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They live, improbably, in a place enchantingly small and endlessly variable, comforted by Caerphilly cheese and Mrs. Jones's pork pie
IN SEARCH OF THE WELSH
by Howard FastA tire of the car we were driving went flat a few miles outside of Cardiff, and I wanted a lift back to the garage we had passed. The first car I signaled stopped, and the man who drove it was shocked that I should want a lift to the garage when he himself could change the tire in half an hour. I convinced him that I preferred to let the garage people do it, and reluctantly he drove me to the garage while my wife stayed with the car. At the garage, he apologized for leaving me – but his wife was in the hospital and he had to get on to her. The garage people then demonstrated that I had conveyed grace upon them by having a flat within their territory, so to speak, and a half hour later when the wheel had been changed and the tire fixed, they presented a bill for eight shillings ($1.14 at the time).
"Taffy is a Welshman, Taffy is a thief – " as the nursery rhyme goes, and there are Englishmen who will still tell you that the Welsh are a thieving and untrustworthy lot, but I never heard of anything being stolen from a traveler in Wales; their crime rate is much lower than the English – and almost nonexistent against ours – and they are apparently without violence or hate. They live in a forgotten corner of the earth that is beautiful almost beyond description; they are poor, proud, and as close to a nation of poets as the world knows; and mostly they vote labor. You find them by going beyond what the English call "the West Country."
My wife and I were in London, and we decided to rent a car and drive across to Wales and spend a few weeks there. There are foolish people, besotted with geography and other kinds of materialism, who will tell you that England is a small country, a few hundred miles wide at best. In all truth, it is a thousand miles out of London into the countryside in any direction, and from there on uncounted miles, eras and generations to wherever you are going. An English road can enchant you for hours and offer five villages, a good-sized town, a manor house and endless hedgerows – all in the space of fifty acres. Most English roads – for all of their excellent surface – were laid down hundreds of years ago, and the last thing those road builders were interested in was going from here to there. Their purpose was to touch every spot that was "here," and let "there" worry about itself.
There is no direct route from London to Wales – a shorter distance than from New York to Boston – because what Englishman ever goes there? Or why? I was once in Paris and decided to go to Toulouse, but none of my Parisian friends could comprehend why. Why go to Wales? It's so far. By train, Cardiff in Wales is over two hours from London – and so the British maintain the illusion of a subcontinent. It's a matter of poetry; in Wales it's more of a matter of second sight.
So I drove out of the garage where I rented the car, and halfway up the street I found myself bumper to bumper with a Harrods delivery truck. The driver leaned out and said, in that marvelously patient manner only the English have, "What are you up to, governor?" He was facing me and we were both on the same side of the street. I replied that I was an American. "Ah, that explains it," and he nodded. We have become the world center of illogic. The fact that the Englishman drives on the left, while all the rest of the world drives on the right, is of course the essence of logic. No one who properly loves the British would deny that.
That first day, we drove across the wide midriff of England to Shrewsbury at the edge of Wales. We went via Stratford, fought our way through a great mass of American tourists, drove across Shropshire, which is very beautiful and gentle, like eighteenth-century landscapes without milkmaids, and found a bed at Shrewsbury. After the first hour, you can become used to driving on the wrong side of the road; getting used to the English driver takes a little more doing. I remember once in the south of England, a twenty-mile traffic jam backed up from an ancient bridge at Gloucester – on a precious, sunny Saturday afternoon – with several thousand motorists spending five hours of their holiday sitting in their cars on the road. Yet I never heard a voice raised or a word spoken in annoyance. But put your Englishman in a car with the open road in front of him, and he becomes something else indeed.
Personally, I think he reverts to the knighthood business, which is still very strong in the British Isles.
Careening along on the left-hand side of the road, he becomes a demon bent on the destruction of everything that opposes him. Sixty miles an hour on a twisting, two-lane road that was all too narrow when the Romans built it – and never widened since – is normal, and on your part mere survival fills you with a heady sort of self-confidence.
