Brain cloudy blues

Brain cloudy blues

‘My brain is cloudy, my soul is upside down …’
– Bob Wills, ‘Brain Cloudy Blues’

The sun is molten in a shimmering sky. But we are driving through mounds of snow, banked in drifts along the carriageways and lanes: drifts of Ox-eye daisies. For mile after mile along the North Wales Expressway there are tens of thousands of these gently swaying flowers that seem to thrive – often deliberately planted, I think – turning what would otherwise be an extended wasteland along roadside verges into a summer’s visual delight. When I was a child in Cheshire these flowers – so bright that they appear to ‘glow’ in the evening – were commonly known as Moon Daisies. Continue reading “Brain cloudy blues”

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Lleyn walks: Lost and no way out at Hell’s Mouth

Lleyn walks: Lost and no way out at Hell’s Mouth

Half-way through our week on the Lleyn, and the wind which had got up on the second day was still blowing strongly as we drove into the car park at Porth Neigwl (aka Hell’s Mouth) to begin a walk around the headland of Mynydd Cilan. Continue reading “Lleyn walks: Lost and no way out at Hell’s Mouth”

Lleyn walks: Windswept on Black Rock sands

Lleyn walks: Windswept on Black Rock sands

Towards the end of our week on the Lleyn the glass began to rise – the beginning of  more than a week during which high pressure brought clear skies across Europe, from Donegal to the Volga.

Borth y Gest 1
The view towards Porthmadog and the mountains beyond

We had arranged to meet our old friend Annie – for many years now, an exile from Liverpool stranded in a dramatically situated Harlech gaff with stunning views across Cardigan Bay. We met roughly half-way, at the Lleyn’s eastern-most point, at Borth-y-Gest, a village suburb of Porthmadog overlooking the estuary of the Afon Glaslyn where it enters Tremadog Bay. Continue reading “Lleyn walks: Windswept on Black Rock sands”

Lleyn walks: wind and rain on Mynydd Anelog

Lleyn walks: wind and rain on Mynydd Anelog

I have crawled out at last
far as I dare on to a bough
of country that is suspended
between sky and sea.
– RS Thomas

Under a darkling sky, rain was threatening on the first morning of our week on the Lleyn. Not a promising outlook, but undeterred, we pushed open the gate that led directly from the cottage nestled at the foot of Anelog Mountain onto the Wales Coast Path. Continue reading “Lleyn walks: wind and rain on Mynydd Anelog”

Quarrying for rock and an ancient language at Nant Gwrtheryn

Quarrying for rock and an ancient language at Nant Gwrtheryn

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. Continue reading “Quarrying for rock and an ancient language at Nant Gwrtheryn”

Porth y Swnt at Aberdaron: the poetry of a place

Porth y Swnt at Aberdaron: the poetry of a place

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. Continue reading “Porth y Swnt at Aberdaron: the poetry of a place”

Back on the Lleyn: landscape and memory

Back on the Lleyn: landscape and memory

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. Continue reading “Back on the Lleyn: landscape and memory”

Lleyn diary 3: Pistyll church

Lleyn diary 3: Pistyll church

On one of our Lleyn walks we paid a return visit to the beautifully-situated St. Bueno’s Church at Pistyll. The church was used by medieval pilgrims on their way to Bardsey Island. The building is 12th century the church and is strewn with rushes and wild herbs.  In the churchyard is the grave of actor Rupert Davies who played Maigret in the 1960s TV series.

A Church was established here by St Beuno (a reputed healer as well as an establisher of churches) in the sixth century. All that visibly remains of the previous church building  is the crumbling step at the old door and the comer stone (of which only three are known to exist) at the outside corner near the leper’s window.  This is not local stone and would have been dragged for many miles until the faithful received permission to build.

Pistyll church

There were only three windows in the building – all in the Chancel -as the congregation, being illiterate, needed no light.  There were no seats as worshippers stood or knelt, although the aged or afflicted were allowed to rest on a narrow ledge: this is still in existence in the Chancel. The west side of the present building was probably constructed in the twelfth century when pilgrimage to Bardsey became popular.  The thatched roof was replaced with slate around 120 years ago.

