You can hardly even spell LLangollen, much less pronounce it -- get a lot of gargle way back in your throat and try chlanglacchlan. But there's a Very Important International Music Festival there every year, and for a period of about five days the population swells from a bucolic 3,000 or so mostly Welsh locals to as many as 33,000 foreigners speaking almost as many languages.
Of course, what they speak is irrelevant. It's what they sing . . .
"You want to go where? When?" asked an incredulous British Tourist Office person some two weeks before. ("They've got a festival going on there, luv, and there's no beds for miles around . . ." "Well", we said, "we thought we'd try. "Well, luv," sighed British Tourist Person, "we'll have a go at it."
So that's what we got -- beds for miles around. Five or six miles along the River Dee (and then straight up) from the festival grounds in Llangollen, past a place called LLantysilio. In the Conquering Hero, for centuries, at least five, an inn for wayfares (listed in "The Inns of Wales").
For 51 weeks a year, it is a neighborhood pub. It is owned now, says the town taxi (dripping contempt), by "a fellow from London." "The cab driver is charming, talkative -- he was a uranium miner in Canada, once, and knows about Americans -- and considering his is the only taxi game in town, less exorbitant than one might expect -- two pounds ($5) from Eisteddfod, the Welsh name for the festival, to the Hero. One walks back (downhill) past the placidly grazing (and stupid) sheep and along the Shropshire Union Canal. It is misty and green and a bit rainy. It is the country of the Goose Girl, of Jack the Giant Killer. The hills roll and the sheep chomp and chomp and chomp. There are the ruins of an ancient castle way off in the distance. They sat of Scotland -- and it fits Wales this past record-breaking wet summer -- "If you can see the mountains, it's going to rain. If you can't, it's raining."
At the Conquering Hero, there are two public rooms downstairs, one on either side of a very steep staircase. On the left is the drinking room; on the right, the lounge. The bar in the back serves both rooms. As a general rule, the locals, all sounding like Richard Burton, stay in the drinking room, and the wayfarers, who stay in one of the two bedrooms at the top of the steep stairs, in the lounge. Breakfast is served in the lounge. What communication there is between locals and wayfarers is, by and large, limited to snickers at wayfaring attempts at Welsh pronunciation. One gives it up.
There is a white brick fireplace in the bedroom and very old (probably priceless) rough-hewn furniture. There are two narrow beds. One is low and very soft. The other is even lower and even softer. For knight and squire, one thinks. The noise from the drinking room directly underneath is dim and comforting.
The only American singing group we will hear the next afternoon at the festival -- the San Francisco Boys Chorus -- doesn't win anything. Never mind, in the morning there is a sheep peering in through the bathroom window.