Part 2: Ancestral Voices

This tale follows straight on from Xenophilia Part 1, which really needs to be read first. Drafts have been criticised by my Hilary my wife, by Pryderi my son, by Grasshopper and by Neea, to whom I am hugely grateful.

12 Ionawr 2003

Chapter 1. Llandygái 2001

After five days Huw was released from hospital and came back, his arms in plaster, to our house which was now his house, to my room which was now his room, to all the tender loving care we could give. Tad, who had always treated him much like another son, now treated him exactly like one. They were similar in character, quiet, gentle and caring, and had hit it off the moment they first met. For his part, Huw now treated him just like a father. He gave up calling him Maelor and called him Tad instead.

What was more, while Huw was still in hospital, Tad took me to a furniture shop and paid for a double bed of my choice, to replace my single one. It did not surprise me one bit. He had known that I was gay in a theoretical sense for as long as I had known it myself, and had accepted it without question. He was so accepting that I had given up wondering why. He now accepted, just as unquestioningly, that I was gay in a practical sense. And of course he accepted Huw on the same terms.

I too offered what tender loving care I could. Legally, Huw was now effectively my brother, while in practice he was my lover. In both capacities I tried to support him, to soothe his physical injuries, to help him through the frustrations of semi-immobilised arms. Although I naughtily offered to assist, he could just about look after himself in the loo, but in the bath I had to wash him. I had to brush his teeth and comb his hair and shave him and help him dress. Thus I learned my way about his body more quickly than I otherwise would, and this sudden intimacy, because it was necessary, caused no embarrassment. And in bed I had to take the lead in much of our love-making.

Although I enjoyed helping him and he was grateful for being helped, those early weeks were not easy. There was the painful process of his mother’s inquest and funeral, and of emptying and selling up their former house next door. On top of that was the potentially difficult process of introducing him to a school that was a novelty to him, where he knew nobody, and where only Welsh was spoken. I did wish that these changes had not had to happen all at once. Yet he seemed to cope with them quite remarkably well, and Ysgol Tryfan accepted him with a welcome for his sunny nature and with sympathy for his accident and injuries. On the face of it, I need not have worried, for — along with Tad — he was the most unflappable person I knew.

Yet, as I learned my way around his mind as well as his body, I found that the apparent stability was only skin-deep. What he displayed to the world proved to be his own brand of the traditionally English stiff upper lip, instilled no doubt by generations of conditioning. It was not that annoying brand of slightly arrogant superiority, but a gentle and loving one of calm serenity. It turned out, none the less, to be a mask, an armour, a defence, and not just for his gayness. Inside, he was as vulnerable as anyone else.

I discovered this the very night he came home from hospital. I got him ready for bed, and into bed, and climbed in with him. We spent the next five minutes giggling like children, working out how to cuddle without me being battered and bruised by the lumps of concrete which were his arms. He tried to hug me, but it was like being embraced by something out of The Mummy’s Revenge. In the end we found it easiest to lie on our sides, or for me to lie on my back with him partly on top, so long as he put no weight on my shin which was still sore.

At last we got ourselves comfortable, and instantly and automatically the switch was thrown. The moment I held him tight and our mouths met, my heart rose to my throat. His body began to shake and his lips tightened. For maybe ten minutes he sobbed his heart out, while I stroked and soothed and sobbed in unison.

O Duw! Sorry,” he said as the quaking gradually subsided. “I’ve never been so happy before.”

“Nor me, Huw cariad. But don’t be sorry. Just tell me.”

“Not yet. Love first.”

So we loved each other, for the first time — the hand job I had given him in hospital hardly counted. Twice each, in turn, in ecstasy. Then, with our bodies exhausted but our minds still in overdrive, our emotions came tumbling out, in utter disarray. Rearranged into coldly rational order, what they boiled down to was this.

For my part, although Tad had always been there as my anchor, I had been a loner by nature. I too had worn a mask, more fratchety than Huw’s, less serene, but still a mask; which I no longer needed, not with Huw. Loners are not necessarily lonely, but I now realised for the first time that I had been lonely, lonely for companionship of my own age, lonely for partnership. That was supplied when I found a new anchor, of a different sort. I had first fallen in love with Huw’s loving mask. It was not false, for it did not falsify. But the vulnerable soul inside it turned out to be more loving and lovable still.

Huw’s relationship with his mother had always been brittle. His own anchor in life had been his father, frequently absent on military duty, finally blown up by a landmine in Kosovo. Beneath his imperturbable exterior, Huw had been deeply wounded by the traumas of the last few months, and his loneliness had been more desolate than mine. But now he found two new anchors. Of one sort, in Tad. Of the other, in me.