Sited in a grassy hollow beside a stream and close to the sea,  it was ideally located for those on pilgrimage to Ynys Enlli (Bardsey Island). This ancient church was used for worship by the pilgrims who paused to rest at the adjacent hospice, on their way to Enlli.  By the remains of the ash grove, old fruit bushes and hop vines still exist.  The churchyard, following the custom of long ago, is oval in shape.

In addition to the pilgrims, lepers came to the church at Pistyll looking for a cure. These were housed in a hospice nearby, whilst the main body of pilgrims en route to Bardsey were accommodated on a separate site on the Cefnedd hill behind the church. During Mass, the lepers stood outside the north-western end of the church and viewed the
service through the small lepers’ window.

Parishioners have revived the tradition of celebrating Lammas on the first Sunday in August (the word Lammas comes from the Anglo Saxon word for loaf mass, hlaef-mas, a time when the first grain of the harvest was ground and utilised to bake a loaf, this loaf was then given in celebration and there was a time of feasting in addition to prayer that the rest of the harvest would be safely brought in).

The church is freshly strewn with rushes and sweet smelling wild herbs three times a year.

In the churchyard is the grave of actor Rupert Davies who played Maigret in the 1960s TV series.

Here the view of the peninsula opening up before you is breathtaking. Arriving here having walked, it is possible to imagine the relief the pilgrims at encountering the coolness of the church on a hot day, or the shelter from wind and rain in stormy weather.

Lleyn diary 2: coves and beaches

Lleyn diary 2: coves and beaches

This time on the Lleyn, as well as returning to well-trodden paths at places like Aberdaron, Porth Dinllaen and Porth Oer, we also found coves and beaches, more off the beaten track.

We were staying in a mobile home on a caravan site just outside Nefyn. Each morning our Cavalier puppy would get me up at dawn, ready for a walk down to the shingle beach. It was worth it, though, for those crisp, clear views along the coast towards the distinctive outline of Yr Eifl.

Looking towards Yr Eifl in early morning light
Looking towards Yr Eifl in early morning light

Being late May, the thrift, or sea pink, was just beginning to splash seashore and stone walls with their globes of bright pink flowers held on tall stalks above cushions of green leaves.I remember the old threepenny coins that featured the thrift, maybe as a pun on its name.

Thrift
Thrift

The thrift was joined on the cliff tops by carpets of bluebells, just going over, and the blinding yellow of gorse.

Porth Dinllaen
Porth Dinllaen

Porth Dinllaen has been owned by the National Trust since 1994. With views across to Yr Eifl and Snowdonia, Porth Dinllaen forms a magnificent stretch of bay sweeping up beyond Nefyn.

However, that view might have looked very different: in the early 1800s it seemed that Porth Dinllaen would be chosen over Holyhead on Anglesey as the route to Ireland. The Porth Dinllaen Harbour Company was formed in 1808 with assets that included the village and the harbour. But the bill before Parliament to constitute Porth Dinllaen as a harbour for Irish trade was rejected in 1810.

In fact, at that time Porth Dinllaen was a much busier place than nowadays. Because the headland forms a natural harbour that affords protection from the prevailing westerly winds, Porth Dinllaen became important as a harbour and busy port with as many as 900 vessels entering the harbour in 1840. Records going back 400 years show cargoes being shipped through here included cloth, tobacco, pepper and coal. In the early 1830s a regular steamer service to Liverpool was established, giving villagers access to a major city and the latest fashions.

Today, there are only about two dozen buildings at Porth Dinllaen, with the Ty Coch pub the centre of the village.

Porth Colman
Porth Colman

Porth Colman is reached by a winding back road from Tudweilog and is situated at one end of the broad sweep of  Traerh Penllech, where we found orchids, primrose and violets in bloom.   We startled a flock of oyster-catchers resting on the sand and watched them fly in v-formation out across the breakers, piping their distinctive cry.

