Chepstow, Monmouthshire, England? Wales? nobody seems to know

13 November 1960


Dear Philip and Hanna—


It really is time I wrote you a letter, and now I have the most impromptu, unexpected, one-thing-after-another day of the whole journey to report, and that was a Sunday at that. I find it hard even to remember the name of this town, which I hadn’t so much as heard of until the day before yesterday, and which in fact I have hardly seen, in the tourist sense of the word, even now. I came here from Oxford—another story, except that it is every bit as wonderful as I always thought—yesterday afternoon on a bus, which arrived after dark, in streaming rain, and set me down at the door of a pub, where I stood dripping for a minute or two before darting out and, happily, finding the entrance of what turned out to be a very nice hotel, where they did have a room, charmingly furnished, where you put sixpence in a slot to turn on a gas fire, and where they put a hot water bottle into the bed for you. This morning, happily, the rain seemed to be over, and I headed for the parish church, where two kindly ladies took me in hand and set me down with them. It was like that all day long, most improbably. After I had had a good solid English breakfast—porridge, bacon, sausage, tomato, toast and marmalade—I put on my boots and set out on foot for the real reason for my coming to Chepstow—Tintern Abbey. I hadn’t even known exactly where it was, until a nice young man at the bus headquarters in Oxford looked it up for me; but on a map in the hotel lobby I found the route to take to Tintern—a distance of some five miles, but I have walked so much in the last several weeks that it no longer sounds formidable. What I didn’t know, until I was actually in it, was that the road led through Tintern Forest, a wild, steep, lovely region which has been set aside as a national reserve. It made me think, a bit, of the redwood forest we drove through that Sunday on our way to San Francisco—though in place of the redwoods and Douglas firs there were yew trees, mixed with beech, and with here and there a holly tree, and ferns and ivy covering the ground and often the trunks of the trees. There were also still some flowers in bloom—there has been no frost to speak of—and to give you an idea I enclose a few botanical specimens. By the time I came out of the forest the sun had gone, and it was definitely raining again. 1 had just caught sight of Tintern Abbey itself when a car slowed down and the very nice-looking woman at the wheel asked if I would like a lift. I told her I had just come out to see the Abbey, but she said why didn’t I come along first and have a drink with her and her husband; so I did, and in the end they also gave me lunch, and a most delightful time. She turned out to be an ex-entertainer (piano) who had met her husband, a civil engineer, while she was playing for troops in Korea; and they had traveled a good deal, and had last lived in Somaliland, but a few months ago they had bought this house, which was—part of it—three hundred years old. It had a lovely view of wooded hills, and the valley of the Wye River, which was just below their terrace. There were swans on the river (one sees them everywhere in England at this time of year) and I looked at them through binoculars to find out from the bills, which kind they were. After feeding me an enormous lunch of steak and chips (as they call French-fries over here), green peas, tomatoes, apple pie and custard, with a mug of excellent beer brewed by the hostess herself, she drove me back to the Abbey, and since it was literally pouring rain by then, waited in her car while I looked round, and then drove me back to Chepstow. The abbey itself is indescribably lovely—roofless and vast, with great pointed windows, the glass long gone but some of the stone tracery still remaining. The stone a warm, rosy tone, encrusted with green and gray lichens, and with bunches of ferns growing high up in the angles of some of the mouldings, and against a background of wooded hills on either side of the Wye, altogether one of the most thrilling places I have ever seen, and romantic even in pouring rain.

