On being an outsider.

Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth beach in the gale yesterday

Notwithstanding the cool welcome at the end of the lane, and the Free Wales stickers on the signposts, my love of Wales is undiminished by any sense of guilt at being English – not least because I’ve never owned a mine or a blast furnace; I’ve never taken a penny out of Wales; my whole investment has been spent locally, and there will never be a time when I will be able to afford land or property here. I would support independence in a breath; and if there was enough time, learn the language because it would give me a whole new field of expression . I just think it’s one of the most beautiful places; plundered to near dereliction and stripped of its natural resources from water (see Dryweryn) through coal, copper and manganese to its language and most talented young people who simply can’t afford to live here anymore. Have I left anything out?? Oh and its poets – the Thomas’s – RS and Dylan; its underrated artists; its folk tales, food and farming history. I think I’ll shut up there.

Is there anything I don’t like so much? Well perhaps a certain lugubriousness at times. Some insularity, which never plays well with me because I live in a street where you can hear six languages in a hundred yard walk – which makes for a rich community. An occasional tendency to self pity – which I regard as by far the most pointless waste of emotional energy ever and finally a love of dressing up; most acute in Anglo Catholic priests and Druids. These mild criticisms probably seem a bit rich from an Englishman but there we are; call me a critical friend. In my defence I’ve never felt at home in an English culture that the media and right wing politicians conjure up under portraits of Winston Churchill. In all our many visits to this country I’ve only once experienced the old and legendary situation where the locals all started talking in Welsh when I walked into the pub; and that was when Operation Julie was underway and Tregaron was about to be turned upside down over an LSD factory run by English hippies. I know this because I was teaching one of them at the time (and in a prison – him, not me).

Anyway I just wanted to describe the place we’re staying at, whilst preserving its location except to say it’s on the Lleyn peninsula. As I write this I’m looking through the window and down a steep sided valley lined on both sides with an impenetrable thicket of Grey Willows, Sloes, Hawthorns and Apples; so shriven by the constant fierce weather that they look as if they’ve just about given up. The valley runs about a quarter of a mile to the Irish Sea and down it runs a brook that, emerging on to the shingle beach, spreads itself generously, sinking into the pebbles. Occasionally we see seals both there and also further up the coast. There are almost always Rock Pipits. The sun is just setting into the sea in a clear sky after 48 hours of constant gales and fierce rain that howled and rattled around the house without ceasing. At the end of the footpath to this little beach we’ve got a favourite mushroom spot, but this time there were no field mushrooms but a rarely reported fungus we’ve never seen before called Agaricus littoralis which has recently been given the English name “Coastal Mushroom”; and another called Macrolepiota excoriata which has been given the English name – “Frayed Parasol” – two for one annoyingly difficult fungi renamed by the radicals!

You might think that the award of an English name was an uncontroversial nod to the growing popularity of foraging but you’d be mistaken. Every pursuit has its Victorian Society or Prayer Book Society for whom the Latin binomials were obviously in the bibliography of one of the lost books of the Bible and must therefore never ever be tampered with. Harsh words have been spoken on this subject. Anyway, these Coastal Mushrooms were a tough gig and even now I’m not totally sure. I’ve been unable to find any reference to them as edible so we didn’t. Personally I rather like the sound of Brain Funguses, Dog’s Vomit and Dog’s Cocks – not to exclude Slippery Jacks. They’re like the Victorian names for moths – descriptive and downright poetic. The last time I allowed myself to be so contrarian in a newspaper article I was thrown out of a fishing club for noticing in print that sewage was getting into their expensive trout stream! Maybe they should have listened.

This is a wonderful place for wildlife. I just went into a local village to pay a bill – cash of course! – and as I parked up I saw this wall, resplendent with hard ferns and Maidenhair Spleenworts, not to mention the lichens.

The little valley below the cottage is a haven for insects, and therefore birds. Kestrels hunt the clifftop, constantly mobbed by Jackdaws and Crows. The understory is a rich mixture of Bramble, Hart’s Tongue ferns and other ferns; Maidenhair Spleenwort and – nearer the stream – Water Mint. There are foxes and badgers too along with a multitude of pollinators and bees. At night we hear Owls.

