Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Joe's Place

In the early 1960’s,my maternal grandfather did an unexpected thing. Despite having reached three score years and ten and being comfortably ensconced with his third wife in a little terraced house in Mosside, Manchester, he went out and bought a remote traditional cottage on the Malltraeth Marshes on Ynys Mon (Angelsey) North Wales. It was surprising in many ways. The cottage-which cost him six hundred pounds-had no mains services. Water was drawn from a stream, light was provided by oil lamps and cooking was done on a range. Furthermore, he had no car and was incapacitated with what was known at the time as ‘a gammy leg’. The result of being blown up at sea in the first world war. Shopping trips required a long hobbling walk down a rough track my father called ‘The Rocky road to Dublin’ and then catching a bus to Llangefni.

It was certainly a brave lifestyle choice for a seventy year old, taking on the challenges of living off the grid in a fairly remote location. As a young child living on the challenging Bluebell Estate in Huyton on Merseyside at the time, I loved visiting the place. Despite the Spartan existence..washing outside in a tin bowl, using an outside chemical toilet, living on frugal rations and going to bed early when it got dark..it  sowed the seed which took root when I moved to north Wales myself in the late 1970’s.

Joe and Ethel only lived there a few years before they took on a more centrally located cottage, on a bus route and more accessible for shops and services. He died not long after in Bangor, N Wales in 1967. In the mid 80’s, I was on Angelsey when I decided to try and find the original cottage and show my family where the blue touchpaper which led to my move to n wales was first lit. It wasn’t that easy but as soon as I turned onto ‘The Rocky Road to Dublin’ I knew I had cracked it. I intended to knock on the door, explain who I was and perhaps the current owner might accommodate us with a brew and a brief look around. Unfortunately, no one was at home but I could see straight away that it was now a second home. And a rarely used second home at that. (See the photographs taken at the time.

Twenty years went by and now with a new partner I decided to show her the place when we were over on Angelsey. Despite getting close to it, my car was bottoming out on the track and I convinced myself this can’t be the right place? It took another visit to confirm that it was indeed the right track but this time I left the car on the bottom lane and walked up. The first thing I noticed-which I hadn’t appreciated before-was the vast panorama of Snowdonia mountains which framed the cottage. Being set on former marshland, the land hereabouts is flat with huge vistas all around. The only sounds I could hear were lilting skylarks and bleating sheep..it was so quiet and peaceful, just as I remembered it. Little wonder that I had been seduced by the area all those years ago.

The Malltraeth Marshes must have been an amazing environment before they built the cob at Malltraeth on the coast. Before then, the tide would sweep inland, often as far as Llangefni and the few scattered cottages must have been pretty cut off and isolated from those above the marsh. Especially at high tides. I wondered if the cottage was regularly flooded before the cob and canals were constructed?

When I reached the cottage, I could see straight away that it was totally derelict. The garden had been overtaken by skin ripping haw and blackthorn, dog rose and thick bramble. It was a fight to get to the cottage but when I did, I was able to get through a broken window and take a look around. It had been so long since I had been inside and  it was weird to be back again. It was still furnished but ceilings were falling down, the roof was open to the elements in places and it was totally uninhabitable. Knocking on the door of the cottage across the lane-one of only three properties on this dead end track- the elderly occupant told me that the owner hadn’t been to the cottage for at least ten years.

That information set in train a search via the land registry department, Google name searches and even an appeal for information on the previous incarnation of this site. I had the owners name and knew that he had been living in the West Midlands but all attempts to find him reached a dead end. I was hoping that given his obvious disinterest in the cottage, I could persuade him to sell it for a nominal amount  in the hope that he would be favourable to see it restored by someone whose family used to own it, rather than let it just fall down. After all, it needed totally gutting to the four walls and rebuilding from scratch.Not exactly a cheap and quick modernisation project.

Eventually I traced the owner and found myself talking to a friend of his who was prepared to act as a go between. I had been told by the neighbour and his friend that X was eccentric and not that communicative. To cut a long story short, to date I have had no acknowledgement of letters or phone contact numbers I have  left with his friend, and have since resigned myself to the fact that for whatever reason, the owner of ‘Joe’s Place’ would rather see the cottage become a mound of stones than part with it. I think most people like myself would scratch their heads at this mentality but if you travel across north Wales or indeed any rural area in the UK, you will see derelict cottages that  farmers in particular, would rather fall down than part with.

Personally, I think that given the chronic housing shortage in rural areas then local authorities should be able to compulsory purchase derelict properties and bring them into their social housing stock.

