Friday, December 31, 2010

A Brack of Brine

As has become a tradition at No Good Boyo, here to usher in the New Year is another Ghost Story of a Welsh Antiquary:

I see you are all settled with your pipes and pints. Prys-Price-Jones-Parry-Williams will set out cockles and fly agaric on the dresser in a moment. So I shall begin.

Now, I spent the Imbolg half-term in the seaside resort of Llwyngwril, in the county of M-shire. My pleasures are solitary, and the blustery coast is little troubled by hoi polloi at that time of year. One can take rubbings of lobster pots or pull the odd mussel undisturbed.

I had a little college business to attend to among the parish records of Llangelynnin Church. This tiny chapel lies half-drowned in the doleful dunes above Llwyngwril beach, a fate that the local Nonconformists attribute to the Romish practices of a former incumbent who, the records show, was in fact no more than scrupulous in matters of personal grooming.

It was while returning the weary notes of the defamed parson's successor to the ledger that I noticed a few yellowed leaves, pressed between a sermon about the wind and a tract against Whitsun dowsing.

These were no more than a fragment, dating from the middle of the last century I would hazard, but intriguing nonetheless, and I shall read them for your entertainment. Ah, Prys-Price-Jones-Parry-Williams has lighted the Calan Cottage, so let me begin. the church of Llangellenen, its pitiful frame sunken in the sands. My goal was to etch the rood screen and trace a few inscriptions, but all thoughts of such trivia were banished by a curious discovery on the very edge of the cliff, where ancient gravestones made their last stand before being dashed on the rocks below.

I wandered among these near-derelict memento mori and fair tripped over what I took to be an oddly isolated clump of ivy. Closer inspection revealed a stump, the remnant of a gravestone. I tugged away at the foliage, only to be confounded by what lay beneath.

The stone was wholly bound in seaweed of a particularly tenacious genus that I had not seen before on these shores, or indeed on any others. It was brown and dessicated in appearance, yet firm, oily and unpleasantly cold to the touch. It smelled of mould, of ferment, and of something that I could not quite identify - something that lingered disagreeably in the back of my throat.

I was trying to make out the crude carving when I sensed a presence at my back. I turned to see the verger, an elderly rustic on whose spare frame a mildewed cassock sagged like rotting oilcloth.

"You were wondering who might lie there, sir?" wheezed the gnarled custodian.

"Yes. The stone rather stands out from its neighbours." We spoke in the local dialect of Welsh until, satisfied that there were no visitors nearby, we switched to English.

He pushed aside the kelp with a bradawl long enough to uncover the inscription:

"Er cof
Am Ogof.
 dial dof."

"In memory of a Cave. I shall bring vengeance?" I essayed.

"Quite so, sir," nodded the verger in defiance of the chill breeze. "None knew his name, if he was ever one person or in truth any person at all," he continued. A sudden shaft of sunlight swept across the graveyard, if only to mock us with the ensuing gloom.

We made our way back to the porch, where my companion continued his tale.

It seems that there was once a flourishing trade in victuals between Cornwall and the local quarrymen of Eryri. "Our district is cursed many-fold," explained the verger. "By uncouth tongue, barbarous weather, mean industry and unpredictable gravity. But worst of all are the meagre offerings of the Welsh kitchen and the sour admonitions of the Chapel.

"A hewer of slate wishes to slake his thirst, soothe his soul and halt his hunger with meat and ale, not the thin flummery and parched tea that his shrewish bedmate delivers.

"So our enterprising Cornish cousins, whom England has tutored longer in the science of commerce, sent schooners laden with pasties, scones, cider and perry to Port-Madock and thence by pit-pony to the quarries at Llech-Wedd, Dinnorwick and yea even unto Nantlley.

"O how the sons of toil rejoiced! And nay, how their wives and the Chapel elders seethed. No one knows how it began, but wreckers lit fires here above Llwyngwril to lure the Cornish cutters onto the rocks.

"As the terrified matelots waded ashore, bearing their battered cargoes, a hellish horde of harridans would set about them with mattocks, stones and sometimes - horribile dictu! - the bones of our departed, wrenched from the rotting sod.

"Those who survived were bundled into their own barrels of cider and rolled from the cliff tops to a dreadful death.

"Those times are long gone, as are the pasties and flagons, but local people tell of a sentinel set to guard these witching peaks from the distractions of solid food and cheery potations. If the Cornishmen should return with their sinful gifts, it shall rise to wreak revenge upon them 'o'r hallt a'r heli' - from salt and brine."

"And that guardian of Cambrian virtue lies beneath this stone?" I asked, but the verger smiled thinly, shook his mottled head and stooped into the dank and darkening vestry. A strange tale, and one that I...

And here our manuscript ends. As you can imagine I was most intrigued, and enquired discreetly among the scant educated men of the parish.

The village scribe, who also dredged the wells and greased the Scold's Girdle, muttered something about a stranger long ago who had poked around on the cliffs and brought half of them down on his head.

