Thursday, 4 April 2013

Into the Valley

Our plan was to criss-cross Dartmoor, scattering maps of three hares churches and cards in our wake (Dru) and chatting to passing book traders in the hope of getting a couple of readings (me).  But Dru found she didn't have sufficient three hares cards to make it worthwhile, so we postponed our trip south and west and headed back to Wales instead.  

It was still snowy. Look, up above is the Sugar Loaf looking like ... well, a loaf of sugar.
And here's Abergavenny, the spit of Salzburg.  Sort of. 

And at Clydach Gorge, I saw what I suspect might be my Best Thing of 2013. Already.  

The former mining village of Six Bells was our destination, in part because I am currently writing a poem inspired by the picture at Big Pit of the women waiting for news at the pithead following an underground explosion on 28th June 1960 and felt the need to go there, but also because there is now a 20 metre high monument, the Guardian of the Valleys, to the 45 men and boys who lost their lives that day.  
On our way Dru coaxed the Morris Traveller up a very steep hill to the Church of Saint Illtyd at Brynithel.  Unfortunately the door - carved with hearts and initials - was locked but we braved the sharp-toothed wind to have a fossick around the hummocky, circular (and thus pre-Christian) churchyard with its ancient yew stumps, out of which new saplings are growing.  

Then it was down down down to Six Bells to see the statue known as The Guardian Of The Valleys.  It's been dubbed South Wales' Angel of the North, and there does seem to be a sense of each figure watching over its landscape and offering protection.  But the respective styles and purposes are very different.  

One of the most ingenious aspects of the Guardian is the method of its construction, from over 20,000 strips of cor-ten steel.  Viewed from a distance, the figure seems almost gauzy, there and not there yet solidifying as you approach it.

The sculptor, Sebastien Boysen, describes the impetus behind his work thus: 'I just had this thought, this image of this man - almost stripped bare. Maybe he's one of the helpers or maybe one of the survivors who has managed to come out from the pit.  This man is conveying the sense of loss.  A sense of something that's almost impossible to understand.'  

And there is a feeling of irredeemable loss at Six Bells.  The loss of the valley's pastoral tranquility when the mine opened.  The loss of light, health and life working underground.  The loss of work and community pride when the mine closed with  nothing to replace it.  But at the reclaimed site of the former pit, there is peace, reconciliation and remembrance too.  

After Six Bells we again braved wind and residual pockets of snow to picnic in grand style on Marland Mountain - otherwise known as Hafod Fach - where for a time Dru's family used to farm.  


We then headed for Newport Cathedral, which is dedicated to St Woolos the Warrior (or Bearded), whose name is a corrupted, anglicised version of the original, St Gwynllyw.  Apparently he was a King and Confessor, who, like St Illtyd whose church we saw earlier, had a somewhat nefarious career  before he found God and founded the city of Newport.  At one point he even abducted the beautiful Gwladys, daughter of neighbouring King Brychan, who had refused to allow him to marry her, taking 300 men with him to do so.  Only the intervention of King Arthur stopped the ensuing pitched battle.  

Gwladys soon had a son, we are told, who later became St Cadoc the Wise and whose birth Gwynllyw celebrated by going on a cattle raid.  Presumably he indulged in some heavy-duty repentance later.  

The greatest treasure of St Woolos' Cathedral is the Norman arch with its Roman columns stolen, apparently, from the fortress at Caerleon and carved with images that might represent either Noah's flood or the baptism of Christ. Through it, at the East end of the Cathedral, you can see the distinctive wheel window in stained glass designed by John Piper.  

The best journeys end with the sea, or if not quite attaining that, rivers and on a bitterly cold but brilliantly lit April day, the Usk and the Severn both rose to the challenge.  Here is the Transporter Bridge at Newport.  I fancy I'll be back for a ride maybe, on a warmer day, whenever such a dawn might come.  

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