Friday, 20 August 2010

The Drowning Season

The cottage at Nant Addu commanded a good view of Arenig and other heights.The Lake of Treweryn was at hand and in the distance rose the pyramids of Moelwyn. I think Innes was never happier than when painting in this district...perceived by him as the reflection of some miraculous promised land.
Augustus John.

Would a man born in 1878 who would go on to become one of the early 20th century's great post impressionist painters have ever imagined,as he put down those words,that within his lifetime, the seeds for the destruction of that 'miraculous promised land' would take root. The flowering of those plans bringing the total destruction of an entire valley which included the ethnic cleansing of a community, the bulldozing of a village which for centuries had been at the heart of the Treweryn valley and the ecological degradation of a habitat which was once diverse and brimming with life; to be replaced by the dead waters which coursed down from the encircling mountains? 

The destruction of the village of Capel Celyn and the forced removal of its inhabitants can be seen as one of the most shameful acts perpetrated by the British government in the latter half of the 20th century. The fact that the destruction was carried out to build a water supply for a city whose population and industrial base was already in free-fall makes the chapter even more shameful. In effect.a vanity project for a corrupt political elite which controlled the city of Liverpool at the time.To understand how such a crime could be enacted, we need to look at the social and political landscape of post war Britain.

The city of Liverpool lies less than 20 miles from the Welsh border. For centuries there has been an ongoing cross border migration between north Wales and Liverpool to the extent that districts in the city's south end saw  Welsh enclaves established with the language being commonly spoken on the street corner and chapels . As a child attending Dovedale Road primary school off Penny Lane in the sixties, it is no exaggeration to say that the majority of  my teachers were from North Wales and Welsh was the language of the corridor and staff room. Indeed, the higher points of the city looked out to uplands of north Wales and it is still true that north Walians are socially and culturally much closer to this English city than they are to their own capital city of Cardiff which geographically and culturally is as remote and alien to them as Norwich!

In the early 1950's the city of Liverpool-once known as the second city of the empire- had a population of just under one million.It had the longest working waterfront in the world and despite containing some of the most deprived areas in the UK, was still considered a powerful economic region. However,the base upon which the city's economy was structured,was in serious decline.

A city which looked west to America and which is often seen as more American than European in character was to find itself on the wrong side of the country. Within two decades the UK would be politically and economically linked to Europe. Factor in the accelerating decline in heavy industry-not just in Liverpool but throughout the UK as private firms sought out cheaper labour markets in Europe and the sweat shops of the east--then it can be seen that Liverpool as a significant economic force sustaining a large population was at a tipping point. A process which, as it reached the 1960's would accelerate to the extent that the city's population would half before the end of the century and it's maritime and heavy industrial base would be ravaged to a degree that by the 1970's the city would become one of poorest and most socially deprived in Europe. 

Planning a major development whilst ignoring the relevant statistical data, even in the 1950's can be seen as seriously flawed with regard to factoring in all the planning elements which are required to present a coherent application. The Treweryn grand project can be seen as akin  to applying for planning permission to build a three bedroom extension on your home just as your children are about to leave home.

The complicated politics of the city can be explained by the fact that Liverpool with its huge Irish population was essentially politically divided along religious lines. The city was the only mainland city to have councillors elected on a 'Protestant' ticket whilst the Labour Party was seen as a Catholic party. The protestant councillors eventually merging into the Conservative Party by the 1960's. During the 1950's the city was governed by a Tammany Hall style Labour Party council under the control of Bessie and Jack Braddock. It was in the middle of this period that the first plans for the destruction of the Treweryn Valley were formulated in Liverpool Town Hall. Overseen and promoted by Liverpool's own 'Iron Maiden'- who was also a Westminster member of parliament- the city sponsored a private bill to be brought before parliament to develop a reservoir in the Treweryn Valley near Bala in Meirionydd. Liverpool would not require planning consent from the Welsh authorities if the act was passed in the Westminster parliament.

John and Mabel Evans leave their home at Garnedd Llwydd for the last time.A few days later the house was demolished and both were dead.

