A Local Habitation and a Name
Banc Sion Cwilt - Gillian Clarke's Journal
by Gillian Clarke
‘Houses we’ve lived in
And history’s restless
In the rooms of the mind’ 1
Propped on a shelf in the old beudy at Blaen Cwrt is Ordnance Survey Sheet XXXII SW printed in 1953. Where the manger used to be, in a corner redolent of hay and the grassy breath of Marged's milking cow, the word processor is neatly stowed, as pleasing a solution as a good metaphor. In those days the doorway was open to the wind and the rain, its comers rounded to let the cow pass smoothly to her stall. Today, instead of the doorway, a three-casement window looks over rain-washed cobbles that sixty years ago were sluiced with buckets of well-water veined blue with milk.
The view leads east down a garden that was once yard, stack yard, sty, orchard and kitchen garden, through sycamore and ash trees and an encircling hedge of laburnum. It's said the glorious hedges of tresi aur, the golden chain that grows wild in this part of Cardiganshire, first rooted from fencing stakes peddled by a travelling salesman before the first world war. Beyond the hedge, fields fall to the Glowan that flows into the Clettwr and on into the Teifi, the Irish Sea and the Atlantic. A tributary of the Glowan rises in this garden - source, blaen - to be swollen a field away by Ffynnon y Milgwn. Whatever hounds met once by that fierce spring named after them it is impossible to pass it now without hearing their bloody cries. The stream flows south down a narrow valley in two strands, one either side of the bank that divides the slopes of Fron Blaen Cwrt from Allt Maen's steep wood. The strands unite under the bridge and find a name: the Bwdram, llymru, weak flummery, a sweet whisking of eggs, milk and sugar.
The land framed by the map was surveyed in 1887, revised in 1904. Set just below the 900 feet contour line, Blaen Cwrt is a tiny rectangle in the fork of two lanes on the boundaries of Fron Felen and Allt Maen. It's a typical Cardiganshire longhouse - beudy, barn, two rooms, a croglofft and a dairy - built into the high bank two centuries ago, its rear wall hidden under overgrown laburnum, rowan and blackthorn, crammed into the north-west comer of its 18 acres. The two small windows of the house squint eastwards, alert for arrows of rain and wind in the suspicious way of hill farms. Behind, to the west, Allt Ddu rises to a thousand feet. On rare, ice-clear days, the peaks of Pumlumon, Cader Idris and Snowdon can be seen to the north from the lane behind the house, and the long finger of Llyn almost touching the island of Enlli like Michaelangelo's Adam reaching for the finger of God. This is the high land of Banc Siôn Cwilt, smuggler's country. In the eighteenth century Siôn, his coat patched like a quilt, (cwilt) stowed his contraband in sea caves along the coast six miles away. Twenty years ago I saw his ghost. From the cliffs above Cwmtydu I watched a small boat chug ashore. Two men stepped out of a parked car. There was a transaction, a passing of money.
Other ghosts have left their traces and their names. Some are benign, lost habitations with only nettles and gooseberry bushes to show they were there: Ysgol Pwll-y-Pwdel, the old school by the Glowan; Cae Gwreichion, the field of sparks where the plough still turns ashes and horse-shoes from the black soil of a long-vanished forge; harp-shaped Cae Delyn. And Marged, Blaen Cwrt's last long-term inhabitant, who took her own life one winter in the thirties; Mamgu, my grandmother-in-Law, who walked with Marged past the old school, up the lane, past Blaen Cwrt and over Allt Ddu to the Capel Cynon fair a hundred years ago, wearing, she told me on her hundredth birthday, her best button boots.
