Friday, 13 July 2012

Beyond the haloed mountain

Storm Lantern....Cwm Hesgin

Force twelve assaults
finally relent;
the curfew is lifted here.

We're out walking tonight,
the first time in two weeks.

The plough has our windowlight
in tow, another star
swept from the hill
by those storms.

Our moonlit chimney
unbraids its smoke-shadow,
wind darkens on stone...

when I turn off the lamp
there's a hole in space.

Clyde Holmes

The bowling wind sweeps up Cwm Hesgin from the west and skitters up  the frowning flank of Graig Ddu- The black crag.Across the cwm, Foel Boeth and Carnedd Filiast are draped with black cloud and the suggestion of rain which halfheartedly spat in timouress salvos less than five minutes ago has developed a cruel momentum. Unfortunately, the elemental onslaught  has caught me out somewhat ill prepared.I had deliberated about crossing the fast flowing Afon Hesgin and heading up to the little llyn high up at the head of the cwm. Should I stay or should I go? I went and paid for it! The rain increased in proportion to the diminishing light and all I had tucked away in my tiny day pac was a poncho and space blanket. In the interests of rigorous gear testing I can declare that ponchos might be fine for sitting in a Wimbledon shower but do not cut the mustard  in the face of a fast fermenting uplands squall!

 It hadn't been like this ten days ago on my last visit to the area. On that occasion I had wandered up to the summit of Carnedd Filiast; a 2100 Arenig outlier, accompanied by lilting skylarks and tumbling ring ouzels; the mountain blackbird who appears to find the rough bounds of the Migneint to their liking as a summer abode before the fall fires them back to the High Atlas mountains of north Africa.

Over the years I have developed a fondness for this area of Arenig hinterlands. The Migneints' last throw of the dice before the land tumbles over into  greener pastures beyond the cwm's northern door; entering a patchwork land of small farms divided by neat stone walls within which fat Welsh Black cattle share the pasture with the ubiquitous hardy sheep.

Llyn Hesgin:Clyde Holmes

Carnedd Filiast stands as a last easterly beacon-literally when I was there on the night of the royal jubilee-which offers it's cairned summit as a panoramic view point to take in as fine and varied a mountain vista as can be imagined.  It's fine summit can be reached via a wide track which switchbacks through the Migneint's heathery bounds before coiling around the eastern flank of Foel Boeth-The warm mountain-to steeply rise above the empty void of Cwm Hesgin.

'Empty'..well; not quite empty for standing in the jaws of the cwm lies a little white washed cottage sheltered within a rare cloak of foliage. For over 35 years from the early 1970's it was the home of Artist and poet, Clyde Holmes and his family.
I had first come across the Holmes family when I read an article in what was then-the mid 1980's-a fairly new quality newspaper in the UK-the Independent. I recall The Indy were running features on people they deemed interesting and living lives less ordinary. In this case,it detailed a family living in total isolation in a remote cottage in the Welsh hills, without mains water or electricity. To add to my interest,it appeared that the main focus of the piece, was an artist and poet with a conservationist bent.

In the early 90's I began to bump into Clyde's German wife Gudrun on my frequent visits to the little town of Bala.Occasionally I would see Clyde himself at the Welsh language bookshop,topping up the card rack outside the shop with postcards of his paintings. It must have earned him coppers but then,living the life of an artist in north Wales is never going to be a get rich quick scheme!
Eventually I met Clyde outside his little cottage in Cwm Hesgin. I had been up to Llyn Hesgin high up and hidden in the maw of the cwm and was returning via a rough track which ran past the cottage. After introducing myself as a fellow artist of sorts I was offered a cup of tea. In contrast to the June 2012 maelstrom which whipped me into retreat, this particular June day in the mid 90's shimmered under a fat blue sky.

Sitting outside the cottage on the cropped grass I sipped tea with the artist and his son and tried to unlock his thoughts on art, ecology and the fortunes of Tottenham Hotspurs- Londoner Clyde's team. Unfortunately, Clyde appeared to be stone deaf-perhaps it was a ploy to get rid of unwelcome visitors?- and his son had to act as an interpreter. After that visit I never saw him again, nor will I, for Clyde passed on in 2008 to leave the cwm as it was,before his words and brushes had narrated its timeless story.

Clyde's lifelong interest in conservation and the natural environment began as a student back in his native London in the 1960's where he studied for a degree in entomology-the study of insects. Not surprisingly-this is the 1960's we're talking about-Clyde kicked entomology into touch, joined a band and enrolled at Hornsea College of art where Ray Davies, legendary founder of The Kinks was also a student. While Ray was studying Waterloo sunsets,Clyde moved on to St Martins School of Art. After a short spell working in The British Library in London, Clyde began to hanker for the wilderness experience and left London never to return.

