A Week in Wales
SHOULD it be the English Lakes, or North Wales? We were in Chester, and it was the week of the Queen’s Jubilee. London was not to be thought of. To-morrow would be the great day itself, and even this staid old town, with its historic walls and towers, its queer “ Rows,” of which no description can convey an adequate idea, its picturesque streets and ancient houses, was alive with pleasant turmoil and excitement.
That night, at twenty minutes to ten, I stood at my window in the Grosvenor, looking up at the dark spires of the cathedral. There was no moon and the street lamps were not yet lighted, nor were my candles. Yet I found by actual experiment that I could read common newspaper print with perfect ease, such is the length of the English twilight.
There was little sleep for Chester that night. Eastgate Street, and doubtless all the other streets, were alive with surging crowds, shouting and cheering, and singing Jubilee songs. “ God save the Queen! God save the Queen! ” was the burden of them all. Jubilee cakes and Jubilee candies filled the shop-windows, to say nothing of flags, medals, and souvenirs of all sorts, from a pincushion to a diadem. The Queen’s plain, matronly face greeted one at every turn, generally rising above the black robes she most affects, lightened only by the blue ribbon of the Garter. But occasionally might be seen a more ambitious attempt at portraying the splendors of royalty. Imagine her Majesty in a bright red gown, crowned and bejeweled to the last degree !
Towards morning Chester went to bed, and we fell asleep, only to be awakened at dawn by the chiming of the cathedral bells, almost in front of our windows. It was worth waking for, — to lie there in a half-dream, and hear the liquid music soar, and swell, and die away, at last, in strains too sweet for earth. In the afternoon there was a Jubilee service for the children, for which tickets were kindly sent us. Chester is one of the smaller cathedrals ; yet on that occasion, though only the south transept was used, seven thousand children and many grown people were seated in its wide spaces.1 The children did most, of the singing, led by the trained choir and the great organ; and when the full chorus of fresh young voices rolled out grandly in the hymn,
Moves the church of God ;
Brothers, we are treading
Where the saints have trod,”
the effect was overpowering. It would have been overwhelming anywhere, that mighty river of song; but there, in that hoary cathedral, whose vaulted aisles had echoed with the sound of prayer and psalm for twelve hundred years, it was as resistless as the waves of the ocean. “ Where the saints have trod ” ? Were they saints, those old monks? Not all of them. They were men of like frailties with ourselves ; and the good and had mingled in monastery walls, in what we call the dark ages, as in city streets to-day. But there were grand and saintly souls among them, who labored zealously, according to their light, for God and man. We had paced their cloisters, treading in the very imprints of their feet. We had loitered in their green, secluded closes. We had listened for the lingering cadence of their laughter in the vaulted Monk’s Parlor, and in the chapter-house we had touched reverently the books they read and the missals from which they prayed. We had looked down the long, narrow vista of the scriptorium. Here, hour after hour, had the cowled heads bent over the parchment books the deft hands were illuminating with such fine tracery of leaf and flower. Perhaps the very ivies that were casting such flickering shadows on its gray arches were the direct descendants of those that dallied with “the winds that blew a thousand years ago.” Who could deny it? We had wandered through the murky crypt, where their ashes lie; and one of us had found, with the aid of the verger, the initials of an old fourteenth-century abbot, S. R., entwined in the foliage of one of the carved capitals in the nave, — said abbot being, according to tradition, a faroff kinsman of her own. Afterwards, she was shown reverently, in one of the cloisters, a blackened, mutilated slab that had once covered his grave or coffin, on which the S. R. appeared again, cleanly cut, as if fresh from the graver’s hand.
Charles Kingsley was for some years a canon of Chester, and the friendly vergers had many stories to tell of him and his doings. It was for his sake, in part, that we planned to go in a rowboat to Eaton Hall, thinking that perhaps we, as well as the boatmen, might still hear his Mary
Across the sands o’ Dee.”
