Anglesey Weekend, 13–15 May 2016

As always this is a quick write-up, a proper article on our Anglesey weekend will appear in The George Borrow Bulletin in due course.  For our original pre-weekend page see the Anglesey 2016 page.

“Are you a Neolithic archaeologist?” asked the lady on the bus to Beaumaris.  I was on my way to the George Borrow Society Anglesey weekend and Borrovian encounters are to be expected.  As the bus descended into Beaumaris we were talking Borrow, Druids and Tacitus whilst old planes flew low over the Menai Straits.

It transpired that the Neolithic Archaeologists were having a weekend at Beaumaris too, and on Friday evening both groups were in the Bulkeley Arms restaurant for tea.  Of course before that it was meeting up with old friends, recounting our tales of travel and talking about George Borrow.  It was especially nice to meet Kathy Hunter Rutter from America, one of the founder members of the Society from back in 1991.

George Borrow visited Anglesey in September 1854 and wrote of it in Wild Wales.  Just as in Borrow’s visit we had hot weather, bright sunshine and a fresh breeze.  The trees were in blossom and Beaumaris, with the Menai straits and hills of Snowdonia beyond was stunning.  As Borrow said: “What a bay!” said I, “for beauty it is superior to the far-famed one of Naples.”  One of our party had seen Naples and confirmed Borrow was right.

Overnight those staying at the Bulkeley Arms were awakened with a fire alarm: shades of Presteigne we thought.


On the Saturday morning the Borrovians and friends from the Anglesey Antiquarian Society gathered for our morning programme in the Bulkeley Arms, there being about 30 people present.  Ann gave an introduction, noting that not only was the George Borrow Society 25 years old, but that out of the original 59 members, 15 were still members and 5 were here.

Anglesey in the 1850’s

Prof. Robin Grove-White welcomed us on behalf of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society, with Margaret Bradbury and Robert Williams.  Robin is an Emeritus professor of Lancaster University and former Sherriff of Gwynedd.  During his talk on Anglesey in the 1850’s, illustrated by an attractive colour map of the island, Robin explained that in 1854, the year of Borrow’s visit, 95% of Anglesey’s population were Welsh speaking, and 80% of those monoglot.  At local level the language and culture was overwhelmingly Welsh, but at the same time it was becoming an integral element in British Industrialisation, with the Parys mine, Holyhead’s new Harbour, the coming of the Chester to Holyhead railway etc.

In Borrow’s time it was the British Government that had funded what is now the A5, the Menai Bridge, and the Harbour works at Holyhead.  Even today Anglesey has a tendency to look to far-away groups, such as the Westminster Government, to implement big projects in the Island as the only way to bring development, jobs etc.

In the 1780’s Amlwch Parys mountain copper mine—bought about by local investors, employed thousands.  Production levels peaked in Napoleonic wars and by 1849 Almwch had a population of over 6,000 with many living in shanty town conditions.  This growing urban workforce ended up working on huge, external projects, imposed on Anglesey.  First was Telford’s London to Holyhead road (completed 1826) and created to speed the newly created Irish MP’s to speed to Westminster.  The railway boom followed with Britannia Bridge, 1846–50, again London to Dublin being the backdrop.  There was the expansion of Holyhead port and breakwater 1845–53 (but completed later).  Such was the rise brought by these projects, coupled with industrialisation that by 1851 Holyhead had its own guide books, e.g. Thomas Jackson.  All of these projects reflect English priorities, and made “use” of the island instead of being for the island.

Prior to Borrow’s visit the population had increased by 60% over the last 50 years.

The average land holding for farms in Anglesey was 40 acres, in Hampshire it was 200 acres.  I.e. Anglesey had lots and lots of small farms.  But of course in the hands of a few large land-holders.

By the end of the 1850’s Anglesey was becoming a producer of livestock with the railways providing access to urban markets.

The major thing Borrow didn’t talk about is the wave after wave of religious dissent.  When Hugh Pritchard told Borrow that “they [the Methodists] are rapidly decreasing” he was very wrong: Anglesey was a major stronghold of non-conformism with John Elias, Christmas Evans, John Roberts etc.  There were 122 non-conformist Sunday Schools in 1847 but only 10 Anglican ones.  Chapel building at community level was increasing with 140 chapels by 1841 accommodating 86% of worshippers of on the Island.  The Bible Society had sold [in Anglesey?] over 17,000 bibles in 1840’s and felt themselves the source of the subsequent Welsh religious revival.

The Anglican clergy was criticised for pluralism, lack of spiritual leadership etc. and of course was associated with the land-holding gentry.  The infamous Blue Books of 1848 had galvanised the Welsh language communities and started the development of a Welsh non-conformist politics.  Henry Richard and Samuel Dee were mentioned, but it wasn’t until 1868 that Richard Davies carried the Anglesey seat for the Welsh-speaking majority for the first time: an historic win.

