Translated from the Welsh by John Idris Jones.
I picked up the book "Feet in Chains" (Traed mewn Cyffion) by Kate Roberts in Oxfam Porthmadog one morning. To be honest, I recognised the Peter Prendergast painting on the cover and was intrigued- the writer's name was curiously familiar too. It was only 99p...I could hardly go wrong, could I?
Back home with a cup of coffee, I scanned the first page, then went back and read the first three paragraphs, whereupon the afternoon slid by as I read on, oblivious to my surroundings. It's a good job I'm my own boss!
Afterwards, I remembered something on the internet about Kate Roberts. She was the Brenhines ein llên (The Queen of our Literature), a towering figure in Welsh writing, which is saying something.
Like I said, I was drawn in right from the off. The book opens with a young newly married woman listening to an outdoor sermon in North Wales during a preaching festival. The year is 1880:
"The hum of insects, the gorse crackling, the murmur of heat and the velvet tones of the preacher endlessly flowing."
What a beginning! She had described the Wales I love in that sentence and I was there on the hillside with Jane Gruffyd. Although in my case, I would have been scanning the skyline for slate quarries, not listening to the preacher. Nevertheless, Robert's description of his words reminded me of a stream coming off the mountain, an endless, mellifluous sound, but meaningless. Then she subtly burlesques the preacher and the congregation:
"He (the preacher) was able to preach effortlessly, restricted only by his clothes and his collar pressing in on him."
and the ladies:
"Their new shoes were pinching, their stays were too tight and the high collars of their new frocks were almost choking them."
It's a fine introduction, and though religion makes few significant appearances after this, the book soon settles into it's work, becoming a beautifully evocative study of family life, set against the hardships and pettyness of community and quarry. Jane's relationships with her husband and her children are drawn honestly and clearly without any false-sounding notes. There is no plot, except for the inexorable ticking of the clock as life moves on; the novels sets itself deeper into the landscape and into the reader with every page. After a while, I was struck with a slight resemblance to Jane Austen in the way Roberts uses humour and pathos with her characters, but unlike Austen, it is rarely at their expense.
The injustices at the quarry are drawn well, particularly with the "Little Steward", Morus Ifan, a small man of tiny achievements who took every advantage over the men in his charge. Robert's words have the ring of veracity when she describes the quarrymen, presumably at Moel Tryfan or Alexandra quarry:
"He could see the men in the shed, their caps pulled down over their eyes, cold and miserable, waiting by the doors of the shed for the hooter to sound. Like grey rats in their holes, they would peer round the doorposts. Then, when the hooter blew, they rushed headlong like a pack of hounds down the tramline towards the mountain."
The nature of work in the quarry is described through the thoughts of Jane's son Will, and her husband Ifan. The ever-dwindling rewards of their way of life are set against those perceived of the townsfolk who cut about in the latest fashions. There are parallels to be drawn here with the present day and our obsession with material things, thus being the unwitting dupes of the monied few.
While the tone of the book is often dour, like the grey landscape it is set against- and the hardships of the characters test them severely, the relationships between the family themselves are a source of both brightness and of conflict. Their inherent nature shining out from the many difficulties. Jane's alliance with her husband's sister Geini, forged early on in the novel, is particularly satisfying. She stands with Jane against the tyranny of her mother in law and is a source of emotional support. Family, of course brings pain and hurt, causing the son Owen to wonder about his choices and situation. The family have sacrificed much to send him and his brother Twm to university, putting a strain on ther family finances- when he gains employment, Owen sends home every penny he can. His sister, Sionedd, however is a self serving, shifty character who inherits their grandmothers money and yet gives none of it to help out. There are some fine passages where Owen tries to reason this out, but comes to a working conclusion that it is human nature and "he hates them all for it," as he sits surrounded by portraits of his ancestors. Roberts lets us know that he realises eventually how for him, ultimately it's about being honest, about having a duty of care. About love for one's family.
I shouldn't have been surprised, that the book takes a strongly left wing viewpoint - this was Wales at a crossroads and the son William is a passionate advocate of the union. Seeing that the men at the quarry were too meek to challenge the quarry owners, he goes away to make a new life for himself in the collieries of South Wales, becoming a Union official.
The war comes, an English war, a capitalist war that they want none of, but taunted by the folk in the town and by their uunsatisfactory situations, the boys enlist and Twm is killed. What shocked me was that the letter to inform the family of Tom's death in action was written in English. Neither Jane nor Ifan could read it and they had to ask a shopkeeper, who delivered the devastating news.
