Travellers in Wales
The Journey
Llangollen and Encounters with the Welsh Language
Travelling South

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 BorrowGeorge 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.

The Journey

Map of Wales
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

River Dee
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 title-page."
"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 of Llangollen

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 Welshman?"
"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 Bardd Cwsg."

( the reference is to 'Gwledigaeth Y Bardd Cwsg 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 people.

Travelling South

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 numbers.

Llamsamlet Copper and Arsenic WorksI 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 such aplomb.

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.

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