June 21, 2016Posted by on
Francis never tired of walking Offa’s Dyke, especially the climb to Dinas Brân where the surrounding views always rewarded his effort to get there and never failed to reinforce the emotional bond he held for the place. The views were spectacular with Moel Morfydd, Moel y Gamelin and Pen-y-Garth standing on the far ridge like sentinels guarding Dyffryn Dyfrdwy. He used the Welsh names for the distant hilltops, the Dee Valley and even castle Dinas Brân, pronouncing them in the lilting Welsh of the Marches that Hywel had taught him many years ago. His Welsh had become so good that he was taken for Welshman when he spoke it.
He had to stop and rest, hoping that he had enough stamina left for the final climb to Dinas Brân, so he sat down on a nearby grassy knoll. Damn old age, he thought, damn the cigarettes he had smoked in his youth, damn the doctors and their prognosis: wondering if this would be his last walk on Offa’s Dyke and his last visit to Castell Dinas Brân. Perhaps it was just as well, times were changing, he had begun meeting people along the pathway, resenting their intrusion into the solitude of his walks and grateful that Hywel had not lived to see what he would regard as another English invasion of Wales. He contemptuously called these violators of what he had come to regard as a private space ‘bourgeois fair-weather hikers’. Although they were still few in number, the walks he used to make with Hywel along the ridge and Offa’s Dyke to Dinas Brân made him resent the intrusion they now presented. There were even those who had started coming to the dyke in cars, parking them somewhere below the hill to Dinas Brân before making the ascent to the castle. He hoped that non of their kind would be at castle when he arrived.
As he was about to get up and continue his walk, that feeling of exhaustion overcame him. Despite his resentment, he was no longer angry with the onset of his frailty but rather relieved that Hywel was not a witnessed to it. Hywel had died walking alone on the ridge opposite, his body had been found on Moel y Gamelin and he was convinced he had gone there to sing to the valley he loved one last time. His feelings of exhaustion had started occurring more frequently, his only regret was that he no longer had the stamina to walk the ridge as he had done so many times in the past with Hywel. Recognising the need to rest a while longer he looked at his watch to see if he had time for a catnap, it was a bright sunny day and he saw no clouds in the sky to suggest rain or a fog and mist to shroud Dinas Brân before he got there. Lying back in the grass, he fell asleep thinking about his first meeting with Hywel ap Evans.
Hywel was sitting on what remained of a wall at Castell Dinas Brân and as he approached he had greeted him in Welsh hoping that the stranger was English so that he could avoid further contact. Instead, Hywel had mockingly replied in English, That’s an awful accent, even for an Englishman.
I’m sorry, he had replied, I don’t really expect to meet people when walking Offa’s Dyke. I also didn’t realise how much the Welsh speakers I speak to must patronise me.
If his last remarks intended sarcasm it had been apparently ignored by Hywel who, also in English, laughingly replied, Perhaps they do English, your accent is an offensive the ears of a Welshman, then changed back into Welsh to say, You do realise that it may not really be Offa’s Dyke, some claim it to be the Wall of Severus.
And those remarks signalled the beginning of a long friendship between him and Hywel. Apart from improving his Welsh accent and knowledge of the Welsh language to the point where they only conversed in Welsh, whether speaking or writing, Hywel taught him about the history and legends associated with Dinas Brân. Perhaps that’s why he loved the place so much and maybe because he was the only Englishman that Hywel had related to. Hywel, who despite his advancing years, could always outpace him on their ridge walks and along Offa’s Dyke. He also had the beautiful singing voice that is often found in Welsh tenors and despite his gentle lilting of the Welsh beginning to waver with age, his tenor singing voice seemed to become even stronger.
