Saturday, 29 December 2012

Hills of Home

A late evening call from my friend John and a quick check on the BBC Weather was enough to call off the planned walk for the next morning, low cloud, drizzle, poor visibility etc, but as is often the case it would have been better to look out of the window, the morning was glorious with a warm breeze and a cloudless sky, the best laid plans of mice and men eh! With my list of household chores duly ticked off and the day looking better by the hour there must be a 'to do' tick before the girls get back from school.

There was a 'Derelict Barn' scene that I had wanted to take an image of for ages and the sun would have been just right and the visibility was crystal clear so I headed off in the vicinity of Penygroes to drop off a note with Joe the gas delivery driver and then the  new A487 to my barn spot, big disappointment, the barn looked great and the light was perfect and there were even some perfectly sited livestock to add drama, the only thing spoiling the scene were traffic lights, council waggon's, a huge tarmac eating machine and nowhere to stop, hell.

Another slight to the mind and eye and to anyone who wants to take an image of the peaks of the Rivals and the Lleyn Peninsula are three new wind turbines that have sprouted up in the name of renewable energy and a quick buck to the land owner no doubt, it will soon be impossible to take a photograph of a landscape or seascape without these hideous monstrosities so I carried on to the next available turning space and then had a thought, Cwm Pennant, haven't been there for years and never with my camera, don't know why, this was a too good to miss opportunity.

Just past Dolbenmaen a left turn brings you on to the very narrow lane that leads to the head of Cwm Pennant some three miles further. The road sort of pulls you along very easily and tempts you to want to know what's around the next corner, the road follows, as many old roads do the path of the river Dwyfor that flows gently from the slopes of Moel Hebog, Moel Lefn  and Moel yr Ogof that look down into the bowl of the valley on all sides, there is no escape from here to the Gwyrfai valley on the other side except by a steep uphill trek over 'Bwlch y Ddwy Elor' and down to Rhyd Ddu, my birth place.

The very name 'Bwlch y Ddwy Elor' gives this place a feeling of antiquity and 'Hiraeth' it translates as 'The Pass of the Two Biers' and I remember my grandfather telling me tales that he had been told of the struggles that took place to carry the dead from one village to another over the hillside, swapping the 'biers' on the summit ridge and then carrying the deceased down to the chapel for burial whilst taking the empty bier back until it was required another time.This gap in the col is itself at 427 mtrs above sea level so a sombre journey carrying a deceased family member especially in winter months must have been a hard and sorrowful undertaking.The link between Rhyd Ddu and Pennant must have been significant and I assume because there is no cemetery in Rhyd Ddu the dead were buried in the chapel in Cwm Pennant, it seems a long way and difficult to fathom why such undertakings would take place in so remote a spot.

The day I was there, despite it being a glorious Autumnal day the chapel looked forlorn with a somewhat 'down in the dumps' feeling to it,the path into the graveyard was overgrown and it took some effort to open the gate, on inspection the guttering was falling off the sides and the door was well and truly bolted, I suppose it rarely gets much use these days and the relatives of the dead and buried have moved to pastures new leaving their ancestors in pastures old. Looking at the stones I came across some very old inscriptions and one was dated 1632 and 1636 respectively for a young couple , the woman being 20 years and the male  (her brother/husband?) only 22.

Strangely, nestled amongst all the dark slate headstones there were some newish white marble ones which stood out like sore thumbs, although the slate quarrying here ceased many years ago and must have originally supplied the headstones I found it rather sad that they had to resort to importing such an alien rock to a valley full of slate.

“BLOWS the wind to-day, and the sun and the rain are flying—
  Blows the wind on the moors to-day and now,
Where about the graves of the martyrs the whaups* are crying,
  My heart remembers how!

“Gray, recumbent tombs of the dead in desert places,
  Standing stones on the vacant, red-wine moor,
Hills of sheep, and the homes of the silent vanished races
  And winds austere and pure!

“Be it granted me to behold you again in dying,
  Hills of home! and I hear again the call—
Hear about the graves of the martyrs the pee-wees crying,
  And hear no more at all.”

