Monday, April 22, 2013

A Gath Fach Cymraeg, or Back to the Valleys

In spite of a private education and a good degree, my wife is lamentably ignorant about anything to do with geography. It's not that she lacks the aptitude; she simply has no interest in where places are in relation to each other and finds my love of maps and atlases completely baffling.

Two weeks ago my wife announced that she'd agreed to buy a kitten from someone and asked when I would be free to drive her and our sons to collect it. I gave her a date and asked for the address, imagining somewhere within a 30-mile radius of Lewes. My wife checked her emails: "She says she lives near Oswestry. Is that far?"

I took a deep breath. "Well, it's not terribly near."

On a list of things I thought I'd never do, owning a cat is in the top ten, along with line dancing, bungee jumping and joining the Territorial Army. However, I have just driven 525 miles in 24 hours to transport a kitten from a beautiful rural farmhouse in Wales to our glorified broom cupboard in Lewes.

Was it worth it? I'm not a cat person, but this little chap has completely won me over:

He doesn't have a name yet. I wanted to give him an inappropriate human name, like David, but I have been overruled.

The journey was mind-numbingly tedious: a sequence of Ms and As with various numbers attached, interspersed with service stations that appeared to be patronised solely by people who had recently been released from prison. Where were the middle classes? There's a gap in the market - I'm sure a service station that incorporated a contemporary art gallery and a sushi restaurant would be a huge success. I'd go there.

At every stop I couldn't wait to get back in the car and although the M40 wasn't the most exciting stretch of road I've driven along, the boredom was relieved by a wonderfully funny edition of Desert Island Discs with Miriam Margolyes (which you can find here). It was almost as funny as her unlikely encounter with

The outskirts of Birmingham were particularly depressing - the highlight was the largest electricity substation I've ever seen. But things began to improve once we reached Shropshire and the distant hills made me think of A. E. Housman's 1896 cycle of poems and their disarmingly prophetic sentiments:

East and west on fields forgotten
Bleach the bones of comrades slain,
Lovely lads and dead and rotten;
None that go return again.

On a map, the English countryside appears to seamlessly segue into the Welsh landscape and the border seems quite arbitary, but in reality the change is far more dramatic. Gently rolling hills become steep valleys, while pastel hues change to darks greens, slate greys and burnt umber. This is where the Saxon invaders abruptly stopped, unwilling to farm on the increasingly sharp gradients beyond the Welsh Marches.

We had decided to break up the journey by staying overnight in Llangollen - a place I knew absolutely nothing about, except for its association with a famous Victorian lesbian couple. I was delighted to discover a small market town with an 13th century bridge that spanned the roaring torrents of the River Dee.

It was good to be back in Wales after so many years and I enjoyed seeing the once familiar words that I had struggled to master when I was at university there: llfrygell (library), swyddfa (office) and cigydd (butcher).

I had chosen to study Welsh in my first year, as it seemed liked the right thing to do. Sadly, I was  spectacularly bad at it and became a figure of notoriety amongst the lecturers in the Welsh department (apparently they used to talk about me long after I had left). However, I can at least pronounce the words and still remember that a w is an oo, an f is a v, a u is an ee and a ll is a hl, not a cl.

My sons seemed quite bemused to learn that they were no longer in England and started asking when we were going home. Later, after a long silence, my seven-year-old suddenly said: "They're so proud of their country. Welsh butter, Welsh cheese, Welsh lamb. They'll be saying it's Welsh air next!"

Where did this world-weary cynicism come from? "Don't you find it exciting being somewhere new?" I asked. Both boys shook their heads.

I was a little depressed by my sons' lamentable lack of interest in Llangollen and decided to go for a proper walk in the evening, unhindered by whining voices and dragging feet.

I began by exploring the back streets of the town. I had forgotten how many pubs and churches there were in Welsh towns, with a wide choice of venues for both sin and redemption. The capels were as granite grey and bleak as an RS Thomas poem.

Over the bridge, a heritage steam railway offered a 30-minute ride through the Dee Valley. If I'd been here longer, I would have happily made the journey: "Single to somewhere unpronounceable please."

Beyond the station, in the far distance, a solitary house overlooked the town:

The lone house reminded me of the sense of isolation I often felt as an English student in Welsh-speaking Wales, where there often wasn't much of a welcome in the hillsides. Some of the local people were friendly, but most regarded us with an attitude that ranged from begrudging tolerance to outright hostility. I can't say I blamed them.

