My eldest daughter Hannah had another round of never ending “A level” study, she was incarcerated with her open books strewn about her and the formulae of some chemical experiment scrawled on a crumpled piece of paper. My wife Clare was at work so Faye and I had the day to ourselves, on such a rare and still autumnal day we toyed with an ascent of Mynydd Mawr or the Eilio Ridge from the back of the house but decided that we would like to share this with the others so we stored them away for another day.
We chose to spend a few hours exploring what to me was very familiar ground and what to Faye were her family roots. I made a courtesy call to my Aunt Peggy who now lives in isolation in Bron y Gader, the family farm house in Rhyd Ddu, where my great grandparents’ chose to build their house and live and farm the slopes of Eryri, it was here that my mother was born and I too came into the world in the same bedroom with its undisturbed view of Snowdon and her surrounding sisters, Moel Cynghorion and Yr Aran, the mountains of longing.
The land surrounding Llyn y Gader was where my grandfather farmed and scraped a meagre life from the sheep and few cattle that he had. It was here in the village that he met my grandmother Elizabeth, who lived in Clogwyn y Gwin, a farm not more than a mile from Bron y Gader. Clogwyn y Gwin ran to 1000 acres of hard and windswept crag strewn hillside which in summer would catch the setting sun and glow like a shimmering fire, its name in English translating to “The Cliff of Wine” which was the colour of the hillside in the setting sun. Its dry stone boundary walls stretching to within a hairs breadth of the very summit of Y Wyddfa itself.
On this day, the 15th of October, on a brilliant sunny autumn afternoon we stopped a while at the small church in Betws Garmon where my parents and grandparents are buried, today was my father’s birthday and more poignant to me it was also hid death day. My father and I had often walked the route we had chosen today and most if not always he also carried his camera, like father like son I suppose. We parked the car at Bron y Gader and kitted up with camera bag and rations of chocolate biscuits and an apple or two. As soon as we walked through the kissing gate, a new affair and wholly different to the old gate that my grandfather had put there and my Uncle Jack and I had repaired on numerous occasions I had the feeling of being on home soil. Our first call was to the water well that now lies hidden under an access bridge to the field, the icy cold waters still weep into the stream that winds its way into Llyn y Gader, and it was from this well that my mother, grandmother and her mother in law before her would carry the water to the house. I showed this to Faye and my thoughts went reeling back to when I too as a child would scoop the crystal water out to drink in cupped hands.
I pointed out to Faye that the slate slabs that were our footpath through the “Gorse” were laid by my great grandfather and kept in good order by my grandfather and then my Uncle Jack, its long narrow slates now cracked and sinking into the acidic peaty waters unloved and wholly uncared for, I will remember this path for the rest of my lifetime as its route, though short was always an escape to excitement to me as a child. The “gorse” was home to Curlews who would nest amongst the hummocks, walking towards the lake shore with my grandfather to fish or patch and paint, always a “Battleship” grey for some reason, the rowing boats. We had to take care as to not disturb the birds or tread on their nests, sundew plants were an endless source of fascination and I would search them out and tease them to close with the end of a piece of rush.
How many Curlews now pick their nesting spot close to where the Sundew grows, none of either bird or plant most probably. At the height of summer grass snakes would often be disturbed from their slumber and would glide away towards shelter as we approached.
After the end of the slate slab path we reached the river Gwyrfai and the boundary to this edge of our farmland, it was here that as children we had a swing tied to the bough of a huge Ash tree which would allow the brave to swing Tarzan like over the fast- to us- flowing water. It was at this exact spot that I found a First World War bayonet, in all probability dropped during training by a young soldier, for they all seemed to be young in my mind. Its pommel and hilt sticking out between two rocks. As I described this to Faye I wondered how long if at all the young soldier survived the horror he was to face on some god forsaken battlefield away from this “Harddwch” (beauty) I was astonished to notice how shallow the river was and how narrow too; as a child it seemed that we were swinging over a vast space and distance .
