This weekend I took a trip North – four and a half hours into the wilds of North Wales, to be exact. It’s a strangely familiar journey, which draws together my present and my past in new ways. I lived there from the ages of 20 to 26, following a dream that eluded me again and again, of a life outside the world with fewer trappings of materialism, and a greater connection to nature and to spirituality. What I discovered there was my resilience, drive, energy, capability, and how to survive a life lived so far below the poverty line I could barely find it. Back in the day, I travelled in a range of pathetic old bangers, such as a ratty old HA van that cost £100, and was held together with gaffer tape and prayers. Travelling north now, in my comfortable ‘executive saloon’, I can hardly believe that I risked this journey in a range of useless cars, and trusted to luck and willpower to get us up and down the hills, from north to south and back north again.
So to my journey. The land changes as you move north, and there is that indefinable sense of going upwards, of climbing the spine of Wales towards her head, always upwards as much as onwards. The soft, gentled hills of the South, my first love, seemed tamed and manicured compared to the rugged rock outcrops that force their way through the skin of the land as the vastness of Snowdonia swallowed us. It was beautiful and terrible, and the sun came out just for us, to glory in the play of light and shadow on a hillside as the clouds moved across the heather, or to catch a brief rainbow in the corner of the sky. I found that there was no sense of hiraedd, or of fearful anticipation, just satisfaction. Returning North as a successful lecturer, writer, mother – as the person I once dreamed I would become – was far more emotionally satisfying than I had imagined. I left this area still in poverty, but moving closer to my goals and firmly entrenched on my path towards self-fulfilment. Returning again brought a sense of joy, of completion.
We wound our way through the hills to Beddgelert, where I used to catch the bus to work, and often hitched a ride the 4 miles into the village to go to the pub and drink real ale, and play pool (badly). Balmy spring nights would find me and my then partner weaving the 4 miles home, drunk, wandering from one side of the country road to the other, sitting beside Llyn Dinas, laughing our drunken laughter, before staggering home. The village had changed little – the ice cream shop was still there, and the pub, and the outdoors shop, where this time we stopped and I could afford to buy a few things. That in itself was a pleasure, to buy a good, warm sweater and some camping gear, and to feel that even the ghost of my former self had long been exorcised from this particular place. The river still sang its loud, wild tune as we wound our way towards the coast, to Caernarfon, where I had lived and worked briefly. I love the walled town, but it holds few memories as I lived outside the more picturesque areas, and did nothing remotely ‘touristy.’ On both my visits since I have played the tourist, and loved it, and made sarcastic comments about English imperialism and conquest whilst simultaneously, and oxymoronically, admiring the majesty, strength and timeless beauty of the castle. The light over the Menai strait holds a peculiar grey blue quality, a kind of clarity I have rarely seen elsewhere, and it was this that tugged at my heart, more than anything else. I could have happily bought a house and moved in, just to wake to that light and the sound of the sea.
The next day, we took a real trip into the past for me, to the first place I lived when I moved north, a tiny little village nestled on the Lleyn Peninsula. One road in, one road out, a scrap of nothing much, a stony beach with piercing wind, and an old street re-visioned with new cobbles and a new wall, and new windows and doors on my old house. I could barely remember the girl-woman I was when I lived there, but the bitterness, anger and grief were gone. Instead, I felt a sense of peace, and that again, I could buy a house, settle there, fully reconciled with my past and comfortable in my present.
My life began in that village – it was where birth and death brought me to a new life. It features obliquely in my writing, but for the first time I was clear that it was as changed as I was, despite being essentially the same. The same houses, the same roads, the same clunky old buses in the depot. The same scored and blasted headland, where I once walked, cold and hungry, gathering samphire to supplement my empty cupboards, the same hedgerows and hillsides where I gathered leaves and fruit. I promised myself I would never be that hungry again, and I haven’t. It was good to acknowledge this. The accents were the same, thick and throaty and nasal all at once. Even the people seemed unchanged. That sense of the eternal was so strong that I imagined I might return in another 20 years and find things till relatively unchanged by time.
So to the road across the mountains, the windswept beaches impossible to approach, and a final stop at a secret ancient monument and sacred site, one that eludes many travellers. Even I, who had visited several times, could not be sure I would find the hidden well, through the field at the end of the footpath through the graveyard. Still, we found it, and it was worth the walk, the spring still filling the well pool, endlessly flowing and whispering through the stones, and out into its channel through the field. But the ancient trees on the hill behind the spring seemed brooding and angry, and the last of the sunlight was cloaked by building grey clouds. The break in the weather was over. We made our peace at the spring, and left love and thanks, and return to the car. I think that was when the journey home began, even though we stayed in Caernarfon a second night. It was as if I had come to pay my respects at certain sites, and having done that, I could leave.
Our final stop was on the way home on Sunday, traversing and negotiating longer roads than usual due to closures, to climb the shockingly steep single lane road to the narrower lane that lead to the graveyard on the top of the mountain. Here, despite the howling wind, the silver line of the sea at the mouth of the estuary far below, I was connected only to the earth, feeling only the earth that cradled the bones of my beloved dead. I had to wedge the flowers into the pot, anchoring them firmly as the wind whipped and tore at them ceaselessly. Still I knew it was a good place to be. In the sunlight, the view is gloriously, wondrously breathtaking, land and sky and sea in perfect balance. In the howling wind and rain, it was good to know that the earth’s embrace was as eternal as the love that I held for the child left behind forever.
That was my moment back in time, back to the 20 year old mother who barely was. That grief and love has never changed. It made me the woman I am today, and the writer. If I were to be asked, where do you get your inspiration from, I would say – from a patch of earth caught between the sea and sky, caught in the liminal space between what is and what might have been.