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THE VALLEY OF THE WYE
TO-DAY let us take a journey up the course of the Upper Wye, loveliest of Welsh rivers, from the point where it crosses the border between England and Wales.
The course of the Upper Wye begins just below the ruins of Clifford Castle, one of the many built upon the "Marches," or borderland, nominally to keep the Welshmen within bounds, actually to shelter the robber-barons who gained their livelihood by harassing the country on either side. The grey stones of Clifford, covered now with a wealth of ivy, speak to us of that "fair Rosamond" with whom King Henry II. fell so deep in love that he took the maiden from her father's house and made her a bower at Godstow. There, as we all know, she was forced by Eleanor, his jealous wife, to drink a cup of poison, and never again saw the sunny banks of the Wye.
As the river sweeps along its curving course, the slopes of the Black Mountains rise in a broken mass of hill and dale and heathery upland. A touch of wildness distinguishes the country from the tamer fields of Herefordshire behind us, and rough hills, whitewashed farms, roofed with brown stone slabs and heavy beams, take the place of the comfortable and spacious manors of the English county.
This part of the Wye Valley, divided by the Black Mountains from that of the Usk, is, indeed, one of the most complete solitudes to be found in the country, rivalling that of Menevia itself. "What a wild little block of mountain it is, this eighty square miles of complete solitude!" says a traveller of the hill country between the two rivers. "How dark, and deep, and sombre the gorges! How silent the hills, where grouse lie fairly thick in the big tracts of heather! How striking the blush of the red sandstone against the greener slope, where the teeth or tread of hungry sheep and the downward rush of streams have scarred the mountainside!"
Presently a spur from these hills stretches out across our valley, and the river turns north-west and changes its character from a broad, easy flow to a rushing torrent, with here and there a deep salmon pool among the rocks of its course. This is a very famous part of the river from the fisherman's point of view, and few save tramps and fishermen are to be met with on the lonely valley road which we are now pursuing.
Here, at Aberedw, stands the castle which was the last refuge of the ill-fated Llewelyn, Prince of Wales, whose story we read in a former chapter. From this spot he set out to join his forces, was surprised by the English, and killed in a little wood, henceforth to be known as "the bank of the grave of Llewelyn."
The story adds that the men of Builth, close by, refused the Prince and his handful of followers a refuge on that occasion, and the curse of the "Traitors of Builth" is said to have clung for many a long day to the inhabitants.
Another lovely stretch of the river lies between Builth and Rhayader, and again the country on either side is one great solitude; for in old days this part of Wales offered no attraction to the great border lords save as a fighting-ground between the Men of the South and the Men of the North. It was the home, rather, of outlaws and bandits, who found good cover in its woods and highlands, and who doubtless cared as little as the English barons for the lovely river scenery amidst which they made their home.
Rhayader, whose name means "the Falls," is a typical Welsh market-town, asleep save on market and fair days, when it becomes one mass of shouting drovers, frightened cattle, buxom women with their great baskets, and gaitered farmers eagerly discussing the latest topic.
Above this town the Wye is no longer a stately river, but a straggling mountain stream, which makes its way through a wild and ever-rising country from its source in a spring on the side of Plynlimmon.
The little wedge of country, some ten miles square, which lies on its western bank and stretches away from Rhayader to the border of Cardigan, is full of weird tales and strange points of interest.
"At Llancavan a Lord of Builth, wearied with the chase, and overtaken by darkness, entered the church with his hounds and spent the night. In the morning his hounds were mad and he was blind. In his remorse for his act of sacrilege he had himself conveyed to Palestine, and there led on horseback and fully armed in the front of the fighting-line against the Saracens, who very promptly killed him." 1
Another legend says that once a miracle happened in Rhayader itself. A farmer had been seized by the owner of the castle on a charge of sheep-stealing, and was confined in the dungeon thereof. His poor wife, knowing that the gaolers were open to bribery, but having neither money nor goods, stole from the church the funeral bell, which it was the ancient custom to ring at the head of the procession to the grave. She took this to Rhayader, and offered it to the gaolers on condition that they should release her husband. But they took the sacred bell and then refused to let him go. That night, says the legend, the whole town was destroyed by fire, save only the wall of the castle on which the bell had been hung.
From Rhayader the Valley of the Elan, a tributary of the Wye, runs westward, and becomes a scene of great importance from one point of view. The valley is narrow, pent up among the hills, which fling down into it their numberless mountain streams. Here a great dam has been built, which pens up the water into two great lakes, and various smaller reservoirs, from which the city of Birmingham draws its water-supply. Fancy 60,000,000 gallons of water a day being carried to Birmingham, seventy miles away! These Welsh valleys certainly do their part towards keeping the great dirty manufacturing towns of England clean and sweet.
1 Bradley, "Highways and Byways of South Wales."