Thirty five out of the thirty six Welsh MP's opposed the bill but not surprisingly in what is essentially an English parliament,the bill was passed in 1957. From here on in,the local community supported throughout Wales, waged an eight year battle to prevent the destruction of Capel Celyn

In 1950's North Wales,the country was without any significant representation in the UK parliament.The office of Welsh Secretary had not even been created. Furthermore,the nascent Welsh nationalist movement-Plaid Cymru (Party of Wales) was a small fringe party without support or it seemed any hope of representation in London. The Welsh Language movement-Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg- was yet to find it's feet and politically, acts like the Treweryn bill had essentially a free run in the UK parliament. In effect Wales was a region to be exploited in the same way as England wearing it's Great Britain hat, had once plundered it's way across Africa in the name of empire.

Despite quickly mobilising a campaign drawn from across the political and social spectrum ,the anti Treweryn Resevoir campaign was easy for the politicians in Liverpool and London to ignore. Enter MAC..Mudiad Amddiffyn Cymru...a militant group who in effect were a Welsh IRA. The groups first act was to blow up a transformer on the dam construction site.Further bombings were carried out over the next six years before the campaign ended when two MAC members were blown up planting a bomb in Abergele on the day of Prince Charles's investiture as the Prince of Wales in 1968.

In effect the campaign despite it's more militant developments was doomed. Without any political power and overwhelmed by the dominant state, the grand project was ruthlessly pursued in the name of the people and industries of Liverpool, although of course,the ordinary people of Liverpool had as little say in the Braddock's grand project as the people of Capel Celyn!

Farmers of the valley and surrounding areas gather in the shadow of Arenig Fawr for the final sale

The little village of Capel Celyn stood at the heart of the Treweryn Valley. An exquisitely beautiful place of scattered farmsteads and cottages with the village with its school,chapel,post office and houses nestling in the valley below. The valley was fringed to the east with a railway line which had been earmarked for closure during the Beeching cuts.

The mountains of Arenig Fawr,Y Nodol,Carnedd y Filiast and Arenig Fach cast an encircling arm around the community at all points but to the east where the Afon Treweryn escaped from the valley and meandered down towards Bala. Those corralling peaks-' too cold for crow'- had once inspired Augustus John, James Innes and Derwent Lees who were at the heart of 'The Arenig School' A unique post impressionist art school based just a mile to the west in the little cottage of Nant Ddu. In a civilised state such a community with its unique cultural associations would be regarded as a national treasure. However, even in a more enlightened new century, landscape and culture are still, as then, very much of secondary value compared to economic factors.

Looking towards the Treweryn Valley: James Dickson Innes 

After its 1957 ascent through parliament work began quickly. Somewhat poignantly,photographs taken at the time show a community getting on with its day to day life against a backdrop of bulldozers and demolition. It brings to mind modern day Palestine where families attempt to live their lives as Israeli bulldozers demolish their homes and workplaces. The 1950's British version of a dominant state flexing its muscles against a weak minority, if not as ruthlessly pursued as in 21st century Palestine, in its way just as efficiently executed and as in Palestine,the project carried out under the watchful eye of uniformed servants of the state.

European ethnic cleansing: North Wales 1962

Despite the continued opposition and attempts to halt the development, by 1962, the last  villagers and smallholders had been driven out of their homes. Capel Celyn had been totally depopulated and work began at once to demolish the village and surrounding farms. The graveyard attached to the chapel saw eight of the dead disinterred to be reburied.The majority within the graveyard left to lie where they were.The graveyard then covered with concrete. On the 28th October 1965 the Llyn Celyn reservoir was officially opened.Attended by the great and the good of Liverpool and London. Those driven out and their supporters were in attendance but a heavy police presence kept away those who had had their lands stolen and lives destroyed.

Writing in the Daily Post in 2005,Ian Parri interviewed a number of those who were driven out of their homes. Their memories still raw and unforgiving. The passage of the years failing to offer rhyme nor reason as to why they had to witness the destruction of their valley. Aeron Prysor Jones was 10 years old at the time and attended the village school.."Who wouldn't remember that ?  We used to live in a smallholding of some 20 acres called Ty'n y Bont, the house being right next to the chapel house. The whole of that smallholding was drowned, the house and the land. The house was demolished, flattened to the ground, as was every house scheduled to be drowned.
The meadows below the old Bala-Blaenau railway line, plus the house and the sheds, had to go. We had to move into a caravan because the new house we were building wasn't ready, so we had to carry all our furniture into a cow shed on land that was to remain.

