I have never been afraid of ghosts, not even as a child growing up in a reputedly haunted house. In fact, I was thrilled and fascinated by the stories of an older sister who told of her too-close encounters with our resident ghost. The living have often scared me, but not the dead. My lack of fear is just as well, given what happened to me when I went in search of a house where my ancestors once lived, an experience which is the subject of this post.
My journey to find my Welsh ancestors spanned two and half years, hundreds of hours of research, and culminated in the writing of three historical novels. When I began the journey, I never imagined what it would lead to. Of all the journeys I have made, it was the most moving, surprising, and inspiring of all.
Along the way, I had experiences which reignited my faith in there being more to our existence than can be explained away and diminished by science. The experience I shall write about here is an extract from the notebooks I kept at the time.
It was a journey in search of the place where my great-great grandmother had her illegitimate child taken from her to be boarded with a woman who took in these poor children for a living. When this great-great grandmother got married some years later, her daughter was brought home by her uncle Morgan to live with him and his housekeeper.
This story was to spark my imagination and lead to my writing historical fiction. The great-great grandmother, her brother Morgan, and her daughter, were immortalised as Megan, Morgan and Fortune in Leap the Wild Water, The Calling of the Raven and Anywhere the Wind Blows.
My journey to find the place where they’d lived, Caegwyn, was possibly both the eeriest and strangest of all. Its location on the old map showed it to be as remote as any place can be, high up on the top of the central hills of Abergwesyn. The modern map showed it to have been swallowed up by the dark, lifeless and ever-growing forests of the Forestry Commission. So I set out on the journey with little hope of finding much more than rubble. It seemed to me that ‘progress’ had wiped out all before it in its march, including the homes of my ancestors.
I park the car by Beulah Church, don waterproofs and walking boots, and hoist my rucksack on my back. It’s a blustery day, patches of blue sky disappearing and reappearing between threatening, pregnant clouds.
I take the track that goes past Caemawr and past the ruins of what was once Cefngardis farmhouse. Just above the ruins, this track joins the ancient, green ridge-road that comes up from Aberannell farm and over the hills of Abergwesyn, and goes all the way to Cardigan. It was the old drover’s route in the days before the railways came. Thousands of Welsh cattle and geese trod this route, over hundreds of years, to be sold in the markets of England.
I walk up this track under a canopy of trees which border the track on both sides. Then the avenue of trees comes to an end and the track goes over open hill before skirting craggy rocks. The hill falls away steeply on my right, smothered with ancient oak trees. I walk until I reach a summit on the track and stop to look down the valley that opens up below me. Way down at the foot of the hill, nestles the old farmstead of Tycwm. Up the valley sits Lloftybardd and further still, in the distance, the little chapel of Pantycelin where many of my ancestors are buried. From up here on this mountain, the shiny, black gravestones in the modern part of the graveyard resemble rows of black-clothed mourners at a funeral.
I sit on a crag of rock looking down on this vista that my ancestors had looked down on before me, though there was no forestry then to blacken the hills and pollute the waters. From the buzzard’s-view on my perch, I see the mansion of Llwynmadoc in the direction from which I’ve come. The sun breaks through the clouds and a rainbow appears behind Llwynmadoc, over the beautiful hill of Garnwen, flooded with colour and sunlight.
The dark clouds, which have been threatening over the horizon for the past half hour, choose to burst as they arrive over my head. I sit on my perch, eating my lunch, while being battered by rain and buffeted by the wind.
I don’t know how much further I have to walk, so set off briskly. In the distance ahead, the edges of the great forestry loom, and in front of me the track forks indecisively. The clouds pass away leaving a brilliant blue sky in their wake. A flock of twittering, chattering birds come flying from behind me, passing me by with a whoosh, and dipping and darting along the path ahead. The birds follow the left hand fork in the track and pause to perch on a little gate in the fence. Then off they go again. I follow their lead and head towards the forest.
