David Atkinson follows in the footsteps of George Borrow, whose 19th-century travelogue Wild Wales is now available as an app, allowing walkers to retrace the author's route from Chester.
George Borrow’s Wild Wales is not an easy read. The travelogue, first published in 1862, is hardly a page-turner by today’s standards and the author’s views are very much of the era. But the Wild Wales app from digital interpretation specialists Audiotrails.co.uk is bringing new life to Borrow’s scholarly quest for understanding of the Welsh language and culture, highlighting the colourful landscape and legends behind his purple prose through use of shorter soundbites from the book that are more suitable for a 21st Century audience.
“Wild Wales is a great slow travel book — even if Borrow sets himself high on a pedestal,” says Mike Smart, organsier of the Llangollen Walking Festival, which will next year include a Borrow-inspired walk to the Ceiriog Valley. I had come to North Wales to find out more, setting off from Chester as Borrow did to walk sections of the Wild Wales trail around Llangollen and the Dee Valley Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Setting off from Chester Borrow, his wife and daughter arrived in Chester by train in July 1854. He describes the bustling street around Northgate and The Rows, the twin-level shopping parade, both of which remain to this day. After a couple of days he embarked on his odyssey, walking some 20 miles on the first day from Chester across the Welsh border to Llangollen, where he made his base. “I felt very happy — and no wonder,” he wrote. “The morning was beautiful, the birds sang merrily, and I was bound for Wales.”
I made my own base at Geufron Hall, a homely B&B with a strong environmental policy, set on a widescreen-view hillside overlooking the vibrant North Walian town. “Whereas the surrounding landscape can be quite inhospitable, the Dee Valley feels like a safe haven for travellers,” said owner Beth Boyce, laying out a hearty breakfast of homemade granola and scrambled eggs from the hens wandering her flower-strewn garden. “But Llangollen also had a freewheeling border-town feel with a bohemian undercurrent,” she added.
Town trail Borrow was probably attracted by the bohemian reputation of the town in the mid 19th century, inspired by the story of the Ladies of Llangollen, who had eloped to the town from Ireland. The elderly ladies received artists and writers such as Wordsworth and Lord Byron at their stately mansion, Plas Newydd around 1800. Llangollen remains a bustling cultural centre to this day with the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod opening its doors July 7 and the annual Fringe Festival running July 16-26 this year. I set out, armed with my iPad, to explore. Having downloaded the Llangollen trail as part of the app, I wanted to retrace Borrow’s footsteps to locate the tumbledown old cottage where the family lodged during August 1854.
The five-mile circular trail lead me out of town from the tourist information centre, crossing the sturdy stone bridge over to the River Dee and out on the Ruabon Road. I soon spotted the sign for Dee Cottage, peeking at the privately owned property from the roadside as if Borrow was about to stride through the door. The trail lead me back into town to walk along the canal towpath from Llangollen Wharf to the Horseshoe Falls, then looped back round to explore the atmospheric ruins of Vale Crucis Abbey. I felt as if on set for the TV drama Wolf Hall.
Stream in the sky Later I followed another of Borrow’s walks, heading four miles along the Llangollen Canal to the Unesco World Heritage Site, which stretches from Llangollen to Chirk with the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct at its heart. This feet of Victorian engineering was supervised by the engineer Thomas Telford and completed in 1805 using local stone. A local man took Borrow to see the aqueduct, proclaiming it, “The greatest bridge on earth”. Today it remains the tallest navigable aqueduct in the world and the gravity-defying route some 125ft above the River Dee a favourite stretch of the Llangollen Canal for narrow boat holidays — hence known as the “stream in the sky”.
Ancient spirits But of the paths and trails around Llangollen, the most evocative walk for me was the energetic yomp to Castell Dinas Bran, the ancient ruined castle set high above the town. The current structure is believed to date from the 12th century but it served an Iron Age hill fort before that. The view from the summit was spectacular: Llangollen below, Offa’s Dyke National Trail to the north, the Berwyn and Clwydian ranges meeting on the horizon.
“People still come here as a place of spiritual pilgrimage,” said walking guide Andrew Parish who joined me for the evening stroll to the summit, taking in the panorama just as Borrow would have done on August 2, 1854. “Dinas Bran is a place shrouded in folklore. It is linked to the Welsh princes, the legends of King Arthur and maybe even as a place of sacrifice.”
We could almost touch the pristine-blue sky, dipping our fingertips into candyfloss clouds as the ancient spirits circled around us. Borrow left Llangollen on October 21, 1854 to continue his odyssey to south Wales but the view from Dinas Bran would have encapsulated for him the sense of discovery of his quest. On a summer’s evening above Llangollen, the wonders of Wild Wales beckon to us all.
by David Atkinson
More info: Wild Wales app: www.audiotrails.co.uk/wildwales