Baswn I’n Gweld

Image (c) Jeremy Bolwell

written by Phil Owen

Baswn I’n gweld y lle hwn, drwy eich gweledigaeth (I would see this place through your vision)[1]

I have slept the night many times on the side of this hill, through my life. Y Moelydd, the bald one. But I have never, for some reason, had any particular sense of its height, or shape. This strikes me as a difference in the way you approach a place as a child and an adult, the latter being more likely to subconsciously map it out, to maintain orientation.  

I would have been happier to go on my own, but the old man came with me. Out of a sense of obligation, perhaps, or to see if he could still manage it. This old man, who has known me since before I was born, who I still refer to as my Uncle – though he isn’t, and I am no longer a child – whose voice, thick with an accent you never, ever hear in the media, I have made recordings of. It was not warm and it was drizzling, but I wanted to go, and he seemed determined to come too.

We crossed the lane after a few dozen yards, by a house he pointed out as the one he used to live in. It is the site of one of my earliest memories – I’d accidentally broken a toy and put it back on a shelf, hoping nobody would notice – though I’d had no idea how close it was. We took a path, signposted as a stretch of Offa’s Dyke, which runs along the side of the garden, and stopped, the first of many short rests, and wondered as to the new scaffolding on the house. The path as it led straight ahead was as steep as stairs, so he suggested an alternative, crossing over a field. I thought it best to take. He asked me if there was a stile in the hedge on the other side. I replied that there was, so we headed towards it.

Though we were only a hundred yards or so from his front door, he told me it had been years since he’d walked this way. The ground became more uneven as we went, and more overgrown. He slipped, quickly regaining his balance, but worrying me badly. If he fell and couldn’t get up again, I would feel helpless, and embarrassed. I thought about insisting on taking him back and going on my own, but this would probably be taken as an insult. He climbed over the stile more easily than I expected. We came out on a lane wide enough for one car.

There was a house, looking out across a view that was already expansive. It was very quiet, but a man came out and went to his car. We exchanged pleasantries. His voice was northern English, and the house, a stone cottage, looked expensively kept. Passing this, and the driveway up to a farm, we went through a gate into a wood. It was dark with many yew trees, though they were young, and there was a flight of steps cut into the steep incline. We waited a while as he caught his breath, and he joked about his slowness. I wondered whether he could have a heart attack, what on earth would I do? I said something about the yew trees, though I was already tiring of conversation and struggling to sound interested.

The wood was small, and the steps didn’t last long before we came out on open ground, divided by dry stone walls, several of them falling down. He asked me about landmarks in front. There was a cottage. It was derelict, but there was still glass in the windows. It struck me as a perfect place to live.

By this point it was less clear where the top of the hill might be. I seemed to be navigating now, with his words of guidance, though I was unsure of whether we were following the route he was imagining. He told me, again, about how he used to come up here with the dog and the black haired young man, who I remember, who I suppose might have become his son-in-law. There was a strong smell of burning from the chimney of a farm just out of view.

A slight elevation was suddenly obvious as the highest point in front of us, and I walked towards it, picking up pace, my attention to his need for care in navigating bumps and hollows in the ground (from old quarrying, he told me) being outweighed by my wanting to see the view from top. Like he’d said, at the highest point there was a sheet of metal etched with the compass points, and the directions and distances to other places. Both Yr Wyddfa and Cadair Idris were listed, about 40 miles away each, and he told me that it would be possible to see ships on the Mersey. But the cloud was low, so I could only see the nearer hills, like clusters of rounded islands, and in the other direction the start of the flatter land. He called this the start of the Plains of Europe.

He suggested alternative routes to go back down. I chose the one that sounded the quickest and easiest. It would be less slippy underfoot, he said, but, as I soon realised, would not follow public footpaths. After walking a little way down the hill, a different direction from which we came, he asked me whether there was a gate in front of as. As we reached it, passing through a small herd of cows, a ‘Keep Out’ sign on the gate came into focus. I had gotten cold, and the rain had become more insidious. I wondered whether we might get lost, whether the route followed by my being able to recognise the landmarks he could remember might disappear. We climbed over the ‘Keep Out’ sign, and he told me he knew the woman who had inherited the land from her father.

The small quarry looked fresh, the sides pale browns and orange. But there were no signs of activity, besides tire tracks churning the mud at our feet. Behind the hedges, I felt like I had lost my bearings and the opportunity of leading us back the way we had come. He told me about a hill farmer with a Welsh name whose land we were passing beside. He gestured to where the farmhouse was, but I couldn’t see one, and I wondered whether we had gone the right way. We climbed another gate (he didn’t seem to find these difficult, using his stick to fathom the distance to the ground on the other side), and came to a track leading to farm buildings. We walked to these, to see if the hill farmer was there. It looked utterly deserted, grim and industrial, the welcome the old man had implied seeming unlikely. I led us away, brightly persuading him, concerned about the awkwardness of any possible encounter and the signs warning of CCTV. We walked back along the track, downhill. A silver car came in the opposite direction, with a dog running beside it, barking. It pulled over and flashed the headlights. He told me to walk behind him. As we grew closer, the old man and the driver recognised each other. It was the hill farmer, who switched off his engine. ‘This is Philip, he is staying with us and wanted to go for a walk’. I felt incongruous, but the farmer reached his hand out of the window to shake mine. (It was big and warm, with dirt under his fingernails like pencil lead). He smiled, though he seemed slightly shy. He commented on the wet, and how the old man’s coat was not waterproof. I felt guilty, but as they gossiped together, I felt pleased to be party to an exchange that was both foreign and very familiar.

We walked on (the farmer had left his car in gear, so it lurched when he started the engine) and my sense of direction began to return to me. I recognised that we were approaching the road just outside the village, a bit further along from where we had started. He told me the farmer now lived in Oswestry, with his Mother. We passed old stone buildings that were once associated with the quarry. Some had been renovated. One was now a bunkhouse for walkers. I saw the white duvets of unmade beds through a window, but nobody appeared to be in.

We reached the road, and kept to the left, out of the way of the periodic cars. He complained how they drove too fast. One of the houses we passed was an older stone building, painted cream. I admired it, but he told me it had problems with damp, and was once occupied by a ‘Bible basher’. We went back through the gate to the drive, and took our shoes off outside his house.

Mae gen I hiraeth ar gyfer y lle hwn, lle nad fi wedi byw, trwy etifeddiaeth, a trwy teimlo o bosibilrwydd. (I have a homesickness for this place, here where I have never lived, through inheritance and through a sense of possibility).

[1] The walk this piece of writing describes took place in the north-west corner of Shropshire, where some of my family come from. The area used to be widely Welsh-speaking, despite being east of the border. The legacy of the language continues there.

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