August 18, 2017

Somewhere Beyond Time: Jan Morris’s Wales

“Come, I’d like to show you something,” says Jan Morris, the eminent Welsh author. We’re at the rustic Pen-y-Gwryd, a 200-year-old lodge clinging to the foothills of Mount Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak, where climbers Edmund Hillary, John Hunt, and others trained for 1953 Everest expedition. After a hearty lunch of steak pie and Guinness stout in the lodge’s Smoke Room, we walk under low ceilings past mullioned windows. The scent of wood smoke mingles with the aroma of fermented ales.

Look up, Morris says. Inscribed on the ceiling above us in thick black ink are the bold signatures of the climbers: E.P. Hillary, John Hunt, Charles Evans, and James Morris, then a reporter for the Times of London and the sole journalist on the 1953 Everest expedition. (Back then, Jan was called James, but we’ll get to that story later.) The climbers had returned to the lodge for reunions in the years after the famed 1953 expedition, the first to reach the summit of the world’s highest mountain, and had left their marks on the lodge’s ceiling. Asked how high she’d climbed, Morris laughs and says, “It gets higher every year.” Thanks to Morris, who hustled down Everest the day the summit was reached and relayed an encoded message to the Times, news of this grand achievement reached Britain on the eve of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.

I’d come to northwest Wales, to the region of Gwynedd, where Welsh is still widely spoken and where Welsh culture remains strong, to see Wales through Morris’s eyes. I hoped to trace Morris’s footsteps up Yr Wyddfa (the Welsh name for Mt. Snowdon, it means “grave of the giant”), to explore the imposing castles that ring the rugged Welsh coast, to see the great harbor town of Porthmadog and ride a 19th-century steam train to the slate quarries of Blaenau Ffestiniog, and to visit the whimsical Italianate village of Portmeirion, designed by Morris’s late friend, the architect Clough Williams-Ellis.

Most of all, I hoped that Morris could point me toward an understanding of how the tiny nation of Wales has survived – even thrived – with its language and culture intact, despite seven centuries of domination by England, its larger and more powerful neighbor to east. About the size of Massachusetts, Wales is a land of just 3 million people, surrounded by almost 60 million English, Irish, and Scots. Only about 200 miles long and as little as 40 miles wide, one can drive the length of Wales in less than a day and across it in a couple of hours.

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Entering Wales by locomotive, I marvel at the mortarless stone walls and watch recently born lambs skip briskly across spring-green fields. Sheep, which have provided the Welsh with meat and wool for centuries, seem to cover almost every hillside and outnumber people in Wales by more than three to one. As the train heads up the west coast of Wales, tidy whitewashed houses dot the hills to the east and broad views of Cardigan Bay open to the West.

Embodying the warm hospitality of Wales, Morris has kindly invited me to visit her home in Llanystumdwy (the name means a holy place at a bend in the river) before our lunch at Pen-y-Gwryd. After rolling down the rutted driveway, Morris cuts the engine and I can hear the River Dwyfor sing sweetly nearby. Atop the thick-walled stone house is a creaky weathervane, a symbol of Jan’s dual Welsh and English ancestry: E and W mark east and west, G and D stand for Gogledd and De, the Welsh words for north and south.

Morris, who turns 80 this year, has spent much of her life traveling, writing incisive books about Venice, Oxford, Sydney, Hong Kong, and Trieste, among other places. For the past several decades, she has always returned to this humble plot in remote northwestern Wales. In the early 1970s, Morris underwent a sex change operation and has since lived as a woman. She has remained with her partner Elizabeth, the mother of their four children, for more than 50 years.

We enter their home through an old stable door, which opens in upper and lower halves, and walk into a kitchen floored with Welsh slate. The next room is a long library with neatly organized bookshelves reaching from floor to ceiling. Upstairs over tea with Elizabeth, Jan, and their Norwegian forest cat, Ibsen, Morris and I get to talking.