We started coming to Wales after Cornwall was so badly damaged by tourism – but now, in the absence of RS Thomas and the redoubtable Keating sisters the campsites are spreading along the coastline, and local people are being driven out by the rising price of housing because they can’t compete with second homers and Airbnb rentals. The butcher’s shop where RS Thomas once publicly upbraided the butcher for labelling his meat in English is now a Spar shop. There’s a huge selection of booze on sale at every local shop these days. Are we – the Potwell Inn crew – part of the solution or part of the problem? We’ve received nothing but warmth and kindness from local people here. Dunno, then. I just love coming here – although we could have done with a bit less rain this week.

And yes, the trees in the bottom left photo really do grow at that angle!

Is the climate emergency really a conceptual emergency?

A section of the soil strata on the appropriately named Hell’s Mouth Bay – Porth Neigwl

That’s it folks. That’s all there is!

For three centuries we had been encouraged to consider the earth simply as an inert and bottomless larder stocked for our needs. To be forced to suspect now that it is instead a living system, a system on whose continued activity we are dependent, a system which is vulnerable and capable of failing, is extremely unnerving.

Yet the damage already done undoubtedly shows that this is so. How can we adjust to this change? As I have suggested throughout this book, in conceptual emergencies like this what we have to attend to is the nature of our imaginative visions – the world-pictures by which we live. In the vision belonging to the contractual tradition, the natural world existed only as a static background. It was imagined simply as a convenient stage to accommodate the human drama. That vision radically obscured the fact that we are ourselves an organic part of this world, that we are not detached observers but living creatures continuous with all other such creatures and constantly acting upon them. It blinded us to the thought that we might be responsible for the effect of these actions. In order now to shake the grip of that powerful vision what we need, as usual, is a different one that will shift it. We need a more realistic picture of the way the earth works, a picture which will correct the delusive idea that we are either engineers who can redesign our planet or chance passengers who can detach themselves from it when they please. I think that we need, in fact, the idea of Gaia.

Mary Midgley – From “Individualism and the Concept of Gaia” in “The Essential Mary Midgley” Published by Routledge, Page 350.

I was totally struck by that sentence about this being a conceptual emergency, but of course it’s a no brainer if you think how much our attitudes and unexamined core beliefs shape our actions. In a conversation with Alan Rayner last Wednesday about his book (See the post “About Glory” for more details), he said that what is needed is no less than a paradigm shift in our understanding of the way evolution works; and I completely agree. Mary Midgley expresses this as a conceptual emergency and urges us to create new imaginative visions; “the world pictures by which we live” – and this is work for poets, artists and dreamers. A shocking piece of American research, featured in the Guardian a few days ago, showed that only 2% of American TV and film even referenced the environmental catastrophe that is barreling down towards us.

There’s a very good reason why changing the description from environmental crisis to conceptual crisis is a brilliant strategy, and that’s because moving the problem up a level takes the search for a solution out of the hands of the unholy trinity of big business, politicians and scientists and moves it back to all of us and the way we do things round here. Only a complete conceptual change supported by new visions , new hopes and an acceptance that we are a part of nature will do. The broken concept under which we are suffering is the same one that is destroying the earth and all that it is capable of doing is offering some new kind of kryptonite widget at great expense and available only to the wealthiest. Like the medical treatments of the past, their cure is to bleed the patient – and if the patient (rapidly becoming the victim) fails to get better, to bleed them again until they expire. In our case the patient is the earth and the doctors are the politicians whose fundamentally wicked attitudes were on display this week at the tory party conference.

I’m happy to count myself among the “enemies of enterprise” if by enterprise they mean the kind of extractive enterprise that impoverishes all but the most powerful and pollutes the earth. And I’m happy to count myself as part of the “anti growth coalition” for the same reason although I’m grateful for the inadvertent gift of a good rallying cry.

Just look at the photograph at the top of this piece and notice how thin is that precious layer on which we are utterly reliant for life itself. There is absolutely no need to turn this into a new religion, dance around maypoles (although that might be a lot of fun) or ingest hallucinogens – although I’m very tempted to do just that, after all at my age what’s to lose? But the identification of fungi is quite a bit harder than you might think. It’s taken me two days to provisionally identify my clifftop find as Macrolepiota excoriata – the delightfully named “Frayed Parasol” as opposed to the “Shaggy Parasol” or the Slender Parasol. Endless lexical amusement and a long draught of poetry after a week of shameful news.

Four seasons in one day

Thrift in flower!

