Aberdaron is, I think, the most characterful village on the Lleyn, a picturesque cluster of white-washed stone buildings huddled around two small, hump-backed bridges and a church that edges the shore. Its present appearance belies the village past. Long a fishing village, in the 18th and 19th centuries it developed as a shipbuilding centre and port, exporting limestone, lead, jasper and manganese from local mines and quarries. At low tide you can still make out the ruins of an old pier running out to sea at the western end of the beach.
This is the village about which its great poet, RS Thomas, wrote that it was ‘Scarcely a street, too few houses to merit the title’:
Scarcely a street, too few houses
To merit the title; just a way between
The one tavern and the one shop
That leads nowhere and fails at the top
Of the short hill, eaten away
By long erosion of the green tide
Of grass creeping perpetually nearer
This last outpost of time past.
So little happens; the black dog
Cracking his fleas in the hot sun
Is history. Yet the girl who crosses
From door to door moves to a scale
Beyond the bland day’s two dimensions.
Stay, then, village, for round you spins
On a slow axis a world as vast
And meaningful as any posed
By great Plato’s solitary mind.
But today Aberdaron is a poem: from whatever direction you come, descending the steep hillside to where the road corkscrews over the two bridges that cross the Afon Daron and Afon Cyll y Felin, the place sings. The buildings appear all of a piece, in harmony. Still standing at the heart of the village is Y Gegin Fawr (The Big Kitchen), built in the 13th century as a communal kitchen where pilgrims could claim a meal on their way to Bardsey Island.
That’s why there was considerable local concern a couple of years back when the National Trust unveiled plans to erect the first new building in the heart of the villages for two generations. But worries proved unfounded (it is the National Trust, after all): Porth y Swnt, the new centre designed to interpret the area’s rich natural and cultural heritage, takes its inspiration from the village architecture, and utilizes local materials. Another verse has been added to the poem.
Porth y Swnt translates as ‘gateway to the sound’, reflecting the centre’s aim to offer a path to discovering and exploring the surrounding area. It’s an interpretation centre of the sort that have been springing up all over the place, offering insights into local history, trades and crafts. But I’ve never seen one like this.
Inside, you lose all sense of the building’s rectangular exterior as you are taken on a sinuous journey that is framed primarily by poetry. The use of seventeen verses written by local poets and inspired by the local landscape and community as the primary means of telling the area’s story might be unique. It begins at the threshold, where you step over a stone engraved with the words of Cynan Evans-Jones’ poem ‘Aberdaron’:
When I am old and honoured
With silver in my purse
All criticism over
All men singing my praise
I will purchase a lonely cottage
With nothing facing its door,
But the cliffs of Aberdaron
And the wild waves on the shore
For there I will discover
In the stormy wind and its cry
Echoes of the old rebellion
My soul knew in days gone by
And I will sing with the old passion
While gazing through the door
At the cliffs of Aberdaron
And the wild waves on the shore
Once inside, you make your way through audio-visual displays which explore the historical, geographical and social context of the Lleyn. The fact that they are arranged in four parts entitled The Deep, The Way, The Light and The Fold quickly makes you realise that this is going to be different to the usual interpretation centre experience.
that you have been seeking
you come upon it
the village in the Welsh hills
with no road out
but the one you came in by.
A bird chimes
from a green tree
the hour that is no hour
you know. The river dawdles
to hold a mirror for you
where you may see yourself
as you are, a traveller
with the moon’s halo
above him, whom has arrived
after long journeying where he
began, catching this
one truth by surprise
that there is everything to look forward to.
– RS Thomas, ‘Arrival’
The atmospheric first section – The Deep – speaks of how the sea has been an integral part of life on the Lleyn for thousands of years – reflected in carved figures representing the farmer, fisherman and pilgrim, as well as land, sea and earth.The sea is also the place where the boundaries between myth, legend and reality blur, and imagination takes over – as illustrated by T Arfon Williams’ poem, ‘Foam’.