We made Shrewsbury that day – alive, no fenders dented, and intrigued with what the British call motoring. At home, both of us dislike driving; in England, we could not get enough of it – sort of like mountain-climbing or walking a tightrope over Grand Canyon. In Shrewsbury, we put up at a quaint and lovely place called The Lion.
Shrewsbury sits on the Welsh border, and is very English – a trifle foolishly perhaps. Both the English and the Welsh make a great mystique of this border – now you are in Wales, now you are not – although the border is at best a fuzzy thing: no guards, no customs, no signs, and quite as imperceptible as going from New Jersey into Pennsylvania. In Shrewsbury there is still some sort of activated memory of the time when this huge pile of stone looked down on wild and unconquered border marches. Now it simply looks down on the picture-postcard fields of Shropshire and goes about its business of being a bustling place which contains some of the best-dressed and best-looking women we saw in all of England. Of course, here too there are schools of prejudice; I happen to think that British women are the most beautiful in the world. Others don't, the sorrier for them. Anyway, to my thinking the women in Shrewsbury are more fun to look at than the place itself, which styles itself a medieval town because it is full of cobbles, half-timbered houses and narrow streets. It suffers severely from the quaints. We got into a thing of rating every place we were in with one to three stars for the cutes and one to three stars for the quaints. Shrewsbury got six stars, but had nothing of the grim, dark beauty of the West Country industrial towns we passed through on our way there. It also suffers, as do so many other places in England, from the American-tourist reverence for the old for no other quality than age itself. As far as I am concerned, the alive and vital England of today is much more interesting.
We went into Wales out of Shrewsbury – with great excitement and pouring rain. If you are perceptive and sensitive to a people and a land, both the rain and the excitement will remain with you, since Wales provides both without stint. (For myself, the love of Wales began in childhood, when a grubby kid sat for hours in the public library, poring over the Arthurian legends. ) We drove east from Shrewsbury into the rain, and presently we were in a forest of great and ancient trees and under the trees a wet jungle of fern and bracken. We have stripped down our own forests twice since England looked to preserving hers – and there is nothing in America precisely like a British woods. Here the silver summer rain added to a mystery that enticed you immediately – if you were of that mood; otherwise you were never enticed but only damp and miserable. But the shape of the woods was older than man, and if you welcomed it, the evocation was like that experienced at Stonehenge – distant and mysterious but palpable nevertheless. It was a part of the country and its being and ideology, like the shepherd on Anglesey who could listen an hour ahead, or the writer in Cardiff who insisted that Brendan Behan – Irish but kindred – could see through his closed lids, or the Communist miner in the Rhondda who believed in second sight. Long ago lingers, but not cute or quaint – more like a refrain of poetry out of man's past.
And it rains. Of course, the British will tell you that the summer in particular is unusual. "At such and such a time, it was sunny all summer." But that's the mythology.
There was no day we were in Wales that it didn't rain; there was also no day when the sun did not emerge and cast its light over the crazy landscape like a benediction. Nothing is postponed because it rains; no one sits at home waiting for the rain to stop. The French wife of my British publisher told how, being invited to a great outdoor commencement tea at Cambridge, they no sooner sat down than it began to pour. As if nothing at all unusual had happened, the scholars opened their umbrellas and went on with their tea; then and there she decided to marry the man.
So the old, old woods dripped and were shrouded in mystery as we entered Wales. The houses became cottages of grey stone, and curved greystone bridges arched over the little streams. The land lumped up from hills into mountains, and the two-lane road twisted and turned into an unlikely wilderness. An English friend had told us about a wonderful inn on the island of Anglesey, off the northern coast of Wales, so we headed in that direction, driving northwest on Route 5, with Bangor as our mainland destination. This way, you cross over the wild land of Denbigh into Caernarvon, wooded mountains – in the South most are naked – rushing streams and improbable wilderness for one small corner of a very small island.
It took us the best part of the day to cover the rather modest distance between Anglesey and Shropshire, but this without hurrying and going here and there to gape at ruined castles – a very large attraction in Wales – and to talk to articulate Welsh people, which includes the entire population, and it was late afternoon before we crossed the bridge at Bangor, over Menai Strait onto Anglesey.