We’re back in Snowdonia on the northern side of the Lleyn peninsula and it wouldn’t be exaggerating to say that the weather has been very Welsh indeed. We arrived in bright sunshine on Sunday afternoon and since then we’ve had driving rain, more warm sunshine, gale force winds, a very warm night and two cold ones. The plan was to get some walking in, and while we were doing that, to look for some fungi, but Monday and Tuesday found us pretty much stuck indoors while we waited for the storm to calm down. We weren’t idle by any means, though. I’ve taken the opportunity of doing some serious reading while Madame drew.

I’ve been reading “The Essential Mary Midgley” edited by David Midgley, published by Routledge; alongside Alan Rayner’s book “The origins of Life Patterns in the Natural Inclusion of Space in Flux” published by Springer. I often find that there’s an advantage in reading in parallel across a similar theme where one text illuminates another. Anyway – lest that implies that I’m some kind of academic I’m really not; I’m just trying to figure out what practical steps we might take firstly to understand the dodgy ideology that’s led us into the current earth crisis in order best to tackle it with something more effective than depression, banners and a set of counter arguments. Alan Rayner’s book offers a new paradigm for understanding the way that evolution works while avoiding badly understood Darwinism with its endless battles for survival, and also the triumphalist writing of Richard Dawkins and others who, like Vladimir Putin, have declared premature victory just as their new religion runs into winter and endless mud. Mary Midgley was writing with exactly the same concerns and is just a dream to read; scything off bad arguments at the knees with laugh out loud efficiency.

Anyway, between early mornings at an improvised desk and dodging the rain for a bit of fresh air, we did manage to find some Ink Caps and common Puffballs in the garden and then as soon as a wisp of blue sky appeared at lunchtime today we walked off to the clifftop and a favourite mushrooming spot. And yes, we found some field mushrooms but when I got them back to the kitchen they were a bit too wormy even for me. Still, we’ll go back tomorrow to look for some more because there’s a fine circle of Fairy Ring Mushrooms that I’ll pick and dry. They’re as tough as old boots, but dried in a string in the kitchen they make a good addition to stocks because they’re full of umami flavour. There was another fungus there that I brought back to the cottage because I didn’t know what it was. I’m doing a spore print in case that adds any light and I think it’s some kind of Dapperling but I’m no mycologist. Anyway I’ve put some photos below in case anyone can cast any light, and (although I’ve no intention of eating it) there’s no noticeable smell; the stipe is hollow towards the top and swollen towards the base and I didn’t find a ring or any significant sign of one – although it’s a mature specimen and it could have disappeared.

I think it’s really lovely that just as the wildflowers pack up for the year we get weeks of fungus hunting and then we can hunt for mosses and liverworts or lichens. Tomorrow is forecast with fine weather so we’re off to Rhiw where there’s a good fungus field according to our son, and then up to the top of Mynedd Rhiw for some fabulous views and down again to Porth Neigwl – Hell’s Mouth bay to pack in some supplies of wonder and glory to get us through the winter.

Say hello to storm Arwen

I get the impression that we’re in for another record breaking season of Atlantic storms – this one’s called Arwen but it might be better to name it COP1 and then carry on through to COP26 or more if needed. Down here in the relatively mild Southwest of England the main problem was wind overnight which, rather than battering the windows in gusts, seemed to seep through any gaps like a prolonged polyphonic sigh. These gigantic air masses fascinate me as they flow across the earth’s surfaces, competing, invading and clashing with their neighbours like ethereal versions of the tides, and just as potentially dangerous. Elsewhere there was snow, but here the drifts comprised leaves piled around the parked cars. The trees have taken on their winter form and the wet trunks gleam in the rain. The fabulous colours of the tulip tree beyond the window are now shining briefly on the grass before they’re gathered up. Some of them will end up on the allotment as leaf mould. Walking down to the farmers market today we suffered a bitingly cold northeasterly wind that, to our surprise, hadn’t deterred the crowds at all although some of the stallholders had moved pitches to get out of the bite of it as much as possible.