The next section – The Way – suggests that ‘only by journeying through the Lleyn can you really appreciate this ancient land, created by volcanic activity and sculpted first by ice and then humans’. The focus here is on how people have worked the land – from the first Bronze and Iron Age settlements along the peninsula’s upland spine, to the medieval farmers who enclosed fields with stone walls and the men who quarried the ancient rocks. This was the landscape through which the ancient pilgrims made their way to Bardsey Island.
Weaving their way through this section, giving expression to its central themes, are the words of ‘A Language is Nothing but Words’, a poem by Myrddin ap Dafydd (translated by Gwyneth Owen):
The bay is nothing but sand.
The rock is nothing but stone.
Who can see the leper at the lonely window,
Or the homes renamed in tribute to ships,
or the vagrant’s pockets full of books?
Who can see teamwork raising the roof beams,
Or the peril of hunger hanging over Pared Mawr?
Who can hear the lover’s despair in the Nant,
Or the drowning cry of the sailors at sea?
The red-beaked king’s crow has no story to tell,
And the seals at low tide have no song to sing.
Who can hear the hymns ringing out on the cliff top
As the emigrant ship leaves the shore?
Who remembers the gunpowder shack in the quarry?
Who remembers which well can cure the blind?
Who recalls the saint’s servant being mauled by wolves?
Who remembers the conflagration burning all save one tree
Six months after flames on the heath?
There is no lightning in the rock,
And creels do not hold water.
The bay is nothing but sand.
Language is nothing but words.
‘Braich y Pwll’ by Christine Evans deals with the geological forces that have shaped the Lleyn. Braich y Pwll is the rocky headland west of Aberdaron where the land finally runs out, with nothing ahead but Bardsey Island (where Christine Evans lives for half the year).
‘Quarry’ by T Arfon Williams reminds us of how the area’s ‘stone book’, its geological inheritance, sustained an industrial past of quarrying for various rocks and metals.
‘Quarrying for Cymraeg’ by Mike Jenkins concerns a different kind of quarrying that now goes on in the fearsomely deep valley of Nant Gwytheryn. A remote place, approached by a steep winding road, once granite was quarried there, but now it is the site of the Welsh Language Centre. Mike Jenkins writes about learning there ‘to quarry for the language’ – Welsh, or ‘Cymraeg, the rock to build roads upon’. When the course is over he leaves up the steep road where ‘once stone shifted upwards on a sled’.
Harri Webb’s ‘The Land’ speaks of the Lleyn as land that ‘tangles with its three seas: a peninsula of peninsulas, island-fringed’, while ‘Hillforts in Llyn’ by R Gerallt Jones imagines the people who built the hillforts of Lleyn looking down with pity from their ruins ‘at the weeping wall we have all come to, through long and desert journeys of the mind’.
An extract from ‘Ode in Praise of the Farmer’ by Geraint Bowen (translated by Christine Evans) is given just about the most imaginative presentation of a poem that I’ve ever come across. The poem has been set within an art work that illustrates two cornerstones of the farming way of life: the farmhouse, represented by the floor plan of a local historic farm, Carreg Plas, and the Welsh dresser, which still stands at the heart of most farmhouses.
Pure the world that he harvested – the grain
Grown from his levelled furrows;
The man who saw tomorrow
In the turn of the harrow
In all weather, hear the chains sing – the plough
How late from the tilling,
The sight of her line, her wing,
Crows where horses were hauling.
The hills were green-breasted – to the skyline
Secure and quiescent,
On ploughland where seed was cast,
Would come the time for harvest.
Poem and installation both testify to the continuing importance of the family farm on the Lleyn which plays a crucial role in preserving the peninsula’s distinctive landscape, culture and wildlife. I was particularly taken with this installation as we once stayed at Carreg Plas, when it was run as a guest house in the 1990s.
Today, tourism is as important as farming for livelihoods on the Lleyn, a fact of life signified in the extract from Dylan Iowerth’s poem, ‘Sand’. It’s also about how, as tourists and holidaymakers, we imprint memories of our passing through upon the landscape, making it in a small sense our own.
