It’s almost silent here on Lleyn, apart from the odd lazy bee, a robin singing in a minor key and a duck in the field next door. The sun is shining as it it can only shine in the autumn and every leaf is gleaming in the warm air. Even the hawthorns seem to be doing some last minute packing for a cold winter, they’re so heavily decked with fruit the colour of sealing wax.
It’s impossible not to fall in love with this place. Yesterday was a bit of a write-off as it was raining most of the time and we were exhausted from what seems like three weeks of travelling, but today the sun is shining and we took a leisurely wander around our favourite places just to say hi. The tide was falling at Porthor and we walked along the beach, inspected a few plants on the way down and photographed seaweed for me to paint as soon as I can get the piano out of my workroom. But I had higher things on my mind and so we stopped off at the pub next door to RS Thomas’s church in Aberdaron to book for Sunday Lunch. I did meet RS once at a reading, but I knew Jim Cotter, one of his successors, in the parish much better. He was a courageous and radical parish priest who was always in hot water for following the Gospel rather than canon law, and I found his grave up on the clifftop church at Llanfaelrhys close to RS’s widow and son. That, however was not the higher thing I had in mind. Cake, particularly National Trust cake was the object of my desire so we rattled on up to the cafe at Plas yn Rhiw.
‘Plas’ is probably the smallest and most lovely garden in the whole of the National Trust. It’s up on the hill overlooking Porth Neigwl – mistranslated as Hell’s Mouth – a lovely bay but properly hellish for a sail ship in a storm. So we had tea and cake accompanied by more insects and more silence before we went off to buy fresh crab.
Sadly fresh crab was not available today. We always stop at one particular house where we can often buy it very cheaply. It was here, in the spring, I was given an impromptu tutorial on how to sex a crab by a delightful elderly lady who ran over the whole thing for me so I’d buy the right ones next time. However, today she explained that ‘he’ had not been out for a couple of weeks because of the terrible weather but he was ‘out crabbing right now”. “OK”, I said, “I’ll pop back tomorrow”. “Oh no, I’ll give you my phone number,” she said, rummaging around for a piece of paper. “I’ll put it in my phone”, I said, ” I’ll put you down as ‘Mrs Crab'”. “My name’s Menna”. “Menna Crab?” I said. “That’ll do” – broad smile!
On the way back we talked about what makes this one of the most magical places we know, quite as magical as Velvet Bottom on the Mendips, and Lizard and Zennor in Cornwall, and I think the common factor may be something as counter-intuitive as mining. Each of these areas has a history that you can almost taste in every stone. Rhiw, and especially the area below Jim Cotter’s grave was one of the biggest manganese mines in the country. In Priddy and around Velvet Bottom they mined lead in Roman times; in Zennor it was tin and on Lizard serpentine. Everywhere there are the slightly melancholy remains of industrial building, spoil heaps and gruffy ground completely reverted to wild nature. The sort of random and unplanned nature that makes every step a botanical adventure.
But there was one further connection to make, and it came to me unexpectedly while I was searching in my mind for some kind of commonality between these disparate landscapes, and I think it was because I was brought up in the midst of an exactly comparable post-industrial landscape – only in my case it was the remains of mining and clay, used to supply brickworks and pipeworks. For me there’s the sense of childhood enchantment which emerges when I enter exactly the kind of place I played in as a child. The old dram road, the ruined pithead works of the South Gloucestershire coalfield, the brickworks at Shortwood where my friend Eddy and I used to crawl up the abandoned chimney flues to look up at the sky. These landscapes are inscribed not just by their natural history today but their human history in the past. It’s true of every landscape of course, but these are the ones I understand at a deeper level.
Here they call us ‘blackberry tourists’ because so many outsiders come in on weekends like this to harvest the hedgerows. There’s still a lingering, almost imperceptible resentment at the English who’ve moved here and you can’t blame them. Our friends tried to buy a cottage here years ago and found themselves thwarted at every move. But I don’t want t live here, just come here two or three times a year to breathe and feel the silence.