Sunday, 19 June 2016

The Talybont Experience

"We go this way," said my husband, pointing out the route of the Henry Vaughan walk, just before going back to our guest house to fetch something from the boot of the car. "See? Just down there. It's straightforward." 

It sounded straightforward.  How was I to know he was holding the map upside down?  I reckon he did it deliberately.

When we caught up with one another about 15 minutes later, we headed up the old Bryn Oer (or Brinore) tramway track that once carried horse-drawn trucks of stone from local quarries down to the Monmouthshire and Brecon Canal at Talybont-on-Usk for transport to Pontypridd and Newport. After a short while we arrived at the "Henry Vaughan Garden". The information panel gave the impression that this was meant to be along the lines of a 17th-century physic garden, but I could not see any plants other than grass. There was a very nice seat carved out of a tree trunk, and the stumpy base of a wooden structure - I think it must have been a bench - that had either been vandalised or simply rotted away.

In some places, the trail was difficult to follow because the swan motifs that marked the way had either been removed or had perished.  In my innocence, I had assumed that the route would take us to Henry Vaughan's grave at Llansantffraed Church, but it went nowhere near.  I suppose that the reason is the A40 which cuts off the church from the Talybont community it originally served. Nowadays only a handful of houses are within easy walking distance of the church, and the layby that provides the only parking place can get very congested when there is a special event taking place, as there was on Saturday evening.

"The Albatross meets the Swan" is a slogan that has been used locally this year to mark a series of events recognising the 200th anniversary of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's work Biographia Literaria, at the same time commemorating Coleridge's visit to Wales in June 1794.  Like Siegfried Sassoon, Coleridge had dropped out of Cambridge (Henry Vaughan dropped out of Oxford) and, in the company of a friend named Joseph Hucks, he set off on a walking tour. Having been rejected in love by Mary Evans, a London Welsh girl, he decided to walk around her homeland; I do not know whether this was a coincidence. 

Interior of Llansantffraed Church
Coleridge eventually ended up in Bristol, where he settled for a while.  In 1795, he gave a lecture that was attended by the Welsh pseudo-bard Iolo Morganwg, a man whose reputation as a charlatan has been repaired in recent years by academic recognition of the more positive aspects of his activities, so much so that his home town of Cowbridge now has a "Iolo Morganwg Trail" and a school named after him. Coleridge's words made a big impact on Iolo, and thus an indirect impact on the cultural development of Wales, just as the Welsh landscape and people are said to have made an impact on Coleridge's own work.

Henry Vaughan died a hundred years before Coleridge met Iolo. Thus "The Albatross" (Coleridge) could never have encountered "The Swan" (Vaughan was known as "The Swan of Usk") in person. But he travelled through the Usk valley so beloved of Vaughan, and did so when walking was not such a fashionable occupation as it is now. The concert given on Saturday evening was planned by the Brecknock Society as a homage to both Coleridge and Vaughan, a combination of music, song and poetry "celebrating God, nature and Man".

Coleridge's poetry was not heard, the reason given being that he had written very little of it when he embarked on his Welsh odyssey. Several of Vaughan's poems were read, by two local enthusiasts, Robert Wilcher and Mervyn Bramley.  The music was performed by Dr Bramley's son - lutenist James Bramley, by the soprano Hannah Medlam, and by the Unicorn Singers under the direction of Stephen Marshall.  It included works by Parry, Elgar and Vaughan Williams, composers who straddled the turn of the 20th century and whose work would have been well known to Siegfried Sassoon, but also by earlier composers such as Dowland and Purcell (the latter died in the same year as Henry Vaughan). A highlight was Stephen Marshall's own arrangement of verses by local poet Jeff Rees, on a Welsh mythological theme.

If you would like to support Llansantffraed Church and the work being done locally to encourage interest in Henry Vaughan and, indirectly, in Siegfried Sassoon, you can find further information here: http://www.brecknocksociety.co.uk/docs/friends-of-llansantffraed-church-form-v3.pdf .  
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