An Art, and a Mystery

“When my grandfather walked from Wales to London with his cow” my mother began. He WHAT? Nothing so interesting had ever been revealed about my ancestors before this, in fact they were almost a no go area. My mother didn’t seem to know much more about the mechanisms of this journey, and the conversation turned to other things. But after her death a year or so later, I began researching this unsuspected nugget of family history.

It turned out that for centuries the Welsh had left Wales looking for a better life, and if they happened to have a cow, as my great grandfather William did, the cow came too. What happened to their wives, I wondered? I imagined that his young wife Mary might avoid the duress of the arduous walk from Aberystwyth to London, and follow on in a cart, or some other transport. I was probably wrong. In all likelihood they both joined up with the legendary Welsh drovers of the time, he in charge of the cow and helping with all the other animals; she perhaps accompanying the weavers and knitters who walked with the drovers. Welsh woollen stockings fetched good prices in London; Welsh textile businesses were to become two iconic London stores: D H Evans and Peter Jones. I like to think of Mary, walking along and knitting as she went. My sisters and I have all loved knitting; my sister Sandie was a well known weaver as well.

Walking alongside the drovers were ‘maids’; young women who worked in market gardens along the way and in London. They were known as ‘weeders’, or ‘garden girls’. Their work was much in demand as they were strong and sturdy, another Welsh characteristic that has come down my family to this day. We women are all strong and sturdy, and keen gardeners too.

Three Scots Pines on the horizon was a waymark to indicate the drovers would be welcomed by a local farmer, and given shelter and grazing. I was fascinated to find this out, as the Scots Pine has for years been my favourite tree. Forty years ago we planted around a dozen in the Dove Meadow. They already tower above all the other trees we planted, and have formed a wood where you can enjoy wafts of resin scent, the dark green needles against the blue sky, and the long-tailed tits and other birds that hop around their branches. As you can tell from the photo below, it makes complete sense to me that they were a sign of welcome and rest

So what about this blog title, ‘An Art, and a Mystery’? I found it quoted in the book ‘The Drovers’ Roads of Wales’ by Fay Godwin and Shirley Toulson, as a description of his trade by a drover applying for a license. It was a rough, tough, sometimes dangerous life, but full of skill, companionship and food for curious minds. Drovers were message bearers from hamlet to hamlet, honest brokers and bankers for their patrons, shoers of cattle, geese and pigs, usually devout Christians required by law to rest on the Sabbath, purveyors of fruit such as redcurrants unknown in Wales, and spreaders of news acquired on their journeys. Much art lay in their management of the herds on this difficult journey. And mystery? My ancestors’ story is shrouded in mystery; lost in time, a tale of another life altogether, but which is a part of me – has always been a part of me, it now appears.

I know from the census that Mary and William Edwards made it to their new life. At the end of the journey, which probably lasted around 3 weeks with the average speed of progress 2mph, they left the drovers north of the capital to continue on into London, where they set up shop in Wandsworth, grazing their cow on the Common, providing milk for the capital as did countless other Welsh dairymen, and eventually banding together to form the United Dairies. As well as three sons, Mary raised the three daughters you see in the photo at the start of this post. Top right is the middle daughter Gertrude, my grandmother.

Economic migrants. Folk memory. Art, and Mystery.

8 comments
  1. Absolutely wonderful to read Bron. Thank you fir sharing a tale from another age Abd your personal history. Xx

    • It’s been a good way to get into the subject of my ancestor; now I must work out how to represent this on my ‘page’ of our ABCD book.

  2. clevedoncarol said:

    How interesting Bron, an incredible tale of people who just got on with it. We have got too soft! Carol

    • Yes, I had planned, several years ago, to do the journey myself, plus friends and family members, over a number of weeks. I may have left it too late, especially with the constraints we have at present. But I have followed the part of the journey that crosses the ‘Welsh Desert’ between Tregaron and Abergwysyn, on Google Earth! It seemed endless and empty and ardous (and beautiful). Fortunately, if I ever do get to do it myself, there is now a single track road.

  3. Fascinating! What a wonderful story.
    Shirley Toulson used to live in Wells. We collaborated on two books about Samuel Palmer.
    As a child I had a lovely book called William and Cherry, about a boy and his cow who walked to London, where from I don’t recall, and set up a milk stall in Hyde Park.

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