Honouring the dead.

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Bryngwynfel, my mother’s birthplace.

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The view from above Tyn-y-beili, where my mother grew up.

It is the anniversary of my mother’s death and I thought it would be a good time to share a particular family story she told me, because it is one that has been passed on by word of mouth through three mothers – my mother, her mother, and now me. It is a story which had remained untold since her own mother died and which would not have come to light if the memory had not been prompted by my research into our family history.

I unearthed many tragic stories while doing the research, things my mother would never have known about her ancestors, otherwise. But this particular story would have disappeared with my mother if she had not told it to me. My mother was told it by her mother, my granny Annie, and my mother was eighty-five years old before she related it to me. How many such family stories are lost for the want of someone who wants to know, or for the want of telling?

I’d been recording my granny’s sisters and brothers on the family history chart and was asking my mother if she remembered any of these aunts and uncles of hers. Well, she had something to tell about each of them but I shan’t go into those stories now. What she did say, in her lilting Welsh accent, and which made my ears prick up was ‘But wait a minute, there was another one, you know’.

‘Was there?’ I was incredulous.

‘Yes! A baby! She was named Medi!’

I had no knowledge of this child, at all.

‘Well, now, you listen, and I shall tell you what my mother told me’, my mother said…

‘The baby was poorly. From the start, you see, there was something wrong with her. And her father, Huw – he was a lay preacher, you know – he was very worried because it didn’t look like the baby would survive and she hadn’t been baptised, you see. And so Huw decided they must go to the chapel and get her baptised. And off they went. But it was a terrible day, pouring down rain, and they all got drenched before they even got to the chapel. They only had the pony and cart, you see. Well, the upshot of it was the baby died, anyway, but that wasn’t the last of it. Medi’s mother, my grandmother, caught pneumonia that day and never recovered. Six months later, she was gone, too. My mother, Annie, was just six years old when her mother died, you know.’

It was my daughter who realised the significance of Medi’s name. Medi is Welsh for September, which turned out to be the month of her birth. After my mother told me this story, I searched the BMD index for a Medi, and there she was; her death recorded in the last quarter of 1896.

Now, every September, I remember Medi and her mother, and poor Huw who must have suffered greatly for the decision he made on that fateful, wet day and through which he lost so much. Huw had already lost one wife to childbirth. He never married again after he lost the second one. And I am haunted by the fact that I have failed, still, to find their graves. Another September is come and gone. This time, this year, I will find them, I tell myself with every September that goes by. Perhaps I will, this year.

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Cwmchwefru, where Medi and her mother died.

My mother, had she been born to a different life, would have loved to write stories, I think, for she certainly loved to tell them and told them well. She was very proud of me having written two novels (she did not live to see the third). She read the first two and greatly enjoyed them, then lent them to all her neighbours and friends, saying ‘my daughter, Jenny, wrote these, you know. She’s an author!’

The moral of this story is; if you have elderly relatives, be sure to ask them questions while they are still here, and pass the stories on to your own children. My mother was the last one of her brothers and sisters to die, and one thing I’ve often regretted is that her siblings had died before I began researching our family history. There was so much they died not knowing and so much more they may have contributed.

Imagine if my mother had died without telling this family story. Little Medi and her short and tragic life would never have been recorded as it deserved to be. Ask the questions and pass on your family stories!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A ghostly encounter on a journey into the past…..

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow      The Calling of the Raven updated book cover     Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

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

Follow me:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse

Treasures amid the ruins of past lives.

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A passage from Leap the Wild Water;

We had reached the ruins of Hafod by then, and I remembered how, years ago, Morgan and I had played in this ruin as children. We’d ride over here on our ponies. Back then, there were still remnants of a roof and the outside walls were intact. We’d light a fire in the hearth, though the chimney was full of crow’s nests. Sian talked as we picked our way round the crumbled walls of the house, stepping over roof slates overgrown with weeds, and stooping to pick up bits of broken china cups and such.