                                              Robert Louis Stevenson

*Whaups: Curlews

There can be no doubt that this valley is one of the most beautiful of all the mountain valleys in Wales and the poet Eifion Wyn who grew up in the area has two lines in his poem 'Cwm Pennant' which has found its way into Welsh folklore , "Pam, Arglwydd, y gwnaethost Gwm Pennant mor dlws? A bywyd hen fugail mor fyr?"    roughly translated it says: ‘O Lord, why did you make Cwm Pennant so beautiful and the life of a shepherd so short?’

These few words sum up the whole of Cwm Pennant and its geology, industry and the very people who live here and existed amongst the most dramatic backdrop possible. If you are to be interred anywhere then this sacred spot would be hard to beat, you can rest in peace for another millennia without the though that there may be a chance you could be tarmacked over or have a huge wind turbine shaking the ground you lie in, it just seemed a safe place to be with its grazing sheep and gently flowing river to keep you company and only a raven's tumbling flight to the summits of spirits, where you would be amongst the sleeping warriors awaiting their call to arms once more.

The Autumn colours were overwhelming and the silence rather difficult to get used to, there were no jets flying despite the clear skies and no farmers on their quad bikes to break the solitude and in all the time I was there i met only two others who had cycled up the valley from Garndolbenmaen.we chatted for a few minutes, mainly about their ongoing battle with a huge wind farm development that was going to despoil their village near Welshpool and had caused great divide between folk who had been friends and neighbours for many years before the development raised its head. after putting the world to rights we went our separate ways, they to explore the upper reaches of the cwm and I to head back down the valleys winding track.

I stopped at the little bridge that crosses the Dwyfor higher up the valley to take some shots, the pools here were perfect for a spot of summer swimming or just about paradise for a picnic lunch, on the whole six mile round trip I hadn't passed another vehicle at all and stopped here to have a brew from the flask, I got to thinking about the rivers name and why do so many think of it as Dwy (two) for (sea), it doesn't make sense for it to be called a river that flows to two seas and the head of the cwm has a spur off called Bwlch Dwyfor and it is from here that the river has its source as well as the flow off the peaks.,after some research I discovered that its name derives from 'Big Holy River' and there is a tributary, the River Dwyfach, the 'Small Holy River'.a spiritual spot indeed.

There are some magical names doted around the cwm: Rhwngdwyafon- Between two rivers, Cwm Llefrith- The Valley of Milk,  Cwm Sais- The Englishman's Pass it all sounds a bit 'wild west' and probably stems from the pioneers who came here to mine the ore and quarry the slate, leaving behind them some great signatures which will live on for future generations to ponder over.

Hut Circles and House Platforms abound throughout the landscape which shows that the valley was much utilised prior to 'modern man's' exploits to extricate the ore and the stone, it must have been a perfect shelter for iron age settlers and agriculturalists from the middle ages drawn by its  abundant timber sources and the constant supply of water, once the timber clearance took place and the ground being even and fertile due to past glacial deposits it was ideal for settlement and animal enclosure.The sea was also within close proximity and easily accessible for fish, shellfish and seaweed for drying and composting, so with all its attributes this cwm provided the perfect natural and secure enclosure that was needed.

Although I had to return home I was reluctant to leave such a beautiful place having spent such a short time here, I could have easily spent the whole day exploring its hidden gems, mind you it was a stunning day compared to the last time I was here, some 25 years ago, we came to 'do' Hebog from the Pennant route but the more we climbed up the road the worse the weather became and on arriving at the head of the valley it was more typical of a day that had been forecasted at the beginning of this tale, that particular day we quickly turned turtle and headed to Criccieth for some stunning ice cream, it must have been an age ago as Cadwalader's at the time were like Henry Ford, 'you can have any flavour you like as long as it's Vanilla' as that was the only choice available.

Evening meal was Fish, Chips, Peas and Gravy from the 'Castle' chippy opposite, the fish suppers were so good here that my climbing buddies Gary and Bob and I drove all the way from Liverpool one evening just for that and then all the way back, 200 miles round trip, you'd need a mortgage for the fuel alone for that these days let alone the Fish Supper.

If you need some solitude and an escape from the crowds, especially in midweek and the sun shines down on you then take a trip up to Cwm Pennant, bring a flask of Quarryman's tea and some sandwiches on big hunks of home made bread and get into the spirit of the place,you won't  be disappointed I can guarantee you, of course don't tell any body else about it.

Ken Latham: First published on Dragonsnappers blogspot
All photographs-Ken Latham