Friday, 16 August 2019

Woman of West Wales

Recently, I was lucky enough to take part in a project initiated by Emma Baines, of Narberth Museum, archiving the histories of the Women of West Wales. The brief was to pick a woman living in the area, pre-1945, write a poem about her, and make a video-film to accompany it. The finished works would be shown at Llangwm Literature Festival.

This is my contribution.


 The poem is about my grandmother, Eilwen Morgan. She was not famous in any way, but she was, most certainly, a woman of West Wales.

‘Home’ is often the place we grow up in, where our parents were settled longest. For my grandmother, that was Cilrhedyn, in the Cych Valley, the parish where her father was Vicar, until his death in 1933. And she still called it home, long after she had married and had children, and was living in Llanelli, quite a different part of West Wales.

Why did I choose to write about my grandmother? I rather think, now, that she chose me. I’m not a poet –  short stories, a novella, a novel, maybe – but I don’t write poetry. So, at first, when Philippa Davies, writer and organiser, messaged me about attending a poetry workshop, with a view to producing a piece for the project, I said ‘no’. Besides, I was due to be away that weekend. Then, as it turned out, I would only be gone on the Sunday, so I could get there, after all. And I thought ‘why not?’ – an interesting subject with a great crowd of people. If nothing else, a good way to spend a Saturday morning! 

I looked at the Women of West Wales archive on the Narberth Museum site and was amazed by the stories I found there – so much fascinating material for the writer. But as I was a bit rushed, I thought perhaps I would write about someone I knew, someone real to me. And I thought of my godmother, Olive Evans, the wife of the Vicar of Camrose, who was descended from Welsh princes – which is surely famous enough. After all, there was a quarter-page feature about her in the Western Mail, which I’d cut out years ago, and carefully put away. But when I was digging out this article, I came across a school photo of my grandmother, and she was the only girl smiling out of the whole class, something I found intriguing. So I took that photo along to the workshop, as well as the newspaper clipping about Olive.

In the beginning, I found myself writing about the two of them – the Vicar’s daughter, and the Vicar’s wife. They were great friends all their lives, though quite different characters, and I thought I could balance these contradictions in a poem. But as the session went on, my godmother somehow fell by the wayside, and I was writing only about my grandmother, that once-smiling child, almost as if by instinct – which is why I say she chose me.

My grandmother was, in many ways, the perfect idea of a grandmother. She always had sweets for us, gave us sixpence once a week, bought our favourite treats if we went for tea. But she was also an alcoholic, and when she’d been drinking, she wasn’t my grandmother at all. This is how it seemed in our childhood, and I reference this at the end of the poem. The Parma violets and lavender handkerchief were there to hide the drink on her breath, but I always knew there was something strange about her, and didn’t like it one bit.

And as I grew up, I would wonder why she was like this, what had happened to her to make her turn to alcohol for comfort. Of course, perhaps there doesn’t have to be a ‘something’, but there usually is, and it tends to be something secret – as her drinking was to most people. Such things were rarely talked about in those days.

Visiting the Cych Valley had been on my ‘to do’ list since we moved to Pembrokeshire a few years ago, but somehow we’d never got round to it, perhaps because the call of the sea beckoned louder. Writing about my grandmother was the push I needed, and I’m so glad I did. 

It’s often described as hidden, partly because it’s off the ‘main’ road, and also perhaps because it was a subject of boundary changes in the past, which moved it between Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and back again (further confused by the fact that the closest county town was Cardigan). It is also a tangle of streams, which are very difficult to separate. Cych, Cneifa, Dulas, Pedran.

I wanted to see the church where my great-grandfather preached, and the grave, maybe. But that was something else difficult to find. Where was the churchyard? The church itself? I knew it had been demolished, but surely there would be visible ruins inside a wall or railings. We knew where it should be, from a lot of Googling, and instructions from my sister, Penny, who had visited years before. But we could see nothing.

Then, as I say in my poem, the yews pointed the way. Still, the church was all but impossible to make out, until you were within touching distance, and I had to scramble through brambles, nettles and saplings until I discovered the grave where both my great-grandparents were buried. 

So all these factors coming together gave me the theme of my poem ‘What is hidden’.

Something else about the Cych Valley – it’s called ‘magical’. It features in the Mabinogion as the place where Pwyll, Prince of Dyfed meets Arawn, Lord of the Underworld. Indeed, it is thought to be one of the possible sites of the Underworld, another hidden place, whose entrance is often said to be located where tributaries meet, or beneath yews, or at the Ffynone Falls, to the north of Cilrhedyn. So, again, everything was fitting into the theme, even though I had no idea at the start that this was where the story would lead.

For the video to go with the poem, I was able to combine real footage taken by my husband during our visits, with some old photos kept by Penny, many of which showed my grandmother at her home here, in her younger, happier days. It was fascinating to go through these and re-connect with my grandmother in that way.

I’ve still got no idea what made my grandmother drink. But writing this poem was a pleasure in so many ways – the discovery of the Cych Valley, that re-connection, finding the grave. And it is a particular pleasure to have been involved in this truly worthwhile project, to reveal and share some incredible women of the area with a greater audience. The response at Llangwm was overwhelmingly positive, the variety of the women, poems and films amazing.

Thank you to Narberth Museum, Emma Baines, Philippa Davies and Llangwm festival.

     And thanks, too, to film-maker extraordinaire, David Powell.

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