Exploring the Wild Side of Britain
by David Yeadon
Welsh hospitality comes in surprising guises.
"Croeso I Gymru" the bilingual signs proclaim—"Welcome to Wales." An unexpected reminder that Wales is indeed a foreign country under the benign—Welsh Nationalists would say bombastic—governance of Britain. An 88-year old great grandmother also showed the Welsh spirit of welcome in Caernarfon as she hobbled to my rescue, helping me raise my bruised and battered body which she had just felled with her rapidly reversing car.
As I lay spread-eagled in a puddle contemplating the meticulous joining of the cobblestones on the street, my head began to spin violently, and I heard myself laughing. It must have been the familiarity of the head-spinning that brought on such levity even in this unfamiliar prone predicament. I had been exploring Wales for two weeks on an odyssey of sorts, seeking out the essence—the heart—of the real "Welsh Wales". From the moment I'd left the languid lowlands of England behind me and crossed the 170 mile long Offa's Dyke (an amazing feat of 8th century engineering by the Mercian King Offa to defend his fiefdom from Welsh raiders) head-spinning had become a daily occurrence. For Wales you see is a pure vortex. It sucks you in, dazzling you with its wondrous, kaleidoscopic whirl of towering mountain ranges, ragged wave-pounded peninsulas, gentle green valleys, its ancient cultures, its tangled and embattled history, its castles, stately homes and museums, its hardy people and its spirit of "Cymru"—"land of compatriots".
This tiny nation of 2.8 million people, smaller than Massachusetts, has seen its once all-powerful Celtic heritage ravaged by the Romans, the Angles, the Saxons, the Normans and, for the last few centuries, the English. Wave upon wave of invasion swept the proud Brythonic-speaking Celts (hence "Britons") back into the remotest mountain valleys and crammed them and their Druid ancestors, their early Christian Saints, their bards and their legends, along the rugged sea-scratched edges of their land. The vortex took them, pounded, tumbled and churned them in a morass of endless mayhem, and flung them out as so most meager dead dross—discarded footnotes of a cruel history.
Only they didn't die. They wouldn't die. With a determination that is the very grist of their poems and ancient ballads, the Welsh (the derisive Anglo-Saxons called them "Wallas" or "Wealeas"—foreigners) kept the flame of their culture and their identity alive, rejoicing in a host of heroic figures such as Hywel Dda, Cunedda the Burner, the mystical Owain Glyndwr (spelt Glendower by the English who love to add unnecessary vowels), and even the mythical King Arthur with this his knights and his wizard Merlin, who some claim will one day awaken from centuries of slumber to raise the Red Dragon banner of Wales and rekindle "The Golden Age" in the wild hills and the silent, shadowed valleys of Cymru . . . .
At the colorful International Musical Eisteddfod at Llangollen I realized that the Walian heart has a resonance that draws the world. 'Blessed is a world that sings, gentle are its songs," is the message of this 46-year old celebration, and I wandered past the gigantic concert tent, past the lute and harp-makers, talking with the dancers in national costumes, choristers, musicians and folk singers who flock here from every corner of the globe to celebrate world unity in music. The glow lasted for days.
As it did also when I sought out the home of one of my favorite poets—the late Dylan Thomas. I eased south from Carmarthen, down through rompy pastures, to the tight-knit and surprisingly uncommercialized Georgian town of Laugharne (pronounced "Larn") to pay homage at the place that provided much of the inspiration for the poet's work. I peered in at his "writing shed" where crumpled papers on the floor and a scatter of pens across a lopsided table suggest his imminent return from a lunchtime pint of "bitter" beer at Brown's Hotel, his favorite local pub. The nearby "Boat House" home where he lived for 5 years with his wife Caitlin is now a shrine-in-miniature for Thomas-lovers everywhere. Sitting on the terrace here with a
pot of tea and a slice of Bara Brith, the delicious traditional fruit loaf of Wales, I listened to his recorded voice echoing through the little house and being carried by soft breezes over the "heron-priested shore" and across the broad sweeping horizons of the Taf estuary. The peace of this simple place eased into my spirit and when I heard those buoyant-sad, childhood-memory lines from his poem "Fern Hill", I felt I had touched the youth inside me again.
Despite an over-abundance of tourists along the Pembrokeshire coast I was captivated by the intricate magic of this wild windswept region with its tiny bay-bound beaches, soaring gray cliffs and huddled towns and villages. Fragmented memories keep returning of my sunbright days here: the higglety-piggle medieval streets of Tenby's old walled town; a boat trip out to the 5th century Cistercian monastery on Caldy island where I purchased bottles of perfume produced by the monks here from wild flowers and lavender; the weary walkers I met near the 13th century Manorbier Castle arduously attempting to hike the whole of the 170 mile long Pembrokeshire Coastal Path (the most scenic of Britain's many long distance footpaths); the charms of Stackpole, Broad Haven and other coastal village snuggled deep in rocky clefts above arcs of
pink-gold sand; a delicious lunch of fresh caught crab at The Swan in Little Haven; the bold bulk of the Norman cathedral at St. David's with a floor that eases uphill to the altar and nave columns that slope precariously outward under a magnificent 15th century carved-wood ceiling. You can take hair-raising inflatable raft tours to the wild islands here from Whitesand Bay, visit craft shops (Wales is in the midst of an enticing "crafts-revival") and a wool mill in the gentle countryside behind the craggy cliffs, and even chat with Leon Downey at Llangloffan farm, an ex-principal viola player with the Halle orchestra who substituted one form of fame for another as a Welsh cheesemaker. "They said we'd never make it," Leon told me as his Jersey cows swayed into the yard for their evening milking. "Too small they said with just a husband and wife. Well," he laughed, " we bloody-well showed 'em didn't we!"
