Part 2: Ancestral Voices

Chapter 3. Cwmystradllyn 2001

Saturday threatened uncertain weather. Tad knew how much our excursions meant to us and, even though we were likely to get soaked, he did not offer to take us by car. Nor did we ask him to — he had his own agenda in putting the garden to bed for the winter. The scooter could not go fast, and the journey would take well over an hour. Down the A487 we buzzed, past Caernarfon, past Penygroes. Half a mile beyond Dolbenmaen and its medieval motte we turned off left past the woollen mill, and left again onto the narrow and winding cul-de-sac which leads up Cwmystradllyn. A mile or so further on, as I carefully negotiated a blind right turn, I nearly drove into the wall in astonishment.

It was a murky day. Above us heavy black clouds were rolling in. Ahead the rounded mass of Moel Hebog, capped with a precociously early sprinkling of snow, glowed evilly under the leaden sky. And directly in front rose Ty Mawr, haloed in glory by a solitary ray of sun which burst like the eye of God through the clouds. Perched on an outcrop rising steep from the stream below, the mill looked for all the world like the ruin of a medieval abbey. So monumentally grand a building was totally unexpected in this landscape where all other human architecture — such few farmhouses and barns as there were — was small-scale and functional. It was easy to see why this was called Ty Mawr, the big house.

We parked the scooter below the outcrop, and as we took our helmets off we gazed up at the gable looming high above us. The mill, we knew, had been bought by the National Park twenty years ago, consolidated, and left open for anyone to visit at any time. The entrance from the road was in the form of a kissing gate which we made live up to its name. We scrambled up a rough and slippery path through the waste tips until, on the right, a lofty archway opened in the foot of the mill wall. Inside, we found ourselves on the floor of the deep pit, cut at one end from the solid rock, which had once housed the great waterwheel for driving the machinery. 

We emerged and climbed on up to the main level. The stone-built shell of the building was complete, but all the machinery and floors and roof were gone. It had had two storeys plus an attic, and in one quarter a basement as well. On the side away from the stream, two curving branches were thrown off the tramway to enter the mill, one on the ground floor, the other, via an embankment with a great retaining wall, on the upper floor. Inside, empty sockets for beams and joists showed where the floors had been, and we disturbed a peregrine falcon that had been sheltering in one of them. The lower floor was split into two by the chasm of the wheel-pit, the wheel having been set entirely below ground level. The whole mill was lit by serried ranks of round-arched windows and doors. No expense, clearly, had been spared. The result was a building of immense architectural power; and even more impressive, perhaps, as an empty shell than when complete. Awe-inspiring, we decided, was the best description.

Our article told us that roofing slates were split and trimmed in huts in the quarry — the usual procedure in those days — and that the mill produced only slabs. Raw blocks delivered to the ground floor by tramway from the quarry were sawn and planed by great machines invented by Dixon the manager into tombstones and lintels and the like, but the mill’s speciality was chimney pieces — mantelpieces and fire surrounds — which were polished and carved by light machinery and by hand on the upper floor.

We spent the morning exploring the site, photocopy in hand, arguing out the details, until we understood its workings. We ate our sandwiches sheltered from the wind behind the embankment. One or two farm tractors and the mail van passed on the road below, but otherwise we saw not a soul all day. We then traced the route of the water supply to its take-off point on the stream, and followed the tramway a short distance in either direction. Its engineering was generous, and no expense had been spared here either.

But the rain now set in, and drove us to shelter in the tunnel which had fed the water to the wheel. Through gaps in the squalls we could make out the quarry at the head of the valley two miles away, and the hillside where the map said Treforys village had been. But we chickened out of going further today. Instead, cold and damp but uplifted, we mounted the scooter and made our long way home, to soak in a hot bath rather than in wet clothes.

Next day the weather was similar. This time we sailed past Ynysypandy without stopping and continued for three quarters of a mile, past the old school, to the end of the tarmac where we parked beside the furthest house that was still occupied. After the second world war, we had read, the dam on the lake was enlarged to supply mains water to Llŷn, and the few farms around the lake were bought out and their buildings stripped to avoid pollution to the reservoir. We walked along the tramway above the lake, aiming for the quarry.

