Celebrating North Wales

In August 2014 the extended family of Mill Grove enjoyed its 39th consecutive holiday in North Wales. Perhaps the anniversary would not have been so significant if I had not read John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps in recent months. Or perhaps this year’s stay was uniquely special.

(Just for any new readers, Mill Grove is the name of the residential community in the East End of London into which I was born, and for which Ruth, my wife, and I, are responsible. And this community has two adjacent terraced houses in the picturesque harbour village of Borth-y-Gest, just along the coast from Porthmadog, and opposite Portmeirion in North Wales.)

Here I reflect with a sense of joy and fulfilment on a few experiences of this summer as a way of gathering up themes that have run through the four decades.

Leaving Elidir Fawr in the evening light

Leaving Elidir Fawr in the evening light

It was a beautifully clear evening in which the mist and cloud that had enveloped us for the rest of the day eventually dispersed when three of us stepped on to the summit of Elidir Fawr the most northerly of the peaks over 3,000 feet on the Glyderau ridge. To the West the Lleyn peninsular looked like an ethereal fairie land; nearer the Snowdon massif was etched so that the detail of every ridge was there for studying; to the North East the Carneddau range stretched into the distance with successive peaks of declining height; and across the magnificent rich green valley beneath us we could see Bristly Ridge, the Glyderau and Y Garn (the route we had taken through the day).

I am not sure how often I have stood on this summit but I guess it is somewhere between ten and twenty times. Yet that evening it seemed more magnificent, more majestic than ever before. And one of my two young companions was aglow, not just from the reflected light of the setting sun, but from the sense of achievement that came with this peak: he had now completed all 14 peaks over 3000 feet in Snowdonia. How much of my joy was derived from this I cannot possibly say, but all through the day, whether scrambling up the first gully on Bristly Ridge, revisiting the famous Cantilever, or standing on the extraordinary pile of massive rocks that comprise the summit of Glyder Fach, I found myself calling to mind any number of previous times in these same hills.I guess that the hundreds of companions I have had over the years will have sensed  that I feel completely at home when in the hills. There is a connection between the mountains, waves, skies and my soul. (I owe this precise formulation to Byron in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.)

Setting off from the beach in the Wayfarer dinghy

Setting off from the beach in the Wayfarer dinghy

Just two days later I returned from an evening sail to and from Portmeirion, when another young companion had taken the helm of the Wayfarer dinghy and guided us back to Borth-y-Gest as the wind slackened and the daylight faded. We felt quite chilly as we arrived at our beach to find a barbecue underway. Hot drinks were placed into our hands, and then sausages and burgers. A wood fire was illuminating the faces of the family gathered around its orange-red glow. And on a rock between the fire and the ebbing waterline there was a candle whose flame was untroubled by even the slightest hint of a breeze. We had two guitars and as youngsters played and sang, the constellations moved imperceptibly above and around us, while shooting stars darted occasionally mostly diagonally from the south.

From the very earliest holiday, in the unforgettably hot summer of 1976, to this latest one, this combination of days on the hills or sailing, and nights under the stars, has always been at the heart of my most memorable experiences. And common to them all has been the privilege of sharing hills, seas, beaches and starlit skies with young people. I am happy, very happy in fact, with my own company, not least in these now-familiar settings, but nothing gives me more joy or satisfaction than helping to introduce a new generation to some of the glories and beauties of the natural world.

We had two young boys with us for part of the holiday this year, and they enjoyed climbing, sailing, swimming, kayaking and playing in the sand, walking at night, as well as shrimping and crabbing. Two memories stand out for me as I think of their very first experiences of North Wales. One was arriving with them as they reached the top of Moel-yr-Gest, our local mountain, and were greeted by an ever-widening horizon stretching far into the depths of Snowdonia, together with the aroma of sausages and bacon cooking beside a Vango Force Ten tent. “Wow”, said the older child, “This is amazing!”

But then back at the house they had discovered that we had three “Squads” that helped with the preparation of breakfast and the picnic-making each day. Without hesitation the two boys volunteered to help all three squads, and revelled in knocking on the doors of bedrooms announcing: “Ten minute warning (morning) to breakfast (brekworst)!” They had found work to do, and in doing so were playing a part in the life of the community which was evidently valued by everyone. The way the older young members of the family welcomed their offers of help (even when the time was not exactly correct, and it might have been easier to serve early morning tea without them) was particularly gratifying.

When we returned home the youngest member of our community here attracted my attention of our first meal together and pointed to her little red apron on the hook beside the sink. A chair was found as I fastened her apron and she joined the team doing the washing up by processing items through the sink used for rinsing and on to the draining board. She has not yet visited North Wales, but it is not hard to see how easily she would fit in.

She has not been with me on the hills, sailing or under a clear night sky, but should the time come nothing would give me greater joy. Can it really be that I have been granted the blessing of 39 years in such a special part of God’s creation, alongside children and young people, and that we have all returned safe and sound? That’s how it is, and what’s more many have in turn introduced their own children to some of the very same places and traditions.

Some time I hope to put the 39 years of experiences into a more coherent and comprehensive form of record, but for now as I type this piece my fingers are still sun-tanned, and the inner glow is still with me. Has it been in North Wales that some of the most important learning of the children has taken place, I wonder? And have some of their fears and anxieties been assuaged? Have relationships with nature helped their human interactions? Have they learned respect for nature, and even self-respect? Perhaps I can leave you to judge. Meanwhile for me the celebration of North Wales continues unabated.

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