The last time we were here was more than two decades ago, when this remote and awesome valley was more often known in guide books as ‘Vortigern’s Valley’. Today, the Welsh traitor Vortigern has been expunged from the valley memory: there is no mention of his name in the historical display at the Welsh Language Centre that now thrives at the end of the mountain road. More of that later.
Nant Gwrtheryn is, in the original sense of the word, an awful place: a sheer-sided valley of drab granite, open to the sea, that lies in the shadow of the three peaks of Yr Eifl and inspires feelings of dread and awe.
Instead of the unfenced track that descended into the valley when we came before, the road is now surfaced and protected from the sheer drops by crash barriers. It’s still a scary road, though. We parked at the top on a day when the place was being battered by strong winds blowing onshore.
We headed into the wind with glorious views, southwest across Nefyn bay, opening up before us. We headed for the coast path and descended to the shore at Port y Nant.
Down on the pebble beach a wind was driving white horses ashore onto the rocks and remains of the jetty that once served the quarry that worked the granite here in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The wild weather only served to enhance the desolate nature of the place.
In 1776, the travel writer Thomas Pennant visited Nant Gwrtheyrn. He wrote of an isolated community of just three farming families who grew oats and reared cattle, sheep, and goats. The goats are still there – majestic specimens with wondrous horns.
But, there has been human settlement on these mountainsides of granite formed as volcanic magma cooled for thousands of years. From the head of the valley up to the summit of Yr Eifl lie the scattered remains of Iron Age settlements, and the field patterns in the valley are reckoned to be medieval in origin.
The isolated and almost inaccessible location of the valley meant that the families who worked these fields were totally dependant on what they could harvest. There were three farms – Ty Uchaf (Highest House), Ty Canol (Middle House) and Ty Hen (Old House) – which have long since been deserted, though their ruins remain.
Standing on the shore, behind us rose the sheer granite cliffs that brought new settlement here in the 19th century, when three quarries were established in the valley by the Liverpool-based company Kneeshaw and Lupton.
The main output of the quarry was rectangular granite setts, carved into shape at the quarry. At that time there was great demand for setts for use in paving the roads of the towns and cities of Lancashire. A jetty was built so that steam ships could carry the setts by sea to Liverpool, Manchester, or Birkenhead.
When the setts were ready they were put on wagons, which ran down to the jetty on rails, before being taken by ship to the industrial cities of the north. It’s probable that most of the granite setts laid in Liverpool came from here: such as these, photographed off Liverpool’s Dock Road in 1966 by Barry Feinstein just as somebody quite famous stepped on them.
When the quarry was first established the men who worked the stone travelled to The Nant on a Monday morning with enough food for the week. They were housed all week in barracks built by the company, before going home to see their families at midday on Saturday.
Later, however, a village was built consisting of 24 workmen’s houses, a foreman’s house, a shop, bakery, mansion, and a chapel as workers were joined by wives and children. Other buildings were erected at about the same time: the Plas, a large house for the quarry manager, and a Methodist chapel.
By 1900, around two thousand quarrymen were employed in granite quarries along a five mile stretch of coastline on the north Lleyn peninsula. The workers and their families came to the Nant from England, Ireland and Scotland, as well as Wales.
Life was not easy for the quarrymen, especially those who worked on the higher slopes. They were expected to walk up to the summit area in all weathers and faced losing pay if they weren’t able to reach the top. A strong spirit of camaraderie developed, reflected in chapel, pub and cultural societies.
In 1911 Nant Gwrtheyrn merged with other local quarries to form the Welsh Granite Company, owned by the Darbyshire family. But, the success of the granite quarrying industry was short-lived. As tarmac became the favoured road surface, the demand for granite dramatically declined.
In the years after the First World War, the quarries were forced to close for periods of time as demand for granite declined. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, Nant quarry closed for the last time, and one by one the families left the village.
By the car park at the top of the valley where we had left our car there is a new sculpture in the form of three standing stones with swirling Celtic forms carved into the stone. Beneath them, inscribed in granite, is a poem in Welsh. I’m grateful to this blog for the English translation of ‘On A Quarry Path’:
On their knees, who are they
That come to work through the teeth of the wind?
Men tied to the bread of this rock
With their nails chiselled to it
Summer or Winter, the same yoke
Of stones on their shoulders
But they, on this celestial path
Bent, tripping to the peak
Of the mountain, they are the cornerstones
Of our walls – and us,
So far from the knife of the winds
Are the shavings of what they were.
From the beach we walked up to the cluster of buildings that once formed the quarry-workers’ village. Today the buildings have been beautifully renovated by the Welsh Language Centre.
In the last few years a £5m renovation scheme, which included construction of a new, safer access road, upgraded the old workers’ cottages built in 1860 to provide accommodation for up to 80 guests for the Centre which now caters for over 30,000 day visitors a year and a range of residential groups.
One quarryman’s cottage has been reconstructed with added period content to show how a quarryman and his family would have lived in 1910.Nearby, the old chapel has been converted into a Heritage Centre with displays that offer a wealth of information about the history of the village, the quarry, and the development of the site to the present day.
