Review: Real Preseli celebrates a magical part of Wales
This part of Wales is studded with cairns and burial chambers, rugged scenery and mystical sites where the partition between this world and another are pretty thin.
But it is also one of gigantic oil tankers, youth unemployment and save-our-hospital campaigns.
It seems natural therefore that author John Osmond should delineate his ‘Real Preseli’ using the map of the political constituency, especially as he has stood here as a candidate for Plaid Cymru on three occasions, tramping its streets, rosette in lapel, as well as tramping its hills and dramatically corrugated coast.
This results in an account of north and west Pembrokeshire which is far from misty-eyed or prone to wanton lyricism. Osmond’s is the journalist’s view of things, but one who evidently loves this part of the land.
He has been coming back to his caravan at Little Haven for forty years, even though the Atlantic gales blew two of them over and in 1992 managed to completely flatten another, leaving just a salvageable cooker.
So, he has seen the area change over the years, since those halcyon days when, as a young man, he caught mackerel by the shoal using old spark plugs for floats.
He has seen the two linguistic communities, English in the south, Welsh in the north slowly coming together, and, if anything, that is one of the key lessons in the book, how disparate groups can come together for mutual benefit.
This was certainly true when they created the Fishguard tapestry, a Bayeux-inspired collective work of art which told the story of the failed French invasion of the town and drew on the skills of people native to the area and those from outside to stitch the artwork together.
A local builders’ merchant donated wood. Pembrokeshire women diligently worked alongside incomers, some from as far afield as California, all under the guidance of three friends who serendipitously happened to have all been lecturers in embroidery at Goldsmith’s College in London.
In another instance of co-operative living, the story of the creation of the self-sufficient Lammas community on the edge of Preseli is revealing. Here, initial resistance to the planning application to create a low-impact, off-grid eco-village eventually led to approval under Pembrokeshire’s ‘low-impact development’ planning policy which was eventually rolled out by the Welsh Government to cover the whole of the country.
It is, as Osmond explains, an application which wouldn’t have got anywhere in England.
And most memorably there is an excellent account of the “Battle of the Preselau” when locals fought off the MOD’s plans to sequester almost 60,000 acres of land and thus over 100 farms in northern Preseli to create a gunnery range.
Local chapel ministers encouraged direct action, including the Reverend Joseph James, who stammered his opinion that he, his wife Ethel and the Rev Parri-Roberts should occupy the first farm ‘And if they dared to th-threaten shooting two m-ministers then the whole of W-Wales would be bound to rise.’
In his wanderings, often taking the Puffin Shuttle bus through the gorse-edged lanes of the county, Osmond meets a vividly depicted range of characters, such as Sarah Wint who is an advocate of the healing garden, the Fishguard-based arts’ entrepreneur Myles Pepper, cottage-squatter John Penn and Spitfire enthusiast Ray Burgess, who runs a quirky museum in Haverfordwest dedicated to the famous fighter plane.
Osmond also catalogues some of his antecedents, the writers who have previously written about Preseli, and in many ways have helped create it, such as the visionary Waldo Williams, whose poems seemed to hymn the land into being, underlining his, and our connection with it.
John Osmond is not a complete stranger to visions, for he once had his own little epiphany, a reverie of motion that made him feel as if he was floating off the ground. At the time the author was interested in James Loveluck’s Gaia hypothesis and this may have led to this special moment, in the hills above Felindre Farchog, when the earth seemed to come alive beneath his feet.
Others have walked across Preseli for other reasons, not least as pilgrims drawn by the ecclesiastic formula that suggested that going twice to St. Davids was equivalent to going once to Rome.
At St Non’s well, outside our smallest city, Osmond sees a modern pilgrim dabbing her eyes with its water, reputed to be especially effective for treating eye conditions.
Even the most dedicated Preseli-phile will learn much for reading this book, such as:
- That the name Solva derives from the Viking name for samphire
- The parish of St Elvis, or Llaneilfw is the smallest in Britain
- In 1950 there were still almost a hundred first-class trawlers working out of Milford Haven and the value of the catch was over £ 1.5 million.
That said, the book could have benefitted from another quick pass of the editor’s butterfly net to catch typos and the like, especially in the Welsh names and quotations.
My favourite story in the book concerns the purchase of Rhosygilwen House with the intention of turning it into an arts centre. When the owners, Glen and Brenda Peters asked a local builder for a quote he sat down at their Steinway and played Schubert’s ‘Sonata in B Flat Major.’ That pretty much clinched it for them.
‘Real Preseli’ is full of such stories, from the cross-dressing antics of Rebecca’s Daughters as they tore down toll-booths and railed against injustice through the influx of whalers who came to live in Milford Haven to the saga of St David’s bones.
John Osmond is the best of guides, blessed with a communicable curiosity. This latest volume in the ‘Real…’ series celebrates a magical part of Wales by walking it in a spirit of quiet enquiry, finding out that there is a ‘deep, steady independence of mind’ that its inhabitants have in common.
The tag might well apply to Osmond himself, a quiet man with a gift for conjuring up a place in unshowy words and thereby helping us to better understand it, and in so doing understand ourselves.
Real Preseli by John Osmond is published by Seren Books, costs £9.99 and is available to buy here.