The bridge across Menai Strait, as with so many old British bridges, is an innovation and a thing unto itself, a nineteenth-century structure, a suspension bridge built out of iron bars and chain, and you drive across it into a town that is known principally because it has the longest name in all the world. Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrotwllllandysiliogogogoch. If you stay there a year, you can say the whole word properly, which is a sort of Welsh chamber-of-commerce device and which is said to mean the- church- of- St.- Mary- on- the- pool- of- the- white- hazel- by- the- raging- whirlpool- near- the- church- of- St.- Tysilio- of- the- red- cave. That's tourism as opposed to travel, and as far as I am concerned you can have it but if you run around checking the catalog, castles and oddities, you miss what is Anglesey, a haunting mood that will lodge in your mind and never leave it. The Druids went there when there was nowhere else to go, only the sea behind them, and all the elastic, mysterious webs of mood and dream – upon which the old Druids counted so heavily, and which failed them of course – are still there. I suppose that the air sings over Wales, and if your mind is tuned properly you hear some of it.
We drove a long road by the shore of Menai Strait, and parts of it could hardly be called a road, but when we found the inn our friend in England had spoken of, it was closed, and we had to look elsewhere, searching through the lanes of Anglesey in the almost endless summer evening of Britain. We found a place to sleep, awakened again, and still Anglesey held us. South and away from Anglesey, we explored Caernarvon again and came to rest for the night, this time at a place of strange and entrancing folly called Portmeirion.
Here, on the shore of Tremadoc Bay, one of the most splendid and exciting spots in all of North Wales, a man called CloughWilliams-Ellis – who is alive and in his eighties – built an Italian village. The bay enclosure is a magnificent and wild scene, and in the midst of it there is an Italian village, church, houses, harbor, steep cobbled walks, pastel colors, a loving and slightly mad copy of Portofino – all calculated to drive you into either nightmares or admiring laughter. But then so much of the Welsh landscape and content too is something you dreamed about long ago, when you were very young and when you dreamed about such things, that Portmeirion is hardly unlikely and certainly done with loving care; and if you don't remember your dreams, Wales is not for you. An hour's drive south of Portmeirion, at a place called Penmaenpool, there is a toll bridge. No tourist guides specify it, but I would not exchange eighteen crumbling castles for this particular spot. You go on a bridge into a dream; the real world disappears; landscape. water, the bridge itself become an aching fourth-dimension impossibility. I don't know how better to describe it.
The thing of castles has been blown up out of all proportions. They are damp and desolate piles of stone, crumbling ruins most of them, and I would not go a mile out of my way – having looked at twenty or thirty in the line of duty – to see one. With a single exception – Harlech. But then, Harlech is more than a castle. In 1468, held by the Lancastrians during the War of the Roses, it was manned by a garrison of Welsh archers in a defense that has come down through history- – and has become a sort of by-word for courage. Standing exposed on the walls and towers, the Welsh bowmen with their great elm longbows, built their invisible wall around the castle – and from this came the father of anthems of freedom and courage. The March of the Men of Harlech. You must have the music in your mind and heart when you see it and climb the lofty towers – as we did in the pouring rain; and then we forgot the rain as we stood on top, and we remembered the music, and lived a moment in the ultimate pathos of history, that the obscenity called war is sometimes made noble by those who defend themselves, but never by those who attack This perhaps is the secret of such places as Wales – that fifteen hundred years of defense have given the people of such a place a quality uniquely human. Perhaps such a quality or myth separates Harlech from other castles; and aside from this it is well-preserved with a proud, soaring shape rare enough in Norman castles.
A week later, when I said good-bye to my old friend Gwyn Thomas, he was bound north from Cardiff to Harlech, to lecture on poetry at the Labor School, which almost faces the castle. It was a gift from George Bernard Shaw to the working people of Wales. I often think of young Welsh workers, able to see the castle of Harlech through the windows of the lecture hall, and listening to Thomas – a man who cannot pass the time of day with one without making poetry out of his plain talk.
