Saturday 27 October 2018

Twll Du

On the hillside the beacon light of Cylfynydd was extinguished. It was night beyond night. Stars lit the valley and the endless rails gleamed all the way to Risca. The brook whispered secret messages down the Nant y Crochan. From my bed I could hear quiet conversation in the kitchen below.
There Pot sat by the black range. Huge boulders of railway coal glowed like hellfire. A great black kettle swung and hissed above the sulphurous flames. Pot’s short sentences were punctuated by the crackling of the fire.  There his loving Nellie consoled him: “There’s tired you are my love. … yes, the children too! …  Yes you sit down … a nice mug of cocoa … Well I’m sure, exhausting  … all that rampaging. … ”
Outside, Bran of Twmbarlwm stalked the valley, looking for his lost land. 
In the powder house brigands and pirates loaded their muskets for their night’s illicit work.
On the green hills the Tylwyth Teg rode unseen in procession through the starlit land.
Islwyn feasted in a dark cavern, waiting for the call to battle to sound above the music of his minstrels, all the time secretly watched by a wide-eyed girl. The music was echoed by a distant chorus of kindly Welsh miners.

Twll Du means ‘black hole’ and is the name of a dark gulley in Snowdonia known as ‘the devil’s kitchen’.

Tuesday 10 July 2018


In the mornings the watching Twmp of Twmbarlwm was silhouetted against the bright sky, dominant and proud. It gazed watchfully towards the River Severn; it gazed affectionately towards the waking valley. But it commanded minds as much as landscape. In his autobiography Far Off Things (1922) the writer Arthur Machen, who came from Caerleon, wrote: 
Twym Barlwm, that mystic tumulus, the memorial of peoples that dwelt in that region before the Celts left the Land of Summer.
It was our mountain, Twmbarlwm, that was part of the landscape that reached out and inspired Machen’s work. Dylan Thomas read those words, which is why in Under Milk Wood Reverend Eli Jenkins writes a poem describing Llareggub Hill and its "mystic tumulus". 
The view from Twmbarlwm appears in the poetry of the poet William Henry Davies, the well-known Newport writer and ‘supertramp’.
Can I forget the sweet days that have gone
When poetry first began to stir my blood
And from the hills of Gwent I saw
The earth torn in two by Severn’s silver flood. 
His were the well-known words:
What is this life if, full of care, 
We have no time to stand and stare?
and I could imagine him, carefree, drinking in the view up on the windy hill.
For Myfanwy Haycock, winner of the 1924 Pontypool National Eisteddfod, Twmbarlwm was the ‘Hill of Dreams.’ It was that for many, including my father, who always spoke of it with affection, as if the memory brought back the days before he left the Land of Summer, and I loved him for it.

Monday 14 May 2018

Sea Coal

In addition to the annual pilgrimage up Mynyddislwyn for the sheep dog trials, rare events included train trips to Newport for ‘big shopping’. Undoubtedly the best part of the day was rushing through the dark railway tunnel near Rogerstone – the carriage lights never worked and we were carried through darkness from the familiar valley into another, strange world. 
Entering Newport the railway line crosses the River Usk. This river, which rises in the Black Mountain, Mynydd Du, flows reluctantly into the sea at Newport, which as the name implies was once a considerable trading centre.
Like avon, usk is a very old proto-Celtic word. It also appears as esk, ex, ax and uisg and is thought to have meant water. So it seems that the River Usk had its name and thus some cultural significance a very long time ago. 
At Newport the stream ran strongly between steep banks and ferries were hazardous. The solution was a tall transporter bridge, built in 1906 so that ships could pass beneath. Its cantilever stood some 240 above the River Usk to provide headroom for the tall masts of sailing ships. But within a decade such vessels were largely replaced by steamships. 
Once I was led through the rain to see the famous bridge, It took an age to get there, walking down the endless rain-mirrored flagstones of Commercial Road. An icy wind came from the Bristol Channel. We solemnly stood as the gondola swayed gently under its cat’s-cradle of cables and we slowly traversed the murky waters of the River Usk. It seemed to belong to another age. Both river and sky were a diluted coal-grey, same as the town. Then we walked back in the rain. I was utterly mystified by this ritual, but something told me to keep quiet and nod when asked if it was fun. I imagine it was a favourite treat for my father in the bright years before the war.
Once a year we would go to Barry Island for the day. Occasionally we went to the fun fair. For us it was never really successful, as we never had much money to go on any of the rides. One year I was castigated as grossly indulgent for having two goes on the big dipper at two shillings a time. “Ach y fi!” 

On the beach we would eat our sandwiches, always mysteriously, if appropriately, full of sand.  Then my mother would use the sandwich bag to hold any pieces of sea coal we found. Coals to Cwmcarn, a land surrounded by coal. 

Monday 30 April 2018


One year, instead of travelling on the Great Western Railway, my father hired a small, half-timbered Morris Minor estate car to visit his family home. The little car was just fine for two adults, two small children and the family's bags, and gave us unprecedented freedom.
One day the inevitable rain stopped at Beech Terrace. In response my father announced a trip to take his wife and children to the beautiful Gower Peninsula, a world away from our valley. But then he was dismayed to find that everyone else wanted to come too: Grandma, Grandpa, and my young uncle and aunt Gerald and Geraldine, who then still lived at home. They all presented themselves on the doorstep, grinning in anticipation.

But the Morris was tiny; quite unequal to carrying such a load. Of course father had to declare that he could only safely and legally take one other outside his immediate family. Yet when the moment of departure came both grandparents appeared in their Sunday best. There was an impass, then they sternly retreated to the kitchen. After a short while Grandma was left weeping on the doorstep. I don’t suppose my grandparents ever had a holiday away from Cwmcarn, before or after.

The drive seemed interminable but the Gower was a welcome oasis of green after the coal-stained and iron-clad world of the valleys and Swansea. The sands were bright, warm and endless. But on the south side of Rhossili Bay the rampant rocks of Worms Head gazed grimly to seaward. It was easy to see that to storm-bound sailors they would look like a giant sea monster, its head raised, sternly watching the approaches to Llanelli, eternally displeased with the crowded terraces, the mines and the heavy industry, ready to take revenge on any sailor foolish enough to pass close by.
But the sea sparkled and the sands of Gower were warm and endless, much as my grandmother’s tears.