Tintern Abbey

Though absent long,
These forms of beauty have not been to me,
As is a landscape to a blind man’s eye:
But oft, in lonely rooms, and mid the din
Of towns and cities, I have owed to them,
In hours of weariness, sensations sweet
—Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey
William Wordsworth, 1798

Perhaps it is the sign of a weak mind to be so influenced by a few lines of poetry written over 200 years ago that I felt I must see for myself what inspired Wordsworth. If so, then I am certainly guilty, for once I knew we would be in Wales, Tintern Abbey was on my list. I have gazed at photos of the site over the years, and the combination of the skeletal yet still-soaring stonework and the picturesque setting added to the feeling that this was a place I had to see someday.

I do love old cathedrals and churches, even though my interest is purely secular. A cathedral may have been intended as a tribute to God’s majesty, but to me, it is a symbol of humanity’s spirit, perseverance, ingenuity, and artistry.

All photos by Marian Buechert.

I planned our visit for an evening and the following morning, staying nearby in one of those pleasant inns that the Brits seem to specialize in. We arrived late in the day, just in time for the magic evening light, and although we couldn’t enter the abbey (it had closed for the day) we had the exterior of the site to explore by ourselves. It was intriguing to imagine the area buzzing with activity as it would have been during the abbey’s heyday.

As the shadows lengthened, we strolled across the nearby bridge and along a walking path that followed the river to where we could view the abbey from farther away. Without modern buildings or roads to ruin the illusion, the ruins probably looked much like they did when Wordsworth composed his lines.

In the morning, we revisited the site, poking around the interior this time. “Inside,” what was once flagstone floors is now a smooth carpet of manicured greenery across which the shadows of the pillars and arches etch patterns. With grass beneath your feet, stone rising around you, and the ceiling of blue sky, you feel as if you’re in a temple to nature.

Through the site, I wandered lonely as a cloud, when all at once I heard a single voice raised in song. I followed my ears around a corner and beheld a young woman, standing alone in the centre of the abbey’s great open nave, singing a beautiful melody in a language I didn’t understand. Along with everyone else on the site, I stood transfixed until she finished, when she immediately moved off and became just another visitor again.

I would have loved to do what she did and express my reverence with music, but I feared that it would be seen as mockery, so I remained silent. But inside, my heart was singing.

Are there historic sites that inspire reverence in you? Let me know in a comment.

In Search of Folk Music: Wales

Folk music is about history and storytelling, archaic language and ancient notions that are sometimes surprisingly (and disturbingly) contemporary, and modern ideas that may have their roots in antiquity. It’s also about shared culture and joining with your community to express joy, sorrow, outrage, or remembrance. It can be hilarious or mysterious, bawdy or accusatory.

I am proud to call myself a folk musician, and when I travel, I seek out like-minded folks.

In planning my trip to Wales, I thought with excitement of the country’s reputation for beautiful voices and fierce pride in Welsh traditions, and I determined to visit a folk club and share in the singing. With the help of Mudcat Cafe, an online community of folkies across the world, I found a songcircle in Wales that fit into my schedule. Then I resolved to learn one simple song in Welsh so that I could wow the locals.

This was a recklessly brave and foolish ambition. For those of you who don’t speak Welsh, I will point out that it is a fiendishly difficult language for outsiders to learn. I suspect that the native Welsh are genetically equipped with a tongue that attaches in some unique fashion and which allows them to shape the sounds.

Take, for example, the “ll.” Wikipedia describes this as a “voiceless lateral fricative.” There are literally pages and pages of helpful explanation on the Web trying to explain how to create this sound. Gwybodiadur.co.uk: “…put your tongue in the L position and say SH (not S). Don’t forget to keep the tip of the tongue up against ridge behind the teeth and not let it point forwards or downwards as it would do for a normal SH…you’ll sound a bit like a really annoyed cat.”  Try to imagine doing this while singing. Considering the level of skill and determination this demands, one ceases to be amazed that the tiny Welsh nation has doggedly resisted Anglo domination for hundreds of years.

However, I reasoned that even a somewhat mangled version of a Welsh song would count as a culturally sensitive attempt and gain me some brownie points. So I tracked down a short, repetitive, but lovely folk tune called Ar Lan y Mor and I prevailed on my Welsh-born friend for some lessons. I think he almost choked the first time I tried to sing it—no, wait, that was just him correcting my pronunciation.

After several months of practice, I found myself in a Pembrokeshire pub, surrounded by friendly locals. Folkies are, as a rule, very welcoming types, and, though no doubt nonplussed by my presence in the midst of their group, they were kind. When I announced that I would sing Ar Lan y Mor in Welsh, I gleefully noted their surprised and respectful expressions. Nobody laughed at my garbled pronunciation and all applauded warmly at the end.

Just as I relaxed back into my chair, feeling quite smug, the woman next to me leaned in and whispered conspiratorially, “Very nice, dear. Of course, we’re all English here.” Indeed, as I soon confirmed, they were all escapees from the Anglo-urban rat race seeking Welsh utopia and not one could tell the difference between an “ll” and an angry cat. Bloody ll, thought I.

At the end of the evening, I was slinking, crestfallen, toward the door, when a craggy old fellow at the bar with his face sunk in his pint, glanced up just long enough to growl, “I’m Welsh and ye did pretty well. Good to hear someone singing in Welsh.”

So my efforts were not completely wasted. I gained a healthy appreciation for those few who tackle Welsh as a second language—and they are as rare as red dragons. I witnessed first-hand the long-standing tradition of English empire-builders taking up residence on Welsh soil, a custom that dates back further than King John. And I scored a point for Canadian chutzpah.

O bydded i’r hen iaith barhau!*

Have your efforts to speak the local language during your travels been delightful or disastrous? Write a comment and share your story.

*“May the old language endure!”—from the Welsh national anthem