“WHEN are you coming to us?” ran the message. “We in the Valleys are also in Monmouthshire. Come and let us show you isiwyn’s country.

This to an Englishman was a challenge as well as an invitation. Islwyn’s immortal verse is written in Welsh, far above my reach, but I knew his English poems and recognised his individual note. Buttressed by two stalwart Welshmen, entered the Valley—the Valley of the Little Mill - Cwmfelinfach.

You will remember how Archdeacon Coxe in search of Swiss scenes in the wilds of Monmouthshire, came to the Vale of “Sorwy” (Sirhowy).

“The features of this vale are more wild and romantic than thofe of the Ebwy; it is narrower and deeper; and the fhelving declivities, laid out in meadows, ftretch to the edge of the torrent, which roars in a profound abyfs, obfcured by overhanging trees.”

“Sorwy is a compound of two ancient water-words, found alos in the Sor Brook and the River Wye. With the exercise of some imagination we were able to recreate from the Sirhowy Valley of to-day the Sorwy Valley of Coxe’s days, but in this process we had to remove the products of industry, the nineteenth-and twentieth -century domestic and church architecture, and the black precipitate from the stream.

We turned left at the village of Cwmfelinfach and made for the Calvinistic shrine, the spiritual home, the tabernacle in the wilderness - “Babell.” I had been warned of a shock, but the first view of the little Bethel was fearful, devastating.

Babell, small and pathetic, was over-shadowed by a grey monster, mountain-high, which, in its sinister progress up the valley, had covered four football pitches and one cricket field, and seemed from our viewpoint, poised like some hideous mammoth ready to crush the House of God.

Never in my journeys through these valleys have I felt, as I felt at Babell, the horrid impact of the wastes of industry on the shrines of beauty and goodness.

Islwyn the sweet singer of Sirhowy, sleeps in the God’s-acre of Babell. We stood before his monument utterly unable to recapture his sweetness and light, restless in mind and soul by reason of the frightful grey tip, down which, in maddening regularity, fell the contents of the aerial buckets.

And this has continued, night and day for forty years and more. The grand men of the valley, after garnering the harvest of the mines below, come to the surface to find their “wild and romantic vale,” their “crystal stream,” and their sanctuaries desecrated by the grim tip.

Shaken by the sight and sound, we entered the chapel. The elders talked to us of their beloved Islwyn; they showed us the bardic hair which he had won at Rhyl Eisteddfod in 1870 for his poem “Y Nos” (the night).

The sound of the conveyor-buckets followed us into the quiet chapel.

They told us how they were struggling to keep aflame the torch of Christ in the Valley of the Little Mill. “We have but small congregations and no resident pastor. We depend on visiting lay-preachers and we are getting old. Few of the young ones are here to follow us, and when we go….”

The bucket tipped, tipped. …

Said Phillip ap Afanfryn to me, “Sit here, maestro, and play the organ while we sing Islwyn’s hymns.”

In a moment, the place was transformed. Even I, who know little Welsh, was constrained to sing, and led by Phil’s magnificent baritone, the eight of us sang to the Glory of God in the heaven-inspired words of the valley-poet, composed on Snowdon above the clouds:

“Gwel uchlaw cymylau amser…”

“See above life’s clouds and shadows

See, my soul, the Land of Light,

Where the breeze is ever balmy,

Where the sky is ever bright.

Blessed myriads

Now enjoy its perfect peace.”

Banal and thin is the sound of the English translation after the thunder and glory of the massive Welsh words, sung to “Bryn Calfaria.”

Then we sang, “O arwain fi i’th nefol ffyrdd,” and half a dozen more, until our souls burned within us.

The conveyor-buckets were still tipping as we emerged into the evening light, but they had lost their sinister power.

The spirit of the gentle poet-pastor, living on in his deathless hymns, had set at nought the onslaught of ugliness, and fixed our minds on the Land of Light.

We strolled down past the tip to Pont Lawrence where the little river comes hurtling through a single arch. Here, where the great hill rises tree-clad almost to it’s summit, Islwyn must have brooded in his terrible grief when, exactly a century ago, his life was shattered by the death of Ann Bowen, a tragedy which produced his greatest poem, “Y Storm.”

Footnote. - Soon after the publication of this article an official of the Coal Board announced that the advance of the coal-tip towards Babell would cease.

The Sweet Singer of Sirhowy PART II

ABOUT a quarter of a mile upstream from Pont Lawrence was the Little Mill which gave its name to the valley. At the back of the Mill, Mr. George Morgan tells me, was a large pond where members of Twyngwyn Church were baptised by immersion.

My enterprising guide, Douglas ap Arthur, took us now through Ynysddu (the black island) and along the Old Road to Gelligroes (the sunken cross-road—possibly a ford).

Here we discovered a pretty hamlet of stone-built cottages, another single-arched bridge, and an ancient over-shot water-wheel working a flour-mill. In a house in the hamlet, shown on the left of the sketch, many of Islwyn’s Welsh poems were first printed. His poem, “The Nightingale,” was composed in the lane near Gelligroes.

