys surrounded
by grimy diabolical-looking buildings, in the neighbourhood of which were huge heaps
of cinders and black rubbish. From the chimneys, notwithstanding it was Sunday, smoke
was proceeding in volumes, choking the atmosphere all around. From this pandemonium,
at the distance of about a quarter of a mile to the south-west, upon a green meadow,
stood, looking darkly grey, a ruin of vast size with window holes, towers, spires,
and arches. Between it and the accursed pandemonium, lay a horrid filthy place, part
of which was swamp and part pool: the pool black as soot, and the swamp of a disgusting
leaden colour. Across this place of filth stretched a tramway leading seemingly from
the abominable mansions to the ruin. So strange a scene I had never beheld in nature.
Had it been on canvas, with the addition of a number of Diabolical figures, proceeding
along the tramway, it might have stood for Sabbath in Hell - devils proceeding to
afternoon worship, and would have formed a picture worthy of the powerful but insane
painter, Hieronymus Bosch.
He journeyed on up the valley:
I found the accommodation very good at the "Mackworth Arms"; I passed the
Saturday evening very agreeably, and slept well throughout the night. The next morning
to my great joy I found my boots, capitally repaired, awaiting me before my chamber
door. Oh the mighty effect of a little money! After breakfast I put them on, and
as it was Sunday went out in order to go to church. The streets were thronged with
people; a new mayor had just been elected, and his worship, attended by a number
of halberd and javelin men, was going to church too. I followed the procession, which
moved with great dignity and of course very slowly. The church had a high square
tower, and looked a very fine edifice on the outside, and no less so within, for
the nave was lofty with noble pillars on each side. I stood during the whole of the
service, as did many others, for the congregation was so great that it was impossible
to accommodate all with seats. The ritual was performed in a very satisfactory manner,
and was followed by an excellent sermon. I am ashamed to say that have forgot the
text, but I remember a good deal of the discourse. The preacher said amongst other
thing that the Gospel was not preached in vain, and that he very much doubted whether
a sermon was ever delivered which did not do some good. On the conclusion of the
service I strolled about in order to see the town and what pertained to it. The town
is of considerable size, with some remarkable edifices, spacious and convenient quays,
and a commodious harbour into which the river Tawe flowing from the north empties
itself. The town and harbour are overhung on the side of the east by a lofty green
mountain with a Welsh name, no doubt exceedingly appropriate, but which I regret
to say has escaped my memory.
After having seen all that I wished, I returned to my inn and discharged all my obligations.
I then departed, framing my course eastward towards England, having traversed Wales
nearly from north to south.
George Borrow ventured to Wales for the first time in July 1854 when, at the
age of fifty-one, he began the walk, which was to be the subject of Wild Wales. Writing
of his journey, his wife noted: "He keeps a daily journal of all that goes on,
so that he can make a most amusing book in a month whenever he wishes to do so".
He began organising his material immediately on returning home but the first draft
was not completed until 1857, the year of the publication of his Romany Rye. A further
five years passed before the publication of Wild Wales, the delay occasioned perhaps
by the chilly reception given to Romany Rye. The 1854 visit, beginning at Llangollen
on 27 July, included fairly intensive travels in parts of the north and was then
followed by a sweep down through Cardiganshire and Carmarthenshire to Swansea, Merthyr,
Newport and Chepstow where on 16 November he took the train to London.
In the sweeping away of many of his more curious ideas, especially in the field of
Welsh and Celtic philology. It is doubtful, for example, whether anyone would now
maintain, as Borrow did in the first paragraph of his introduction to Wild Wales,
that the words Wales and Vulcan were cognate - Yet, although Borrow's knowledge of
Wales was inadequate and although Wales as a whole did not engage his attention,
his account of his visit captured some of the essence of the country at the exact
time when it was on the verge of massive changes. The origins of these changes were
discernible when Borrow undertook his tour. He did not discern them, but in a sense
he did something more important. He portrayed the mood of the Welsh people at the
very moment when they were poised on the brink of transformation. And he did so with
In the previous article about the travels of Gerald the Cymro (Giraldus Cambrensis)
around Wales of the twelfth century we do not meet the real people that were being
wooed to accompany the venerable Archbishop Baldwyn. But enough comes through the
pedantic writing of the holy man to enable the reader to form some idea of the developed
society that existed in the rugged country that was and still is Wales. George Borrow
takes pride in his so-called mastery of the Welsh language, but he does not really
portray the talent that exists in the literary field of bardic tradition.