Published: December 2014
Publication: MILLTIR SGWÂR
Writer: Jan Newton
Our house is tucked into the hillside like a raised white eyebrow. As I climb the steep track towards the lane I turn, as I always do, and look back. It is cwtched in among the trees, protected by a long, low bank of earth planted with a hazel hedge and with the sturdy stone barn behind. Whoever built this place knew what they were doing. For us and for the songbirds, woodpeckers and owls who visit in large numbers, this is a harbwr diogel, a safe haven, on the very edge of habitation
Past the ‘water-shed’ in which our supply is pumped and filtered, already the wind is stronger, coming straight from Bwlchciliau, the gap in the knife-edged arête which, these days, is covered in conifers, rather than the ice which formed it. In the next-door field our neighbour raises his hand. Usually he would amble over for a chat, but not now. Now it is spring and they are working on the farm twenty-four hours a day, delivering lambs on a six-week conveyor-belt of new life. The lights in the sheep sheds never go out.
The hawthorns which line our track as it rises above the evergreen wind-break are twisted, bent by the wind into the stooped shapes usually associated with seaside trees. Snowdrops have opened wide now and hang their heads, dipping towards the primroses in the bank. In cages of last year’s bramble the daffodils are turning into yellow-tipped spears. Another few days and they will be out, and we will believe that spring really has arrived.
A buzzard makes that particular cry of delight, the gleeful airborne cackle that accompanies the sighting of a fallen lamb. On more than one occasion over the years, this loud exuberance has saved the life of a lamb - for a while at least. Straight ahead, across the narrow lane and fields beyond, below the steep lower slopes of Gornoeth is Nantyfarddu. It has been owned by the same family for almost fifty years, but they visit only in the summer when the risk of drifting snow has passed. They descend, as bright as humming-birds with their sumptuous feathers and distinctive Texan calls.
Like our house, Nantyfarddu is snuggled into the curve of its hill and until last autumn its position was stunning, cocooned in the lofty sitkas and larches of the Irfon Forest. That was before a giant machine lumbered up the hillside and sliced the conifers from their roots. The trees, now resembling gigantic Christmas trees awaiting tinsel and baubles, were fed into the metal jaws of a second machine. In seconds they had been stripped of needles and branches, hacked into identical logs fifteen feet long and stacked neatly alongside the track.
So now Nantyfarddu is backed by brash - beige fields of giant corduroy-textured spoil where the trees used to be. It will not be long though, maybe even by the end of this summer and the pale slopes will wear a patina of wispy greens. By the autumn there could be rosebay willow herb and the tentative beginnings of gorse and heather as the land slowly reverts to the moorland it once was.
The bright red telephone kiosk at Church’s crossroads is a beacon in a landscape of camouflage colours. Like the new Ferguson tractor and Goronwy’s truck on the yard, like the post van and Alun Rhusgog’s quad bike, it is a red splash of metallic functionality. Rarely used for its original purpose, it is a handy place to leave things - bags of shopping and sacks of animal feed when the snow is too deep for any vehicle other than Erfyl’s gigantic 4x4 tractor to run the steep gauntlet of Tanyrallt’s slopes. It also serves as somewhere to park a sheepdog or corral a ‘lost’ hound. Under the sticker which advises ‘This phone does not accept cash’ there should be another – ‘Beware of the Dog’.
There used to be a chapel here, Capel Rhos – Chapel on the Moor, but the small, triangular plot has been empty for decades, the building long-since demolished, the site converted to bracken and reeds. In summer it will be a jumble of dock and nettle. The nettle, devil’s-bit scabious and dandelion attract butterflies, especially the peacock. From July onwards this sheltered spot is alive with butterfly activity and there are plenty of niches in the lichened dry stone wall in which they can over-winter.
Along the lane, Brongarth stands on its meticulously weeded rock right at the top of an anticline which runs from here down to Garth Bank. The mudstones have been folded and compressed so that they outcrop as slivers of shattered bedrock like elongated hedgehog spines.
Down in the valley, where the little river Dulas rushes to meet the Irfon, Garth Bank rises like Avalon from the valley floor. Now that spring is almost here, this hill teems with dog-walkers and ramblers, ponies and leggy trotting horses with their camel-like gait, just coming back into training. This little tor is criss-crossed by broad forestry tracks and enticing narrow footpaths. Everyone has their own favourite circuit; down among the bluebells and celandines or up on the tree-covered summit where the views are of Mynydd Epynt, Llangammarch’s bracken-covered slopes and the terraces of Dilwyn’s quarry at Cribarth. This is safe wilderness - a little yellow rambler and a blue horse signpost the way to the woods. The small car park has a picnic table with a tiny built-in barbecue and there are tying rings for four horses
Just up the valley from Garth Bank’s tidy tracks, the real hills, the giants of Drygarn Fawr and Gorllwyn are deserted. Perhaps we need a little more time and a modicum of courage before we leave the safety of the signposted. Perhaps when the hillsides are blurred with fresh green bracken and the skylark sings again we will venture upwards, among the soaring skies, the peat and the nodding bog cotton.