The Old School
With the new year opening with a continuous elemental onslaught- winds on the coast up to 109 mph and driving rain-it hadn’t exactly been ideal conditions to get out into the hills and start burning off the seasonal excesses. However, a brief window of opportunity presented itself yesterday when the odd shower predicted to break through the cloud cover was an improvement on the vicious battering we had received in North Wales on New Year’s Day.
I chose a six mile or so wander through the Gwydyr Forest from Betws y Coed to arrive at 'The Lost Village’ of Rhiwddolian. An isolated old quarrying hamlet where in the mid 19th century, virtually the entire community emigrated en-masse to Patagonia. Seeking a new life far from the economic and cultural oppression they experienced back home.
Rhiwddolian's bustling High Street.
For the villagers of Rhiwddolian about to sail into exile, life on the margins was just about as hard as it got. Working in the dangerous and economically fluctuating slate mining industry where the miners earned a pittance and every day risked life and limb in all weather conditions. Living in homes provided by the slate companies and where the families risked immediate eviction should the main bread winner fall victim to injury or death. Factor in the oppression of their language and culture where the use of Welsh was discouraged to the extent that schoolchildren using their home language in the classroom were forced to wear ‘The Welsh Not’- a block of wood hung around the neck- it all added up to a pretty grim existence. Little wonder the idea of creating a Welsh Eden far removed from an oppressive British state in the empty Patagonia region was appealing to so many.
The first time I walked up to Rhiwddolian, it was a perfect early summer’s day. The narrow lane running up the side of the little valley, was overhung with oak branches and the moss coated old stone walls separated what would have been a cart track from lush hay meadows and sheep pasture. The ruins of terraced and detached cottages stood at the valley head with habitable dwellings-now holiday cottages- dotted about here and there beneath the bands of conifers which defined the tops. Thankfully, the ugly serried ranks of Gwydyr Forest’s coniferous plantations had not been allowed to penetrate the valley and it retained its timeless qualities.
Yesterday it was all too different. The lane ran like a river. Catching the previous night's deluge which sluiced off the steep hillsides.The ochre fields were bare of sheep and grass... Skeletal trees bore the recent pale scars left by storm snapped branches. Not a living soul to break the monotonous empty landscape. Despite the grey skies and the sour waterlogged earth, there was still a quiet beauty about the land broken only by the occasional bark of our excited hound. Ecstatic in the rich pungent moment. Badgers, Foxes, Rabbits and even wild goats provide a olfactory smorgasbord of delight for dogs who delve into the undergrowth or follow the wild tracks hereabouts.
We left the dead village behind and followed the old stone lane-impassable now but for those on foot- back to the outskirts of Betws y Coed as the winter afternoon descended into night. I wondered, what time would it be in Patagonia right now?