A Deliberate Life

I often visit Cwmorthin – a ruined slate mining village in a valley just above Tanygrisiau. I’m working on a poetry sequence on this place, examining links between landscape, architecture and emotion and it is a place that continually draws me back.

When I reach the top of the hill, I turn and look down over the ruins dotted around the lake. It is hard to imagine this place vibrating with the sounds of iron being hammered; trucks thudding along tracks; men shouting orders in the fast, guttural consonants of an endangered language; men coughing, each dust-filled heave tearing at their lungs; mules braying; the rhythmic chip and clink of slate being hewn or rived; the spray and hiss of water hosing down slate or churning in wheels; the occasional muffled boom of an explosion somewhere inside a tunnel. It is hard to imagine the smells: the sulphur and tar tang of coal burning, the gritty alkaline of dust and slate particles choking the air. It is hard to imagine the swell of activity in this place that was a little taste of hell, now transformed to a place of wild tranquillity: uncompromising, but beautiful.

There is no odour of industry, the air is cool and clean; the sharp iron tang of snow in the winter, the soft pungency of damp grasses for most of the year. The lake is quiet, an occasional lap of water on stone, but from here it gives back only silence. The sounds now are of an occasional bird calling, my own feet scrunching across the dry, springy heather, and the wind, which waxes and wanes in a fast repeating cycle; howling, keening, whistling before it suddenly falls away, exhausted and still. In those moments the hush spreads a blanket over the ruins: the barracks and lakeside workshop, roofless and fast becoming grim, eroded shapes of decay; the chapel, known as the sheepfold, with its roof newly disappeared, its walls still reaching towards heaven in one last push; the little cottage, the only intact building which I have a constant longing to save, mourning as the first roof tile falls away, knowing that inside the damp is winning, the stairs are already rotten, that no-one will ever sit on the step in a moment of sunshine, watch the water play with stones on the shore, gaze up into the oddly out of place, but pleasing monkey-puzzle tree and think, this is where I live. 

What has been lost? Hell has given way to a fiercely exquisite landscape.  The air is fresh and good. What was once a Blakeian inferno is now a Thoreau-idyll. He writes:

A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature. It is earth’s eye, looking into which the beholder measures the depths of his own nature. (Walden)

Cwmorthin now is such a place; a haven where nature has won, where walkers can sit by a calm lake surrounded by the imposing grandeur of the Moelwyns and measure their own existence.

There is some truth in this, but it is also a fiction; a narrative we weave to give meaning to loss or progress or the mixture of the two. There are no cabans now; the ‘private groups’ where men met at lunchtime in the mine to debate politics and life and practice hymns The area was depopulated in the late 1970s and has never recovered; jobs are scarce, skills scarcer, economic depression commonplace. But, of course, it was never a fair trade – political engagement and skill should not have such a high price – men coughing their lungs to destruction, frequently dying in their early forties, children fetching and carrying in mines at ten, working full-time by the age of twelve, women carrying unbearable domestic and emotional loads, often with the need to make extra money as well.

That something is lost and gone does not mean it should be hallowed and sanctified. The mine at Cwmorthin was known as the ‘Slaughterhouse’ – hardly a place or way of life to feel romantic longing for. But harsh conditions invariably wake the human spirit to acts of resistance. ‘Resistance,’ Alice Walker tells us in her remarkable novel about, among other things, the horrors of female genital mutilation, ‘is the secret of joy.’ What we should be nostalgic for is not the hard, grinding labour or stink of toxic industry, but a quality of engagement with life that Cwmorthin threw up in the face of overwhelmingly harsh conditions; a quality that other times and places might nurture and cultivate in other circumstances, even sitting by a tranquil lake meditating on the depths of existence.

Blake certainly thinks that community is a corollary of rural, rather industrial, areas, but he had no experience of harsh, but relatively small industries folded into a wild mountain landscape. Thoreau maintains that he knows ‘of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor.’ This ability has not been lost. The cabans have gone, but in Tanygrisiau, the tiny strip of village tucked under the valley in which Cwmorthin sits and which provided the Slaughterhouse and other slate mines with many workers, there are seeds still of resistance, of political engagement, of community, that I have not experienced in cities or small towns. It is far from uniformly idyllic – it is an area with social and economic problems, yet I remain impressed by the quality of neighbourliness and goodwill here and by the number of people trying to live innovative lifestyles. At the beginning of Walden Thoreau says:

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear…

– Henry David Thoreau, Walden, Chapter 2

A great deal has been lost in this wild, beautiful place, but there are people here who are trying to live deliberately, who do not have economic wealth, but front the essential facts of life – it is part of what makes this small place so dear and an ideal place for a small press.

