Cynefin an Alltud by Les Darbyshire

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Cynefin an Alltud, published by Y Lolfa

Jon Gower

The village of Manod can appear as an extension of Blaenau Ffestiniog, a peaceful ribbon of terraced houses in the shade of the rocky bumps of Mynydd Manod Mawr and Manod Bach, themselves pockmarked by the exploitation of slate and the quarries which shelter the small community from the rigors of the weather.

But in its heyday, this incredibly tight-knit little community was a real hive of activity and not all the work came from mining and cutting slate in the three local quarries. There was the “Ash and Trash Collector”, the “Boot and Shoe Maker”, and the “District Rate Collector”.

The eight local farms employed a cadre of agricultural workers while there was a local policeman, a postman, blacksmiths, transporters, a baker, a “station master”, sellers of coal and butter, clothes and milk not forgetting a butcher, carpenter, stone mason, bus driver and road cleaner among many other professions.

Not that everyone has a paid job. A character called “Guto Cae Clyd” liked nothing better than to sit on a “chair” he made for himself by intertwining the branches of the tree in front of his house, enthusiastically playing his accordion like a virtuoso.

But the slate was the key to the economy, and with the plenitude of jobs came many dangers. It could be a perilous job, as the grim statistics of Craig Ddu’s career attest, from workers falling, being hit by runaway trams or buried under rubble to accidents involving detonators and explosives.

But there was another more benign aspect of the work, namely the existence of the hut, the place where the workers had lunch and exchanged views. Here, once a month, they held an eisteddfod, with contests such as solo singing, recitation, and short story writing, highlighting how inherently cultured these places and communities were.

the hut was an important social center, where money was collected for a sick person in the hospital or letters of condolence sent to those who were grieving, thus a center of care and competition.

sulfur tongue

The work was hard and spread over a week of five and a half days. But Sundays were different, work was completely forbidden by the chapels and anyone caught doing it could be expelled from the congregation.

There is a long list of people punished by the Bethel Chapel in the nearby town of Tanygrisiau, such as the man who had the audacity to pull out his watch on a Sunday, the woman who served as a waitress, a member of the congregation who walked the train tracks on a Sunday and the woman who was punished for simply wearing squeaky shoes to chapel.

The Calvinist Methodist diet could be harsh and strict indeed and had the language of sulfur to match.

A young woman who worked in the Wynnes Arms was excommunicated for working in the ‘Devil’s House’ when the local fair was also considered the work of the devil: anyone attending had to avoid the censored gaze of the local minister then that he patrolled in his anger.

Cynefin an Alltud, which translates to the habitat of exile, revives this old turmoil in the form of memories that focus mainly on the 1930s. Endowed with a remarkable memory, its author revisits almost all the houses and thatched cottages of the small neighborhood where he grew up, Congl-y-Wal, tells us who lived there and what he did there. Born in 1924, Les Darbyshire spent his youth among his 28 homes and his only farm except when he was on active service during the war.

Before being called up he worked with his carpenter father, also helped build Llanbedr Airfield as well as the special underground storage for the National Art Gallery’s art treasures, brought to the slate caverns for security during the Blitz years.

remember with clear eyes

Darbyshire remembers small incidents that broke up the daily routine, like Bala’s well-rounded porter managing to cycle twenty yards along a train track.

There was the shocking news that a local farmer had stolen his neighbour’s sheep, and that at a time, of course, when mutton was much preferred to lamb.

He remembers the arrival of electricity and the advent of the automobile and describes the palaver involved in recharging wet batteries every week to power wireless and thus connect with the wider world.

He remembers a time before the construction of roads, when slates were carried down the slopes by mule and horseback, one horse being able to pull a ton of slates. The cost of road construction was often extracted from its users in the form of tolls whose rights were auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Another development described in the book is the advent of the railway, and indeed the Great Western Railway which carried goods and passengers on the line between Blaenau and Porthmadog.

All the travelers would be locked in their cars by the guard for the duration of the journey, except in the event of an accident or whatever, when he would shout – ‘First class passengers stay put, second class passengers get out and walk, third class passengers get out and push.

Cynefin an Alltud is an exceptional act of lucid memory by a man with apparent total recall for the milltir sgwar, its square mile. A lot has changed, he suggests.

People no longer go to the toilet at the bottom of the garden in the middle of the night, wash in cold water or warm hot water over the open coal fire.

But not all the change has been for the better, he suggests, recalling an equitable and caring community, with different standards and a range of occupations now gone, as well as small shops, chapels and churches , leaving people now a bit more self-centered perhaps.

It is very clearly recalled village life which also serves as a kind of catalog of disappearances, a register of social changes and all this over the long life of a man.

Cynefin an Alltud is published by Y Lolfa and you can buy a copy here or in a good bookshop


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