Adam Somerset reviews A Wilder Wales by David Lloyd Owen, a multifaceted cultural bounty, distilling works of thirty six authors over two centuries.
The Wales of industrial predominance is the province of historians of the south. The admirable Swansea school leads. The geography that separates Wales from the bulk of England lies to the north and west. The landscape and the period in which travellers first visited, and reported, are the province of scholars of the west. Michael Freeman in Aberystwyth has sourced and mounted a huge array of material for the “Sublime Wales” initiative. The Centre for Advanced Welsh and Celtic Studies is a vibrant remnant of that truncated organisation, the University of Wales. Its “Curious Travellers” project is active in publication and exhibition on this fascinating, and central part, of the national story. A Wilder Wales makes a laudable third leg in this cultural troika, Parthian once again displaying itself as resourceful and invaluable.
David Lloyd Owen’s work has been considerable. His book’s subtitle is Travellers’ Tales 1610-1831. His book of 445 pages distils the writings of thirty-six authors over two centuries and groups it into ten themes. The original accounts exceed two million words. His authors include two women although that lively and percipient author Catherine Hutton comes outside his time scale. The observations cover every variety of mood and tone. Coleridge does not feature and none of the authors are his equal in inflammatory presence. In the company of Bala’s worthiest citizens he proposed a toast to George Washington. The response was, “I gives a sentiment, Gemmen! May all Republicans be guillotined!” The scene almost came to fisticuffs. J. Hucks records the incident without knowing the name of the controversial visitor. David Lloyd Owen’s authors are more civil, at least in public, among their hosts.
A Wilder Wales shows that the earliest traveller-authors found much to praise. John Taylor in 1653 admired Tenby’s castle and harbour but Milford even more so. Then as now it had “16 creekes, 5 bayes, and 13 rodes, of large capacity… it is conjectured that 1500 ships may ride there.” Over the county border he visited Gelli Aur and concluded, “It may without fiction be justly stiled the Cambrian Paradise and Elyzium of Wales.” The anthropological observations tend towards the kindly. Nathaniel Crouch in 1695 noted, “The Natives are generally healthy, strong, swift, and witty, which is imputed to the clear and wholesome Air of the Mountains, the cleanly and moderate Diet of the People, and the Hardship to which they are inur’d from their Childhood.”
Henry Skrine a century later in 1798 made a less complimentary generalisation: “Hence has the natural character for animation sometimes partaken too much of warmth of temper and a hastiness of expression has gained the Welchman the reputation of being quarrelsome.” Tobias Smollett did not travel this territory but his spirit lives on in a small number of visitors. J. Hucks again in 1795: “Tregarron is a miserable hole.” William Bingley was in Beddgelert in 1798 in an inn with a floor and ceiling with large holes in them. He was “intolerably pestered by myriads of fleas” but nonetheless was back in Wales in 1801 and 1804.
The country is deemed generally safe although advice is offered to avoid the road to Narberth. The irascible Bingley outside Llanberis recounts a burglary of a cottage. The perpetrator is “a huge raw-boned fellow” but it ends badly for him. The occupant of the cottage seizes her property back and dishes out “a hearty thwack with her cudgel on each of his shoulders.”
Some authors adopt a role of guide for others. Samuel Leigh in 1831 informs that a pony may be bought for six guineas. If the visitor is on foot “blisters may be avoided by wearing fine soft flannel or woollen socks next to the skin, and by washing the feet previous to going to bed.” Lest two legs be regarded as less dignified than four Reverend Freeman reassures. “Reasoning people are agreed there is neither disgrace nor impropriety in using one’s limbs.”
The end of the period coincides with the influence of Johann Gottfried Herder at his peak. On one side there is the view taken by Johnson who writes to Boswell 1st October 1774 that “Wales is so little different from England, that it offers nothing to the speculation of the traveller.” He is at Gwaynynog, which becomes Gregynog in the index, and records of his dining: “the table was well supplied, except the fruit was bad.”
But the sublime is waiting. Charles Skrine in 1798 records that “in the rude grandeur and unfettered sublimity of wild rocks, lofty mountains, and rapid torrents, few countries can surpass it.” Charles Heath travels the Wye from Ross to Monmouth. “The eye is pleased with the tuftings of a tree; it is amused with pursuing the eddying stream… the rocks are grand.” Sometimes nature fails to be as sublime as it might. Heath sees some rocks buried in sand and is let down. “Rocks of this last kind are the most lumpish and the least picturesque.”
It is also the age of McPherson and “Ossian” and there is praise for the language. Johnson: “after dinner, the talk was of preserving the Welsh language. I offered them a scheme.” Benjamin Heath Malkin in 1803 is impressed by the literature. Of two thousand books in the language “there are none of immoral tendencies, none that propagate principles of infidelity.” Joseph Cradock too in 1770 is filled with admiration for the culture. “The bards are poets by nature,” he writes although he adds, “these bards are idle fellows, who subsist on the bounty of the Welsh gentry”.
The content of A Wilder Wales is multiple in theme and hue. The entries for each author are followed by a paragraph of biography. The bibliography of the sources is full. There are two indexes, place and person, that make reference easy. A Wilder Wales is a rich fountain of cultural bounty.
A Wilder Wales is available now from Parthian.