There was a time, as the pressures of urban living became ever more unacceptable and the urge to leave the concrete canyons behind became more urgent, when I would seek the tranquility and solitude offered by the more remote hills and valleys of west Wales. Sometimes, I went alone and sometimes, despite the need for solitude, I invited friends along. There is no contradiction in that for solitude has as much to do with attitude as it does with being alone. It has a great deal to do with place and with finding the opportunity to be rid, if only for a short while, of the draining commonplace of existence.
I am quite prepared to admit that things are likely to be very different for those who live in that part of the world all year round. The casual or rather occasional visitor, however, is allowed to consider a set of values which have nothing to do with a multiple choice consumer society. The values engendered are the very antithesis of those which that society holds so dear. They place a great emphasis upon deep contemplation, on fulfillment of the creative urge however that may manifest itself and the importance of re-establishing contact with the natural world.
I stayed in a house which was owned by a cousin of mine as a second home. In style, it was not unlike those sturdy villas, built for the burgeoning Victorian and Edwardian middle class, which may still be found in London’s leafier suburbs. The view from the front of the house, however, was not of respectable suburbia but of grazing pastures falling away steeply to a stream which meandered, fairly inaccessibly, through bracken and other coarse vegetation. On the other side of the stream, fields rose sharply to a treeless skyline which was almost but not quite level. Flocks of giant crows squabbled with the continual breeze and, every so often, the plaintive cry of a buzzard could be heard as it searched above the fields for its next meal. The fields were the domain of grazing sheep who kept amiable company with their bovine partners in the food production industry which we used to call farming.
The plot on which the property stood was roughly triangular in shape. There was a barn in one corner which was big enough to convert to a four bedroom, 2 bathroom townhouse whilst flowerbeds and lawns faced two sides of the house. To the rear was a row of conifers which separated everything from an adjoining pasture. Somewhat unusually given an elevation above sea level in excess of 1100 feet, there was a small copse of broad leafed trees as well which filled one corner of the garden completely. The other boundaries to the property were defined by dry stone walls, one of which separated the lawns from a 7 feet drop to what was the original vehicular access to the house but which is now little more than an overgrown footpath.
Early in May 1986, after an uneventful drive down a very boring motorway, it was quite dark as I turned off the road from Carmarthen, at a place called Nantgaredig, for the climb into the hills. It didn’t matter to me that it was dark for the countryside through which I was passing was so familiar. The car was climbing passed the richly verdant, tree-lined pastures and vast acres of Forestry Commission conifer plantations which lined the road and covered those eternal hills. That particular evening, as I neared my destination, on occasion, a single light from an isolated dwelling pierced the darkness, just to let me know that I was not entirely alone. Above my head, I could make out broken cloud scudding across a sky suffused with a pale yellow light – the moon was rising. At one point, I stopped the car; turned off the engine and all the lights. The sky had disappeared under a canopy of trees and a dark silence enveloped me like a thick woollen blanket. A feeling of utter peace descended and urban living was a world away.
It was nearly midnight when I reached my destination. I pulled up in front of Lletty Villa which lay over the brow of a hill and surrounded by trees. As I got out of the car, I looked up and the effect was awe inspiring. All the clouds had vanished and the sky was awash with stars. I could see the Milky Way stretching as a pale band across the heavens. The moon was full and cast an unearthly cold white light which was filtered by the surrounding trees and shone so brightly that it burned out the stars within its immediate vicinity. Elsewhere, they shone through like millions of pinpricks in a velvet cloth of royal purple. All about me was utter silence broken occasionally by the hooting of an owl or the rustling of some hedgerow creature on its nocturnal ramblings.
Although I was quite weary after a 5 hour drive, the last thing I wanted to do was to go to bed. It was almost as if sleep would destroy a moment for which I had waited over 12 months to savour. Therefore, after I had unloaded the car, I armed myself with a flask of very strong coffee. Retreating to the conservatory, I lit the wood burning stove, picked up good book from the library and settled down on one of the long rattan settees to wait for the break of a new day, Despite my best efforts, however, tiredness overcame me and I drifted off into a deep sleep. Some hours had passed when I woke with a start. For a moment, I wondered where I was. I sat up and looked out of the window at a sky which was lightening to the East. My watch told me that it was just after 5am.
Once I had woken properly, I finished of the still hot coffee and searched for a pair of Wellington boots. I found a pair in the large utilities room, picked up a strong walking stick and stole outside – quietly as if not to disturb the sleeping house. Minutes later, I was standing on the moorland at the top of the rutted track which gave vehicular access to the property. I had the world at my feet and I was completely alone. All about me was silent except for the hungry before-dawn call of a lamb and the answering bleat of its mother. Even the birds were still so, evidently, the dawn chorus which plagued my early town mornings, was a lowland event.
Imperceptibly slowly, shapes which had been of the most ethereal kind against the darker folds of the night, began to assume substance, depth and colour as the sky lightened. And what a sky! It was expansive enough to daunt the strongest heart, humble even the most arrogant among us and reinforce our place in the order of things. I felt very small and unimportant as I stood, surrounded by moorland pasture. Dotted, here and there, were strangely stunted trees, misshapen by the ever present winds.. Even though I knew that man had laid his hand on that moorland, everything seemed untouched. The very altitude leant a distorted scale to the lines of hills which marched away into a mist shrouded early morning and to the conifer clad valleys which showed up as darker lesions. There was something very primal about it all – something from which the habitual town dweller will be forever excluded, bounded as his horizons are by artificial structures.