From here we walked on till we reached the “Cob”. The waters of the lake were mirror still and a lone fisherman ploughed his boat across the lake and cast a fly, a “Haul a Gwynt” (in English, “Sun and Wind”- which is the name of my house a few miles from Rhyd Ddu- as he slowly drifted back, aided by the undercurrent that flowed from the lake to the river Gwyrfai. This reminded me of my time in the village school and of the poetry we learnt.
Sir T H Parry Williams, one of Wales’s eminent poets and scribes who was born in the school house that my family had built, and was the first to win the double award of chair and crown at the national eisteddfod penned a poem entitled “Llyn y Gader”. In it there are a few lines that sing in that way that Welsh writing does:
Ni wêl y teithiwr talog mono bron
Wrth edrych dros ei fasddwr ar y wlad.
Mae mwy o harddwch ym mynyddoedd hon
Nag mewn rhyw ddarn o lyn, heb ddim ond bad
Pysgotwr unig, sydd yn chwipio'r dŵr
A rhwyfo plwc yn awr ac yn y man,
Fel adyn ar gyfeilorn, neu fel gwr
Ar ddyfroedd hunlle'n methu cyrraedd glan.
Ond mae rhyw ddewin â dieflig hud
Yn gwneuthur gweld ei wyneb i mi'n nef,
Er nad oes dim gogoniant yn ei bryd,
Na godidowgrwydd ar ei lannau ef, --
Dim byd ond mawnog a'i boncyffion brau,
Dau glogwyn, a dwy chwarel wedi cau.
T H Parry Williams (1931)
'There is more beauty in these mountains
Than is some bit of a lake, with only a boat
And a lonely fisherman, who is whipping the water
And rowing a touch now and again.'
The fisherman in that poem is my grandfather Edwin who was at school with T.H.
Today’s fisherman we were to later find out had been a friend of my mother’s who now lives in the old woollen mill by the river where our swing was as children we watched him in the distance from our elevation on the cob with such clear light that we could see the rod and line whip, and the gentle fly float in the air to land on the still water to effect a small ripple. On the foreground rocks a cormorant watched the fisherman and the water with steely eyes. No rod , line or fly was needed by him as he effortlessly plucked a small trout from the shallows . A gentle breeze then disturbed the surface of the waters causing our human fisherman to drift gently on the waves, the other guy just stuck to his rock and shook his head from side to side before another dive took him from our sights.
Off the edge of the “Cob” we wandered down to the water’s edge and skimmed stones from the flat topped slate tips that jutted into the lake; laid like the outspread fingers of a hand, the gaps between them acting like sheltered docks. I taught Faye to skim the flat slates just as my grandfather had done for me. It was only when I returned home that the thought entered my head that we were touching stone that my great grandfather had touched. I wondered if he had also skimmed the perfectly flat penny sized discs as he sat here resting a while after a day’s labour on his walk home to Bron y Gader, or sat with an enamelled flask of milky tea with home baked bread and butter churned from the milk of his own herd. I recollect my Nain making loaves of bread in the kitchen, where she had an enormous earthen ware pot with a perfect round slate lid in which she proved the mix till it was ready to go into the ovens on either side of the range. These loaves would always have a top crust as black as the coal in the range which heated the ovens. My job was to churn the buttermilk in a barrel with a lid that was screwed tight by four clasps; the bright yellow butter was then blocked and imprinted by wooden pats with a flower carved in relief upon them, wrapped in greaseproof paper and sold to the villagers.
My Aunt Megan and I would walk along the “Cob” daily after school to tend our flock of hardy small bodied Welsh Mountain sheep that we kept on the farm, or the half dozen Welsh Black cattle that we kept for milking. Her of such small frame and wild hair, gathering the sheep or dragging an ewe from some cleft in a rock or stuck in the river as if she was picking up a small child; of which she never had. I remember struggling along it one very bitter winter, a cut throat razor wind slicing down from Drws y Coed, wearing wellingtons that Nain had bought me in the shoe shop in Caernarfon which were as cold as the snow which we were breaking through.In all my times of climbing mountains or ice climbing in the Alpine regions I have never experienced such numbing cold as much as I did through those “Dunlop” wellingtons.
