Medieval manuscript of The Journey Through Wales in the British Library
In the spring of 1188 Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, set out to travel through Wales recruiting men for the Third Crusade. He was accompanied by Gerald, Archdeacon of Brecon, whose highly readable account of their journey, Itinerarium Kambriae (The Journey Through Wales, translated by Lewis Thorpe), contains many interesting references to nature and topography. I have always liked the abecedary form (as in, for example, Kevin Jackson's collection of alphabetical essays Letters of Introduction) and have used it here to list some of the places, sites and unusual natural phenomena Gerald wrote about. What follows therefore is an A-Z of the Welsh landscape towards the end of the twelfth century.
A is for Arthur's Chair. A few days after setting out from Hereford, Gerald and Baldwin had reached Brecknockshire. He describes there a 'lofty spot most difficult of access, so that in the minds of simple folk it is thought to have belonged to Arthur, the greatest and most distinguished King of the Britons'. Cadair Arthur was the name given to this place, formed by two peaks (Pen y Fan and Corn Du), and at the summit there was a well-shaped pool, fed by a spring, in which trout were sometimes seen. Gerald mentions King Arthur at several points, drawing on what Geoffrey of Monmouth had written in his History of the Kings of Britain. More intriguing are descriptions he gave in two later books of the discovery of Arthur's tomb, in the grounds of Glastonbury Abbey (Glastonbury, he writes, was once called Ynys Gutrin, 'the Island of Glass, no doubt from the glassy colour of the river which flows around it in the marshland.')
B is for the island of Barry. 'In a rock by the sea where one first lands on the island there is a small crack. If you press your ear to it, you can hear a noise like blacksmiths at work.' As will be seen below, Gerald usually has stories to associate with unusual landscape phenomena, but this one is simply recorded for what it is. 'One would well imagine that a sound of this sort would come from the sea-waters rushing into hidden orifices beneath the island, but it is no less loud when the waves draw back, and it can be heard just as well when the shore is dry as when the tide is up.'
C is for Caerleon. The ancient City of the Legions, Caerleon 'is beautifully situated on the bank of the River Usk. When the tide comes in, ships sail right up to the city. It is surrounded by woods and meadows. It was here that the Roman legates came to seek audience at the great Arthur's court.' Gerald describes a lot more of the Roman city than can be seen today, including its impressive walls. He found evidence of immense palaces, 'a lofty tower, and beside it remarkable hot baths, the remains of temples and an amphitheatre.'
D is for St. David. According to Gerald, this devout man (said to have been the uncle of king Arthur), 'preferring the eremetical existence to the pastoral one', moved the archbishopric from Caerleon, the City of the Legions, to 'a remote corner of the country, looking out towards the Irish Sea. The soil is rocky and barren. It has no woods, no rivers and no pasture-lands. It is exposed to the winds and to extremely inclement weather.' It was this alleged archbishopric, independent of Canterbury, that Gerald himself strove unsuccessfully throughout his life to re-establish. There was a story that Gerald includes in which St. David himself changed the landscape: one day 'in full view of an astonished congregation, the ground on which he was standing rose up in the air.'
E is for Eyri. 'I must not fail to tell you about the mountains which are called Eyri by the Welsh and by the English Snowdon, that is the Snow Mountains.' Eyri means haunt of the eagles, and Gerald writes of one remarkable eagle that perches on a particular stone every fifth feast day, 'hoping to satiate its hunger with the bodies of dead men, for on that day it thinks that war will break out. The stone on which it takes its stand has a hole pierced nearly through it, for it is there that the eagle cleans and sharpens its beak.'
F is for a floating island. This can be found in the mountains of Snowdonia where the strong winds continuously blow it from one bank of a lake to another. 'Shepherds are amazed to see the flocks which are feeding there carried off to distant parts of the lake. It is possible that a section of the bank was broken off in times long past and that, bound together in a natural way by the roots of the willows and other shrubs which grow there, it has since become larger by alluvial deposits.'
G is for the Golden Rock. This is 'a rocky eminence that dominates the River Severn' which has a gold sheen when struck by the sun. Gerald thinks that 'if someone who was skilled in such work would only dig down into the mineral deposits and penetrate the very entrails of the earth, he might extract sweet honey from the stone and oil from the rock.'
H is for hawk. At Haverfordwest, the falcons are 'remarkable for their good breeding, and they lord it over the river birds and those in the open fields.' Gerald concludes one chapter of the book with the story of how one of these noble birds killed Henry II's carefully bred Norwegian hawk. 'As a result from this year onwards Henry II always sent to this region at nesting-time for some of the falcons which breed on the sea-cliffs. Nowhere in the whole kingdom could he find more noble or more agile birds. That is enough about falcons. Now I must return to my journey.'
