Owen Wynne Jones (also known as Glasynys, 1828-1870), was born in Rhostryfan, the same parish as Richard Hughes Williams (1878-1919), and worked in a quarry at the age of ten. In 1855 he began work as a teacher, and in 1860 he was ordained. He was an eisteddfotwr, journalist, folklorist and writer, whose stories were published in a selection edited by Saunders Lewis (1948).
Hallowe’en in the Cwm
Whoever would like to see and hear the customs and legends of those worthy old people who departed many years ago, let him come with us for an evening at Cwm Blaen y Glyn. We are making haste there to take our part in the innocent amusements of the common people of the world, people of whom only the faintest impression is to be found on the face of the earth. The end of October is a lovely time to travel if the weather is dry. The valley is rich in scarlet; the mountains are bathed in a golden light, and the woods are more lovely in their auburn robes than at any other time of year: the trees are in leaf, though many have fallen, and the thick-branched oak groves have not yet bared their skeletal branches, although the fierce and scowling gales have threatened to tear them apart. By this time the rivers have filled their banks, and have veiled the breasts of the mountains in their silver linen. But the autumn storms are terrible indeed. The wind rages as though escaped from some dungeon, rushing and scattering the ships and trees. If it rains, the clouds like cataracts seem ready to drown half the world. And yet October is a beautiful month, and its last night, All Hallows’ Eve, is its greatest glory. There is a special magic in the quiet, simple, untroubled life of the mountains. There we can enjoy a wondrous solitude and a quiet joy as we live hand in hand with each other. The old man with his hoary locks, the ruddy lad taking his quiet pleasure in sport, the poor, dear nanny, whose once-round face shows the harrowing of time, and the young girl with rosy cheeks, who subdues the young man’s heart beneath her feet: all enjoy the same innocent games, join in the same peals of laughter, and take equal delight in the children’s pleasure as they lead the way in jokes and tricks and tales. It is a beautiful life, the life in the mountains, as it is described in one of the pastorals:
One cold, stormy night in homely Hafod Lwyfog,
Snug beneath the chimney, enjoying the warmth of the fire,
Three generations sat: the children, the father and mother,
And Nanna in her wicker chair, and Grandpa old and bent
In an oak armchair, poking the fire with his stick –
The children playing together beneath his contented gaze!
A custom in Hafod Lwyfog since the days of old
Was telling the children fairy tales on dark winter nights.
Nanna’s mind was a treasure trove; she could bring out nine or ten
Of the stories she’d learnt from her Nanna about the tricks of the Fairy Race
As she combed the wool at nightfall while her daughter was at her knitting,
And her husband busy making wooden spoons or nutcrackers;
But Grandad was the best at the old country stories,
The ones he had learnt in the valley, keeping his father’s flocks.
That is a portrait of the mountain people’s homes at ordinary times, but on Hallowe’en the families will leave their hearths, and every soul in the valley will be gathered in one place: the feeble old and the tender young, the strong, lean young men and the light-footed, comely girls, the wise fathers and the mothers full of tenderness and pride. The irascible old man will be there as well, and even the sour-tongued old woman will show her face, forgetting for once to criticise everyone and everything. Everyone in the valley of Blaen y Glyn has been keeping the customs of Hallowe’en since time out of mind.
It is an old longhouse, Blaen y Glyn, and humble enough it seems on the outside. Two or three ashes grow nearby, and there is a thicket of hazel not far off. There is also a spring in the fold, and a little further away stands the byre. The milk pails are ready in front of the door, and at the southern end a dozen or so beehives stand in a row. So what do we see when we make our visit? A big old oak door that has never tasted a lick of paint; then the wide old hallway, the floor of smooth clean stone. We turn left. Here is a lovely old inglenook big enough to hold two dozen people at a time, with a cubby for storing peat in the far corner. A fire big enough to roast an ox on the hearth, and two or three dogs lying stretched on their flanks nearby. On one side of the kitchen (for it is the kitchen we are in, and a well-kept kitchen between the hills is a good place to be) – on one side is the table, the warm white colour of oats; on the far side on the shelves are rows of trenchers the same colour as the table; a little further away is the dresser, a dark old dresser made of wood dug out of the peat. Four numbers appear at the top, announcing the year it was made, and the pewter plates are so well polished that one can see its shadow in them. On the other side is the old cupboard: made as a wedding gift for the great great great grandfather of the master of the house, so one can hazard a guess at its age. There is a row of white stools and a few good oak chairs. The stone floor is polished to smoothness, and the flames are smiling to see their reflections in everything around them. And that is Blaen y Glyn.
