North from Cwmgïedd

July 13, 2019 2 Comments

Some of the solo days out I remember best are the result of fleeing from some ‘unmissable’ public event.  The marriage of Charles Windsor and Diana Spencer on 29 July 1981 was the excuse for a blissful day-long bike ride, from Hereford to Cardiff via the Wye valley, when the lanes were emptied of cars and people and the sun shone without a break.  Last Saturday, to escape from the noise and militarism of the Swansea Air Show, I travelled up Cwm Tawe to Cwmgïedd, near Ystradgynlais.

Cwmgïedd is a village I’d never been to before.  But it already seemed a familiar place, thanks to The silent village, the short film made there by Humphrey Jennings for the Crown Film Unit and the Ministry of Information between September and December 1942. The film is a warning, and a call to resist.  It mirrors the story of the Nazi revenge atrocity of Lidice in Czechoslovakia through a dramatic reconstruction, skilfully made and full of foreboding.  The first part sets the scene: a small mining community, content in its chapel, unionism and Welsh language (Welsh is the language used throughout – an unusual feature of a ‘British’ film of the 1940s).  Then the German occupiers are heard – threatening English voices blaring from a sinister car-mounted loudspeaker and a bakelite wireless set – but seldom seen.  Jennings used many of the inhabitants of Cwmgïedd to act in the film.  In the final scene the children are led away in a crocodile to an uncertain fate. The men of the village, due to be shot by unseen soldiers, line up outside the wall of the chapel cemetery and in chorus sing, defiantly, Hen wlad fy nhadau.

Jennings was directed to Cwmgïedd by Arthur Horner, President of the South Wales Miners’ Federation, and was helped by Dai Dan Evans, the local miners’ leader, who features in the film.  The village appealed to him for the political radicalism of its inhabitants and its physical appearance:

‘… a little straight street that goes up into the hill and on each side – charming beautiful little stone houses and down the middle, parallel to the street, is a mountain stream that comes running down.’

The film gains its power from the grim contrast between the paradisal setting – Jennings romanticises and mythologises the lives of his miners and their families – and the barbaric acts inflicted on its people.

Today Cwmgïedd’s still a small place, just a single narrow road of houses, and the chapel, leading to a dead end.  I walked down to the chapel, Capel Yorath, now closed, and its gated cemetery overlooked by a terrace of stone cottages, and to the bridge over the river.  The water of Afon Gïedd features again and again in Jennings’s film, right from the start, as a symbol of the beauty and continuity of life in the village.  I retraced my steps and followed the road, past a few more houses, to where it becomes a woodland track.  The river, reduced to a small stream by the dry weather, flows to the left, and to the right is Cwm Gïedd Forest, looked after by Natural Resources Wales.  After a mile or two the lane gave out, and a path crossed the river, climbing steeply through trees to a gate at the top of the wood.  Then another gate, and suddenly there I was, on the threshold of a vast emptiness, the Black Mountain.  It was 11:30 in the morning, the weather was ideal for walking – overcast, warm but not hot, a very light breeze, and no danger of rain – and in front of me were dozens of possibilities, stretching for ten or fifteen miles in three directions.

This western part of the Beacons is different from the central and eastern parts, and the best difference is that few people go there.  It’s not easy to understand why.  It’s true that road access is limited, and that there aren’t many spectacular views, except for Bannau Brycheiniog and Bannau Sir Gâr at its northern edge; the hills are rounded by glaciation and shelve gradually into one another, with shallow valleys and rivers.  But the views are incomparable from the highest spots – panoramic in the highest places – and the going is generally easy, at least in rainless weather, when marshy ground dries to a crusty surface.  Bright limestone outcrops break the darkness of the heather and grasses: on the right is a long ridge, variously called Dorwen ar Gïedd, Carreg Goch and Disgwylfa – a jumbled mass of white rocks, peppered with shake holes, conical pits etched into the rock by acid water.

I chose a path running almost exactly due north, parallel to but above the river Gïedd.  On the Black Mountain you can never be entirely certain whether what you’re following is a human path or a sheep track – it was probably easier in the Bronze Age, when this landscape was populated –  but my compass, and the course of the river and the limestone ridge to my right, were good enough guides.  After a few miles the path veered close to the ridge, and I could see my first humans, three figures half way up the slope.  It wasn’t clear whether they were rock climbers or cavers: they appeared and disappeared from view as I passed below them.