Traerh Penllech
Traerh Penllech

Traeth Penllech is a long bay to which there is no vehicular access, so you really feel away from it all. At high tide there is only a limited stretch of beach, but we were lucky to be there at low tide when a large expanse of sand opens up.  The coastal path follows the cliffs along much of the bay, though in places erosion had resulted in its collapse.

Porth Oer (Whistling Sands)
Porth Oer (Whistling Sands)

We returned to Porth Oer, aka Whistling Sands (apparently because it can squeak when you walk on it).  As can be seen from the photo above, this normally busy beach was almost deserted in the days leading up to the spring bank holiday.  It’s a National Trust treasure, with car park, toilets and an excellent beach cafe and shop. Some work has been done recently on the stretch of coastal path leading from the car park down to the beach, and two rather lovely wooden benches installed at good viewpoints.

Porth Meudwy
Porth Meudwy

We had spotted the cove at Porth Meudwy, near Aberdaron, while walking on Mynydd Rhiw, and worked our way to it along the winding lanes west of Aberdaron. Then stood, looking back to Mynydd Rhiw across the bay.

Mynydd Rhiw from Porth Meudwy
Mynydd Rhiw from Porth Meudwy

Porth Meudwy was the embarkation point for pilgrims to Bardsey Island and is now a busy lobster fishing cove as well as being a departure point for day trips to Bardsey Island (walking down to the cove, we met a group coming off the Bardsey boat, which was being hauled off the beach when we go there). It’s a pebble beach with rock pools, surrounded by woodland and birdsong.

Another discovery was Towyn beach, near Tudweilog. Again, we found it at low tide when huge expanses of sand are revealed, interspered with rocky outcrops.  This BBC site reveals that the place is special in the hearts of very many people remembering childhood holidays spent here.

Towyn beach, near Tudweilog
Towyn beach, near Tudweilog

Towyn beach

Pistyll beach (below) is reached by a path from the ancient church of St Bueno, an important stopping-off point on the medieval pilgrims’ route to Bardsey Island.

Pistyll beach
Pistyll beach

And back , once again, to Aberdaron…

Once you were tethered
And now you are free
That was the river
This is the sea!

Aberdaron beach
Aberdaron beach

Lleyn diary 1: hills and forts

Lleyn diary 1: hills and forts

On the main road into the city
when the sun is low.
The traffic thickens, crawls.
It is a sluggish dragon glittering.
I am one of the dragon’s scales.
Suddenly the red sun is
right in the middle of the windscreen
streaming in.
I am transparent
and writing becomes visible
inside me
words in invisible ink
which appear
when the paper is held to the fire!
I know I must get far away
straight through the city and then
further until it is time to go out
and walk far in the forest.
Walk in the footprints of the badger.
It gets dark, difficult to see.
In there on the moss lie stones.
One of the stones is precious.
It can change everything
it can make the darkness shine.
It is a switch for the whole country.
Everything depends on it.
Look at it, touch it…

Further In, Tomas Tranströmer

Mynnd Nefyn
Mynnd Nefyn

Our week on the Lleyn began with a Sunday walk up Mynydd Nefyn on a day when the temperature was higher than on the Mediterranean. The lanes were ablaze with banks of gorse, red campion and bluebells, which grow along the roadsides all across the Lleyn.

A lane on the Lleyn
A lane on the Lleyn

As we gained height wonderful views of Nefyn and Porth Dinllaen in one direction and Cardigan Bay in the other came into view.

At the summit a sparrow-hawk circled above the ruins of the Gwylwyr quarry, established in the 1830s in response to the increasing need for granite setts for durable road surfacing.

By 1835 the quarry was in the hands of Samuel Holland who in 1844 succeeded in bringing together a few quarrying enterprises in the area as the ‘Welsh Granite Company’. The quarried setts were lowered down the steep inclined track which can still be seen, and onto the beach, just under Wern caravan site, where they were loaded onto ships. Activity declined towards the latter end of the 19th century as demand for granite setts for road-working lessened in favour of macadam.

We descended through the dark silence of a pine forest and finished the morning with a delicious pub lunch at Y Bryncynan at the crossroads below the Mynydd, reputedly the site where local hangings were once carried out.