The bitter wind of that day is as vivid now as it was over 50 years ago. Megan with a huge sack of hay almost as large as her, to feed the ewes that were kept on the slopes of the hill, me running behind her trying to keep up; she was a fast walker who crossed terrain like a dervish whirl. I can still see in my mind’s eye the snow banked up against the dry stone walls where ewes had gathered for shelter, snow drifted over them in a thick blanket and only a small entrance hole of melted snow tubes where they had broken through with their warm breath. Some would not survive the coldest nights and would be dragged out and later buried or carried back as a heavy carcass to be disposed of in softer ground. Megan would spread the hay out for the ewes in the shelter of an old slate splitting shed that had been constructed by my great grandfather as part of his plan to extract slate from this hill side. The sheep knew when and where the shelter and feed would be and they gathered round like expectant children waiting for the handout.
This quarrying venture came to nought and it produced a very meagre quality slate and was soon abandoned, despite the construction of a raised cob to carry the dressed slate from the quarry to the Welsh Highland Railway that had a station at Rhyd Ddu; several cutting sheds and shelters, the entire track and trucks and other paraphernalia that turned this otherwise gentle hillside into a venture that “would make our fortune”.
The shed I remember as a child had a roof and was open at both ends and acted as an ideal shelter during the coldest weather for the ewes and often their offspring too during lambing time, the day that Faye and I were there the roof had all but gone. The timbers and huge pine joists cracked like huge bones, splintered and sharp. All but a few of the roof slates were missing or lay broken on the floor but on the ground by the gable end there was a grey ridge tile still intact and in exactly the same sunny spot that I remember sitting on as a child. I sat again today amongst this detritus of dreams.
The small quarry behind, now overgrown, green and lichenous was where we came to when one of the cattle, a young heifer with a coat as black and sheened as wet slate was spooked by a thunder clap one stormy night and had fallen or leapt over the precipice only to land on a huge sharp spike of slate, she was still but barely alive when we arrived with the vet who had to put a shot into the groaning beast, I was not allowed to see the done deed but remember the echoing sound of the gun in the amphitheatre of the quarry.
Faye and I wandered towards the small stream where there was the remnant of a powder house, now only two walls and surrounded by fallen pines, we used to keep tins of marker paint here for the ewes that would be released onto the hill after shearing, the bright red thick and viscous paint daubed on reluctant brows by me as my grandfather held the ewes between his strong thighs with their eyes wide and glaring and darting for a way out, once marked they would bound away only to stop and look back, their faces with the red mark like an Indian goddess in the middle of their brow.
The Powder House
We sat on a small grassy knoll and ate our apples, it was here that I had placed a memorial slate slab, carved and carried here by me more than twenty years since and dedicated to my greatest of friends- Bob. We had shared our lives as youths and young men in Liverpool and climbed and drank our way through our lives as if we would live forever, Bob and I often came here to this spot, it was always one of his favourite places and he said he belonged here and felt a great connection with the spirit of the place. If we were staying at my parent’s cottage in Rhyd Ddu we would walk along the “cob” in moonlight to watch shooting stars in the blackest of nights whilst we sat atop one of the many large boulders that were thrown willy-nilly on the hillside, many times we would bring our rock boots and chalk bags and boulder away a whole afternoon pushing the limits as we “spotted” one another for a fall, we did numerous problems on these rocks and left them unrecorded, I was told recently that they are now graded and guide booked and claimed by others.
