Strictly speaking Wales is the land of my mother and her family – the land of my father and his family is Germany, but living in Wales until I was 18, and being born and brought up there, it will always be home to me, and on this, St David’s day, it is the land of my birth which I want to celebrate – the hiraeth is on me. There is no English equivalence – the best you can get to is homesickness tinged with regret and some bitterness. It takes me to the slate-grey mountain-side and the winding, scrabbly footpath, which the sheep take with sure feet, and if hadn’t had my shepherd’s crook, I could hardly have taken at all; my Daddy made it for me so that I could go out with him. The rain would come at us horizontally sometimes, and I was thankful for the oilskin waterproofs and my sou’wester, and like the page in the carol, I followed in his footprints, with his bulk protecting me to some extent from the wind.
We’d walk – well lean into the wind and let our feet move forward really – the circuitous route to the top pasture; when he was not burdened with his little daughter, Daddy would stride up the green path – taking the side of the mountain full on with his thick boots and gnarled and scarred shepherd’s crook. Then there we were, the mobile shepherd’s hut, and suddenly, no wind and no rain; he’d light the little stove, brew us some tea, pour me one and then plunge back out himself, coming back only when he was content that all was well – the flock was numbered, counted and, if it was safe, then I could come out and help. Child-birth held no mystery for me, as from the age of 8 I was allowed to help with the lambing, the slippery little baby lamb struggling out and then tottering about – and I had to be persuaded not to pick each one up and treat it as my baby – the ewes are protective of their babies, and you get to know what you can and can’t do with them. But sitting there with the mother and the new born baby, and my Daddy wiping himself off, I felt at the centre of life. When I first encountered RS Thomas, I recognised his vision immediately:
To live in Wales is to be conscious
At dusk of the spilled blood
That went into the making of the wild sky,
Dyeing the immaculate rivers
In all their courses.
Sometime, on Sundays, after church, I’d walk the hills, going up to the old Bethel chapel half way up where the miners had worshipped until the 1970s. Now a mournful and empty sight, I would go in there and try to make it feel better by praying there. But I couldn’t help feeling the weight of what RS Thomas wrote about the ‘Welsh Landscape’:
There is no present in Wales,
And no future;
There is only the past,
Brittle with relics,
Wind-bitten towers and castles
With sham ghosts;
Mouldering quarries and mines;
And an impotent people,
Sick with inbreeding,
Worrying the carcass of an old song.
If we went into town for the weekly market, you’d see men just talking, their livelihoods gone, their hope gone, and only the chapel there to provide something beyond the simple act of getting through a pointless week to another such as part of an endless cycle, broken only by the signing on for the dole and the rugby. Even as a little girl I was angry on their behalf – a way of life was slipping away, whole communities with nothing to hope for – except a Wales victory on Saturday.
There were, everywhere, the signs of the evangelical revival of the early twentieth century, but that sea of faith was ebbing – hence the empty chapels, the more accessible ones bought up by incomers. I asked Daddy once whether we were incomers, “Hoff” wasn’t exactly a good Welsh name, and he said he might be, but the Jones (my mother’s family) had tended sheep in these parts time beyond memory. And now they do no more – but the land of my Mother calls to me, whispering of lost enchantments and ties of blood and history. So, on this St David’s day I say proudly ‘cymru am byth’ – (Wales for ever) but am conscious that ‘Nid oes dim yn parhau am byth’ (nothing is forever) – at least in this mortal life. Oh but my spirit longs to see the mountains again, and I weary of these flat, tame, English fields which surround me – and I would be, once again, in those wild places, where only the kites and the sheep live – to breath, once more, that clear mountain air and to see the narrow skies dominated by mountain peaks. One day.