And now to begin our story. Over forty years have passed since the incidents I describe. It was a sunny evening, though the sun was sinking behind the crests of the mountains, and I was benighted while making the crossing between Criafolen and my mother’s old cottage. The shadows of night were pressing around me, and then the old tales and memories of my boyhood came pell-mell to my mind. They marched ahead of me, since not even twenty years had wholly erased from my mind the old trails I had wandered as I herded my parents’ sheep. After much sweat and toil I emerged from woodland onto the crest of a hill, and heard some distance away the sound of voices, the occasional joyful laugh and the echo of celebration. I rested for a moment on a mossy old boulder. All at once, I heard the barking of dogs, answered by dogs on the far side of the valley. A thousand memories darted this way and that, like the swarms of midges on an evening in June. But I rose, and descended from bare rock into woodland. Sometimes my way took me across rough scree, and sometimes little glades as soft as velvet; I forded a mountain stream, and further down, a brook murmured its sweet monotone. In a fold on the next hillside I saw a light. Immediately I knew where I was, and set off for the house with all possible haste. I knocked on the door, though not to see if anyone was at home, since the noise coming from inside was proof of that. The daughter of the house answered, and in I went.
About a dozen women of different ages were there, and four or five old people chatting placidly by the fire. They greeted me warmly, and a few of them remembered my grandfather as a young lad: one old woman had kept my grandmother company countless times at the parish saint’s day. Blaen y Glyn had not changed at all since I left home. The old clock was still in the corner, with its dark gilt face towards the cupboard. I sat down, and was pressed to stay and take part in the celebrations, and I agreed without hesitation. The boys, they said, were lighting a bonfire on the hill, but they would all be back soon to bob for apples and throw nuts in the fire for the fortune-telling, and Rhydderch the Fiddler was expected. After I had been in the house for about ten minutes, and been offered something to eat at least thirty times, I went outside in the company of three or four of the girls to see the bonfire. By this time it was alight, and its light filled the valley from end to end like the splendour of the chancel on Christmas morning. It gave a ruddy glow to the tumbling stream, and brought out the crimson of the autumn leaves. The boys were singing, the children laughing, the dogs barking, and I gave myself up to enjoyment.
And now we saw someone else approaching. ‘Who’s that, I wonder?’ we asked each other. ‘Who am I? Why, I’m Rhydderch the Fiddler, of course,’ came the deep voice of an old man.
‘Well,’ said the daughter of Blaen y Glyn, ‘health to your heart, Rhydderch. My grandmother was saying you’ve not come this way for more than twenty years!’
‘Everyone’s well, I hope,’ said the old fiddler.
‘Oh,’ she replied, ‘everything goes on as usual. We’ll start as soon as the boys get down from the top of the hill.’
Together we went back to the house. And within a few minutes everyone who had been at the bonfire, every degree of them, had come down. Some of them eyed me curiously as a stranger, wondering where I was from and who my people were.
And here was a bucket filled with water, and Gwen, the daughter of the house, was pouring a dozen bright-skinned apples from her apron, and the boys pressed round in expectation of sport. There was one lad more lively than the others, whose name was Ifan Dafydd. He was the first to kneel down in front of the bucket; he lifted two apples quite effortlessly with his teeth, and gave one to the mistress of Blaen y Glyn and the other to me. We had gathered round the fireplace, laughing and chatting, where a wooden tray was suspended by a cord from the rafters. An apple was placed at one end of the tray and a rush candle at the other, and there was not a little sport to be had, trying to catch the apple in one’s teeth without dislodging the candle and burning one’s cheeks.
By now the rowanberry juice was being poured, and plenty of mead had been brought to the table. Its boards were as clean and wholesome as any tablecloth could have been, and it was laden with plump oatcakes, a lump of golden butter beaded with moisture, and in the middle, a huge piece of succulent cheese. Everyone was helping himself without waiting to be asked, though food was not the focus of Hallowe’en. There was nut-cracking, and that is good sport when the nuts are ripe, but the boys were more interested in bobbing for apples. When Rhys Puw got one out, he was seen furtively pressing it into Elin’s hand, and when Cydwelyn Lewis failed, and a few of the lads, brimming with mischief, ducked his head in the water, one could read the effect of suffering in the cheeks of Lwlan Siôn. As yet she knew nothing of love, but in spite of this there was something there, and that something generally says ‘I will’ at the church altar in the end.
