Authors: Jan Morris
The Pax Britannica Trilogy
The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage
Stones of Empire
(with Simon Winchester)
Fifty Years of Europe: An Album
Among the Cities
Destinations: Essays from Rolling Stone
The World of Venice
The Great Port: A Passage through New York
Lincoln: A Foreigner's Quest
Pleasures of a Tangled Life
Last Letters from Hav
The Oxford Book of Oxford
On Welsh subjects:
The Matter of Wales
A Machynlleth Triad
(with Twm Morys)
Wales The First Place
(with Paul Wakefield)
Our First Leader
(with Twm Morys)
The Princeship of Wales
The Small Oxford Book of Wales
NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC DIRECTIONS
Published by the National Geographic Society
1145 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-4688
Copyright Â©2002 Jan Morris
Map copyright Â©2002 National Geographic Society
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, without permission in writing from the National Geographic Society, 1145 17th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20036-4688.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Morris, Jan, 1926-
A writer's house in Wales / Jan Morris
p. cm. â (National Geographic directions)
1. WalesâSocial life and customs. 2. Morris, Jan, 1926âHomes and hauntsâWales. I. Title. II. Series.
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This small book is certainly not fictional, but it is not all hard fact, either. It describes a writer's home, and it is tempered by a writer's fond imagination. I dedicate it to the two ever-present guardians of the house: Elizabeth who shares it with me, and Wales which is its patron and its inspiration.
âTrefan Morys, 2001
A House in Wales
A Welsh House
A Writer's House
A Writer's House in Wales
Trefan Morys is the name of my house in Wales, and I'll tell you frankly, to me much the most interesting thing about it is the fact that it
in Wales. I am emotionally in thrall to Welshness, and for me Trefan Morys is a summation, a metaphor, a paradigm, a microcosm, an exemplar, a
multum in parvo,
a demonstration, a solidification, an essence, a regular epitome of all that I love about my country. Whatever becomes of Wales, however its character is whittled away down the generations, I hope my small house will always stand in tribute to what has been best in it.
Do you know where Wales is? Most people in the world have no idea. It is a peninsula standing at the heart of the British Isles, on the western flank of England facing Ireland. It is some 200 miles long from north to south and never more than seventy miles wide, and it is known in its own language as Cymru, signifying a comradeship or comity. Wales is part of the United Kingdom, all too often thought by foreigners to be synonymous with England itself, but its people form one of those ancient minority nations, from the powerful Catalans to the infinitesimal Karims, who have miraculously contrived to maintain their identities, to one degree or another, through the infinite convolutions of European history. They are all subject to the political domination of some greater State, but they remain determinedly themselves, and generally hope to stay that way within the framework of a uniting Europe.
Such quixotic survivals suit me. I want no pomp or circumstance, and would much rather be a poet than a President (unless, like Abraham Lincoln, I could be both at the same time). Small may not always be Beautiful, as a mantra of the 1970s used to claim, but for my tastes it is usually more interesting than Large, and little nations are more appealing than great powers. In 1981 the titular Prince of Wales, who has almost nothing to do with the country, and possesses no house in Wales, was married amidst worldwide sycophancy to the future Princess Diana, at Westminster Abbey in London. It was to be a vast display of traditional ostentation, with horses, trumpets, coped ecclesiastics, armed guards, royal standards and all the paraphernalia of consequence, the whole to be transmitted by television throughout the world. I thought it exceedingly vulgar (besides being romantically unconvincing), and with a small band of like-minded patriots decided to celebrate instead an anniversary of our own that fell on the same day. Exactly 900 years before, the Welsh princes Trahaearn ap Caradog and Rhys ap Tewdwr had fought a battle on a mountain called Mynydd Carn, and that's what we chose to commemorateâan obscure substitute perhaps for a televised royal wedding at Westminster, but at least an occasion of our own. We stumbled up that very mountain in a persistent drizzle, and while the entire universe gaped at the splendors in the abbey far away, we huddled there in our raincoats congratulating ourselves upon celebrating a private passion rather than a public exhibition.
Actually national ostentation seems to be gradually going out of fashion even in England. Just as the tanks no longer roll through Red Square on May Day, so formality is fading in royal palaces, even in the most traditionally decorous of them all. I was at a Buckingham Palace reception recently, and when I left I could find no queen, prince or duke to thank for the royal hospitality. I told the policeman at the gate that I had been brought up to say “thank you for having me,” but finding nobody inside the house to say it to, would say it to him instead. “Not at all, madam,” he at once replied, “come again.” Yet if the style of the English monarchy is relaxing, the English nation can never be unpretentious. It is too far gone for that. Simplicity is the prerogative of smaller States, and in particular of the minority nations, like Wales, which are not States at allâby the nature of things, grandeur is seldom their style.
