Here and There – Wales

My view of Wales is a tangle of images, of instant potato, graptolites, stunning scenery, rain and young women.  Somewhere in there are some impossible to pronounce names and a strange mixture of harsh environments, afternoon tea  and scones, and a sense of a dark, forbidding world.  I would like to add Welsh choirs, but, sadly, they only became accessible to me later in life through television:  my impressions are almost entirely based on visits in the early 1960s. The list of Welsh attributes should include Dylan Thomas, but I came to his work much later in life; Harry Secombe, but I’ve tied his glorious voice to the Goon Show, not his Welsh ancestry; and Philip Pullman, but it never occurred to me to investigate his background!  Much later in life, the Wales I know is best caught in those strange, unsettling yet brilliant episodes of Hinterland.  The television series was set in Aberystwyth, in dull, rainy streets and in the mountainous land behind the town: it was a town I had visited, and Tom Mathias and Mared Rhys (superbly played by Mali Harries and Richard Harrington) could have been there when I was staying at the Aberystwyth Youth Hostel in my late teens.

One thing is certain.  Back then I was an outsider, and I’d feel the same way today.  It would be like living in a Philip Pullman novel, finding a gap between one world and another, and knowing, once through, things would be different.  Why do I feel that way?  I think it is combination of three things.  The physical environment in central and northern Wales is different.  It is a land of mountains, slate, sparse communities, all combining to create a sense of isolation.  Second you feel you are an outsider, finding language, culture and daily practice as unsettlingly foreign, quite apart from the fact that the Welsh, quite sensibly, have a low opinion of the English.  However, more than that, it is ‘mythic’ land:  by that, I mean that for a nice English boy, it is clearly a place with a very different ethos.  In many ways I found Wales far less accessible than France, which I would also visit from time to time.

As a child, I lived in Northolt, close to the Western Avenue, the A40, a major road out of London, and not far from the Hoover building (no, nothing to do, with the FBI, this was where the vacuum cleaners were manufactured).  In my early teens we crossed over the A40 and went to live in Ealing, not far from my secondary school, Ealing Grammar School for Boys (yes, just boys!).  In my last three year at grammar school, I studied geology.  Geology meant field trips, and field trips meant going to Wales.  Leaving London, we would go through High Wycombe, bypass Oxford (quite right – oops, sorry!), and then travelled through the Cotswolds, eventually crossed over the River Severn, and came to Monmouth.  This was the point of no return.  Through Monmouth you were in Wales.

Now I can tell you the areas we went through were beautiful.  Then they were examples of geological features, synclines and anticlines, remnants of moraines, and so much more to observe.  At the same time, we were in a world of strange names:  Bryngwyn and Pempergwm, followed by Abergavenny, Talybont-on-Usk, Brecon and Llandovery.  Perhaps before Brecon we would head north to Llandrindod Wells, then Rhayader, and eventually across to Aberystwyth.  This is Hinterland territory, with Devil’s Bridge and that spooky hotel in Pontarfynach.  Aberystwyth was like some strange, lost town, with grey guest house after grey guest house along Marine Terrace, facing a bleak and cold Irish Sea.  Time to move on, and from there up to Dolgellau, abandoning Hinterland filming spots, along to Blaenau Ffestiniog, and eventually arrive at Betws-y-Coed and nearby Capel Curig.   Enough fun with names, and time to go looking for graptolites!

Hang on!  I got so excited about names, I’ve lost the plot.  Back to Aberystwyth.  We must have stopped there on a field trip, as I can think of no other reason why I would have been in Aberystwyth.  I can remember the institutional youth hostel we stayed in:  in those days, you weren’t allowed in before 4 pm, and had to be out by 10 am the following day.  We prepared our meal in the communal kitchen, and as we were in there (probably unwrapping fish and chips), we met two young women, from ‘uddersfield’.  That brief interaction remains quite clear in my memory.  First of all, we enquired what they were doing, and were told they were making ‘instant potato’.  I had never heard of such a strange concoction, and while it must have been on supermarket shelves, I have never seen or heard of it since.  Second, they were young women!

At a single sex school, my contact with members of the opposite sex were virtually non-existent, and I was a slow developer.  For the first time, I realised that young women were interesting.  My school colleagues were busy getting on with our trip planning, but part of me remained in that kitchen.  How did one talk to young women?  I had a female cousin and knew some girls who were the children of family friends.  Visiting my grandparents in Sheffield, I had seen the two daughters of a neighbour across the road but had never spoken to them.  These two in the hostel were there in the room, happy to chat, and I had experienced a strange mixture of interest and shyness.  A wakeup call?  Slow, clunking hormones moving into place?  Slow developer, but suddenly aware.