In one corner of the house was my uncle, Rheinallt Wmffra, an old man of tremendous wit and charm; and indeed it was hard to know which of the two to listen to when his neighbour, Morgan Llwyd, was telling some old tale of his youth as he looked around and gave half an ear to the talk of the young people. As well as this, there was the constant clicking of knitting needles, for the hands of the women were not still even for a moment. ‘The mountain folk are good workers,’ I said to myself. ‘These old uncles and aunts are busy knitting even when they’re celebrating.’ Rhydderch the Fiddler was still there as well, so perhaps the reader would like to know what kind of person he was.
I doubt a more ungainly creature could ever be described. Undoubtedly he had seen at least sixty winters, so that what little hair he possessed had paled like bleached linen. He was a giant of a man, two yards in height: very lean, with little grace about him. A long, hollow face, and a lump of a nose that with care could have provided material for three. It was turned like a bow, with a bulge in the middle. A crooked mouth, the lower lip crossing the upper. A long chin that seemed to twist slightly. Shoulders that seemed to circle each other, and two eyes, one looking this way, while the other sparkled that. With such a word portrait one would describe Rhydderch: yet despite this, he was quick enough on his feet, and ready with his wit.
Once people had tired of bobbing for apples and burning their cheeks, once the nuts in the trencher had gone down (for it was in the trencher that they had been placed), Gwen Llwyd, the daughter of the house, approached her mother and begged for a turn at the spinning wheel. Perhaps now I should mention a pale, skinny lad sitting in a corner by the hearth. He seemed to take no notice of his surroundings, quietly darning a sock, yet I could tell that he was listening intently, and when I caught his eye, I detected earnestness and intellect combined. Now and then his long-haired corgi licked his hand, but he was silent, and it was clear that there was something on his mind. Gwen herself kept glancing over her shoulder towards his seat, though nothing else took place between them. Something pricked me because of this. It is a strange thing, that something, no matter where it leads.
But now the rush candle had burnt down, and the bucket of apples had been put away. Everyone had drunk their fill of rowanberry juice or mead, and was getting ready to listen as Rhydderch played his crwth. My uncle Rheinallt called for penillion singing. No one seemed inclined to cross him, and there was an air of tension in the room. ‘Each and his pennill in turn,’ was the rule, and neither old nor young were excused. Then Rhydderch began to play, and at first the strings screeched worse than a hundred owl chicks fighting. But the old boy got his instrument tuned in the end, and we had a good many fine tunes from it when he did so. He played ‘The Fascination of Love’ first, and the master of Blaen y Glyn sang ‘The Maidens of Meirionydd’ beautifully. Then he changed to a different tune, but I cannot help thinking that the same music still echoed in the hearts of three or four at least who were there… The fiddler continued, and by now the click of the knitting needles was silenced, and everyone was resolutely waiting to sing. Twm Pen Camp missed his turn – he was a crafty young dog, as you could see in his eye – so my uncle Rheinallt stepped in to keep things moving, and although his voice quavered, he sang very well. And then Twm took his turn, and this is what he sang:
‘Rheinallt Wmffra’s dog
Tried to climb the haystack
Although he was so old and stiff
That he could barely twitch.’
‘You’re in trouble, Twm,’ cried Rheinallt, looking for his stick in a wild agitation, while everyone looked on. ‘I’ll have you, or I’ll never leave this house.’
‘Well, hold on a minute, Uncle Rheinallt,’ said Twm; ‘they say a Welshman always gets a second chance.’ So when everyone had stopped laughing, and the old man had recovered his temper a little, the old fiddler began playing again. Then Twm came out with a second verse, and it went like this:
‘One evening when the dog
Was stealing from the crock,
Rheinallt Wmffra and Mari Siôn
Pulled it by the leg.’
‘The first was bad, the second was worse.’ Rheinallt would have half-killed Twm; he was reaching for his stick, and was threatening to beat him in front of his betters for the impertinence. ‘Never mind, Uncle Rheinallt,’ said the lad merrily. ‘I’ll make it up to you, I swear.’ Things were calming down, although snorts of laughter were escaping here and there. There was a sense that the room might break out in fresh mirth, and Uncle Rheinallt was getting more and more threatening. After he had got everyone quiet, the lad said he was going to sing another song. And after another glance at Gwen’s blue eyes, he began:
‘It’s Hallowe’en tonight –
There’s a flame in Gwenno’s eyes;
The flame I saw in the bonfire
Spoke of a beautiful warmth.