All the rest of the folk who wished to shun London till the hurly-burly of the Jubilee was over seemed to be going to the Lakes. So Saint Katharine and I decided on North Wales, thus avoiding the whole crowd of tourists. Conway being our first objective point, we took the Chester and Holyhead section of the London and Northwestern Railway, which runs along the shores of the river Dee and the Irish Sea, of which, in fact, the river is itself an arm. The glimpses of scenery to be caught from the flying train are exquisitely picturesque, and we two lone women could not quite control our expressions of pleasure, even though a dignified Welsh gentleman sat at the other end of the compartment, absorbed in a newspaper. Now occurred one of the small delights of travel that it is so pleasant to recall afterwards; and once again we were compelled to congratulate ourselves on having chosen the sociable and friendly rep of the second class car, rather than the more exclusive plush of the first. Our fellow-passenger laid down The Times.
“ I see you are interested in our Welsh scenery, ladies,” he said. “ Pray exchange seats with me. The views from this side are much the finer, and it is all an old story to me.”
An intelligent man is really a much more interesting traveling companion than the very best guide-book ; especially when he is good enough to show you a thousand points of interest, — little things that the guide-book grandly ignores, or that you would be sure not to recognize in the hurry of the moment. If it had not been for our new friend, we should hardly have noticed the chimneys of Hawarden, or strained our eyes in the attempt to see the house itself, hidden in its nest of greenery. But we did see the unpretentious parish church where Mr. Gladstone often reads the service, to the edification of himself and others. If it had not been for our friend, too, we should have had occasion to go lamenting all the rest of our days that we had passed without knowing it the ruins of Flint Castle, where Richard held the memorable interview with Bolingbroke, and sighed to be “ great as his grief, or lesser than his name.” It stands, what there is left of it, on a rugged hill, through which we swept in a tunnel, so that “the rude ribs of that ancient castle ” were directly over our heads, and its “ tattered battlements ” loomed above us as we emerged into the sunlight again. The ruins of feudal castles that meet one at every turn in Wales are patent reminders that the whole land was long a bone of contention between two rival nations, and that here, time after time and generation after generation, the English kings summoned their men-at-arms in a vain attempt to subdue the valorous Welsh, secure in their mountain fastnesses. But the stronger won at last. Beautiful indeed was Gwrrych Castle that afternoon, in its setting of emerald woods, — a stately pile of cream-colored stone, with many towers and turrets, and a mountain for a background. It is a human habitation, not a ruin, and belongs to the Marquis of Mostyn. Very near it is Abergele, once the home of Mrs. Hemans. Modern “ culture ” does not thoroughly approve her of whom her greater sister in song, Mrs. Browning, said, “She never wronged that mystic breath, which breathed in all her being.” But those of us who are old enough to remember the days when it was allowable to read and admire her cannot fail to have noticed the strong hold Welsh history and Welsh legends had upon her imagination.
At Old Colwyn, “ our Welsh friend,” as we like to call him, having no other name to know him by, pointed out to us his own home on the hillside, divided with us a great bunch of white carnations he was carrying to his wife, shook hands with us cordially, and departed, smiling and lifting his hat as he vanished round the corner. How easy it is to do kindly things, if one only wants to !
Soon we rolled into what we more than once heard called the “ stupid ” town of Conway. The omnipresent porter took our luggage, and we walked a short distance to the Castle Hotel.
Conway is headquarters for the Royal Cambrian Society of Art. We wondered if that fact, or its having a landlady of artistic proclivities, accounted for the pictures, mostly oil-paintings, which covered the walls of our inn. The coffee-room and halls were lined with them, and the chambers held the overflow. In our hostess’s private parlor, Kensington embroidery, old china, painted door-panels, painted milking-stools, etc., had a strangely familiar air, showing that Wales, like America, is in the march of progress. If we could only have found a decorated rolling-pin, we should have been happy. But in a conspicuous place hung two or three sketches of American scenery by Thomas Moran, sent to our hostess, as she was proud to say, by the artist himself, who had been for weeks a guest of the house. One morning, when we went down to breakfast, we found in the coffee-room an old gentleman and his wife : she, a tall, angular person, with her hair combed low on her cheeks, and then carried up over her ears, a huge cap with purple ribbons, and a gown that looked like a fifty-yearold fashion-plate ; he, a curious figure that might have stepped bodily out of one of Dickens’s illustrated pages. He was prowling about the room with an eyeglass, grumbling because his breakfast was not served, and venting his spleen upon those unfortunate pictures. “ Abominable ! Atrocious ! ” he kept exclaiming with a snort. “And I suppose, my dear, there are people who call this art! ” But why need he have given the things so much attention ? It is well to know when to shut one’s eyes. There were lovely flowers on the table, for which he had neither glance nor word.