“For me the essence of Wales is conflict,” she says. “It’s a constant struggle to keep Welsh culture alive” as more and more English families settle in Wales, bringing their habits with them. On the bright side, all Welsh schoolchildren today learn their mother tongue so knowledge of the Welsh language, one of Europe’s oldest, is on the rise. And though Wales remains part of the United Kingdom and is mostly governed from London, it recently formed its own national assembly.

“We have a nation-state,” Morris says. “I love the nation (of Wales) – it’s the state part of it I hate. I’m fed up with patriotism and nationality, but somehow we’ve got to preserve the culture,” she adds, noting that the Welsh word for Wales, Cymru, means comradeship. “I like the nature of Welsh civilization which is basically very kind, not ambitious or thrusting. It’s based upon things like poetry and music, which are still deeply rooted in this culture.” < note: Ok to cut these last 2 sentences are from A Sense of Place – or we could say these quotes came from ASOP.>

Before leaving I ask Morris about places to see and people to meet. She deftly sidesteps the question, but as we part she says, “Oh, you may want to look in on the Archdruid.” And then she bids me farewell with a wave and smile.

I find the Archdruid, Dr. Robyn Lewis, near the tiny town of Nefyn on the north coast of Wales’ Llyn peninsula. Lewis is the Archdruid of the National Eisteddfod, an annual cultural celebration dating to the 12th century that honors Wales’ top poets and prose authors. The weeklong festival, the most important cultural event in Wales, is filled with public performances of poetry and music, the arts that enliven the sometimes bleak Welsh days.

Somehow I imagine the Archdruid living in a low-slung cob hut surrounded by a circle of stones, but Lewis, who has lived in Nefyn since he was 3, resides in a contemporary home with sweeping views of the Llyn peninsula’s northern coastline. A stained-glass red dragon, the proud symbol of Wales, hangs in his front window, and hundreds of Welsh books line the walls. “I buy the Welsh books” to support local authors, Lewis says. “The English ones I get from the library.”

A distinguished author and retired judge, Lewis presided from 2002 to 2005 over the Gorsedd of Bards, a body composed of Wales’ literary lights responsible for the colorful Eisteddfod ceremony. Tall and lean but agile despite his advanced age, the bespectacled Lewis shows me an antique wooden chair almost as high as his ceiling, awarded to an Eisteddfod poetry winner in 1890. Lewis won the Eisteddfod award for prose in 1980, making him eligible to become an Archdruid. Three major awards are bestowed during the weeklong event: the literary medal is presented to the author of the best prose work; the crown goes to the composer of the best volume of poetry; and the great chair is awarded to the author of the best strict meter poem, a complex and distinctly Welsh type of poetry.

Rather than describe the Eisteddfod, Lewis plays a video of the 2003 ceremony, when Jan’s son Twm Morris (Twm, pronounced “Toom,” is Welsh for Tom) won the award for strict meter poetry. The silver-haired Archdruid, clad in a cream-colored robe with a golden breast plate and a sash emblazoned with red dragons, clasps a golden scepter and opens the proceedings. The bards file in wearing blue, green, or white robes and fill the stage. Two trumpeters sound a fanfare and the lights go down. Though Twm, seated in the audience, knows of his selection, the audience remains in the dark until a spotlight shines brilliantly on the winner. Twm stands, beaming, to receive his comrades’ wild cheers.

While Twm remains standing, the mistress of robes and four attendants in white nun-like attire proceed up the aisle to offer Twm his Eisteddfod robe. Unbeknownst to Twm, Lewis had arranged for Jan to serve as one of the attendants, and as she walks up the aisle Jan’s smile shines almost as brightly as the spotlight illuminating her son.

“Is there peace?” the Archdruid booms, adhering to tradition. “There is peace,” the audience responds. The Archdruid declares: “I now proclaim that Twm Morris has been chaired chief poet.” Twm takes his outsize chair as a young woman presents him with a horn of plenty and offers him the wine of welcome. A maiden offers a basket of flowers followed by a group of young girls dance. A massive sword, carried by a former rugby player (they’re the only ones strong enough to carry the sword, Lewis tells me) remains in its sheath, a symbol of peace. The ceremony closes with the national anthem. “That’s the Welsh anthem, ‘Land of our Fathers,’ not ‘God Save the Queen,’ ” Lewis says dryly as he switches off the video.