I met Gwyn Thomas in Cardiff – met him in person for the first time after twenty years of correspondence. Long ago, I picked up one of his novels, Venus and the Voters, and read it through with the kind of delight one experiences rarely when one chances upon a natural tour de force. It was a bitter, wry and mockingly humorous story of the coal miners in the Rhondda Valley, a very real part of the history and mythology of the Rhondda Valley. Some of the most savage and important working-class struggles in British history had been carried out in that same Rhondda Valley, brought to the attention of the American public through the book, How Green Was My Valley. The Rhondda is a few miles to the north of Cardiff, the largest city in Wales. We decided to make Cardiff our destination and the center of our exploration South Wales.
In all of Great Britain, distances are different from here, and must be perceived and measured differently. The astonishing variety of landscape is packed into a small area, and there are cultural as well as natural divisions. The great middle wilderness of Wales consists of parts of three counties, Denbigh, Merioneth and Montgomery, and the bulk of three others, Cardigan, Radnor and Brecknock, south from Colwyn Bay to the Black Mountain area and the Fforest Fawr. You can add to this a corner of Caernarvon, and altogether you have as bizarre, as wild and spectacular a wilderness as any you will ever find within the borders of a. European country. There are miles of bog, where no man goes, high mountains shrouded with mist, gorges through which freshets roar and spume, ancient forests full of rain and darting sunlight, and new plantings of pine and hemlock, a program which, it is hoped, will restore woods to the sheep-nibbled hills. But enough of the lofty mountains are naked and rocky to change color from hour to hour, according to sun and sky and the mood of the land, sometimes black and sometimes shining yellow, and again purple with heather.
Yet all this variety of landscape, bog and wilderness and mountains and rocky crags is contained in an area less than a hundred miles from north to south and never more than fifty miles in width and often enough far less. There is the unique improbability of Wales – that it is so enchantingly small and so endlessly variable.
There is no point in Wales so distant from another point that a day's drive, even on the two-lane roads, will not bring you there – yet the day is remembered like ten days of driving here. We wandered through Merioneth, where there are almost no roads at all, or dirt tracks over mountains and bog. We watched them swimming in the sunny rain that laced all over Barmouth Bay, and then we drove to Dolgellau and bought a basket of food for a picnic. In Dolgellau, there is a grocery kept by Mrs. Jones, where they sell beef pie and pork pie better than any I have ever eaten, with Welsh bread that is delicious. Together with British pears and a wedge of that snow-white Welsh cheese, Caerphilly, which to my taste is as good as any cheese in the world and better than most, and a couple of bottles of bitter, we had a lunch that would grace the table of a king, providing the king had a taste for good food. We drove southeast to Carno in the Bog of Tregaron, and there by a rock and a waterfall we dined well indeed.
We returned to the coast to sleep, and then from Aberystwyth we went inland back to Newtown, leaving the foggy mist-swept sea behind us again, and then from Newtown we drove south on Route 483 to Builth Wells, and then on Routes 479 and 470 to Cardiff. I mention the roads specifically because this drive is something to be remembered and well worth taking. The mountains are naked, the passes narrow, and everywhere stone walls trace over the mountains, so steeply at times that you wonder how one rock remains on top of another.
As you approach Cardiff, the terraces begin, the strange Welsh phenomenon of slum streets of tiny and wretched workers' dwellings set on a terrace carved into breathtakingly beautiful mountains, and over them the black heaps of refuse from the mines.
Tourist guides will tell you not to bother with the industrial towns of South Wales – yet here is the most interesting and exciting part of Wales.
What man made here in the Rhondda to the north of Cardiff is ugly only in what it does to people. Visually, like William Blake's "satanic mills" of the industrial West Country, there is a dark and frequently splendid beauty in the terraces and the green hills with their crowns of black waste. On the one hand, Gwyn Thomas pulled out of his memory one of the ugliest nightmares; a miner's son, his mother dead, it was his duty to come downstairs in the morning and put up the tea in the darkness. When the first glimmer of his candle lit the kitchen floor, he would be greeted by the sight of a veritable carpet of cockroaches: on the other hand, as much as the memory sickened him, when he took us up to the high terraces near Ystrad-Rhondda with the vista crystal clear across the low mountains almost to Cardiff, the beauty washed all of that horror away.