The thing we had come to Conway to see was the castle. But on the principle of leaving the best till the last, we saw everything else first, keeping it and gloating over it as a child gloats over his sugar-plums, though it was always in our thoughts as in our sight, — the one dominant feature in the landscape, ruling it as a mountain rules the valley.
“ Be sure to go up the river to Trefriw,” our friend of the carnations had said, as a parting injunction. The next morning was hot, and the cool breeze from the river was delicious. What time could be better than the present ? So to the dock we went, and for an hour awaited the arrival of the small steamer ; the Conway being a tidal river, and completely ruled by the caprices of the lady moon.
But we were off at last, like a parcel of children playing at sea-going, in a toy boat on a toy river. Nothing more enjoyable can well be conceived. All was so sweet, so still, so serene, that it was like moving in a happy dream. The softly rounded Hills, cultivated, and clothed to their summits with all imaginable shades of green and olive ; the lovely stone cottages, picturesque on the outside at least, springing up in all sorts of out-of-the-way places, — now clinging to some sharply defined point far up the hillsides, now nestling deep in sheltered valleys, but all alike mantled with ivy and bright with roses; the fern-clad banks of the stream ; the arched bridges ; the ancestral farmhouses, gray with age ; and here and there the stately splendor of hall or castle, made a series of pictures never to be forgotten. Our captain was very accommodating, and helped to carry out the illusion that it was all play. If he saw a would-be passenger strolling leisurely over the fields towards the river, he quietly turned his prow to the shore, and waited till the new-comer leaped on hoard. If a woman wanted to land where there was no dock, that she might shorten the distance homewards by going “ ’cross lots,” she had only to suggest it, and she was put ashore forthwith, —sometimes, as it seemed, at the imminent risk of an overturn. At Trefriw, which certainly had very little to show for itself except its ferns and its long ranks of pink and purple foxgloves, there was time for luncheon, if anybody wanted it. Beyond this point the river is not navigable, and we were soon on our return voyage, going out with the tide.” The little Conway was famous for its pearl fisheries even before the Roman Conquest, and Wales boasts that a Conway pearl is one of the ornaments of the English crown today.
Near the head of High Street stands the Plas Mawr, or Great Mansion, built more than three centuries ago by one Robert Wynne. Its chief claim to distinction lies in the fact that its owner had the honor of entertaining Queen Elizabeth for some days. The old house is just as it was then, save for the ravages of time, which are many. But the great courts, the floors, the wood-work of paneled oak, now black as ebony, the window-sashes, the small diamondshaped panes of greenish glass, the fireplaces, and the stairways remain unaltered, for the most part. The Plas Mawr was freshly decorated and adorned for the reception of the queen, and the letters E. R., Elizabeth Regina, appear over and over again, both in wood-carvings and on the ceilings, in connection with the royal crest. The ceilings have been barbarously whitewashed, but they must have been very beautiful when they shone in green and gold, with rich emblazonry of heraldic colors. In the great banqueting-hall — people seem never to have eaten, but always to have banqueted, in those days —are the identical tables and chairs of massive oak used by the royal party. We entered the private drawing-room of the queen, and her bed-chamber; and tried to imagine her, in the prime of her haughty womanhood, sitting in a low chair before the broad fireplace, dreaming, perhaps, of the very lovers whom she spurned. But nothing brought back the romance of the past so vividly as when our escort, the secretary of the above-named art society, said, throwing open another door, " The Earl of Leicester was in attendance upon her majesty. This was his chamber.” If so, at this small, deep, diamond-paned lattice he must often have stood, as he buckled on his sword or arranged his slashed doublet. Were his thoughts of fair Amy Robsart, pining at Cumnor Place, or of the proud woman next door ?