This fleeting interaction was to be followed up once we arrived in Betws-y-Coed.  I don’t recall how we met, but somehow I found myself talking to Gwyneth, a local, friendly and attractive teenager.  Had we gone to the local pizza shop or fish and chip shop?  Did they have such things in Betws-y-Coed?  One thing was certain, in not much more than 24 hours, my hormones had started working.  Girls were interesting.  I recall I planned to keep in touch with Gwyneth, and perhaps we did write for a while.  However, she was to be supplanted by Jennifer, who lived in Worthing, near London and a place lot more accessible than Wales.

Boys and their hormones in the later teenage years are a hazardous combination.  It’s as if someone has lit the gas, and all of a sudden things are hot and hopping.  There is much more to be said on that topic, and my part in various events, but the importance of Wales was that it constituted a starting point.  Racy conversations at school I’d never fully understood, scenes in books that fed a patchy imagination, and my first visits to see R-classified films at the cinema, all that was unclear, confused and at a distance.  In Wales, tame conversations about instant potato were far more tantalising.  If only it hadn’t always been so grey and wet, we might have gone to the beach (do they have beaches in Wales?), lounged on the sand, eaten ice-creams.  Yes, we might have done such things, but we didn’t.  Back from Wales it was lab work, exams and lots of homework.  Much more than that involving young women was at least a year away.

I believe it was those field trips to Wales that contributed to my love of Hinterland.  The television series played to my brief experiences.  As I recall, it was almost always raining on poor Richard Harrington as he tried to deal with the strange actions and events in an inward-looking community.  I could relate to all that imagery of meaningful glances, but not much more.  The narrow roads, the grey scenery, the sense of being an outsider in a hostile, foreign land.  Did I ever see the country when it wasn’t wet and depressing?  I have friends who love Wales, colleagues who took up positions in universities there, but I have never had the urge to return.  The girls from the youth hostel are distant images, Gwyneth almost invisible.  Events from sixty year ago have coloured my perception, while much has faded.

In a different sense, my visits to Wales are a microcosm of a more general situation.  How we see places is always a function of both physical characteristics and the people we meet.  That’s no surprise.  However, it is the persistence of reactions that is striking.  Further north from Snowdonia, you arrive at The Lake District.  It, too, is a world of grey rocks, mountains and rain.  However, similar thought it is in many ways, my view of it couldn’t be more different.  Quite apart from the fact it wasn’t raining every time I went there, my image of the place is shaped by my first visit, and by another young woman.

This was about a year after my first visit to Wales.  I’d started to get more involved with the opposite sex.  I had a girlfriend, kept well away from parents and schoolfriends.  We’d meet for a cappuccino and cake, often with my anxiously checking there was no-one from school around, and safe in the knowledge my parents were both at work.  In a moment of madness, we decided to go away for a long weekend.  I can’t remember what I told my parents, but there we were on a Friday night, taking the train up to Windemere.  Once there, we looked for somewhere to stay.  I hadn’t occurred to me that most places would be full (this was at Easter, but Easter in the Lakes is a cold and often rather depressing time).  We found a bed and breakfast with one room left, up at the top of the house.  Two nights, before we had to get the train back!  To this day I have wondered if the woman running the guest house noticed, or even cared, that we were rather short of luggage!

Are you surprised to learn that I think The Lake District is beautiful, Windermere and Lake Windermere beautiful, everything about that part of the world beautiful?  I’ve been back to the area many times.  Despite hordes of tourists, crowded streets and traffic almost at a standstill, I like to go back to Chapel Stile, Hawkshead, and Grasmere.  In fact, the place I tend to avoid is Windermere, not because of past associations, but simply because it is more like a Blackpool or Brighton, stuffed full of shops selling visitor memorabilia.  Over at Hawkshead, the profusion of Beatrix Potter material is almost as bad, but you can wander round the lanes and see places that appear in the Peter Rabbit books.  In Grasmere there is (or was when I last visited) an excellent bookshop, and a few manageable walks to the Langdale Hotel, Skelwith Bridge and on to Ambleside.  The Lakes and Wales: different worlds.