It was while travelling around  southern Ireland with his new wife Gudrun in a Gypy vardo that the call of Cwm Hesgin was first heard. With a lame horse and the travellers life on hold, a timely call from a friend informed him of an estate in south Snowdonia - North Wales that had cottages to rent at modest rates. The first couple of cottages viewed proved unsuitable but as an afterthought,the estate manager told them, of a remote derelict cottage which they could view if they wished.

Despite it's dilapidated state,for Clyde and his partner it proved to be an incredible opportunity to live a life far from the madding crowd in a vast empty cwm which would become their own personal fiefdom. It had previously been occupied by a shepherd on the Rhiwlas Estate who had been forced to leave when he was caught out in the bleak winter of 47 and had to fight his way through the skylight as the drifting snow had buried the cottage. A frightening arctic trek down the cwm brought safety and liberty but he had seen and experienced enough. He never returned. For 23 years the traditional crog lofted stone cottage stood empty and devoid of life save the nesting jackdaws, field rats and sheep which had barged through the gale splintered door and mired the slate floors in spilling broth of peaty mud and foul dung! It would take Clyde three years to reclaim the cottage from the dominion of the beast.

Clyde Holmes
Clyde's landscape paintings and his nature poetry was hewn from the craggy tawny earth of his chosen homeland. A curlew....vehicle of the wind's roaring owl...foretelling death above our glaring mound. His paintings restrained in their use of colour unlike his fellow Migneint artistic narrator James Dickson Innes  whose colourful fauvist paintings of the area wind back from Clyde's era some seventy years. Clyde's landscapes are bold,sweeping and accomplished but the palette is usually limited to the clutch of colours which detail the barren land and ever changing sky .

Recognition of sorts came in 1997 when the BBC ran a six part series narrated by Anthony Hopkins-Visions of Snowdonia. Clyde was featured in the programme and a coffee table tome of the series followed,written by Jim Perrin and illustrated by Ray Wood. The book is still available through sellers like Amazon although the BBC have never released the series on Video or DVD.

Gudrun died in tragic circumstances just after the series was aired and then Clyde himself appeared to go off the radar to the extent that I only learned of his own premature death at the age of sixty seven  in 2008, this year.

In an age when an out of control growing global population consumes the earths finite resources at an unsustainable rate, simply to sate our fathomless appetite for junk, Clyde had what many would see as a fatalistic vision of the future. Seeing a few remaining oasis of the natural world existing,where nature unsullied by mankind survived. Writing the forward to his words and images work, Skywalls, he wrote

 that flora,fauna and even indigenous people will only be able to survive in small protected the ever increasing need and greed of humanity will use and destroy most wild areas by the turn of the century.
Cwm Hesgin and its immediate surroundings is one of those islands.I feel that my concern and love for it is best conveyed through painting and poetry. I use as few words as possible as I like to express the restraint and simplicity of a day at Cwm Hesgin where light,or the lack of it,is a vital feature. I have tried to do the same with my paintings,exploring the uplands and its solitude. I'm committed to expressing the wildness of the Welsh landscape for its own sake,its left aloneness. It is essentially an unfixed, mysterious place with light and shadow constantly moving over its surface. I am always shifting my preoccupations to paint this ephemeral flux. Both my poetry and my painting are celebratory acts springing out of my concern for the wilder aspects of nature. We're possibly seeing the gradual disappearence of landscape painting. To my knowledge no new generation iust coming up with a special interest in the genre. It's conceivable that landscape painting will fizzle out like the landscape itself.

After aborting my mission to walk up to Llyn Hesgin  I turned back.The little white cottage was still in view and I imagined someone with binoculars at the window following my movements,declaring 'hey there's a madman in an orange poncho out on the hill!' The walk back was interminable. The track acted as a swollen sluice through which my earthkeeper boots- fine for an Edward Abbey-esque walk in Arizona; not so good for the North Wales climate-sloshed through with very little gay abandon. My springer spaniel would occasionally create a Catherine wheel of spray as he shook himself but at least his perpetually wagging tail showed that someone at least was enjoying himself.

After an age I stumbled into the forest where, out of the storm, I could finally take a drink and a bite of sodden flapjack. Across the moor, great bands of rain pulsated with malice. Arenig Fach, just visible behind the elemental shroud stood cold and detached. This was day when only words would do to set the scene. Oils and watercolours cannot compete with a Welsh summer squall. My camera remained stashed in my sack as my white rain pruned fingers hauled my rucksack over aching shoulders and I stumbled through the steaming forest and fell out onto the A4142.


Each glance takes off
from rush-flames.
Drystones,relieved of earth's burden,
still surge through time
to clouds' sculpture,
shrug off wind's weight.
Their crests carved from light and shade
are swooping, rising.
Here the rock keeps flying.

Clyde Holmes

John Appleby: 2012

Skywalls is available from Carreg Gwalch
Guardian Obituary
Clyde Holmes website