That evening, as it was growing dark, we heard the sound of strange, unearthly music, and forthwith rushed to the window. A woman of middle age, swathed in widow’s weeds from top to toe, and leading a little child, dressed also in black, was moving slowly along the middle of the street, singing a wild, weird air, set to Welsh words. Her voice was almost painfully pathetic, but her walk was quite beyond description. She would take three or four slow steps with a sold of rhythmic swing, and then stand stock still, rolling her eyes as in a fine frenzy, while she poured forth those uncanny strains with a power and pathos that made one’s heart beat. Then came the swing again. The little child faithfully copied her every movement. “ Is she crazy, Saint Katharine ? ” I asked. “ Or is she a broken-down singer, on a hunt for pennies ? ” For her voice, cracked now and harsh in some of its tones, had been fine once. But no one paid the slightest attention to her ; none of the passers-by recognized her presence even by a turn of the head. At length, slowly, still singing, she and the child passed out of sight, fading away in the gloaming.
The parish church at Conway, which is built on the site of the monastery of Aberconway, has a fine old font and a beautiful rood-screen. The latter is said to have belonged to the abbey, but traditions differ. In the chancel are monuments to the Wynne family ; and in the floor, which is lower than that of the nave, is a rude stone, with the inscription “ Y. Z. 1066,” — the very date of the Norman Conquest. Another bears this curious record : —
“Here lyeth ye body of Nich’s Hookes of Conway Gent, who was ye 4Jst child of his father Wm. Hookes, Esq, by Alice his wife, and ye father of 27 children who dyed ye 20th day of March 1637.”
Query: Did the twenty-seven children all come to an untimely end on “ye 20th day of March”?
At length, one perfect day, we went to the castle. The old man who has the place in charge took the small fee, unlocked a door, and left us to our own devices. The whole glorious ruin was to all intents and purposes our own. During that long golden afternoon not a soul came near us, not a voice disturbed us. Could one describe a cloud, or a wave, or a sunset, so that a blind man could see it with his mind’s eye ? Could one give a deaf man an idea of a bird song or the peal of an organ ? As well try to do this as to describe the solemn grandeur of those time-worn, ivy-grown, moss-covered battlements, left now to the sweet winds of heaven, the flocks of rooks that fly in and out of turret and tower, and the climbing roses that brighten it with their beauty. From court to court we wandered, from tower to tower, from battlement to battlement. Here, all unroofed and open to the stars, lies the great banqueting - hall, more beautiful, more imposing, now, it may be, in its ivy-wreathed desolation, than when the gay revelers of Edward’s court made its vast arches ring with song and laughter. Here still are the wide fireplaces, rich with carvings, the very ghosts of past comfort and delight. Here is the oratory, with its traceried window and lofty groined arches, where Eleanor the Faithful prayed. Here is her bed-chamber, communicating with that of the king, and still retaining traces of its rich ornamentation. Leading from it is an arched recess still called Queen Eleanor’s Oriel, the windows of which, according to a contemporary poet, must have been finely stained : —
Closèd well with royal glass ;
Filled it was with imagery,
Every window by and by.”
Here are stairways worn by feet that were stilled long centuries ago, and, in the deep thickness of the walls, the passages, dark and tortuous, through which those feet strode on errands of business, or pleasure, or intrigue. Here are stone benches that seem still to keep the impress of the forms that through the slow generations shaped and hollowed them. We looked through openings in the “ crannied walls,” through which death and destruction had rained on many a besieging army.
Far below us, as we stood on the lofty battlements, lay the walled town, with its massive semicircular towers, so powerful once for defense or attack, so useless now as they slept in that serenest air. Close about the castle clustered the cottages and gardens of the people, but they only added to the impressiveness of the picture. Just at our feet was a pretty stone house, its courtyard gay with flowers, the castle wall forming one of its boundaries.
It is with the beauty and grandeur of the hoary pile that we have to do; not with its history. Yet it may not be amiss to say that it was built by Hugh Lupus, first Earl of Chester, and a nephew of William the Conqueror; and was rebuilt and enlarged by Edward I., in 1284.
