Archives for posts with tag: Wales

Trem y Mor terrace, Nant Gwrtheyrn

This most extraordinary of places is Nant Gwrtheyrn, the National Welsh Language Centre, and I spent last week there on a Welsh course.

For those who have never been, Nant Gwrtheyrn has a long and haunted history, from its days as the last refuge of Kentish King Gwrtheyrn, who lent his name to the valley, and on through its days as a fishing community, a farming village, and more recently as a granite quarry – the two rows of cottages hosted up to 22 people each in the heyday of the quarrying, making the most of the (for those days) great wages on offer.

After a spell of abandonment, after tarmac became popular and granite setts were no longer needed to pave the world’s roads, the village had a short encounter with a hippie group (the New Atlantis commune), who managed to destroy a substantial chunk before they moved on a couple of years later.

Nowadays, Nant Gwrtheyrn has been fully and wonderfully restored as a language centre for that most ancient and challenging of languages, Welsh.

Getting there is a challenge in itself – the road is for the most part single track, with the odd passing place, garnished by a scattering of hairpin bends and a breathtakingly steep segment heralded by a magnificent view of the deep-green bay beyond.

In the village, finding a mobile phone signal is not easy. I found that if I stood on one leg leaning into the window of my bathroom that I could phone home, and did at one point consider renting the room out to others desperate to make outside contact.

Aside from the course, which was excellent and the food (also great), the other learners were grand company and the school thoughtfully organised evening events and an afternoon out at the Slate Museum in Llanberis.

The remoteness of the site also lends itself to legends, and there are two in particular associated with it – one, the tragic tale of Rhys and Meinir, two ill-fated lovers, and the other the dark story of the Monks’ Curse… Of which more in another blog, I think!

The village, surrounded as it is by steep ravines and cut off from the rest of the Lleyn peninsula by the dramatic sweep of Yr Eifl, is a natural focus for drama and mystery. Sudden, enveloping mists sweep in from the sea and fill the little basin, masking the stone terraces and bathing the trees in an eerie glow. Then they are gone again, as suddenly as they came.

If you are ever in the vicinity of Llithfaen, on the Lleyn peninsula, do pluck up your courage and dare the road – the Nant is an unforgettable experience, like walking back in time. I know I will carry it in my heart always.

Granny and dog, Llanberis

Granny and dog, Llanberis

Death, as someone once wisely observed, is Nature’s way of getting you to slow down. Some of us, luckily, have no intention of stopping until we actually get to that point, and I was rather pleased to discover I have company during a recent outing to Llanberis.

Llanberis is famous for many things, including being at the foot of Snowdon and home to the Snowdon Mountain Railway, the Electric Mountain and the Slate Museum, the latter charting the history of the local slate works. The cafe by the mountain railway terminus sells a mean Cornish pastie as well, but that is by the bye…

We go there often – the lure of the Cornish pastie is hard to resist! In addition Parc Padarn, beside the Slate Museum, is a great place to walk the dogs. They lollop around, splashing in the many lakes that were carved out of the slate in the days when the area was full of slate workings, and generally having a whale of a time.

I, being a granny, am getting to the age where my aches and pains do not help this process (the walking, not the pastie eating. I am still pretty good at eating pasties). Occasionally, while marvelling at the wonders of nature and the energy of the dogs, I find myself wondering if the whole experience would be better if I were, say, 30 years younger.

The answer to this wondering came at the end of a walk, when I was taking a well-earned rest near the craft shops. One of the shops is home to a couple of collies and, clever dogs that they are, they had found their own amusement. One in particular was having a wonderful time – it had a ball, which it would place temptingly in front of passers-by, dodging around in a hopeful way. If it had had a big sign with ‘please kick this ball for me’, it couldn’t have been any plainer.

I was surprised, though perhaps I shouldn’t be, by the number of people who obliged, giving the ball a quick shove to the dog’s evident delight. Most moved on quickly, as people tend to do, but then the dog had the good luck to meet the lady pictured above. She may not look like the most likely footballer to you, or even me, but to the dog, she was perfect.

Indeed, she really was – she began to play ball with the dog with gusto, and before long the pair were having a jolly good kickabout worthy of Pele himself. The dog had all the energy of its youth, but the granny clearly had turbo-boosters on her perseverance, because she kept at it. When I left, with a big smile on my face, she was still having fun with the collie.