Cofiwch Dryweryn (English: “Remember Tryweryn”) on a wall at the end of the lane to our borrowed cottage

I haven’t written yet about our trip to Cardiff last week. Madame woke up at three o’clock last Sunday morning and said “I’m bored – I’m just so bored!” – which I took to be an announcement of lockdown fever rather than a premonition of impending divorce. We both feel more vulnerable now that the crowds are back, than we did when the streets were deserted and the shops closed, even though we’re both triple vaccinated. Anyway, I can take a hint so I renewed our lapsed railcards as soon as we got up, and booked a trip to the National Museum of Wales. It’s a brilliant place, and they run some really excellent and challenging exhibitions. They also have fine collections of ceramics and art. We’ve been watching a series called “The Story of Welsh Art” – actually we’ve seen all three episodes three times because they’re so interesting. Presented by Huw Stephens they show what a powerful and neglected tradition of art has existed in Wales. Coincidentally, Huw Stephen’s father Meic was the poet who first inscribed the slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn on a wall near Aberystwyth and which became the most memorable text associated with a very brief arson campaign aimed at holiday cottages. These two words were, he later said – ( a little ruefully perhaps), the best known two words he’d ever written. Trywern was the village flooded in order to provide a water supply for Liverpool. Whatever you think about that old campaign, the fact is that the artificial inflation of house prices by wealthy incomers has made it all but impossible for many young people to establish themselves in Wales – at great cost to the communities and the language.

Our train ride was made even more interesting than usual because I booked the tickets from memory and inexplicably I asked for returns to Grangetown rather than Cathays which is four stops in the opposite direction. We only thought about it when we got off the local train on a totally unfamiliar platform in a place we’d never visited before. Luckily there was a friendly woman who pointed us in the right direction.

The present exhibitions include one called “The rules of Art?” – the question mark is an essential part of the title and it addresses a question that always drops into my mind whenever we go there. The grand building and its huge collections – however priceless and rare they are – was enabled through the terrible exertions of men and women who created wealth out of coal and steel. Wealth that they never shared. It’s pretty much first cousin to the travails of the National Trust in England who are just beginning to address the fact that many of their grandest properties were built on slave money. I’ve never yet been inside Dyrham Park House, although we often visit the estate and gardens, because until recently the source of its opulence was never even captioned. Fortunately that’s now changing. I was delighted to see a collection in Cardiff of small paintings by William Jones Chapman who was a third generation member of an extremely wealthy steelworks family who took himself out of the grand family pile and lived in a small cottage near the steelworks and befriended and painted portraits of some of the workers there. These are thought to be the only named portraits of working people in the eighteenth century – isn’t that extraordinary? The exhibition really squares up to the dominant artistic traditions of the past and sets them against an alternative historical backdrop – it’s marvellous stuff! When the winds begin to blow, who knows where they will take us ?

Here’s my absolute favourite among the portraits – it’s of Thomas Euston – the Lodge Keeper at Hirwaun – I guess from his apparent age, a retirement job. The artist, William Jones Chapman was greatly liked by the workers who addressed him as Mr William – which seems to combine respect with familiarity and affection; a rare commodity, I imagine, in those rapacious days.

The melancholic end of the season

There’s something intrinsically melancholic about the grass at the edge of this car park on the Lleyn peninsula. If it were a dog you’d say it had a staring coat, speaking of some inward malady; an infestation. Well, if it’s an infestation of anything it’s time – minute worms if I was going to be a smart arse. The crowds have gone home – just a few Friday weekenders now. Ironically, of course, this is precisely what makes the seaside in autumn and winter so attractive. The empty shops; the pubs that only open at weekends; the absence of any diversions at all – even the occasional fairy lights are disconnected to make sure the last man made enchantment is drained into the sea.

R S Thomas, the poet, would have been pleased to see the back of us all. The voice, if not the mouthpiece of the English ruling class could stop shouting at the blackberry tourists and get back to nagging the butcher about labelling his wares in Welsh.

On the beach today we saw a kestrel hunting along the banks of tussocky grass below the mud cliffs. A pair of oystercatchers busily worked the edge of the waves and were moved on by a heron that perched for a minute and then flew lazily across the bay. To the west a brief band of clear sky illuminated a narrow strip of the tideline like Courbet’s painting of the end of time; and a brilliant turquoise sail jellyfish was silently ending its visit to Wales.

Summer’s gone – time to go home.

Port Diddly Eye – according to Mrs Malaprop.

We first came to Porth Dinllaen because we’d seen the place on a TV programme and we thought it looked beautiful – particularly the pub on the beach – Ty Coch Inn (the Cock Inn) once rated the best beach pub in the UK, seemed almost too good to be true; set at the end of a sweeping bay from which on a clear day you can see Holyhead on Anglesey from one end, and the peak of Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) from the lifeboat station at the other end.

