Thursday, August 02, 2007
An earth dam holds back the reservoir of Llyn Celyn, the water gleaming in the summer sun. You can tell it’s a reservoir, water has been taken leaving a scummy tide mark around the edge. Beneath it lays the village of Capel Celyn, at the end of the 1950s the battle to save it became a defining moment for Welsh nationalism.
It might not have been on the scale of the Namada Dam in India but it was still keenly felt. Capel Celyn was a small farming community, the people met together to sing and recite poetry, it was steeped in Welsh culture.
Liverpool wanted their water and demanded to have their valley as a reservoir. The spin-doctors of their time painted a picture of thirst ravaged inhabitants in Merseyside and south Lancashire – a blatant untruth the water was for the industrial expansion that never happened. Big-city arrogance triumphed over a tiny inconsequential village.
Driving westward around Llyn Celyn there’s a huge stone boulder with an iron plaque firmly embedded in it. It commemorates the farmstead of Hafod Fadog – during the seventeenth century it was a centre for Quaker worship. The Quakers believed that they could communicate with God without the need for churches, officials or sacraments, a revolutionary viewpoint for the time. In 1679 at Bala, Quakers were tried for refusing to pay tithes to the established church. With their customary tolerance the Court of Great Sessions threatened to burn them, this prompted the thousands of Welsh Quakers to buy land in Pennsylvania.
Further down the road there’s a memorial chapel that commemorates the Calvinistic Methodist Chapel buried beneath the waters. Inside a plaque lists the names of the villagers, sadly it’s now closed due to vandalism. I don’t know who designed it but it looks less like a chapel and more nuclear fall-out shelter with its sloping slate roof and bunker like design only a small cross on the roof betrays its purpose.
Behind the chapel the gravestones stand, removed before the waters engulfed them, they stand proud, slate black in the shade, Welsh names – Roberts, Jones, I’ve a strange uneasy feeling. Can the dead rest when their homes lie in the gloom at the bottom of the lake?
The main parking area is at the western end of the reservoir, you skirt along the busy road, dodging artics before the sanctuary of the footpath beckons. Walking across marshland there’s a small bridge over the Afon Tryweryn.
Coming to the disused railway I take a brief detour to the right to find the quarry, it’s as though a malignant giant has gouged a chunk from the hillside. Closer up you can see the galleries where quarry workers laboured with rope and pick and the occasional stick of gelignite to ease the slate from the hillside.
Following the road that skirts behind the hill a military jet screams overhead, straight as an arrow, piercing the clouds momentarily disturbing the tranquility until it rumbles away thundering into the distance.
Electricity pylons disfigure the landscape, arms splayed out like iron giants, cables twisting across the floor of the valley. House martins arch, swoop and wheel over the heather, gathering on the cables ready for the long journey south as though a quiet insistent voice is instructing them to depart. A buzzard patrols the heather hugging the ground so closely it appears to be running across it.
In the village of Llidiardau there is a perfect example of a Calvinistic Methodist chapel its walls thick and imposing, peering through the window I can see the plain white walls, simple wooden pews, the building shorn of any adornments. The Wesleyans believed that a person could lose their salvation by leading an unfaithful life, Whitefield’s Methodists expressed the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination – “once saved always saved”.
A footpath leads back to Llyn Celyn and there’s the ruined farm of Tan-y-myndd, the house and barn exposed to the elements, the roof tiles stripped away. Roof beams have collapsed and lie splintered at crazy angles like a sculpture from Tate Modern. Inside the house a range - the fire long extinguished, outside the damson trees loaded with fruit – no hand to pick them. Were there no sons to continue? Was life too hard on this hillside, bleak isolation broken only by the call of the sheep?
The footpath peters out and I’m wading through a sea of ferns, blind, stumbling over stones and rocks. Eventually I reach the road back to the dam. The water treatment spire peers out of the lake like the conning tower from an alien submarine. In the car park the graffiti has been painted over – ‘Liverpool Must Suffer for Tryweryn’ and underneath it the symbol of the Free Wales Army.
A path worn by the sheep takes me round the lakeshore. I find the concreted over railway line and watch it disappear into the waters depths. Further on rowan trees laden with red berries line the sides – protection against enchantment and evil spirits.
Would Capel Celyn have survived intact? I can see the minister railing in vain against the corruption of the flesh, sin, fornication and reality TV. The chapels now are bingo halls, cut price stores or converted into homes. Would the village be full of B+Bs, a caravan park (assaulted by RS Thomas’s ‘Elsan culture’), or invaded by the second homes of the despised English? Was this way of life worth saving, the mean spirit of the chapel that Caradoc Evans pilloried in Capel Sion? Dylan Thomas portrayed the Welsh village as inward looking, that suffocating closeness, the youth leaving for the cities.
Capel Celyn never got a chance, they marched through Liverpool’s streets, and 27 out of 36 Welsh MPs voted in vain against the reservoir. Just before the dam was opened in 1963 an electricity transformer was blown up. That October the Tryweryn Dam was opened by the Lord Mayor of Liverpool, the Free Wales Army made their appearance, there was stone throwing, shouting and fireworks. The sound of Welsh voices drifted in the air, it sounded like a hymn and the corporation officials listened in silence. It was an old hymn and the words were repeated over again – “Tull dîn pob Sais” – “Arseholes to all Englishmen.”
Liverpool Council apology
The valley drowned in pictures