Thomas Jacob Thomas, the poet 'Sarnicol', (1873-1945), born and brought up a mile away, often passed this way, taking the' heol gul garegog', then a narrow stony track from Post Bach through the farm yard at Blaen Glowan Fawr. One such morning the yard is empty. Where, he wonders, is Bensia, a giant of a man so strong he could catch a bull by the horns and throw it on its back. Minutes later he sees no sign of Pegi in the' ‘clos' at Blaen Cwrt. Is Pegi the young Marged? He does not see me, either, though I can see him. Another day he stops to help Benni Blaen Cwrt break a pile of stones picked from the fields to sell as hardcore to the road-makers. Benni advises the poet to stick to his books so that he won't have to break stones when he's sixty. Benni's daughter Nani, grieving with 'gweddwdod anobeithiol', despairing widowhood, is tending the pig in the yard. She asks the poet when he's going to get a wife. These things happened here, outside this very window. Still, sometimes, we dig from the dark soil, along with rusty chains, horse shoes, fragments of earthenware and the bright, hopeless splinters of Nani's china, the crescent moon of a pig's jawbone.
A quarter of a mile past Blaen Cwrt the poet descends Rhiw Amwisg to the cross roads near his birthplace, Sarnicol, from which he took his bardic name. Half way down Rhiw Amwisg is a little quarry full of bluebells in late spring and rose-bay willowherb in summer. You hurry by because it's a blind bend and the banks are high and steep, because of its name, Hill of the Shroud, because of restless history, and because they say a man is buried there. Once, on a day of sudden spring, I saw a glistening cloud of insects on Rhiw Amwisg, airy nothings shaking out luminous wings in the warmth. The name takes into itself another defining association: a swarm of sunlight. People tell of a mysterious highwayman who robbed travellers on that road, the 'amwisg' a cloak that entirely enveloped him. No one had ever seen his face, and suspicion fell on a man who suffered a disfiguring and fatal skin disease. It was never proved. An elderly neighbour, a poet now dead, once told me her grandfather was killed by a highwayman. Her story troubles the imagination.
Turn left at the Samicol cross roads by the slate plaque engraved with a few lines of the poet's verse and set in the wall on the centenary of his birth.
'A dôf yn ô1 i'r dawel fan
O bedwar ban y byd’ 2
Home to this quiet place from the four corners of the world: colliers from the South Wales valleys home for the week-end; sailors disembarking at Cardiff, Fishguard, Liverpool; soldiers on the Great Western Railway. Now the exiles come home on the M4 and the A486, or on a Great Western train from Paddington.
This lane leads everywhere. It treads unbroken to the horn of Africa, and crosses eleven time zones to the shores of the Pacific. It changes its name as it travels. Motorway. Autoroute. Silk road. First it leads down hill past Allt Maen to the bridge over the Bwdram where the unseen otter leaves its spores. I leave the lane, climb up through larches to the gorse slopes where adders lie in summer, through the hanging oak wood where badgers have built a city, and where, for three weeks in late spring there will be nothing under the trees or on my mind but the scent and flooding colour of bluebells. Miles away Llanllwni mountain shines with snow. Far below is wet land, site of special scientific interest, breeding ground of the Marsh Fritillary butterfly. Down there the pingo hole is blue as sky, a pocket of glacial water left from the last Ice Age 18,000 years ago, now easing again from its cage of ice.
A red kite circles the wood. For a month of frost and stars the bam owl has held us with her cold mythological cry. Now is the kite's turn. His yellow eye burns a point on the land's map until it smoulders in sunlight.
The sheep follow us, hungry. We will bring them hay cut from the fields Benni, Nani, Marged and their forefathers and foremothers cut before us. We have planted trees, restored hedges, levelled a few lumps of their bit of old Wales, made a small lake for dragonflies and swallows, raised a new barn for the hay, the tractor, and the coming lambs, and settled into the old one with our books, computers and comforts. In the manger comer words skitter on the screen's ice.
'Mynd at dy lyfre heddi '3, 'Stick to your books now,' Benni urges a poet who wants to avoid breaking stones,
'And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen
Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.’ 4
1 from 'Cofiant', Letting in the Rumour, 1989 Gillian Clarke (Carcanet)
2 Thomas Jacob Thomas, 'Sarnicol'.
3 Ar Fanc Sion Cwilt, Detholiad 0 Ysgrifau Sarnicol, edited by Tysyl Jones
4 A Midsummer Nights Dream. Shakespeare