I put the book down reluctantly after I had finished it. I realised that it had touched me because it is set in a place I love and is about a people who fascinate me. I also sensed that it could have been written about society today and the themes that recur, the inequalities, the manipulation by the wealthy. And about the squabbles and small victories of ordinary family life. All that was missing was the very real concerns over the environment and our future- but I wouldn't wish that on Robert's characters!
The book I had bought was a Seren imprint, translated by John Idris Jones, a translation that gave me all the salient bearings to make sense of the story and it's characterisation. I haver since read a review of a new translation, by Katie Gramich- it will be interesting to see how this compares.
As some folks might know, I am a vegan, which means I try my best not to take part in the exploitation of animals. Now this is all fine and dandy, but until recently, when it came to boots and shoes there wasn't that much choice out there. What non-leather boots there were available (and I have tried a few) turned out to be pretty naff and about as waterproof as a tea bag.
You pays your money...
Enquiring in an outdoor shop about Vegan boots earns you the status of being looked down upon and/or pitied by the staff, some of whom don't even appear to know what being a Vegan entails (not that I think they should), but these shops are supposed to stock boots and, well, there is an increasing demand for this sort of thing.
I had bought a very good looking pair of non-leather Merrell boots which were just about OK, but they weren't very waterproof, which is something of a sine qua non, living in sunny Snowdonia. The Merrell's were fine for posing around the caffs of Betws, but once on the hill, they became super foot soakers. I began to despair and bought a cheap pair of wellies, but we all knew that idea wasn't going to fly.
Petra did some research on the net (I'm not very patient when it comes to buying stuff, even for myself.) She came up with the Veggie Trekker Mk5 from Vegetarian Shoes. They weren't cheap (£174.95). But Petra knows her stuff, so... I bought them. Once I had got over the shock to our bank account, I tried them on.
They are 3 season boots- a boot with a stiffer sole but with enough flex in it to cope with uneven ground whilst out hiking. They aren't suitable for use with crampons...but then I'm not a mountain top guy, preferring to go all around the gnarly middle slopes and scope out mines.
The construction is very tough, the materials looked very durable. The sole is Vibram, a must for folks who walk on rock and wet surfaces. They were super-comfortable from the first time I wore them, and have continued to be so, a year and a half later.
On the hill...
They are possibly a little on the heavy side, but nothing compared to a pair of Scarpa boots I owned in the 80's (and wore to bag 47 Munro's plus Snowdon and Cadair Idris, so they couldn't have been that bad). I generally wear two pairs of socks and there have been no problems with chafing or blisters, despite some long expeditions.
The boots have proved to be very waterproof. I treat the outer membrane uppers with nikwax the night before an outing and that seems to keep them dry and protect them all day.
Underfoot there is always one point where I will have to walk in mud/puddles, even on a good day. I am not someone who likes to walk on paths, preferring to get my photos from unusual vantage points, usually in the middle of a bog. On a damp day, well, you can imagine. On a couple of occasions, I thought the water was over my boots- the upper collar was wet, but internally the boot was dry. Everything was fine after a day on the window sill in the sun.
Time will tell...
So, a year and a half with these boots. They have worn extremely well, the sole is hardly showing any wear, while the uppers have been chafed on rock but are perfectly serviceable. The cleats have taken some punishment from my scrambling over slate tips and rock, but are easily bent back into shape afterwards. I haven't even needed a pair of new laces yet! The waterproof protection around the boot between sole and upper was slightly damaged by ramming my foot into a hole in a wall at Dinorwig, getting "that " photo- but was easily mended with some epoxy glue. It has since given no trouble.
Would I recommend them? Yes, wholeheartedly. If you are serious about your walking and you don't want to wear leather I can think of no better boot. A comparable boot from manufacturers such as Scarpa (their Khumbu GTX is similar in spec, but leather) comes in at around £190. I'm hoping to get another 18 months of wear out of them, and if I do, I will share my thoughts with you then!
You can order the Veggietrekkers from here
The latest book about Wales to land on my desk is this very fine production by Daniel Start and Tania Pascoe, called "Wales, Hidden Places, Great Adventures and the Good Life".
Hmm...it seems I will have to find another collection of secret places to visit and keep to myself. Luckily Daniel hasn't covered them all- I still have a few up my sleeve!
