Wednesday, February 17, 2010

The River Dee

The River DeeFrequent reference has been made to the river Dee, the Deva of the Welsh, which is unquestionably one of the finest streams of Britain. It rises in the Arran Fowddwy, one of the chief Welsh mountains, nearly three thousand feet high, and after a winding course of about seventy miles falls into the Irish Sea. This renowned stream has been the theme of many a poet, and after expanding near its source into the beautiful Bala Lake, whose bewitching surroundings are nearly all described in polysyllabic and unpronounceable Welsh names, and are popular among artists and anglers, it flows through Edeirnim Vale, past Corwen. Here a pathway ascends to the eminence known as Glendower's Seat, with which tradition has closely knit the name of the Welsh hero, the close of whose marvellous career marked the termination of Welsh independence. Then the romantic Dee enters the far-famed Valley of Llangollen, where tourists love to roam, and where lived the "Ladies of Llangollen." We are told that these two high-born dames had many lovers, but, rejecting all and enamored only of each other, Lady Butler and Miss Ponsonby, the latter sixteen years the junior of the former, determined on a life of celibacy. They eloped together from Ireland, were overtaken and brought back, and then a second time decamped—on this occasion in masquerade, the elder dressed as a peasant and the younger as a smart groom in top-boots. Escaping pursuit, they settled in Llangollen in 1778 at the quaint little house called Plas Newydd, and lived there together for a half century. Their costume was extraordinary, for they appeared in public in blue riding-habits, men's neckcloths, and high hats, with their hair cropped short. They had antiquarian tastes, which led to the accumulation of a vast lot of old wood-carvings and stained glass, gathered from all parts of the world and worked into the fittings and adornment of their home. They were on excellent terms with all the neighbors, and the elder died in 1829, aged ninety, and the younger two years afterward, aged seventy-six. Their remains lie in Llangollen churchyard.

Within this famous valley are the ruins of Valle-Crucis Abbey, the most picturesque abbey ruin in North Wales. An adjacent stone cross gave it the name six hundred years ago, when it was built by the great Madoc for the Cistercian monks. The ruins in some parts are now availed of for farm-houses. Fine ash trees bend over the ruined arches, ivy climbs the clustered columns, and the lancet windows with their delicate tracery are much admired. The remains consist of the church, abbot's lodgings, refectory, and dormitory. The church was cruciform, and is now nearly roofless, though the east and west ends and the southern transept are tolerably perfect, so that much of the abbey remains. It was occupied by the Cistercians, and was dedicated to the Virgin Mary. The ancient cross, of which the remains are still standing near by, is Eliseg's Pillar, erected in the seventh century as a memorial of that Welsh prince. It was one of the earliest lettered stones in Britain, standing originally about twelve feet high. From this cross came the name of Valle Crucis, which in the thirteenth century was given to the famous abbey. The great Madoc, who lived in the neighboring castle of Dinas Bran, built this abbey to atone for a life of violence. The ruins of his castle stand on a hill elevated about one thousand feet above the Dee. Bran in Welsh means crow, so that the English know it as Crow Castle. From its ruins there is a beautiful view over the Valley of Llangollen. Farther down the valley is the mansion of Wynnstay, in the midst of a large and richly wooded park, a circle of eight miles enclosing the superb domain, within which are herds of fallow-deer and many noble trees. The old mansion was burnt in 1858, and an imposing structure in Renaissance now occupies the site. Fine paintings adorn the walls by renowned artists, and the Dee foams over its rocky bed in a sequestered dell near the mansion. Memorial columns and tablets in the park mark notable men and events in the Wynn family, the chief being the Waterloo Tower, ninety feet high. Far away down the valley a noble aqueduct by Telford carries the Ellesmere Canal over the Dee—the Pont Cysylltau—supported on eighteen piers of masonry at an elevation of one hundred and twenty-one feet, while a mile below is the still more imposing viaduct carrying the Great Western Railway across.

Not far distant is Chirk Castle, now the home of Mr. R. Myddelton Biddulph, a combination of a feudal fortress and a modern mansion. The ancient portion, still preserved, was built by Roger Mortimer, to whom Edward I. granted the lordship of Chirk. It was a bone of contention during the Civil Wars, and when they were over, $150,000 were spent in repairing the great quadrangular fortress. It stands in a noble situation, and on a clear day portions of seventeen counties can be seen from the summit. Still following down the picturesque river, we come to Bangor-ys-Coed, or "Bangor-in-the-Wood," in Flintshire, once the seat of a famous monastery that disappeared twelve hundred years ago. Here a pretty bridge crosses the river, and a modern church is the most prominent structure in the village. The old monastery is said to have been the home of twenty-four hundred monks, one half of whom were slain in a battle near Chester by the heathen king Ethelfrith, who afterwards sacked the monastery, but the Welsh soon gathered their forces again and took terrible vengeance. Many ancient coffins and Roman remains have been found here. The Dee now runs with swift current past Overton to the ancient town of Holt, whose charter is nearly five hundred years old, but whose importance is now much less than of yore. Holt belongs to the debatable Powisland, the strip of territory over which the English and Welsh fought for centuries. Holt was formerly known as Lyons, and was a Roman outpost of Chester. Edward I. granted it to Earl Warren, who built Holt Castle, of which only a few quaint pictures now exist, though it was a renowned stronghold in its day. It was a five-sided structure with a tower on each corner, enclosing an ample courtyard. After standing several sieges in the Civil Wars of Cromwell's time, the battered castle was dismantled.

The famous Wrexham Church, whose tower is regarded as one of the "seven wonders of Wales," is three miles from Holt, and is four hundred years old. Few churches built as early as the reign of Henry VIII. can compare with this. It is dedicated to St. Giles, and statues of him and of twenty-nine other saints embellish niches in the tower. Alongside of St. Giles is the hind that nourished him in the desert. The bells of Wrexham peal melodiously over the valley, and in the vicarage the good Bishop Heber wrote the favorite hymn, "From Greenland's Icy Mountains." Then the Dee flows on past the ducal palace of Eaton Hall, and encircles Chester, which has its race-course, "The Roodee"—where they hold an annual contest in May for the "Chester Cup"—enclosed by a beautiful semicircle of the river. Then the Dee flows on through a straight channel for six miles to its estuary, which broadens among treacherous sands and flats between Flintshire and Cheshire, till it falls into the Irish Sea. Many are the tales of woe that are told of the "Sands o' Dee," along which the railway from Chester to Holyhead skirts the edge in Flintshire. Many a poor girl, sent for the cattle wandering on these sands, has been lost in the mist that rises from the sea, and drowned by the quickly rushing waters. Kingsley has plaintively told the story in his mournful poem:

"They rowed her in across the rolling foam—
The cruel, crawling foam,
The cruel, hungry foam—
To her grave beside the sea;
But still the boatmen hear her call her cattle home
Across the Sands o' Dee."

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