In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times will there also be singing?

In the dark times
Will there also be singing?
Yes, there will also be singing
About the dark times.
– Bertolt Brecht, motto to Svendborg Poems, 1939

In an essay called ‘Undefeated Despair’, John Berger wrote of ‘Despair without fear, without resignation, without a sense of defeat.’ ‘However you look at it’, the Guardian editorialised a few days ago, ‘2017 offers a fearful prospect for America and the world.’ In the words of Paul Simon’s ‘American Tune’, I don’t have a friend who feels at ease when weighing the prospects for the year ahead. In the spirit that some solace may be found in poetry in these dark times, I offer a selection of poems or brief extracts – some have which have appeared in posts here before – which seem to offer meaning and hope; they may reflect Berger’s stance of undefeated despair, offering not ‘a promise, or a consolation, or an oath of vengeance (forms of rhetoric he states are are for ‘the small or large leaders who make History’), but rather insists that ‘One was born into this life to share the time that repeatedly exists between moments, the time of Becoming.’ . Continue reading “In the dark times will there also be singing?”

Addlands: the inescapable ties of geography and place

<em>Addlands</em>: the inescapable ties of geography and place

In the current issue of the London Review of Books there is an article by John Lanchester in which – although he’s writing about Brexit – he makes an observation that seems to resonate with a novel I read recently: ‘England’, Lanchester writes, ‘is both a small country and a big one …there is a lot of Deep England out there.’

Tom Bullough’s Addlands is set in deepest Radnorshire, a story of hill farmers battling with the forces of nature in one of Britain’s wildest, poorest and least populated areas. Historically a Welsh county, culturally Radnorshire has been a law unto itself, its people declaring their identity as neither Welsh nor English, but Radnor folk, people of the Borders; and fiercely-contested borders between fields and farms form one of the threads in a novel that spans the decades from the 1940s to 2011. Continue reading Addlands: the inescapable ties of geography and place”

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”

Two churches, two religions, one island

Two churches, two religions, one island

Porth Cwyfan 1

During our week on Anglesey we walked a couple of sections of the coastal path that each led us past an interesting and unusual church.  One walk began in Aberffraw, a sizeable village on the southwest coast of the island where the Afon Ffraw debouches into an extensive area of dunes fronted by another stunning beach framed by expansive views of the Snowdon mountain range. An old hump-back bridge spans the river Ffraw here; built in 1731, it was part of the main road into Aberffraw until it was bypassed in 1932.

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The 18th century bridge at Aberffraw

I must admit that I’d never heard of Aberffraw before coming here. Yet in early medieval times this place was the ‘capital’ of the kingdom of Gwynedd. For over 800 years the Gwynedd dynasty ruled great swathes of Wales from a royal palace here.  The dynasty, established by a chieftain from Strathclyde who came here to expel the Irish from North Wales, resisted Saxons, Vilings, and finally the Normans. After the first Norman incursions into Wales, the royal court moved here from Conway, and Aberffraw came into a golden age which ended with the defeat of Llewellyan the Last by Edward I in 1282, a defeat which brought Welsh independence to an end.  Nothing now remains of the palace, which was built of wood.  In 1317, with timber in short supply as the once densely-wooded landscape was denuded of trees, the remains of the palce were demolished and its timbers used to repair Caernarfon castle.

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Following the estuary out of Aberffraw

We followed the coastal path out along the estuary, absorbing the extensive views across the beach and towards the mountains of Snowdonia.  As you work your way out to the next headland the perspective changes as the whole length of the Lleyn peninsula, with its mountainous spine, stretches as far as distant Bardsey Island.

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Ox-eye daisies Scabious

Pushing our way through a profusion of wild flowers

Somewhere along this stretch we encountered one of the most beautiful stretches of coastal path I can recall; the path was deeply-worn, flanked by an earthen bank splashed with the densest profusion of wild flowers – ox-eye daisies, red campion, foxgloves, field scabious and hawkbit.  Nearby was a community of Northern Marsh Orchids and clumps of Sea Campion.

Marsh Orchid Hybrid Spotted Orchid

Northern Marsh Orchid

Bladder Campion

Sea Campion

A mile further on, and we spied the first of the two churches that form the main subject of this post- the tiny church of Saint Cwyfan, isolated on a small walled island in the pebble-strewn bay of Porth Cwyfan.

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St Cwyfans Church comes into view

This simple medieval church dates from the 12th century and originally stood at the end of a peninsula between two bays. However, in a few decades in the 17th century the sea slowly eroded the coast, turning the peninsula into an island.

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St Cwyfans Church

A causeway was built to the island to allow parishioners to get to the island (even that has now largely been washed away). The sea continued to eat away at the island until, in the late 19th century, some of the graves surrounding the church began to fall into the sea. By this time the church was abandoned and roofless, having been replaced by a new church further inland. However, in 1893 a local architect, concerned for the fate of the evocative old church, raised money to save it by constructing a seawall around the island and restoring the building.

