We’ve been away in North Wales this last week in glorious weather, starting with a couple of days at Aberdaron staying at the excellent Gwesty Tŷ Newydd hotel, literally on the beach. The view from our bedroom window or from the terrace having a drink and a meal in the evening was stunning.
Next door to the hotel was a newsagents with a small but excellent selection of books. It was here that we discovered volumes by local poet Christine Evans. Born in Yorkshire, Christine Evans moved to Wales in 1967. She divides her time between farms on the Llyn Peninsula and Bardsey Island. Her characteristic themes and concerns range through family, childhood memories and the history and landscape of Llyn, particularly Bardsey Island, the subject of her latest book.
Skies tower here, and we are small.
Winters, we sleep on a flap of land
in a dark throat. We taste the salt
of its swallow. Huge cold breaths
hurtle over, cascade down
till we feel the house haunch.
When morning comes at last
houses sit up with pricked ears
on reefs of land the black tide
leaves, or sidle crab-wise
to the lane, their small squashed faces
giving nothing of their thoughts away.
In summer, flowers loosening with seed
reach out to fingerstroke
cars passing in the long sweet dusk.
Hay-meadows sigh. Pearl-pale
in the bracken on the headland
shorn ewes step delicate
and wary as young unicorns.
The sea we look out over is a navel
the wrinkled belly-button
of an older world: after dark
like busy star-systems, the lights
of Harlech, Aberystwyth, Abergwaun
wink and beckon. The sun’s gone down
red as a wound behind Wicklow.
A creaking of a sail away
Cernyw and Llydaw wait.
Once, here was where what mattered
happened. A small place
at the foot of cliffs of falling light;
horizons that look empty.
If we let ourselves believe it,
- Llyn, from Selected Poems, Christine Evans. Published by Seren in November 2003.
In Christine Evans’ collection Growth Rings, there’s an entertaining poem called, Not Much Like R.S. Thomas. R.S. Thomas was vicar of Aberdaron from 1967 to 1978 and enjoyed a reputation for being outspoken both in and out of the pulpit. There is an exhibition commemorating his time as vicar, in the church at Aberdaron.
I like this story, from Theodore Dalrymple’s biography: the poet’s son recalled his father’s sermons, in which he would “drone on” at length about the evil of refrigerators, washing machines, televisions and other modern devices. Thomas preached that they were all part of the temptation of scrambling after gadgets rather than attending to more spiritual needs. “This to a congregation that didn’t have any of these things and were longing for them”.
A sense of his irascability (directed at the English – but also the Welsh) comes across in this poem:
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
It is to be aware,
Above the noisy tractor
And hum of the machine
Of strife in the strung woods,
Vibrant with sped arrows.
You cannot live in the present,
At least not in Wales.
There is the language for instance,
The soft consonants
Strange to the ear.
There are cries in the dark at night
As owls answer the moon,
And thick ambush of shadows,
Hushed at the fields’ corners.
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcase of an old song.
– RS Thomas: Welsh Landscape