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.

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