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‘And its walls shall be hard as their hearts’

The sight of the church perched above its encircling, fortress-like wall stirred a vague memory – was it of a poem by RS Thomas who wrote across the water there, on the Lleyn?  It wasn’t until we were back home, and I was able to pull down off the shelf Rita’s copy of Thomas’s collected poems, that I found the answer.  It’s a 1972 poem by Thomas called ‘The Island’ which made a powerful impression on me when I first read it. But it was puzzling, too.  For me, as an atheist, the poem seemed to speak of the futility of belief in a god so unmindful of humanity’s suffering on earth. Yet Thomas was an Anglican priest who served as a vicar in several small rural, poverty-stricken parishes in Wales – the last, before his retirement, being at Aberdaron, on the remote tip of the Leyn. Even knowing that, ‘The Island’ remains a puzzling poem for me.  I suppose it’s a vision of when a ‘rough god goes riding’, in Van Morrison’s memorable expression (there’s an extended discussion of its meaning, for anyone interested, here). However you choose to interpret the poem, St Cwyfan’s church, surrounded by its forbidding wall, seems its perfect visualisation:

And God said, I will build a church here
And cause this people to worship me,
And afflict them with poverty and sickness
In return for centuries of hard work
And patience.
And its walls shall be hard as
Their hearts, and its windows let in the light
Grudgingly, as their minds do, and the priest’s words be drowned
By the wind’s caterwauling. All this I will do,
Said God, and watch the bitterness in their eyes
Grow, and their lips suppurate with
Their prayers. And their women shall bring forth
On my altar, and I will choose the best
Of them to be thrown back into the sea.

And that was only on one island.

Llanbadrig 1

The coastal path near Cemaes

Another day, another coastal path walk – this time on the northern coast, setting out from the little port of Cemaes.  This coastline is quite different to that around Newborough and Aberffraw – more like Cornwall or Pembrokeshire with its rocky coves and steep cliffs. Unfortunately, walking in one direction at least, it’s overshadowed by the ominously looming bulk of Wylfa nuclear power station on Wylfa head.

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Human waste: nuclear and otherwise

Built in 1963, Wylfa was the second nuclear power station to be built in Wales, after Trawsfynydd. Now only one of its two reactors is operational. During its operational life there has been considerable public concern about safety at Wylfa, with Greenpeace commissioning an independent appraisal of problems at the plant. Substantial works have been needed to strengthen the reactors against deteriorating welds discovered in a safety review in April 2000. Now there are plans to build a new nuclear plant alongside the old one. The plan has been the subject of local opposition, led by the group People Against Wylfa B – or PAWB (pawb being Welsh for ‘everyone’).  Despite this, the coalition government has confirmed Wylfa as one of the eight sites it considers suitable for new nuclear power plants, with the plant being built by Hitachi. A spokesman for PAWB responded: ‘We don’t want a ‘Wylfashima’ on Ynys Mon’.

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Wylfa nuclear power station overshadows the church at Llanbadrig 

A couple of miles out of Cemaes we stumbled upon our second unusual church in a coastal setting. Perched close to the cliff edge is Llanbadrig, which translates as ‘church of Saint Patrick’. According to local legend, the church was founded in AD 440 by St Patrick who had been shipwrecked on the small island of Middle Mouse which is visible from the churchyard.  The story goes that Patrick, travelling by ship after visiting St Columba on the Scottish island of Iona and bound for Ireland, was shipwrecked on the island but managed to make safe landfall at a cave in the cliffs below where the church now stands.

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The church at Llanbadrig: beware of holes

We had a picnic lunch and waited for the church to be opened at two o’clock, for the real curiosity of this church lies in its interior. Meanwhile, we strolled around the gravestones, taking careful note of the warning sign: ‘Beware of holes in this part of the churchyard’.  You never know where you might end up!

I wanted to look inside the church because, although it possibly dates back to AD440, it has been modified at various points in its history – most recently undergoing a major restoration in 1884, funded by Henry Stanley, 3rd Baron of Alderley. This was interesting not only because the family seat at Nether Alderley below Alderley Edge in Cheshire is just a few miles from where I was brought up, but primarily because Stanley was a convert to Islam when he funded the restoration.  In 1869 Lord Stanley (whose sister Katharine was the mother of Bertrand Russell) became the first Muslim member of the House of Lords.When he died in 1908, an obituary noted:

That the late Henry Edward John Stanley, third Baron Stanley of Alderley, was a sincere and devout Muslim, was known to very few men. Readers of the Safwat-ul-Itbar (Travels of Sheikh Muhammad Bairam Fifth of Tunis), however, knew very well that Lord Stanley had long been a sincere believer in the principles of Islam. But his faith was not limited to a profession by word of mouth. The author of the Safwat-ul-Itbar relates incidents which show how deeply Islam had entered into his heart. He found him not only regular in the five daily prayers, but also constant at tahajjud (the midnight prayers); and what is still more wonderful, he found him very humble in his prayers, and far above most born Muhammadans. When he talked of the Holy Prophet, it was with profound love and deep respect that he mentioned or named him. He found him also very well versed on the principles of Muslim theology, and in his conversation with him he found that the deep conviction of his mind was the result of a comprehensive knowledge of the principles of Islam. This was about the year 1880. Who could imagine that such a sincere and devout worshipper of the true God was living in the heart of Christendom?

