Monday, 23 August 2010


Curves ahead

For years now, my husband has been saying "We need to take Mum back to Wales."
My mother-in-law's family came from a small village in western Wales and during the war years she and her sister lived there.

I've always imagined a dramatic evacuation from London:  waving good-bye to her parents at the train station, along with the other millions of city children who were sent to the countryside in 1939.
As it turned out, the "real" story was a bit different.  Apparently, the family was already in Wales when war broke out.  My mother-in-law was thrilled at the turn of events, as it meant she would be able to go to the fair.
"Yes, we had a marvellous war," giggled my mother-in-law's childhood friend as we discussed those years.

My children and I had never been to Wales.  I don't know what we had expected, really -- something gray and wet, I suppose.  Something old-fashioned and fusty and dull.

The dramatic cliffs, the huge expanse of Irish Sea, the blue sky:  it was all such a surprise.

Setting out

The week in Wales was on the calendar for the middle of August.
As far as my oldest daughter was concerned, it was a black hole in her hectic social life.  She dreaded it and complained about it with the full force of adolescent hyperbole.
The thought of sentimental journeys, of a visit to the past, is anathema to her.  She wants only to live in the present.  The future is a bit frightening, and the past just seems irrelevant.

Over the stile

 My children's great-grandfather and great-great grandparents are buried in the village of Cilgerran.  We visited their graves.  My mother-in-law doesn't know how deeply rooted her family in Wales; like her granddaughter, she has never been that interested in the past.  It gave me a chill, though, to think that my children are part of this place.  It is there, somewhere, in their DNA.

To my fanciful eyes, Cilgerran was a bit of a Brigadoon.  For a hundred years, and maybe more, it's hardly changed.  There is Aunt Mary's house, but someone replaced the old door.  There's the Teifi River, where we used to fish.  There's the ruins of the old Norman castle, where we used to play. 

We climbed the steep path from the river to the castle, and I worried that it was a bit much for my mother-in-law.  I scolded my husband about it, but he defended himself by saying that she knew the climb was challenging.  I wonder, though, if it is difficult to remember that you are 80 when you visit one of your childhood places.  In any case, she declined to join us for our walks on the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.

There is no escape route

My girls are good walkers.  Even when they were really young, I forced them to trek across Boston, Amsterdam and Den Haag -- because I like to see things by foot.  These experiences have become part of our family lore. 

We walked every day we were in Wales, but one day we hiked the 10 miles from our cottage in Moylegrove to the Newport Sands Beach.  It was a sunny day, but you could feel -- in the wind -- that a storm was approaching.  On the top of the cliffs, the wind was fierce.

The sign, above, reads:  This is a remote, rugged and challenging stretch of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path.  Please keep to the path.  Avoid the cliff edge.

Stay on the path

Rather worryingly, it warns: On this stretch there are no escape routes or exit points.

Once you start down the path, you have no choice but to keep going. I couldn't help but think that, like much of life, it's better that you don't know how hard it's going to be.

Avoid the cliff edge

It's a trick of perspective, but in this picture the girls seem so far away.  I let them get a bit ahead of me -- and there they are, tiny figures on the edge of the cliff.

After what seems like a summer of too much togetherness, they will be off -- on their own -- in only two weeks.  The oldest daughter is off to boarding school, and the youngest daughter is going to Dartmoor for a geography field trip.

Rise and Fall

There's almost no cell phone coverage, or Internet access, in this part of Wales.  My husband complained that he got better coverage in Angola.  He and my oldest daughter walked around, cell phones held aloft, trying to find a signal.

Before cars, before trains, there were ships -- and then, this rugged coast was well-connected.  I read that Newport, where our walk ended, supplied the herring for Queen Elizabeth I's Navy.

These cliffs are actually part of the Preseli Mountains -- the source of the blue slate, or "bluestones" that make up Stonehenge.

This bit of coastline, near Cardigan Bay, is one of the only places in the UK where you can find dolphins and seals.  Sadly, we didn't spot any . . . although we kept looking for them.  Even without dolphins, there was more than enough to marvel over.  She might not admit to it, not now, but even my teenage daughter wasn't immune to the magic of this place.

Resting (and reflecting)