Monday, 31 July 2017

50 METRES ABOVE SEA LEVEL

Is not very high but it’s enough for me to see the circle of mountains and hills which surround my new house. 

I want to describe them from the north west, starting with Garn Boduan, a rather uninteresting hill to climb due to its dense covering of fir trees which gives its outline an unshaved stubbly look.  But it is of interest in that nearby is Bodfel Hall, birthplace of Hester Thrale, friend of Samuel Johnson who visited this area with her.  See Beryl Bainbridge’s excellent novel According to Queenie.

To the north are the elegant triple peaks of Yr Eifl, looking like extinct volcanoes (which they are).  On the seaward side there was extensive quarrying of granite setts, widely used for urban streets in the 19th and early 20th century.  A whole village was built for the workers at Nant Gwrtheyrn and later abandoned.  It has now been given a new lease of life as the National Language Centre of Wales.  On the most easterly peak is a well-survived iron age hill fort, Tre’r Ceiri, (the Town of the Giants) with high stone ramparts and hut circles – most atmospheric when the mist is swirling round the ramparts.

The quiet group of hills I call Bwlch Mawr after one of its summits lies behind the village of Clynnog Fawr, with its ancient church on the pilgrim route to Bardsey. 

If it’s clear enough the next most noticeable mountain to the north east is Snowdon, obviously higher than any surrounding hills.  In The Prelude Wordsworth described his ascent at night with a shepherd guide, the only excitement provided by
    
     The shepherd’s lurcher, who among the crags,
     Had do his joy unearthed a hedgehog, teased
     His coiled-up prey with barkings turbulent.

Then they climbed above the mist into moonlight –

     The Moon hung naked in a firmament
     Of azure without cloud, and at my feet
     Rested a silent sea of hoary mist.
     A hundred hills their dusky backs upheaved
     All over this still ocean; and beyond,
     Far, far beyond, the solid vapours stretched
     In headlands, tongues and promontory shapes.

Looking sunwise to the east there are more mountains, incuding Moel Hebog and the Rhinogs (loved by poet Lee Harwood and listed in Robert Graves’ poem “Letter to SS from Mametz Wood”).

Looking through the bushes along the boundary fence of the garden I can see the blue line of the sea of Cardigan Bay and to the south east the classic outline of Cadair Idris (Idris’s Chair – yes, Idris was a giant).

To the south west and nearer to my house are Moel y Felyn Wynt, Carneddol and Garn Saethon, insignificant hills of Pen Llŷn but they form the view from my living room.   Moel y Felyn Wynt has the stump of an old windmill on its summit.  Its Welsh name translates as Windmill Hill but locally it is known as the Jam Pot.  I asked someone working on my house what this nickname was in Welsh and was told that it was not very original – the Pot Jam. 

Garn Saethon is the hill I find most interesting, with its hill fort (“date unknown”), its nearby reminders of the Crimean War (Inkerman Bridge, Balaclava Road) and its long deserted stone church dedicated to the archangel Michael.  An 1851 a religious census recorded a congregation of 7 “owing to the inconvenient location of the church”.  The parish was abolished in 1934.

The OS maps’ gothic lettering of historical sites features on several of the hills – settlement, fort, field systems, hut circles – but this is not an exhaustive list.  I found this out by visiting the Bangor University dig at Meillionydd at Rhiw a few days ago.  The archaeologists are most enthusiastic about this site, not marked on any maps but shown up as two circles by aerial photography.  They have discovered that Meillionydd (named after a nearby farm) was occupied from the 13th century to the 8th century BC – from the late Bronze Age to the Iron Age.  I was fascinated to see a stone lamp which still had soot embedded in its shallow reservoir, spindle whorls (one of them decorated), glass beads, grinding stones and - the archaeologists were most excited about this one - a jet bracelet.

Visiting the dig has made me view the encircling hills differently.  The deserted summits were once occupied, fires would have flickered from the hills at night and below the soil must lie evidence of human habitation. 

For information about the dig

 meillionydd.bangor.ac.uk

Monday, 24 July 2017

RETURN

Why have you moved to Wales?  people ask.  After all I lived in Cumbria for over 26 years.  Well, it all began with my mother’s love of acting (not inherited – I just like being audience).

My mother was a member of the Grove Players, a Birmingham amateur dramatics society run by her cousin, John Taylor.   The members of the society came to Nefyn for a week in the summer, stayed at Mrs Hughes’ guest house in St David’s Road and put on plays in the Madryn Hall (now demolished) in the evenings. 