The furthest land of the Lleyn, the last outcrop of its mountain ridge, is celebrated in Christine Evans’ poem, ‘Enlli’, about the island of Bardsey off the south-west tip of the peninsula, the ultimate destination of the pilgrims who tramped through the Lleyn to get there. The poet reads it on a beautiful video presentation that follows the poem’s evocation of the perilous crossing and landfall on the island dominated by its single mountain.
We get to it through troughs and rainbows
flying and falling, falling and flying
rocked in an eggshell
over drowned mountain ranges.
The island swings towards us, slowly.
We slide in on an oiled keel,
step ashore with birth-wet, wind-red faces
wiping the salt from our eyes
and notice sudden, welling
quiet, and how here the breeze
lets smells of growing things
settle and grow warm, a host of presences
drowsing, their wings too fine to see.
There’s a green track, lined with meadowsweet.
Stone houses, ramparts to the weather.
Small fields that run all one way
west to the sea, inviting feet
to make new paths to their own
After supper, lamplight
soft as the sheen of buttercups
and candle-shadow blossoms
bold on the bedroom wall.
Outside’s a swirl of black and silver.
The lighthouse swings its white bird round
as if one day it will let go
the string, and let
the loosed light fly
back to its roost with the calling stars.
The third part of the Porth y Swnt exhibition is The Light, which has at its centre an example of the kind of bulb which illuminates the Bardsey Island lighthouse.
Porth y Swnt, the gateway to the Sound: people have travelled to and from the Lleyn for centuries – guided first by the light of the stars and later by lighthouses like the one on Bardsey that has saved many lives from the treacherous seas of the Sound.
The treacherous currents of the Bardsey Sound are illustrated vividly in an installation by the Hellicar and Lewis, design studio that recreates from tidal data the swirling forces of the tides and winds in the treacherous Swnt between the mainland and Enlli or Bardsey.
‘Since when did loveliness give a livelihood?’ Gwyneth Lewis’ ‘The Mapmaker’s Song’ vocalises the thoughts of the mapmaker, exhaustively charting ‘bay by bay’ the coast of Wales.
Finally, we are led outdoors – to The Fold, ‘a space to reflect at the end of a journey’. In the beginnings of a garden in which local flowers are being cultivated, visitors are invited to add their own thoughts, in words or poetry, inscribed on pebbles from the shore at Aberdaron.
Amongst the growing number of visitor contributions, if you look carefully, you will find my favourite poem by the poet of Aberdaron, RS Thomas – ‘The Bright Field’:
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the
pearl of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realise now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
It takes only a couple of minutes to stroll from the National Trust’s new centre, across those two hump-backed bridges, to the village church where RS Thomas was vicar for eleven years. He arrived in 1967, a man reportedly as craggy and remote as the parish he served. A fierce Welsh nationalist (who learned Welsh in his late twenties, but always wrote in English), he came hoping this remote parish would be a place of national purity. Only to discover that the parishioners craved washing machines and all the other accoutrements of modern life.
Now the village can often be thronged with visitors who, like me, come looking for traces of Thomas. He would have hated that. In ‘Reservoirs’ he wrote:
Where can I go, then, from the smell
of decay, from the putrefying of a dead
Nation? I have walked the shore
For an hour and seen the English
Scavenging among the remains
Of our culture, covering the sand
Like the tide and, with the roughness
Of the tide, elbowing our language
Into the grave that we have dug for it.
At the moment the church is hedged around with scaffolding, inside and out. The roof is being renewed and restoration work means that one of the two naves is a building site, with wheelbarrows and piles of building materials.
There are two naves, one of them the original Norman, and the second added around 1500 as a hostel for pilgrims waiting for the Bardsey Island ferry. The church is low and humble, a bit like the local cottages. The plain glass windows look out on the graveyard, the sky and the sea, the sussurating waves only a few yards away.
There’s a little RS Thomas exhibition on the vestry wall, and an honesty stall selling copies of his work. One of the items on display is his Guardian obituary from 2000, written by his biographer Byron Rogers who called Thomas the loneliest man he’d ever met.
I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea.
