The Weekly Machen
This month, we will be traveling alongside Arthur Machen, as his assignments take him away from London to rural destinations in England and Wales. Throughout Machen’s memoirs, the reader is granted wonderful descriptions of South Wales, including visits to villages and holy sites, or one may stumble into a one of his wonderfully devised tales told in deep woods or among Roman ruins. Mostly these adventures, fictional or otherwise, take place in Monmouthshire, Pembrokeshire or an amalgamated fictional landscape of the two counties. The following article is unique in that we are able to accompany Machen to North Wales, an area which he knew considerably less well. A bit outdated perhaps, yet it is a brief travel diary more charming than your latest edition of Baedekers. Following the article is a set of notes.
A Week-End in North Wales
July 15, 1913
I stood between the Jovial Jesters and the Everlasting Hills. There, in a sentence, is my impression of my week-end in North Wales.
To amplify a little, Euston had delivered me to Rhyl1 in a little over five hours, and having chosen my inn because it looked the only old house in the place, and had a vine growing on its walls. I set out for the promenade, and found myself at once in the midst of all matters of gaieties.
The broad, far-stretching sands reach up to the edge of the promenade, and here children were making sand castles and caverns, decorating them with flags and paper garlands, illuminating them with Chinese lanterns—and asking for pennies. And here on the sands was the Pagoda of the Jovial Jesters2—deck chairs 4d., other rows 2d.
And, turning a little, I looked down the vista of a thronged and lighted street, and saw afar in the dim air the blue shape of a mountain, huge and vague against the twilight sky. Thus does the watering-place of North Wales offer you your choice between multitude and solitude.
At Rhyl it is chiefly Lancashire and Yorkshire that “wake.”3 I came across a Burnley lad who was just ending his week’s holiday.
“Ah loike this plaace,” he said to me “after a man’s been cooped oop all the year here in a mill it seems to me it does him good to see a bit o’ nature.”
And he explained that he had been very little in Rhyl during the week. He had made the town his headquarters; he had sailed to Blackpool and back for the sake of the sea air, he had seen St. Asaph,4 and Denbigh5 and Bettwe-y-Coed6 and the marble church at Bodelwyddan;7 he had penetrated into the heart of the hills; he had enjoyed himself very much indeed, and, as I think very sensibly. A careful lad, he had taken a sort of circular touring ticket, paying, as he explained, seven shillings for what would have cost him a pound or more in the ordinary way of travelling.
Early the next morning, I followed Burnley’s example, and took train for Colwyn Bay,8 and I saw the mountains clearly. The awe of the morning was upon the wild hills in the green-wooded slopes; and these stretched up the austere bare summits and sharp solitary crags. From the other side a wind like wine was blowing from the wine-dark sea; and the grey clouds were rolled up as a scroll in the east. Then sky and sea became a pure radiant blue; and, looking towards Llandudno,9 the high and rocky coastline shown blue also in that wonderful air.
Colwyn Bay differs altogether from Rhyl in its aspect and in its ways. Rhyl shows a compact and continuous front of houses, and is built on a level; Colwyn Bay is all scattered and leafy, and climbs a steep ascent to a thickly-wooded height. Rhyl in the main is for the day and the week; Colwyn takes you for a month and keeps you for six months.
I was just wondering whether I should have to wait long for my train when I saw an electric tram bound for Llandudno, and took it. And I wish to thank the Llandudno Electric Railway Company as merciful men; their trams have no upper deck, but they allow you to smoke inside.
Before I knew that I had left Colwyn Bay I was (I believe) passing through Rhôs-on-Sea;10 and the road was like this: A field of oats, a red villa, a rough meadow, a “residential hotel.” The steep hillside had become a level, and behind surged up the mountains piled in a wild and strange confusion of domes and peaks and tablelands; and the clouds hid the highest summits.