Patriotism, on the other hand, rides high among them. I dislike the word “nationalist,” which seems to imply chauvinism or aggressive traits, but I respect honest patriotism everywhere, and I have come to think of myself as a minority patriot, a cultural patriot perhapsâone who believes that the characteristics of a people, however insignificant, a language, a tradition, an ideal, are worth preserving for their own sakes. Political sovereignty may be necessary for the job, but it can be sovereignty essentially defensive, offering no threat to anyone else and chiefly wanting to be left alone. And anyway, since none of these national enclaves has more than a few million people, and none is armed with anything more awful than an air gun, they can hardly go in for bullying.
Wales is not the smallest of Europe's minority nations, with some 2.9 million people, but its history is among the most complex. Almost everything about it, in fact, is convolutedâlong-winded, its critics might sayâand its self-esteem is considerable. Long before there was such a thing as England the Celtic Welsh people, the Cymry, were the original Britons. They lived all over the island and they followed the druidical animist faith, which was powerful over much of Europe and had some of its supreme sanctuaries in western Britain. The Romans came, eliminating the hostile priesthood of the Druids, and when they withdrew from Britain their cruder Saxon successors drove most of the Cymry out of England into Wales.
There they lived heroically, beating off all assaults, governed by their own princes and noblemen, honoring their own laws, their own values and their own poetical language. Wales was converted to Christianity by wandering missionaries from Ireland, and it developed an indigenous church with a plethora of native saints: St. Teilo and St. Illtyd, St. Pedrog and St. Beuno, Padarn and Cybi and Elian and Curig and NonâRome never heard of any of them, but they are respected in Wales to this day. For a thousand years the Welsh were alone in the world. England was Saxonized, and lost its Celtic tongue. The Irish were more often enemies than friends. The remaining Celts of northern Britain were cut off and far away. Wales was Wales, ruled by free Welsh princes, cap-a-pie.
In the folk-memory at least it was to be remembered as a golden age, when glittering Welsh aristocrats lived amidst poetry and music, with beautiful women and handsome horses, feasting in high halls and celebrated by bards. Below the ranks of the princes (who very often, I have to admit, quarreled disgracefully among themselves), was a cultivated class of gentry, the
or noblemen, and the Welsh literature that was born then, mystical, merry, humorous and resplendent, has survived from that day to this. King Arthur himself speaks to us out of that misty Welsh Camelot, and his knights of the Round Table were uchelwyr every one.
It was the Normans, from France, who put an end to the dream. They had taken England for themselves, and soon they were swaggering into Welsh countrysides the Saxons had never entered, and setting up their own rival earldoms all along the English border. They turned thousands of free Welshmen into serfs, they humiliated many a disputatious prince, and in the end, mutating over the generations into Englishmen, they became the masters of Wales. The final Welsh independent ruler, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, was killed by the soldiers of Edward I of England in the year 1282, and is remembered by the Welsh still as Llywelyn Ein Llyw Olaf, Llywelyn Our Last Leader. Ever since then Wales has been subject to English domination, sometimes passive beneath the yoke, sometimes restless or obdurate. It has inevitably been Anglicized, like many another English colony, but so far it has remained unmistakably different from its overbearing neighbor, and half a million of its people, the Cymry Cymraeg, still speak Cymraeg, Welsh, by now one of the oldest literary tongues in Europe.
Some Welshmen would claim
oldest, but then some Welshmen would claim almost anything for the glory of their country. Pride of race, pride of literature, pride of history, pride of landscape, pride of language, pride of rugby football, pride of singing, pride of kinship and heritageâall these various self-gratifications are endemic among Welsh patriots, and have been irritating or boring their neighbors ever since the English finally conquered the country. For they conquered it, they never extinguished it, and in every generation there have been thousands of Welsh people determined to ensure the survival of Welshness, its language and its culture. They never let up! Skimble-skamble stuff, is how Shakespeare's Henry V characterized Welsh mystical grandiloquence, and to this very day English people are liable to grumble that the Welsh will go on and onâ¦
Go on and on indeed! It is only by going on and on that they have preserved their identity down the ages, confronted so closely by so mighty an alien Powerâitself, nowadays, hardly more than an agent for the even more monstrous forces of English-speaking globalization. Much that is most Welsh about Wales goes on and on, or is at least inflated beyond its size. The mountains of Wales, so often celebrated in song and legend, seem much bigger than they really are, if only because they are so often masked in mist and drizzle. The history of Wales, though almost unnoticeable by the standards of the great world, is so snarled about by feud and battle, inheritance and tradition, and so often illuminated by suggestions of the tragic or the arcane, that it can seem a tale of colossi. The melancholy myth of the Welsh coal miners has touched hearts everywhere through film and novel. Welsh poetry is essentially deft, lyrical and limpidâsometimes as minimalist as haikuâbut the magical prose tales of Welsh medievalism can be as elaborate in plot and illusion as a biblical epic, and no operatic chorus of slaves, pilgrims or prisoners has ever seemed much more terrific than a Welsh choir in full-throated, great-hearted, on-and-on-going voice.
Unquenchable down the centuries, then, the spirit of Welsh patriotism has been a devoted and often beautiful abstraction. Long after Llywelyn the Last was dead it burst into a final full-scale rising, led by the charismatic Owain GlyndÅµr in the fifteenth century. GlyndÅµr united most of Wales behind him in his struggle against the English, summoning a national parliament, striking up an alliance with the French, and fighting on through triumph and chagrin until he faded into oblivion, his grave undiscovered to this day. His hopeless grasp at glory did Wales no practical good, but it has remained always an inspiration in the national memory. So have the words of a venerable citizen known to tradition as The Old Man of Pencader. One day in the twelfth century, it seems, this ancient was standing at the gate of his house when King Henry II of England rode by with a troop of soldiers, in the course of one punitive campaign or other. The king condescendingly inquired, as kings do, whether the old man thought Welsh resistance to England was likely to last, but he got a dusty answer. Wales would never be subdued by the wrath of man, the Old Man said, unless the wrath of God concurred, and “no other nation than this of Wales, in any other language, whatever may hereafter come to pass, shall on the day of supreme examination before the Supreme Judge, answer for this corner of the earth.”
I hope he was right, but of course like everywhere else modern Wales is threatened more than ever by the levelling powers of internationalism, distributed even here through every possible channel of communication. The world's corrosion is inevitably setting inâbeside the welcome new comforts and excitements, the dross of television and advertising, drugs, crime, general dumbing-down and sheer
. Even the Welshest parts of Wales are less Welsh than they used to be, and the values that Welsh people consider peculiarly their own are being whittled away, or so influenced by ideas and principles from elsewhere that cynics wonder if there really are any specific Welsh values at all. The English language is ubiquitous here nowadays, and so are English people, seeping in as settlers and entrepreneurs into almost every corner of the country their forebears failed to expunge. There have been times when it has seemed, to the Welshest of the Welsh, that everything of theirs was being overwhelmed and obliterated by the Englishâthe bloody Saxon, the Saeson, the eternal enemy.
It is a little like Tibet. Geographically, even historically, Tibet is undeniably part of the Chinese landmass, but its cultural identity is just as undeniably separate, and its people feel their religion, their language, their whole way of life to be threatened by the influx of Han Chinese from the east. Also analogous is what used to be called Palestine. Wales is about the same size as the Holy Land, and in many ways its modern history has not been unlike an ironic cross between the history of the Palestinian Arabs and the history of the Palestinian Jews. On the one hand the Welsh have had to resist, as the Arabs have, the incursion of a more advanced and confident peopleâforeigners to themselves, as the Jews were foreigners to the Arabs. On the other hand they have been fighting to sustain, like the Palestinian Jews, a proud and ancient culture against an unsympathetic majority.
Outsiders have often considered these attitudes mere sophistry. Are not Arabs and Jews equally Semitic, is not Tibet patently part of China, are not the Welsh and the English equally British? Not to the peoples on the ground, they aren't, and in Palestine, in Tibet and in Wales the indigenes have painfully tried to discover ways out of their dilemma. Will cultural autonomy be enough to enable a people to keep its identity, or must there be political autonomy too? Can it be achieved by peaceful politics, or must there inevitably be violence? Nowadays at least the Welsh are not fired by any religious antipathy, like Muslims and Jews confronting each other, but they were once, when the Celtic church of Wales found itself challenged by the Roman Catholic Church of England; and it is no coincidence that in the struggle to maintain their language, the Welsh patriots have borrowed ideas from the saviors of Hebrew.
Many Welsh people look rather Semitic themselves. Englishmen working in the Middle East have told me they often find dealing with Arabs very like dealing with Welshmen, but more often they have been likened to Jews. In fact some Welsh people have seriously believed themselves to be the Lost Tribe of Israel. Long familiarity with the Bible has meant that the map of Wales is spattered with Palestinian names, from Salem to Nazareth to the village of Bethlehem itself, which provides a favorite postmark for Christmas mail. Perhaps the long centuries of suppression, and the consequent sharpening of wits and wiliness, really have similarly affected Welsh and Jews, and made both peoples touchy but unextinguishable.
Certainly many an Old Man of Pencader still answers back, as Old Testament prophets might. The long resistance to the English has continued, sometimes subdued, sometimes raucous, sometimes aimed at complete national independence, sometimes concerned more with linguistics than with politics. On and on the patriots have argued, and although the struggle has never again flared into general violence, nevertheless many a Welshman has gone to prison in the course of it, bombs have exploded and scores of English-owned holiday cottages have been burnt to the ground.
If, by the start of the twenty-first century, passions seem more restrained, fewer patriotic slogans are scrawled on walls, fewer English signs are daubed over in Welshâif on the face of it Welshness now seems less angrily assertive, that is partly because it has won some of its battles. During the second half of the twentieth century the Welsh patriotic movement made itself a genuine force in the State, and its constant pressure forced concessions out of British governments. The Welsh language, under threat for generations, was given official status and backing. New Welsh institutions were founded. Every child in the country learnt at least some Welsh at school. And in 1999 Wales achieved, for the first time in so many centuries, a modest measure of self-government, with an elected National Assembly and a
It was not much, God knows, not enough to stop the patriots going on and on, but it did dampen the fire, presumably what its progenitors in England intended. Welsh activists greeted it with passionate enthusiasm, but by the start of the new century they found themselves in a state of divided uncertainty, not quite sure what to do next: whether to press for more, or consolidate what had already been won; whether to defy all political correctness, and openly struggle to keep the English out, or knuckle down for a time and resume the fight another day.
They may yet lose the last battle, their beloved language may die, their traditions be forgotten. But what they have achieved is remarkable anyway. There are four principal Celtic regions of modern Europe, all enjoying different degrees of sovereignty. Ireland is entirely independent. Scotland is almost independent. Wales is slightly independent. Brittany is not independent at all. All have as their oldest attribute of nationhood an ancient language, and among them all it is the language of Wales, Cymraeg, which is the liveliest and most successfully assertiveâthe legacy of all those generations of patriots who have cherished, defended and developed it down the ages.
Well, you may be saying, but what about that house of yours? Be patient, I am coming to thatâdidn't I say we were long-winded?
The one constant, in this protracted progress of the little nation, has been the Welsh landscape. Sometimes Welsh men and women have felt that it was all they could truly call their own, together with their language. It embraces all categories of territory, pastureland, moorland, bog and river estuary, but its archetypal kind, the kind that is associated always with Wales, the kind that is celebrated in verse and painting, fairy tale and tradition, an allegory in itself of Welshness, is the mountain. It is never called a hill in Wales, and is never more than 3,600 feet high; but its summit is bare, its substance is rocky and in bad weather it can be treacherous. It stands at the heart of the Welsh patriotic self-imageâso long as the mountains stand there, all is not lost. The best known of all Welsh lyrics, by the Victorian railwayman-poet John Ceiriog Hughes, celebrates the reassurance of the mountains:
Aros mae'r mynyddau mawr,
Rhuo trostynt mae y gwynt:
Clywir eto gyda'r wawr
GÃ¢n bugeiliad megis cyntâ¦
The mighty mountains ever stand,
Tireless the winds across them blow;
The shepherds' song across the land
Sounds with the dawn as long agoâ¦
For centuries the mountains offered the Welsh people refuge from the encroaching Power to the east, and thus became emblems of refuge in a wider kind, from all the shocks and temptations of the wicked world. Down the ages arcane tales of prophecy assured the people that their redemption would come from the hills. The Irish poet-patriots, in the days of their oppression, looked for their salvation into the skies, whence a faery-lady, a
who was the incarnation of Ireland itself, would materialize to rescue them from their miseries. Welsh visionaries have always preferred a hole in the rock. Their legendary championsâArthur, Llywelyn Olaf, GlyndÅµrâare not dead at all, but only await a call to arms in caverns in the mountains.
Once, we are told, a Welsh shepherd lad walking across London Bridge was accosted by a man in Welsh, asking him where he had found his hazel staff. On the hill above his farm at home, said he. “Take me there at once,” said the stranger, “and I will show you wonders.” So they hastened back to Wales, and on the hillside where the hazel trees grew the stranger led him to a secret entrance in the ground. In they crept, and there in a great cave they found a prince and all his warriors, sleeping fully armed. “Does Wales need us?” cried the prince, woken by their arrival. “Has the day come?” Not yet, the stranger hushed him, the knights could sleep on; and so the two of them tiptoed away again, and out of the secret door, and into the other world of farm and mere fantasy.
Who was that prince? Perhaps only a generic hero, a wish-hero; or perhaps the poet David Jones got it right:
Does the land await the sleeping lord
Or is the wasted land
that very lord who sleeps?
All the land has its legends, but the mountains are not of equal stature throughout the country; and not altogether by chance, where they are highest and toughest, there the Welsh culture has survived most vigorously, and the language lives with most virility. The most rugged of them, and the most allegorical, are in the northwest of the country. It is as if some divine hand has lifted up the peninsula, and tilting it a little in the direction of northern Ireland, let the tallest highlands slide that way. They are clumped there tightly, jammed together, running away from England, climaxing in the peak called Yr Wyddfa, Snowdon to the English, and declining majestically toward the sea.
This is Eryri, Wales in excelsis, Cymru-issimo, where the meaning, passion and loyalty of the nation is concentrated. The last of the independent Welsh princes found their final strongholds in this severe fastness, and the English found it necessary to ring it with formidable castlesâCaernarfon and Conwy, Harlech and Beaumaris, some of them among Europe's greatest and most famous castles, and all of them terrible symbols of injustice. Today Eryri is sheep-farming, tourist and climbing country, and those grim fortresses are no more than picturesque ruins, but its mountains form a harsh tough nucleus still, and seen on the skyline from a distance, or from a ship at sea, look like a rampart or a secret retreat, where old customs might be cherished, old tales told and old champions reverenced.
Several rivers run out of them. One of the shortest is the Dwyfor, which flows from the western flank of the mountains in seven tumultuous miles into the waters of Cardigan Bay, a great inlet of the Irish Sea. It is a river traditionally rich in salmon, sea trout and eels, its banks bare when it leaves the hillsides, delectably wooded lower down. Around it there is a region of pastureland called Eifionydd, good for cattle and sheep. This is a lovely smiling country, the mountains behind it, the sea in front, the river running freshly through, and it is not surprising that some time in the Middle Ages a Welsh swell, an uchelwr, acquired an estate beside the Dwyfor, built himself a dwelling and doubtless lived out his years in sweet satisfaction. The chances are that he was Collwyn ap Tangno, an almost legendary figure who emerges from the mists in about the year 1100. His house Trefan (pronounced as though it were “Trevan” in English) became one of the best known of the homesteads of Eifionydd, associated with the great families of the day, and with the poets and musicians who were their familiarsâRhys Goch Eryri, one of the greatest of the medieval Welsh lyricists, is said to have supped, played and been inspired at Trefan. We may suppose it to have been a stone-built
of a classic Welsh kind, with its cluster of outbuildings, its yard and its pond and its roof of heavy slate.
The first historical records referring to the place date from 1352, and its devoted historian has traced the fluctuations of its ownership ever since. Down the centuries it frequently changed hands, from Madog ab Ieuan to Gruffudd ap Hywel, from William ab Ieuan ap Rhys ap Tudor to Robert ap John Wynn, by inheritance or by purchase, from one family to another, one generation to the next, until in the eighteenth century it came into the possession of a young Welsh Anglican clergyman, the Reverend Zaccheus Hughes, who was both vicar of the nearest village, Llanystumdwy, and also squire of the estateâwhat the English used to call a squarson.
Zaccheus was a modernist. Welshman that he was, he was a priest of the Established English church, and he had no time for the nonconformist chapel religion that was by then the passion of the people: When the first services were held at a nearby chapel he sent a brass band to play fortissimo outside its windows, to disrupt the heretic devotions. But he was a reformer too. He had doubtless read the works of the English agricultural progressives of the day, and he set out to rejuvenate the Trefan estate. He enlarged it by acquiring land across the river, and he also transformed it. The house itself, that unassuming Welsh manor, he disguised as a posh Georgian villa, by adding new parts much larger than the old, and for the pleasure of his ladies he made a bridle way to connect it with a stone bathhouse upstream, where they could disport themselves in happy privacy while their servants looked after the horses outside. The land he “improved,” as the saying was, by drainage schemes, new walling and a series of riverine water mills. And in 1777 he erected two fine outbuildings, out of sight of the Plas. One was a coach house, for the housing of his doubtless elegant equipage, and on the roof of this he put a wooden cupola, surmounted by a weather vane with English lettering for the compass points, and his proud initials ZH. The other was a stable block, with loose-boxes for the horses downstairs, and living quarters for the stablemen above.
Zaccheus Hughes went to his fathers, and Trefan struggled on through difficult times. It was the setting for a Victorian morality drama when the poor heiress of the estate, a widowed mother, was heartlessly deprived of her inheritance. Jane Jones had married Zaccheus's son John, and had a daughter by him, but her husband died six months later and at nineteen she was left all alone with her baby as owner of the estate. Unfortunately she herself had been born out of wedlock. This was no great sin among most Welsh people in those daysâwe read of a Welsh country gentleman horrifying a visiting English judge, as they drove together to the county Assizes, by telling him cheerfully that both the coachman who was driving them and the footman up behind were his own illegitimate sons. In one way or another, however, illegitimacy was a legal handicap under the English legal systems, and fifteen years after her husband's death relatives by marriage, headed by a Samuel Priestley from Yorkshire in England, disputed Jane's possession of Trefan. They argued that as she was illegitimate, her marriage to John Hughes was illegal by the laws of the day, and that she therefore had no right to the estate. After a long and acidulous lawsuit, while Jane struggled gamely on at Trefan, they won their case. The unhappy widow was dispossessed, and for the first time since the days of the Welsh princes, hard-faced grasping English folkâor so I bitterly imagine themâmoved into the old Plas.