The hot lava of love welled up from ever greater depths. It swept away our crumbling defensive barriers for good. It evaporated our lonelinesses. Its heat set our souls on fire. Small wonder we both wept. Next morning, when we staggered downstairs at a disgustingly late hour, Tad looked at us searchingly, and smiled.

At last, in October, Huw’s plaster came off and his independence was restored. His fractures had healed well, but he needed to rebuild the strength in his arms. Ignoring the exercises he had been given, he killed two birds with one stone by hugging me hard at every opportunity. More than that, we could now explore each other’s bodies in full.

We could also explore our country again. Because it is difficult when riding pillion with rigid arms to hold the driver round the waist, we had had no chance of resuming our excursions by scooter. Now that Huw was back in working order, we began to champ at the bit. But the demands of school, unsettled weather, and shortening evenings limited our ambitions. We spent most of our spare time at home.

One of the perks of Tad being a second-hand bookseller was the books that passed through his hands. If they were not up our street, or if we had read them already, he would put them straight on the shelves at the shop. If they were more interesting, he might bring them home for us to look at before selling them on. Or he might keep them. The downside there was that he did not recoup his outlay, but in this respect Tad was weak-willed, and he had accumulated a large library at home. Much reading was therefore done, by all three of us.

One Monday evening in late October we were hard at it. I do not recall what Tad and I had our noses into, but Huw was deep in Thomas Pennant’s Tour in Wales, the first edition of 1783. Suddenly he drew a sharp breath, and as I looked up I saw a big grin spread across his face. He threw me a wicked look, got up, searched the bookshelves for Y Bywgraffiadur Cymreig, the Dictionary of Welsh Biography, looked something up, and smiled broadly at the pair of us.

“Elfed, remember you told me you’re descended from Archbishop Williams of Cochwillan?”

“Not likely to forget. You rushed off and found he was a descendant of Edward I, sod him.”

While it was still shameful to admit that my Welsh veins were tainted with traces of Edward’s evil English blood, it no longer angered me. It just niggled my nationalistic pride.

“Even so,” I went on, “the Archbishop was a good Welshman. Must have been — mustn’t he? — if Charles I locked him up for years in the Tower of London.”

“What makes you think this good Welshman was your ancestor?”

“Family tradition,” Tad chipped in, “on my mother’s side.”

“Then family tradition’s wrong, Nhad. Back in August I was only looking for his ancestors, not his descendants. And it says here” — he waved Y Bywgraffiadur at us — “that he never married. He didn’t have any descendants.”

“Well, even archbishops are human. Or so I’m told. He could have had illegitimate children.”

“No, Nhad, he couldn’t. Some enemy of his accused him at the time of, um, having an unchaste sex life. And here’s what Pennant says in reply.

In his childish years, with other play-fellows, he was diverting himself with leaping from part of the walls of Conwy to the shore. The fall was in so critical a part, as ever to secure him from all reproaches of unchastity. I mention this merely to rescue him from the reflections flung on him.”

Tad and I worked out what these delicate words meant, and looked at each other with dawning delight.

Duw!” I said. “He lost his cerrig!” — his balls — “He was castrated!”

“Not sure it’s quite that simple,” countered Tad. “Eunuchs can still have a merry old time, if they lose their cerrig after puberty. They don’t produce sperm, but everything else works fine. But Williams had his accident in his childish years. Before puberty, it sounds like. Iawn, that would indeed prevent him from becoming a father. But his voice would never have broken — would they have made him Archbishop with an unbroken voice? — and he wouldn’t have grown a beard. Yet I seem to remember he did have a beard. Where did I see that portrait of him? Was it in Dodd’s History of Caernarvonshire?” He hunted in the bookcase.

“Yes, that’s right, look.”

Between the broad-brimmed hat and the ruff was a quizzical face with a very obvious moustache, sideburns and goatee beard, rather like the Laughing Cavalier.

“No, I don’t think he lost his cerrig. More likely he lost his pidyn” — his cock — “or damaged it beyond repair. That would secure him from reproaches of unchastity, wouldn’t it?”

“With a vengeance.” Huw and I were smiling.

“Well, well, well! I weep for the poor man” — not that Tad showed any sign of tears — “but I admit I’m mightily relieved to have him out of our family tree. And therefore to have King Edward out too. That’s great news, Huw. Thanks.”

“Any time. But what do you know of your ancestors, Nhad? For sure?”

“Remarkably little. On my mother’s side I can go back about five generations. Hang on.”

He rummaged in a cupboard and brought out a big envelope. “Here’s all I know of her ancestry.” He handed Huw a single sheet of paper.

“But on my father’s side,” he went on, “I can only go two generations back, to my Taid.” Taid is Welsh for grandfather, as Nain is for grandmother.