They were eager to see us go, and if we'd moved a fortnight earlier the house would've been demolished a fortnight earlier. It was only a matter of a couple of days after we left before it was flattened.
It was almost as if you had come to terms with the idea before it happened. I'd seen every tree disappear before my eyes, chopped down, and the valley had been stripped bare. It was like a desert, and the only things left standing were the cemetery wall and two bridges'.

Aeron has never lived anywhere else but Cwm Tryweryn, still farming the land at Penbryn Mawr once owned by his grandfather James Edwards. His grandfather had to buy back what part of the land remains above the waterline after the corporation slapped a compulsory purchase order on the whole holding. He was never to see the new house built, dying before the valley was flooded. Aeron still seethes with a sense of injustice. He insists that the farming community in the valley were far from adequately compensated, calling it "the most dreadful deceit perpetrated on this nation ever".

He explains: "The whole valley was bought by compulsory purchase for just its agricultural value. It might have looked like a stack of money, but looking how land values have increased it was woefully inadequate'

On a cold grey day in 2009 I drove over to Treweryn from my home which as the crow flies is no more than 15 miles away. For quite a while now I had contemplated writing an article about an event enacted in my name which even 40 years later appalled and angered me. The fact that it had recently been acknowledged that the waters of Llyn Celyn were not needed just compounded the crime.As did Liverpool City Council's recent apology to the people of the Treweryn Valley for its actions.

Parking up at the head of the dam I wandered across towards Nodol,intending to wander along the lake shore towards a place I remembered from walking in the area years before. Somewhere above the lost village under the waters was a small cottage which had amazingly survived the demolition process and still stood as a memorial to an ancient community.

The waters of Celyn where being whipped up by a furious north wind which created white horses which broke upon the rocky shore like sea waves. I had to restrain my normally water mad Springer Spaniel from jumping in as he would have been tossed around like a fur sack in a washing machine! At the head of the lake, Arenig Fach was wreathed in cloud as short sharp squalls peppered me with hail before subsiding only to return five minutes later with increased velocity.. It was an appropriate elemental cycle which followed me all the way to the small cottage hidden away amongst a grove of larch, Scots pine and sycamore. It was surrounded by cropped grass and nettle banks from which old farm machinery and rusted corrugated sheets poked through.Mint grew in profusion,no doubt once part of a cottage garden and old iron pots,jars and stoneware vessels lay scattered around.. At one time it had been home to a family who farmed 65 acres on this, the sunny south side of the valley.

Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea...Then and now

I wandered around the outbuildings now dilapidated but still roofed and bearing evidence of its agrarian past. Old drums and bottles, rusted tins and implements. Shearing shears hanging from a crooked nail. The house itself was now door less, the living room deep in mud and sheep shit. Under the front door lintel an early lamb lay dead,half buried in the mire.The great range was still in place. I imagined it's blackened flue drawing a singing fire as an old man slept in an armchair angled to the blaze .The flames occasionally licking the dog grate as gusts whipped off the mountains and sent woodsmoke drifting up to the low, yellowed ceiling. It would have been a hard life.Living on the margins continually but at least sustained in the knowledge that you were part of a community and could access those things which sustain a community. A village shop and post office,a school, a place of worship and an inn at Rhyd y Fen. 

Walking upstairs,wallpaper now faded but still bearing its simple motif still lined the stairway. The backrooms remained dry but at the front of the house the roof was open to the elements.It would not be long before the ruinous process would reduce the cottage to a shell. I walked back along the shore and was suddenly caught in a terrible squall. Sheltering at water level behind a boulder I looked across to the far shore as the water foamed and boiled. The wind swept chariots of  spume in the direction of the dam head. It seemed as if the dead beneath the waters were screaming!  The grey sky now shot through with fast moving, crow black clouds leeched the afternoon light from the land; suggesting a storm of biblical proportions!.

I made haste towards my car- tumbling over hidden rocks and sliding backwards down fern covered banks which guttered the foaming waters running off Nodol into the Llyn. Soaked through and shivering, I virtually fell through the dwarf oaks onto the tarmac which fringed the abandoned car park at the dam head . On the tarmac in white paint,someone had painted 'Liverpool must suffer for Capel Celyn!' 

