A Voice Leads through Space

A voice leads through space, connecting what we have left to what we become

The narrow lane from Llanrhaeadr to the waterfall. The slopes of Glan Hafon one side, Moel Hen Fache the other. White noise spreads over the car radio as the sides of the cwm get steeper. The sound of the Afon Rhaeadr, flowing fast over the rocks below.

Forking off the lane is a track which, so I’m told, is the old drovers’ road from Oswestry to Bala. Y Bala i Groesoswallt. About twenty-five miles separates the two towns, where Welsh Eryri/Snowdonia and English Shropshire/Sîr Amwythig reach towards each other. The Welsh language remains here, uniquely so for eastern Wales, in the Ceiriog, Tanat, Cain and Efyrnwy valleys, up to and even blurring across the border. As though the uneven topography gives language something to adhere to, like sheep’s wool caught on barbed wire.

Between the two towns, above the valleys, the biggest feature in the landscape is the Berwyn Mountains. (Berwyn: from bar for summit and gwyn for white.) My Uncle describes them as the first high ground in the area to receive a snowfall in the winter, and remembers taking his kids to admire a particularly deep covering once – how they met a group of hardcore ramblers kitted out for the Arctic, while they were wearing jeans and trainers. At the opposite end of the year, my Granddad used to bring his bees up in August, so they could get the pollen from the heather. He was a coal miner. I like to think he would have enjoyed the fresh, clean air.

My Mum used to go there [to Capel Seion, the Welsh chapel in Oswestry]. Her Welsh had dropped, because living in Oswestry, unless you keep it up, y’know. She understood quite a bit, but she couldn’t hold a conversation fluently. Her family was Llandderfel. That’s near Bala. You go through Llandderfel to get to Bala. She had an Auntie who lived there, who was how I thought of the older Welsh women in those days. Very severe, very serious. Very frightening, almost, in my eyes as a child. All the old women who went to this chapel were the same.

I don’t know how old I was when I started going. Probably when I was old enough to go to Sunday school. About 5. We’d have classes. 1945, 46, 47. All in Welsh. I don’t think any of us understood. I don’t know what we were doing. Reading the bible, learning religious rhymes, psalms. [Recites part of the Lord’s Prayer in Welsh, the syllables blurring together slightly]. I don’t remember it so much now, but I used to be able to rattle it off, right the way though.

I park the car and walk up past the waterfall, Pistyll Rhaeadr, catching glimpses of white water through the trees, where Dewi Wyn wrote his englyn describing “Edrych arno’n disgyn, Crochwaedd y rhedlif crychwyn” – looking at the fall of the roaring, foaming current. I follow a path away into the mountains, along the little valley of the Nant-Y-Llyn. Looking up to the drovers’ road, it is a line cut into the bare slope.

I follow a path away into the mountains.

The valley funnels into a complex of drystone walls, and I walk through them, thinking the two paths will meet further ahead. But I come to a dead end and realise I’ve walked into a sheepfold. I have no idea how old it might be. Galvanised metal gates and nylon twine augment the stone walling, but as a structure appropriating naturally useful contours of the land, it could go way back. Two people high above, who I can hear before I can see, the valley acoustics making their voices sound closer than they are, I wonder whether they see my inadvertent self-shepherding. I retrace my steps back through the walls and climb the slope, heart thumping.

The chapel had a choir, what they called a choir. And they picked out the best singers, who could read music, and they always read from tonic-so-fa. They’d practice almost all year round building up to the Cymanfa Ganu, which was always the first Sunday in May. At Seion. And the choir took up almost half the chapel. There was some good singers. They were a crowd of people… I remember all these names, y’know… The wives were in the choir, the husbands were in the choir. And they used to practice and practice these hymns. All in Welsh. They always had a guest conductor who would come from away to conduct on the day of the Cymanfa. And they had an afternoon one, which I always used to go to, to listen. And it was packed. The word got around, the whole chapel was packed. And for the evening, mainly for the evening, they used to have to put seating outside. It was absolutely packed. The singing was amazing, it really was.