Descending from the heights at last, after many a lingering look at the winding river, the quiet valley, green and golden in the sun, the distant hills, and the bold headlands jutting seaward, we went down into the inner court and out on the terrace, under the windows of Queen Eleanor’s Tower. Surely she must often have sat there with her knights and ladies, the fair, sweet woman whose memory is fragrant even yet, rejoicing as we did in the soft sunlight and the beauty of earth and sea.
At last we tore ourselves away, and the next morning took the earliest train for Caernarvon, pausing at Bangor for a view of the Menai Straits and of the two famous tubular and suspension bridges. Both are beautiful in their strength and symmetry, but the woman must know more than I of scientific engineering who undertakes to give any idea of them. Let us hasten on to Caernarvon.
The town itself was not attractive to us : solely, it may be, because it happened to be hot and dusty. It was founded by the Romans, who gave it the name of Segontium. The river that flows near the town is called the Seiont, but whether the river named the town or the town the river is an open question. Coed-helen, a wooded height opposite, tradition says was so called in honor of the Empress Helen, the mother of Constantine. In addition to its Roman history, Caernarvon was the headquarters of the English government in Whiles after the conquest by Edward, —all which goes to prove that it ought to be of great interest to the antiquarian.
Leaving our luggage at the station, we sallied forth to find the castle. Traveling, like life, is a succession of choices. One cannot see, or do, or have, or be, everything. How to choose the best is the great problem. We chose the castle here. Shall I confess it was a disappointment, as oftentimes more important choices are ? “ More picturesque than Conway,” say the guide-books, and “ much finer.” Externally it is in a state of almost complete preservation, and it is undeniably a grand and beautiful structure, with its well-kept walls and imposing towers. But its commonplace adaptation to the uses and needs of to-day, the ground floor of the Queen’s Tower being a Freemason’s hall and an armory, and the second a museum, while the lower basement of the farfamed Eagle Tower is a magazine and a drill-room, made it to our minds far less impressive than Conway, sitting silent in its proud desolation.
Yet Caernarvon, too, has its keen human interests, the associations that give it the glamour of mystery and romance. To its mighty walls, as to a fortress, Edward brought Eleanor in the spring of 1284, — before Conway had been made ready for her reception. The stronghold was but just finished, and it is said to present to-day, externally, the same appearance it presented when the beautiful and stately queen first entered the stupendous gateway which is still known as Queen Eleanor’s Gate. Miss Strickland places this gate in the Eagle Tower, which is on the southwest corner, commanding the Menai Straits. But this must be a mistake, unless the local traditions and the very ground plans of the ancient castle are greatly at fault. The Queen’s Gate, composed of two great towers and of Gothic arches, is at the extreme east. It is at a great elevation from the ground outside, and was approached by a drawbridge only.
At the foot of Eagle Tower we stood looking up at a small window, a mere slit in the heavy masonry. Should we venture the climb ? For in a chamber lighted only by that window Eleanor gave birth to the unfortunate Edward II., the first Prince of Wales. There was but one answer to the question. Up, up, up, a flight of winding stone stairs, dark and narrow, and worn into great uneven hollows that made the footing most insecure, we ascended, till we reached a little room, a veritable eyrie, far up in the tower. Dreary and gloomy enough it is now. It was dark, cold, and forbidding even in the brightness of that summer day. But Eleanor was the first woman in England who used tapestry as garniture for walls, and the marks of the tenter-hooks are still visible in the small den. For it is only that, — more unhomelike than a prison cell. Let us hope that when its rough stones were well lined with soft hangings, and when perhaps warm furs and soft cushions covered the floor, it was a warm and cozy nest for the wife whom Edward was proud to say he loved “ above all earthly creatures,” la chère reine to whose memory he erected the thirteen crosses. The view from the top of Eagle Tower may well be as magnificent as the ancient chroniclers declare, but we were content with our present altitude and went no higher. “Facilis est descensus Averni ” ? Perhaps so. But the descent of the stairs in Eagle Tower is a thousand times worse than the going up. It is to be hoped that when Queen Eleanor had occasion to come down, there was some more royal road to terra firma.
