My Aunt Mary and Uncle Alfred “retired” from farming at Owletts Hall Farm at Lynn, near Shenstone in the late 1960’s, to the beautiful Llyn Peninsula in North Wales. Taking on a small hill farm, with an ancient stone farmhouse at its centre, they seemed to be busier than ever. Uncle Alfred soon built up a herd of the hardy Welsh Black cattle, and still kept a Jersey to milk by hand for the house. Aunt Mary ran a thriving business offering bed, breakfast, and evening meals to visitors to the area. We missed having my dad’s favourite sister nearby: We missed Sunday teas, and family gossip, and games of cards in the evening. I particularly missed the farmyard at the Owletts, and the orchard, and the animals.
But there were compensations, too.
I’m sure that we would have made visits to Mary and Alf wherever the winds of fate had blown them, but how fortunate for us, that when they began their new life in Gwynedd, we could now spend blissful summer weeks in the beautiful mountains, with gorgeous sandy bays near to hand in all directions.
As a self-employed tradesman, my dad was only willing to tear one week from his diary in summer. He charged unambitious hourly rates for his highly skilled work, and so there were financial considerations. Also, disgruntled customers might grimace at the thought of a more than a week’s delay to the construction of their extension or stone fireplace.
For 51 weeks of the year their needs came first, but now, on a bit of a busman’s holiday, my dad helped me to turret and battlement some magnificent edifices in sand instead of brick. We might spend afternoons evicting unhappy creatures from Criccieth’s rock pools to examine them, or trying our luck fishing for bass from the shore at low tide. Such days would still, now, be ample manna to feed a whole nights’ pleasant dreams. The days remain duller without him these past six years, but behind my shut lids the sea is bright and blue and the sand is golden, and the fleece speckled fields are green. The Welsh farm is still there, and is little altered. The little crackling thrill to walk this very summer where we walked together arcs straight to the core of me and has an astringent effect on my lumpen middle aged heart.
After over 40 years, I remain of the opinion that novelty is an overrated quality in vacations, and should season them sufficiently to provide interest, but not to provoke an alarming dislocation from everyday life. If you are able to pay for a short interlude of “perfect days” that are tropically alien to those you normally endure, then I might argue that something fundamental needs to change.
A small, and manageably stimulating adventure. That’s my summer poison. Does that make me a true introvert or a risk-averse coward? I’m still so easily pleased – by ticking off a list of dolmens, reached over anonymous, rutted Welsh fields – or pondering on medieval battles of which no visible trace remains. Just glimpsing Cardigan Bay has remained an enduring thrill. Do you ever tire of looking into the eyes of a loved one?
An anxious child, awestruck by its beauty, but secure among my extended family, I saw Gwynedd in 1969 and fell in love at first sight.
Me, and Mom, and Dad were able to view the fresh remnants of colonial pomp in Caernarfon Castle following Prince Charles’ investiture that summer. As the sun began to melt behind Holyhead, we bounced happily to what truly felt like home-from-home up the steep lane winding around Bwlch Derwin in the Ford van (me on a customised bench-seat in the back, peering forward from my windowless perch for a view of the fading ruddy glow.)
Reassuringly, the antique furniture, the china and the curios, were still ranged about a farmhouse kitchen (albeit of smaller dimensions) just as they had been at the Owletts. A much more vast, inglenook fireplace was now home to the horse brasses – some of them the very ones which had swung and shone on the flanks of the heavy horses used on the Coopers’ Staffordshire farm in the early 20th century. Mary’s books about Staffordshire’s history were still on their shelves. Outside, there were still animals to be interested in: the Welsh Blacks, the sheep, the ducks and chickens. A biddable sheepdog and a traditional surfeit of cats.
More intimately than in the large milking parlour in Staffordshire, I could stand quietly, taking in the sweet smell of cow cake and disinfectant, and the rhythmical hissing noise of Uncle Alfred stripping the milk from “Jersey” into a foaming bucket. What delight – when the warm top layer of goodness was transferred into the old fashioned butter churn, and, cheered on like a panting athlete by Aunt Mary as I turned the rattling handle, I could cause globs of golden curds to form out of the liquid.
The final stanza of “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas.
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me
Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand,
In the moon that is always rising,
Nor that riding to sleep
I should hear him fly with the high fields
And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land.
Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means,
Time held me green and dying
Though I sang in my chains like the sea.