Review: Real Gwynedd takes you to places that make you fully appreciate the privilege of armchair travel
As anyone who has been on one of Rhys Mwyn’s guided walks knows, he leads them like a compact bolt of energy, charged up to communicate what he knows about a range of stuff as wide as the Menai Strait. As a qualified and practising archaeologist he’s just the man to take you on this whistlestop tour of Gwynedd’s amplitude of cairns and hillforts, castles and Cambrian rocks. But as a musician – with a pedigree which includes playing bass for pioneering 80s punks Anrhefn, running a label of the same name and nowadays being a Radio Cymru host – he’s also the go-to-guy for a slightly more oblique take on north Wales culture. So Real Gwynedd is full of music venues that are no more, or buried under car parks alongside the towers of the native princes and pilgrim routes along Llyn, where time really does slow down.
You’d have to be a hard core member of the Gwyneddigion to know everything in this dizzy mix of psychogeography, countercultural reminiscence and oblique travel guide. You might know that Bangor High Street is the longest High St in Britain, especially if you’ve forgotten something down in Al Baraka foods and you’re up the station end. Or that the pubs in Bethesda are arrayed down one side of the main street while the chapels face them off on the other. But you’d have to have local roots going back to one of the Llywelyns, the Great or the Last, to know that the first recorded sheep dog trial was held on the Rhiwlas Estate in 1873 and that there’s a big dump full of Second World War boots on the side of the Crimea Pass. It’s called, charmingly, Esgidiau Meirw Boot Camp and I guess it’s not on any tourism brochure. The list goes ever on and on, with the Norman street pattern of, well, Bala taking its place alongside the fact that the novelist Caradog Pritchard’s hat is on display in a case in Storiel, the museum in Bangor. The city is named after a “bangor,” being a wooden wattle fence apparently.
Just like that Welsh doyen of psychogeographers, Iain Sinclair, Rhys Mwyn is very good at reading the urban runes, teasing out the meaning of a graffito or some spray- painted slogan. So he finds the Free Wales Army graffiti above a footbridge on the Bala Lake Railway and the irony in the warning on a Dŵr Cymru/Welsh Water sign at Tryweryn of all places that warns of the ‘Danger of drowning.’ Then there’s the boundary between Gwynedd and Denbighshire where the tarmac on the roads leading up to it is different in colour, showing council gangs work on either side and toe the line as it were. Also, like Sinclair, the author knows that you don’t always have to go it alone.
One of the sparkiest chapters finds him climbing up Arennig in the company of Arenig in the company of the landscape artist Iwan Gwyn Parry, the two of them a version of two earlier travellers to the mountain, namely Augustus John and J.D.Innes. So we have a bright interchange of ideas, on anything from Charles Darwin through the Sex Pistols to the documenting of the little tin sheds you can still find around here.
As is the case with all the books in the “Real” series the author takes you to places that make you fully appreciate the privilege of armchair travel and the wisdom of always choosing a local guide. He climbs the hard yards along a wet mountain path to visit Carn Dochan, the almost invisible remnant of a Welsh castle set high above the village of Llanuwchllyn. He takes the car down the vertiginous road to the National Language Centre at Nant Gwrtheyrn, one of those roads where you’re never quite sure if the best thing to do is close your eyes tightly as you steer.
And he takes you to places you might not have heard about. For me the stand-out is St Mark’s Church in Brithdir. From the outside it’s dull, one of the ‘starkest, greyest’ buildings Mwyn has ever seen. But stepping inside is a visual epiphany:
Once through the doors a fantastic splash of terracotta red and a turquoise blue engulfs the visitor. An apsidal east side with arched interior giving the impression of a dome, this is a truly remarkable building. Totally unexpected. I might just have landed in the south of Spain rather than the south side of Dolgellau. I’m thinking Cadiz not Brithdir…
There are other similar discoveries, such as a visit to the Cwt y Bugail Quarry, where art treasures were kept safe during the Second World War, and Penyberth, the bombing school on Llŷn set on fire by Saunders Lewis, Lewis Valentine and D.J.Williams, a tale of damp matches and a defiantly blazing shed.
There’s also plenty of personal stuff, from Rhys Mwyn’s typical punk antipathy towards hippies to his love of tea and archaeology, of running and listening to the distant echoes of rock and roll in closed pubs and defunct village halls. At one point he quotes a letter from Adam Sedgwick, Charles Darwin’s tutor to his gifted student, after failing to grasp all of the meaning in On the Origin of Species.
This leads to a discussion with his art- tutor friend Iwan Gwyn Parry about whether you can teach someone to ‘see.’ They conclude that seeing and asking the right questions is a mix of passion and a learning process, but these are not mutually exclusive, although ‘Without passion you will never see.’ There is oodles of passion. ‘seeing’ and a great busyness of curiosity on display in the pages of Real Gwynedd. It also comes with a discography of music such as Ani Glass, Adwaith Band and Rufus Mufasa, so you have plenty of good stuff to listen to when, prompted by the book, you venture there yourself.
Real Gwynedd is published by Seren. You can buy a copy here…