We passed Plasllyn, the former quarry foreman’s house surrounded, typically of such buildings, by a windbreak of trees. Its final use had been as a youth hostel; but it was reputedly haunted, and after the last warden had run screaming into the night it was demolished, leaving nothing but a mound of rubble, though the stables were still there under their bare rafters.

We splashed through some wet cuttings before the tramway swung right to enter the quarry. The towering waste tips were held back from spilling on to the track by a great retaining wall. It was an extraordinary sight. About fourteen feet high, it did not stand vertical but curved outwards over our heads to overhang by a good five feet. It was built of monstrous corbelled stones up to nine feet long, each horizontal course projecting beyond the one below. It was nicknamed, we had read, the Wailing Wall.

Beyond it lay a flat area with a row of buildings. It was quite easy to work out from their design that the end parts had been the smithy, office, and stables. In the middle was a double block of two-storey barracks. Everything was an empty shell or a total ruin. Beyond again, the tramway curved round to the foot of the incline into the quarry.

Here we stood back and looked up. Just to the right was the great re-entrant of the quarry workings blasted into the hillside, four main galleries in fifty-foot steps and another four smaller floors higher up. Huw scanned the long waste tips which ran along the contours in both directions from each floor.

“Am I crazy?” he asked. “It looks as if there’s far more waste in those tips than can possibly have come out of the quarry.”

“Well, it’s bound to be deceptive,” I said. “I mean, a cubic yard of solid rock takes up much more than a cubic yard of space when it’s broken into bits. Anyway, slate quarrying’s always fiendishly wasteful. Tad says that even the best quarries only sold one ton out of every ten they got out of the ground. The rest ended on the tips. Bad quarries might sell only one ton out of every hundred, or worse. And we know Gorseddau was lousy.”

Up we went, to the first floor, and peered over the edge. The floor below seemed a long way down: how often had men fallen over? The gallery itself around the quarry pit was littered with lumps of rock, some as big as cars or even small lorries, either abandoned there when working stopped or fallen since.

“Hey, Elfed, look at these!”

Huw had noticed some deep holes in the native rock, most of them split open longitudinally so that they appeared as semicircular grooves.

“Shot-holes for blasting,” I said. “But they’re enormous.” They were about four inches in diameter. I had been round a number of quarries and knew roughly what was what, but had never seen the like. “They were usually made with a jumper — a sort of long bar with a chisel end, worked by hand. Lift, twist, drop, lift, twist, drop. Yes, look — there’s a typical jumper hole.” It was little more than an inch across. “But these monsters must have been drilled by machine. Look, you can see the marks from a rotating bit. Wonder what it was powered by.”

We could not answer that either, but explored along the waste tips with their small dressing huts and corbelled blast shelters. Two more floors proved much the same. The quarry was a stark and forbidding place, and would hardly look better even in sunshine. Then rain driven by a strong north-easterly began to lash down and drove us back to the tramway where we tried to shelter in the lee of the Wailing Wall. As we cowered, we noticed that some of the softer rocks had graffiti scratched into them, of all dates from the 1850s to the present. We spotted one which was out of the ordinary. It read:

RJ ♥ JG 1857

And beside it was:


“Could be our John Griffiths, I suppose,” said Huw. “But could be any other JG, boy or girl. Robert Jones declaring his passion for Jane Griffiths, and the other way round. Though I wouldn’t have thought Jane would write graffiti.”

The voice of reason. None the less, I had a private and obstinate feeling that the graffiti were speaking to us. But we were getting cold, chickened out again, and headed for home. Once more we had not met a single human being all day.