Three days after his birth, — from the Queen’s Gate, it is said, — Edward presented his son to the haughty Welsh barons as their future ruler, the Prince of Wales. “Give us,” they had cried, “ a native prince, whose tongue is neither French nor Saxon; and if his character is void of reproach, we swear that we will accept him.” They were caught in a trap, yet what could they do but submit ? Surely the child was a native prince, he spoke neither French nor English, and his character was unimpeachable !
It was late in the afternoon when we left the castle, and strolled slowly back towards the station. “ Saint Katharine,” I said, “ I’m hungry. Can’t we manage to get our lucheon in some place that shall have a Caernarvonish flavor ? The Hotel Royal will be just like every other royal hotel. Let us do something new! ”
For answer she darted into a bookstore we were just passing. I followed, to find her making suit, after her own gentle fashion, to a calm-faced, grayhaired man, who was smiling benignly at her from behind the counter. “ Certainly,” he was saying. “Go to Mrs. Pownal’s. That is the place you want; ” and he pointed out the way.
Mrs. Pownal’s proved to be, on the first floor at least, a little shop, a sort of bakery, whose small counters were laden with buns, seed-cakes, tarts, and muffins ready to toast, all giving out so sweet and spicy an odor that they would have met the warm approval of Tom Brown and his Rugby friends. There should have been a school close by. “ There must be,” said Saint Katharine. “ Think of so many tarts, and never a schoolboy to eat them ! ” For in all our wanderings in England we found the dame’s shop-window, full of goodies, was sure to be very near the gate of the school close. This time, however, they did not seem to be in conjunction.
“ Luncheon ? Up-stairs, if you please,” said a little white-capped maid ; and up we went, through a narrow, winding way, into a cool, shaded room, with green hangings, a long, empty table, plenty of chairs, and a sofa. Its sole occupant was a gentleman, who sat before a grate in which a small fire was smouldering, notwithstanding the warmth outside. It was purely for ornament. He saluted gravely, and went on reading his newspaper.
“ If you want anything foreign, you must go to the Continent,” said our friends, before we started. But the whole atmosphere of that little place was foreign, even to the flavor of the gooseberry tarts. You could find nothing like it in America if you hunted from Maine to California. Why can’t one put the soul of a place into words ? Mrs. Pownal’s was as unique, in its way, as Blossoms, in Chester. The gentleman finished his newspaper, and departed. A spotless cloth was spread for us on one end of the long oaken table, and a plentiful luncheon of cold meats, thin bread and butter, some of those fragrant tarts, and ginger ale was served, for the enormous sum of ninepence each. That, surely, was “ foreign ” enough for anybody. The price, I mean.
Rested and refreshed, we took the five o’clock train for Llanberis, where we were to pass the night. Thus far we had seen only the fair, fertile, parklike valley of the Conway, the green heights about Bangor, and the straits of the Menai. Hardly had we left the station at Caernarvon when the whole landscape changed as by magic. Towering ranges of hills arose on either side, rough, weather-beaten, and frowning. Hedges gave place to stone walls. Over the wild and rocky pastures sheep and cattle were roving. Several times we crossed the Seiont, famous for its fishing. Near Bont Rythallt station we caught a fine view of the Eryri Mountains, with the Llanberis lakes stretching to their feet. Passing on, to the left lay the great slate quarries; to the right, the rugged hills; while directly in front of us Snowdon pierced the clouds with its mighty shaft, and the venerable ruins of Dolbadarn Castle overlooked the blue expanse of the lake. This was more like the Wales of our dreams; but before we had had time to take in the magnificent panorama we rolled into Llanberis, where a comfortable, if highpriced, hotel received us. Comfortable, if it had not been for the glaring white walls of our chambers, with the beds facing the great windows, uncurtained save by white shades, that did but intensify the glare. But we pinned up our shawls, and made the best of it, remembering Shakespeare’s tourist, who says, “ When I was at home I was in a better place, but travelers must be content.”