– from ‘Retirement’
In his obituary, Byron Rogers wrote that Thomas ‘charted the decline of modern life and his native Wales in bleak poetry, tinged with faint sunlight’. Thomas could be judgemental and condescending about his parishioners, sunk in poverty. But in ‘The Hill Farmer Speaks’ he gives sympathetic voice to the farmer:
I am the farmer, stripped of love
And thought and grace by the land’s hardness;
But what I am saying over the fields’
Desolate acres, rough with dew,
Is, Listen, listen. I am a man like you.
The wind goes over the hill pastures
Year after year, and the ewes starve,
Milkless, for want of the new grass.
And I starve, too, for something the spring
Can nevrer foster in veins run dry.
The pig is a friend, the cattle’s breath
Mingles with mine in the still lanes;
I wear it willing like a cloak
To shelter me from your curious gaze.
The hens go in and out at the door
From sun to shadow, as stray thoughts pass
Over the floor of my wide skull.
The dirt is under my cracked nails;
The tale of my life is smirched with dung;
The phlegm rattles. But what I am saying
Over the grasses rough with dew
Is, Listen, listen, I am a man like you.
In old age, Thomas’s poems were increasingly abstract, God increasingly absent. But there will still bursts of lyricism where winter sunlight broke through, as in ‘The Bright Field’. This beautiful elegy, for instance, is the last entry in The Collected Poems, 1945-1990, written on the death of his wife:
under a shower
Fifty years passed
in a world in
servitude to time.
She was young;
I kissed with my eyes
closed and opened
them on her wrinkles.
‘Come,’ said death,
choosing her as his
the last dance. And she,
who in life
had done everything
with a bird’s grace,
opened her bill now
for the shedding
of one sigh no
heavier than a feather.
Another grand old man of Welsh culture, the painter Kyffin Williams, was born within a few years of the poet (Thomas in 1913, Williams in 1918). Both lived into their eighties. Thomas was 87 when he died in 2000 and Kyffin Williams was 88 when he died in 2006.
The pair knew one another but, apparently, did not talk about either poetry or art – only about rugby and bird-watching. Both lived frugal lives without much in the way of home comforts. Kyffin Williams sketched this portrait of Thomas after he had retired from the ministry. Thomas thought it made him look very miserable. But then, by all accounts, he often did.
One of the many fine poems by RS Thomas is ‘Pilgrimages’, which describes a trip out to the pilgrim isle of Bardsey – a journey he had often made. Bardsey must have in his mind a great deal of the time, since it was always in his sight, just across the sound from his church that was almost literally washed by the waves of the infamous currents of Bardsey sound. (Indeed, when we were there, the cliffs just beyond the church graveyard had only recently been shored up with concrete and stone after some recent storm had eaten deep into the land.)
In ‘Pilgrimages’, Thomas wonders whether he has left it too late in starting his pilgrimage. But then the thought occurs that he – and all the others, as far back as ‘those first pilgrims,’ were also ‘too late,’ since the God they all sought has always been ‘such a fast God, always before us and leaving as we arrive.’
But perhaps it doesn’t matter, we are neither ‘late or soon’ since everyone has the same question, the answer to which requires a different sort of difficult journey, inward rather than outward.
There is an island there is no going
to but in a small boat the way
the saints went, travelling the gallery
of the frightened faces of
the long-drowned, munching the gravel
of its beaches. So I have gone
up the salt lane to the building
with the stone altar and the candles
gone out, and kneeled and lifted
my eyes to the furious gargoyle
of the owl that is like a god
gone small and resentful. There
is no body in the stained window
of the sky now. Am I too late?
Were they too late also, those
first pilgrims? He is such a fast
God, always before us and
leaving as we arrive.
There are those here
not given to prayer, whose office
is the blank sea that they say daily.
What they listen to is not
hymns but the slow chemistry of the soil
that turns saints’ bones to dust,
dust to an irritant of the nostril.
There is no time on this island.
The swinging pendulum of the tide
has no clock: the events
are dateless. These people are not
late or soon: they are just
here with only the one question
to ask, which life answers
by being in them. It is I
who ask. Was the pilgrimage
I made to come to my own
self, to learn that in times
like these and for one like me
God will never be plain and
out there, but dark rather and
inexplicable, as though he were in here?