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Grey Welsh Slate

Jacob’s Ladder the long-dead miners called it: a steep repetition of sharp edged steps cut into the rock face, which rose to a circle of light, the shaft entrance, the penetration of which marked their survival of another day spent millions of years below ground. Upon entering these hard hewn caverns, I had made the mistake of freeing my imagination, allowing it to recreate the reality of what the information boards explained. So now, to me, the air was thick with the dust of recent blasts. Shadowy figures, secured by a left leg wrapped in chain, hacked at the slate, lit by guttering tallow candles. Small boys, carrying the slashed scars of manhood on their noses, were goaded into narrow explorations. Everywhere noise completed this imagined Hades: ringing clangs, shouts, squealing wheels, a deep, underlying murmur of voices and always drips and splashes, the cold sound of water. Therefore, it was with relief that I too completed the ascent of Jacob’s Ladder, finding space into which my imagination could dissipate, and emerged once more under the heavy sky of North Wales.

The spirit of adventure had emerged in a booth sticky from spilt drink in a pub in Birmingham on the Saturday before the August Bank Holiday. Joined that night by a South African friend on her first visit to the UK, we decided to revisit the childhood of another of our number and go camping in North Wales. This would also be my first visit and I revelled in the familiar excitement prompted by an impending road trip.

Wales has always just been a vague impression in my mind. Until now, I have only looked at it from the moors of North Devon, remembered social history taught at school, and laughed at repetitious jokes. This was my chance to add clarity and depth to that impression. I joined the foreigner in the vehicle and shared her detached enjoyment of the soft lush country through which we drove. The transition from England to Wales marked only by the addition of a second, older, language to the municipal signposts.

The familiar geology of western Britain brought a reoccurring joy to my heart. Small fields, bordered by tight hedgerows, held fat cattle, stationary but for the rotation of their jaws; white, black or red hides provided a contrast to the palate of greens which is the countryside this wet summer. Hills pitch upwards in a long-formed hurry to the sky, their sides dotted with the white of distant sheep. Purple heather lends an imperial hue to higher reaches, their ownership confirmed by dour, grey stone walls. Human habitation is old and subservient to the landscape, sensually wealthy but financially struggling. Ed, my friend, is a farmer and his explanations took us deeper than any road into the story of this land.

Our badly balanced Kia flung us along the roads into the heart of Gwynedd, an ancient kingdom and the centre of a long held resistance to English rule. Perhaps it was fitting that our destination was Harlech Castle, a bastion of geometric solidity, a marked contrast to the generous sweep of the bay below and the slopes of the descending hills.

Any childhood holiday that included a chance to scramble around a ruined castle was always popular with me. The castle became mine for a time and always I was the commander; racing to the highest points; scanning the revealed countryside for signs of the enemy; jumping out from concealed corners to scare my sister. Even then, when thoughts of glory fixated me, I recognised the numbing fear that such construction could generate. Peering over the walls, I imagined the swift panic of an arrow pierced fall; the idea of prolonged siege made my stomach shrink and always there was the fascinated panic of execution. Standing below the castle walls that Sunday, the low grey skies and the gusting, wet winds made the fortification a glistening menace. Though the medieval stanchions told of fairy tales and romance, I saw technological superiority and enforced order; I began to understand oppression.

Such brooding thoughts fell away as soon as I passed under the arch of the gatehouse and a childish excitement took over. Staircases spiralling up into towers were there to be climbed, their steps wet, uneven and treacherous. One arm held out straight to balance against the central column around which the staircase wound; I rose between alternating areas of light and dark before emerging at the top of the tower. A short descent brought us to the exposed battlements; the walls rose to half way up my thigh (no longer the chest height of childhood) and the gusting winds toyed with my lack of balance. Although we were now nearer to the cloud base and still had no hope of seeing the sun, the view was invigorating, saved from depressing tonality by the verdant vigour of the pasture and the white, aerated spume of the breaking seas.