So today we took a walk from the car park in Morfa Nefyn down and along the beach, past the pub and the lifeboat station back to the car park. I haven’t been wearing my field botany hat very much this time, because the weather’s been so awful and we’ve only been able to grab quick walks in the teeth of the gales and rain. However yesterday’s cold and wet northwesterly has disappeared and a ridge of high pressure gave us a couple of hours of sunshine during the morning. And as we walked around the path from the pub to the lifeboat station a little blue flower caught Madame’s eye and she pointed it out to me. It was a bit of a puzzle because it had a borage like flower but the same kind of leaves as a bristly oxtongue. So I stopped and took some photos and brought them back to the cottage to identify. Here’s a photo.

It’s not the least bit rare, but that didn’t diminish the pleasure of finding it at all. It’s an annual bugloss – Anchusa arvensis – the name suggests it’s a field dweller, which it often is. The last one I saw was way down the coast in a field near St Davids; so it also has a taste for seaside and sandy soils. Interestingly I discovered that the French call it oxtongue, langue de boeuf, and the name bugloss comes from a couple of Greek words that mean exactly the same. We’ve already got a bristly ox tongue in the UK so the case for Latin names was never better made!

Anyway I couldn’t have been more pleased if I’d found a ghost orchid. Botanising isn’t just about rarity; for me it’s about getting to know my neighbours by name. Then later I picked up Fred Provenza’s book “Nourishment” which (in chapter 2) talks about the biochemical intelligence of plants and their role in nutrition. Awesome stuff. I began to feel pieces of a puzzle dropping into place in my mind. Field botany, herbal medicine, agriculture, human diet, deficiencies and so much more all in the same mind map for the first time in my experience. Happy daze!

If at first ….!

Hi all – I posted yesterday not realizing that Facebook was down for 5 hours – consequently Facebook readers will probably find the notification buried six pages down the list. If you’d like to catch up you’ll find it some way down the notifications – or you could go straight to The Potwell Inn.

Many thanks for your support

Dave

In a nutshell? I can’t fit myself into a nutshell (and neither should you!)

We were sitting in the pub one night with a bunch of friends, and somehow or another the subject got around to Martin Heidegger – once commemorated in a satirical poem as “..that pellucid Teuton.” You get the picture I’m sure. Some continental philosophers are a bit impenetrable and always irritated the hell out of the English school who preferred Dr Johnson’s stone kicking method. Anyway, the point is, one of my friends called Andy – who shall remain nameless asked me “In a nutshell …. what’s this Heidegger man on about?” I’m still looking for the big nutshell.

So today we were walking along the beach at Aberdaron beneath St Hywyn’s church where R S Thomas was once vicar and which was the setting for one of his most famous poems “The Moon in Lleyn” which I wrote about a couple of days ago. As we walked along the sand, I was wondering whether the poem, as well as including a reference to W B Yeats, also included a glancing reference to Matthew Arnold’s poem “On Dover Beach” – which uses the metaphor of the retreating tide to reference the “melancholy soft withdrawing roar” of faith. Three poems, all obliquely referring to the terrible loss of enchantment we’ve suffered in the past hundred and fifty years. Materialism is a poor deal, really, because it exchanges dreams meanings and visions for money – usually peanuts to be honest.

Taking a bit of a leap of faith myself, I have often wondered whether we are drawn to the sound of the sea’s roaring and the rhythmic pulse of the steam engine for the same reason. Perhaps at some deep level they remind us of the sounds of our time in the ocean of our mother’s’ womb. The sea sounds, from gentle lapping to menacing roar never make us laugh or fill us with happy thoughts but associate more readily with loss; of times missed.

Now that’s a lot of pondering in fifty yards whilst simultaneously holding a conversation – but that’s the way of it. Conscious human life can’t be put in a nutshell because it’s just too big; and my attention soon switched to a couple of large rocks half buried in the sand just as Madame began picking pebbles off the beach.