I is for the mountains of Ireland. These can be seen on a clear day from St David's and Gerald writes that when William Rufus came to this spot and looked across the sea from the headland he said "I will collect a fleet together from my own kingdom and with it make a bridge, so that I can conquer that country." Gerald himself had been in Ireland for a year, travelling there as chaplain and adviser to Prince John in 1185. The Journey Through Wales was Gerald's third book, written after two books on Ireland.
J is for Jerusalem. Gerald had himself taken the cross and his whole party expected to leave for the Holy Land when their mission in Wales was complete. In 1189 he and Archbishop Baldwin sailed for France but Gerald was sent back to England by the new king Richard, following the death of Henry II. Baldwin went on and died at the siege of Acre in 1190. Two years earlier, as he and Gerald approached Bangor along a valley with many steep climbs, they had dismounted in order to practise walking in the exhausting conditions they expected to find on the road to Jerusalem. 'We walked the whole length of the valley and we were very tired by the time we reached the farther end. The Archbishop sat himself down on an oak-tree, which had been completely uprooted and overturned by the force of the winds, for he needed to rest and recover his breath.' He asked for a tune to soothe his tired ears and a bird in a near-by coppice started to sing.
K is for the knight and the King. Gerald tells of 'a knight from Brittany' who was sent by Henry II to see how the land round Dinevor Castle was fortified. He was conducted by a Welsh priest who took him along the most difficult and inaccessible paths. 'Whenever they passed through lush woodlands, to the great astonishment of all present, [the priest] plucked a handful of grass and ate it, thus giving the impression that in time of need the local inhabitants lived on roots and grasses.' The knight reported to the King that the land was uninhabitable and the King made the local Welsh leader swear an oath of fealty but left him to his own affairs.
L is for Llanthony. Gerald praises the location of this monastery in the vale of Ewias, so suitable for a life of contemplation. 'As they sit in their cloisters in this monastery, breathing the fresh air, the monks gaze up at distant prospects which rise above their own lofty roof-tops, and there they see, as far as any eye can reach, mountain-peaks which rise to meet the sky and often enough herds of wild deer which are grazing on their summits.'
M is for Manorbier. Gerald devotes a whole passage to the beautiful landscape surrounding the fortified mansion of Manorbier, visible from a distance on a hill near the sea. 'You will not be surprised to hear me lavish such praise upon it, when I tell you that this is where my family came from, this is where I myself was born. I can only ask you to forgive me.' He mentions a fish pond, an orchard, and a ready supply of wheat and wine. 'A stream of water which never fails, winds its way along a valley, which is strewn with sand by the strong sea-winds.' There is a rocky headland: 'boats on their way to Ireland from almost any part of Britain scud by before the east wind, and from this vantage-point you can see them brave the ever-changing violence of the winds and the blind fury of the waters.'
N is for Newgale Sands Here in the winter of 1171-2 a great wind blew 'with such unprecedented violence that the shores of South Wales were completely denuded of sand, and the subsoil, which had been buried deep for so many centuries, was once more revealed. Tree-trunks became visible, standing in the sea, with their tops lopped off, and with the cuts made by the axes as clear as if they had been felled yesterday. The soil was pitch-black and the wood of the tree-trunks shone like ebony.' This wind was so fierce that it blew fish into the bushes and high rocks, and people came down to collect them.
O is for one-eyed fish. A lake among the mountains of Snowdonia 'abounds in three different kinds of fish, eels, trout and perch, and all of them have only one eye, the right one being there but not the left. If the careful reader asks me the cause of such a remarkable phenomenon, I can only answer that I do not know.'
P is for the two pools that burst their banks. This happened in the Elfael district on the night that Henry I died (1st December 1135). One was artificial and its water simply rushed down the valley leaving it empty. 'But, remarkably enough, the natural lake reformed itself, with all its fish and whatever else lived in it, in a certain valley not more than two miles away.'
Q is for quicksand. Gerald and Baldwin took the coast road from Margam Abbey, fording the river Avon, where they were delayed by the ebbing water, and approached the river Neath. There they encountered quicksand where Gerald's own pack-horse 'was almost sucked down into the abyss.' They got him out, but 'not without some damage done to my books and baggage.' Hurrying made things worse - 'it is better to advance more slowly and with great circumspection over such dangerous terrain as this.' Eventually they made it to the Neath which they crossed in a boat since it was too dangerous to ford, 'for the passages through the river change with every monthly tide and they cannot be located after a heavy fall of rain.'