There are also displays about the history of the area, and its associated myths and legends. It was here that I noticed there was no mention of Vortigern. Could this be because he betrayed his people? Vortigern was a leader of the Britons in Wales in around 424AD. After the departure of the Romans, the Britons had been beset by attacks from both the Irish and the Picts coming south from Scotland. Vortigern thought he saw the solution to the problem in inviting Saxons who had been sporadically raiding the southern and eastern shores of England to join his forces as paid mercenaries to repel the Picts and the Irish.
The plan was a success, but resulted in the Saxons gaining the upper hand. At a banquet arranged to secure a peace treaty between the Britons and the Saxons, every Briton was slain – except Vortigern. The event came to be remembered as ‘the treachery of the long knives’. Accused of being a traitor, Vortigern fled, before eventually being brought to bay and slain in this valley. The 18th century travel writer Thomas Pennant wrote this vivid account of the legend and the valley to which Vortigern bequeathed his name:
Ascend from Nefyn for a considerable way up the side of the side of the high hill; and after a short ride on level ground quit our horses, in order to visit Nant Gwrtheyrn, the immense hollow to which Vortigern is reported to have fled from the rage of his subjects, and where it was said that he and his castle were consumed with lightning . . . His life had been profligate the monks therefore were determined that he should not die the common death of all men, and accordingly made him perish with signal marks of the vengeance of Heaven.
Fancy cannot frame a place more fit for a retreat from the knowledge of mankind, or better calculated to inspire confidence of security from any pursuit. Embosomed in a lofty mountain, on two sides bounded by stony steeps, on which no vegetables appear but the blasted heath and stunted gorse; the third side exhibits a most tremendous front of black precipice, with the loftiest peak of the mountain Eifl soaring above; and the only opening to this secluded spot is towards the sea, a northern aspect! where that chilling wind exerts all its fury, and half freezes, during winter, the few inhabitants.
During the 1970s, the village was taken over by the New Atlantis Commune of hippies. They lived without either water or electricity supply and no sewerage system. The hippies were responsible for creating great damage to the cottages, tearing up floorboards and doors to burn for fuel, and when the commune finally abandoned the valley, the properties were left derelict. (I’m not entirely sure of this – but it’s possible that some of those who abandoned the commune made their way to the island of Dorninish, off the west coast of Ireland, bought by John Lennon for Sid Rawles’ New Age colony.)
After the hippies had left, a group led by Dr Carl Clowes raised enough money to buy the site in 1978. A trust was formed with the aim of saving the place from complete ruin, creating much-needed local jobs, and developing a Welsh Language Centre that would offer classes for Welsh learners. The first Welsh Language Act had been passed in 1967 which acknowledged in law the equal status of English and Welsh, and meant that bilingual skills were soon required by those working for public bodies.
In the new Heritage Centre there are displays that tell the story of the rebirth of the Welsh language, beginning with a protest by the newly-formed, Aberystwyth based, ‘Welsh Language Society’ in 1963. A further display tells of how, at the end of the nineteenth century, the British government introduced the ‘Welsh Not’ which resulted in children heard
speaking Welsh in school receiving a beating. As a result, the number of Welsh speakers gradually decreased.
But, as a result of campaigns by Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg (The Welsh Language Society) in the 1960s and 1970s and the efforts of other voluntary organisations, many battles for recognition of the language were won, including the adoption of bilingual road signs, a Welsh radio (BBC Radio Cymru) and a television channel (S4C). Today, the Welsh language is taught in all schools in Wales, and across Wales around 20% speak Welsh (though in Gwynedd, the figure rises to 69%).
Since its formation 25,000 people have attended classes at the Nant Gwrtheyrn Language Centre, learning one of Europe’s oldest languages. One of those must have been the poet and vicar of Aberdaron, RS Thomas. Certainly, he wrote a poem, ‘Nant Gwrtheyrn’:
I listen to the echoes
of John Jones crying: ‘God
is not good, ‘ and of his wife
correcting him: ‘Hush, John.’
‘The cuckoo returns
to Gwrtheyrn, contradicting
John Jones, within its voice
bluebells tolling over
the blue sea. There is work
here still, quarrying
for an ancient language
to bring it to the light
from under the years’
dust covering it. Men,
with no palate for fine
words, they helped them down
with their sweat, spitting
them out later in what
served them for prayer. Was
it for this God numbered
their days? Where once pick-
axes would question, now
only the stream ticks, telling
a still time to listeners
at their text-books. Turning
its back on the world,
contemplating without boredom
unchanging horizons this place
knows a truth, for here
is the resurrection
of things. One after one
they arise in answer
to names they are called by,
standing around, shining,
by brief graves from whose hold
willing hands have released them.
We made our way back to the car, up the steep and twisting road out of the valley, now made safe and resurfaced, past the sheer rock face of the old quarry at the head of the valley, down which cascades a slim waterfall.
Though we had been here before, we found a guide book by Carl Rogers invaluable. Called Llyn Peninsula: Circular walks along the Wales Coast Path, it fits into a back pocket and provides clear directions for a series of great walks in the area.