It isn’t a particularly beautiful beach because the cliffs comprise deep banks of eroding mud which are being sculpted by wind, tide and rain into shapes that might be more familiar in the desert. The pebbles, as you can see, are wonderfully colourful – but why so colourful? Putting on (yet) another hat I could see that of the two large half buried rocks, one greenish and the other markedly purple – must contain copper (green) and manganese (purple). We know that minerals and semi precious stones were mined all over the peninsula and particularly we know that among them was serpentine. Serpentine, being colourful and soft enough to turn in a metal lathe was enormously popular in the first half of last century and as late as the 1970’s there were half a dozen wooden shacks on the Lizard in Cornwall where you could buy a little lighthouse complete with a battery powered bulb at the top.

Only a couple of days ago I showed a photo of the remnant of one of the manganese mines at Rhiw. To a potter, manganese iron and copper are familiar glaze pigments. Copper is particularly versatile because depending on the glaze ingredients, temperature and atmosphere inside the kiln it can yield colours from the intense turquoise of Egyption paste through the more common greens all the way to the fabulously beautiful but very difficult to achieve red colour known as sang de boeuf to collectors of Chinese ceramics. Manganese and iron too can yield a whole palette of colours. So the thought came to mind on the beach – where do the red pebbles fit in? Serpentine is almost always thought of as green, but I’ve seen exactly the kind of red pebbles we were finding, described as red serpentine. Who knows? the processes that formed these pebbles were geologic and volcanic, involving prodigious pressures and temperatures and what emerges is something that combines usefulness with beauty. We have usefulness and contemplation in the same object. Are the red pebbles nature’s original expression of sang de boeuf?

These are big thoughts – of an earth where fungi and algae had yet to join forces and bacteria were all alone in the world. And here on the beach today we could see the world in a grain of sand as Blake promised in Auguries of innocence. The earth is not an object, it’s a story – or perhaps better, a song in which we are all sung into existence. History, geology, chemistry, poetry and storytelling, poetry and gardening and all the rest are not separate disciplines but lines in a gigantic performance of something like Tallis’ Spem in alium but with so many more parts that we can truly call it the Song of the Earth.

So I can’t fit myself into a nutshell and neither should you. Allowing ourselves to be categorised and slotted into CV’s drains the imaginative life out of us. If I want to read, or write poems, draw and paint, make ceramics and grow plants; cook food and rage against the dying of the light, and dare to challenge the way we do things round here – then I will. And if I want to sing and dance around and get over excited about a wildflower or act with Madame as if we were 18 all over again and in the first flush of love, then I will not tolerate being ordered to act my age. And if my passions for books and theories and ideas and spiritualities look as if I’m spreading myself too thinly just take a look at how thinly the scholars spread themselves.

Because – there is no nutshell. We flow into one another and into the earth. Being human is the most lovely gift; so long as we cherish it.

The best of times and the worst of times

But first the blokey propellerhead stuff

I take back all I said about our trip train across Snowdonia. I thought we would be pulled by a diesel but to our (my) great delight the engine that hauled us over 25 miles and 600 feet in vertical gain at Rhyd Ddu was the strangest beast I’ve ever seen – an NG16 Garratt built in Manchester in 1935 for South African Railways and designed for working very similar routes there. It certainly isn’t beautiful in the conventional sense – a bit of a mule in fact, but as tough as old boots. What’s odd about it is that it’s really two engines spliced together and sharing a boiler. If you look at the photo you’ll see a completely unexpected set of pistons and connecting rods at the back, under the tender. The engine was actually in service until 1985. Predictably, when we pulled in to Caernarfon station a large gathering of faintly priapic men – including me – rushed to the front of the train to take photographs. For the truly lost, the engine is described as a 2-6-2+2-6-2T NGG16 Garratt Design, built by Beyer Peacock Ltd. The bit that I loved is that this arrangement – known as a double bogey setup, allows the engine to be twice the power of the more familiar single bogey and it also allows the engine to traverse sharp bends on the mountain terrain by sashaying around the corners. The front and rear bogeys both pivot around the boiler section allowing a snake-like movement

For the human bit, being towed 600 feet up a winding narrow gauge railway line, surrounded by mountains, rivers and lakes, and listening to the sound of the engine working hard and clattering over modern steel bridges; seeing smoke and steam flying past in streamers like shoals of translucent fish – was a profound blast of memories for me – my father was a railwayman for his whole working life.

