Review: 100 Cymru: Y Mynyddoedd a Fi by Dewi Prysor
On the landscape of Dewi Prysor’s life the mountains of Wales rise as towering peaks. The energetic novelist and poet is a self-described mountain man, brought up on a farm 1000 feet above sea level, where he spent the best part of 18 years tending sheep, repairing fences or cutting thistles on the high land of Gallt y Daren or otherwise descending to fish the rushing streams of Nant yr Hendra and Nant yr Allt.
But there were also quieter, more contemplative days when he lay down on the high land to appreciate the spirit and quiet peace of such places. Even as a child he came to realise just how much of the country is arrayed before you so he started to reach for new summits.
Then, in 2015 ,he happened to chance upon Cant Cymru, the pocket sized “bible” for Welsh mountain walkers and climbers by Dafydd Andrews. Upon reading it Prysor decided to climb the 100 highest peaks of Wales himself. This handsome book – a mixture of coffee table book, personal reminscence, practical info and evocative photo spreads – is the result of his high-level exertions to realise this goal.
And so he sets off in his trusty black van to all parts of Wales, often to places he has been when following the football but this time tarrying awhile to tick off another peak. So he stops in the Brecon Beacons where he appreciates the myriad differences between the landscape and geology hereabouts and his native north Wales. Here he perceives a deep energy in the land, hears a murmuring as if produced by a generator far underground which he suggests you perceive not with the ear but rather through the chest.
He clearly very much enjoys roaming such unfamiliar terrain, not least when the chances upon excellent drinking clinics such as the Ancient Briton in Abercrave, a pub where they proudly display Owain Glyndŵr’s sword, which raises the sort of questions that can only be answered over some lagers.
Dewi Prysor’s family roots thread through mountainlands such as those around Cwm Prysor like mycelium. He freely admits that despite his love of punk, ska, reggae and dub that ultimately he loves quieter musics, is a man who loves a simple hearth, an earthen floor and a rush candle, and this rootedness in folk ways and folk traditions is integral to his identity.
All this is bolstered by his literary pedigree that includes a welter of poets and musicians, including his grandfather’s cousin who gathered the stories of Cwm Cynllwyd and his grandfather himself, also a poet and memoirist who continued to compose englynion when he was 100 year old.
Prysor keeps this tradition very much alive by including his own verses in this book, and by paying close attention to language and to names. Thus we find out that there is no rhyme for Cnicht in Welsh but then find out that the name itself derives from the English word ‘knight,’ as the mountain resembles a helmet when seen from the sea.
Or that the arrogant substitution of English names for Welsh ones well and truly gets his goat and he lists some pretty ugly and egregious examples such as Sinister Gully, Milestone Buttress and The Mushroom Garden, which have not only replaced the original names but now appear officially on maps.
Dewi Prysor more contentedly explores the derivation of many Welsh mountain names and delights in listing the names of rivers that cut through the southern uplands, carrying with them a beautiful stream of Y Wenhwyseg, the dialect of south east Wales: Nant Byrfe, Nant y Gwared, Afon Sychlwch, Twrch Fechan, Nant y Lloi and Trinant to select just a few from Dewi’s list – a flowing list indeed.
On his mega-tour of the Welsh peaks he also pauses to consider the origins of place names, sometimes long enough to tell us complete and arresting stories, such as recounting the dramatic flight of Owain Glyndŵr over Moel Hebog when he avoids English soldiers by scaling a steep rock chimney before finding sanctuary in a remote cave where a local monk sneaks him food.
The book is studded with such stories and discoveries, from the aircraft graveyard at Allt y Ceffylau above Blaenau Ffestiniog with its downed Hurricanes, Spitfires and Wellingtons, through the artistic figures connected with the Gwent uplands such as Bruce Chatwin and Eric Gill to the macabre hangman’s noose that hangs in the hallway of the area’s Skirrid Inn, a haunted pub which claims to be the oldest boozer in Wales.
Along the way he finds time to propose an apparently very heavy rucksack for show-offs which contains nothing but air, to consider the physics of the universe, to coin a Welsh term for the fleece jacket, being jympar cnu and ponder the way the Hindu Vedas underline the importance of naming a thing or place lest it not exist. And of course the book is a found poem of mountain names;– Carnedd y Filiast, Foel Grach, Maesglase, Twmpa, Godor, Mynydd Perfedd and Foel Hafod Mynydd which can only delight this novelist and poet who has climbed them all.
Throughout his highly-oxygenated journeying Dewi Prysor is a supercharged and passionate companion, sharing his deep love of the land as well as the jukebox of music he carries in his head, often literally breaking into song apparently as he strides and climbs, belting out anything from Hank Williams to hit singles by The Police.
But it is in the quieter passages that we see what places such as Esgeiriau Gwynion truly mean to him, causing an electricity to flow through his veins in Cwm Cynllwyd, as he hears invisible voices carried on the wind, the spirit of people, his people who worked long and hard and developed a profound relationship with the land they tended or quarried and named.
These are the places that have made him the man he is, a proud and inspiring Welshman who has felt the land beneath his feet and seen a country he loves so utterly unroll before him when the mist clears or the rainflow falters just long enough to see one’s true place in things and view the mountains as what Prysor perceives to be the pulpits of identity.
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