On the other side of the gate, the track winds through pale, rough grass, rosebay-willow-herbs and purple heather before entering the deep, dark forest. The track through the forest is straight and wide and stretches far ahead. Overhead, there is a long strip of blue sky between the avenues of plantation but no light shines on the path; only here and there a small pool of sunlight breaks through the thick canopy, illuminating small areas of undergrowth of long-undisturbed moss. The air is drenched with the aromas of pine needles, fungi and mould; the only sounds are the screeching and creaking of branches rubbing together in the wind. The atmosphere is chilling and eerie.
I scan the plantation on my left for signs of a ruin. This is where Caegwyn seems to be marked on the map. The dank avenue appears to go on forever before finally opening onto a sun-drenched crossroads at its summit. I venture for a little way down a couple of these tracks although fearing that my search is futile. I decide if there is anything left of Caegwyn at all, it must be back in the direction I’ve come.
So I head back down the forestry track, scanning the forest floor again for signs of a ruin, feeling very tired and dispirited by now. I had come in search of Morgan’s land and the place where my great-grandmother grew up. As I reach the end of the plantation, I feel I have somehow failed them.
Then, as I step out of the forestry and into the sunlight, I feel overwhelmed by a strange and strong sensation; I am being not so much pulled but led, and I am compelled to follow, downwards away from the track. Over rows of concealed tree stumps I stumble, my ankles snarled by brambles which threaten to trip me up and send me flying with every step. I am going further and further from the track home and feeling exhausted. I stop and wonder where on earth I am going and why. This is ridiculous, I think to myself, I’m not going any further, I have to head home.
It is then that I see it.
The ruins of Caegwyn have appeared, as if from nowhere before me, smothered and strangled under mounds of black-berried brambles. My breath catches in my throat and I gasp, my scalp tingling. Later, returning home and looking back towards the site of the well-concealed ruin, I am convinced I would never have found it if I had not been ‘led’ towards it by some unseen, spiritual force.
There is little left of the old Caegwyn to see, but from what remains of its outer walls, reduced to some four to six feet in height, one can see that it was once a traditional, Welsh stone long-house. At first sight, it seems precariously perched on the edge of the gorge beyond it, but in fact there is a distance of some tens of yards between what was once its front door and the edge of the ravine it lies parallel to.
It must once have been the most remote and romantic of settings, before the forestry came. The gorge carries the mountain stream down to the lake of Cefn-gardis below. When I lived in the village of Beulah, and my daughter was a little girl, I used to bring her and her friends up to this lake for picnics. I used to sit there by the tranquil lake, looking up at the hills beyond, and it astonishes me now to think I had no idea that my great-great grandmother and many of her relations had lived up there. This lake existed in their time, having been built by Henry Thomas of Llwynmadoc, sometime before his death in 1863. It is said that he employed the striking miners of South Wales to build it.
The aspect looking south from Caegwyn is breathtaking.
The lake shimmers below, and beyond the lake one can see the old village of Beulah and its chapel framed between the slopes of the hills. Beyond Beulah chapel lies Garth bank and the long stretch of the Eppynt mountain. I stood and gazed at the view for a long while, thinking how privileged I was to have been led to find this place where my great grandmother grew up with her uncle Morgan; how lucky I was to have begun this journey in search of my grandmother, Annie, and her family; but sad too that such a place was now in ruins and beyond salvation. For this is a short-lived opportunity to go there, because although the forestry in which Caegwyn was buried has been cleared, it has been replanted. Soon, Caegwyn will be buried again, and even if I were not long gone by then, there will be little, if anything, left to see by the time the trees are harvested again.
Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of the Megan Jones trilogy of novels, historical suspense set in early 19th century, rural Wales.
You can read about the books and purchase them by clicking on the links below.
Leap the Wild Water: http://ow.ly/jEoi302jXkd
The Calling of the Raven: http://ow.ly/4uRO302jXmd
Anywhere the Wind Blows: http://ow.ly/i1sy302jXXK