This is true wherever you live.  Places have their physical character, but that is the backdrop to the experiences you have.  Back here in Australia, it is a country in which I have lived in very different places, and at rather different stages of my life.  In Adelaide in the 1970s, our house was in the foothills, jutting out from a steep slope in such a way that the living room seemed suspended, looking out towards the city centre in the distance, and the airport to the left.  This was our ‘new world’, having left the UK and the troubles of the last year or so in Scotland.  It was a place of warmth, sunshine, adventure and stability – except for the swimming pool next to the house which seemed to be slowly tipping over!

Travelling to another country also offers the opportunity to change yourself.  There is a freedom that comes from few remaining ties, new friends, new experiences.  If my experience of Wales was of a place where little changed and past weighed down on the present, in Australia and newly arrived in Adelaide it seemed anything was possible.  I started working with the government, commented on educational policy, joined the group buying wine for the university, and worked with my partner in setting up a club for young readers across Australia.  Adelaide had one other advantage.  We were living close to the southern end of the city, and it was a short trip to be out in the country.  It might have looked very different, but that was like those field trips:  off to tiny townships, wineries and stunning settings, even if South Australia was a lot warmer and brighter than northern parts of Wales.  A different kind of hinterland, that was for certain!

Many years later, I can see that the places I had loved have had their origin in my childhood homes.  I clearly prefer to live outside of major city centres.  In Adelaide we lived on the fringe.  After a short period in the inner area of Melbourne, I was relieved when we moved to a house almost by itself on the fringes of a small town in the Dandenong Hills.  Back into the suburbs for a while, and then another escape to the end of a no through road, running out from a small commuter town outside Melbourne, another house on a hill.  In the US, it was yet another house away from urban density.  I like space close by, places to walk, and the quiet away from city bustle.  Even Wales, despite that grey rainy prospect was inviting in its own way.  Didn’t I say I wouldn’t go back there, that I didn’t want to?  That was a little glib.

Now I am living in Canberra, not on the outskirts, but in a townhouse in a major complex, only five miles from the city centre, and close to the light rail complex that can take me to shopping centres at either end.  If that sounds quite unlike the places I’ve been praising, it isn’t.  My little house faces away from the complex, with a quiet walkway in front.  Out of the door, and a short walk takes me to one of the many open areas on Canberra, with a waterway in the middle, bike and pedestrian paths, and a profusion of bird life.  To go shopping I usually take a long walk through that area, where I’ll see galahs, cockatoos, magpies and wrens.  I could be back in primary school years, where I lived in a London suburb, but our house backed on to a park, open grass area close by, and at the top of the hill a churchyard, remains of an old house, and plenty of wildlife.

I think of Wales one more time.  I wouldn’t go back there to live because I would feel like an outsider.  The physical environment is like a magnet, drawing you in and getting hold of you.  However, I think it might take twenty years to be accepted, just accepted, as a resident.  Canberra couldn’t be more different.  It is a crazy mixture of races, ethnicities, backgrounds, many people passing through, and almost everyone accepted.  To live in Betws-y-Coed would turn me into a hermit.  Is there a mobile library that arrives there fortnightly?  Other than the local store, where are the nearest shops? A cinema?  A concert hall?  A playhouse?

Almost everywhere I’ve lived I have had access to culture, live culture, and I think that was another part of the inheritance from my childhood.  By the time I was a teenager, I was using the London Transport Underground, free of charge as I had a school pass.  I would go into the West End, visit galleries, go to plays and concerts (classical music!).  Were my parents anxious?  Well, that’s another part of that experience:  I was travelling into the centre of London at a time when it was relatively safe to do so.  Whatever qualms my parents had, they were slight compared to a mother today contemplating a fourteen-year-old child wanting to go up to the West End for the evening.

Thinking about Wales, about here and there, suggests another perspective.  This is really a comparison of then and now.  The world of my childhood is long gone.  Would a teacher be able to take three boys off on a field trip for a few days in the more rugged areas of Wales by himself?  Would I be allowed to go to the Festival Hall to attend a concert by myself in my early teens, alone?  Would I even want to do those things today, and be able to escape the allure of digital technologies in the home?  Sneaking off in my late teens with a girl to spend two nights in Windemere, yes, that might still be easy.  Places and experiences:  some things are probably much the same today as they were sixty years ago, but to end on one of those silly but accurate platitudes, you can’t step into the same river twice.