It was soon after this that the tram realised an ambition which I had noted all the way. It had aimed again and again at mountains, but had somehow missed and swung round them. Now it attained its desire; a huge crag rose before us, and we charged full at it, and went up it gaily; a way had been cut through the solid stone. This rocky mound is the Little Orme, and on the other side of it Llandudno sweeps in a curve to the tremendous Great Orme’s Head, standing on a tongue of land between two seas.
In the first place, let me entreat all Saxon people to cease from their habit of mispronouncing the name of this town.11 The Welsh u is the English i, and the place is to be called Llandidne. And, by the way, I was pleased to observe on the promenade a smiling Welshwoman giving a lesson in the sound of the “ll” to two lads from Manchester.
“You can say ‘elthl,’” said she; and “Ethel” answered the boys; a nice name enough, but not to the purpose. There are certain secrets concealed from the Saxons.
On every side one might hear the brave accents of the north, and when a little boy refused to carry his spade and bucket his mother rebuked him with, “Eh, tha läazy dog.” On the sands were many donkeys, many permanent perambulators, and one could see black and white figures slowly climbing the steep ascents of the Great Orme’s Head.
The last stage of my day’s travel was from Llandudno to Bettwe-y-Coed—which means the chapel in the wood. The train takes you past Conway Castle,12 set between the woods and the tides, the great wall of the mountains rising behind it. On by the stream into the mountain region, green and wooded hills dotted with white farmhouses, surging up into blue peaks, glowing purple heather and green bracken changing to grey rock.
And deep in a narrow valley lies that chapelry of the wood, beside a clear rushing river. Steep on either side the green heights tower, and here again the old stone breaks out and appears through the swaying leaves.
They have built a new church in these recent years, but the ancient chapel stands still, and being dedicated to St. Michael, one service in the year is celebrated in it, on St. Michael’s Day.13
A knight sleeps very well in stone there. I have forgotten his name, but he was “ap David Goch”—son of Red David—which strikes me as a good if simple pedigree.
Such were my week-end travels; and all Sunday was left for ease in my favourite pursuit of loafing, with a good train to bring me back comfortably to London on Monday.
1 Rhyl, the etymology of the name is contested, remains a popular seaside town in North Wales.
2 The Gilbert Rogers’ Jovial Jesters were a popular minstrel troupe in Rhyl until at least 1920.
3 In this context, “wake,” refers to an annual festival, originally to a patron saint. However, most such observances have since lost their religious importance.
4 Today, the village of St. Asaph boast a population of 3,300. Its namesake is a Welsh Saint of the 6th century and is commemorated on May 1st.
5 The Welsh form of Denbigh is Dinbych (Little Fortress) and is the former county seat of Denbighshire.
6 As Machen later suggests, Bettwe-y-Coed (or Betwis-y-Coed) means “chapel in the woods.” Less than 600 souls comprise this community.
7 The village of Bodelwyddan (Abode of Elwyddan) is the home of the Marble Church, dedicated to St. Margaret, and is built from a type of Limestone that gives the appearance of marble.
8 Like Rhyl, Colwyn Bay is a popular resort town on the Irish Sea with an uncertain etymology.
9 Another popular seaside town, Llandudno (Parish of St. Tudno) is later mentioned by Machen in his novel, The Terror (1917): “Porth depends very largely on its midland and northern custom, custom of a prosperous, well-established sort. People who think Llandudno overcrowded and Colwyn Bay too raw and red and new, come year after year to the placid old town in the southwest and delight in its peace…”
10 Adjoining present-day Colwyn Bay, Rhôs-on-Sea is named after an ancient Welsh kingdom.
11 Despite being raised in Wales, Machen knew very little of the language to his regret. In the first of his memoirs, Far Off Things (1922), he speaks of taking lessons in the language, but his grasp remained decidedly poor.
12 Built between 1283 and 1289, Conway (or Conwy) Castle is a remarkable fortress still standing on a spit of land jutting into the Irish Sea.
13 St. Michael’s Day (Michaelmas) is commemorated on September 29 in the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. For more, refer to the article “Angels.”
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