It’s a shame that my envisaged project to reclaim and restore the cottage in it's original vernacular style has founded. However, as a footnote; my partner and I took ownership of a little cottage just across the straits from Angelsey earlier this year which I’m renovating at the moment. It hasn’t been occupied full time since-ironically enough-1961 when Joe bought his cottage across the water. There would have been a romantic symmetry if the Angelsey project had come off but it wasn’t to be. At least I’ve got something else to get my teeth into. Even if it means my outdoor life is currently on hold as I wrestle with a comprehensive modernisation project which I hope will be completed in the next six months.
'Joe's Place' is lost amongst the trees on the Fen like landscape of Malltraeth Marsh.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Augustus John: Models in a north Wales landscape

Derwent Lees 'A Welsh Landscape'.Location,The Arenig Fawr outlier of Pen Tyrau.

Of all the mountains in Wales, for me, Arenig Fawr is easily the King..or perhaps it should be Queen?...of Welsh peaks. This brooding massif surrounded by the rough bounds of the Migneint, encompasses everything that is mysterious and romantic in mountain lore. It even harbours within its bounds, a contemporary human tragedy and in that, an event that can teach us something about the folly and ignorance of those who have political power. I refer of course to the destruction of the Treweryn valley and the village of Capel Celyn to create a pointless and unnecessary reservoir . An action which I blogged about a couple of years ago in The Drowning Season.

In fact, I’ve always found the mountain a rich creative seam to mine. Inspiring both art and climbing pieces which have appeared in the climbing press and blogs. In the early 90’s I had a piece in the then Climber & Rambler magazine, ‘The Art of Arenig’, which detailed the mysterious and as yet unrecorded climbing history on Arenig Fawr and the mountain’s unique place in British art. The mountain inspiring ‘The Arenig School’; An Edwardian art movement led by the leading light of the day, Augustus John but which has James Dickson Innes as the mainspring of the movement. See ‘James Dickson Innes..Artist of the Sacred Mountain’ for more.

Interestingly, The Arenig School-based in the cottage of Nant Ddu nearby-only lasted a couple of years- 1910/12-before Augustus had moved across the moors to the slate mining village of Tan y Grisiau near Blaneau Ffestiniog, where he rented a cottage and carried on painting the local landscapes and his muse Dorelia....and any other model who happened to pass under his spell!

Anyone interested in his art and who is familiar with the landscapes of north Wales cannot help but play ‘spot the location’. Not particularly with his landscapes, as these are fairly obvious for most parts. It’s more interesting and difficult though when a model is involved as often he just plonks them on a hillside or sits them on a rock which could be anywhere.

Anywhere except we know it has to be either under Arenig or under the climbing crags of the Moelwyns where his now ruined cottage is located. For years I believed that the cottage of Llwynynthyl was in Cwm Orthin, the vast open valley which most walkers heading up to Moelwyn Mawr pass through. However, an art programme, ‘Framing Wales', on BBC Wales presented by Kim Howells- the fascinating former NUM secretary, Labour MP, Culture Secretary in the Blair government and rock climber- who offered a different location to Llwynynthyl when he scaled an easy climb on one of the Moelwyn cliffs. After completing the climb, he pointed to the ruins of Llwynynthyl which sits above..or is it below?..the road up to the Stwlan Dam.

So..with this in mind,here’s a few educated guesses as to model locations.

The Red Feather:1911 Augustus John

I’m pretty sure that this is on the western slopes of Arenig Fawr under a crag known as Craig Hyrddod,( Crag of the Rams) less than a mile from Nant Ddu. In 1997 I made a first climb on Hyrddod which due to a misinterpretation, I called ‘Hurricane Wall’, thinking that the Welsh name translated as storm or tempest. Huge boulders abound hereabouts and there is a curious shrine at the base of the cliff. Another climb I did here I called Pagan Wall. 

The Orange Apron:1912: Augustus John

This has to be a Tan y Griseau painting. Looking up to the high point of Moelwyn Bach from the lower slopes of Moel  yr Hydd with the slate mine levels clearly visible.

Reverie:1914 and Doreilia in a Green Dress:1914

Confusingly, Reverie is also referred to as ‘The Tired Climber’ and ‘Doreilia in Cornwall’. Most certainly this is not Cornwall but is it a Tan y Griseau painting or an Arenig work? I originally thought it had to be the lower slopes of Moel yr Hydd above the cottage, Llwynynthyl, but it could be just slightly north of the Red Feather location beneath the saddle which connects Pen Tyrau with Arenig Fawr. Both paintings show what could be a stone wall which suggests Arenig.

