Conversing with the Welsh ghosts of Nant Gwrtheyrn

Editor’s note: Jan Morris is universally considered one of the greatest living travel writers. She is the author of some 40 books, including the Pax Britannica trilogy and major studies of Wales, Europe, Sydney, Venice, Hong Kong and Trieste. She recently sent us this epistle from a sojourn into the linguistic heart of her homeland, Wales.

There is only one way to approach it. Down a violently precipitous and twisting road you must drive, along the edge of a deep, deep gulley, round several horseshoe bends, dizzily downwards through a dark conifer wood, until the road emerges, slightly shaken, on a wide shelf above the sea. Mountains tower above this secretive place, isolated sheep and feral horned goats meander about the heather and the bracken, there are ruined farm-houses here and there, and directly over the empty ocean is the hamlet called Nant Gwrtheyrn.

The name means Gwrtheyrn’s Spring, because among the ghosts of the village is the half-mythical Welsh king Gwrtheyrn, otherwise known as Vortigen, whose reputation in Wales is ambiguous because he collaborated with usurping Saxons out of England. He is supposed to have died here, and he has left behind him a host of ancillary legends. There is the story of the bride who, according to ancient Welsh custom, playfully hid herself from her bridegroom on the morning of her wedding, but was found years later, a skeleton in festive rags, hiding still in a split oak tree. There is the tale of the three monks who were not welcomed by the village, and responded by cursing it with three terrible curses, allegedly applicable to this day. Varied ghosts and apparitions, owls, coffins, divine fire, a marauding eagle, skeletons and cormorants, Romans and druids and pilgrims all figure in the blurred folk-memories of Nant Gwrtheyrn, and temper its atmosphere still.

Far below you on the shore, as you twist your way down through the woods, you may see the vestigial remains of three jetties. These are more substantial ghosts. For many centuries this valley was occupied only by a few hardy livestock farmers and fishermen, and by miners working its scant resources of iron and manganese. In the middle of the 19th century, however, quarry companies realized that there was money to be made from the granite mountains all around. Soon three separate quarries were being worked. Granite was then used to surface roads all over Britain, and from those quays down there, one to each quarry, for nearly a century small coasting steamers took profitable slabs of it off to England.

On the flat land above the quays a village was built to house the quarrymen and their families, and there it still stands. When the granite industry finally collapsed in the mid-20th century, it became the legendary lost village of Nant Gwrtheyrn, gradually fading, amid its winds, its legends and its goats, into a ghost itself. For years nobody lived there, and on the right damp twilight, if you wander through its buildings, you may fancy that nobody lives there now.

It is a very unusual relic. It is a sort of company town, all alone, backed by the dead remains of its quarries. Twenty-six trim cottages form two terraces connected at right angles, with a chapel at one end, a grander manager’s house at the other, and in the middle a sunken sort of village green, mounded by moles and shaded by oaks (in one of which, I need hardly say, the bones of that poor bride were eventually discovered). In the sparse fields around, immemorial stone walls mark the patterns of Celtic field systems. Bits of ancient quarry mechanisms litter them, too, part of an old iron ship is propped up on the beach, miscellaneous chunks of granite are everywhere and running down the high ground behind you can see the line of the tramline that once rattled by with its stones for the jetties below.

On the right damp and suggestive evening there is not a sound down there, except for the lapping of the waves. Even the sea is an empty sea – no ship has put into the bay of Nant Gwrtheyrn for a hundred years; only dolphins sometimes sport in it, and seals bask on the beach. But here’s a strange thing. All along the line of the silent cottages electric street lights are burning, and this is because they burn, as it were, in exorcism against a ghost of the future, a premonition.

* * *

The primeval language of the Nant Gwrtheyrn valley is Welsh, one of the most ancient literary languages in Europe. It was, more or less, what King Gwrtheyrn spoke before the dawn of history. During its industrial period workers came to Nant Gwrtheyrn from Ireland and from England, bringing their languages with them, but when they left, and the empty village fell into desolation, it was the lyrical echo of Welsh that lingered on, to be heard by wandering poets and romantics.