Although the view was a familiar one, each time I saw it, I was transfixed before the raw power of the natural world. For over an hour that morning, I had only my thoughts for company but then, the noise of an internal combustion engine shattered the quiet. I could see nothing for a while until the familiar shape and colour of a Royal Mail delivery van came into sight. It stopped in front of me and the driver wound down his window. Speaking in Welsh, he asked me what I was doing on the moors at such an hour. I looked puzzled and he repeated himself in English. When I told him where I was staying, he relaxed and told me about a very real local problem – sheep rustling. We chatted for a while and I promised to keep my eyes open for anything the slightest bit suspicious. He drove away with a toot on his horn after wishing me a good stay. I waved at the retreating van.
Shortly after that encounter, the sun, after threatening to do so for over half an hour, finally broke over the horizon. It shot laser-like shafts of light which seemed to burn through the morning mist and pick out the landscape in sharp relief. A good augury for the first day of my short break.
It was the arrival of the sun which prompted me to continue my walk. An hour and a half after setting out, I found myself at the top of the sharply inclined field opposite the house on the other side of the stream. I had walked in a big circle and not seen another living soul. I had watched lambs gamboling in the fields and seen a herd of moorland ponies; listened to the cries of two buzzards as they circled high above my head and, as I approached the house, I heard the babbling of running water in the little stream.
Once back inside the house, the warmth from the conservatory stove which I had banked up before setting out on my walk, got the better of me and, curling up on the settee, I slept until midday. When I did awake, it was to a gloriously sunny day and I decided that, after a brunch, I would drive off my mountain and find the road to a large reservoir called Llynne Brianne.
As if the dawn sky had not been enough, that drive was also a humbling experience. The hills dwarfed everything but each other. Above a certain height, vegetation, other than heather and the hardier grasses, was sparse. As on the moors near the house, though, strange looking trees and shrubs eked out an existence on the rocky soil. Bubbling streams of ice cold water, very clear and sweet tasting, cascaded over giant boulders which long forgotten landslides had brought crashing’ to a new resting place. Sheep, which out number human beings by some considerable percentage, cling to the often precipitous slopes and, high above the hills, buzzards floated on the upcurrents. Lower down; smaller birds darted here and there for their next meal. The occasional rabbit skittered across the road in front of the car and I was lucky enough to see that rarest of birds of prey – the Red Kite, only found in west Wales until quite recently. Now I understand that there is a determination to reintroduce this beautiful creature to the wilds elsewhere. I hope it is successful. A hundred years ago, it was a city dweller but it was driven out by people, almost to the point of extinction. At the last count, there were fewer than 60 breeding pairs.
The reservoir was impressive. It was built in 1972 and, although it lies at 1600 ft above sea level, it had every appearance of a Scandinavian Fjord. The dam itself is an earthwork construction over a concrete core. A concrete bridge had been slung over a frighteningly steep flood channel and, from a pumping house, in front of the dam and on the valley floor, a flume of water reached a height of over 70 feet. I wanted to be nearer so as to gain a better impression and scrambled down a scree slope to stand within a few feet of that giant fountain. It is hard to describe just how mesmerising was the power and force of that water. The noise was deafening.
The shadows were already lengthening when I reached the reservoir and, by the time, I had climbed back up to the top of the dam, dusk was well advanced. The sun had sunk below the rim of the now silhouetted hills and the sky was a riot of colour from deep red to yellow and blue. I determined to drive the twelve mile road right around the reservoir and return to the house by way of a small town called Tregaron. It was a longer way home but who cared! An incurable romantic like me could have wanted far little else at that moment. I played a cassette of Haydn’s Creation – an entirely fitting choice in view of the feeling of antiquity which surrounded me.
Once I had left the reservoir road behind, in the valleys, dusk gave way quickly to a deeper darkness. Over the moors, where the horizons are wider, all that remained of the day was a glow which continued to colour the evening sky a deep red against the slow build up of night clouds. That evening, as I wrote up my diary, I wished that I might stay forever.
All too soon it was Sunday morning and almost time for me to Ieave. There were many more places and things which I wish I had the time to visit. The Gwili Railway near Carmarthen, for example, or Laugharne where that master of the written word, Dylan Thomas is buried or Pendine Sands where the World Land Speed records were set during the 1920s and 1930s. However, they would have to wait for another time.
Instead, I went for a walk and a last look at the hills and clefted valleys. The haze which had persisted since my arrival had gone and I knew that I could see forever. When the time came to leave, I did not say goodbye to that haven of peace and tranquility but rather I bade adieu. I knew that I would return – not to that house, for it has since been sold, but, most certainly, to those eternal hills.
I have made many trips to Lletty Villa – too numerous to mention individually – over the past 35 years. This piece will, therefore, have to act as an amalgam for all those trips not all of which were made by me alone. Several big family Christmasses were spent staying warm under the unhurried benizen of snow, in from of crackling log fires