A ‘ hafod’ was a summer dwelling or place. My earliest traced ancestors lived in a place called Hafodeidos. Its English translation conjures up an 18th century rural idyll – the summer place of the nightingales.

The name of Hafod has ancient origins, harking back to a way of living which was practiced by the early Welsh people. They lived according to a semi-nomadic system of transhumance. In summertime they lived in summer dwellings called ‘hafod’ which were situated up in the mountains. Their animals grazed on the rough mountain pasture while the family lived in the ‘hafod’, which was no more than a roughly built hut but served as adequate shelter through the summer months. They lived off the milk and cheese they acquired from the freely grazing cows and sheep. Loving to roam the Welsh mountains as I do, this seems to me to be the most idyllic of existences in summertime.

Only when winter drew near would the family make their way down the mountain to live in their winter dwelling. This was called a ‘handref’ and provided better shelter from winter weather while offering some protection for people and animals from the wolves which then roamed the Welsh countryside.

I failed to find anything but ruins of many of the homes of my ancestors. Long abandoned, due their remoteness or inaccessibility when transport became motorised. Many of the old tracks remain, now marked as bridle-paths or footpaths, when once they would have witnessed the weekly trundle of cartwheels, carrying the family to market or chapel.

If you walk anywhere in the Welsh countryside, you will still encounter the occasional ruin, tucked away on some remote hillside. Often, as in the photos above, the only thing still standing is the chimney wall, complete with beam-topped fireplace. Slate tiles litter the ground amidst the fallen stones, and the remains of broken china lie scattered about among nettles and grass; a cup-handle here, a shard of plate there. As I walk amid the ruins of long-since crumbled homes, I am always left wondering how many children were raised or died within that house; how many couples lived, loved and died between its walls?

That is the pull of old ruins, for they hint at the stories lost to history, leaving us writerly souls to fill the gaps with our imaginations. As I trample among them, I fancy I hear the sound of children’s laughter, and their footfalls chasing about boarded rooms that no longer exist. I imagine glimpses of petticoats, pinafores, waistcoats and breeches; always just around the corner, hidden from sight.

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A family of eighteen children were raised  in the house above, within living memory.

As a child I often played amid the ruins of an old chapel which lay a few fields away from our house. Its roof was gone but its walls remained, and it was said that the roof had been struck by lightning when the congregation were singing inside. The roof caught fire and the congregation fled. A Baptist chapel it was. They must have thought that God himself had finally come to smite them down for their sins…

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Opposite that chapel, was the ruins of what was once the chapel house. Damson trees grew behind what remained of its walls and we’d clamber up those trees in autumn, to harvest their purple fruit. There is nothing but grass and weeds to be seen there now. The earth has swallowed its remains and covered them over as if they had never been.

The same has happened to the cottages which were once said to exist below our old farmhouse. Not even a grass-smothered outline remains of one of them. Nature has gathered them all into her bosom, obliterating man’s attempts at permanence, and returned the fields to her beloved green.

The extraordinary is to be found beneath the ordinary. Within the lives of ordinary people, extraordinary stories can be found. Inscribed on ancient tombstones, between the lines of census entries, or beneath the scattered slates and stones; dig deep enough amid the ruins of the past and there is treasure to be found.

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow      The Calling of the Raven updated book cover      Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books or 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

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse

Have you had your oats today?

Oats were once the main staple in the diets of rural people in upland Wales. Part of the research for my novel, Leap the Wild Water, involved finding out what the rural poor ate in the early 19th century. What I discovered was a diet dominated mainly by oats and milk. The only variations in the oats and milk diet were subtle variations in the preparation, invented no doubt to relieve the monotonous boredom of eating the same bland foodstuffs every day.