Borrow’s romanticism, and focus on the poets of Anglesey, probably led him to overlook these things.

Since Borrow’s time Anglesey has maintained it’s Welsh grass roots and today half of the people have Welsh as their first language.


Over coffee Larry mentioned that the Bulkely hotel, where we were staying, was built by Joseph Hanson, the famous Hansom cab builder of Hinckley.  Over 200 houses were demolished to clear the land.

Goronwy Owen

Dr. Sara Elin Roberts, a world expert on Goronwy Owen, was unable to be deliver her paper, so Tim Petts her husband delivered it admirably.  Gorowny Owen is one of the foremost of eighteenth century Welsh poets, and George Borrow went to considerable trouble in Wild Wales to visit his birthplace.

Goronwy is not a fashionable name, for example there’s no Saint Goronwy, there’s no English equivalent, and the origin of the name is unknown, but it’s certainly ancient.

Goronwy was born on 1st January 1723 in the parish of Llanfair Mathafarn Eithaf, Anglesey, his father being Owen Gronw.  His mother was Siân Parri, wetnurse to the Morris family, and this link to the Morrises would be the key to Goronwy’s life.

Tim then took us through the life of Gorowny: his 4 years at Friar’s School, being a student at Jesus College, Oxford (although only attending for a week!), his time in Shrewsbury gaol for debt and then the various periods of employment and increasing reports of alcoholism.  You’ll need to see the article in the autumn Bulletin for the details, together with comments on whether Borrow’s romantic view of the innocent neglected genius quite accords with Gorowny’s life.

Borrow, however, was quite correct about Goronwy’s poetical genius: Tim provided a few examples and noted that Eisteddfod poets were told to write like him, advice which stands to this day.

But where did Borrow get his statement: “His poems which for a long time had circulated through Wales in manuscript were first printed in the year 1819”?  There was something in 1817 which had an introduction to his life, and Borrow might have read that as other poetry books generally didn’t give a biography.  It was typical of the works Borrow would have read about Goronwy that they never blamed him for the drink, and mainly omitted all reference to drink (indeed it’s the English Dictionary of National Biography that mentions the Shrewsbury gaol episode).

After a very interesting talk Ann mentioned that Borrow later corrected many of his Wild Wales statements on Gorowny (one chapter of Wild Wales), with five chapters devoted to Gorowny in Celtic Bards.

George Borrow, R.S. and Me

This talk by Will Rowlands, the illustrator of the 1985 Gomer Press edition of Wild Wales, was as charming and interesting as it was impossible to write up!  When asked to provide the illustrations for Wild Wales Will explained to the publisher that many would be required and eventually followed in Borrow’s footsteps when producing them.  The artist was looking at the man and Will gave many of his impressions of Borrow during his talk.  Will was also a personal friend of R. S. Thomas (for the last ten year’s of R. S.’s life), and his talk drifted back and forth between the two men, noting many of their similarities.  It’s impossible to convey the effect of this: as Will gave anecdote after anecdote of R. S. it was like listening to someone who had known Borrow.  A few of the comparisons were:

Both R. S. and Borrow were looking back to a past age, whilst acknowledging modernity.  Both didn’t like “fashionability”.  R. S. believed in standing up the bullying of a neighbouring culture.

On the religion side, R. S. had a public facade of religion, but was privately ambivalent about God, something which comes as a surprise in his poems, but was the man in real life (he was an Anglican priest).  The same public/private religion is the same in Borrow’s case.

Overall it brought out in a very charming way the characters of Borrow and Thomas, something Borrovians often miss in the quest for detail.  Will commented that in the preface to the Gomer Wild Wales Borrovians were criticised for just such a thing.

Translating a Dream

After lunch Clive Wilkins-Jones gave the tenth Angus Fraser Memorial Lecture looking at Borrow’s translation of The Sleeping Bard by Ellis Wynne.  During the talk Clive read a number of extracts from the original Welsh, followed by Borrow’s translation and those of others.  Unfortunately I could not record the Welsh and so, again, please refer to lecture when it appears in the George Borrow Bulletin.

In Borrow’s Lavengro the protagonist is a dreamer (“I have endeavoured to describe a dream”) and dreams feature a lot in the book, for example when Borrow was working for Richard Philips there’s the dream paragraph: “Am I not myself a dream—dreaming about translating a dream?”  Clive pointed out how very like Descartes this is, which then led to Descartes’ famous conclusion: “I think therefore I am.”

Ellis Wynne’s Sleeping Bard is framed as a dream, and it was probably the dream element that drew Borrow to Ellis Wynne.

