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County of household bards and Metaphysicals

05 January 2010

David Wilbourne on a part of Wales richin its literary heritage


At the Bright Hem of God: Radnorshire pastoral
Peter J. Conradi

Seren Books £9.99 (978-1-85411-490-7)
Church Times Bookshop £9

STRAYING into Radnorshire by dusk to avoid gridlock on the M50, I was thoroughly enchanted. With just two roundabouts and no traffic lights (one of the tinier pieces in my Counties of the UK jigsaw), Rad­norshire nevertheless boasts more than 100 peaks exceeding 1500 feet. Literary peaks abound, too: poets and writers who were born here, sojourned here, or just dreamed of visiting. Conradi weaves them all into Radnornshire’s warp to create a stunning tapestry, injecting familiar names with fresh insights.

In 1176, Gerald of Wales, on tour to correct clerical irregularities, is an unwelcome visitor. Rural deans send emissaries to deter him, local clergy hold up crucifixes to bar his way, showering his party with spears and arrows — my introductory tour of Llandaff’s 12 deaneries seems tame in comparison.

The 20th-century chronicler Ffransis Payne cycled through Rad­norshire, documenting 15th-century holders of the position of bardd teulu, itinerant poets who eclipsed court jesters and journeyed from hall-house to hall-house. In the 17th century, Radnorshire spawned Herbert, Vaughan, and Traherne. Herbert, though MP for Montgomery (his birthplace) and incumbent of Landinam, obviously strayed further afield; and yet Ronald Blythe maintains that, in the March, one “can sense Herbert in the air”.

Vaughan employs the Welsh poetic device of dyfalu, compression of analogies, to be championed by T. S. Eliot three centuries on. Tra­herne and his this-worldly joy also lay mostly hidden, like a March mist, until rediscovered in the 20th century.

Rousseau never quite completed his Radnorshire retreat, and yet his romanticism, rooted in rugged landscape, changed public percep­tion, transforming cumbersome wilderness into the sheer glory visited by Coleridge, Shelley, and Wordsworth. But still a quirky glory: the novelist Elizabeth Clarke catches a Radnorshire bewildered by a 1939 Whitehall invitation to revert to farm horses and set aside tractors. There were only two tractors in the county any­way.

Kilvert is Radnorshire’s supreme ambassador, caught marvellously by Conradi. Intriguingly, in 1959 Ffrancis Payne traced the baby (by then a 90-year-old man in Glascwm) whom Kilvert baptised (Lent II, 1870) in “ice which was broken and swimming around the font”. The title of Conradi’s book is drawn from a poem by R. S. Thomas, Vicar of Manafon for 12 years. In another poem, “Casgob”, R. S. celebrates a village he never quite visits:

Time is a main road, eternity

the turning that we don’t take.

Conradi’s Radnorshire enables a thrilling glimpse of that eternity, brimful of R. S. and friends.

The Rt Revd David Wilbourne is the Assistant Bishop of Llandaff.


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