Oats were used to make oat bread, oatcakes, to thicken vegetable broths, in milk broths, and mixed with milk to make a fairly tasteless, porridge-like substance. Oatcakes seemed to have been eaten at almost every meal time. The most common recipe consisted of mixing fine oatmeal with bacon fat, boiling water and a pinch of salt. This mixture was then kneaded well. After rolling out and cutting into circles, the ‘cakes’ were then cooked on a hot baking stone placed over the fire.

Cawl llaeth was a milk broth eaten at breakfast time and very like the porridge we eat today; made with skimmed milk, oatmeal, water and salt boiled together.

An inventive variation on the oats for breakfast theme was to serve Cawl -with crushed oatcakes added; the downside of having this for breakfast meant that you would be eating the same meal at breakfast as at dinner – Cawl being the main meal of the day. Cawl is a Welsh broth, made by adding vegetables to water in which salt beef or bacon is being boiled, and then thickened with, yes, you have guessed it, oatmeal.

‘Shot’ was a common supper dish. It was basically oatcakes steeped in buttermilk.

For a little variety ‘Sopas’ was eaten at breakfast in summer time; this was made by heating buttermilk to blood temperature, then rennet was added and the mixture placed in a cloth covered bowl. This less than delightful sounding mixture was then left for several hours before being mixed and served. At least it didn’t have oatmeal in it, though it is more than likely that oatcakes were served up on the side.

Even the mid-day meal did not escape the addition of oats, as the bread served with the home-made cheese and butter would have likely been oat bread.

The mind numbing monotony of the rural Welsh diet was the direct result of there being nothing to eat which could not be grown. Thus, Cawl was made from the bacon of one’s own pig and the vegetables grown in the garden. Your cow would provide the milk to drink, and for making cheese and butter. If pudding was eaten at all it was likely to be stewed apples or whatever other fruit was in season in the garden or the wild.

Upland Wales was not a conducive climate for growing cereal crops but people had to grow a certain amount of oats, rye and barley to feed themselves and their animals. What came to be known as ‘Radnorshire’ oats was able to survive the cold and wet Welsh climate.

Though sheep were the predominant animal in upland Wales, they were not reared for meat but for their wool. However, after lambs were weaned, their milk was often added to cow’s milk to make cheese. A typical recipe for cheese was a gallon of ewe’s milk to four gallons of cow’s milk, to which rennet and salt were added. I imagine this would be similar in texture and taste to Swiss Gruyere and provided a tasty addition to an otherwise bland and monotonous diet.

The whey from cheese making was used to make ‘Gwyneb Maidd’. The whey was brought to near boiling point when fresh milk and buttermilk were added. This mixture would then curdle, at which point bread was added. I vividly remember my mother making a similar dish for us as children, liberally sprinkled with salt and pepper, which we ate before bedtime. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds. My mother made all her own bread, butter and cheese on the farm where I grew up in Wales, until well into the 1960’s, by which time it ceased to be economically necessary or viable. Even now, the faintest whiff of buttermilk has the power to transport me back to my mother’s white-washed dairy.

We have such a varied diet these days; it is hard to imagine the monotony of the self-sufficient diet of earlier times. Back then, bad weather and failed crops could mean starvation to a family. We all know about the Irish famines, but Wales too suffered famines on a regular basis; though people did not die in such numbers as in Ireland because they were not so reliant on potatoes.

I have experimented with growing my own vegetables organically, as part of the research for my novel. It is time consuming and sometimes soul destroying work when the results are far less than hoped for. The past years of unusually cold, wet summers did not help.

Jenny Lloyd is the Welsh author of The Megan Jones trilogy; historical suspense novels set in early, 19th century, rural Wales.

Leap the Wild Water new book cover meadow     The Calling of the Raven updated book cover     Anywhere the Wind Blows Book Cover - jpg

You can read about the books or 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/73tq302Ov71

You can also follow the author:

Twitter; https://twitter.com/jennyoldhouse

Facebook; https://www.facebook.com/jennylloydauthor

Pinterest; http://www.pinterest.com/jennyoldhouse