He remembered fondly the first time he had heard Hywel sing, it had happened as they were walking the ridge between Moel Morfydd and Pen-y-Garth. Hywel had been telling him about Joseph Parry and Myfanwy. He knew that Myfanwy was a popular piece of music, John Ford had used it in his film adaptation of Richard Llewellyn’s novel ‘How Green Was My Valley’. The war had prevented the film being made in Wales, instead it was shot on a film set in Hollywood, with only one Welsh actor in it and that in a minor role, facts he had uncovered later in life. Watched in his youth and towards the end of the war, the black and white film about the Morgan family and their hardships in the South Wales mining valley had a profound emotional effect on his future, something he hadn’t realised at the time. As an Englishman he had felt robbed of a shared heritage with the Morgan’s suffering. He had not recognised the deep social divisions within his own society until — like Huw in the film — he had left his own valley, having become a historian by profession and perhaps a tad too passionate about old films.
Hywel had held the opinion that Joseph Parry had based his musical composition Myfanwy on Hywel ap Einion’s poem about Myfanwy Fychan of Castell Dinas Brân. He recounted Parry’s love for a childhood sweetheart Myfanwy Llewellyn who had emigrated to the USA and changed her name to Lena van Ellen and thought that Jack Jones’ novel ‘Off to Philadelphia in the Morning’ about the relationship between Parry and Myfanwy was just that — a novel. Hywell told him that Parry had composed the music Myfanwy long before the novel was published, finishing his story about Parry and both Myfanwys as they approached Moel y Gamelin and the spot they always stopped at for lunch with its magnificent view across the valley to Castell Dinas Brân. It was after they had finished lunch and rested a while when, just as they were about to resume their ridge walk, that Hywel stood up and looking out over the valley began singing Myfanwy. He had become emotionally choked up, fighting back the tears as he always did when he heard Myfanwy being sung — especially in Welsh. From that time on whenever they walked the ridge they would always stop at Moel y Gamelin where Hywel would stand and sing Myfanwy to the valley below before they left.
It didn’t seem odd when Francis approached Castell Dinas Brân to think that splendour fell on the castle’s walls that rose before him like the impregnable bastion the castle was intended to be. Nor did he find it odd when he came to the gatehouse and was aggressively challenged by one of the guards saying, Who are you and what is your business here?
Francis found himself replying, I am Hywel ap Einion a poet and a bard come to entertain Myfanwy Fychan, the most beautiful of all women. This seemed the most natural thing to say as the person standing before the gatehouse was indeed Hywel ap Einion. He watched the guards muttered between themselves, clearly unsure what action to take. Eventually they called out another guard and told him that he was to escort a minstrel to the baliff who was to decide what to do with him. And so Francis met Myfanwy Fychan and shared in the love Hywel had for her. He listened to Hywel’s many songs and poems about her beauty, which she never tired of listening too. So much so that any highborn man coming to court her was rejected if they were not able to compose and sing poems that reflected her grace and beauty.
Eventually a besotted Hywel, unable to recognise Myfanwy Fychan’s vanity, interpreted her rapture when he played and her rejection of suitors as an expression of her love for him. Yet it wasn’t just Hywel’s thoughts that Francis shared, the feelings of love that Myfanwy engendered in Hywel were so deep that Francis felt their hurt, a pain that was only relieved when Hywel played to her and she only had eyes and ears for him. Afraid to reveal his feelings for her other than through his playing and despite his assumption that she returned his love, Hywel knew that a highborn lady like Myfanwy Fychan could never return the love of a lowborn bard.
Eventually the pain of his love became so great that he determined to persuade Myfanwy to leave Castell Dinas Brân and run away with him. Hywel went to the hall looking for Myfanwy and found her talking to another suitor. He boldly interrupted their conversation asking her if he should play his latest composition. He expected her to say yes and for the suitor to be rejected like all the others, instead she didn’t even glance at him but dismissed him with a casual wave of her hand. This suitor was handsome, rich and eloquent, and perhaps more to the point was also highborn. Myfanwy no longer needed to hear Hywel’s playing, she had found her own love
Francis recalled the bard’s poem Hywel had recited to him that day as they walked the ridge through Dyfrdwy forest:
Far from Myfanwy’s marble towers
I pass my solitary hours
O thou shinest like the sky,
Behold thy faithful Hywel die!