“Nhad, you shock me,” said Huw. He was well up in his own genealogy and in the nuts and bolts of searching out ancestors, having done quite a bit of it with his father. “I thought all good Welshmen knew their descent in the male line for twenty generations back, and could recite it off the top of their heads.”

“Not this one. I must be a bad Welshman. All I’ve got to go on is what’s in the family bible, and what very little my Mam could tell me about my father’s side.”

“Family bible? Can I see it, please?”

Tad found the big Victorian volume on the shelf and opened it at the flyleaf. On it was written, in a succession of different hands, the basic outline of four generations. In translation, it read:

Given to Owen Griffiths by his father, 23rd January 1901

Owen Griffiths, born Nantlle 23rd January 1880
Married Gwen Lloyd, Llandygái 17th August 1915

Emrys Griffiths, born Carmel 22nd May 1916
Married Anne Morgan, Llandygái 22nd September 1949
Died 30th March 1953

Maelor Griffiths, born Bangor 19th July 1950
Married Gloria Jefferson, Llandygái 5th June 1984

Elfed Griffiths, born Bangor 8th April 1985

“We know about you, Nhad. But tell us more about your Tad and your Taid. It looks as if your Taid never died!”

Tad laughed. “Owen? Nobody knows when he died. It’s an odd story. He started as a quarryman at Penyrorsedd quarry. Then he was ordained and became Methodist minister at Carmel. Then he married my Nain Gwen. In the church here in Llandygái, as it happened — at Llandygái, because her parents lived in Talybont just down the road, and in the church because she was Anglican. They had one child, my Tad, Emrys. But only a year or so after Emrys was born, Owen disappeared. Simply walked out. That’s all I know. I don’t think Emrys was ever told why. At any rate, nobody heard from him again, and Nain took Emrys back to her family in Talybont.

“Not long after that, she died, and Emrys was brought up by her parents. He became a quarryman too, at Penrhyn, and he was killed in a rock-fall there when I was two. I was his only child. So neither he nor Owen had any chance of handing down family traditions to their sons. All I know is what my Mam told me, which is what Emrys had told her.”

I had heard this before, of course, but it was new to Huw. “What a story!” he said. “Three generations of only children, all losing one parent, or even both, when they were babies!” The third generation he was referring to was me, for my own Mam had walked out on Tad when I was still in nappies. “And there aren’t any family papers or photos that you’ve inherited?”

“No papers, not about this lot. Well, a few bits about Emrys. Just his birth and death certificates and things, and a few snaps. Here’s a rather nice one.”

A young man with a wide grin was leaning against a narrow-gauge locomotive in the quarry.

“But of Owen there’s only one photo.” He dug it out of the envelope and checked on the back. “Yes, it says he’s the one trimming.”

It showed two boys, one of them sitting at the trafal and trimming slate with a hand-held knife [see title picture].

“You know, he looks rather like you, Elfed,” said Huw. “Prominent cheekbones.”

“Mmmm, yes, see what you mean,” I agreed. “And Tad, look, he was left-handed too, like you and me. Was Emrys, do you know?”

“Sorry. No idea.” Tad turned back to the bible. “And that’s all. I don’t even know the name of Owen’s father. I wish he’d seen fit to write it here. Not just ‘given by his father’.”

“Well,” said Huw. “We should be able to find it out, here and now. The 1881 census is online, on the IGI site. You know, the Mormons’ International Genealogical Index. The census was taken in April, so Owen would have been just over one. What parish is Nantlle in?”

“Ummm. Must be Llandwrog.”

Huw moved to the computer and tapped, and in a few minutes he had his answer.

Iawn! Here we are! Only one Owen Griffiths aged one in Llandwrog. Living in Nantlle. Born in Llandwrog. Only child of John and Mary Griffiths. John was a slate quarryman born in Beddgelert, aged thirty-nine. Mary was born in Llandwrog, aged thirty-five. So there’s a new generation for you.”

Y nefoedd fawr! Huw, that’s great! You know, it reminds me that there’s a mystery photo in here too. I’m not even sure it’s of our family. But it’s obviously old, so I’m wondering if it can possibly belong to that new generation.”

He was burrowing again in his envelope, and produced a small brown print mounted on thick card with bevelled edges. It showed a confident-looking man of perhaps forty, seated on a chair. He had short dark hair and luxuriant side whiskers, and wore a high floppy collar with a wide loose bow tie, a short waistcoat and a long jacket. He gave the impression of being small in stature. Standing behind him, one hand on the back of the chair, was a boy of about sixteen who, though whiskerless, resembled the man in features and in dress.

“But that’s Elfed!” cried Huw. “I mean, it looks even more like him.”

