Monday, 1 September 2008

back to the Valleys

I went over to Risca in South Wales, to see my old friend Gareth. We'd lost contact, and then he heard me on Radio 4 and got in touch again. The power of radio...

We went hunting for an iron foundry in Abercarn; there was a blast furnace operating there in 1576, apparently. The Gwyddon stream is dammed in the side valley, and once powered a water wheel which operated the furnace bellows. We scrambled down the steep bank of the stream, over rubble and domestic waste. There was a culvert on the side, but nothing much else. New flats had been built on the side, out of sight on this picture.

..and we looked at St Luke's church, which I'd not even realised was there until recently. It's just down the hill from the younger St Luke's Church, which was Anglican -I'd been there once on an Air Cadet church parade, and found it cavernous and rather arid in spirit. It was abandoned because of structural problems. The older and smaller St Luke's has been preserved thanks in large part to the efforts of Gareth's mother, Bronwen, who had once taught us English at the Grammar School. The church is shared by two groups of chapel types, one of them welsh-speaking.

So the whole thing could be a metaphor for something. Or just a nice story.

I like Welsh chapels. I got to sit in on some services, again thanks to the Air Cadets. I like the way everyone sings their own harmony, so there seem to be as many tunes as there are congregation, and it all hangs together beautifully. On the other hand, there was the time that a womens' choir at a service in Blackwood sang their own arrangement of "When I Survey The Wond'rous Cross" which reduced me to helpless laughter...

That's Gareth there on the left, discussing recent vandalism with the chap who lives next door to the church. There were empty vodka bottles in the porch, and some of the roof had been smashed.

We noted down the inscription on Abercarn's war memorial, for subsequent translation; Gareth is studying Welsh, but is not yet fluent. Gwell angau na chywilydd. "Death before dishonour", apparently. While I sort of approve of the principle in my own life, it feels rather bombastic for a memorial erected by the people who ordain such civic monuments and therefore ipso facto didn't die. Perhaps the sentiment is differently nuanced in Welsh.

We walked along a recently-restored section of the Crumlin Branch of the Mon and Brec Canal. We watched a young buzzard petulantly calling for its parents; a heron standing motionless; and a kingfisher, which darted ahead of us all the way along the towpath. I'd never seen a kingfisher in the Ebbw valley before. Times are changing.

Sitting outside the Darren pub and drinking Brains Dark for old times' sake, we talked about school days. A man at the next table overheard us and joined in; it turned out that he was at Newbridge Grammar School too, though a few years ahead of us. He's a florist in Risca now, and still knows some of the teachers. We compared our early ambitions. I gave an edited version of mine; I said that I wanted to see the world, and left out the desire to be a fighter pilot. Some people can get slightly angry and confused if I come up with some of the more conventionally 'male' aspects of my past, and this was an exercise in trying to make things easy for everyone. A little frustrating. Like last week in Devon, when we'd been discussing birds we'd seen on the cliffs. A man stated that a bird of prey under discussion (brown plumage, seen hovering) was a peregrine falcon. He backed it up by adding that his mate was the peregrine man. And he was so confident that everyone believed him. Peregrines are not brown and they don't hover, but my opinion didn't count, because.

Anyway, there at the Darren we sat until late, and had an unexpectedly sociable time.

I do miss that sort of thing; the friendliness of South Wales, and the way that everyone seems to know everyone else. Still, I felt like an outsider then, and I suppose I still do, in life as in South Wales.