'Grongar Hill invites my song'
'Romantic art is the result of a vision that can see in things something significant beyond ordinary significance; something that for a moment seems to contain the whole world and when the moment is passed carries over some comment on life or experience beside the comment on appearances.'
Last week was spent in south-west Wales staying with the bf. Monday was wonderfully spring like, if a little chill at times. We drove north on a return (3rd) visit to Llandeilo and then down the beautiful valley of the Towy - the ancient heartland of the kingdom of Deheubarth - a sort of literary and artistic pilgrimage for me. Llandeilo, as I must have said before on this blog, is a wonderful little town, built high above the river at a point where the valley narrows. A strategic point then. A place of royal and religious authority, where in the 6th century St Teilo established a clas, a type of monastic settlement, on the site now occupied by the parish church. It would be nice to think that the large oval graveyard perpetuates the shape of the original monastic enclosure. Anyway it is always a pleasure to explore Llandeilo with its nest of winding narrow streets and alleyways. There are fortunately a number of old shop fronts and still proper shops including two butchers. The best streetscape is Kings St where Georgian and Victorian buildings overlook the churchyard.
Then on, westward, down the Towy valley to the village of Llangathen and Aberglasney, the wonderful old manor house and garden and the goal of my secular pilgrimage. I'm not at all sure how the geology works but the north side of the middle Towy valley is quite complex with a ridge of hills rising up on the edge of the valley side, like a broken palisade. Aberglasney nestles in a fold between two of those hills, Bryn Castell-Gwrychion to the east and Grongar hill to the west. From the gardens there are delicious glimspses down between trees onto the wide floodplain of the river. The valley sides opposite are thick with woods. The gardens themselves are really delightful with plenty of the sort of formal gardening I like - the Cloister garden is very rare and could be Jacobean - with contrasting areas of informality including a sort of Sacro Bosco limping down the valley side. All in all pretty much perfect. A place where sensibility and imagination take wing. It is not surprising then that the Towy valley and in particular Grongar Hill have inspired a continual stream of artists particularly those associated with the Picturesque and Romantic movements.
In the 17th century Aberglasney was the home of John Dyer, the poet and artist. He is particularly remembered for his long lyric poem 'Grongar Hill' (1720). A minor poem by a minor writer, yes, but not without importance for 'Grongar Hill' marks a turn in English literature towards Romanticism. John Piper, the twentieth century Neo-romantic painter, said it was: 'one of the best purely topographical poems in existence [ ] I have loved the poem ever since I first read it, and I return to it whenever I feel depressed about the countryside getting spoilt.' In later life Dyer took up Holy Orders and ended up as parish priest in Conningsby, in this my own dear county. I've wondered what he felt about living amidst the looming flats of the Lincolnshire fens. William Gilpin visited the Towy valley, and wrote briefly about it in 'Observations on the River Wye and several parts of South Wales. etc. relative to Picturesque Beauty; made in the summer of the year 1770'. Turner, Pocock, Rooker and others followed.
It continued to attract artists into the 20th century too. I'm lucky enough to own a small lithograph by John Piper. (I think you can guess where this is leading.) Nothing grand, just a small, open edition illustration using merely four colours that, I think, was made by the Curwen Press to illustrate John Betjeman's anthology 'English, Scottish and Welsh Landscape Verse' (1944). It is, if you haven't already realized, of Grongar Hill, and I love it dearly. Dark, brooding and fraught with significance. Hence my pilgrimage. Piper in fact made four images of Grongar Hill, including an oil painting dating from the early forties, and the last, a present to Albert Hecht the frame maker, dating from the early eighties.