We had showers when we were in a hurry, as on weekday mornings; but for driving out the cold, we agreed, a bath was second to none, and second only to bed for togetherness. This was because our bath was old-fashioned and large, large enough to hold us both at once. In it, we were quite infantile. We had a rotund little blue and yellow rubber shark for squirting water in a thin jet which, we found, was extraordinarily stimulating when played on the pidyn. Stimulation by jet invariably led on to stimulation by other means. So it did that evening. Fulfilled, we sat there face to face, legs interlocked, each with a foot in the other’s crotch, while Huw drew patterns in the wet hair on my thighs; which I could not do to him because his legs were as smooth as a baby’s.

He traced HM ♥ EM on one thigh.

I replied by tracing JG ♥ RJ on the other.

“You’ve got that on the brain, haven’t you?” he asked.

“As well as on the thigh. Yes, I know. I’m a persistent sod. But I’ve got this gut feeling that these two are … counterparts.” I pointed from one thigh to the other. “It won’t go away.”

He responded by lunging forward to kiss me, and the resulting tidal wave washed out the messages.

After tea, Tad produced another book. “I’d forgotten I’d got this.”

It was The Slate Quarries of North Wales in 1873, a collection of contemporary descriptions.

“I know it’s rather late for your purposes, but it’s got an account of a drilling machine patented by a certain Dixon. Is that the same Dixon who was manager of Gorseddau? He was a bit of an inventor, wasn’t he?”

Yes, it must be the same. It described a drill of the kind used by miners for developing a quarry. It made big shot-holes just like those we had seen, each holding 25 pounds of gunpowder, and the blast loosened huge blocks of rock. That shed light on one of our questions.

On Monday we returned to Gorseddau for the third time. It had to be Treforys today, and mercifully the weather had improved. Having followed the tramway for a mile, we cut up to the left along a track behind Plasllyn. Our ancient map showed the village as three streets running above each other along the hillside, dead straight and parallel. And there they were, camouflaged when seen from a distance by tussocky grass and dying rushes, but obvious when you were on them. ‘Streets’ now seemed too grandiose a name. They were very rough, very steep where they cut across naked outcrops of rock, and barely usable, surely, by wheeled vehicles. The drainage had gone to pot and stretches were deep in bog.

Along each street, on the downhill side only and equally merging into the landscape, stood pairs of semi-detached houses, well separated from their neighbours. According to the map there were eighteen blocks or thirty-six houses in total. Each block proved identical, its two houses being mirror images of each other. They were in the typical Welsh rural long-house style, essentially single-storey, with the door on the side away from the street. Each had three rooms. The main living room was some twelve feet by fifteen, with a sizeable fireplace for a range. Off it led a slightly smaller room with a smaller fireplace. Over the smaller room but not the larger was an attic room, entirely in the roof space, reached presumably by ladder. The walls of some houses had collapsed virtually to ground level, while those of others, even the gable walls, were almost complete.

The streets were bounded by a continuous waist-high stone wall on the uphill side, and on the downhill by a similar wall except where it was interrupted by houses and by gaps for access. As we wandered round the back, we noticed ditches, some of them still in water, running straight down to the street below.

“So,” said Huw, prowling, “each house had a long strip of land, bordered by these ditches. A garden.”

“Can you call it a garden? Look at it — just rushes and rocks. It must be a thousand feet up here, and fiendishly exposed — what could you grow? Potatoes, possibly? And chickens? Or there might have been a family pig, though I can’t see any pig sties.”

“Can’t see any tai bach either,” said Huw, meaning privies. “Where did they crap? Into the ditches, which washed it all down to the street below?”

“Or into buckets, which they emptied any old where?”

We never solved that problem, but at the far end of the middle street we found a spring, the only obvious water source for the whole village. It was time for lunch, and we sat on the nearest dry perch, the broken-down street wall beside the third house from the spring.

“You know, Huw, the best-preserved houses are the ones nearest to the spring. I wonder if they were the last to be occupied.”

“That would add up. When we get to the census, I hope it’ll give house numbers, so we can work out who lived in which. But then we don’t know which end of which street the numbering started. Most logical if Number 1 was at the west end of the lower street. Nearest to Porthmadog. If that’s right we’re now at” — he counted on the map — “Number 20.”

When we had finished, as I stood up, I dislodged the slab I had been sitting on, which had formed part of the coping of the wall.

