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George Borrow and Wild Wales

Phil Carradice

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Few writers have ever really captured the heart and soul of Wales or, more importantly, been able to present them in a style that makes them accessible to readers of all nationalities and all ages. The novelist, social historian and travel writer George Borrow was one of the few who did.

Born at East Dereham in Norfolk on 5 July 1803, Borrow was the son of Thomas Borrow, an army recruiting officer, and his wife Ann. He was educated at Norwich High School but, coming from an army family and with the Napoleonic Wars still raging, he moved constantly from one place to another. Such physical and geographical mobility certainly helped foster a lifelong passion for travel in the young boy.

In 1815 the family was in Clonmel in Ireland where the young George not only made his first acquaintance with the Romany gypsies who were to fascinate him all his life, he also learned to ride a horse – without a saddle! By the end of 1815, however, the long series of wars with France were finally over and the family moved back to Norfolk.

Although he went on to study law it was languages and literature that really interested Borrow. He became a protege of the scholar William Taylor and, through his influence, wrote and published his first book, a translation of the Faust legend that had originally been published in Russia in 1791.

With the world now at peace again, Borrow was able to indulge himself in his passion for travel and for walking. He made tours around Germany and France and ventured much further afield, to places such as Russia, Morocco and Turkey. And having been to these places, he promptly wrote about them in books such as The Bible In Spain and The Romany Rye. It would be wrong to call him a hack writer - he was far more skillful than that - but he certainly could turn his talents to many different types of writing.

Even his marriage to Mary Clarke in 1840 did not stop his travels. She was a widow with land in the Lowestoft area – something that gave Borrow security and the money to indulge his interests – and in 1844 he completed an arduous walk across Europe to Istanbul.

Wild Wales

Perhaps his most profitable excursion, however, was his 1854 tour around Wales, a walk that in 1862 led to one of his most famous books: Wild Wales.

The book is a fascinating account of places encountered and people met while on the tour. Borrow's enthusiasm for the country, its history and language clearly come across in every page of the book. It remains a highly readable and wonderful account.

For many people in the late 19th century, their concept of Wales, its people and its landscape, came from reading Borrow's Wild Wales rather than from any visit to the country itself. Such was the power of his pen.

Borrow claimed to have been taught Welsh by a stable lad when he was still a boy in Norfolk. Given his propensity for and skill in languages it is highly likely. He certainly spoke Welsh, albeit with an unusual dialect. As the Welsh Academy Encylopaedia of Wales says, he was: "taken for a southerner in the north and a northerner in the south, he insisted on speaking the language at every opportunity."

Although he travelled all across Wales it was the rugged grandeur of the north that really appealed to him. At the time he was travelling, the southern valleys were in the throes of industrialisation and for someone like George Borrow such a despoliation of the land was an anathema.

Said to be a man of striking appearance, George Borrow was not averse to using his fists in a tight corner – the product of his army upbringing. He certainly liked to partake in a glass or two of beer but was, nevertheless, a strong churchman. His beliefs, however, did not stop him developing a strong affection for the nonconformist Welsh peasants.

Borrow's wife Mary died in 1869 but the man himself carried on walking and writing for another 12 years. He died on 26 July 1881 and was buried alongside Mary in Brompton Cemetery in London. He remains a man who, almost single handedly, gave Wales an identity in the minds of those across the border, and, perhaps, the greatest travel writer since Giraldus Cambrensis.

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