That way, too, he remembered childhood there. Without the escape into the countryside, only a stone's throw away, life would have been unendurable. There, in the Rhondda, there is no city. The mines burrowed into the green mountains and the workers lived in their stone slums in what had been sheep pasture a generation before.
We spent a day in the Rhondda. We had our lunch and drank bitter in a little pub where the miners gather, and we looked at the old police station where many of the best leaders of British labor had been taken after arrest. Wales is the stronghold of the British labor party – and the miners in the Rhondda perhaps the core of the stronghold. Easy-spoken, gentle, poetic and civilized people, the heirs of great suffering, their lot is better now. In the welfare state, they eat well and live better but the memory of misery has not been eradicated. It is etched on their faces, and it echoes in their songs.
Cardiff itself is a beautiful city, its public buildings spacious and handsome, its streets sprawled around what was once a Roman camp. When the Romans had established themselves in the south of England, they fought their way across the River Severn, making their wooden-walled legion encampments along the way. Many British cities had their beginnings in these square, entrenched camps, but in Cardiff the shape of the legion encampment is still visible. The Romans settled there to stay. They replaced their wooden walls with stone, and around the stone walls the old Celtic city of Cardiff appeared. Then the Romans went away and in time the Normans came, raising the walls still higher and building a great castle deep in the center. A green and pleasant park, it sits in the middle of Cardiff at the present time.
One assumes an attitude toward cities almost immediately, and I found that I liked Cardiff thoroughly. At the waterfront, we roamed the endless docks and slips – and the fascinating assortment of ships from almost every port on earth. We put up at the Park Hotel, an ancient Edwardian place, but clean and reasonable in price and with good, simple food, and from there we explored to Swansea and Newport and north through Caerphilly and Pontypridd to the Rhondda.
It was near Llantrisant, on the high top of a mountain, that the Black Prince once built a tower and walls to defend himself. Like so many half-civilized Norman lords, he had mixed feelings of envy and hatred for the Welsh, who could be conquered yet refused to be humbled and who insulted the pride of the English by drawing a better and stronger bow than Edward's famous archers. Even the French, so large and mighty, had the sense to be conquered properly. The handful of Welsh did not. So the Black Prince came among them with loathing and love and built his tower on a mountaintop.
Gwyn Thomas took us there out of Cardiff. It was a very rare thing in Wales to find a town on a mountaintop, but here the Prince had settled his men-at-arms, whom he brought with him from England, and to this day their names are different and perhaps there is a trifle of difference in their speech – although the memory of who they are and where they came from is fuzzy. In my little Hillman, we drove up and up, until we were under the sky with Wales lying beneath us. We parked the car and had ale in a pub. The men recognized Thomas – he was often on Welsh television – but we were outlanders whom they regarded with curiosity but without suspicion or hostility. We drank our beer and went outside, where it was such a day as comes sometimes in Wales, and then everyone's heart sings because the air is brittle as clear crystal and sweet as honey.
Then walking on the street of this ancient and wonderful little town on a mountaintop, we met a kinsman of Thomas, distant but still knit to him, and very old. They exchanged greetings and then began to trace relationships and who lived and who had died, and presently they forgot my wife and myself and their voices changed pitch and color, and though they continued to speak in English, the language became Welsh, an old, old singing language of singular beauty.
I told an actor about this. He was a Welshman on the Welsh service of B.B.C., who came over to the Park Hotel to interview me about the oddity of my lingering there in Cardiff. "Oh, yes," he said to me, "we have some music and we have some poetry and it takes little to bring it out."
"If we decided to do a picture here," I asked him, "could we cast it here?" hastily, "Just with people, I mean."
"Could you? Why, of course. We are a nation of amateurs."
What a beautiful definition! If, like us, you drive out of Wales through the south, you will go through Newport along the River Severn to Gloucester in England, but you will look back. You have been to a small but rare place, and it was worth the trip.