A sunny morning in early September, a perfect day for walking and gently easing myself back into my ramblings. Thank goodness that my broken leg had healed in time to join the local singer and song collector, Owen Shiers, for a pilgrimage along the beautiful Clettwr Valley in Ceredigion. Owen is founder of Cynefin, http://cynefinmusic.wales/en/home-page , a musical journey of discovery and remembrance of the songs and stories of this beautiful part of west Wales. A Welsh speaker, Owen grew up in the valley and is breathing new life into old songs, many rediscovered through meticulous research: old books, tall tales and from the people of the Clettwr Valley and beyond.
We started at the village of Pont Sian on the old bridge. Underneath the Clettwr river chattered lightly over the stones and pebbles, home to otters and trout. Owen introduced us to the many years of the area’s history: of hill forts, chieftains, the river, the chapels, the challenges of non-conformism, the loss and the troubles of people just trying to get by. And he sang to us a gentle song in the language of the valley, the only accompaniment, the river trickling under our feet……
Owen’s voice is lovely and it is easy to be carried away, to an ‘other’ time, a place, a memory. Coming back to earth we set off, passing chapels, cottages, shops, schools, a forge, remnants of past times, some now empty, some remain lived in and part of the community. As we walked Owen told us about them, their history and their people. The chapels certainly made a significant impact upon the shape and destiny of these small communities. The complexities of Non- conformism I won’t go into but I always get a sense a sadness around these places. Many are still used but more are not. They were often joyful places, sometimes even liberating but they also often rivalled each other, with strict doctrines and beliefs. As someone who went to Baptist chapel every Sunday in my childhood, I remember some of that trepidation ( and not being allowed to watch television or to play outside on Sundays!).
A memorable chapel was the one at Rhydowen, originally built in the eighteenth century & now only used on special occasions, with wonderful acoustics and fine wooden pews. This chapel was the focus of a struggle which resulted in the minister and congregation being evicted and locked out of the chapel. They were able to return at night and ‘retrieve’ their precious store of books, vital to a community who had little access to such writings at this time.
We rested there briefly and Owen told of of the history of the place before singing back to life a beautiful old song about a favorite minister of the congregation here. Although it was in Welsh and my understanding is very poor, the poignancy and beauty of the words was clearly conveyed through the elegant plaintive melody and intent of this haunting old song.
We left the troubles of the Unitarians behind & dipped down towards the river through farmlands where hundreds of swallows were preparing to leave for warmer lands amongst the ash and oak. Cows and their calves were grazing amongst the willow-herb as we made our way towards the old estate and Garden Cottage, once home to the estate gardener.
We crossed the meadow passing beautiful old wooden stables where Owen played a recording from St Fagins National Museum of (Welsh) History in Cardiff, a jolly upbeat song concerning a man who is bragging about his very fine stallion and the lovely bling it wore ! The stables were now long empty but maybe the horses who once rested here also once wore fine harnesses given the very fine large terracotta mangers in each stall.
Leaving the meadow, the cottage and the stables behind us we walked under a bridge, dark and gloomy, covered in moss and not a place you would want to hang about! On the other side of the bridge was the beautifully kept Home Farm, where the owners kindly invited us in. Over a hot cup of tea, more stories arrived concerning prize pigs, haunted lambing sheds, and yes, the bridge area is also haunted by the ghost of a man who hung himself in the woods. We hurried on, with stories and songs overflowing from the valley: of millers and sailors, sewing machines and preachers, the cae nos, or night fields, where the cow girl met an ancient spirit, blackbirds giving advice, ships lost at sea and love lost also. Owen sang under willows where hundreds of pond skaters were dancing on the surface of the Clettwr. He sang next to ruinous gatehouses, old chapels, deserted farmhouses, his large knowledge of the landscape, it’s people and history adding to our immersion, however brief, into the fascinating past of the valley.
Welsh folklore and history is so diverse. Much is lost, or hidden, but there is much still to be gleaned, if one takes the trouble. There has always been differences whether it be amongst princes or poets, the Norman invaders or subsequent lands owners and there are still today in one form or another. Hunting still causes problems here for local people and wildlife as it ever did and access to land is unpredictable. Businesses & shops are closing down, impacting upon livelihoods and residency. The landscape contains the memories of all of this, as it ever did, and the essence of such times and troubles can still be found in the songs and stories waiting to be re told…
Owen’s album ‘Dilyn Afon’ (Following a River), is out at the end of this month. Please do listen to his beautiful music that is breathing new life back into the land, the valleys and rivers of Ceredigion and Wales http://cynefinmusic.wales/en/home-page
And if you ever have the opportunity to join Owen on one of his song and story walks please take it….it is a wonderful experience deed!