When we buried Bob in a cold Anfield cemetery a few days after he had inexplicably taken his own life in a cruel and harrowing way, I kept thinking about our time on this little patch of hillside I called my own. Two days before his suicide we had climbed up to the summit of Pen Llithrig y Wrach on the Carneddau hills on a stunningly clear day and talked about his return to Liverpool and a restart of life on the rocks and hills. Bob came late to owning his own transport and didn’t pass his test till his mid thirties; he was always full of surprises and turned up at my house in Liverpool one day on a huge (brand new) BMW 1200cc Motorbike. It was on this bike that I waved him farewell as he went to sort out his return from London to Liverpool. That wave was the last I saw of him and the next morning he was found dead in his bedroom. What possesses a man to leave behind such warmth, love and friendship can never be fathomed out and left me in turmoil.
I put the bitter memories away and turned from Bob’s memorial stone to catch the light mirrored off the waters and leading my eye to the summit of Snowdon. Sharp and clear on this day. Faye was sitting on a small knoll eating an apple; her jet black hair throwing highlights as the sun caught a glimpse of her face as she turned. I could only think of my mother who would have come here with her father in very similar circumstances as us, to enjoy a walk and take in the surroundings as her father tended his stock, as I returned to my haunts of so many years, tending the flock as a child, walking, climbing, taking pictures. When I was here in the heady days of the early 60’s I never thought that I would return with my own child in tow and wondered silently whether it was as magical for her as it was for me.
Eventually the fisherman rowed over to a sheltered little rocky outcrop that acted as a natural anchorage to speak to us, it was the exact spot that my grandfather and I had tied our boat up all those years ago. It was then that we found that he had known my mother really well and it was from him that I had purchased a box full of old climbing guides many years back, small world even in such a big open space.
The dwindling warmth of the day set us on our homeward journey and we began to retrace our steps along the cob; with the fading light throwing huge shadows over the lake as the sun dipped behind Y Garn and dropped into the bay behind the hills. On reaching the car we decided on one quick visit to another childhood haunt before we set for home. Although Faye and I had been to Llyn y Dywarchen on many occasions this visit seemed to fit in with the theme of the day and all the reminiscing that was filling my mind, it was as if it would cap the day off and end it all on a magical note, literally that is.
Llyn y Dywarchen has always held a grip on me since childhood and was a place that I and my friends from the village school in Rhyd Ddu would escape to on summer evenings to explore, play “Cowboys and Indians” with homemade bows and arrows cut from some innocent Willow or Ash that grew on the farm. The cowboys would invariably lose despite being armed with Mattel’s latest “Stallion 45” with real leather holsters, I doubt Cowboys and Indians has been played by anybody for about 40 years, not PC or some such?
We arrived at the small car park where as a child I remember the remains of the old Drws y Coed farmhouse.We parked and took a short stroll to the dam and then round the edge of the lake. I tried to retell to Faye the stories that my grandmother would tell us if we said we were off to the lake to play, she would sternly tell us to take the greatest care and be watchful at all times as the “Tylwyth Teg” would be keeping a keen eye on us. This was meant as a warning to be careful I suppose but we were always a bit unsure if we were ever alone up there by the lake. The “Tylwyth Teg” is a mystical race of fairy people who reside in the valley and live very close to Llyn y Dywarchen and were known to take on human form to mix with the local people, one tale which is famous and oft repeated is that a local farm hand saw one of the beautiful fairies and fell in love. They married and she was to stay with him in his world as long as she was never struck with iron, one day as they were returning to the farm the horse they were leading reared up and the iron stirrup struck her on the face, she immediately disappeared never to be seen again. Sitting on the high knoll with the sun slowly setting the story still had me enchanted, Faye reckoned that I had read too much of “the Lord of The Rings”
As the darkness fell we gathered ourselves together and headed back down the valley and home, on arriving we found Hannah was still revising and Clare was preparing a fine goulash.
It had been a magic day in more ways than one and I for one felt as if I had laid a few ghosts to rest and maybe Faye had gained a new insight to her heritage. I felt strangely calm and very elated about it all and felt as satisfied as if I had just closed the cover on a rather good book
Ken Latham 2012.
Original images: Ken Latham collection