The great thing about the Potwell Inn is because it’s imaginary it’s always very close to wherever you are; and so organising a staff outing was a relatively straightforward business – mostly working out what to do, and shelling out a substantial amount of cash for the fare. It seemed to Madame and me that life is more than RS Thomas, Elsi Eldridge, the Keating sisters, gardening and searching out almost extinct apple varieties, so we decided on a steam train ride from Porthmadog to Caernarfon on the Welsh Highland Railway.
Gwynedd’s county town, home to Wales’s most famous castle, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Mighty Caernarfon Castle commands the lion’s share of attention, but the town’s narrow streets and stylishly redeveloped waterfront also merit a visit. The castle, built in the 13th century by Edward I as a royal palace and military fortress, was at the core of a medieval walled town.
Thus reads the publicity blurb on the Visit Snowdonia website, and it goes on to stake a claim for the town’s historic importance.
More of that in a moment, but “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” goes the saying, and this posting is really about play because I don’t think we do enough playing and it’s having a terrible impact on our health and on our inner lives – and, further, it’s not long before what’s crippling our inner lives is also damaging the whole culture too. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, and since I’m reading an excellent book by Peter Marren, called “Chasing the Ghost” I’m including a single line from the book, describing a naturalist friend hunting for a flower:-
“[Chris} has the thoughtful, slightly quizzical expression of a dedicated naturalist. If a Bedfordshire flower had eyes, it is that look of intense curiosity that it would see, as the hand lens descends.”
We tend to think of play as being a bit mindless, but the opposite is true. Real play is intensely mindful and focused, whilst all the time being wholly open to the wonder of the unexpected. Real play demands that we put to one side “the way we do things round here” – an excellent shorthand description of culture I once read – and open ourselves wide to the possibility of being someone else in a different world. Field botany, achaeology, drawing, gardening and cooking are among hundreds of ways of playing that are gradually being eroded by our Gradgrind society – and the results are everywhere to be seen
And when it comes to playing there’s not much to beat a 25 mile ride through Snowdonia on a proper steam train. Everyone’s playing! obviously me, playing at being about seven years old again lurking around the engine waiting for a burst of steam and hanging out of the window (strictly forbidden) to feel the smuts and grit in my face. But everyone else seemed to be at it as well; the driver and fireman were properly dressed up and were having the best game of all, especially when the vacuum failed in a narrow cutting and applied the brakes – then we were all playing. The driver was playing the resourceful hero walking back down the line, and we were all playing being abandoned in the mountains. The conductor was playing at raising our spirits with her announcements while the fault was fixed. Of course it was fixed, but when we pulled into the next station there were a small group of people having the time of their lives playing at being engineers and having manly conversations in their hi-vis jackets while a shed was unlocked and a mysterious component was found and seemed to make everyone happy again. And all that didn’t even begin to describe the bliss of rattling and clanking up the climb towards Snowdon with the wheel flanges squealing against the rails in all the twists and turns. And then there was the silence.
The steam hissed, someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop – only the name
At the very first stop, Edward Thomas’s poem came flooding back to me, it was almost overwhelming, and it occured to me that no-one whose life had not begun in the steam age would quite understand the poem because these days, the station name-board would be accompanied by the loud thrumming of the diesel engines under your seat. Real unexpected silence was the best teacher of that poem anyone could hope for – a truly magic moment!
And it’s impossible to describe the mountains adequately even though I know the area fairly well. The reason is that – unlike a map – the mountains change shape with every yard the train heaves upwards towards the summit. You realize how partial your understanding of any landscape must be until you’ve got it under your feet. I know very well what Tryfan looks like on a map, and even as I climb up it, but I don’t even know what it looks like from the Glyders or indeed from almost any other distant aspect. That majestic and slightly menacing outline may well look quite benign from some viewpoints but I don’t know that because I haven’t got the ground under my feet properly. I’m just not local enough.