This is the title piece from the first section of the sequence, a prose-poetry section:

iv: Tŷ Schrödinger

The one remaining house is closed: windows boarded, padlocks guard the doors. Inside, unseen inhabitants, their lives already past, are yet alive and dead—until the seal gives way to break the spell. We know that they are gone, the dead, not smeared into some living-dying-life-inside-the-box; not caught between—but do not know the how or when the murk of maybes became death.

And in our box we wait until the measurement is made.

Cwmorthin by Cottia Fortune-Wood


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7 responses to “A Deliberate Life

  1. Mavis Gulliver

    Jan, this is such a strange co-incidence. I am just back from a hoilday among the Argyll Slate Islands. I too am writing about them and my thoughts have been running along similar lines to yours. I started writing individual poems about each island but they seem to be gelling together into a sequence. I visited Luing, Seil and Easdale where most of the quarries were flooded by a severe storm in 1880. There are pools over 200 feet deep as well as quarries without water. I am haunted by one particular island – Belnahua – but unfortunately couldn’t get anyone to take me there. It’s only just over a square mile in size, but supported 150 workers and their families. There was nowhere to grow food and only an artesian well for water – everything else had to be taken over by boat. There must be many similarities between your Welsh slate landscape and ours. The main difference probably lies in the fact that the Argyll quarries are on small islands which run down to grey slate beaches and the sea.

    You refer to mines – were they really mines or quarries like the ones here?
    Thank you. I so enjoyed your piece.

  2. This sounds absolutely fascinating, Mavis.
    In Wales there were both quarries and mines. Cwmorthin was a mine with many levels – it had seven floors underground and miles of tunnels that joined up with other workings right across Blaenau – there’s a fantastic website @ http://www.cwmorthin.co.uk/ including plans of the mine. It would be wonderful to think of a way to somehow marry up these individual strands of work.

  3. Mavis Gulliver

    I envy the amount of information you have available to you – and even more, your ability to visit without too much difficulty. Because the slate islands were so remote and some quarries closed as early as 1881 there is limited resource material. There is a small museum but I would have to take a ‘holiday’ on Seil in order to have enough time to peruse them properly. With so many other committments and expenses it’s not looking likely for the forseeable future. Although perhaps I should just go hang the expense – and see it all in the winter. There is a website with some information
    http://www.slateislands.org.uk/ but it’s a poor substitute for being there.
    The idea is still haunting me – especially Belnahua. I’m trying to get a response from a few people about what kind of place the name conjures up for them. It’s such a beautiful name which, in English, seems to generate ideas far removed from the reality. If you have a few minutes to give me a sentence or two I’d be really grateful as I’m hoping to put such thoughts versus reality into a poem –
    the name…

    • Belnahua rings with hewing, salt spray on slate, the rhythm of riving folded between the hiss of the waves

      • Mavis Gulliver

        Thank you Jan. I wish I’d written this. Were you serious about the possibility of marrying up the two pieces of work? It would indeed be wonderful. I have decided to spend a week on the slate islands in November to see them at a different time of year and to add to the images and information from my July visit.

  4. Jan, this is so beautiful – a poem just as it is.
    Thank you.

  5. Thank you Jan, for this piece. When I lived in Bleanau in the 70s, we often walked in Cwmorthin – by the lake and through the houses. Once, when the children were away, my partner and I camped there – just for one night – and in the morning when I woke and came out of the tent to stand by the lake it felt as if I’d woken to another time, another self. The small wet reeds shaking in the weed, a pair of buzzards soaring overhead, the black slate heaps like ruined castle walls guarding the way back to the world we knew.
    Another time we found a friend, Tommy, fishing there, cross-legged on a rock, looking like a welsh leprechaun. He had a bottle of whisky by his side which he offered round to us all – even the children – ‘No difference see?’
    I think of that place often, the different self I was then, who I might have been if I’d stayed.

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