New Year’s Day is 1st January, isn’t it? Well not if you live in a wooded valley in Pembrokeshire where Hen Galan, or New Year’s Day, is celebrated on 13th January. This is the land that time forgot.
Today the inhabitants of the Gwaun Valley, near Fishguard, are getting ready for tomorrow’s celebrations. They are not two weeks late; they still follow the old Julian calendar which was abolished controversially in 1752 and replaced by the Gregorian calendar by which most of the Western World live today.
On Hen Galen the children of the valley go from door to door singing and are given “Calennig” (sweets or money) in return. Another tradition is that they are accompanied by Mari Llwyd, or grey mare, a wooden horse’s head decorated with ribbons which is paraded around on a pole. Apparently when Mari Llwyd accompanies the singers, she brings good luck and fortune upon the houses she visits.
The centre of the celebration is Bessie’s, the infamous front room pub, also known as The Dyffyrn Arms, which has been in the same family since 1840. Here Bessie, the landlady of early 40 years, oversees the revellers as they gather to celebrate before returning to their homes to feast on turkey or goose.
Inside Bessie’s heavy, dark-panelled room are just 10 chairs, two church pews, an open fire and a dartboard. No matter what time of year you visit, Bessie is always sitting by the fire wearing a dirty apron, and a black mitten (fingerless in summer), ready for a chat. “We are all just passers-by in this life and I am happy to talk to anyone,” she says.
From the bar (a hatch in the wall) she will serve you a pickled egg from out the back with either a pint of Bass, which she decants into a jug from her one and only barrel (none of the new fangled pumps for Bessie), or lemonade from a half-empty bottle on the counter. This is one of the greatest survivors of British pubs and the Gwaun Valley a unique, unspoiled and wonderful place.
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