Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Siluria


More changes have come over South Wales—even in the memory of an ordinary man—than perhaps over any other part of the United Kingdom. Some districts, as for instance much of the mineral country of Glamorganshire, resemble the vigorous bursts of Australian life, rather than the gradual efflorescence so common in British civilisation. In the extreme west corner, increased railroad communication has induced corresponding activity in the harbours and dockyards. Larger supplies of wealth generally tempt men to the seaside; therefore the Mumbles, Gower, and Tenby are yearly more crowded. Before the influx of English, old Welsh customs are fast dying out. Crinoline, we are glad to see, is superseding the hideous beaver hat in which not even the handsomest woman could ever look fascinating. The yeoman no longer—except in the most remote and mountainous districts,—rides to market with his wife behind him on a pillion. If you inquire the way in your most polite English (to make up for ignorance of Welsh), the haughty Cymro will no longer reply, contemptuously, as happened to a friend of ours, “Sassenach diaoul” (English devil). It is gratifying to state, that before schoolmasters and telegraphs, even the national sin of drunkenness is lessening, remnant though it be of the heroic days when Taliesin and his compeers quaffed bowls of metheglin. So thoroughly are the Welsh identifying themselves with the English, that, ere long their language seems likely to be lost; and some fair daughter of the great family of Jones will probably become as celebrated in the principality as Dolly Pentreath is in the West of England—the last old woman who could speak Cornish.

South Wales, as known to the ancients, was inhabited by three powerful tribes. Under their King Caractacus, the chief of these, the Silures (dwelling in Monmouth, Hereford, Brecknock and Glamorgan), were especially troublesome to the Romans. The name of Siluria is better known to us, however, through the geological researches of Sir R. Murchison, though, with him, it is extended to embrace North Wales as well. The northern counties excel Siluria proper in grandeur of scenery; but any one who is a stranger to South Wales would be surprised at its very respectable mountains. The Breconshire Beacons hold their heads very high; and if the rest of the southern mountains cannot compete with those of the north, they have in some sort an interest of their own, so closely connected are they with the life of the immense collier population toiling at their bases, and even, like the giants of old, whelmed under their weight.

When every one, then, is seeking a new country for a summer holiday, let us recommend South Wales. The climate is Devonian, with a tinge of Scotland. The Flora also is intermediate between these two regions. For the antiquary, again, Siluria has many interesting memories. King Arthur and his Round Table, held “at old Caerleon upon Usk”—that town itself, with Menevia (St. David’s), the seats of British Bishops before Augustine—the marches of Wales—its old castles, such as Oystermouth and Caerphilly, the latter, with the exception of Windsor, probably the largest of any of which we have remains—its churches, with their plain, short, strong towers, which the villagers could hold out against an enemy: these are some of the curiosities of the country well worthy of examination.

Tourists and guide-books are not as yet common in Siluria, so you have the additional pleasure of treading upon comparatively unknown ground. As for national customs, the old custom of a lad wrapped in a sheet, carrying round on a pole a horse’s head tricked out with ribbons, which is called “Mary Lloyd” (i. e., Grey Mary), is indeed only to be witnessed on Christmas evenings; but, in summer, there are “eisteddfods” in plenty for those who care to revive the ghosts of the bards. Fishing, too, can be had; and no one need be at a loss to fill a sketch-book in this aboriginal country.

Geologically considered, the country of the Silures is like a poached egg. In the centre (corresponding to Glamorgan) is a tract of “black country,” the coal-measures, which we may fancy the yolk; round this runs the red conglomerate cornstone and marl of Brecon, Monmouth, and Herefordshire, for the white of the egg. It is in the yolk that the chief commercial interests centre. This is the realm of numberless steam-engines, pits, ruined workings, canals and railroads. Aberdare, with a population of 32,000, having quadrupled its numbers in an ordinary life-time, may be taken as the typical town of this “black country,” with its terraces of white-washed cottages, each exactly like its neighbour, hastily run up round three or four immense cinder-heaps surmounted by a couple of tall chimneys enveloped in smoke-wreaths.

There is a core of shops and better houses in Aberdare, but the town proper is made up of one of these collieries in its volcanic-looking district, succeeded by another, and then another, more straggling than either of the others, fading away into the barren common, with just one or two deserted ventures near it to point the exact demarcation.

Take Merthyr Tydfil again, and if you substitute iron works for collieries, terraces of cottages, rising in tiers round a central pandemonium of smoke, flame and ashes, die away similarly amongst the adjoining hills. Owing to the fact of steam having only recently opened up these mineral districts to commercial enterprise, the houses, the society, the sectarianism, the willingness to be deluded by any popular phantasy, Mormonism, electro-biology, &c., are all to be referred to the latest type of modern civilisation, and correspond in great measure to the social life of the colonial gold districts. Industry, enterprise, and money-making, may be beheld on a gigantic scale in these regions of Siluria. Its natural features often perish in a few years when they once come within the coils of railroads and canals. “Tips,” or deserted works, raise enormous accumulations of cinders—artificial tertiary deposits—which, in two or three years, lose their hardness of outline, and are gradually clothed with verdure. Flat commons are turned into “tips,” till they resemble the depressions of a chalk country were it not for the traitorous black dust. In a few months tunnels and cuttings, for a new mineral line will destroy the character of hills which have been familiar to untold centuries.