Since all this is on the very border of Wales proper, it occurred to me that I still might have a chance to hear Welsh people singing. The man at the gateway to the Abbey told me I would probably have to go to Newport, a matter of fifteen or so miles from Chepstow, so go to Newport I did, after having told the man in the bus station what I wanted to do there and being shown the church notices in Saturday’s newspaper. To make sure I was getting off at the right place I asked a girl on the bus who immediately recognized from my accent that I was American (they always do), and volunteered to show me to wherever I was going. She didn’t know where the Ebenezer Welsh Presbyterian Church might be, but brought a policeman into the inquiry, and as it turned out that she and a friend were going in the same direction, she invited me under her umbrella, we all hopped aboard a bus and then off again and into a coffee bar which turned out to be directly across the street from the Ebenezer chapel. The chapel itself was still dark, and the man behind the counter at the coffee bar was then enlisted to keep watch and let me know when the lights went on. Well, they didn’t go on and they didn’t go on, and meanwhile everybody in the vicinity knew that I had come down to Newport on purpose to hear people singing in Welsh, and since all the pubs are closed on a Sunday in this part of Britain, there was no chance to go and hear them singing there, as they do when they get drinking, and I was beginning to fear the expedition had been in vain. However, there was an unexpected diversion: a very handsome boy suddenly appeared, and almost before he sat down with us I learned that he was Italian! Finding an Italian is always a pleasure, because trying to talk to them in Italian is such fun; and the next thing I knew, here came another Italian, and another, and immediately they also had to be told that I was American and had come down to Newport to go to the Welsh church, and they thought I must be very religious, and I said no, it wasn’t that, it was that I wanted to hear people singing in Welsh, and this bewildered them still more, but it didn’t prevent them from being very friendly, and I learned that they came to England to become apprentices because jobs are still relatively scarce in Italy, but of course they talk all the time about bella Italia and how in England it always rains—and outside it was pouring harder than ever. Among all the Italians who kept coming in were two very good-looking Negroes, one of whom was soon drawn into the conversation, and it turned out that he was from Somalia, and so we all sat counting up the nationalities, and marveling over them and there was the question of whether the girl who had brought me here, and who was Monmouthshire-born, was properly English or properly Welsh (she said she was English, but the others said no, Welsh), and this is what always happens when Monmouthshire is mentioned, and the Italians started telling me all the Welsh words they knew, and then, finally, lights were seen in the Ebenezer chapel, and I shook hands all round, and the Italians said I should pray for them, and I darted across the way and into the church, where I was handed a hymnbook which, sure enough, was all in Welsh, and I slipped into a pew and waited for things to start. There was an organ directly behind the pulpit, which wheezed whenever it was turned on, but no choir, for the reason that in a Welsh church the congregation is the choir. It really is true that they all sing, without direction, and in wonderful polyphonic harmony, as naturally, almost, as a baby cries or a flower grows. After a couple of hymns and a very long prayer by the minister, a ruddy and portly man in a clerical collar, and another hymn, the sermon began, and as I had suspected in advance, it turned out to be just about the longest sermon I ever listened to. And I really did listen, even though it was all in Welsh with an English phrase thrown in now and then for emphasis, but from those English phrases and the very graphic gestures of the preacher, I understood quite well that he was talking about the prophet Amos, and how he said, “I will put a plumbline among my people Israel.” How many times over I saw that plumbline being suspended from the pulpit I did not try to count—that would have been rude anyhow—but I began to think a little uneasily of the hotel back in Chepstow, and to wonder whether I should be getting back there before its doors closed for the night, as they do at a quite early hour in these provincial towns, and I am afraid I began to fidget. But slowly, circuitously, and with more suspending of plumblines, eloquent pauses, vehement gestures, shutting of Bible, shutting of prayerbook, at last, somehow, the preaching came to an end; and bang! after one more hymn (in which, surreptitiously, I joined in) the service was over. Immediately all the ladies in my vicinity converged and addressed me in Welsh. I explained that I did not speak Welsh, but that I had come down from Chepstow—“From Chepstow! This lady’s come down from Chepstow!”—and then ventured to add that I was from the United States. For once I had the satisfaction of seeing people register surprise. Before I got out of the church I must have shaken hands with half the congregation, while the word went buzzing around, and by the time I got to the door I found myself confronted by the pastor—“I hear you came from the United States”—and so I admitted that I did, and that I had wanted to hear people sing in Welsh, and 1 was highly satisfied, indeed I had loved it; and as far as I could see no­body was offended, though the pastor was amazed that I should have found my way down here, and how had I done it, and as I told him, I left him still shaking his head in amazement; and I did get back to Chepstow before the hotel doors closed, and now—it is Monday morning by this time—I am about to head for Dorchester, and so abruptly I shall end this breathless bit of illegibility.