I crossed the road and began to climb a hill, leaving the town behind me. On the way, I crossed the Llangollen Canal, which is at least 50 feet above the unnavigable river below:

Further up, the towns ends with some fairly hideous 1980s council offices, which look as if they have been constructed out of Lego. These incongruous buildings make it is easy to be distracted and miss the small sign that points the way to the ruined Castell Dinas Bran:

The castle is thought to have been built by Gruffydd II ap Madog in the 1260s and has been a ruin for almost as long as it has existed. Sadly it was too late for me to walk to the remain of Dinas Bran (it was much further than this zoomed-in photo suggests), but the picture below makes me want to come back:

I managed to get about a third of the way there and was rewarded with these views:

In the distance I could hear the sound of a church bell, the whistle of a steam engine, the distant roar of the river and the bleating of lambs. It seemed almost impossible idyllic, but then I saw this:

It made a stark contrast to the window display in the taxidermy shop at the bottom of the hill, where two women ahead of me were struggling to walk in tight leather mini skirts and high heels. One had a long mane of peroxided blonde hair, the other's was jet black. They appeared to be in their early 30s, but as I caught up with them, the women aged a year with each yard until they reached their mid-50s.

I'd forgotten the buzz of a Saturday night in a small town.

Further along the road, their granddaughters were huddled around the till-point of the local Spar, squeezed into revealing dresses that looked at least two sizes too small. All of the girls were made-up very heavily, with the longest false eyelashes I had ever seen. Perhaps they were trying to get picked-up via Google Earth. The local boys certainly seemed nonplussed.

After a less than perfect night's sleep in a local hostel, we made a terrifying 10-mile journey to the kitten's owners, driving along tiny lanes with sheer drops to the side that plunged hundreds of feet. By the time we reached here, it felt as if we were on a motorway:


Our kitten was one of 20 cats that inhabited a remote farmhouse. The owners, who had moved there from Kent eight years ago, were lovely people who had seen the area they grew up in ruined by over-development and wanted to find a home where they could enjoy dark skies and be free from the distant roar of traffic. I asked them how they had integrated into the community. They replied that it was remarkbly easy, as 80% of their neighbours were also incomers.

The issue of migration is problematic. Once, we used to grow up in an area and call it home. Aunties, uncles, cousins and grandparents usually lived within walking distance, but after the 1950s, we all became more mobile, both geographically and socially. Fewer people rented and property prices became more polarised.

My hometown of Teddington used to be an unremarkable, lower middle/upper working class suburb, but in the 1980s it suddenly became very desirable and houses like my parents' Victorian semi shot from £3,800 in 1963 to £550,000 in 2003.

My wife and I couldn't afford to buy a house in the local area, so we sold our Twickenham flat and traded it in for a small (but perfectly formed) 1890s terraced property in Lewes. I'm very glad that we did, but I'm now also conscious that by doing this, we helped to increase the house prices in Lewes, making it harder for local people to get on the property ladder.

I don't feel comfortable about that, but I'm not sure what the answer is. All I can say is that I've made a long-term committment to the area and don't regard my home as an investment.

But I digress. To return to the main theme of this long, rambling post, we collected the kitten and began the long drive back to Lewes. It 'yowled' in protest all the way, but some times more than others. It became calmer when I played Beethoven, but when a guest on Desert Island Discs chose a Bob Dylan song, the yowling suddenly increased.

I can only conclude that this cat obviously has an impeccable taste in music.

We arrived home in the evening. Our nameless kitten shot out of his basket and hid in the shoe rack for two hours, but by nine o'clock he was shamelessly climbing over me, rubbing his face against mine and proffering his bottom.

We had bonded.

I'd always thought of myself as someone who loved dogs and hated cats, but it looks as if I've been wrong all these years.

Better late than never.


Canadian Chickadee said...

Loved the story of your trip to Wales. I do hope the kitten will be a great success and a help in getting your one son to open up a little to the world and new experiences.

We'll look forward to hearing what it is eventually named. I had a white kitten when I was a girl. It's name was Tookee -- one of the about 8,000 Eskimo words for snow. Appropriate I suppose for a cat for a family from the far north ....

Take care and God bless, xoxox

Rog said...

A Welsh cat with a long tale!
I revisited Llangollen 10 days ago - my previous visit was as a Youth Hosteller in the 1960's when the place closed down completely on a Sunday. I was astonished to find such a bustling little place with antique shops and cafes on every corner. I also achieved a lifetime ambition to visit the Aquaduct - stunning!

Martin said...

My brother and his wife have been living the so-called 'alternative' lifestyle in Wales for more than 30 years. Much of what you describe, sounds very familiar.

As for the motorway services being populated by "people who had recently been released from prison," do you mean they looked a lot like Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce?

Steerforth said...

Carol - Thanks. Even if it doesn't work for my son, I can feel myself relaxing in its presence. Tookee is a great name. There should be several thousand Welsh words for rain, so perhaps I'll use one of those ;)

Rog - We almost crossed paths! Yes, Sundays in Wales used to be very grim. When I was at Lampeter, we were in a 'dry' county and had to walk from Ceredigion to Carmarthenshire if we wanted a pint on Sundays. I saw the aqueduct from a distance - that canal is an engineering miracle!

Martin - Wales seems to attract a lot of 'alternative' people. I admired the genuinely utopian ones who were trying to find a viable solution to the problem of sustainability, but became a little frustrated with the hippies who lived on the dole, getting stoned every day. Surely idleness and cannabis were just for students!

Richmonde said...