Like most Welsh citizens, Lewis is proud of his heritage. “You have one nation with 50 states – we have one state (the United Kingdom) with four nations (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales),” Lewis says. And, though most of Wales’ castles were built by English invaders, Lewis is proud of the citadels that fortify the Welsh coast: “We’re very rich in castles – that meant it was quite a job to keep us down.”

Though Morris is only half Welsh by birth, Lewis is unrestrained in praising her contributions to Wales. “She expresses her Welshness through English and that gets to the English establishment. If I express it, no one takes much notice,” he says. “I wouldn’t hesitate to call her a genius.”

I hop into my rented VW Passat, a big car by Welsh standards, and drive a few miles up the coast. From the narrow main road, I turn down a skinny lane that plunges almost vertically towards the shoreline. At the base of the hill is Nant Gwrtheyrn, the Welsh language institute and heritage center. Once a thriving quarry town, Nant Gwrtheyrn was abandoned in the 1950s. In the early ’70s squatters turned the low-slung L-shaped complex of stone buildings into a commune. It’s not hard to see why: with lush green fields and awe-inspiring views of the frothing surf, Nant Gwrtheyrn’s aesthetic glories complement its splendid isolation.

Philip Jenkins, a 35-year-old rock musician from the Welsh capital Cardiff, told me he’d been hoping to enroll at Nant Gwrtheyrn for years but had to save money. After receiving a scholarship for half the tuition, he came to the institute. Speaking Welsh isn’t a necessity, but Jenkins wanted to learn his mother tongue. “I like the sound; I like the rhythm,” he said. “It was in my family a century ago. We’re pushing back against homogenization. People are looking to their roots.”

These roots go back to Wales’ remote Celtic past. Welsh “has changed in essence so little down the centuries,” Morris writes in The Matter of Wales, “that an educated Welshman can still read, without too much difficulty, the Welsh of the Middle Ages.” Noting the language’s importance, Morris writes: “Without it, it can be said, there would be no Wales by now, only another province of England.” And in A Writer’s House in Wales, she says: “The very existence of Welsh, still defiant after so many centuries of alien pressure, is a magic in itself, and those with ears to hear find in its very cadences … a beauty akin to the music of the spheres.”

A few miles up the coast is Caernafon, the ancient walled city best known for its 13th-century castle. Built by King Edward I to quash ongoing Welsh rebellions against English occupation, the citadel juts like an iron fist into the Menai Strait. Composed of octagonal towers and serrated walls, the stronghold at Caernafon is a symbol of English dominion over Wales. Stone eagles, emblems of power, perch upon the castle’s battlements.

That evening I walk across the Afon Strait on the Aber bridge which rotates to let boats in and out of the harbor. A pair of white swans paddles through the inlet followed by five fluffy two-day-old chicks. “They were still in the egg Friday,” says Glyn Jones, a middle-aged man standing nearby. Gazing out at the lagoon, Jones extols the virtues of living in the Caernafon area: the easy pace, coastal fishing, neighborly warmth. But he laments that most young adults are heading to the capital, Cardiff, for work. English retirees and vacation-home buyers have driven up house prices in Wales, Jones says wistfully. “My friend’s daughter is a teacher and her husband is on the county council, but they can’t afford a mortgage.”

As darkness descends upon Caernafon, orange floodlights bathe the castle in a warm hue, softening its menacing facade. A swan flies so close I can hear the whoosh of its wings as seagulls squawk above. Two young men in Wellies climb into a rowboat — one doffs his cap as they motor under the bridge. The tide rises quickly, lifting a floating restaurant out of the tidal mud and providing a luminous reflecting pool for the castle. The ripples turn the castle’s reflection into a shimmering impressionist painting.