If visitors to Wales want to do a bit of exploring, some wild swimming, eat in a carefully selected local restaurant and stay somewhere special as well, the book tells them how to find these places. I guess that does add up to the "Good Life" of the title. There are a great many unusual and out-of-the-way places listed, worlds away from the usual tourist honey-pots.
The chapters are well ordered, the prose reads well, (if a little caffienated) the layout and graphics are very well thought out and the places selected are, on the whole, wisely chosen. I can't fault the production or editorial values of this book, and I am pleased it features my photo of the Diffwys floor 6 mill. I'm cautiously optimistic.
I guess anyone prepared to spend almost £17 on a very attractive book like this is going to have some investment. If they read it, they will be informed about where they are going- lets hope that spills over into respect for the Welsh landscape, and for the people and animals who live here as well. Perhaps this book is a step in the right direction.
Wild Guide: Wales and the Marches
Reg Chambers Jones
I'm including a review of this book on the site as, although out of print, it is easily available via Amazon and Ebay secondhand. I hope Bridge Books reprint the title, as I feel it is of genuine worth to the student of Dinorwig.
There has obviously been much research undertaken to produce this book- by a historian who is very familiar with the area and the subject. At first glance, it perhaps doesn't satisfy the hunger for the kind of information that mine and quarry enthusiasts crave. There isn't a map, or a plan of the quarry. But then a few people have tried to do that and have given up at the enormity of the task. There's scant reference to the names of levels or infrastructure.
But what Chambers Jones has done is focus for the most part on the human side of the quarry, the men that worked it and the community it served. In this, he has produced an outstanding book. There are also many fine photographs of the quarry in the early part of the C20th and earlier which are a study in themselves.
There is an extensive chapter on the quarry, the men and their working conditions, the barracks, gunpowder, splitting slates and of course, the bargain system. The story of a typical apprentice is started upon and is fascinating; then Jones seems to lose interest in the poor chap. There are sketchy references to levels and inclines which I would have loved more information on. Nevertheless, there is a great deal here which would be grist to any interested person's mill- I certainly learnt a great deal.
There is a thorough section on Transport, with a very useful description of the drivers and their duties. Much of the information on the locomotives has been repeated or extended upon by Cliff Thomas's superb book, "The Quarry Hunslets" but it's good to have it here for completeness. The Padarn railway is covered thoroughly with much interesting detail. There are many good photographs of the engines at work; usually the locations are not identified- a shame because with a little detective work these could be revealed.
The quarry hospital has a fine chapter to itself. The wider community of Llanberis is studied, with some great information about the shops and housing. Equally, an account of Port Dinorwic contains much that is particular about the community and the ships and mariners who used the port.These fine chapters all help to consolidate a picture of the quarry within the area and are invaluable.
I should also mention that the first chapter concerns the owners of the quarry, which is, of course, very correct, there would be no Dinorwig without them. They were colourful and flawed characters, and I have a strong feeling that while Jones quite rightly notes their altruistic deeds within the local community, he glosses over the rather draconian style of management adopted by some of the family and their various obfuscations about the health and welfare of the workers.
Nevertheless, these minor shortcomings aside, I feel that this is an excellent book and is to be warmly recommended to any student of Dinorwig.
Reading a Robert MacFarlane book is like going on a long walk with an excessively talkative companion.
You knew what he was like, yet you invited him to accompany you and now the bugger won't shut up. And yet- he is so interesting...does it matter that the landscape becomes a backdrop to his thoughts? It was the landscape that started this, after all. When he notices things, he certainly has a lyrical way with him. That description of the Heron, for instance, was so right, definitely poetic.
And, yes, I have to admit, I have learnt much from him and discovered many new writers. I thought I was well-read, but the guy opened up some new areas of reading and study for me, books I would never have thought to look at.
So, the landscape...yes, he acknowledges it, but the land is really there to lay his thoughts over. He riffs on poems, people and stories, all loosely conflated into a written mixtape, titled "Silt" or "Chalk". He has clever friends who become woven in to the tape, brilliant specialists, fascinating drop-outs, artists and sailors, most of whom I am the richer for having been acquainted with, on paper at least.
People have criticised him for being too middle class, for being a Latte sipping dilletante, producing books for the chattering folk, who recount passages from his books at their tedious dinner parties. I hope they do. His "The Old Ways" was a runaway best seller, and I'll bet most were purchased by a certain demographic. So what? I'm not one of those, and the book was recommended to me by a friend, a stravaiging photographer who thought I might get something out of it. And I did.
