Editor's note: Jan Morris is universally considered one of the greatest living travel writers. She is the author of some 40 books, including the Pax Britannica trilogy and major studies of Wales, Europe, Sydney, Venice, Hong Kong and Trieste. She recently sent us this epistle from a sojourn into the linguistic heart of her homeland, Wales.
There is only one way to approach it. Down a violently precipitous and twisting road you must drive, along the edge of a deep, deep gulley, round several horseshoe bends, dizzily downwards through a dark conifer wood, until the road emerges, slightly shaken, on a wide shelf above the sea. Mountains tower above this secretive place, isolated sheep and feral horned goats meander about the heather and the bracken, there are ruined farm-houses here and there, and directly over the empty ocean is the hamlet called Nant Gwrtheyrn.
The name means Gwrtheyrn's Spring, because among the ghosts of the village is the half-mythical Welsh king Gwrtheyrn, otherwise known as Vortigen, whose reputation in Wales is ambiguous because he collaborated with usurping Saxons out of England. He is supposed to have died here, and he has left behind him a host of ancillary legends. There is the story of the bride who, according to ancient Welsh custom, playfully hid herself from her bridegroom on the morning of her wedding, but was found years later, a skeleton in festive rags, hiding still in a split oak tree. There is the tale of the three monks who were not welcomed by the village, and responded by cursing it with three terrible curses, allegedly applicable to this day. Varied ghosts and apparitions, owls, coffins, divine fire, a marauding eagle, skeletons and cormorants, Romans and druids and pilgrims all figure in the blurred folk-memories of Nant Gwrtheyrn, and temper its atmosphere still.
Far below you on the shore, as you twist your way down through the woods, you may see the vestigial remains of three jetties. These are more substantial ghosts. For many centuries this valley was occupied only by a few hardy livestock farmers and fishermen, and by miners working its scant resources of iron and manganese. In the middle of the 19th century, however, quarry companies realized that there was money to be made from the granite mountains all around. Soon three separate quarries were being worked. Granite was then used to surface roads all over Britain, and from those quays down there, one to each quarry, for nearly a century small coasting steamers took profitable slabs of it off to England.
On the flat land above the quays a village was built to house the quarrymen and their families, and there it still stands. When the granite industry finally collapsed in the mid-20th century, it became the legendary lost village of Nant Gwrtheyrn, gradually fading, amid its winds, its legends and its goats, into a ghost itself. For years nobody lived there, and on the right damp twilight, if you wander through its buildings, you may fancy that nobody lives there now.