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A WELSH MARKET-TOWN
WE have come to the end of Glendower's story, but before we leave his part of the country altogether let us pay a visit to Corwen, the old market-town that lies so near his own valley.
Someone has said that Corwen is "relentlessly tucked away under the dark shoulder" of the heather-clad Berwyns, for above it lies the height of Pen-y-Pigyn, which certainly keeps the sun off very effectually. In the porch of the old church, indeed, we shall find a great stone, called by a Welsh name that means "the pointed stone in the icy nook." A legend, found in many other parts of Wales, says that the builders vainly tried to erect the church, which was built before the town, on a sunnier position farther down the valley, but every night the walls were destroyed and the materials carried down to the sunless spot under the hill.
Just above the vestry door of that same church is a curious mark, said to have been made by the dagger of Glendower, flung by him in a fit of rage one day from the top of Pen-y-Pigyn.
So far away is Corwen from mines or flannel mills or tourist centres, that it forms in many ways a good example of a Welsh country-town, as it might have existed not long after the days of Glendower himself.
The great interest lies in the monthly fair-day, when the streets and market-place are full of shaggy Welsh ponies, black-faced mountain-sheep, and cattle with immense horns. At every corner stand groups of farmers, talking eagerly with hands and shoulders as much as with lips, and with that curious rise and fall of the voice which, they tell us, is the secret of Welsh oratory. Of that conversation the Saxon from over the border understands not a word; but no sooner does he make a remark than with the utmost ease the Welshmen respond in excellent English. The power of expressing themselves equally well in both languages is a striking feature of even the most uneducated classes in Wales. Only here and there in some farm hidden far away among the hills could one meet with the experience of one who, weary and thirsty after a long tramp over the high moors, approached a tiny farm-house and asked the old woman who opened the door for a cup of milk. A shake of the head was the only reply. "But you must have milk or water in the house!" persisted the visitor. Another shake and a stream of words in an unknown tongue followed. Not to be baffled, the Saxon raised his hand to his mouth and made as if to drink.
With a cry of delight the old dame rushed away, and returned with a large bowlful of liquid, of which the traveller eagerly partook. It was fine thick butter-milk, but, alas! it was quite sour!
Perhaps, however, the chief regret in the visitor's mind was the impossibility of explaining why the bowl was returned full to the brim, for the old dame's puzzled look said plainly enough: "What more could the stranger want than good Welsh butter-milk?"
Meantime the market-women have spread out their goods—poultry, butter, eggs, and flowers—on the market-stalls in a picturesque fashion enough. Many of the women themselves are worth the attention of an artist, with their strong brown faces, black crisp hair, and very dark blue eyes, "put in with a smutty finger," as someone has well described them.
Fifty years ago you would have seen them dressed in short red skirts, buckled shoes, crossed bodices, and tall steeple-crowned hats worn over caps; but these, unfortunately, have vanished.
The men—farmers or cattle-drovers for the most part—differ in face more than they do in name. To English ears everyone seems to be called either David Mor-r-gan (with a beautiful roll to the "r") or Owen Jones. But to the careful eye the difference between the two original races is clear. The one is still short, smaller in build, and very dark-haired; the other is tall, ruddy, with long loose limbs and fiery red hair.
Borrow, whose amusing description of his walks in "Wild Wales" you will like some day to read, thus describes a fair at Llangollen some fifty years ago, and from what one knows of these country-towns, one would not expect to find things very different to-day.
"The fair," he says, "was held in and near a little square in the south-east quarter of the town. It was a little bustling fair, attended by plenty of people from the country. A dense row of carts extended from the police-station half across the space. These carts were filled with pigs, and had stout cord nettings drawn over them, to prevent the animals escaping.
"By the sides of these carts the principal business of the fair appeared to be going on—there stood the owners, male and female, higgling with Llangollen men and women who came to buy. The pigs were all small, and the price given seemed to vary from eighteen to twenty-five shillings. Those who bought pigs generally carried them away in their arms, and then there was no little diversion. Dire was the screaming of the porkers, yet the purchaser always knew how to manage his bargain, keeping the left arm round the body of the swine, and with the right hand fast gripping the ear. Some few were led away by strings.
"There were some Welsh cattle, small, of course, and the purchasers of these seemed to be Englishmen—tall, burly fellows in general, far exceeding the Welsh in height and size....
"Now and then a big fellow made an offer, and held out his hand for a little Celtic grazier to give it a slap—a cattle bargain being concluded by a slap of the hand—but the Welshman generally turned away with a half-resentful exclamation.
"There were a few horses and ponies in a street leading into the fair — I saw none sold, however. . . .
"Now, if I add there was much gabbling of Welsh round about, and here and there some slight sawing of English—that in the street leading from the north there were some stalls of gingerbread, and a table at which a queer-looking being, with a red Greek cap on his head, sold rhubarb, herbs, and phials containing I know not what—I think I have said all that is necessary about Llangollen Fair."
VALLE CRUCIS ABBEY
Perhaps, however, we should visit Corwen or any other Welsh market-town on a Sunday to see the most striking characteristics of the people.
The streets are nearly deserted, and a strange stillness broods over the place. At the open door of some of the cottages an aged woman sits with a Welsh Bible on her knees, and keeps an eye upon the toddling baby at her feet. Everyone else has vanished, and not until a burst of melody sounds from the plainly-built chapels which occur so frequently on the highways and within the township, is their whereabouts revealed. Such singing it is, too! It has been said that the Welsh people sing naturally in parts, and certainly it seems as though nothing but years of training would produce such a result with English choirs, not to speak of a whole congregation, as is the case in Wales. In perfect time and tune the beautiful old Welsh melodies ring forth, and we begin to realize what a large part this hymn-singing and fiery enthusiastic preaching plays in the daily life of this emotional and deeply religious people.