First of all, I’d like to heartily wish everyone a Blwyddyn Newydd Dda, a Happy New Year! I’ve got just this weekend to go then it’ll be back to the millstone of work next week.
It’s been a strange few weeks for us over here in Wales. We’ve had heavy snow for most of the Christmas period and the temperature often plummeted to around -15. We don’t get the extremes of weather that the American continent has, but it was enough to make us wary of going out. Therefore, it’s been a period of chilling………literally……..but also a time of trying to relax during the most hectic of times. The snow has since gone and all that remain are what we call in Welsh esgyrn eira, snow bones, the skeletal streaks of snow along the ridges and edges of hills that show that winter called.
My eldest son was seventeen two days before Christmas and as a result reached the legal age to be able to drive a car. My father is the longest serving qualified driving instructor in Britain so arranging lessons was not a problem. Off my son and I went that morning to my parents’ and soon junior and his Taid, the North Welsh word for ‘grandfather’, were heading off for a run on the snow-lined roads. Both were very excited by the experience, especially Taid (pronounced like the English word ‘tide’) as this was the first time a grandchild of his hit the roads.
Since then, as a result of the Christmas break, we’ve been over a few more times. Usually I stay with my mother and have a paned (pron. PANN-ed), a cup of tea and a chat. I get to hear the latest family gossip and what my brothers and sister have got up to recently. But, two days ago, 30 January, I went a few miles down the road to Penmachno for a spin in my car. This is my father’s home turf – a small village nestling up high in a cosy and secluded valley in the hills of North Wales. It was from this village in 1883 that my grea-great-grandfather, Rhys Wynn Jones set off for the Slate Valley in order to start a new life. The journey abruptly came to a halt in August of that year and now he rests with many of his countrymen in Elmwood Cemetery, Middle Granville, NY.
At the furthest reaches of the Machno Valley is the village of Cwm Penmachno over which looms a deserted slate quarry. It is a bleak and rather sad place. A speckled mass of blue-grey stones gouged out of the rolling green hills of the valley. For well over a hundred years it was a place that contributed greatly to the economy of the area – supplying the valley with work and all the financial offshoots connected to such an industry, but also it kept most of the local inhabitants in the vicinity as the Welsh speaking community thrived socially. Cwm Penmachno was a bustling village with chapels, shops, pubs, a school and a football (soccer) team. The village of Penmachno, a few miles further down the valley benefited greatly from this quarry too thus making this small stretch of land perched high in the hills one of the most culturally rich areas in the whole country.
When I visited the quarry two days ago, all I could hear was the rushed hush of a nearby stream warbling its winding way down the valley.
I parked my car at the foot of the quarry, which is in fact the lowest of a group of excavations on the hillside, and walked into the silence of the cavernous cavity. The stillness of the place strikes you immediately. The hillside here once resounded with the sounds of quarrymen, but now all you hear are their echoes in the ripples of the mountain brook alongside the quarry. This place is the abode of the Welsh Ozymandias.
The quarry closed just under fifty years ago and in doing so it knelled the end of this vibrant community. The silence is overwhelming. As I walked along the quarry bottom I found myself becoming overcome by an otherworldly feeling. A feeling of awe similar to the one you feel when you walk into a chapel or church. There is something about the place that makes you become quiet. There is something that compels you to feel small and insignificant as though the mountain was saying, “And what are you doing here, little man?”
The bottom part of the quarry floor has been landscaped over since the 1980’s in order to make the place safe, but all this has created is a green arena-shaped area upon which the mountain’s stare is firmly fixed on the accused.
I spent over an hour just wandering around the quarry and could not help feel how nature is reclaiming the empty cavern and dismissing man’s industry with its gradual repossession. Many generations of my family toiled here as did the families of many who crossed over to the Slate Valley. I walked three-quarters of the way up mindful of the fact that I had to return to pick up my son after his lesson. With my mobile phone’s camera I took over sixty photographs of the quarry as each few steps drew my focus and I felt that each picture was like paying homage to the place. How long will it be before this place has been completely swallowed up by Mother Nature? How long will it be before the voices of the quarrymen have been totally silenced?
I thought of the museum in Granville and of the important work it does in remembering the past. When I was there in 1996 I was struck by the silence of the gravestones inscribed in Welsh. How many people in the area now can read and appreciate the tender words of longing and loss on the stones? I was struck also by the many folk of Granville who still used the word “Taid” when talking of their grandfather and this hammered home the fact that unless things are recorded now not even that simple four-lettered word will be used in the area. How many documents and photos have been cast away by the newer generations of the Slate Valley as irrelevant items because they were voiceless? The Slate Valley Museum can help make those voices audible once more.
As I left the quarry I became aware of a solitary pine tree gradually nudging its way skywards on a pile of waste rubble. It reminded me of the tree of my last blog, but this one was without a star. I’ll keep an eye on this tree over the years to come and see what’ll become of it.
Walking down the path towards my car I became aware of the babble of the brook alongside the quarry. It was like the gentle applause of the silent voices thanking me for my visit. Let the sound of the Mettowee remind you of the voices in the Slate Valley that can still be heard, if you just take the time to stop and listen.
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda!