Mr Bebb’s dislike of the motor car

June 3, 2022 3 Comments
Ambrose Bebb

Not many people these days have heard of Ambrose Bebb.  Maybe some Welsh speakers, especially following Robin Chapman’s 1997 biography, but very few others.  His son Dewi Bebb, the rugby player, and his grandson Guto Bebb, the former MP, are probably much better known.  In the interwar period, though, Ambrose Bebb was known for his politics – he was a founder-member, with Saunders Lewis, of Plaid Genedlaethol Cymru, as Plaid Cymru was known in 1925 – and as a prolific Welsh-language writer. 

From today’s perspective Bebb’s politics look unattractive.  He had spent some years in France and became an enthusiastic Francophile – but also a supporter of Charles Maurras and his Action Française, a reactionary nationalist and pro-monarchist movement attracted to the fascist governments of Italy and Germany.  Only very late did he realise that Hitler had to be resisted.  After the Second World War his religiosity became even more extreme, replacing politics as his central belief.  To today’s Plaid Cymru members, mainly left-wing and secular, Ambrose Bebb may be something of an embarrassment.

Capel Beulah (photo: Jeremy Bolwell)

He wrote a series of books on Welsh history, which Thomas Parry thought were interesting for their unusual use of Welsh-language literary sources.  They are now forgotten, and unlikely to be revived.  But Bebb also wrote in other genres, and his travel writings, mainly about Brittany and other parts of Europe, have always been admired for their close observation and vivid style.

You get a taste of his travel-writing style in a talk he gave on BBC radio on 8 August 1936 entitled ‘Y cerddwr a’r ffordd’ (the walker and the road).  The text of it was reproduced in the magazine Heddiw the following month.  Bebb’s subject, the virtues of walking, may have been stimulated by reading Y ffordd yng Nghymru (1933), a book by the historian R.T. Jenkins, which soon became a classic as a pocket children’s introduction to the history of Wales.

Neinthirion (photo: Jeremy Bolwell)

Bebb begins conventionally enough, with a Jenkins-like list of saints, knights, pilgrims and other historical groups who travelled along the roads of Wales, before arriving at his main proposition, that walking is the only proper way of following a road, and that only the walker has a true ‘licence’ to appreciate their varied charms.  ‘Cerdded yw byw’ (to walk is to live), he says.  He takes a hard line on other forms of transport.  Motorists, ‘feeble idlers’, are in danger of losing their limbs through disuse.  He himself once cycled and drove, but, like a religious convert, he grew to see that the freedom, energy and adventure of the walker was to be preferred to the ‘tottering laziness’ of the biker or the obesity of the motorist, both watching sudden death staring them in the face on every corner and turn of the road.  (Bebb overlooks the fact that pedestrians too were prone to accidents in the 1930s, when road fatalities were alarmingly high.)

The word ‘cerdded’, Bebb says, carries several specialist meanings in Welsh.  For many in Cardiganshire, where he grew up, ‘cerdded’ or ‘gered’ in the vernacular, meant the necessity to travel far from home on foot to find work, in the south, in London or even further away.  Another synonym is simply to see (‘cerdded yw gweled’):

To see flowers and twigs, nests and eggs, cascades and waterfalls, gorse and whinberries, blackberries and raspberries, sun and moon, haystacks and wheatsheaves, heat-haze of banks and cobwebs and marshes, peat cutters and sheep shearers, corn stackers and reapers, wet cotton-grass, sphagnum moss, hidden valleys, high peaks, the whole astonishing life of the open air and its natural and human inhabitants – all of this invisible to those trotting along on a bike or galloping frivolously in a car.

Dolau-ceimion (photo: Dave Kelly)

For Bebb, walking, you’ll notice, is a fundamentally rural activity.  More than that, he’s moving through country – deep rural country – that, in its land uses and agricultural practices, is apparently ancient and unchanging, the quintessence of the traditional Wales.  This may be fantasy in the late 1930s, after nearly two decades of economic depression and depopulation in most rural areas.  It’s interesting, though, that Bebb implies that few parts of rural Wales are now free from the car and the motor-bike.  He cites three areas still wholly safe for the walker to tread the roads in peace.  The last, Cwm Nant yr Eira, provokes an extended hymn to everything that’s good about walking through a Welsh valley in summer.  It recalls the classic book Cartrefi Cymru (Welsh homes), in which O.M. Edwards embeds his treatment of his chosen houses in first-person walking narratives (Bebb mentions this earlier in his talk).

There’s no main road, no road, here, nothing but sheep tracks over quagmires, and the false paths leading from bog to bog.  Only once did I walk up through this lovely valley.  I heard about it many times, and about the warmth of its inhabitants with their unmistakable accents.  So much so that the name of the valley got such an alluring grip on me that it wouldn’t let me be.  I had to walk it from end to end, from Llangadfan to Llanbrynmair.

That summer really was a summer, and even by September even the bottom of Cwm Nant yr Eira was miraculouly dry.  I had a friend to take me along the valley and put names to its farms.  After he turned back, I stood and stared – and stared and stared.  The line of a small river in the bottom, a ribbon of dust that was the road and little Capel Beulah somewhere between them.  Dark moors of grass and rushes – with a few remote farms hidden within them – rising up slowly on each side to form closed flanks to the valley, to envelop it, to set it apart from every other part of the world, near and far.

That was the valley I saw before me.  I walked from one end to the other.  I often left the road, taking short cuts across fields.  I called at some of the farms.  They gave me a princely welcome and set me back on the path, which wound its way in circles towards a peat bank pool and river bed, tempting me to leave it and find the right way through the coarse moor-grasses.  After a while I drew near to the top of the valley and approached the gap that opens the way down to the Old Chapel and the whole district of Llanbrynmair.  By now the evening, fiery red, had begun to lift up layers of mist, and, enveloped in that damp whiteness, I ended my walk.

By then I’d had a heavenly time in the valley, rowing and swimming in that alien, pathless expanse – the experience, both rich and terrible, of the lonely explorer in unknown territory.  

(My translation)

Dolwen (photo: Neville Goodman)

These words were broadcast 86 years ago, but they still ring true and well today.  In August two years ago I travelled by car south from Llangadfan along Cwm Nant yr Eira – and Ambrose Bebb is right: all I remember is a general feeling of deep, green countryside.  The only way to gain any sense of the particularities of place in the valley, to see it as ‘apart from any other part of the world’, would be to walk it.  I notice that Glyndŵr’s Way passes through the area: time to get out the maps and start planning, maybe.

If Bebb was hard-pressed in 1936 to name but a handful of places in Wales that were safe from the car, he would be horrified if he returned today and could see how much more the whole country suffers from the effects of car culture.  In rural areas public focus tends to be on tourist honeypots like Yr Wyddfa and Pen-y-fan, but most roads are dangerous places for walkers, and there are few places left where the walker can walk alone without some kind of intrusion.

Comments (3)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. sioned says:

    l am named after his daughter, Sioned!

  2. Sian Evans says:

    Our evolutionary history as bipeds is not irrelevant here. See Jeremy DeSilva’s First Steps. Would there be the same appreciation of landscapes if humans were quadrupeds? Darwin might weigh in here, though at the time that he was weighing the questions that our planet’s natural beauty had posed, he, I think, still firmly believed in a God and a creator.

Leave a Reply