On the mountains of Wales
Back in May, the latest post in the Books I Haven’t Read series was about The Hills Of Wales by Jim Perrin, a book which I felt had a somewhat exclusive and elitist approach to said hills. At the time I read it, or at least part of it, I was staying in a cottage under Moel y Gest, within sight of the Moelwynion, so the hills of Wales were very real and very much on the doorstep. For that matter, the hills of Wales are on the doorstep of my home, too, and the issue of why hills such as Yr Wyddfa, the Moelwynion and all the others of the Eryri massif are seen as valid and special in a way that the worn-out, lived-on hills of the south such as Mynydd Machen, Twmbarlwm and the Blorenge are not, is a whole ‘nother topic in itself. The hills of the North, after all, are almost as industrialised as the hills of the South, particularly in the case of places like Parys Mountain or Penmaenmawr which have been industrial sites for thousands of years. Putting that aside, my plan was always to come home and write about my own responses to the hills of North Wales and what they mean to me; but since May it has stayed on the to-do pile.
Last week, however, I was away again, this time to the area around Aberteifi/Cardigan in West Wales. Driving along the main road north from Aberteifi towards Aberaeron and Aberystwyth, I glanced to my left and saw the sparkling, shining seas of Cardigan Bay. The air was so clear I could see the mountains on the far side of the bay in the distance. I could only glance briefly—I was driving, after all—but there unmistakably in the distance was the lonely outline of Moel y Gest, and alongside it the double-peaked ridge of the Moelwynion. It filled me with a sudden thrill, spotting a skyline I recognised from the far side of the bay. As soon as I got out of the car, I was messaging one of the regular correspondants to tell them about it, to their undoubted bemusement. Later, when I was back home and back at a proper computer, I checked the distance: about sixty miles, pretty good seeing really. Even the sparkling sea was deceptive: although it looked close enough to touch, the shore must have been some five or six miles away. I was over 200 metres above it, not far off the altitude of Moel y Gest itself.
Why does spotting the Moelwynion give me a thrill like that? I don’t know, other than that I have been going back to that corner of the country on and off since I was a teenager. But spotting them like that did remind me to write this post, and it took me back to a day back in May when I was driving around almost in their shadow, hunting down some bottles of limited-edition beer (it’s a long story). The drive took me across the Traeth Mawr, then over the hill road from Garreg to Maentwrog, but it is the first part, from Prenteg to Garreg, that sticks in my mind. I really don’t expect you to know where these places are, by the way, but please do stop to look them up on a map. The Traeth Mawr is an ancient drowned valley, once a broad sandy silvery estuary, for the past two hundred years usually farmland.
The Romantics, Shelley in particular, thought it one of the finest sights in the world before it was reclaimed. Nowadays you can hike, drive, or catch the train across it. And even though the sea is no longer there to reflect them, the surrounding mountains are a mighty encounter. Driving across the Traeth in search of beer, I felt safe, warm and secure, cupped in a bowl, the grand bones of Eryri wrapping themselves around me and protecting me with their power. If you were to reach for your copy of the Mabinogion you might realise that Pryderi was buried just over the other side of the mountain ridge, with Lleu Llaw Gyffes living with his wife made of flowers just a short walk away too.
That, maybe, gives you some sense of the reaction that I have to the hills of Wales, or at least a small fraction of them. There are many more, of course, and I have much more to say. I have had half a post drafted about Mynydd Machen for a while, although I might need to go up there again in a better mood. I have complex feelings about the Rhinogydd even though I’ve never explored their dark, quiet and lurking shapes. I’ve promised to take one regular correspondant to Bryn Cader Faner to see its curious crown of thorns, and I will always remember a teenage walk up to Llandecwyn chapel at dusk, looking down on Harlech Bay as if it was in the palm of my hand. No doubt I will write more about Welsh hills over the coming months and years. The important thing, the thing to always remember, is that they belong to everyone. The people who live on them, the people who live around them, the people who walk up them and the people who work on them. They are too old and too powerful to ever be the property of just one.