Review: Cynefin yr Alltud by Les Darbyshire
The village of Manod can seem like an extension of Blaenau Ffestiniog, a quiet ribbon of terraced houses in the shadow of the rocky humps of Mynydd Manod Mawr and Manod Bach, themselves pockmarked by slate working and quarries which shelter the little community from the harshness of the weather.
But in its heyday this small, incredibly tightly-knit community was a veritable hive of busyness and not all of the work came from extracting and trimming slate in the three local quarries. There was the ‘Ashes and Home Refuse Collector,’ the ‘Boot and Shoe Maker’ and ‘District Rate Collector.
The eight local farms employed a cadre of agricultural workers while there was a local policeman, postman, blacksmiths, carriers, a baker, a ‘Station Master,’ sellers of coal and butter, clothes and milk not to mention a butcher, carpenter, stone mason, bus driver and road cleaner among many more occupations.
Not that everyone was gainfully employed. A character called ‘Guto Cae Clyd’ liked nothing better than to sit in a “chair” he had made for himself by weaving the branches of the tree opposite his house together, gustily playing his accordion like a virtuoso.
But slate was the key component of the economy and with the plenitude of jobs came many dangers. It could be perilous work as the grim statistics from the quarry at Graig Ddu attest, from workers falling, being hit by runaway trams or being buried under rubble to accidents involving detonators and explosives.
But there was another, more benign side to the work, not least the existence of the caban, the place where workers had their lunch and exchanged views. Here, once a month, they held an eisteddfod, with competitions such as solo singing, recitation and writing short stories, underlining how innately cultured were such places and communities.
The caban was an important social hub, where money would be collected for someone ill in hospital or letters of condolence sent to those who were grieving, so a centre for care as well as competition.
The work was hard and extended over a five-and-a-half-day week. But Sundays were different, work was completely forbidden by the chapels, and anyone caught doing any might be thrown out of the congregation.
There is a long list of people punished by Bethel chapel in nearby Tanygrisiau such as the man who had the temerity to raffle his watch on a Sunday, the woman who served as a waitress, a member of the congregation who walked on the railway line of a Sunday and the woman who was punished for simply wearing shoes that squeaked to chapel.
The Calvinist Methodist regime could be harsh and strict indeed and had the brimstone language to match.
A young woman who worked in the Wynnes Arms was excommunicated because she worked in the ‘Devil’s House’ while the local fair was also considered to be the devil’s work: anyone attending had to avoid the censorious gaze of the local minister as he patrolled in his wrath.
Cynefin yr Alltud, which translates as the exile’s habitat, brings this former busyness back to life in the form of recollections which mainly concentrate on the 1930s. Blessed with a remarkable memory, its author re-visits pretty much all of the houses and cottages in the little area where he grew up, Congl-y-Wal, telling us who lived there and what they did. Born in 1924 Les Darbyshire spent of his early life among its 28 houses and its single farm, other than when on periods of active service during the war.
Before being called up he worked with his carpenter father, also helped built the airfield at Llanbedr as well as the special underground storage for art treasures from the National Art Gallery, brought to the slate caverns for safety during the years of the Blitz.
Darbyshire recalls small incidents that broke up the daily routine, such as the well-balanced porter from Bala managing to ride his bicycle for twenty yards along a length of railway track.
There was the shocking news that a local farmer had stolen his neighbour’s sheep, and this at a time, of course when mutton was very much favoured over lamb.
He remembers the coming of electricity and the advent of the motor car and describes the palaver involved in getting wet batteries charged every week to power the wireless and thus connect with a wider world.
He recalls a period before roads were built, when slates were transported down slopes on mule and horseback, one horse being able to draw a ton of slates. The cost of building the roads was often extracted from its users in the form of turnpike toll, the rights to which were sold at auction to the highest bidder.
Another development charted in the book is the coming of the railway, and indeed the Great Western Railway which carried goods and passengers on the line between Blaenau and Porthmadog.
Any travellers would be locked into their carriage by the guard for the duration of the journey, other than should there be an accident or whatever, when he would shout – ‘First class passengers stay put, second class passengers come out and walk, third class passengers come out and push.’
Cynefin yr Alltud is an exceptional act of clear-eyed remembering by a man with seeming total recall for the milltir sgwar, his square mile. Much has changed, he suggests.
No longer do people go out to the toilet at the far end of the garden in the middle of the night, or wash in cold water or warm any hot water on the open coal fire.
But not all the change has been for the better, he suggests, recalling an equable and caring community, with different standards and a range of occupations now long gone, along with the small shops, the chapels and the churches, leaving people now a little more self-centred perhaps.
This is village life very clearly recalled which also serves as a sort of catalogue of disappearance, a register of social shift and all this over the span of a man’s long lifetime.
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