At the end of the ridge I passed two more people, a man and a woman eating their lunch.  We exchanged no more than a gruff ‘afternoon’ – probably we were both affronted at meeting anyone else up here, when what we’d hoped for was total solitude.  Soon after, the path reached a T-junction, as the map promised.  The new path took off north-westwards across Carnau Nant Menyn, and in the lee of a low hill I stopped for sandwiches.  Only the two picnickers were in distant sight.  Otherwise I shared this lonely spot with no one but sheep and skylarks.

When the path descended to reach the river Twrch I turned south for the long trek back.  There was no clear path here.  At first I made the mistake of keeping too close to the river, and had to climb to my left to be clear of the boggy stretches, thick reeds and long grasses.  Ahead lay the long ridge of Tyle Garw.  I began climbing, stopped half way up its northern ‘nose’, and looked back.  Below a large peat bog spread itself (is it suffering, I wondered, from the effects of climate warming?).  Past it ran the Twrch, flowing down the distant dip slope leading from Bannau Sir Gâr, invisible in the distance.  (This is the way I took, some year ago, when traversing the Black Mountain from Cwmtwrch to Llanddeusant).  For miles around, the Mountain lay around me, still and dark in its desolation under the thick cloud.

The top of Tyle Garw led to a high rectangular plateau, contained within two long sets of natural limestone ‘walls’.  This is Bwlch y Ddeuwynt, the pass of the two winds, but today there was hardly a breath of a breeze.  In the descent I stayed on a southerly course, with Nant Gwys Fach to my right, but keeping to the higher, drier land above it.  Then, turning east, across country to ford Nant Gwys Fawr (‘gwŷs’ means ‘sow’, to match the boar ‘twrch’), and across another hill to regain the edge of Cwm Gïedd Forest and the head of the wood I started from six hours earlier.

When I got back to the car in Cwmgïedd, an old woman was leaning on her front gate, watching children in the playground opposite.  I said I was sorry for parking right outside her house, and asked her about the village.  It was still Welsh-speaking, she told me, and still a close community.  She herself had taken part in The silent village as a small child, though she had no memory of Humphrey Jennings.  Few who were in the film, she said, are still alive.  It wasn’t the only film shot in the village.   Licyris Olsorts, based on the stories of Dafydd Rowlands, was filmed for television there in the 1990s.  Ed Thomas, the playwright, comes from Cwmgïedd: his father, the village butcher, acted in The silent village

And John Thomas, Baron Thomas of Cwmgïedd, who was Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales from 2013 to 2017, was brought up in the village.  When he retired Emyr Lewis wrote an englyn for him, which payed tribute to ‘the muse of Cwmgïedd’:

yn y drefn o gadw’r hedd – mae yno,
er mwyn cael cydbwysedd,
ran i glorian ac i gledd
ac i awen Cwmgïedd:

awen sy’n rhoi goruwch sŵn rheg – ei le
i lais clir rhesymeg;
yn wyneb ymffrost, gosteg;
uwch rhuo taer, chwarae teg.

in the keeping of peace, there’s a place,
if there’s a balance to be struck,
for the scales and the sword,
and for the muse of Cwmgïedd:

a muse who, above the noisy curses
makes room for reason’s clear voice;
as a match for bragging, quiet englynion;
above the roaring violence, fair play. 

(My translation)

It’s quite a roll call for one double row of small houses.

Comments (2)

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  1. Sian Grainger says:

    I enjoyed reading about your journey through Cwmgiedd. My father was born and grew up in Cwmgiedd and his parents and other relatives were in the film The Silent Village. Licyris Olsorts was filmed in my aunt’s cottage. Many lived in the cottages opposite the graveyard. My dad lived in a house called Tanyralt that was demolished to widen the road and a sharp corner further down the village. My dad became a primary head teacher in Warrington and his father was a miner. Llewelyn T Jones. I used to visit for holidays every Easter and summer from 1959 until 1970. My grandad’s hobby was photography and I have a lot of his black and white photos taken around 1930 to 1940, which he developed in his own darkroom in a shed.

    • Andrew Green says:

      Diolch yn fawr, Siân, am yr atgofion hyfryd hyn. I wonder whether you’re tad-cu’s photos are worth exhibiting?

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