But agricultural policy in the UK has been decided for years by people who haven’t got the landscape under their feet at all. All this landscape and all its beauty has been compromised by farming policies decided largely by politicians and unelected boards 280 miles away and more; compromised by ignorance and greed and little understanding of a whole way of life that doesn’t fit into a homogenised culture. Am I sounding a bit William Cobbett here? The name on the cinema lets the cat out of the bag because deep down I think the politicians in London still see Wales as a colony. First you attack the language and then you take everything you can.
It turns out that Caernarfon is probably best seen from Angelsey because it gets seedier the closer you are. We only had an hour and I was on the lookout for the bookshops I’d googled up but the only two I saw were W H Smith and another that seemed to specialise in Welsh language books. Yelp boasted nine bookshops but we walked around the castle and the pretty bits in about ten minutes and the other seven must have disappeared. There was a pub called the Black Boy Inn with a sign that would make you blush for shame at the lack of irony or self-awareness, and just up the road a cafe that offered sausage and mash with onion gravy in a giant yorkshire pudding, with several rather depressed individuals eating something else. Somewhere near the waterfront was a large statue of David Lloyd George who’s ubiquitous in these parts (there’s a museum in Llanystumdwy). I kicked myself when we got back for not paying more attention to the modelling of the trousers to see whether the sculptor had managed to make any covert reference to the member for Caernarfon which was, by all accounts, wielded to great effect. The bingo hall just about sums it all up.
What can you say about Caernarfon? It seems to have lost its raison d’etre. Stone, slate and coal are no longer shipped out to the world, hill farming is on its knees and the only industry (if you discount doing up second homes and holiday lets) would be tourism. It’s a sad and lost place that reminded me a bit of Milford Haven; and as we were walking around I was thinking of H G Wells’ Mr Polly walking on the beach at Fishbourne and saying “Beastly silly hole of a place”. You could imagine the vast majority of young people with any vision at all having to leave the area and move to one of the larger cities.
But enough mournful introspection. The authorities are working hard to make things better and they’re spending £2.5 million on a new terminus for the Welsh Highlands Railway – right in the centre of town, and the Potwell Inn works outing still had the journey back to Porthmadoc to look forward to. And for once the summit of Snowdon was not wreathed in cloud and we even saw the little steam train making its way up to the top. I’ve got mixed feelings about that one. Whose bright idea was it to build a railway line up there of all places?
And back to Porthmadog we went with our company of day trippers, picking up walkers and adventurers as we went – imagine the fun of flagging down a whole steam train on a request stop. Finally we passed the Moelwyn Hills as we approached Porthmadog. Many years ago we went on a weekend working party on the Ffestiniog Railway which was then more of a dream than a reality. There was some serious playing going on there, not least with seemingly vast amouts of explosive used to blast a new link that had been broken by the construction Tanygrisiau Hydro Electric Power Station. It was winter and we got a bit bored and so we climbed Moelwyn Bach, the smaller of the two mountains, in deep snow and in our wellies. Deeply irresponsible I know, and we got properly told off by the ‘grown ups’ when we got back but they were a strange lot – they believed in the railway as fervently as they might have believed in the Second Coming. It was all too serious for us and we finally disgraced ourselves by crashing a truck. I imagine they breathed a sigh of relief to see the back of us. Now, decades later it’s easier to give them credit for their single-mindedness in building the railway. They were absolute pioneers and achieved their railway line in the teeth of a thousand difficulties. I wonder what the original volunteers think, now that the railway is a successful commercial enterprise. Knowing when to let go and allow the second and third generations take over is a real challenge, but only today it was announced that the slate region of Gwynnedd which includes the Ffestiniog Railway is to be nominated as a Unesco World Heritage site which, if it comes off, may bring even more visitors to the area. Something needs to replace the lost industries but it will create yet more stress on the culture and landscape if it’s not managed carefully and locally.
So back into Porthmadog with the sun going down and the last train from Ffestiniog steaming on the far side of the station. As staff outings go it was pretty good – no-one got drunk, started a fight or got locked in the toilet. I think we might do it again next year.