R is for Rhyd Pencarn. Near Newport, Gerald describes a stream that is 'passable only be certain fords, more because of the way in which it has hollowed out its bed and of the muddiness of the marshland which surrounds it than through the depth of its waters.' Rhyd Pencarn, the 'ford beneath the hanging rock', was the subject of a prophecy by Merlin Sylvester (Gerald believed there had been two Merlins in Wales - this one was Scottish). Merlin had said that the Welsh would not be beaten by a strong man riding over it with a freckled face, a description that matched the appearance of Henry II. When Henry did cross the ford in 1163, the Welshmen who watched his approach knew that they would be defeated.
S is for the magic stone of Anglesey. This stone in the shape of a human thigh-bone will always return no matter how far it is taken away. Henry I tested it by throwing it into the sea, attached by chains to a much larger stone - the next morning it was back in its usual place. 'It is also said that if a couple come to have intercourse on this spot, or near by, which they do frequently, great drops of sweat drip from the stone.' As will be clear by now, Gerald's Wales is scattered with strange rocks and stones. Also on the island of Anglesey you can find Listener's Rock, and 'if you stand on one side and shout, no one on the other side can hear you.'
T is for the river Teifi. In describing this 'noble river', Gerald writes a lengthy digression on the habits of beavers, for this is the only place in Wales where they can be found. These clever creatures plan their lodges so that they just protrude from the water, building several stories linked with connecting doorways. 'As the years pass and the willow-wands keep on growing, the lodge is constantly in leaf and becomes, in fact, a grove of willow trees, looking like a natural bush from the outside, however artificially constructed it may be within.'
U is for the river Usk. Gerald says that salmon abound there in summer (whereas the Wye has them in winter). The finest salmon in Wales can be found in the river Teifi and there is a spot there called Cenarth Mawr where a waterfall roars unceasingly and the fish leap the height of a tall spear into the concave rock above. When Gerald and his companions reached Usk castle and preached the Crusade a large number of men took the cross, including robbers, highwaymen and murderers. The road then took them to Newport via Caerleon and they had to cross the river Usk three times.
V is for the Valley of Roses. This was the site chosen for the cathedral of St David's. Gerald observes that 'a better name for it would be the Valley of Marble, for it is in no sense rosy or remarkable for roses, whereas there are plenty of rocks all over the place.' One of these rocks was used as a bridge over the River Alun and called Llech Lafar, the Talking Stone. One of the prophecies of Merlin held that a king of England who had just conquered Ireland would die as he walked over this bridge. As he had at Rhyd Pencarn, Henry II defied this superstition by boldly walking forward. Calling Merlin a liar, he entered the cathedral to pray and hear Mass.
W is for the waterfowl of Brecknock Mere. There was an old saying that the rightful ruler of the land could order these birds to sing. One winter Gruffydd ap Rhys ap Tewdwr (a great uncle of Gerald) did just this. The water of this lake 'sometimes turns bright green, and in our days it has been known to become scarlet, not all over, but as if blood were flowing along certain currents and eddies. What is more, those who live there sometimes observe it to be completely covered with buildings or rich pasture-lands, or adorned with gardens and orchards. In the winter months, when it is covered with ice, and when the surface is frozen over with a smooth and slippery coat, it emits a horrible groaning sound, like the lowing of a vast herd of cattle all driven together in one place. It is possible, of course, that this is caused by the cracking of the ice and the sudden violent eruptions of enclosed pockets of air through vents imperceptible to the eye.'
X is for Exmes. Gerald's digressions occasionally take him outside Wales itself - Exmes is actually a castle in Normandy. Near it there is a certain pool whose fish fought each other so violently on the night Henry II died, 'some in the water and some even leaping in the air, that the noise which they made attracted to the spot a vast crowd of local people.' This story parallels that of the two pools in Wales (see 'P' above), associated with the death of Henry I.
Y is for Ynys Lannog. This place, Priest's Island in English, lies off the coast of Anglesey. Gerald says that if the hermits who live there quarrel, a species of mice who live there will come and consume most of their food and drink 'and befoul the rest.' When the argument is over the mice disappear. 'No women are ever allowed on the island.'
Z is for Zeuxis. The Journey Through Wales ended where it began, in Hereford. After completing his account, Gerald wrote a second, shorter book, The Description of Wales. In its Preface he says that some readers of his earlier topographical writings took exception to the choice of subject matter. 'They see me as a painter who, rich in precious colours, the master of his art, a second Zeuxis, strives with great skill and industry to portray a humble cottage or some other subject by its very nature base and ignoble, when they were expecting me to paint a temple or fine palace.' But Gerald, on the contrary, was proud of having adorned the rugged country of Wales with 'all the flowers of my rhetoric'.