I was only a toddler when I first came and I’m not sure for how many years these dramatic holidays lasted.   But I do remember the long journey from Warwickshire in my father’s overloaded pre-war Austin 7 (always overheating part way up the Tanat Valley), return visits to Mrs Hughes and playing on the beach at Nefyn.

It was, perhaps, an encore too far and the Grove Players abandoned their seaside summer season.  But my parents continued to come to the Llŷn Peninsula.  We stayed self-catering with Jane Griffiths and her mother at Pen y Gongl, a small-holding (no electricity) at Llangwnnadl.  Gwyneth, the child next door, taught me the Welsh children’s rhyme, “Mi welais Jac y do” (I saw a jackdaw).  When Jane Griffiths married David Jones we moved with her to stay self-catering at Pen y Bont (Maen Hir) (no electricity).  Repeated visits over the years and hours of chatting while they milked half a dozen Welsh black cows by hand made us firm friends.

Then in the 1960s my father bought an unmodernised cottage near Llaniestyn.  It became our holiday base used by family and friends over many years.   I helped as a volunteer in the garden at Plas yn Rhiw and through the Miss Keatings I met the poet, R S Thomas.  I had already read his early poetry in the anthology Six Modern Poets, one of my school set texts.  Met is perhaps a little misleading – encountered would be a better word.  I don’t recall much conversation during the occasional lift in the back seat of his car (Honora Keating in the front) but it was enough to be in close proximity to a real poet.  I hoped that somehow I would absorb the gift to write by some mysterious literary osmosis.

I spent extended periods of time at Llaniestyn whenever I could, including a whole winter when my husband was away on a sabbatical in the States.  My children went to the Ysgol Feithrin (pre-school playgroup) in the village.  They learnt to count and say their colours in Welsh in order to get their free sweet ration from Meira who ran the Garn shop (one of the last of the little shops that used to exist every couple of miles or so along the winding Llŷn lanes).

Time moves on.  I missed the house after we sold it, almost 20 years ago, and came back intermittently to stay at Rhiw and Uwchmynydd, right on the tip of the peninsula, and last year on Bardsey Island for a week.   But I was afflicted with hiraeth, a melancholy longing to return – and this summer I have.


So now you know.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

ARRIVAL

I’m drinking a coffee and watching a buzzard spiralling higher and higher on the warm air currents, against a background of the little hills of Llŷn. 

I’ve moved from Cumbria to Wales, from Wordsworth country to R S Thomas country – if that doesn’t sound too “heritage”-ish.  I’ve swapped a view of the Dumfriesshire hills from my front window to a view of the North Wales mountains – Snowdon when it’s clear enough, and Cadair Idris over the blue sweep of Cardigan Bay.

A few days ago I read Sheenagh Pugh’s review of The Mabinogi by Matthew Frances, a re-imagined version of the medieval Welsh stories written down in the 12th-13th centuries from earlier oral tradition.  Sheenagh Pugh praises Frances for recreating “the immediacy these tales must have had before they were pinned down in writing, when they were spoken by a storyteller who might at any moment shift an emphasis, drop or add material, or see a character in a new way.”  This approach throws up questions of the stability of a text, and assumptions about translations and versions.  “Nothing kills a story like treating it with reverence, and his refusal to do so is why his version feels live, fresh, new”.  I’ve struggled in the past with dusty, reverential translations of The Mabiniogion.   I think this one might be just the one I should read – especially as I have relocated to Wales.

Radio 4 marked the hundredth anniversary of the death of Hedd Wyn with a programme called The Black Chair presented by poet, Mab Jones.  Hedd Wyn was killed at Passchendaele in 1917 shortly before he was due to receive the National Eisteddfod’s highest accolade.  The bardic chair was draped in black after his name had been called three times.  Prime Minister, Lloyd George, manipulated the occasion to drum up support for conscription which he had introduced. 

Hedd Wyn came from a farm at Trawsfynydd in Snowdonia.  I look to the mountains and remember him.

The Mabinogi Matthew Frances (Faber and Faber 2017)
For the review see blogpost 21 June 2017 sheenaghpugh.livejournal.com 


The Black Chair was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 13 July.  The 1992 film  Hedd Wyn (with English subtitles) is well worth watching.