I drive on to Porthmadog, an old port town just seven miles from Morris’s home that serves as a convenient base for exploring her region of Wales. In the harbor, where a century ago tall-masted, slate-hauling ships were loaded round the clock, a few dozen pleasure craft bob up and down. I throw a windbreaker over my shoulders and walk along the Cob, an embankment crossing an estuary of the Glaslyn River. With views Mount Snowdon and its foothills, “This grand prospect is like an ideal landscape,” Morris writes in The Matter of Wales, “its central feature exquisitely framed, its balance exact, its horizontals and perpendiculars in splendid counterpoint. … It is the classic illumination of Wales.”

Morris’s book describes the remarkable skill of Welsh miners and quarrymen and the brutal hardships they faced. To see where they worked, I ride the Ffestiniog narrow-gauge rail that winds thirteen miles from Porthmadog to the slate quarries at Blaenau Ffestiniog. The four-car train is pulled along the two-foot-wide tracks by a 19th-century steam engine. Built in the 1830s to haul slate from the mountains to the coast, the Ffestiniog Railway is one Britain’s oldest railways.

During the trip’s first few miles we pass so close to people’s houses that I can see the photos on their nightstands. Next we ascend into woodlands graced with turquoise lakes. After the 75-minute ride to Blaenau Ffestiniog, we have just a few minutes to explore the old slate quarries – you can still see mountains of waste slate and the trails the men slid down at the end of their shifts.

The train’s driver, Paul Davies, rotates the engine for the return journey and invites me to ride up front with him. He tells me how the quarrymen would gather in “cabans,” typically small slate buildings, to play classical music, read poetry, and sing in choirs. “They may not have been formerly educated,” Davies says, “but the Welsh choirs were the stuff of legend.”

Back in Porthmadog, a television drama for Channel Four Wales is being filmed outside Y Llong (The Ship), a pub next to the hotel where I’m staying. The dialogue is in Welsh except for an expletive in English. “We don’t have any swear words – make love not war,” says Pat Hughes, the pub’s manager, as we watch the crew reshoot the scene. Pat tells me his countrymen had to protest to get a TV station that aired programs in Welsh. A Welshman named Gwynfor Evans went on a hunger strike in 1981 demanding the British government honor its promise to offer a Welsh-language TV channel, and Margaret Thatcher’s government caved. “The way we look at it, we’ve never been conquered,” Hughes says. “We’ve still got our language.”

A few miles down the road is the chimerical village of Portmeirion, designed by Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis, an old friend of Morris. Crowned by a belltower, the village, constructed from the 1920s through the 1970s to attract tourists, overlooks the estuary of the Dwyryd River. With buildings painted bright yellow, aquamarine, and terra cotta, Portmeirion is an uplifting contrast to the mostly colorless stone buildings of northern Wales. Morris calls it “a floating fantasy above the sea.” Portmeirion was the setting for the British cult drama “The Prisoner.” Soon after the short-lived series began airing in 1967, the number of visitors to Portmeirion jumped tenfold.

“It’s sort of a light opera approach to architecture,” says Robin Llywelyn, Clough’s grandson who serves as Portmeirion’s managing director. Llywelyn tells me his grandfather believed – like his half-Welsh colleague Frank Lloyd Wright – that architecture need not dominate the landscape; it could enhance it. “He never had a master plan,” Llywelyn says, which is clear from Portmeirion’s hodgepodge of styles and colors. But somehow this Willy Wonka-esque concoction of shops, villas, and cafés works, delighting young and old. Williams-Ellis was “always pleased to see kids enjoy it,” Llywelyn says. “Adults would want to know what it means. He’d say, ‘If I could have explained it in words, I wouldn’t have had to build it.’ ”

Beyond the village is a shady forest with trees imported from around the world and ponds dappled with lily pads. The fern-shrouded paths are brightened by magenta foxgloves. Coming around a bend, I stumble upon a dog cemetery; its heartfelt tributes – some in English, others in Welsh – are deeply moving. Says one little tombstone, “He gave us love, he gave us joy, he truly was, his father’s boy.”

