This essay, first published in Ninnau, the North American Welsh Newspaper in 1988. This followed my visit in the previous year. It has since appeared many times. This version of Pwll Uchaf, with minor amendments from the 1988 original (names have been added) was written in 2018
‘Dysgwr dw i,’ I hesitatingly answered.
This was not altogether true, because my attempts to learn Welsh had been marked more by wishful thinking than by serious effort. Here though, in the upper reaches of the Usk Valley, it seemed the right answer to give.
Fortunately, the old farmer had sensed my difficulty and given us directions for Pwll-Uchaf in English. It seemed that it was only another hundred or so yards on, which was something of a relief since the rough, stony farm road was doing no good at all to our car tyres and suspensions.
It had not been easy to locate the area. At first, we had missed the turn off for the village of Cwmwysg, and found ourselves at the Usk Reservoir. We’d spent an hour there. It had been a pleasant enough spot to eat our sandwiches and watch the fly-fisherman, despite the cold wind and the uncomfortable thought that if the reservoir had been built a mile or two downstream, we would have no ancestral home to visit.
That was why we were here, of course. Ever since we had found out a few facts about my great-great-great-grandfather's life, and discovered that the family home was still standing, albeit dilapidated, we had wanted to make this journey. We had pored over the nineteenth-century maps we had acquired, tracing out the field outlines of Pwll-Uchaf and the surrounding farms: Pwll-Isaf; Dorallt; Pen-twyn; Castell-du, Gwern-wyddog; Pentrebach; Blaenwysg. Some of these were now under water. Even the village of Cwmwysg itself, never much more than a few houses clustered round a small chapel, appeared to be deserted. But enough remained for us to anticipate a living link with our ancestor, John Jones, farmer of seventy-five acres.
The journey from home was one of only sixty miles or so, but there had been enough reasons in our busy, urban lives to have put off making this trip for week after week. Not today, though. Today, on this cold, bright May morning we were here and ready for a few brief hours to tread in the footsteps of our forefathers. Many questions, we knew, would not be answered today. What had made John Jones of Myddfai come to seek a wife and a livelihood on the eastern side of Mynydd Myddfai? What had made his grandson, my great-grandfather, take to poaching for salmon in the Usk, something which had led to a violent incident, and afterwards to his hasty removal to the industrial valleys of South Wales? This episode was responsible for shaping the way of life of all succeeding generations, but we could only guess at its root cause.
But at least today we would be breathing the same air and seeing much the same sights as had our ancestors. We might, for a few fleeting moments, almost know what it was like to be them.
We parked the cars under the puzzled gaze of the farmer, and made the rest of the journey on foot. My sister Mary led off with her husband Gwynfryn, who probably wondered what all the fuss was about. They were followed by my two young sons, Edmund and Joseph, who did not really care what all the fuss was about, so long as it led to an adventure. My wife, Suki, walked by my side, tolerant as always. The trail turned out to be rather more than a hundred yards. We did not mind overmuch, anxious as we were to have our first sight of Pwll-Uchaf. We took pleasure in the solitude and silence. For such there was, even though there were six of us and a constant bleating of sheep from the surrounding fields. Edmund, our elder son, was the first to see the farmhouse:
‘Daddy!’ he called in the shrill tones of a six-year-old thrilled by his own discovery.
And the sight of the house surprised us, too. It was bigger than we had expected, and seemingly in a reasonable state of repair. It had small, square windo ws, behind which it was easy to imagine people still going about their daily lives. But it was the colour of the house itself which most intrigued us. It was partly an effect of the bright mid-day sunshine no doubt, but there was no denying the attraction of the salmon-pink hue of the walls, offset by flecks of blue and grey.
I stopped for a moment and looked around. Across the valley I could see what must be the farms of Castell-du and Gwern-wyddog. This view was the one enjoyed daily by my ancestors a hundred and more years earlier. John Jones would have cast his eye over the valley exactly as I was doing now. I felt quite the countryman as I watched the clouds rolling over the mountains and confidently forecast a shower coming our way.
'Daddy!' came Edmund's voice again, more urgently now.
I could see his predicament. He and Joseph had advanced towards the house, only to find themselves cut off by a huge flock of sheep. I had never before seen so many of the animals together in one place. For a moment or two we were all at a loss, not knowing how to deal with such a large number of animals. But they dispersed quickly enough as the adults moved closer, and the boys ran on towards their goal.
‘Wait!’ I called as they neared the house.
I probably feared the unknown quite as much as any physical danger presented by the building. My sons stopped in their tracks, one behind the other. They would surely have stopped without my call; they too could feel the aura of the house, to judge by the way they were so intently watching it.
But the young are irrepressible, and the Edmund was advancing again before we had reached him. All was quiet, except for the wind which was now starting to blow strongly. Even the sheep, briefly, had stopped their bleating.
My sons peered into the dark interior. Suddenly, something fluttered out of the gloom, startling us all. It was a solitary magpie. In that moment, the spell was broken. We were now close enough to see that, after all, the house was in pretty bad shape. The window frames looked likely to fall out at any time, and the lower floor had been partly converted to store machinery from the neighbouring farm of Pwll-Isaf. We went around to the rear of the house and were sad to see that it was crumbling and in imminent danger of collapse.
I looked up at one of the bedroom windows and wondered if it was there that the son of John Jones had seen out the last months of his life.
Cancer. Two years. No medical attendant, the death certificate had coldly proclaimed. I began to realise what a hard life my people must have had in trying to scratch a living from this bleak, if lovely, hillside. The storm I had forecast was now with us, littering the ground with large hailstones. Fortunately, we caught only the end of it, and the sky soon cleared again, though the wind blew colder than before.
I looked around, and down towards the River Usk. I understood at last why my great-grandfather had left this beautiful place for the Valleys.
‘Daddy?’ asked my sons ‘Can we go back to the car now?'