The estate became an object of contumely among the neighboring villagers, Welsh in those days to the last crone or infant, and the Priestley clan was never truly acceptedâthey showed not the slightest interest, remembered one local contemporary, in what was going on in the village, and “did nothing to further the interests of the villagers in any way whatsoever.” As it happened Llanystumdwy was the home of the politician David Lloyd George, presently to become the most radical Prime Minister Britain had ever seen, and one of the most charismatic. He proudly proclaimed himself “a cottage man,” and he was the political scourge of great landowners, so it was no surprise that when, between the two world wars, most of the ancient Welsh estates disintegrated, Trefan should go too. Tenant farmers took over most of the land, and the Plas itself passed from hand to hand until it came, one fortunate day, into mine.
“Your house at last!” No, we're not there yet. I brought up a family in Plas Trefan, but by the 1970s, when the children grew up and went away, my partner Elizabeth and I found ourselves rattling about rather in its tall old rooms. We decided to sell it but to keep for ourselves Zaccheus's 200-year-old outbuildings, behind a bank of trees to the east. We put our Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn of the day into the coach house, where it looked magnificently at home, being of an almost Georgian vintage itself; and we ourselves cleared out the horse stalls, retrieved the bookcases from the big house and moved into the stable block.
It was in a state of semi-dereliction, its yard almost impenetrable with brambles, its slate roof rickety, horseshoes and donkey-shoes lying about in the loose-stalls, and many signs of the bonfires which our children used to enjoy making thereâperhaps in the hope, fortunately unfulfilled, that they could eventually make a bonfire of the whole place. Upstairs there were piles of the grain that the stablemen had used to fatten and invigorate their horses. Owls sometimes swooped among the rafters, and sundry rustlings testified to the presence of rats, mice and bats. However Elizabeth soon planned the adaptation of the old place, and a pair of young brothers from down the road, sometimes helped by their wives, did the necessary construction.
We called the building Trefan Morys, partly after the estate, partly after the Welsh spelling of my surname; and so it wasâI told you to be patient!âthat this modest old structure, built for livestock, became instead a Writer's House in Wales.
At first sight, I'm sure you will agree, it is nothing much to look at. There are lots of such buildings in our part of Walesâsolid old stone-built farm buildings, apparently timeless, built of big rough boulders and roofed with slate from the mountain quarries. Many of them are crumbled now, but many more still shelter cattle, and some have been converted like mine into dwelling places. Whatever their condition, they are impregnated with Welshness. Their very stoniness, their modest strength, their moss-grown stones and wooden doorsâtheir texture, substance and style are all organic to this particular corner of Europe.
Frank Lloyd Wright, of Welsh origins himself, said of his architecture that it was not
the hill, but
the hill. His famously beautiful houses in America, sometimes with Welsh names, do sit among their rocks, deserts and prairies as though they are geological outcrops, and similarly these vernacular buildings of the Welsh countryside, even if they have been given a touch of fastidious grace by a Zaccheus Hughes, still look as though they have sprung out of the Welsh soil, without benefit of architect or laborer. My house has certainly been architect-free, which is why a buttress of hefty boulders we added to one end of it, intended to stop the whole thing falling down, turned out to have misinterpreted the nature of stress, and to stand at the wrong side of the house.
Trefan Morys is embedded in farmland, and since it stands in one of the wettest corners of Europe, its purlieus are sometimes so slobbery and congealed with mud that they suggest to me a battlefield of the First World War. If you don't mind getting your shoes messy, though, you can walk pleasantly to the house from the village of Llanystumdwy by following the Dwyfor upstream, and clambering up a wooded bank. On the other hand to get there by car you must drive up a winding, bumpy, potholed and unsurfaced lane, puddled in winter, dusty as Spain in high summer.
It is June now, so as we take the second alternative a cloud of dust billows behind us, suggesting the djinn-like clouds that pursued Lawrence of Arabia's armored cars across the deserts of Nejd. It is a moot point whether it is wiser to drive carefully up our lane, to spare your shock absorbers the worst of the bumps and the most savage of the holes, or to drive as fast as possible, so as to fly over protrusions and declivities alike without the car noticing them. I belong to the latter school partly because I enjoy a helter-skelter drive, but chiefly because I am always in a hurry to get home. It is accordingly a somewhat shattered or fragmented pleasure for me when I turn the last corner of the lane, always hoping that the exhaust pipe hasn't fallen off, and race up its most uncompromisingly bucolic slope to the house.
It's the one on the left. The one on the right is Zaccheus Hughes's old coach house, now inhabited by my son Twm, a poet in the Welsh language who runs, as a poet should, not a Rolls-Royce Silver Dawn, but a 1959 Morris Minor. On the coach house roof is its original white cupola, with ZH on its weather vane, and the letters of the English compass points. On the left, though, is Trefan Morys, and this now has a cupola too. JM are the initials on
weather vane, andâlook, d'you see?âthe points of the compass below are bilingually Welsh and English: G and D for
, E and W for East and West. This is partly because the Welsh names for East and West also begin with G and D, but it chiefly is a declaration, on my part, of the nature and meaning of my house.