‘Hallowe’en, and nuts to eat,
Although the Black Pig roams outside:
Mead to drink and lively mirth
With beautiful Meirionydd girls.’
‘That’s just a left-over husk of a song,’ said Rheinallt. ‘That doesn’t make up for dirt.’
‘Well, for God’s sake, let it rest,’ said Morgan Llwyd. ‘Carry on, Huw Bifan,’ for that was the name of the quiet lad.
‘Last night I was in Nannau Hall,
Making music on the strings;
Walking home across the hill
I saw my Uncle Rheinallt’s dog.’
‘On my word! I won’t stand for being insulted like this. Where’s my stick? I’m going home; there’s no point staying in company like this.’
‘Wait a minute,’ said Morgan Llwyd, ‘take this. A cup of mead before you go.’ And once he had downed it, the difficult moment had passed, and he and Twm Pen Camp were firm friends like before.
Now it was time for the girls to choose their nuts and throw them in the fire. If a nut cracked, that was a good omen for whoever had thrown it, but if it smouldered in silence, that was considered bad luck. Gwen chose hers and threw first, trembling a little as she did so, but we heard the crack throughout the house, and there was a chorus of laughter. Little did they know that at the same moment, in the same blink of an eye, another crack had taken place: the bow of love had creaked in the breast of one who had never seen Gwen until that night, and this happened in the same instant. There is something magical in that creaking. When Gwen’s ripe nut burst open, and a piece of the kernel leapt from the fire into Somebody’s face, that Somebody picked it up, and carefully secreted it.
None of the other girls were minded to test the superstition. Only Cadi Rheinallt tried, and that after much persuasion. She was a strange old biddy; time itself had left her untouched as it passed her by. She was a little stump of a thing, who had got a good bargain in the fair where they sell noses, and there was a good deal of quickness and drollery about her. But there was no good fortune for Cadi. Her nut smouldered away in silence, and we heard not a hint of it cracking.
Meanwhile Rhydderch was talking freely, with his crwth and bow resting at his feet, propped against his knee. Twm Pen Camp was tucking into bread and cheese nearby. And when the fiddler had finished his story about a ghost that had appeared to him the previous week, coming home from an evening of music, Twm scraped the butter off his bread, and rubbed the strings and bow with it, and one of the dogs came past and licked the fiddle. ‘Hello!’ said Cadi Rheinallt, ‘Motyn is going to give us a tune, Uncle Rhydderch!’ and the old man lifted his fiddle out of reach and placed it on his knee. By this time it had grown late, and after one more tune the evening would be at an end. Morgan Llwyd requested the old song, ‘Departure.’ Old Rhydderch picked up his fiddle and bow, and put himself in the proper pose, but when he started to play, not a sound came out of the instrument – he stopped, and tried again, but it was silent. Poor Motyn was in deep disgrace, and Rhydderch would have killed him. But after the company had downed more mead, and said goodnight, they parted in high good humour. Uncle Rheinallt had put Twm Pen Camp and his verses completely out of his mind. After stealing another glance at Gwen’s eyes, Huw Bifan’s heart was filled with love. Cadi Rheinallt had forgotten her bad fortune with the nut, and was as merry as a cuckoo on a branch. Her opinion of herself and her prospects was quite restored: she knew that day follows night, that there is always a new dawn breaking. After everyone had left, I talked with the family until nearly dawn. They retired to bed, and when I retreated to my room, everything was cracking and creaking around me. When I went upstairs, the staircase was creaking. The floor of the bedroom creaked beneath my feet. The bed creaked as I lay down. And every time I turned over, there was that creak, and something in my heart was creaking with it. When I went to sleep, the creaking awakened me. When I woke up, the creaking lulled me to sleep.
The next morning when I went downstairs, who did I meet at the foot of the stairs but Gwen Llwyd: and there was that creaking again. After breakfast, as something would have it, I went outside, and who was at the spring, washing a milk pail, but Gwen. I asked her a question, and in a flowering of blushes, the creaking came to an end.
Hallowe’en has always been dear to us. We love that magical night – the children and Gwen and I – and every time it comes around we eat nuts and drink mead in memory of that first cracking of hearts in Blaen y Glyn.