Lily on the mountainside:1911

This has to be looking north east from Moel yr Hydd towards Nyth y Gigfran and the mouth of Cwm Orthin. Climbers will recognize it as the location of the popular venue, Craig y Clipau.

Lyndra by the Pool: 1914-Derwent Lees.

This is a work by the Australian painter, Derwent Lees. A lesser figure in the Arenig School, very much influenced by Augustus John. Location, the lower slopes of the Arenig outlier,Pen Tyrau.

Lyndra by the rocks:1914.Derwent Lees

Lyndra appears to be Lees’ muse very much in the manner of John’s Dorelia. Here, the artist has placed his model in the lee of what appears a sizable cliff.The light and shade would suggest that it is the basalt quarry just lower down the Pen Tyrau mountainside and close to Arenig village.

So....a few educated stabs at the locations of these paintings.Anyone with their own theories,feel free to get in touch.
Anyone interested in the Arenig School then I recommend Michael Holroyd’s monumental biography of Augustus John which covers the period in great detail.
john appleby 

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Stone Free: Last great problems in north Wales

I was looking at Terry Taylor’s Mid Wales climbing site the other day and I noticed in the Craig Ddu/Moel Siabod section, his reference to the Great Prow of Craig Ddu still being unclimbed. This section was a bit out of date and he did mention that hot shot Calum Muskett had been active in these ere parts, but I haven’t heard anything on the north Wales grapevine to suggest that it’s been vanquished by Calum or anyone else for that matter. I contacted Calum to see if he or anyone else had liberated it and it appears not. To be fair, he does not appear to be particularly impressed with the crag or project but then again, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It's true that Craig Ddu (Black Crag) lacks the grandeur of a Cloggy or Cromlech, being more a scruffy mid-wales crag in character, but I've always thought it a grand spot myself.

I’ve always taken a proprietorial interest in Craig Ddu because I discovered it in the 90’s, made the first ascents there and tipped Terry off about the crag. New crags are always being discovered, particularly in out of the way places like the Carneddau or Mid Wales, however, Craig Ddu was unusual for two reasons. The first that it was on the flanks of one of our most popular mountains-Moel Siabod- and secondly, because it was so big, relatively speaking. Little single pitch craglets are being developed all the time, but Craig Ddu was different as it was a good 45m high or 150 feet in old money. 

Unusual as well, in that it offered multi pitch routes. A rarity these days. I discovered it through simply looking at a 125/OS map and noticing a sizable cliff marked. Fortunately, it was on the rarely visited south west flank of the mountain and the approach from the Roman Bridge was rough ,pathless and involved crossing a boggy plateau. Not the sort of terrain to tempt most walkers and climbers.

Climbing the serrated knife edge of Brigate Rosso on the far left tier.

After surprising myself at discovering such a sizable crag, I persuaded my old friend Harold Drasdo to join me in attempting to make a first impression on the crag. That first impression was ‘Zenturion’ a three pitch VS climb which could be seen as having ‘minor classic’ potential in that it found a way through some unlikely terrain at an amenable standard.  The final pitch took off up the vertical headwall, with the ground falling dramatically away beneath your feet. It looked unlikely but each pull delivered you to another hold until you pulled out on a stone pavement. At this point you could just walk off but I regret not putting up a fourth pitch on a short tier above. When Harold joined me he exclaimed..’well, you can live off that for the next six months!’ 

We did a few more routes on the crag and Harold and his brother Neville ended fifty years of new routing together with their ‘Two Against Nature’ on the far right hand buttress.( The crag is split into three areas with the main cliff flanked by smaller crags to each side).  I realised that the crag offered more potential for better climbers than myself and told Terry about it. It’s fair to say that TT was not disappointed and quickly filled his boots . In fact, Andy Cave, amongst others, made a guest appearance up there with Terry. However, despite climbing high into the E’s, the prow it appears, is a step too far. Even for a talented and prolific new router.

So just how hard is it...E9/10...11!!! The actual overhanging section is not that long..15 metres maybe...but the rock is compact and doesn’t offer that much in the way of protection or comforting holds. Zenturion tracks to within a few metres of the Prow but those few metres offer a world of difference with mere verticality tipping into a yawning gravity defying test of physical and mental toughness.

Last great Welsh problem? I doubt it myself. There’s always going to be another desperate problem just around the corner which will tempt that tiny minority of elite climbers who crave to go where angels fear to tread.

Craig Ddu Main Cliff