The Ordnance Survey shows the slate quarries as blank spaces, white paper. The land has dropped out of the map.
I’m on a short writing retreat in Cwm Teigl in North Wales. I’m staying in a log cabin owned by Elin, who runs the bookshop (Yr Hen Bost) a few miles away in Blaenau Ffestiniog. She has lent me Trwy Ddyddiau Gwydr (Gwasg Careg Gwalch 2013), a collection of poems by Sian Northey. They are contemporary free-verse poems in Welsh, including a poem for Elin’s daughter. They are short poems (fortunately!) and I read them, falteringly, and try to piece together the words. The poems sound wonderful and the poet uses alliteration to great effect. I am hoping my knowledge of the language will progress so that I can understand more of the words!
Elin has a beautiful semi-wild garden – at this time of year it’s a riot of leafy green with splashes of colour from wild, cultivated and feral flowers. I’ve brought a jumble of notes, my laptop and a stack of white paper. I plan to get some writing done but this evening the outdoors is distracting.
I go for a short walk up the valley, following the Afon Teigl which chatters in the companionable voice of an upland stream tumbling over small rocks. An occasional swallow swoops after flies and the sun is low on the horizon turning the water pewter. Growing along the banks are tall spindly sycamore and ash trees, newly leaved (the oak before the ash this year).
The road is unfenced and ewes with lambs stare at me, or stamp their feet before making their way up the steep hillside. Cwm Teigl has a different smell from the lush flowery lanes of Llŷn. Perhaps it’s a combination of the short-grazed mountain grass, the new shoots of rushes, the acid soil. It’s an upland smell of spring which reminds me of family picnics on the Berwyns, breaking the journey from Warwickshire to Llŷn when I was a child. The ancient cars my father drove (an Austin 7 and later a converted Ford van named Noah’s Ark from its registration latters NOA and its variety of two and four legged passengers) always overheated at the top of the Tanat Valley. We would pile out of the car for a picnic lunch while the engine recovered.
Cwm Teigl shows little evidence of the slate industry whose huge waste tips are so obvious a few miles away at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The cwm is a quiet valley – in half an hour’s walking I meet one walker and a cyclist. A solitary car passes me. The driver gives me a wave. If I were to follow the road as it climbs up the slopes of Manod Fawr, whose screes and cliffs dominate the north west side of the valley, I would eventually reach the Manod and Graig Ddu slate quarries, the cartographer’s blank white paper.
But for the next few days I hope that at least some of my white pages will be filled with words.