I realised then – life isn’t about aches and pains, or feeling you must reach point B faster than the person next to you. Life is what you make of it – and in particular, it’s about how much enjoyment you are prepared to gift to others, and yourself. For this insight, I salute a great old lady, one granny to another. Next week, I’m going back to see if I can arrange a rematch.

The parish of Maenan and Llanddoged, Conwy Valley.

When we moved to Wales from deepest, darkest Essex, we took the precaution of renting a house for six months – we knew nothing of the area, and it turned out (in some ways) to be a wise move. North Wales is not one uniform, lovely green place you can randomly land in. Take Blaenau Ffestiniog, for example, the ultimate Slate Town, where the rain never stops falling. Or Trefriw, much of which sees no sun at all during the winter. Those things you learn from experience.

The place we rented was no run-of-the-mill house, however. It was an old school – Yr Hen Ysgol in Welsh, in the rambling parish of Maenan, which meanders along one side of the Conwy Valley, between Eglwysbach and Llanddoged. It’s not so much a village as small collections of houses, dotted here and there on steep and meandering country tracks. The school was a massive, grey granite building, sitting on a slight rise with a forest crowding behind it. The only other house nearby was a tiny cottage right next door, which had once been the schoolmaster’s house and was now home to a lovely young family. There was nothing else for the best part of a mile around.

The short road to the school was insanely steep and tortuous – when we went to see the place for the first time I just stared at it, started giggling wildly and hid under the seat. Fortunately hubby was driving, but I suspect I’d have done the same had I been behind the wheel. I never did drive in or out, once, in the time we stayed there. Frankly, it is a road for mountain goats, not people.

First impressions were wonderful – the school had stopped being a school some years before, and had been bought by our landlady, a pleasant woman who lived behind the property in what had been the school kitchens. So the isolation was not total, but the feeling of remoteness, the proximity of the forest and the stern beauty of the school itself made us agree to rent in a heartbeat.

I still remember it fondly, although there was the odd shadow. One related to a particular room in the school’s rambling interior, which had been almost entirely, and idiosyncratically, redesigned.

The school had four bedrooms divided into two completely separate pairs, one at each end of the building, which were accessed through their own set of stairs. In between was the massive full-height lounge and kitchen area, large enough for a small football match, had we cared to start one.

The master bedroom was at the far end of the school, up a modern, curved staircase. The bedroom next to it we managed to fill entirely with boxes – those possessions that we’d wrapped, and stowed, till we reached our final destination.

The other pair of bedrooms were accessed through an old, original staircase at the back of what would once have been the cloakroom but now served as a hallway. One of those was also stuffed full of boxes and the other was the spare room, in case anyone visited. It was sparsely furnished with a bed, dressing table and cupboards and a couple of anonymous pictures.

I thought very little about it, as I was constantly busy trying to arrange viewings of houses, trekking up the steep forest path on dog walks and somehow fitting in my writing. Then one night, feeling unwell, I decided my restless sleeping was disturbing my other half and the dogs, so I quietly tiptoed through the cavernous, darkened lounge, up the far set of stairs and into the spare bedroom, thinking to spend the night there.

This proved to be easier said than done. Sleep did not come easily, partly because I was feeling bad but also because of a strange sense of being watched. This grew stronger and stronger, as time passed, but in the end I dropped off – only to wake with a huge start, heart pounding, with a vivid feeling of dread, and threat.

Needless to say, I scuttled back to the other room quickly, and it was several days before I entered the other bedroom again. From that time on, every time I entered that room I had the distinct sense of another presence, and a faint whisper of the fear that had come to me that night. It was nothing tangible, but nevertheless, I did not go there often.

I am curious, though. At a safe distance in time and place, I wonder why this should have been so? What was it that made that particular room seem so threatening? Is it something in the school’s history, perhaps, that I know nothing of? I heard vague tales of a strict headmistress. Perhaps this was the room where naughty pupils were brought for punishment? I would love to know.

Perhaps it is something more esoteric, such as infrasound, which has been found to be at the root of a number of reports of ghostly happenings and sudden changes of mood. I would welcome ideas.