Stop now! Do you smell it? A sweet elemental fragrance, fragile but intoxicating, that hangs upon the air? Nothing could be more fundamental to the place. It is the smell of burning wood, gathered from the woodland that lines the bank down to the river, and it has haunted Trefan always, since the bards entertained the uchelwyr in the stone-flagged halls of antiquity. And now do you hear a steady rushing noise, gently rising and falling? That is the voice of the Dwyfor, tumbling down to the sea just over the ridge there. The Swazi kings are interred in a cavern in the hills of Swaziland which stands similarly above a rushing river, and they say there that when the noise of the stream suddenly seems to fall silent, you will know you have reached the hallowed enclosure. Here I like to fancy it is the other way round, and that when that watery burble reaches your ears, it says you are entering the sanctuary of Trefan Morys. We dump the car, and pass through a pair of tall oak gates into an enclosure beyond.
Until a year or two ago, I must tell you, the gates were more interesting. They were far more ramshackle then, old boards clamped and nailed together with bits of wood, with rusted iron hinges, and splintered patches here and there. The gaps beneath them were so wide that a cat could pass through almost without wriggling, and to keep them closed they had to be propped up with stones. I loved them because they always reminded me of gates on the island of Crete, whose age-old fabrics, repeatedly patched, always seem to me to be sheltering mysterious secrets within. Trefan Morys's gates used to suggest the same, but they had not weathered the Atlantic centuries as well as their Cretan counterparts had defied the Mediterranean, and so they were replaced by gates of oak so solid that they will last a thousand years, and to the annoyance of Ibsen our Norwegian Forest cat, take a bit of squirming under.
Anyway we pass through the gates (noting as we go various anomalous knobs and handles inherited from their predecessorsâI think of them as generational) and we find ourselves in a stone-walled yard. One side of it is filled by the house, built of assorted undressed granite boulders. It is long and low, with one door downstairs, and a second on the second floor, reached by a flight of stone steps dripping with toadflax. The doors are dark blue. There are half a dozen rather churchy-looking windows on this side of the house, and a clutter of gray plastic downpipes which would look anomalous to architectural purists, but strike me as engagingly functional.
At one end the second floor opens onto a deck or terrace, balustraded with slate slabs, planked with wood, and above it all rises my own white wooden cupolaâwell, off-white generally, between paint jobs, and cracking a bit in some places. Long ago I dreamt of settling a colony of storks in it, forever paying honor to my initials above their heads. When I learnt that their wings would have to be pinioned, to prevent them migrating in search of Hans Andersen, I imported instead some fan-tailed doves from England. These turned out to have a strong homing instinct, and promptly flew back to Gloucestershire, so in the end I made do with housing our television aerial inside the woodwork. The weather vane makes a slight grating noise, as the wind revolves it, and I like to fancy the points of the compass rustily replyingâEast West, groan the English ones, Gogledd De, squeak the Welsh pair slyly in reply.
There's a bold iron bell beside the door, embossed with the date 1842. We brought it with us from the big house. In Victorian times it was used to summon the fieldworkers home for their victuals, rather like the slave bells of the American South: now it is meant to be a doorbell, although since it is so stately-looking hardly anybody ever dares to ring it, preferring to knock on the door instead. We'll use it ourselves, though, to tell Elizabeth we're hereâbut no, wait a minute, isn't that the whine of a vacuum cleaner? She is hastily cleaning up for your arrivalâthere have been grandchildren about, and at this time of year Ibsen is inclined to moult his luxuriant northern fur. Elizabeth is the designer of Trefan Morys as it is today, and if for me the building is some kind of symbolical abstraction, for her it is essentially a living machine. Give her a moment, then, wait until the motor winds down, and thenâClang! Clang! Clang! sounds the big bell.
The door is a stable door still, opening in two halves, top and bottom, so that a horse could watch the passing scene through the top part. It now leads directly into the kitchen, which is also the dining room. The dining room indeed! Up at the Plas, in its great medieval days, doubtless the uchelwyr ate grandly enough, but to the stablemen who lived in this house before us I suspect the very notion of an
a dining room, would have seemed grandiose. I'm sure they were splendid drinkers, but anything but gourmets.