Both the drovers’ road and the nant fade into boggy ground, higher up. Rhos-Y-Beddau, the moor of the graves. Named, perhaps, for Bronze Age monuments preserved nearby, or for people or animals drowned in the blanket bog. Water seeps into my boots as ahead of me the central ridge of the Berwyns walls up any views of the country beyond. Moel Sych, the dry hill; Cadair Berwyn, the chair of Berwyn, the two highest peaks, two of the highest mountains in north Wales outside of Snowdonia. Cadair Berwyn, in legend, is the seat of Cawr Berwyn, a giant associated with various features in the landscape locally. Three boulders at the base of Pistyll Rhaeadr were said to have been dropped by him, his wife and their maid. Baich Y Cawr, Baich Y Cawres, Ffedogaid y Forwyn. Giant’s Burden, Giantess’s Burden, Maid’s Apron-full.

Sheltered under the ridge, still and rounded like a large pond, is Llyn Lluncaws. The name is a puzzle to my un-fluent Welsh. Llun means picture, or image, caws means cheese, but the combined signification is as opaque to me as the water. My Uncle calls it The Blue Lake, though whenever I have seen it, the water has been dark brown or black. It cannot be deep. The stems of aquatic plants break the surface right across the middle. I sit down to eat my lunch, and think about wading in.

The sound just sailed over, y’know.

The little chapels didn’t have a big enough congregation, but they liked to have their Cymanfa Ganu’s. So after we’d had ours, I think it was, we’d have this bus the following Sundays, to go to perhaps Cefn Canol, Llansilin… all those little Welsh villages in the vicinity. And the one place I remember where we used to have our picnic, we used to go up like a mountain, it was called the Rallt [possibly Gallt Y Wrach, Witch’s Hill, in the eastern foothills of the Berwyns].We’d have our picnic up there, and then we’d come back down for the evening service, and the same thing would happen with the choir. I was quite young then. I’d always fall asleep. It always seemed to be hot in the summer, in those days, the sun would be beating in through the chapel windows, y’know.

There is a point, going back along the drovers’ road, where distant hills are briefly visible, through the steep valleys. I wonder if this momentary sense of perspective gave relief to people travelling this way years ago, as it does, to my surprise, to me. I have been up here on a still, cloudy day in the summer, and felt the place to be powerfully tranquil. This time, the early spring sky bright blue and the wind cold, the place seems somehow unreal. Fel teimlo ar goll, efo’r ffordd ardre o’m blaen yn glir.

My Dad never used to go to Seion, I suppose he was a bit shy about the Welsh, he couldn’t speak it. But on Cymanfa Sunday night he’d go out into the garden to listen, because we weren’t far from the chapel. And the windows would be open because it’s hot, and he’d listen, and we’d listen to the singing from the garden… and everyone on the street who didn’t go to chapel would be out there in the gardens, listening… The sound just sailed over, y’know…You know what Welsh choirs are like, they’d be giving it some welly. There was a word, a word in Welsh my Mum used to use, oh they’d be giving it welly. This word to describe it… I don’t remember it now.

Below me, down in the valley, the sheepfold looks like the ruins of an abandoned building. Rocks show through the turf coated in fine quartz sediment, like patches of petrified snow.


Author’s note: Sections in italics are from a conversation with an old family friend, at her home near Sellatyn, in May 2017. They are used here with her permission.

Image credit: the summit of Moel Sych from Cadair Berwyn, by Andrew via Flickr.


This is part of ROOT MAPPING, a section of The Learned Pig devoted to exploring which maps might help us live with a clear sense of where we are. ROOT MAPPING is conceived and edited by Melanie Viets.


The Learned Pig


Phil Owen

Phil Owen is a writer and singer based in Bristol, interested in oral histories and traditions, community heritage and cultural geography. Much of his work focusses on cultures of voice, memory and place in the Wales/England border country. His writing has been published by journals including Doggerland, Something Other, and Uniformagazine, and presented at a range of venues across south Wales and the Westcountry. From 2010 to 2016, he and Megan Wakefield ran Tertulia, a platform event for experimental work using language and voice. In 2017, he was the inaugural writer-in-residence at Hestercombe, Somerset.