On my journey home I pondered those words. The irony being that if any city in England had suffered the slings and arrows of fate since the ill conceived Treweryn folly it had been the city of Liverpool.Apart from it's socio-economic disintegration, the city had been on a journey of political and cultural detachment from the central state for years. With a backdrop of extreme economic deprivation, the 1980's were ripe for political theatre of the most surreal and compelling nature.

Events brilliantly dramatised by local playwright Alan Bleasdale in works like the TV dramas 'Boys from the Blackstuff and 'GBH'. The election of a right wing Conservative administration in London in 1979 coinciding with the effective coup in Liverpool by the Trotskyite Militant Tendency who gained control of the ruling Labour Party, herelded a new confrontational era which was in sharp relief to the normally polite and passive political process in the UK. 

In the early eighties,the black area of Brixton in south London had seen street riots. However,these were as nothing as weeks later the Toxteth area in Liverpool raged against the machine! .With rioters effectively controlling the area for three days and nights as police forces from all over the north and North Wales were kept back by the ferocity of the rioters. Toxteth saw the first use of rubber bullets on the mainland of the UK and the Tory home secretary put troops on standby when it appeared that even the police headquarters on the edge of the city centre might be overwhelmed by rioters. The first riot deaths in the UK occured which included a young man with learning difficulties called Davy Moore was mown down by a police Land Rover whilst trying to escape.

After Toxteth, the Labour Council provoked the Thatcher government by refusing to comply with the financial restrictions laid down by central government. Inevitably, many of the council were sequestrated including the deputy but effective leader,the flamboyant Derek Hatton and thrown out of office.

At least during this period the economic and political chaos was somewhat sweetened by the two Merseyside football clubs domination of domestic and European football. A game which in Liverpool was essentially a religion in itself. However,even in this sphere the city was it seemed damned. In 1986, Liverpool Fans at a European final rioted and killed 30 Turinese supporting Juventus. Ironically,three years later nearly 100 Liverpool fans were to die at a domestic cup semi final in Sheffield when mind numbingly insensitive policing herded thousands of Liverpool fans onto terraces that could not contain them. The heartbreaking events played out to a live TV audience!

Slowly during the 1990's a form of stability gradually returned and by the new century Liverpool was reinventing itself as a modern city which coincided with its success in becoming European city of Culture in 2008. The impressive world famous waterfront saw new skyscrapers take root amongst the Victorian architectural masterpieces and a city with a huge young population naturally saw a vibrant night life return.

If Liverpool had embarked on a voyage of discovery since Treweryn then without witnessing the drama which had engulfed Liverpool, Wales itself  quietly underwent a remarkable political and cultural transformation.

The Tracks of my Tears. The bed of the old railway line

Within a few months of the opening of the Treweryn reservoir, Plaid Cymru,the nationalist party won it's first seat in the Westminster parliament. The UK government had created a post of welsh Secretary within the cabinet and the Welsh Language was afforded equal status with English within Wales as a language act was passed. By the the early 1980's, Wales finally gained a Welsh language TV channel...Sianel Pedwar Cymru (S4C) and by the end of the 20th century,the people of Wales had gained their own devolved national assembly. It had taken 50 years since the Treweryn debacle but many now see that democratic process which has taken place in Wales,essentially driven by the appalling events surrounding the destruction of Capel Celyn. It certainly cannot be seen as a price worth paying but at least something positive had come out of the devastation.

In 2005,The City of Liverpool offered a public apology to the people of Capel Celyn and the Treweryn Valley for their actions.Some might argue that for the apology to carry more weight,the removal of Bessie Braddock's statue from the city's main Lime Street Station might be considered?

In 2010, as I write this,with the 50th anniversary of the flooding but a few years away,it is hard to imagine that such a thing could happen today? Certainly the valleys of north Wales will, I'm sure, remain inviolate. However,those who now come from abroad to exploit Wales's natural topography for profit or public utility no longer look down into the valleys but now raise their eyes to the hills.....Twas ever thus!

John Appleby: 2010©

Contemporary photographs,Geoff Charles courtesy of Casglu'r Tlysau.

Further information
Casglu'r Tlysau

Video Doc
Capel Celyn..the village that drowned

Enya..Dan y Dwr (Under the water)