The language is still spoken in the villages above, beyond the conifer woods, because the Llyn Peninsula is one of the Welshest parts of all Wales. Even there, though, it is constantly under threat, as the colossal forces of Anglophone globalism, expressed through television and e-mail, newspapers and popular trend, bludgeon all indigenous cultures everywhere. It is said that of the 6,000-odd languages spoken in the world today, half will be dead by the end of the century, and not long ago Welsh seemed obviously doomed too. There were less than three million people in Wales, and more than 40 million in England, and whereas English was one of the greatest of all the world languages, Welsh was spoken only by a third even of the Welsh themselves. Thousands of English people had settled in Wales, seldom bothering to learn Welsh, while the mass of the Welsh themselves found it advantageous to use the lingua franca of half the world, so accessible and so seductive a few miles away across the English border.

The general opinion then was that in a generation or two the Welsh language must inevitably die. It seemed to be in terminal decline, and in another century it would be gone. It was that specter of the future! But a powerful nucleus of patriots and idealists believed that the demise of so proud an instrument of civilization, richly creative as it still was, would be a great human tragedy. Welsh should never be allowed to follow Hittite, or Nubian, or even Latin into extinction. Trends could be bucked. Premonition could be challenged. Specters could be exorcised.

And that is why the street lights burn in Nant Gwtheyrn in the twilight.

* * *

Among the visionaries was Dr Carl Clowes. He was a medical practitioner of advanced social conscience living and working in one of the villages above, and when he heard that Nant Gwrtheyrn was up for sale, he dreamed of its restoring first as a project for the local unemployed, but eventually as a residential center for the teaching, study and development of the Welsh language. It would become a statement of defiance, a declaration that Welsh really could be restored to its old social and political potency.

It was a wild idea. By the 1950s the village was a forlorn and half-derelict ruin. Windows were smashed, walls were crumbling, roofs had fallen in, the workers’ terraces were a mess of fallen beams and rubbish, choughs were nesting inside the windowless manager’s house and a community of hippies was squatting amidst the rubble. The only road into the valley was hardly more than a track, and there was no electricity.

As it happened, though, history was with Dr Clowes. In the 1960s there was a resurgence of Welsh national spirit. Laws were passed assuring the language of a proper constitutional place in Wales, and there was a growing demand for Welsh self-government. So a trust was set up to buy the village and its valley, in the name of Wales as it were, and from many sources the necessary money arrived – from a thousand private bank accounts, from lottery funds, from local councils, from sponsored walks and races and even from the coffers of the old mining companies. A new surfaced road was built, corkscrewing down the mountainside, and one by one the buildings were restored. By 1997, when Wales did at last achieve its own devolutionary National Assembly, the Welsh language was compulsorily taught in all schools and its decline seemed to be halted – by then the old lost village was established as a National Language Center.

* * *

And look at it now! It is a ruin reborn. It is no larger than it was, and no less peculiar, the detritus of the quarries lies around still and the sheep and the goats are still wandering; but those 26 cottages now provide snug accommodation for students and scholars, and its rebuilt manager’s house, sans choughs, is now a center for tutorials and conferences. The hippies have gone. The old chapel is a heritage center. And at the bottom of the village, overlooking the sea, there is a granite café which is popular not only for meetings and local wedding receptions, but also for that perennial Welsh celebration, the midday Sunday dinner. Some 25,000 students have passed through the Language Center by now, and they have included many people from other endangered minority languages, to whom Nant Gwrtheyrn has offered distant inspiration.

From the foreshore in the evening half-light the village still looks much the same, except for the street-lamps, but now there are lights in the houses too, where the students and their teachers stay. The old ghosts linger suggestively still, but the premonition is held at bay, and if the spell is sometimes broken by a murmur of voices, at least you can be quite sure what language they are talking…

[Photos: Flickr | Stray Croc; Stray Croc; paplamour; paplamour]