Yes, he is a bit up himself, and his hero-worship of folk gets a bit tedious at times, but it didn't stop me from reading the book in a couple of nights and then going back and starting again. Then buying his" The Wild Places". Then I put his books down, because he had introduced me to so many authors and artists that I had a lot of reading to catch up on.
I should say that MacFarlane gave me some new insights on artists I already knew well, like Eric Ravilious or Samuel Palmer. I still can't quite understand why he thinks Edward Thomas is such a great poet, but that is probably symptomatic of my own failings. But I owe him a debt of thanks for introducing me to Ann Shepherd's writing and for broadening the sweep of my studies. I also enjoyed accompanying him on these travels, immensely. Just don't get hung up on wanting an itinerary or a list of places ticked off and tidily described, or you will be disappointed. Let him wander and tag along with an open mind. You will be pleasantly surprised by what you encounter.
At one level, this is an immensely readable volume written by someone I felt I would like to know more about. He has a deep knowledge and familiarity with the hills and writes in a very intelligent and readable style which borders on the lyrical in places.
So, we have a book that is a collection of essays from various periods by Jim Perrin, joined together by the thread of the Welsh Mountains in the title. They are grouped roughly geographically and, unlike other reviewers, I didn't feel the need for a map, although it would have been nice to see one in the endpapers.
However, the more I read the book, my sense of it being more like a work of fiction increased. Some of the anecdotal encounters seem more like wish-fulfillment fantasies than actual events, particularly the encounter with the member of the mountain rescue team who questions why he was destroying the tops of the cairns designed to aid walkers in his area. He comes across as arrogant sometimes, although perhaps that could be forgiven, if Perrin's account of his childhood is to be believed. He says he was an underpriviledged kid from a Manchester scheme who would dodge fares on the train to Wales in order to go climbing and get away from his disinterested parents.
So far, so good. But in trying to find out more on the man, I have come across some rather troubling revelations that seem to suggest...well, have a look for yourself: the "To Hatch a Crow" blog, for instance, or the Jacssisters blog.
He certainly appears to have "reinvented" himself more than a few times. But then many artists and writers have done so...the great Bob Dylan, for instance, who also wrote several autobiographies, all of which were more fiction than fact. I don't know what to say...I still love Bob Dylan's work, and I did enjoy this book...a lot. Passages from it have stayed with me, or appeared in my head while I am walking in the hills. Yet I can only shake my head and wonder if I can separate the lyrical writer who brings the hills alive with his prose from the alleged inconsistencies within the man.
I knew from the cover that I was going to enjoy this book, but I hadn't realised just how much. At one level, it's a lament for our lost extractive industries- the quarries and mines that once prospered in almost every area of Britain. However, this is combined with a witty and erudite look under the carpet with some interesting insights into geology, industry ...and ourselves.
But the aspect of Nield's writing that I enjoyed the most was a underlying thread of deeply personal, honest and sometimes hilarious family history that he weaves into the book. At times he goes off in a whirl of geological time travel sparked by some experience of his youth, as when we are told about the joined-up memories of his father, himself and his own son at Happy Valley in Llandudno, photographed on a rock in what I hadn't realised was an old stone quarry. The history of his village in South Wales and all the stories and geological insights that spin off these motifs are also included in the story and are all the richer for it.
And he's right. We don't quarry much stone anymore. Children in schools don't know where bricks and rock come from, because our raw materials are sourced from countries where the labour is cheap and working conditions dangerous. Where worker's rights are unknown. The stone is then loaded on a polluting container ship and brought thousands of miles to this country.
He also tells the story of Aberdeen's Rubislaw Quarry, at one time the deepest hole in Europe, the first sight of which, lurking behind some innocent suburban bungalows, he tells us "troubled my sleep for days". The story of the Aberfan disaster from the geological perspective is also a chilling revelation.
The book is an insightful message from the depths of geology under our feet...well worth a read.
Paperback: 304 pages
Publisher: Granta Books (7 May 2015)
Currently (2017) £9.99
This book is an amazing achievement. I am staggered by how many locations Richards has been to, or knows enough about to describe for our delectation. The descriptions are often the deciding factor on whether we are going to explore or not. As a keen amateur Industrial archaeologist, it is one of the most referred to and thumbed books in my library. It reviews every site, from small scratchings on a hillside, to in-depth descriptions of huge sites like Dinorwig.
