Gareth Jones

[bas relief by Oleh Lesiuk]

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TALES TOLD ROUND THE FIRESIDE OF A WELSH FARMHOUSE

In Search of News Contents 

By

Gareth Jones

I SHALL long remember the evening I spent at Blaenau Farm, near the Usk Valley. When the sun had gone down I sat with the family around the fire, and I learned what deep roots culture had in the Welsh countryside.

The bookshelves were full of tomes on philosophy, on theology, on science, and on literature. Several generations ago the farmer who was then head of the family used to assemble and teach the children of the valley. His influence had been carried down to the present.

In this generation three of the children have had brilliant academic careers, one of them a double first in classics. Another won a first in Hebrew and became a scholar at Oxford.

Although in Scotland there may be many farming families with a high level of culture, I am sure that such a record of learning on a farm buried in a valley far away from any railway or large town would in England be an almost unheard of thing.

The evening, however, was not spent in heavy talk on theology or on the classics. There was laughter in the humour of the pulpit.

This form of humour—perhaps in the nineteenth century the main form in Wales—contributed to that memorable evening a special flavour of old-fashioned days. My hosts told with zest of the renowned preachers of the Usk Valley.

We laughed at the stories of Dafydd Evans Ffynnon Henry, whose imagination ran away with him in his sermons and who wove into the Bible many a fantasy of his own! One of his sermons described how “Mrs. Pharaoh” (Dafydd would never forget the “Mr.” or the “Mrs.” when Pharaoh and his wife were mentioned) was terrified when toads rushed up the stairs to her bedroom.

He was a human, old Dafydd Evans Ffynnon Henry, and one anecdote told that night tickled me. He was praying in a little chapel in the countryside when a black dog and a white dog entered and starting fighting. Unfortunately, the reverend gentleman could not pronounce his “s’s” properly and could not utter that sound without hissing violently. This sent the dogs into renewed and more savage fighting, which made the congregation watch with excitement the progress of the battle.

At last Dafydd Evans Ffynnon Henry himself was carried away and shouted: “Pobl, I came to preach the Gospel to you, but if there is to be a battle, I’ll put a sovereign on the black ‘un!”

Pulpit stories gave place soon to the legends of the mountains, and I realised that what I was listening to had been handed down in that valley for many centuries. I heard of the legend of the Crognant, a stream I had passed as I came down from the mountains. And this is the tale I heard in Welsh from my hostess.

“In a farm just near called Meitisaf a very long time ago there was a large coffer in which the money was kept. One day, when the farmer was far away in Llanwrtyd, the wife beheld to her alarm the legs of a man dangling out of the coffer. It was a thief busy collecting the golden coins. So she pushed him in and locked him there."

“To hail her husband she took a horn and blew it. Many miles away at Llanwrtyd her husband heard the call and rode his hunter as swiftly as he could to the farm. Indeed, so swiftly did the hunter fly home that on arriving, it fell dead in the courtyard. The wife sounded the horn again for the neighbours to gather. They came, unlocked the coffer, dragged the thief up the mountain and hanged him near the stream, which from that day has been called Crognant (the stream of the hanging).”

I asked my hostess to tell me the tale of Llyn-y-Fan, and she told me that it is Llyn-y-Fan Fach which is renowned in legend and not Llyn-y-Fan Fawr which I had seen in rain and mist. Llan-y-Fan Fach is on the western side of the Black Mountains, and it is here that the Lady of the Lake appears at two o’clock on the first Sunday in August. Who was she? A rich fairy from the lake who married a mortal and lived at the farm of Esgair Llaethdy, which I was to see near Myddfai next day. Fate willed it that if her husband struck her three times without cause she should return to Llyn-y-Fan and bring all her cattle with her.

For many years they lived happily, but one day at a christening the husband jocularly tapped her on the shoulder. She reminded him that it was the first time for him to strike her without cause. Later, at a wedding she burst into tears and for the second time the husband playfully touched her on the shoulder. After many years the pair went to a funeral, where she laughed. Whereupon the husband tapped her and said “Hush!” This was the last blow and the fairy lady called her cattle and returned to the lake.

The legends soon gave way to song, and Welsh hymns, sung with fervour and feeling, resounded through the farmstead. Even the sturdy hams hanging up in the kitchen seemed to shake with emotion. “Wele’n sefyll rhwng y myrtwydd” was followed by “Beth sydd imi yn y byd.” “Llef,” which is one of the most beautiful hymns ever composed, was sung (before the kitchen fire) that night with as much depth of feeling and effect as ever a hymn was chanted in one of the world’s most magnificent cathedrals.

After the hymns came the folk songs, and they had a gaiety and a lightness of touch which I believe are quite as Welsh as the somberness of minor chords. Anecdote and legend, humour and fantasy, hymn and folk-song, the heritage of Wales’s past in story and music, all these made my evening on the Welsh farm one of those which stand out in my experiences. And all who have known Wales will recognise in such an evening the culture and the charm which have been the possession of the best type of Welsh farmer for generations.

It was, therefore, with regret that next morning I left Blaenau Farm in the Hydfer Valley, tramped past some remarkable ancient stone circles, crossed a tiny rivulet called the Usk, and climbed to the top of the Myddfai Mountain, whence I admired the grandeur of the mountains to the east and the richness of the Towy Valley to the west.

I scrambled down a steep, rocky gorge, past the skeleton of a sheep and the skull and bones of a horse which had probably crashed down the cliff to death, and at last came to Myddfai. Here, in the home of the physicians of Myddfai, renowned in the eighteenth century, I met a charming singer with the name Llinos y Glyn (the Linnet of the Valley).

At last I came to the Towy, and my journey for the day was over when I stepped into Llangadock; but the stories and the songs of the evening before on a Welsh farm were still ringing in my ears.

 September 15th, 1933.  

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