Coming down from the highest point towards Caernarfon

Madame thinks the reflections of the window on the photo look like the ghostly outline of an industrial landscape. The line was commenced in 1832; just a year after the Bristol riots and at that time much of Snowdonia really was an industrial site. Reform was in the air as the aftershocks of the French revolution reverberated around Europe. The railway company bought its first steam engines in 1856, just three years before Charles Dickens published “A Tale of Two Cities”, whose opening lines popped into my head as I was writing:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

Charles Dickens Tale of Two Cities

There’s a reason I love writing these cats cradles of association. Steam engines, railway companies, slate mines, coal and copper extraction and even – very near where we’re staying at the moment – one of the world’s largest manganese mines, back in the day – are all the visible inscription of our human impact on the landscape. The landscape and its artifacts – to put it in posh terms – is a palimpsest; written on, erased and re-used, sometimes over millennia. I was unable to shake off the difficult feeling that even the steam engine that pulled our train, was somehow implicated in our colonial rule over South Africa. Life is complicated – that’s what makes it so interesting and challenging.

The remains of a manganese mine on Rhiw

Anyway – to get back to the day-trip, It was raining in the way that only Wales rains when we arrived at Porthmadog station. The temperature had barely crept above 10C and it was sheeting down in curtains driven by the gale. The railway has a permanent staff, but many of the jobs are filled by volunteers who do a wonderful job, and whose absolute loyalty and commitment manifests itself in a slightly religious attitude; so perhaps I should explain that by saying that there were times when we were checking in, that we felt as if we were entering a much loved Anglican church with the average age of the congregation creeping towards threescore years and ten. I was asked half a dozen times whether we were travelling first class or standard class; a denomination that was confirmed when we climbed aboard and found that the heating wasn’t working. This oh-so British class distinction was amplified by the fact that our standard class carriage was embossed (in gold lettering) third class on the outside, and the bewildering choice of hampers that someone had filled with their idiosyncratic vision of what constituted luxury and what ordinary should be. The net result of all these references to class was to make everyone feel slightly uncomfortable – like a first date confronted by a ten page wine list.

On a mountain, the rain doesn’t hang about for long – and so everywhere we looked there were waterfalls and ad hoc spouts bursting from the hillsides and flowing down increasingly dangerous looking whitewater races. The track was shallowly underwater near the Aberglasyn tunnels and alongside, the Afon Glaslyn was raging. It was if an entire mountain range had sprung a leak. As we reached the top at Rhyd Ddu, the water ceased flowing towards Porthmadog and started afresh making for Caernarfon with equal ferocity. The peaks, of course, were obscured by the rain and mist and so we only caught the merest glimpse of the Snowdon summit. The journey last about two and a half hours each way and by the time we reached Caernarfon we were thoroughly cold. Some of our travelling companions had put their waterproof trousers on to keep warm.

If anything the rain was even worse in Caernarfon and, waterproofed to the teeth, we made a desultory tour of the town centre. Madame unhelpfully suggested I take off the broad brimmed hat I was wearing and use the hood from my waterproof jacket. It was good advice but imperfectly timed because when I pulled the hood over my head, the icy water it contained ran down my neck and inside my shirt. There wasn’t much going on in the town centre – a couple of drug dealers in the square; a solitary prostitute and a lot of tourists huddling in doorways. If charity shops or bookies were your thing you’d have been in heaven.

Does this sound like a bad Tripadvisor review? Well it’s not, because I love Wales and what’s happened in these once great towns and cities is an absolute scandal. Wales was one of the first English colonies and has, for centuries, had the marrow extracted and taken away by the wealthy. Everywhere there are signs in Welsh reading no more second homes – but I would say to the pamphleteers – what if the tourists stayed away? what if the profitable conversion work that keeps builders, electricians and plumbers in work – what if it all ended? what would that do to a local economy that’s on its knees already. What Wales needs is vision and freedom. Freedom for local councils to borrow money and build the thousands of low cost homes that are needed so the young and gifted don’t all have to leave the neighbourhoods they’ve grown up in. Then – by all means restrict second homes and end the tax breaks because there will still be abundant work for the tradespeople. Then give the councils powers and finance to support startups and to develop the kind of tourist related attractions that will bring visitors in.

Caernarfon is the depressing sign of a conservation approach to planning. Just like many of the local farms struggling to survive – what’s needed is not conservation but regeneration. A planning system that values wooden sash windows and slate roofs above apprenticeships and skilled work is on the slippery slope to extinction. Am I sounding like William Cobbett here. He was a rabid old pamphleteer whose book “Rural Rides” has always been a lodestone for me; telling it like it is , or rather was, when it was published in 1853 – there’s a coincidence!