But that's why I like service stations - they're classless. (You've brought back memories of driving to Wales, and my parents saying "We're in Wales!" and being utterly baffled.)

Steerforth said...

You like service stations?

Anonymous said...

"Sundays in Wales used to be very grim"

There's a legend that the Germans invaded Wales in WWII. The trouble was they came on a Sunday so no-one ever knew.

Tororo said...

Now visiting Wales is on the top ten in my list of things I think I'll do (someday).

Brett said...

What a wonderful post. Your travelogues are some of your best writing. Thanks.

Steerforth said...

Anonymous - I can believe it! Also, when I was there, I thought how difficult it would have been for the Germans to successfully occupy parts of Wales.

Tororo - Wales is a fascinating place and mostly lacks the blandness that has ruined some parts of England.

Brett - Thanks. I love travelling around and haven't done enough of it recently. I shall have to remedy that.

Annabel said...

What a trip, recounted in typical Steerforth fashion! And what a lovely kitten - I look forward to finding out its name.

Steerforth said...

So do I! We can't agree on one yet.

The same thing happened with our sons. After a week, our families pleaded with us to name the boys.

Nota Bene said...

There's definitely a touch of lion in that cat's face...and the rest of your post made an excellent read too. I hope he can cope with the loud bangs and flashes come November 5th!

Steerforth said...

Oh dear - I'd forgotten about Bonfire Night.

Grey Area said...

I was brought up on the banks of the Dee, not the pretty bit you have just visited, but the part where it widens into a tidal estuary. It was fairly dull - the only excitement was the spring boar - a tidal surge unique to the UK ( except the Severn Estuary ) which always caused great excitement and brought with it the potential of death and destruction on a minor scale ( but never really delivered ). We didn't really count Oswestry as 'Wales', as a form of inverted snobbery - but the further 'up' the Dee you went - the more insular, parochial and down-right rude people would get. I did get told to 'F*** off back to England* by an aged old crown in a Llangollen post office as a small child because I asked for something in English, and some parts seemed to resemble scenes from Deliverance. I once managed to cadge a lift from my sisters house on Deeside, back to Brighton, thinking it would be quicker than several train journeys. It took 14 hours and included a stop in a Bristol supermarket car park so that the driver coud set up a barbeque for a 'break'. I never intend to repeat that journey, ever again.

The Poet Laura-eate said...

What a great post. And what a good excuse for an adventure and return trip to Wales - kitty collecting. I can't stand those selfish second-homers either, but if a house is your residence and you've made a long-term commitment to it/your chosen area, then why not live where you want to. Great that you've bonded with the fluffball already. Cats can have just as much personality as dogs, sometimes more so.

Sarah Faragher said...

Welcome to life as a cat butler (no worries, it's a good way to go). Our cat Hodge, oh how we spoil him. With good reason - he's fantastic. And so intelligent! We suspect he works as a day trader when we're not at home.

And, welcome to the true purpose of the internet = exchanging cat stories and photos. It took you long enough.

Seriously, though, I too enjoy your travelogues, and your book buiness talk, and I hope the kitten is a success in your household...

Steerforth said...

Laura - I agree about the second-homers. I know several people who have moved to Wales and have made a committment to being part of the local community, educating their children at Welsh-language schools (partly so their kids don't speak with Scouse accents).

Sarah - To my great surprise, I'm a total convert. The novelty value of having a kitten has already worn off for my son, but I'm hopelessly in love! I had no idea how happy it would make me. I'd always assumed that cats were very aloof, but our kitten is far more affectionate and communicative than I'd expected, but unlike a dog, he doesn't ask for much back. Perfect!

Séamas Poncán said...

Any place with a steam train is all right by me.

Geranium Incognito said...

I remember that you were hoping to get a pup from the delightful dog you cared for some time ago. What happened? Did she fail to get preggers? It happens.

I must say, however, that you might just wind up being happier with a cat than a pup. Puppies and dogs are so much more labor intensive than cats. And I was surprised to learn, when I gave into my kids' pleas for a cat, that I got as much enjoyment from the cat as I'd gotten from dogs. In fact, after the first, I 'gave in' twice more.... I was glad I did. While it may be a bit early to contemplate, I found twice as many cats was more than twice the fun.

Anyway, I'm a devoted reader. Don't ever give it up.

Steerforth said...

Geranium - Yes, the dog failed to get pregnant. At six, pushing seven, she was apparently 'over the hill'.

After a few more visits from Maisy, I realised that I really didn't want a dog. Once the weather had changed, the early morning walks were even less appealing and although my son claimed to love Maisy, he didn't actually spend very much time with her. To his credit, he pretended that he didn't want a dog because he saw how miserable it was making me.

To cut a long story short, we got a cat out of desperation, in response to a crisis with our son. We didn't even have time to think about it.

I'm so glad we did. The kitten is no trouble at all and is affectionate without being demanding. He doesn't smell, he doesn't need to be taken out and seems just as intelligent as Maisy. I used to be a dog person, but I think I've just changed sides!