Seven Wonders of Wales
Just half an hour's journey by road from the flat plains surrounding Chester, the little town of Llangollen (the Church of St. Colleen), is nestled snugly in the Dee Valley (Dyffryn Dyfrdwy) among high green hills. So near the border with England, the town has managed to retain much of its Welsh character, but for one week each July, the visitor might be excused for thinking he is in continental Europe. Our destination, 14th century Llangollen Bridge is truly a wonder, not to be missed, for at this time, from one end to the other it will be crowded with dancers, singers, musicians and merrymakers (with the requisite numbers of tourists, of course), from dozens of different nations, resplendent in their national costumes.
A few hundred yards down the street from the bridge (built in 1347 by John
Trevor, who later became Bishop of St. Asaph), a huge temporary pavilion houses the annual competitions for choirs, and soloists, folk singers, dancers and musicians. This is the Llangollen International Musical Eisteddfod, founded in 1947 after the mindless destruction of World War II with its shocking waste of life and disruption of much that had been held dear for so long.
Not long after the War had finally ended, a brilliant idea came to the mind
of an official of the British Council, Welshman Harold Tudor of Coedpoeth (a few miles from Llangollen). Harold conceived the idea of an international folk festival, conducted very much along the lines of the Welsh National Eisteddfod, but open to competitors from all parts of the world. He enlisted the support of the music organizer of the National, W.S. Gwynn Williams, who immediately welcomed the idea, especially as it would allow the people of Wales to contribute in their own unique manner to the healing of the terrible scars left by the War. And so it came to be that the first festival took duly took place in the summer of 1947 on the banks of the Dee, under the great hill crowned by the ancient Welsh castle of Dinas Bran.
The actual site chosen for the new festival was in a broad grassy space between
the banks of the River Dee and the Llangollen Canal. Fourteen different nationalities were represented, filling the streets of the drab, postwar town with color and spectacle but above all, with glorious sound. It has been held each year since, attracting many thousands of spectators and hundreds of competitors,whose colorful native costumes and delightful singing and dancing fill the streets for one whole week, transforming a little Welsh town into a miniature universe. In the pavilion, choirs from places as diverse as Ukraine, Morocco and Patagonia meet in friendly competition, getting together afterwards to celebrate their wins and losses in such pubs as the Jenny Jones.
In recent years, the competitions have been augmented by "Choir of the Year" and "Singer of the Year" contests. The Choir of the world competition is open to male, female and mixed choirs, attracting performers of a very high standard. One of the competitors was the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti, who came with his father to sing in a choir from Italy in the early years of the festival and who returned to give a goodwill concert in 1995. Llangollen Bridge may be listed as one of the seven wonders of Wales, but it is the International Eisteddfod with its motto: Byd gwyn fydd byd a gano; gwardiadd fydd ei gerddi fo (Blessed is a world that sings; gentle are its songs) that is the true wonder.
When the Eisteddfod is not in session, most visitors to the town land up at Pla Newydd, the home of the famous Ladies of Llangollen during the early 19th century. These two ladies, Eleanor Butler and Sarah Ponsonby, who came from Ireland to live at Pen y Maes cottage, attracted distinguished visitors from all part of the British Isles to their home (enlarged and renamed Plas Newydd - the new hall). The house was situated on the main coach road from London to Holyhead, thus making it easy for visitors to pay their respects to the eccentric spinsters, who always dressed in men's clothes and who spent their time in "friendship, celibacy, and the knitting of blue stockings." Famous visitors drawn to Plas Newydd with its "most celebrated virgins in Europe," were Lord Byron, the Duke of Wellington, Sir Walter Scott, De
Quincy, Wordsworth, Southey, and many others. The Duke of Wellington, who made his name in battles against Napoleon's forces in Spain, attributed his knowledge of Spanish to a book given him as a boy by Lady Eleanor Butler.
Just outside Llangollen, on the steep road that leads up to the Horseshoe Pass
(Bwlch Oernant), are the ruins of Valle Crucis Abbey, founded in 1201 as a Cistercian House. In the 15th century, such was the Abbey's fame that many leading Welsh poets wrote of its delights. Not too many years before its final dissolution, Abbot Robert Salbri is recorded as having been removed from Valle Crucis on charges of minting his own money and of being a highway robber. He was imprisoned in The Tower of London for his crimes. Another abbot is recorded as having met Owain Glyndwr, the Welsh patriot while out walking in the nearby hills. "You have risen early, Master Abbot," said the guerilla leader. "Nay, sire," replied the Abbot. "It is you who have risen early, a hundred years before your time."
On the side of the road, one quarter mile up from the Abbey ruins, is a curious
stone pillar that most people fail to notice on their way to feed the sheep on the top of the mountain or to take in the magnificent views of the valley below and the great, grey Eglwyseg Rocks. This is the Pillar of Eliseg, or what remains of it, having been broken in half during the English Civil Wars. The inscription on the pillar has all but faded completely away, but in 1696 an inscription was made by Welsh historian and antiquary Edward Lhuyd. His translation of the original Latin tells us that Concenn (Cyngen) erected the pillar sometime in the ninth century to commemorate his great grandfather
Eliseg, who had won back the kingdom of Powys "from the power of the English." The pillar also originally contained the admonition: "Whosoever shall read this hand-inscribed stone, let him give a blessing on the soul of Eliseg." Cyngen himself died in 854 on a pilgrimage to Rome.
Perched precariously on its great green hill, one thousand feet above the narrow streets of Llangollen is the ruin of Castell Dinas Bran (the Castle of the City of Bran) built on the site of an Iron-Age hill fort, and later a Welsh, then Norman castle. Reputedly this 13th century stone fortress was the home of the lovely Myfanwy Fechan who spurned the amorous advances of the poet Hywel ap Einion. The broken-hearted suitor's love poem, Myfanwy, set to music by Joseph Parry, has become one of Wales's best-known songs, certainly one of the most requested of its male-voice choirs. The song also appears as a sad lament for a lost love in the Academy Award-nominated film Hedd Wynn about Welsh poet and post-humous Eisteddfod winner Ellis Humphrey Evans.
On the return journey from Llangollen to Chester (or to much nearer Wrexham),
one should take minor detour to examine another wonder that is unlisted in our little rhyme, but one that surely deserves inclusion. A triumph of engineering skill rather than an expression of world friendship, this wonder is the Pontcysylle Aqueduct.
In the early days of the industrial revolution when canals were being built to
transport raw materials and newly-manufactured goods to all parts of the British Isles, William Telford solved what seemed to be the insurmountable problem faced in taking the Shropshire Union Canal across the narrow, steep-sided Dee valley. His answer was the justly famous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct, the longest and highest in Britain. The name, unpronouncable to most English visitors, simply means "connecting bridge." Completed in 1805, one month after the Battle of Trafalgar, the 121 ft high aqueduct is 1007ft in length, carrying the Shropshire Union Canal in a completely water-tight cast-iron trough supported by 18 piers. it is a bit of a shock to see barges merrily, and seeming magically glide across an expanse of sky high above the valley below and the road to Chirk (where another Telford masterpiece, the Chirk Aqueduct, takes the canal across the River Ceiriog).
Next Stop: Gresford Bells