Having assuaged our martial instinct and ‘taken’ the castle, we retreated in an orderly manner to the nearby coastal town of Barmouth. This was a mistake; although undoubtedly a pretty and inviting place in fine weather (wooded hills, attractive tidal estuary and popular marina), on this day there was a hint of despair in the air. The town squats below high forbidding cliffs; the seagulls wheeling and crying in the air above seem to taunt the locals with the ease of their escape. The damp masonry and cracked window frames remember when they were popular and remarked upon with approval. Now campers, often resolutely still clad in shorts but elsewhere clothed as if for winter, dodge between parked cars and the swinging door of local greasy spoon café. Windows mist because it is cold.

My eyes grow used to the gloom and so feel assaulted by the lacerating beams of neon that issue from the fairground rides clustered between the sea wall and the ‘authentic’ cafes. In the centre of the grouping, the Vienna Waltz ride rotates; operated by three track-suited youths one’s first instinct is to avoid. The ride is empty apart from one young boy who sits in his gondola, gripping the chipped handrail in front of him, afraid to let go. We split between two gondolas, smirking at the quaintness of the experience, realising too late that we are vulnerable to nationalist assault and class divide.

The ride rotates with increasing speed; the floor rises and falls, a mechanical wave; the gondolas spin on their own axis. The world turns. The door of the control modules opens and the three youths venture out onto the wooden waves. They ride the undulations with ease; polyester legs bent to absorb the motion, white socks showing; their ears are loaded with cheap gold and ash heavy cigarettes droop from their lips. Initially I suppose that they are playing some game amongst themselves, but soon their intent becomes clear. ‘Hello boys,’ lilts the one in the red England football shirt; he grasps the gondola with both hands and spins.

My vision slipped into streaks of passing light and my neck slammed back as if in the embrace of a quick garrotte. My vision returned as the revolutions slowed; I focused and said cheerfully to no one in particular, “That was interesting.” That was a mistake. Soccer Shirt took my comment as a challenge and span again. “You’re lucky I’ve been doing this four hours already he said.” I replied in meaningless machismo and off we went again. By fixing my eyes on a stationary point (Ed’s contorted features, which revolved at the same speed as mine and so appeared motionless), I found that I could survive the worst of the assault and keep talking. Whether Soccer Shirt became bored, whether lactic acid came to my aid, or whether the clock simply stopped, our ordeal eventually ended. We walked off, heads held high (or in some position), each of us searching for a navigational feature or a straight line.

The weather being what it was, I had argued against spending too much time in our tent, spacious though it was; I preferred the draft beer and low ceilings of the local pub. However, the lack of taxis and the impulse purchase of a bottle of rum meant that as true darkness fell we found ourselves hoping that the tent pegs held, sheltering from the wind in a farmer’s field. Into white plastic cups, the rum was poured and we told stories under the light of a small torch thrust into the webbing of the tent. When the torch died (the batteries disinclined to work on a Sunday), it was replaced with the soft light of a candle. The scene had many ancient elements: the light in the darkness, shelter from the night and companionship. We were comfortable and forgot any tiredness (and the assault of the funfair). Maybe they reminded us all of Africa, home, at one time or another to all of us; maybe we just enjoyed the moment.

The next morning I awoke first and stepped carefully out of the tent into a dark, cold dawn. A spectral half-light surrounded me; it was if the day was undecided about its eventual appearance. Behind the field, a slate strewn cliff reared, betraying the existence of the entrance to the caverns from which they had been chipped; in my solitude, it was too much to resist. Pretending nonchalance, I began to wander across the field towards the track that climbed in a dogleg up the cliff side. A startled rabbit ran from me, jinking randomly, increasing the distance between us, before it jumped up onto the bank and into the woodland. Ceaseless wind made the oak trees grow stunted and warped, their trunks irregular, emaciated and knarled; my sight was thick with shadows. Reaching the plateau, I ignored the vista in which rooks fought for the impenetrable darkness of the shaft entrance drew me to it.

A wrought iron gate barred the circular opening, just tall enough for the passage men it had consumed. The bars of the gate ran straight, before curving towards one another, left meeting right, like the frames of panes that make up a church window. Once again, in this old land of Britain, the story of men’s lives seeps from the surroundings and just maybe their ghosts are near. Not wanting to test this theory, I turned away and cleared my mind by standing braced against the nautical head wind.

I like this land of Wales, but perhaps next time I could enjoy a little sun?

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