Then taking us through certain passages from the Sleeping Bard Clive read the original Welsh and then selected translations, noting cases where Borrow’s translation is not only accurate but more dynamic.  But, as our hero has feet of clay, also looking at cases where Borrow misunderstood the Welsh and so the translation is less than ideal.  Towards the end Clive dealt with some of the more bawdy passages and how Borrow skirted round translating correctly, choosing either to omit or deliberately mis-translate.  One example left the audience puzzled, as Clive himself avoided translating the bawdy Welsh, pleading that as his wife was listening he had to exercise restraint.  We thank Freda for preserving our morality!


After Clive’s talk the rest of the afternoon was our own and Borrovians went to look at the castle, the quaint shops of Beaumaris High Street, and then everyone seemed to congregate in Castle Books where Mandi Abrahams managed to squeeze us in.

In the evening we had a very nice meal in the ballroom where Anglesey friends joined us.  During the toasts Tom Bean pointed out that though small, our Society has been a great success.

Then Tony spoke of three Polyglots (William Jones, 1746–94; Thomas Young 1773–1829; and John Bowring, 1792–1872).  Although all polyglots like Borrow, they had great achievements outside the field of languages and were major figures of their day.  But despite their achievements and languages, it’s only Borrow who inspires us today, as only Borrow could communicate through those languages and we forgive him his strange linguistics and love him for it.


On Sunday, at around 5 a.m. Beaumaris town, on Anglesey “Island of Energy”, had a major power cut, so no Internet, no T.V., and no toast for breakfast: quite Borrovian in a way.  Over breakfast we mused about Borrow: he presumably had gas in the Yarmouth period (c1851–1859), he’d have had gas when in Brompton (1860–75), but when he moved back to Oulton, it must have been oil lamps, coal and candles.

We departed on our coach for Pentraeth where Margaret Bradbury, a member of the Anglesey Antiquarian Society, was our guide, showing us the White Horse where Borrow stayed in Wild Wales, and in the graveyard the grave of Hugh Pritchard, the landlord that Borrow spoke to.  Aside: Margaret has written a book on Pentraeth, Memories of Pentraeth and its People 1900–1970.

Back on the coach we continued to the parish were Gorowny Owen was born, stopping just the other side of the road to the California Inn (where Borrow was addressed in Spanish), we walked down a narrow lane to Dafarn Goch, where members of the Owen family, descendants of Gorowny himself, gave us a very friendly welcome.  The house contained an excellent display of materials relating to Gorowny, including some of his works and some copies of Wild Wales.  There was a photograph of Ellen Jones who was the little girl that Borrow asked to write “Ellen Jones yn perthyn o bell i gronow owen”.  The current Owens are her descendants and it really was a great joy to see them.

After walking back to the coach we continued just up the road to the Chapel where Ellen Owen is buried.  The walking here was necessary as even today many Anglesey roads would be impossible for a coach.  The coach then took us to the beautiful beach at Benllech for a comfort break and then onto Llangefni, passing the Bull Inn where Borrow probably had his pint of sherry, whilst we had a buffet lunch at Oriel Ynys Môn.

For the afternoon Glyn Jones and Marrian were our guides and we travelled the B5109: the road Borrow took from Llangefni to Holyhead.

We stopped at Tŷ gwyn (also known as Ty Mon), formerly a great coaching inn, but when Thomas Telford opened the new main road to Holyhead it was bypassed, compensated by the Government, and closed, becoming a farm house.  It’s now a ruin.  It’s where Borrow spoke to two men in the yard.  One of the men was “Mr. Sparrow’s bailiff” and said it was owned by the Sparrow family from Liverpool.  Glyn explained that the Sparrow family were from Beaumaris and married the Bwttehen family (one of whom became first Sherriff on Anglesey).  The Bwttehen family owned most of the land around Tŷ gwyn.

Then crossing the Stanley Viaduct we saw where the old Railway Hotel was, although we’d been discussing this on and off over the weekend: I feel an article might be required.  The coach driver took us by the side of Holyhead harbour so we could see where Borrow went, although we could not visit it as it’s now sealed off.  Then it was a quick tour around Holyhead and out to South Stack Lighthouse.  “It’s very popular” explained Glyn as the coach made its way up the narrow road to an overflowing car park overlooking the stunning cliffs on the west side of Holyhead mountain.  Some Borrovians went to investigate Ellin’s Tower whilst others with no liking of heights, made for the R.S.P.B. cafe where coffee and cake were provided.  A Borrovian feat was then performed by the coach driver who managed to turn the coach in an impossible area, and back to Beaumaris.

Ann Rostron and Prue Smith had organised the weekend: many thanks from all of us for their hard work: they put on a wonderful event.