The solicitor knew nothing, and the "physick" had lost his predecessor's records. Their silence was eloquent. I walked the cliff-top graveyard myself, and found no trace of this noisome stump and its words of dread. It had probably followed many others onto the rocks below.

It was only a week or so ago that I received a letter from Aberystwyth, from the National Library no less. My anonymous correspondent enclosed cuttings torn, I am sorry to say, from two periodicals of the last century.

One, from the Dydd newspaper of Dolgellau, had reported the death of a Mr Trelawny of Truro:

"The visitor to Llwyngwril had been staying at the Garthangharad Inn, where the landlord had reported him missing three days before the unfortunate's body was found washed up in a cave below the graveyard cliff. The magistrate, on the advice of Dr Myddfai, ruled that Mr Trelawney had lost his footing and fallen to his death."

Scrawled across the back of this clipping were the following remarks. "No one can find that cave. And there has never been a verger at Llangelynnin."

The other cutting came from The West Briton of Truro itself, and was dated some months later. After rehearsing the bare facts printed in Y Dydd, it went on:

"A beachcomber told this reporter that Mr Trelawney's body showed no signs of immersion in water. It was laid out in the cave on a cairn of bones, some of great age, in a manner suggestive of blasphemy. Our countryman's face could not easily be described. The local constable was unable to recall the exact events, as he had been 'at stool' most of the day, and no other notables would make themselves available for conjecture."

Across the back of this clipping was another inscription: "His mouth was stuffed with seaweed, and his pockets full of pies."

Ah, I see no one has touched their cockles. Then let me bid you all a Happy New Year, sure of step and easy of rest!


Gareth Williams said...

Yes, I've noticed before how consumption of a pasty can elicit wanton thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I spent New Years Even wandering Belfast in my kilt. Six women shoved their hands up to see if I was "traditional". In the spirit of equality I did likewise. One thong, one commando, four Bridget Jones big style.

No Good Boyo said...

No doubt about it, Gaw. The oggy is a chaster pastry.

At least you didn't grapple any meat'n'two veg, Joe. Or something with teeth.

No Good Boyo said...

What have I ever done to you?

Gorilla Bananas said...

I assume you switched to English because the Welsh tongue is very hard on the throat (as I've always suspected). Interesting that Welsh women are so jealous of rival cuisine - they must have an inferiority complex. The Cornish gentleman appeared to meet his end in a druidic ritual with elements of Fanny Cradock in it.

No Good Boyo said...

We switch to English as we only speak Welsh to stymie the sibilant Saxon, GB. This is well-attested by people who know a bloke who's mate once went to a pub in Wales. Or Spain.

Welsh cooking is a matter of extremes, ranging from peacock to suet mulch. The flight of our aristocracy to Tudor London left us with the potage end of the scale. Still, we remain masters of the custard slice.

The Cornwallender was, I reckon, trying to defy the Sasiwn of Calvinism with his occluded pasties. Some amphibious Anglesiezer did for him - although no less an authority than the Hammer Studios maintains that Cornwall is over run with angry reptiles (see The Reptile 1966 -

Anonymous said...

I was at Gospel Hall today, but that is more to do with my ex-fiancee than Calvary.

Jon in France said...

I've had a squint at Steve's blog (I thought you were a bit harsh - an invite is an invite, after all) but I must say it isn't easy on the eyes.

I had some dim idea that the good citizens of Wales and those of Cornwall were joined in some Celtic brotherhood or other, so I'm surprised that there isn't any great culinary crossover.

Did I ever mention that I used to live in the Netherlands? I bring this up because they had that soap opera Pobol y Cwm on Dutch TV.

Where did they find someone sufficently fluent in both Dutch and Welsh to do the translation? That's what I want to know.

Blwyddyn newydd dda.

No Good Boyo said...

As it happens, Jon, we Welsh share the pasty with the Cornish. We call it the "ogi", from the West Country "hoggan", hence the rugby chant championed by pithead cherub Max Boyce.

Bubbly Cum", as it was known at the Pebble Mill studios in Birmingham in the early days when it was filmed there, enjoys a curious European vogue. Probably something to do with quotas.

Dutch and Welsh are similarly guttural, so perhaps there are translators drawn by euphony rather than grammar. Any nation that drinks room-temperature gin gets what it deserves.

Ian Plenderleith said...

I started the story, but am going to save the rest for a long and stormy night, recalling well the small hours of an Easter drinking session in 1998 when Boyo told an enraptured live Hammersmith audience a similarly lengthy tale, punctuated with the gruff threat of a shadowy cabbie named Julian to "fookin' get on with it or I'll brain you." Ah, the last century, eh?

No Good Boyo said...

It's ok Pop, cabbies can't stop us now - we're on the Intern Net!

Happy New Year, and thanks for the latest CD - I'm about to give it my full critical attention.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

A cool story. It has definitely warmed the cockles of my heart. Yes, Druidic rituals have something going for them, if large quantities of pie are involved.

Gareth Williams said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gareth Williams said...

What's do a slice of Italian sausage and Welsh chapel elders have in common?

No? Give up?

They both tend to end up as antipasti. !!!!

A bit late but surely well worth waiting for.

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