Dammo di!” Tad exclaimed. “So it does! I haven’t set eyes on this for years. When last I did, Elfed was still a chubby toddler. Yes. It does look like him now, doesn’t it? So they pretty certainly are ancestors. Now, what sort of date is it? Hmmm. The dress is just the same as Brunel is wearing in that famous photo. I’d say late 1850s. Turn it over, I think there’s something on the back.”

There was: the printed message ‘John Williams, Photographer, Tremadoc,’ and a brief note in ink ‘DG & JG.’

“Well, that fits, doesn’t it?” said Huw. “If JG is the boy, he’s presumably John Griffiths. Owen’s father. Who was born in, um,” — he did sums in his head — “1841 or 42. If he’s sixteen in the photo, it was taken about 1858. Fits with what you said, Nhad. And if DG was John’s father, I reckon you’ve got the makings of yet another new generation here.” He beamed at us.

His enthusiasm was firing us too. “Where do we go from here? To find out more? Is it going to be difficult?”

“More difficult than in England. Think of the shortage of names here. I read somewhere that in rural North Wales in the nineteenth century, over 95 per cent of the people shared only twenty surnames. There weren’t many more first names either, and most of those were English ones, before Welsh ones made a come-back. William Joneses were two a penny. The difficulty’s making sure you’ve got the right William Jones. Much harder even than finding the right William Smith in England. And we’re unlucky in having a John to look for, though at least Griffiths isn’t quite so common.

“As for where to look, well, there are two main lines of attack. One of them’s parish registers. We need to look at the Llandwrog ones, not that they’re likely to tell us much more about John and Owen. And at the Beddgelert ones for John’s birth and his parents. They’ll presumably be in the county archives.”

“Haven’t I heard that the Mormons have got all the parish registers online?”

“For England, yes, or nearly all. But their coverage of Wales is thin to vanishing point.”

“Pity. What’s the other approach?”

“Censuses again. Trouble is none of the earlier ones is online yet, not without paying through the nose. So they’ll be horribly tedious to search. We’ll have to go to the Archives for the one nearest in date to this photo. That’s 1861. Start with Beddgelert and hope John was still there. If he wasn’t, it’ll be looking for a needle in a haystack. He might have lived anywhere. No, hang on, we do have one clue, don’t we? If he and his father had their photo taken in Tremadog in the late 1850s, presumably they lived not all that far away. And another thing. It’s not at all unlikely that his father was a quarryman too. What slate quarry was there then, within easy reach of Tremadog?”

“Gorseddau,” said Tad without hesitation. “The classic example of how not to run a quarry. And yes, it was working in the late 50s and 60s. It can’t be more than three or four miles from Tremadog over the top, though it’s a sight further by road. That’s the best bet by far. It’s in my mind because I’ve just bought a run of a rather nice periodical called Gwynedd Diwydiannol, Industrial Gwynedd, which I thought might interest you. And one of them’s got an article about Gorseddau.” He fished them out of his bag. “Yes. All about Ty Mawr Ynysypandy, which is up Cwmystradllyn. That was the mill where they sawed slate from Gorseddau quarry into slabs.”

Although I had heard of the place and seen the odd picture of the ruins, I had never been there. But as we pored over the article and its illustrations, our appetites were whetted. Not only was there this extraordinarily impressive mill and the quarry itself to explore, but also, it turned out, the tramway which carried the slate down to Porthmadog and the remains of a village built for the quarrymen. The whole thing closed in 1866, after an active life of only twelve years, and had not been worked since.

We got out the 1:50,000 map to see the lie of the land. It was about twenty-five miles south of Llandygái. The least indirect route was the main road, the A487. A few miles short of Porthmadog it crossed the lower end of Cwm Pennant, a lovely valley extending northwards into the mountains. I had been up it with Tad, and loved it. But I had never been up Cwmystradllyn, a tributary valley which fed into it from the east.

So Gorseddau had a double attraction, not only as the possible stamping ground of long-forgotten ancestors, but as an intriguing place in its own right. Huw and I looked at each other and nodded. That must be our first port of call, followed by the Gwynedd Archives in Caernarfon. For the next few days neither was on. The evenings were too short to go after school, and the Archives, Huw discovered from their website, closed at 5.30 and were not open at all on Mondays. But ahead was looming the half-term week and nine continuous days of freedom. Exploration in the field was therefore destined for the weekend, the Archives for Tuesday onwards.

Meanwhile we did a little more research to discover which parishes to search in the censuses. Huw trawled the web and came up with quite a collection of modern photographs of the mill and the quarry. And from the net he printed off first-edition six-inch maps, surveyed in 1888, which gave us the detailed geography and pinpointed the abandoned village. Tad photocopied the article in Gwynedd Diwydiannol for us, to save getting the original wet and dirty. We were ready to go and look.