As other reviewers have said, the maps are not very useful. The book would have benefited from a thorough proof-read, the many spelling and grammatical mistakes are often annoying. More annoying still are the very occasional errors with grid references or descriptions of quarries. But Alun Richards regularly updates from his own web-site which has a list of up-to-date addenda. Books like this from small publishers are becoming rare and we are lucky to have them. So, I would still wholeheartedly recommend this book for the sheer breadth of coverage; it proves itself useful time after time. I am now on to my third copy, having worn the first two out!
Publisher: Llygad Gwalch Cyf (1974)
Price at 2017: £12.83
The most important aspect of this book are the photographs of slate mines by J.C.Burrow, a pioneer of underground photography. His first publication "Mongst Mines and Miners" in early 1893 resulted in his being invited to illustrate the report of the "Departmental Committee upon the Slate Mines of Meirioneth" at the end of 1893. His photos were eye-openers. Nobody had seen inside a slate mine before then, least of all the miners themselves, whose world was illuminated by a candle stuck to their hat. Sadly, many of Burrow's large format glass negatives were used to make a greenhouse in the first World War!
This book makes up for the loss with reprints (from somewhere) of the best Burrow shots. The book does not say how these photographs were sourced, so I can only surmise they are the property of Greaves, the owners of Llechwedd slate quarry, whose hand shadows this book fairly heavily.
The rest of the book, interspersed with many fine illustrations, consists of a series of essays by the author, on his speciality, which is paliamentary journalism. There are chapters on Tea Drinking and the dietary habits of miners as reported to a commons committee, the Welsh language and the social aspects of miner's lives. All very interesting, fascinating reading in fact.
Then we have a couple of chapters about Electric power, which features Llechwedd almost exclusively, followed by another two chapters on the Llechwedd slate mines and the modern Llechwedd caverns. These chapters all had an air of being an advertising feature by the author, who not surprisingly, turns out to be a director of the company. Despite this, there is still much of interest to be gleaned.
A very fine section of the book then concentrates on various aspects of the mining process, illustrated mostly by excellent photographs- Mills, Surface, Porthmadog, Rolling Stock, Railways and Equipment.
Finally a chapter on a 19th century Japanese link to Llechwedd, featuring information about Richard Greaves helping the US navy with his engineering skills in 1883. Just what it is included for is unclear until one considers the rather congratulatory tone of the whole book towards Llechwedd. Another amusing feature is the inclusion of a photograph of a nude female model with some embarrassed looking miners. The next photograph is of Helen Morgan (clothed), Miss World in 1977 who, it is stated, is "a friend of the author". Good, but why? Well apparently she is celebrating the first millionth visitor to the Llechwedd Victorian Heritage site.
I know, I have been a little harsh, when this excellent and significant book has such wonderful photographs. I just wish it had been a little less smug and self-congratulatory about it and concentrated on the history, which Greaves & Sons did play a large part in any case.
In conclusion, buy it, and make your own mind up, you won't be sorry, because the photographs are wonderful!
Hardcover: 144 pages
Publisher: Landmark Publishing Ltd; First Edition edition (28 Feb. 2003)
Cost: £15.95 in 2017.
by Michael Brown
A weighty and very thorough book on the fascinating mines of Dylife. This is a fully researched volume on the Dylife area and has been produced with help and major contributions from David James and Simon Hughes.
I enjoyed it; the book is written in a very engaging and immediate style and is full of very interesting photographs, plans and sketches. I found that the social and industrial history are particularly well described. There has, literally, been no stone left unturned. For mine explorers, there are extremely useful grid references and descriptions of the workings. Michael has spent much of his life exploring the mines and the area; his connection and obvious love of the place comes through in the writing. There are chapters at the end which are interesting- a series of walks around the area, and reminiscences of life on a small hill farm, which at first I thought to be spurious-until I started reading. Like the rest of the book, it was engaging and charming. Some have crisicised the chapter "explorers notes" but then some folk need to lighten up a little.
A rarely mentioned aspect of this book is that it is self-published, which can sometimes mean a self-indulgent, rambling and badly designed end product, printed on poor paper to save costs. This book is none of those things and has high production values throughout. It also contains writing which I suspect a publisher would have pruned to the detriment of the whole. So I must say that I have no hesitation in recommending this book. If you have not been there, you will want to after reading Michael's book.
Cost £19.95 in 2017