A Step Back in Time
By Wendy Hughes
If the Christmas and New Year celebrations passed too quickly for your liking, then venture into the small wooded valley of Cwm Gwaun, or Gwaun Valley, near Fishguard in Pembrokeshire where time has stood still since the 18th century. Tourists visiting the area will be forgiven if they are a little confused because on 13 January, you will find yourself in the mist of New Year celebrations.
It is a tradition well worth exploring and finding out a little of its origins, still running according to the old Julian Calender and celebrate Hen Galen, the old New Year. The Julian calendar, named after the Roman Julius Ceasar was introduced in 45BC, but in an attempt to correct a growing discrepancy between the dates of festivals and the actual season meant that three days were being gained every four centuries,
In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered that everyone throughout the world should change from the Julian calendar to the New Gregorian Calendar, which we use today. In fact this did not take place in Britain until 1752, when 2 September was immediately followed by the 14. There was a public outcry with people shouting and demanding. ‘Give us back our eleven days,’ but the people of Cwm Gwaun stuck to the old Julian calendar, and continue to celebrate their New Year on the 13 January regardless. Although the calendar was finally adopted by many European countries, Wales refused to go along with it, probably because of continuing clashes with Roman Catholicism after the English Reformation.
In true Welsh tradition, the children of the valley go from house to house carrying a Calennig (gift), of a small decoration with a great history. The word itself is thought to have been derived from the Latin calends and some think the custom dates back to pagan times. An apple (or latterly perhaps an orange) was supported on a tripod of twigs and studded with cloves. .A sprig of box (from a nearby hedge) was inserted at the top and in later years decorated with gold foil and decorated with raisins made to appear as though they grew from the sprig. The resulting Calennig would then be displayed in the home or perhaps delivered to friends as a symbolic gift, and was thought to be a token offering the family a good crops in the coming year.
The traditional Calennig songs sung in Welsh have not been altered for centuries and in return the children are given sweets and money. Nothing is organised with the parents taking the children around the houses as their parents had done for generations. There are numerous ditties that are sung and here are just two:
Blwyddyn Newydd daa i chi
A happy new year to you
Ac i Bawb sydd yn y tŷ
And to everyone in the house
Dyma fy nymuniad i
This is my wish
Blwyddyn Newydd dda i cho
A happy new you to you.
Mi godais heddiw ma’s o’m tŷ
I left my house today
A’m cwd a’m p astwn gyda mi,
With my bag and my stick,
A dyma’m neges ar eich traws,
And here is my message to you,
Sef llanw’m cwd â bara a chaws.
Fill my bag with bread and cheese.
Later in the evening the revellers gather in the famous front room pub, The Dyffryn Arms, or Bessie’s as it is affectionately known to share a drink and a feast of turkey or goose. In true tradition Hen Galen celebrations were even bigger than the Christmas. The pub has been in the same family since 1840 and shows how a pub would have been 60 years or so ago and is like stepping back in time where beer is served straight from the barrel through a hatch in the wall
Bessie, who celebrated her 80th birthday in 2010, is a true character who enjoys sharing stories and jokes with everyone who cares to stop for a drink. Whether Bessie is the longest-serving landlady in Wales, might be difficult to prove, but in one thing is certain, in 2015 she set a remarkable record by marking the 40th year with the Dyffryn Arms featured in the Good Beer Guide, also known as the Beer Bible.
To mark this outstanding achievement, members of the Pembrokeshire branch of CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) visited Bessie on 3 November to present her with a certificate from CAMRA HQ and a classic brewery sign from Bass, whose beer she has served straight from the barrel for many years. For four decades Bessie, ably assisted by her granddaughter Nerys, has quenched the thirst of thousands of people, whether Gwaun Valley farmers, hikers or horse-riders passing through, or just visitors from all parts who make the “pilgrimage” to the Dyffryn Arms. There have also been numerous celebrity visitors to Bessie’s, including TV journalist and broadcaster Jamie Owen, classical singer Shan Cothi, and even Prince Charles, who dropped in to see the 1910 picture of his great uncle, the future Edward VIII but at that time Prince of Wales.
The pub itself dates back to 1845, when it opened under the name “Holly Bush” (“Llwyn Celyn”). At the beginning of the 20th century the name changed to Dyffryn Arms, reflecting its location in the Gwaun Valley. But everyone calls it simply “Bessie’s”. Starting in 1950, Mrs Bessie Davies helped her mother-in-law, Mary Howells, to run the pub before becoming landlady herself in 1972. One of the main attractions of this cherished Welsh pub is that little has changed over the years and more importantly, there are no jukeboxes or fruit machines to distract you. When you enter the bar, you still feel you’re being welcomed into Bessie’s front room, complete with stone fireplace and quarry-tiled floor.