We’re back home after a week spent walking stretches of the newly-designated Wales Coast Path on the Lleyn Peninsula. We returned just as the extended spell of high pressure began, bringing beautiful sunny days and clear blue skies we’ve waited for all summer. Nonetheless, the week we were on the Lleyn was predominantly dry, though very breezy.
We had arrived on a glorious sunny afternoon that extended into a warm evening as we walked out from our holiday cottage, sheltered beneath Anelog Mynydd, the last outcrop of the range of mountains – some of them extinct volcanoes – that stretch down through the Lleyn.
We headed out along the coast path towards Porth Oer (aka Whistling Sands) and met not one human soul, though at every turn we encountered flocks of sheep dressed in well-manicured coats and munching away on the cliff edge herbage.
Inland lay the distinctive outline of Carreg Plas, one of the few clusters of deciduous trees in these parts. The trees shelter an old medieval manor house and provide a home for several thousand rooks, their rookery a swirl of agitation and noisy conversation as the light fades.
Looking over at Carreg my mind flooded with memories, flickering images from all the other times when we have come to the Lleyn. On one of the first occasions we stayed at Carreg Plas when David and Barbara Marshallsay ran it as a guest house. We stayed with our young daughter who befriended their dog, and I remember the constant hubbub of the rooks.
A familiar landscape does this to you. It’s not just a scene viewed objectively or passively; it becomes one soaked in personal meaning. So there is always that moment, approaching Aberdaron on the B4413 with the peak of Anelog mountain rising ahead, when I look to the left and imagine us all back on the patio of another holiday cottage where a little girl dances, her hair a swirl of gold in the setting sun.
We imprint memories of our passing through upon the landscape, making it in a small sense our own. Whenever I’m back on Porth Dinllaen’s sweep of golden sand I see once again our daughter, with wind-blown hair and in a purple tracksuit, laughing as she climbs the path above the cove. And every time I see the distinctive outline of the old volcano Yr Eifl I remember another time when a small dog would wake me up soon after dawn, and we’d head down to the shingle beach at Nefyn where I’d see the mountain’s form crisply outlined in the early morning light.
But there’s more to this than holiday memories. Everywhere you go on the Lleyn (as anywhere on the planet’s surface) it is plain that the landscape is not only a personal memory store, but one that retains the memories of generations past. As WG Hoskins asserted in his ground-breaking
The Making of the English Landscape, ‘The … landscape itself, to those who know how to read it aright, is the richest historical record we possess.’
Or, as Simon Schama contended in Landscape and Memory:
Before it can ever be the repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.
Inspired by the work of WG Hoskins and others, a whole discipline has emerged which views landscape not simply as a pretty picture or as a static
thing, but rather as the expression of cultural process – part of a process by which identities are formed. This way of looking at landscape sees the
connections between landscape and identity – and hence memory and thought – as fundamental to understanding how we form a human sense of place in the landscape. As Margaret Drabble once wrote:
The past lives on in art and memory, but it is not static: it shifts and changes as the present throws its shadow backwards. The landscape also changes ,but far more slowly; it is a living link between what we were and what we have become. This is one of the reasons why we feel such a profound and apparently disproportionate anguish when a loved landscape is altered out of recognition; we lose not only a place, but ourselves, a continuity between the shifting phases of our life.
While staying on the Lleyn this past week I began reading Four Fields, the latest book by Tim Dee (his last was the miraculous The Running Sky). In Four Fields, Dee’s subject is, broadly, the way in which humans across the planet have shaped the landscape through cultivation. He writes:
All fields are places of outlasting transience. They reset time. Each has a past but lives in the present; each has a biography but is still a work in progress.
You sense this deeply in the place where we were staying. The fields on the rocky, treeless headland above Aberdaron have been farmed continuously since Neolithic times. You stumble across prehistoric hut circles, while the names of the farms and the drystone walls that form the field outlines date back to medieval times. ‘The land has been humanised, through and through,’ as DH Lawrence wrote; ‘and we, in our own tissue consciousness bear the results of this humanisation.’
Human needs and activities change over time, often leaving traces of former endeavours. In Four Fields, Tim Dee writes of the human space becoming ‘a landscape that endures even in its ruin’:
There are tangled human voices in each field, but there is also the sound of the grass.
Something else strikes one deeply on the Lleyn. What at first sight appears to be a bucolic landscape will suddenly reveal evidence of past industrial activity. At Nant Gwytheryn ruined buildings and rusting abandoned machinery are the only trace left of a huge 19th century granite quarry; at Porth Ysgo we stumbled across the remains of manganese mines; at Llanengan a chimney on the track from Porth Neigwl (‘Hell’s Mouth’) stands at the entrance to old lead workings; and jasper was mined at Carreg (if you find yourself on James Street in London’s Piccadilly, take a look at the exterior of number 39 – it’s clad in pink jasper from Carreg).
And me they turned inside out
For sand and grit and stones
And turned my old green hills about
And pickt my very bones
– John Clare, ‘The Lament of Swordy Well’
However, the generations of toil and hardship that have soaked into this landscape were far from our minds on that fine September evening as we walked towards Porth Oer. Our mood was more in tune with the sentiments of Van Morrison’s ‘Haunts of Ancient Peace’:
Beside the garden walls,
We walk in haunts of ancient peace.
At night we rest and go to sleep
In haunts of ancient peace.
The love and light we seek,
The words we do not need to speak,
Here in this wondrous way we keep
These haunts of ancient peace.
Let us go there again
When we need some relief
Oh, when I can’t find my feet
When I need rest and sleep.
There’s a poem – written by Thomas Hardy in 1913 – that expresses how just a glance at a particular view can awaken a charged memory. ‘At Castle Boterel’ is about his wife Emma who had died 40 years earlier, and to whom he’d been unfaithful. It is a sombre poem, imbued with deep remorse and grief. The feelings that Hardy conjures are entirely different to those that the landscape of the Lleyn holds for me, but it does express intensely the way in which looking at a landscape can evoke powerful memories:
As I drive to the junction of lane and highway,
And the drizzle bedrenches the waggonette,
I look behind at the fading byway,
And see on its slope, now glistening wet,
Myself and a girlish form benighted
In dry March weather. We climb the road
Beside a chaise. We had just alighted
To ease the sturdy pony’s load
When he sighed and slowed.
What we did as we climbed, and what we talked of
Matters not much, nor to what it led, –
Something that life will not be balked of
Without rude reason till hope is dead,
And feeling fled.
It filled but a minute. But was there ever
A time of such quality, since or before,
In that hill’s story? To one mind never,
Though it has been climbed, foot-swift, foot-sore,
By thousands more.
Primaeval rocks form the road’s steep border,
And much have they faced there, first and last,
Of the transitory in Earth’s long order;
But what they record in colour and cast
Is – that we two passed.
And to me, though Time’s unflinching rigour,
In mindless rote, has ruled from sight
The substance now, one phantom figure
Remains on the slope, as when that night
Saw us alight.
I look and see it there, shrinking, shrinking,
I look back at it amid the rain
For the very last time; for my sand is sinking,
And I shall traverse old love’s domain