We were tired enough to go to bed; but there was the pretty, picturesquely set town, at which we were fain to take a peep. Its slate quarries employ twenty-five thousand men. The owner gave them three days’ holiday at the time of the Jubilee, and offered to pay the fare of all who wanted to go up to London. Only forty out of the whole small army accepted the offer. I asked why. The answer was that to the Welsh quarrymen London seems as far off as the moon, and almost as inaccessible. No such remote and hazardous journeyings for them. The wise man stays at home of a holiday, and smokes his pipe at the door of his cabin ; or he takes a stride over the hills ; or, if musically inclined, he goes to an Eisteddfod.
We had been shown a photograph of a charming little inn, all gables, and bay-windows, and shaded porches, vinecovered to the chimneys, rose-wreathed, and embosomed in stately trees. It was in Bettws-y-coed, if you please, — pronounced, as nearly as I can come to it by phonetic spelling, Bettūs-y-coyd, — and it looked like a very haven of rest. There we determined to put up for repairs ; and after having come to that conclusion (for we were not traveling by rule and measure), everything imaginable, from sewing on buttons and mending gloves to the writing of interminable letters “ home,” was put off till we should get to Bettws-y-coed, the fair “ Station-in-the-Wood.” It became a standard joke, a by-word. Everything would come to pass when we got to Bettws-y-coed. Thither we went the next morning, — a sixteen - mile drive through the famous pass of Llanberis, — in a queer vehicle called a “ break,” not unlike a Scotch wagonette, but capable of holding at least a dozen people. A fine coach starts from another hotel, but as to this fact our landlady was, unfortunately, in the depths of ignorance. But whether by break or by coach, the drive was something to store away in one’s memory. All the way, even when we could not see it, we felt the near presence of the monarch of Welsh mountains, and knew it was towering above the long valley, with its attendant peaks, Lliwedd and Crib Coch, on either side. Much of the way the rugged hills shut us in, lifting their strong, bare, rocky shoulders close beside us, to right and to left, and leavingjust space enough for the roadway. This was as smooth and level as a floor, though we gradually ascended to the height of 1250 feet. Bordering the road, in lieu of the English hedges, were broad stone walls, so solidly put together that they looked as if they might last forever. Occasionally we caught sight, beyond, of Alps on Alps sharply defined against the clear blue sky, while the low valleys lay deep in purple shadow, or golden with the indescribable glory of that summer day. At length we drew up before the door of the little inn of Pen-y-gwryd, “at the meeting of the three great valleys, the central heart of the mountains.”As the hostlers watered the horses, Ave looked about us with interested eyes, for this is the scene of a powerful chapter in Kingsley’s Two Years Ago ; and it was from this hospitable door that Elsley Vavasour rushed, like the madman that he was, for his fearful midnight flight up the Glyder Vawr. “ P-e-n-y ” — spelled Saint Katharine, looking with dismay at the array of consonants. “ How are we ever to pronounce it ? And how are we to remember it unless we can give it a name ? ”
“ We call it ' Penny-go-rood,’ ” laughed the soft voice of a young English lady.
“ Be content with that. Of course it is not right, but you will hardly get any nearer to it.” Therefore as Penny-gorood the bright little spot, with its look of hearty good cheer, was labeled and stored away, — a picture to keep through all the coming years.
Here two Welshwomen, of perhaps the lower middle class, though it was not quite easy to place them, strode out of the inn, each with a black hand-bag, and scrambled into the two vacant seats in the break. They were incredibly ugly, — sisters, if not twins, —as alike as two peas; both tall, gaunt, hard-featured, without one trace of womanly grace or softness. Both wore plain, straight-skirted gowns of shiny black alpaca, which were well enough; but on their masses of coarse hair were perched jaunty little white straw sailor-hats, with bands and streamers of blue ribbon, forming two most incongruous haloes for their harsh, middle-aged faces.
