Ferdinand Mount

Elegy for wild Wales

If you drive West out of Carmarthen on the A40, you pass through a landscape of dimpled hills and lonely chapels and little rivers full of salmon trout.

If you drive West out of Carmarthen on the A40, you pass through a landscape of dimpled hills and lonely chapels and little rivers full of salmon trout. This is Byron’s Country, the place where Byron Rogers was brought up in the late Forties, not knowing a word of English, until at the age of five he made the momentous journey a few miles east into Carmarthen town. It is a very odd place. In the graveyard at Cana, just beside the road, you will find the grave of Group Captain Ira Jones DSO, MC, DFC and bar, MM, one of Wales’s greatest war heroes. He was famous for killing Germans who had baled out and were dangling from their parachutes. When he recovered the body of one German pilot, he put it in a hangar, dressed it in pyjamas and a dinner jacket, then toasted it in champagne. As Rogers remarks, ‘these are not things Errol Flynn or David Niven ever did.’

A little further on, there is the turning to Laugharne and Fern Hill farm, made famous by Dylan Thomas, but earlier almost equally famous as the home of Evans the hangman, advocate of ‘the short drop’ (not more than 18 inches), who used to dog- paddle across the estuary of the River Towy, pausing in the middle of the river to light a cigarette, in order to catch the train at Ferryside to pursue prize fights and women, for whom he had an appetite of Strauss-Kahn proportions.

Rogers’s essay on hangmen is a minor classic. I particularly liked the arrival of Berry the hangman to carry out the first public hanging in Carmarthen for 50 years. A huge crowd escorted him through the streets to the county gaol where he entered the condemned cell, according to the Carmarthen Journal, ‘unostentatiously dressed in a plain suit of dark clothing and wearing a red Turkish fez’.

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