There were times growing up, when I was quite hooked to the tv, specifically the children’s programmes that would be after school. At other times I was very much an outdoor child, particularly when we moved to Pontarddulais when I was 8, a village-becoming-town (much more so now) situated in a valley to the north west of Swansea. At the foot of a stretch of hills in South Wales which could be accessed beginning at the end of my street, a road called Heol Wyllt which wound up past the farms and more remote cottages onto the wild areas of the hills. Walking out from my house this road began fifty yards away to the left, in English Heol Wyllt is translated as ‘Wild Road’.
At the end of the road is stretches of wild and hilly land closest in character to heath or moorland that has ancient common access and includes hills like Cefn Drum (the most adjacent and traversed hill of my childhood) or the more imposing Graig Fawr (Big Rock) that I could see stretching across the horizon before dipping suddenly down again past the east of the village. Living nestled beneath these crust outcrops they were simply the geographies of the space – kind of past the social real estate of consciousness, the outskirts and further still where the farmers kept sheep and the paths went on to villages that became increasingly remote (though never vastly remote). I still recall the surprise when as a teenager my mother telling me that this land where alternately I refuged or explored, was meditative or hightailing – that these tracks and angles and wild out-burst greens and oranges of ‘the mountain’ were in fact owned by an entity alien in every knowing respect to this Welsh childhood partly belonging to these hills themselves, the Duke of Beaufort.
I later realised through looking at online maps and accessible terrain information like the above, that these hills were part of the southern most stretches of the same terrain that formed the Beacons, an area that in recent years I have had some time to walk in (and where the below images came from taken with a phone camera).
Growing up in such an area provides an element of fortune that the voice of the land (and of the hills /proto-mountains) as space is simply present. Living or growing up with this presence still asks the question of ‘what to make of it’ and the decision in my later years to return and explore the Beacons has been a choice of consideration and a reunion of simultaneous convenience (my family still live nearby).
Transected by only a few North/South roads and peaking at 886m, the Beacons remain relatively accessible and popular for day walkers, especially Pen Y Fan, South Wales’ largest peak, which has a path that leads from a car park in the valley nearby. However, the area also remains wild and hazardous (you need only be there at night, or in inclement weather to know this resolutely) and is used by the SAS for their training and selection, it is an area that can experience sudden and intense changes in weather. It is somewhat fascinating that its accessibility and relative directness of approach regularly trick people into believing that it is of the same plane as the streets and towns or cities, sheltered and physically kempt, but nothing could be further from the truth. As situations such as these attest, the capacity for the Beacons to suddenly transform in climate reacts with its intensity as an environment to put to risk life very quickly and absolutely.
The entire massif is transected by the Brecon Beacons Way, a path that winds through the Beacons East-West and is a route to many marvels. It has been an unbelievable pleasure to have the chance to hike on the Beacons Way and camp out for days at a time.
After one such hike a couple of years ago I recently found something I’d written to a friend upon returning ‘…A fantastic few days – tough as usual with walking and hiking and carrying all the kit, my boots are no longer sufficiently water proof etc. but the reality is that the space, being in it, it being in you – transcends those difficulties and in some respect enhances them as an experience and as capacity for that/those experiences to transform us‘.
As to what that transformation might entail? I have yesterday returned from only my second trip walking and staying out in the most famous of the Welsh mountains, Eryri (Snowdonia) to the North of the country, and specifically an area known as the Rhinogs. With my friend, a skilled navigator of wild areas, we stayed for four nights in tough weather and a few areas with little to no paths or stretches of unavoidable marshy terrain atop saddles and plateaus approaching lakes (Llynau) or before escarpments.
Having returned yesterday, I have spent a couple of occasions already today retracing the steps of the journey in my mind at which point a thought occured as to whether I had actually been there (lockdown has obviously stopped most travel for some time) or more to the point, whether it had been a dream, at which point it also occured that maybe I was still there and that this now is a dream.
The only other time I had visited Eryri was 12 years ago with the same friend, to walk Tryfan, The Glydderau and the Carneddau. Tryfan the route we took required some extreme rock scrambling and a few areas of near-vertical clambering alongside precipitous drops, not something I generally consider doing but came at that point where (and with large heavy packs especially) returning the way you have come becomes near enough as unappetising.
Casting my mind back on this first trip to such an intense and beautiful area, after we had camped the first night, arriving quite late by train to Betws-Y-Coed and finding the first available spot, I had a dream – which was soon after barely memorable but which left an unusual sensation with the fragment that I had held onto. For some reason, it strikes a chord with the dream which I had and described when I camped in the woods in the Cevenne (and as I described toward the end here). Except in this dream, all I could recall upon waking in the morning was that I had been making a laser guidance system for the people of Betws-Y-Coed.
If this has been a story with beginnings of the outside through spaces of wild and hilly terrain connected also with childhood, there is a second story connected with stories of a different kind of outstide (involved and inculcated with a training and learning of the imagination) also being formed, this as I am also writing a piece on some of the television series of my childhood, their relation with the magical and folk outsiderism.