After a fruitless hour in the rain we went back to the station cafe to get warm, and were gradually joined by a throng of sodden passengers all dreading the journey home. Madame overheard one person trying to arrange a taxi. We managed to get back onto the train half an hour before the off and found to our absolute delight that the heating was working – and so the journey home was doubly pleasurable despite the turkish bath atmosphere.

Sadly, though, on the return Madame overheard a depressing conversation between three young women in their twenties discussing their attitude towards the police following the murder of Sarah Everard. It really shows how constricted and intimidated women are in this deeply defective culture. Enough, though. We love these day trips and no matter how uncomfortable the transport and lousy the weather we always come back feeling challenged and energised; and enough material to draw and paint and write for a month.

Meanwhile, back in the real world

A marvellous piece of lettering by Welsh artist Jonah Jones, seen at an exhibition of his work at Oriel Plas Glyn y Weddw, Llanbedrog in March 2019

The good thing about coming away to this beautiful place to walk, read and try to put together all my thoughts in words is space; sheer space to expand into, free from distractions and chores. The bad thing about it could almost be the same sentence. There’s a point at which the way forward becomes so problematic a kind of paralysis sets in. The remedy, in this instance is to accept that the Jacques Ellul book I’ve been struggling with is not going to help, because its source materials and analysis are now sixty years out of date . Magnetic North moves about by a good bit and trying to find your way to the pole (no pun intended) without the right correction isn’t likely to end happily.

What exactly is the real world anyway? I sometimes wonder, since it seems to be a contested area of knowledge at the moment; but anyway I’ve forsworn any philosophy in this brief post and I’ll talk about the weather in the most descriptive and non blaming way I can manage.

The fierce south westerly gales haven’t given over for days and in the cottage the chimney roars, the vents flap and the occasional sheets of rain hammer at the windows. It’s all very cosy until, as we did this morning, you get a power cut. Yesterday’s photos of the beach at Porth Neigwl missed a couple of shots that would have needed a telephoto lens which in our case we have not got because it’s at the bottom of a bog on Mendip. Apparently there are exceptionally rare mason bees in the dunes there, except I’m not sufficiently experienced as an entomologist to recognise them. But on our way back down the narrow road we spotted around 30 curlew feeding on the marsh – enough to gladden anyone’s heart. When I say this place is a birders’ paradise I’m not exaggerating. Something else worth noting is the light. The good citizens of St Ives in Cornwall like to claim that their light is brighter and more clear than anywhere else on earth. Obviously they would say that because it keeps the artists rolling in; but the light here is equally if not more pure and luminous and it’s so much quieter. The south westerlies rattle the cold fronts across, and each time the rain is followed by glorious movements of intense light that bless the landscape, caressing and intensifying the autumn colours and leaving the artist in us joyfully mystified as to how it could ever be expressed.

Tomorrow morning at the crack of eight o’clock we’re off to Porthmadog to catch the wonderful Welsh Highland Railway up through the Snowdon range to Caernarfon and back. Last time we made the trip in brilliant weather but tomorrow’s forecast is makes grim reading with 20mm rain expected and 50 mph gusts of wind. In normal times you can wander about and get a very good Welsh rarebit from the buffet car but because of covid we’ll be locked into our perspex divided carriages and probably see almost nothing except rain and mist for the whole journey. It’s the last trip if the year so expect it will be crowded with steam train enthusiasts who may not have noticed that we’ll be taken across the hills by a diesel locomotive tomorrow. In the absence of any food from the buffet I’ve ordered a couple of hampers – which each contain a small bottle of prosecco, and so we’ll celebrate the autumn like a couple of budget class swells.

I’m sorry there are so many Welsh sounding names in these posts but Wales is a country with its own precious language. Luckily, Welsh is a completely phonetic language and so once you’ve learned the basics it’s pretty straightforward. The stress usually comes in the penultimate syllable. The only one I haven’t used is the proper name for Snowdon which is Yr Wyddfa which looks unapproachable but sounds like uhr-with-va. Welsh is the queen of languages and I’ve always wanted to learn to speak it properly but haven’t had the chance or anyone to practice with. Anyway it’s a courtesy to the people who cherish their language to be able to ask for directions, sounding as if at least you care.

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