“Hang on,” cried Huw. “Isn’t there writing on that?”

It was a rectangular slab of sawn slate, about fifteen inches by twelve by four. I picked it up, laid it flat on the wall, and brushed loose dirt off. Yes, there was writing. The first line, quite deeply cut in fairly neat capitals, read


Beneath it was a large heart. Under the heart was the date,


On either side of the heart, rather cruder lettering read


Rowland Jones loves John Griffiths, and vice versa, 14th February 1858.

We looked at each other open-mouthed. No way could I utter a word. Huw had to say it for me.

“You were right, Elfed. They’re the same people as on the Wailing Wall. They were gay. Nearly a hundred and fifty years ago. Gay. In a macho society like this. And if this is your John, then your great-great-grandfather was gay.”

“Not a joke, then?” I asked, finding my voice.

“It’s hardly the sort of thing you’d do as a joke, is it? Look at the date — it’s a ffolant. A valentine. Surely they wrote it themselves. They must have brought the slab up from Ty Mawr — it’s sawn. There’s hardly any other sawn stuff round here. And look at the lichen on it, only on these three edges. It must have sat like this.” He fitted it against the surviving stretch of coping, where the stones stood on edge, at right angles to the line of the wall. “When the coping was complete, nobody would ever see the writing. Not till the slab was knocked down by a sheep, or a man. It was hidden, deliberately. And don’t you think they put it here because it was nearest to where one of them lived? Number 20?”

I couldn’t argue with his reasoning. I knew in my bones that it was sound. I couldn’t prove it, not yet, but none the less I knew for sure that my ancestor four generations back had been here, on this exact spot, with his lover. Had they been in the bedroom barely six feet away? Could they there have …? I suddenly got rampant.

Huw knew exactly what was going on in my mind, and in my pants. “Elfed, cariad, come inside.”

There he hugged me, hard against hard, and kissed me. The floor was thick with sheep shit, but we did not have to lie down. He squatted, undid my belt and zip, and loved me. Then I loved him. Precisely where, surely, they had loved each other, nearly a hundred and forty four years before.

When it was over, I found myself caught in a complex mix of emotions, and tears rolled down my cheeks. Love, yes of course; love for Huw, as ever. But much more than that. Again Huw read my mind, and again he hugged me.

“It’s relief of a sort, isn’t it, Elfed?” he murmured. “However understanding people are, people like Tad, we always feel we’re the odd men out, don’t we? In our own little world, in Llandygái, at school, we’re odd men out, as far as we know. Iawn, we know we’re not freaks. We know we’re far from being alone, in the big wide world, nowadays. Which helps.

“And now you know that you’re not alone in time. That must help too. To know that you’re not alone in your family tree. That you’re not the first Griffiths to be gay. That even among the Griffithses you’re not a freak. Is that right?”

Yn llygad ei le, Huw. That exactly right. I know in my guts that this is my John. I’ve found a Griffiths I can identify with. In a way I can’t even with Tad.”

The comfort was immense. I felt myself reaching out to John across the years, and approving his love for Rowland. I felt John reaching out to me, and approving my love for Huw.

“Thank you, Huw. For being you. And for being here.” I breathed a deep sigh and came back to the present. “Look, shall we clean the place up a bit and take some photos?”

We pulled up grass and nettles from the floor as best we could, and scraped the worst of the sheep shit away, and removed some of the tumbled stones, until the internal layout of the house was reasonably clear. We took many pictures, inside and out, including ourselves, and including the ffolant.

“What do we do with it, Elfed? If we leave it here, someone may find it and add rude remarks. Or just laugh at it. We don’t want that. Oughtn’t we to take it home and look after it properly?”

Yes, that was the right thing to do. We wrapped it carefully in a spare sweater and slid it into Huw’s rucksack. It was heavy, but he had carried much heavier burdens before.

Any more investigation could only prove an anticlimax. “Gadaw i ni fynd,” let’s go. We squelched down towards the tramway. “And who was Rowland Jones, Huw? That’s what we’ve got to find out too.”