Round these mountains of the old red formation, which commence as the coal measures fall off, are to be found some of the finest atmospheric and landscape effects in the kingdom. Hills with bold outlines—swelling up to take the sun’s light or catch the fleecy vapours, and descending into wooded valleys, thickly interspersed—are characteristic of the formation. Over all the outskirts of the “black country” a lover of Nature will observe manifold changes of the skies—sunsets brilliant as those which Turner loved to paint—clouds of many tinged splendours, grandly massed like armies assaulting the mountain tops round which they hang. Far in the distant valley you may see the river which carries off the hill streams, flashing over its rocky bed, but no murmur reaches this high ground. The slender wild flowers and weather-beaten lichens speak only of summer peace and rest. The bee seeking the mountain thyme is the last straggler from the busy, industrial world behind you. Very beautiful is Siluria in the sunshine; nor is it altogether devoid of interest at night. The screech-owl lends the requisite solemnity to the scene—then the distant river becomes audible on the fitful evening breeze—

The mountains, more by blackness visible,
And their own size, than any outward light,

leave an indelible photograph on the memory. No one who rests awhile on one of the higher mountains will then regret his holiday spent in Siluria, as he overlooks

From high, the sullen water far beneath
On which a dull red image of the moon
Lies bedded, changing oftentimes its form,
Like an uneasy snake.

But even in the mineral district Siluria is not without a beauty of her own. I do not know whether the contrast as you walk from a busy colliery up the hill-side above it, and a new plant, or the gleam of a bright flower strikes you, is not on the whole more enjoyable than the richer landscapes further up the country. Mr. Ruskin notes very subtly that the imagination can be cloyed with too much beauty, which is often the case in a very bold country. But not a hundred yards from that vast mound of coal-dust and ashes you may stumble over a bog, where the water tinged with yellow tells of the iron treasures below, by means of huge boulders tipped with lichen; and then, striking up the barren, dun-coloured hill, streaked here and there with shades of darker verdure, a rough stone wall stops the way. Even here a healthy mind may find enjoyment. It is not every day that the “ceterach,” with its shining scales, can be found in such profusion as it here runs riot. Haply a “gled” (as kites are called in Wales) may sail over you; he, too, is not seen every day in other counties. And if your visit be paid to the mountains in spring or early summer, you are certain to see more charming groups of mountain lambs crowning the rocks, and agilely leaping the fences at every turn, than Landseer or Ansdell ever transferred to canvas.

Those who are fond of English history will find traces in Siluria of many well-known personages. Take Glamorganshire alone. After the Conquest it belonged to the Clares and Spensers; then it passed to the Beauchamps and Nevilles and so to Richard III., who lost it, along with the rest of his kingdom, to Henry VII., at Bosworth; and that king gave it to his uncle Gaspar, Duke of Bedford. From its many castles, each thickly crusted with its own store of memories, we may choose Cardiff as a sample. In its dungeons languished the gallant Robert of Normandy for twenty-eight years, bereft of sight, and imprisoned by Henry I., and at Gloucester, where Robert’s shrine is to be seen in the Cathedral, he seems to pass almost visibly into the turbulent scenes of Anglo-Norman royalty.

Camden tells us, from Giraldus, a wonderful story of “two pleasant but small islands, called Sully and Barry” (from St. Baruch, who lies buried there), “scarce three miles from the mouth of the Taff.” There is said to have been a chink in a rock in one of these, “to which, if you put your ear, you shall perceive such a noise as if smiths were at work there.” Anyhow, its glories have now disappeared, having “migrated” according to some, to Wormshead. If we try this story in the scientific crucible, “the workshop of Vulcan” probably points to the phenomena of blow-holes, caverns, &c., where the incoming tide resounds against the walls, and the roar is conveyed by a natural funnel to the ear. The geologist can point to several of these wonders on the Cornish coast; and the whole story is an admirable illustration of Malebranche’s theory, that man is never deceived by his senses, but by the interpretation he puts on the information they give him of the outer world. It would be no unworthy object for a visitor tired of the Wye and Fluellen’s “salmons,” to investigate such phenomena. They who thus occupy themselves vastly increase the pleasures of a summer holiday.

It is astonishing how few people know anything of Siluria. North Wales, with its grander mountains and engineering marvels, is visited by everybody; and yet we will affirm that very many objects of interest may be found in that vast extent of country which spreads from the marches of Monmouth to Fishguard Bay.

Siluria is fruitful in hospitality, prodigal in natural beauty, and peopled with the strangest superstitions. As you listen to the old crones telling of corpse-candles, portents of death, and haunted houses lighted up by bluish flickers more thrilling than even the superstitions of Jersey, you feel yourself at once transported to the dark ages. Though to the sportsman Siluria will be most pleasing in winter, when the snipe rises from every wet meadow, and a woodcock may be flushed in every other coppice, we venture to recommend it in its summer dress to everyone tired of home and business. Then the wheat-ear flits over the commons, and the mountains look greener and brighter than at other times, for the light strikes up from the cultivated vales below, and is caught on their rugged sides. After spending a few days in Siluria, we prophesy that your notions on the country will be revolutionised.

So we cannot conclude better than in words Shakspeare puts in Gower’s mouth to a person similarly astonished at the reputation of South Wales:—“You find it otherwise; and henceforth let a Welsh correction teach you a good English condition. Fare ye well.”