This explains why Stanley’s plans for the restoration of the church at Llanbadrig included Islamic-influenced designs. The stained glass windows, instead of depicting biblical scenes and characters, are simple geometric designs. Tiles on the wall behind the alter also show geometric or floral designs. There are some suggestions that he created these designs himself.

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Islamic-influenced designs in the church at Llanbadrig

Stanley died and was buried during the most holy period in the Muslim calendar, 21- 25 Ramadan (11 and 15 December 1903 respectively). He was buried according to Muslim rites on the family estate, Alderley Park, at Nether Alderley in Cheshire. The chief mourner at his burial was the First Secretary to the Ottoman Embassy in London. Islamic prayers were recited over his grave by the embassy’s Imam. A service in his memory was held at the Liverpool Mosque, conducted by Abdullah Quilliam, a Liverpool solicitor and another Muslim convert. The mosque, founded by Quilliam, was in those days located in Brougham Terrace.  The building later became the city Register Office, where Rita and I were married.

Big sky country: a walk on Llanddwyn beach

Big sky country: a walk on Llanddwyn beach

Newborough 7

Here are men
who live at the edges
of vast space.
Light pours on them
and they lift their faces to be washed by it
like children.
– RS Thomas, ‘West Coast’, extract

It was the day before the storm, summer’s last hurrah, a day of scudding clouds and warm sunshine.  On Llanddwyn beach at Newborough on Anglesey the air was clear and the views breathtaking. The mountain peaks of Snowdonia lay before us, each summit’s shape clearly defined.  The lie of the land could be traced all down the Lleyn as far as Bardsey Island.

This is, as the Forestry Commission website puts it, ‘a landscape shaped by wind, sand, time and man’, a changing landscape of dunes, woods and grassland since the retreat of the glaciers. People settled here and farmed the land, but bare sand is unstable and about 700 years ago storm winds blew large quantities of sand inland, burying fields and cottages.  The forest that you drive through to reach the beach car park was planted between 1947 and 1965 to protect the village of Newborough from wind-blown sand and to provide timber and jobs.

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Mynydd Mawr from Llanddwyn beach

Forest, woodland and dunes: Newborough Warren is one of the largest areas of sand dunes found in the British Isles. Newborough Forest is 8 square kilometres of woodland, a nature reserve with footpaths and winding trails.

Like a painting it is set before one,
But less brittle, ageless; these colours
Are renewed daily with variations
Of light and distance that no painter
Achieves or suggests. Then there is movement,
Change, as slowly the cloud bruises
Are healed by sunlight, or snow caps
A black mood; but gold at evening
To cheer the heart.  All through history
The great brush has not rested,
Nor the paint dried; yet what eye,
Looking coolly, or, as we now,
through the tears’ lenses, ever saw
This work and it was not finished?
– RS Thomas, ‘The View From The Window’

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The beach at Newborough

The jewel, though, has to be the expansive, sandy Blue Flag Llanddwyn beach with its stunning backdrop of the mountains of Snowdonia.  From the beach you can walk out to Llanddwyn Island, a mile-long rocky promontory accessible via a causeway which is covered twice a day by the tide. The remains of a 16th-century church can be found there, as well as a Celtic cross and Llanddwyn Lighthouse, shaped like a windmill.

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The sculptures at Newborough beach

The lighthouse and the cross are a feature of three large, yellow sculptures representing marram grass sheaths that stand in the car park.  The sculptures were designed by pupils from Newborough school and placed here earlier in 2013 when the car park and associated facilities (including an accessible boardwalk to an observation point overlooking the beach) were opened. The sculptures represent marram grass because it formed the basis of a local industry in late medieval times. The grass was used to make a whole range of items including lobster pots, baskets and netting and rope, and was a prized commodity.

Modern Newborough was founded by citizens of Llanmaes in eastern Anglesey who were evicted by Edward I in 1294 in order to support his new port of Beaumaris and the huge castle he had ordered to be built there. The new settlement was, literally, a ‘new borough’ and gained its charter in 1303. In the 16th century, Newborough was the county town of Anglesey.

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Walking on Llanddwyn beach

In Wales there are jewels
To gather, but with the eye
Only. A hill lights up
Suddenly; a field trembles
With colour and goes out
In its turn; in one day
You can witness the extent
Of the spectrum and grow rich
With looking. Have a care;
The wealth is for the few
And chosen. Those who crowd
A small window dirty it
With their breathing, though sublime
And inexhaustible the view.
– RS Thomas, ‘The Small Window’

Newborough 1

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

From what was I escaping?
There is a rare peace here,
though the aeroplanes buzz me.
reminders of that abyss,

deeper than sea or sky, civilisation
could fall into.
– RS Thomas, ‘Retirement’, extract

Gallery: a walk at Newborough