The miller, as ingenious as he was kindly, showed us the millstones, “adjusted to one-thirty-second of an inch,” the mechanism connecting the wheel with the stones, and his own device by which the wheel generated sufficient electricity to light his mill and to charge many a battery.

It was at Gelligroes Mill that some of the earliest wireless experiments in Gwent were made. The miller’s brother and the farmer at Ty Llwyd over Ynysddu were in communication in 1908, and our miller remembers orders for feeding-stuffs being received “over the air” before the First World War.

The inner casing of the roof of the mill consists of some of the old box-seats from Bedwellty Church. We spent a gay half-hour tracing the names scratched on the panels—among them “Sarah Jones and Joseph Jones of New Tredegar.”

Near the mill in the old days was an inn, now disused, prettily styled “The Woodman’s Delight.” Our tour of the valley was followed by visits to delightful old people who gave me memories and legends of their beloved Islwyn.

The youngest of nine children of Morgan and Mary Thomas, “Islwyn”— William Thomas—was born at Ty’r Agent, Ynysddu, in 1832. Ty’r Agent (the “Old Machine House”) is no more, but Greenmeadow and Ty’r Glyn, later homes of the poet, survive.

He went to schools at Tredegar, Newport, and Cowbridge, and to a college in Swansea. It was at Swansea that he fell in love with Ann Bowen, the beautiful girl who inspired his early poems, and whose death in 1853 clouded his life.

Later he married Martha Davies, of Swansea, and they came to live at Ty’r Glyn. Martha was ideally suited to tend the highly-strung, sensitive poet, and her loving sympathy and devotion are remembered in the valley to this day.

“What do you recall of Islwyn as a man?” I asked Mrs Walters, aged 92, of Glenside.

She thought in silence for half-a-minute, and then murmured, “He was well-liked. He was witty.

He was nervous after dark, but while he was still alive we knew him to be a great man.”

“On one dark night Islwyn was visting a cottage a short distance from his home. When the time came to return the two girls of the cottage accompanied him, lighting this way with a candle.”

“Suddenly his servant jumped out from behind a bush and for a joke, blew out the candle. FRightened beyond measure, Islwyn ran back to the cottage, quite sure that the light had been extinguished by a dead lady who ‘walked’ that lane.”

“Islwyn,” she continued, “kept a bantam cockerel indoors as a pet. ~To amuse the children, of whom he was very fond, he would request the bird to sing, whereupon it would crow.”

Little by little, from Mrs. Walters and Mr. George (aged 90) and others I was able to paint a mental picture of Islwyn.

I see him as a short, slight man, with brown eyes and hair, a broad, calm brow and a gentle voice and manner, Childless, yet loving children, loving also his home and his dear wife, he was one with his people, who revered him.

Like many other sensitive soules, he found solace in a pipe of tobacco, and frequently in two, for while he smoked one, he filled another.

He played a harmonium. He was Secretary to Ynysddu School Board.

Maybe tobacco was a heaven-sent sedative following these activities.

Amd what of his poems? Were they a part-time hobby after his preaching and secretarial duties? Islwyn had been taught many of the ancient arts of Welsh poetry, sitting on an old oak tree stump, by Aneurin Fardd, the miller of Gelligroes.

It seems clear to me that once he had become a master-craftsman, Islwyn bent his art to the expression in noble verse of his attitude towards the universe, towards beauty, towards God.

His work is intrinsically spiritual. With no effort he gets “God’s view of the daisy.” He loved a snowy Sunday, “when every white-robed hill seemed to be expecting visits from the angels.” Christ had never passed through Cwnfelin, although the poet had been once strangely moved by a shadow. Yet, on the resurrection morn, his Savoir would recognise him, would call him by name.

Angels were his constant companions, surrounding him day and night. Lovely it is to think of this gentle poet, walking the lanes of his beloved valley, and conscious of the sound of angel’s wings over Babell and the village.

Did Lazarus only sleep, he asks, that a God might learn to weep?

How happy, thrice happy, must Joseph of Arimathea have been when he knew that Christ would not want his Sepulchre long. How well repaid also, for “he sleeps now where once his Saviour lay.”

Islwyn could blazze into wrath when he looked at hungry men, repining for bread, while the hounds of the rich were richly fed. The suffering of his people seared his soul, and he prayed that the morning dews might “blush into blood, in the great name of God.”

Yet he loved his life. He wished to live long. Addressing the “patriarchal oak,” now recumbent on the slopes above the village, he confesses, “I envy thee. Thou shalt many an unborn century see.”

Though I cannot read his greatest poems, I am convinced that Islwyn’s short life - for he he died at forty-six - was filled by an art devoted to the highest.

His love for his people, like his love for his Master, brought the angels from heaven to Cwnfelin, and my short visit to the Valley convinced me that the influence of those angles, like the influence of Islwyn, remains strong and sweet.