Times are changing now, but until very recently most people in this part of Wales, far among the western seas, remote from newfangled ideas of cuisine or even edibility, were never terribly interested in food. Just as the people of Sardinia declined to taste the carrot until the 1950s, so to this day many of my neighbors, living beside waters rich in shellfish, have never eaten an oyster or even a mussel. Within the memory of living people herring was the only fish they would touch. Elsewhere in Wales people subsisted largely on potatoes, and the quarrymen in the mountains ate mostly bread and butter; but for centuries a staple of the rural diet up here was a dish called
âbreak a slice of bread into a bowl, pour boiling water over it, add salt and pepper to taste and serve at once. When they were eating roast peacock and oyster pie in the great hall of Plas Trefan, their stable-serfs were deep into sgotyn, so that the advanced cuisines with which Elizabeth experiments, though thoroughly organic, always seem to me a little anomalous to the house.
Nevertheless, when we open the door the kitchen does look inalienably Welsh, because its floor is of big Welsh slate slabs, and it is dominated by a high Welsh dresser loaded with Welsh crockery. “Ho,” I cry, spotting a book of contemporary Polynesian cookery beside the cooker, “What's this? Bring me sgotyn!” For my own eating preferences are basic too. I like single malt whisky with bully beef, and marmalade with sausages, but in general I hate anything too fancy, whether of cuisine or of dÃ©corâanything to do with gourmetcy or epicureanismâcandlelit dinners, elaborate sauces, fashionable interethnic stuff, sun-dried mushrooms or blackened tuna. Give me sgotyn every time. I boast of having drunk a glass of wine every day since the Second World War, but young and simple wines are the ones I most enjoy, fresh from the vineyards, with none of your vaunted bouquets of leather or of pomegranateâwines, as Evelyn Waugh once wrote of Cretan vintages, “lowly esteemed by connoisseurs.”
Still, the Tahiti chicken in the oven really does smell rather good, there is a bottle of Australian red on the table (no pedantry in this house about white wine with white meat), and after that hair-raising drive up the lane you look as if you might welcome more than a slice of peppered bread in boiling water, so let us sit down on a bench at the table, and have a little lunch.
Ah, hospitality! To my mind it is much better for the giver than for the receiver. I have not dined in anybody else's house for several years, far preferring to eat in restaurants, and I would stay in the scruffiest hotel in Zagazig rather than accept the offer of a room for the night from the dearest of friends (“but believe me, you know us, we'd never bother you, we'd leave you quite alone.”
). Nor am I by nature gregarious, cherishing my privacy and my solitude. But I love welcoming people to Trefan Morys. Sometimes, if I hear strangers walking down the lane outside, I leap out upon them and drag them in for a glass of wine or a cup of tea. It is the duty of a house to be hospitable, and especially a Welsh house, for kindness to visitors was compulsory here long before the days of tourism. There is even a sort of folk-saint of Welsh hospitalityâIfor Hael, Ifor the Generous, who was poetically immortalized for his generosity in the fourteenth century, and is still hazily remembered in houses named Llys Ifor, Ifor's Court, or pubs called the Ifor Arms.
The kitchen has always been the theater of this styleâthe Welsh kitchen, where, as the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins thought in the nineteenth century,
That cordial air made those kind people a hood
All over, as of a bevy of eggs the mothering wing
Will, or mild nights the new morsels of Springâ¦
It was the center of every cottage, where the hearth was, where the children slept in cots beside the fire, where the cat dozed among the sheepdogs and the saucepans hung polished from the wall. A thousand Welsh fables are set in the kitchen. Here the
the Fair People, came knocking at the door disguised as beggars, to reward generous housewives with supernatural favors. Here strange old men crouched in the firelight, telling tales of revenge or recompense. Sinister fairy-harps appeared in the kitchen, driving people mad with their insensate music. And when in the distant past Elen, a young mother, was disobliging to the tylwyth teg, she found her lovely child gradually transmuting, day after day, into a malignant elf, leering at her from its cradle beside the ancestral hearth.
By and large, though, the kitchens of Wales have happy connotations. They were the rooms where families got to know each other, friends met and children grew up from babies to fellow-workers. When Welsh people were far away from home, it was chiefly the kitchen they remembered with fond nostalgia, and when they were old and prolix they talked incessantly of childhood evenings by the kitchen fire. Our kitchen has been a place of children too, and the house is full of their mementos: children who are now men and women, and are represented here by the books they have published, the music they have recorded, the pictures they have drawn or painted, and also children who are children still.
For those grandchildren that Elizabeth was cleaning up after often come here during their holidays. On the wall beside the door there we have penciled a register of their heights, from babyhood to adolescent: from the days when Jess or Sam could scarcely stand to be measured, to the times when Ruben or Angharad were taller than we were ourselves, and no longer worth the recording. We did it always as we said goodbye to them, and I can still remember the mingled hilarity, sadness and anticipation of the occasions: they were amused by the ritual, they were miserable to be going back to school, they were happy to think they would soon be in their own beds at home (and some of the same emotions, I fear, passed through our own minds, as in loving exhaustion we offered their mothers a last cup of tea for the road).