At Capel Curig we stopped for luncheon. When we reached Bettws-y-coed, the driver reined up at the door of a hotel which was not the one for which we were booked. Not for love nor money would he go an inch further. “ The end of me journey, mum,” he reiterated over and over, the sole response to all our entreaties and expostulations. Out came the landlady, a tall, slight, graceful young woman, who cordially begged us to alight. The pretty inn looked inviting, and she was entrancing, with her soft dark eyes and cooing voice, tender as a dove’s. But we explained as well as we could that we had engaged rooms at the house of her rival, and that there our letters were to meet us, etc. Finally she magnanimously ordered her own “ Boots ” to drive us to the other hotel, waving us an adieu with the grace and suavity of a duchess.
The photograph had not done it justice. The low stone cottage, wide, roomy, and rambling, with its garniture of ivies and roses, now in the perfection of their bloom, in its own fair, shaded, yet flowery grounds, was prettier than any picture. The village itself is, indeed, “ beautiful for situation,” with the “ mountains round about it, as they were round about Jerusalem.” The house was full, and there was much coming and going, — coach rides and “tramps” to the hills, to the waterfalls, to castle this and castle that, and, more than all, to Snowdon. But the mending beingdone and the letters written, we were content to sit and rest, dreaming the hours away in pleasant idleness, two happy lotus-eaters that we were. Why should we try to see everything ?
When you are in Rome, do as the Romans do : which, being interpreted, means, when you are in Wales, go to the Welsh church. When Sunday came, as the long, peaceful day drew near its close, we went down the shady road and over the bridge, in search of the parish church. There is also an English church, much finer and more exclusive, we were told. But we abided by our first choice. The building itself is modern, but the grounds look so old that it is probable it occupies the site of an older structure. A pavement of broad slate flagging runs round it, bordered with shrubs and flowers. Some very old graves were in the inclosure. There were several doors, and it was a question at which we were expected to enter. Two chubby-faced boys came round the corner in great haste. “ Choir boys,” I said, and was fain to ask for guidance; but they vanished like two flashes of lightning. At length, by ones and by twos, the worshipers began to assemble, and we followed the crowd. It is a curious place, to American eyes, that low Welsh church,—long, narrow, with stone walls, immense stone columns, brick-paved floor in the nave and choir, and tiled floor in the chancel. Imperishable it looked, even though it is the product of our ephemeral to-day, — as if it might outlast the pyramids ; and it is as severely plain as any flagstaff. The congregation, made up as it was of the common people, the working classes, interested us greatly. There was hardly a person in the seats who would have been called, in common parlance, a lady or a gentleman. The clothes worn were rough and plain, but generally clean and comfortable. Many of the men were in their shirt - sleeves. Behind us sat an old woman in black, the oddest of apparitions, who stared at us as if we belonged to another world. So small, so withered, so weather-beaten, was she, in a costume that belonged to past ages, that we certainly felt as if she did not belong to ours. A surpliced choir of men and boys — alas that I should have to say it, but those surplices badly needed soap and water ! — discoursed sweet music, singing to Hamburg and other familiar old tunes their wild Welsh hymns. The air of the place was reverent. The voices in the responses were low and earnest. The young men and maidens were quiet and attentive ; their elders were devout. As for the sermon, I understood but three words of it, “ Apostle Paul ” and “ Galatia; ” but it was, after all, as interesting as any I ever listened to. Earnestness is contagious, and the pale, earnest speaker held our absorbed attention from first to last. But it was easy to follow the service, which was that of the Church of England, and prayer is prayer, whether the tongue be Welsh or English.
At the close of the service a baby was presented for baptism, a tiny creature, with a long white robe and short sleeves tied with blue ribbons. The young mother was in deep black, as was the godmother. One of the surpliced choir acted as godfather, and we fancied the child’s real father was dead.
With Bettws-y-coed our week in Wales ended. We wanted to go to Llangollen, sacred to the memory of the Ladies of Llangollen, and up the vale of Llanrwst, and to see the wild gorges of Carnedd Dafydd and Carnedd Llewelyn. But life is short, and journeyings are long. So we retraced our steps to Chester, thus gladdening our eyes with another sight of beautiful, many-towered Conway, and then slowly made our wandering way southward.
Julia C. R. Dorr.
- Perhaps it should be stated that this transept is exceptionally large, — nearly as large as the nave itself, — and is known as the Church of St. Oswald.↩