Tuesday, 11 August 2015

the black chair

Saturday 4 July 2015

So our last breakfast together and our fond farewells to our amazing hosts Jeff and Alison at Yr Hafan.  It's been the most amazing, happy week and hard to believe it's flown by so fast.
Ending holidays is always sad, but on our journey up to the Wirral from Pembrokeshire, Mike and I experienced an unforgettable afternoon.

We drove up the magnificent coast of West Wales, through the lovely painted village of Aberaeron and up to Aberystwyth just in time for lunch at the trendy Italian deli Agnelli's.  A real gem and fab coffee - the Guardian thinks so too.

But our destination was further north, just outside Trawsfynydd, where we'd arranged to visit Hedd Wyn's birthplace Yr Ysgwrn.  It was such a privilege to visit Yr Ysgwrn, especially before it's restoration which starts this month, and the experience of that afternoon will stay with me forever.

The article that brought us here was by Laura Barton in the Guardian this time last year - worth a read to understand the huge significance of the poet Hedd Wyn and our visit - read here: Hedd Wyn: Poetry that echoes from the First World War

As you'll have read, Hedd Wyn (meaning Blessed Peace) was the pen name of the young Welsh poet, Ellis Humphrey Evans, who grew up on the farm at Yr Ysgwrn, was tragically killed in the first world war aged just 30 and was unable to be at the Eisteddfod in Birkenhead in 1917 to take home the bardic chair which he'd won with his poem Yr Arwr (The Hero).

When we arrived at the farmhouse, the wonderful Gerald Williams, Hedd Wyn's uncle, took us into the kitchen, still exactly as it has ever been, with no electricity or running water.  We shared our visit along with five others, all Welsh and all local and all lovely.  We were then all treated to over 2 hours in this atmospheric house, left exactly as it was for nearly 100 years.  Paper peeled from the beams and time itself stood still.
Gerald, over 88 years of age and with his warm twinkle of the eye and friendly pat on the shoulder, regaled us in Welsh and English with tales of his family life on the farm and the dark room came alive with those past inhabitants.   As our eyes accustomed to the light the surroundings brightened and let in the sunny day from the small farmyard window.
This is the famous black chair, in the parlour.  Hedd Wyn's bardic chair from the National Eisteddfod in Birkenhead, 1917.  Our little group, encouraged by Gerald, read out Hedd Wyn's poem in Welsh and then the different English translations - none of which did justice to the cadence and beauty of the Welsh language.

the entrance hall
the kitchen
Gerald as we said our farewells
The peaceful view from Yr Ysgwrn
across the valley
the memorial in the centre of Trawsfynydd
Hedd Wyn's birthplace, at his grandparents' in Trawsfynydd

Afterwards I found a great poem by Gillian Clarke, the National Poet of Wales, read it here: Eisteddfod of theBlack Chair (for Hedd Wyn, 1887-1917)

And to learn in that poem that Hedd Wyn met Robert Graves - when only a few weeks ago we were standing in Robert Graves' home in Deia, Mallorca . . . . quite overwhelming.


The poet Glyn Edwards captures our own experience perfectly on his visit to meet with Gerald Williams at Yr Ysgwrn in his wonderful poem Yr Ysgwrn: Hedd Wyn's farm which Glyn kindly gave me permission to replicate here
‘I lost the word,’ he says in English,
shrugging in Welsh, winking,
thinking of which artifact he should summon
from a tablecloth chequered in the relics
that rested on Hedd Wyn’s wartime farm.
‘Casting,’ he nods with certainty. ‘Why
is the handle of the cast iron kettle cold
when the base is burning?’
The light limps into the parlour
and skulks those sat in a meagre silhouette.
It is too dark to read the spines of the books by the range,
too quiet to ask why ripped paper sags
and screens the beams. So, the old clock twitches
and the room leans nearer to the sheephaired storyteller
in his flatcap and to tales of his dead uncle,
the white crucifix, the black chair. 
Closer to the bard and the bomb blasts. 
A hundred years ago in a shelter dug down
in some thudding field near Ypres, the man
must have measured how alike these trench trophies
were to the antlers above his mantelpiece;
known the barometer, grim behind mustard glass,
was as foggy as the one on the dresser,
that the uniformed boy cradling himself in sleep
rocked like the chair at the fire
and that the groaning, gathering din
was as inevitable as all his falling stalls, his failing crops.
Here too he could flake the bark from the joists
with his studded boots and see the rains bloat the wood,
could crook his forehead against a strut
like the one supporting his stable and know,
over the parapet, Passchendaele or Trawsfynydd,
he would always be at war. 
‘The handle is cold because the owner left it that way,’
I think but do not say. The question simmers in silence.
Also loved this amazing article in the Wales Art Review: In search of Hedd Wyn by Nicola Ann Roberts - a fascinating account of her visit a couple of years ago and of the history of Hedd Wyn with a moving account of the journey home made by the black chair.
This year we'd also watched the beautiful film Hedd Wyn, but we realise from the Guardian article above and from talking to Gerald, that the family never felt the film was true to Ellis.

So that was our visit - amazing, special and unique.
And it also marks the end of our week adventuring with the awesome eight! If you've only just read this and would like to start at the beginning, then please click here

hasta la vista for now x x x

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