Morris had mentioned that David Lloyd George, the Welshman who served as British Prime Minister from 1916 to 1922, grew up in her town, Llanystumdwy, so I returned there to visit the Lloyd George Museum. Located in the center of town, the museum honors this quintessentially Welsh leader: before he became prime minister Lloyd George fought for a “people’s budget” to ease the tax burden on the working class. In 1911 he proposed the National Insurance Act, laying the foundation for the social security reforms that transformed Britain during the 20th century. Taking power during the Great War, Lloyd George was hailed for leading Britain to victory, but his career deteriorated into acrimony over the partition of Ireland.

Part of the museum is the house where Lloyd George grew up with his uncle, a shoemaker. On a table are some old shoemaking tools – a photo of Abraham Lincoln hangs on one of the home’s thick stone walls. Iolo Wyn Edwards of the museum staff tells me that Lloyd George’s uncle admired Lincoln and imparted the American’s values to young Lloyd George, whose father had died when Lloyd George was just a year old. Just behind the museum, in the woods by the River Dwyfor, is Lloyd George’s grave. I enjoy a peaceful walk alongside the gently flowing river, the same stream that meanders by Morris’s home, until two military jets noisily slice the sky.

The last day of my trip, I awake to blue skies, a rarity in typically tenebrous Wales. I lace up my hiking boots and prepare to climb Mount Snowdon, Wales’ highest peak at 1085 meters. A mere foothill compared to the world’s great mountains, Snowdon offers a moderately challenging climb over rocky trails. I ascend the popular Pen-y-Gwryd track, a wide gravelly trail which begins steeply and then reaches a plateau with views of two deep blue lakes at the foot of a massif. After two hours of climbing, I approach Snowdon’s summit. At last I understand why Morris, who often writes of her “imagined” Wales, wouldn’t lay out my itinerary: She didn’t want to confine me to seeing her Wales. She wanted me to find my own.

From the empyrean summit of Snowdon I can see for miles and miles: to the west, the foothills bumping down to the Pen-y-Gwryd lodge; to the distant south, the bustling port town of Porthmadog; to the far north, the walled city of Caernafon and its citadel. The Llyn peninsula to the east is blanketed by clouds, but no matter: I can almost see the Archdruid in his Eisteddfod robes; I imagine Morris reading one of her son Twm’s poems in her library; I can envision young Lloyd George helping his uncle at his shoemaker’s workshop, hearing stories about a great egalitarian leader in a distant land called America.

Except for the first decade of the 1400s, the Welsh have lived under English rule for more than seven centuries. So many times the Welsh language and culture have seemed on the brink. With globalization and a cresting wave of English immigrants, the 21st century brings new threats to the rich heritage of Wales.

During my day with Morris I ask her if these are good times for Wales. “They’re better than they have been, but the more I think about it, the more concerned I become,” she says. “All we can do is keep smiling and keep fighting. We are always struggling.”

Morris raises the distinctly Welsh concept of hiraeth, an ineffable yearning. “We’re always longing for something,” she says, “but we’re not sure if it’s an ideal past or a better future.” Perhaps it’s this “perennial vision of a golden age, an age at once lost and still to come – a vision of another country almost, somewhere beyond time or even geography,” as Morris writes in The Matter of Wales, that gives the Welsh the strength and creativity to keep bucking the tide of history.


Michael Shapiro first met Jan Morris in 1992 at a travel writing seminar near San Francisco. “When I first met Jan she seemed like a visitor from another time,” Shapiro says. He interviewed Morris in Llanystumdwy for his book A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration (Travelers’ Tales, 2004) which was briefly excerpted in National Geographic Traveler. A shorter version of this story appeared in National Geographic Traveler.

Comments

  1. Hi Michael,

    I’m putting together an undergraduate nonfiction syllabus for my Teaching Creative Writing course in my MFA program at USF. I’ve decided to include an essay from Jan Morris’ collection, The World, and will also include your travel essay of visiting her to supplement it (to exemplify variation in setting, narrative voice, characterizing people and place). Thanks!

    Nicole

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