By the tumbling falls of the river Teifi at Cenarth I became immersed in the intricacies of coracle-making at Martin Fowler's National Coracle Centre. From pre-Roman times these primitive one-man boats, constructed from pitch-covered animal hides stretched over a simple frame of hazel or willow splints, have been used by Welsh fishermen to net salmon and sewin (sea trout) on their feisty streams and coastal estuaries.
Recent restrictions on their use have almost annihilated this ancient form of fishing, but coracle-maker Bernard Thomas keeps the old traditions alive. "They make it harder on us all the time," he told me as we sat sipping his homemade, and very potent, elderberry wine at his house by the Teifi at Llechryd. "But they haven't finished me yet. We Welsh always find a way . . . ."
I toasted his endurance; he winked and smiled a very sly Welsh smile.
I eased on through the lower hills and vales around Wrexham, Chirk and Welshpool. They possess their own enticing charms, not least the village of Berriew with its half-timbered, black and white cottages; the formal Georgian town square of Montgomery; the huge arcaded market house in the Edwardian-flavored main street of Llanidloes, and the lordly grandeur of Erddig Hall, Chirk Castle and Powis Castle, all now open to public view.
Eventually I slipped back into the great Cambrian range—the spine of Wales—on the eastern edges of Snowdonia and found once again that peace in the scenery that the Welsh have known and loved for centuries. Places of respite from constant plagues of invasion and insurrection. A quiet part of the heart of Cymru. So—was this where the true Welsh spirit lay, couched in these wild remote places? Or was it somewhere else . . .somewhere I had seen with my late father on a journey we had made years ago when I was barely aware that there was such a place as Wales . . . .
And then suddenly—one very early morning on the narrow Lleyn peninsula—it was all there. Dark dawn clouds cracked open our Cader Idris mountain and the sun yolked out spraying the mists with fresh yellows. The stillness was buffeted by breezes off the ocean tumbling over the gorse and up the flanks of Lleyn's mountain guardians, Yr Eifl (The Three Rivals) where I stood watching colors ease out across the meadows and bays far below like an unravelling carpet. I shared my solitude with a handful of huddled sheep. All around me were the stumpy remains of circular huts, fragments of ancient Iron Age settlements. Shivering slightly I watched the world fill with majestic mountainous forms, layer upon layer of deep blue ranges to the east, and to the west, the whole length of Lleyn, that solitary horn jutting out into the Irish sea from the forehead of Wales. The land eased itself out, meeting the sea in the long sandy strands of the south coast. The interior of the peninsula was dotted with farms in a green quilt of meticulously-walled fields, and lanes arched by high hedgerows snaked aimlessly, reluctant to reach anywhere. Wind-shaped copses, smooth as snail shells, clustered along the clifftops. And at the far tip, peeping through the sea haze, was tiny Bardsey Island—the island of my distant and hazy memory—floating like a basking whale in a gold-purple sea.
I drifted down the peninsula, past a string of ancient churches along the Pilgrim Way to Bardsey Island—the Isle of Saints—burial site for over 20,000 faithful Christians and, according to the legends, the resting place of King Arthur's mystical wizard, Merlin. Two pilgrimages to the site of the first monastery founded here in A.D. 429 were said to be the equivalent of one to Rome. This was my second journey here and I felt blessed by the beauty of this quiet corner of Wales as I finally descended the steep hill, past the tiny
cathedral of St. Hywyn's, and into the pub-clustered village of Aberdaron by its boat-bobbing harbor.
Unfortunately offshore winds and tidal trickeries precluded plans to sail across to Bardsey, aptly named Ynys Enlli—The Island of Currents. But luck was still with me. I met Gareth Roberts, guardian of the National Trust coastal lands for Lleyn, who spent a day showing me the secrets of this little-known part of Wales and taking me to the reclusive cave-like home of the 83 year old poet, R.S. Thomas, whose vigorous support for the Welsh language has made him one of the most revered spokesmen for the future of Welsh
traditions and culture. Outside the small windows of his study a fierce wind beat the gorse and heather into stunted submission; shafts of silver-gold sunlight pierced the thunderhead clouds over the moors and scoured the gray waters of Hell's Mouth Bay. "When you say farewell to old traditions, the soul goes out of you . . .", Thomas said in a tone of both anger and sadness. "Some call me a crank, but you can't get at the spirit of any country except through its native language. Too many Walians speak the language of their oppressor. The one thing that lifts my hopes is to hear our young children spontaneously speak Welsh . . ." But even "R.S." seems to lose hope when he pours poetic scorn on Walians: "an impotent people, Sick with
inbreeding, Worrying the carcass of an old song."
But I sensed the soul of Wales still alive and well on Lleyn, and my soul told me to stay. And so, as that whirling, kaleidoscopic vortex of Wales slowly released me, I remained in Aberdaron talking with the farmers and the people of the villages, waiting on the uttermost tip of this small country for a chance to sail
to Bardsey island—the place where part of the ancient heritage of Wales has remained intact, inviolate.
Jan Morris, the world renowned writer who lives on the peninsula, is also optimistic about the Welsh culture here: "I know of nowhere more instinct with the power of peace and sanctity," she wrote of Bardsey, "I felt the force of their" (the buried saints) "faith and found it overwhelmingly one of happiness." I too found fresh faith in the future of Wales here—and deep happiness as I sat on the high cliffs of Braich y Pwll waiting to complete my pilgrimage in this enduring "heart of Wales" . . . .
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