Wednesday, 4 October 1808
Two paces maketh a journey
After three days of walking, six meals, two quarrels, two nights under the shelter of a barn roof and being chased by a set of hostile teeth, Ned arrived at the town of Wantage.
It was a small town, loyal to the Crown, surrounded by a sea of flat and static agricultural land. Ned was unaccustomed to such wealth. The houses of Wantage were commodious and clean; the people finely attired and their shoes highly polished; their discourse courteous, their conversations genteel.
Ned wandered the streets with their houses of uniform brick on the outskirts of the town, until he came to a clamour of people. It was market day and the broad square was packed with stalls laden with merchandise. The Welshman drew the attention of many and children fled from his path. His brittle soles and erratic gait were at odds with the privileged atmosphere which embraced the citizens of Wantage. Ned knew he was different in countenance and appearance to the people strolling sedately from stall to stall, their hats set square. His hair was longer than most men of his age and matted, as if mice had gnawed the ends. He wore a neckerchief, and while the cloth of his coat was of good quality his constant journeying had caused a deep tear under the left side of his chest exposing the inner lining. His woollen breeches were frayed where they had worn thin, and his body bowed under the weight of the parcel on his back. But it was his sharp blue eyes that truly characterised him, that set him apart. They darted hither and thither and stopped dead anyone presumptious enough to hazard a second glance. Most residents turned up their noses at him, but having passed him, ventured a more detailed look at the peculiar traveller carrying a parcel, lashed tortoise-like, on his back. Despite his strange appearance Ned was regarded as a handsome man and the wrinkles in his skin were bathed in tenderness. On occasion, women would stare at him a touch longer than was deemed decent.
He bought a loaf and some cheese and was gifted a wink of an apple by a female stallholder who demanded his attention.
He enquired about a blacksmith and was directed to the far edge of the town on the Oxford road.
Having eaten, he made his way to the forge, following the woman’s directions. The blacksmith was hard at work. Ned could hear his hammering some hundred yards away.
The forge had a stable door and was lit by fire from its centre to its outer walls. He kicked the lower part of the door forcefully with the edge of his foot. The hammering continued unabated. The Welshman struck his head through the upper part of the door and watched the blacksmith working a length of white-hot iron, bending it around the anvil, before punching holes in both ends. He grabbed the iron with his tongs and dropped it in a trough of water. Heat rose in a cloud of vapour. When he crossed the room to get an iron brush, Ned seized his chance.
‘May I ask a favour of you, my friend?’
The blacksmith did not respond. He reached for the brush and returned the tongs to its proper place, then crossed back to the water trough. Picking up the piece of iron, he held it in front of his eyes, studying its curvature intensely. The shape pleased him.
‘What favour would that be?’ he asked without looking up from his work.
‘There's a nail bothering me through the sole of my shoe. If I can use your tongs I could remove it and continue on my journey.’
‘In my trade I am more concerned with hammering nails in not taking them out.’
The blacksmith set upon the piece of iron that had been in the water, brushing it until it shone. Fragments of iron fell around him. He caressed the curve of the circle he had created. Setting the object to one side he reached for another piece and thrust it into the centre of the fire to heat.
‘What payment can I expect for helping you on your journey?’
Ned contemplated awhile.
‘You may keep the nail to use again.’
The blacksmith glanced over his shoulder at a wooden box crammed with nails. He then returned to the piece of iron in the fire and watched the heat radiating from it until it glowed purple. After a while, he replied dryly,
‘It may well be that a nail is scarce in other parts of the country, not so in Wantage.’
Placing a leather glove on his hand, he grabbed a pair of long-necked tongs and pulled the piece of iron from the middle of the fire. The iron glowed red from its core out. He laid it on the anvil and began hammering. Sparks flew like meteors. Each strike was aimed true and the iron curled under the hammer like the previous piece. He drove holes in it. Ned’s bones shuddered with the deafening hammer-blows.
‘Do I look like a man in need of a second-hand nail?’ he asked as the sound of his last blow faded.
‘I have no more to offer you, and in any case, I think a nail is a fair exchange for my request.’
Ned watched the blacksmith retriiving a length of chain from the rear of the workshop, pulling it tightly between his hands.
‘What is that burden on your shoulders?’ he enquired indicating the parcel on Ned’s back.
The blacksmith began working his bellows, increasing the heat. Ned felt a fiery wave sweeping over him. He watched the coals changing colour from red to bright amber as the flame took hold. When the heat had reached its highest temperature, the blacksmith soldered the iron chain to the two large rings he had worked earlier, and dipped them in the water to cool. A cloud of steam spurted from the trough like a snake spitting its venom as the malleable iron hardened.
‘Stories? They are indeed rare in these parts. I’ll trade my tongs for a tale. Come, sit down.’
Ned pushed open the lower half of the stable door and sat on the three-legged stool offered by the blacksmith.
Removing his parcel, he deposited it at his feet. The blacksmith poured them each a glass of cider. Ned drank deeply to quench his thirst, and then began his tale.
‘Once upon a time...
It is 1808 and a man sets out to walk from south Wales to London. The stonemason Edward Williams, who has reinvented himself as the poet, antiquarian, literary genius and fraud, Iolo Morgannwg, is on his way to visit Owain Myfyr, a successful furrier in the city who shares Iolo’s passion for early Welsh literature. Owain has devoted untold time and money to publishing the fruits of Iolo’s research in ancient manuscripts, but after fifteen years of their working together to preserve early Welsh poems and tales, he has openly accused Iolo of forgery. Iolo drafted a riposte, but never sent it, and now Aled Evans, in this impressive début novel, imagines what could have happened if Iolo had gone to face his accuser in person.
Blending fact and fiction, Evans recreates the relationship between the two men and their contrasting worlds: the astute, pragmatic London businessman, confidently navigating the city’s tavern intrigues and dangerous streets, and the cash-strapped dreamer, living with one foot in an imagined past, but cunning and alert. Keeping step with Iolo on his mission is the story of Gwri Goleuwallt’s journey in a world full of magic: authentic traditional tale or another of Iolo’s fabrications? Now dark, now ludic, celebrating the will of stories to adapt and survive, Saith Cam Iolo dances along the borders of truth and lies, of history and imagination.
‘The author is a very able strict meter poet. While his prose is already rich, at times he surrenders to poetry, it all works together, and creates a style that is unexpectedly original. There is a sweeping originality and excellence in parts…an incredible talent.’
‘It has seared my memory for some weeks, it’s definitely the best Welsh novel I’ve read this year, and I can’t think of a better English one either.’