The morning emerges in a counterpoint
of sun and mist;
a day streaming into
their branches.
They stand rooted
into the vertical,
like a Giacometti string quartet
talking things over musically
in a deep shaft filled with light.

– from ‘Pine Trees at Five Ways’ by Andy Brown & John Burnside

On Garn Boduan

Another day we walked to the summit of neighbouring Garn Boduan. The walk opened up spectacular views in all directions: to the north, the dramatic outline of Yr Eifl (The Rivals), the highest point on the Lleyn; to the west, views across Cardigan Bay to Porthmadog and beyond.

At Garn Boduan’s summit is a plateau on which there are the remains of a large Bronze Age settlement. This hill fort covers a very large area and encloses about  170 individual round huts in all. The huts were built in two phases, starting around 300 BC. The stone circles of the huts are clearly visible, making it a dramatic site.

Bronze Age hut circles on Garn Boduan
Bronze Age hut circles on Garn Boduan

The name Boduan translates into English as ‘the abode of Buan’. He is said to have been a grandson of the famous 6th century Bardic poet Llywarch Hen, this would place Buan in the years 600 or 650 A.D. It is quite likely, therefore, that this small summit fort was the actual residence of Buan.

The view from Garn Boduan

Hill forts  like this were the main settlement type in the Bronze and Iron Ages, but later development in the late pre-Roman and Roman periods would have seen a gradual abandonment of  hill forts in favour of more dispersed upland hut groups, holdings and farmsteads.

The first phase of building at Boduan was around 300 BC. Why did these people suddenly find it necessary to spend such considerable energy on constructing these massive forts ? It is thought that all this building was in response to the invasion of the area by Iron Age settlers, probably via the sea. After these hostilities were settled there are a couple of centuries of more or less peaceful co-existence between the two cultures. Around 100 BC. a second wave of Iron Age settlers are thought to have arrived in the area and this sparked off the second phase of stone-walled fort building at Boduan.

Sites like this may not always have been permanently occupied.  They may have been summer settlements, occupied by people looking after livestock brought to the high pastures during the summer months. But the settlement is so extensive that it must have served a more important function than merely a temporary dwelling for shepherds.

There is evidence of cattle husbandry, but as yet archaeologists have found no traces of cereal growing, suggesting that the site was occupied only minimally, with most people in the community preferring to live at lower levels. Some archaeologists speculate that the site became permanently occupied after the Roman invasion and the presence of the army base at Segontium (Caenarfon).  The site may even have been used by the Romans as a reservation area, into which they forced and then confined the local native population.

Mynydd Rhiw

On another day we walked up Mynydd Rhiw, near Aberdaron, now distinctive on the skyline with its radio mast, but 5000 years ago the busy site of a Neolithic stone-axe factory. Here, a type of rock especially suitable for the manufacture of stone axes and other tools was quarried from the hillside. The site was only recognized as an axe factory in 1956, when gorse-burning revealed that the low banks around a row of hollows were largely composed of flakes of fine-grained rock, with occasional roughly shaped axes.

On Mynydd Rhiw

A preliminary excavation in 1958, by the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments of Wales, showed that the hollows were the silted up remains of a quarry. A further excavation was sponsored by the Prehistoric Society in 1959, with the Board of Celtic Studies of the University of Wales, and yielded important information about the site, about the people who had worked there, and about the role of the axe factory in Neolithic cultural pattern.

The separate hollows on the surface today are all that can be seen of what was a more or less continuous opencast working, in all about 100 ft. long by 20 ft. across, following a seam of the desired rock. When one section of the quarry had been exhausted, it was partially filled with debris as the scene of activity moved away, and the resulting hollow was used for shelter by the axe-makers.

The view from Mynydd Rhiw

From the summit there was a superb view of the vast expanse of the sands at  Porth Neigwl (Hell’s Mouth).

Two poets at Aberdaron

Two poets at Aberdaron

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,
fringes.

Llyn, from Selected Poems, Christine Evans. Published by Seren in November 2003.

The church at Aberdaron

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