Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Child's Summer in Wales

Dear Nigel,

Summer came and went with the swallow. Blink and you missed it.  But we were lucky enough to catch its tail end in a campsite dropping off the end of the Llyn Peninsula in Wales. It is a magical spot we have been to for several years running now, set on a small farm overlooking Bardsey Island with nothing between you and the feint outlines of Ireland but a wide expanse of sea.

On a good day there is sky, and the sea is the colour of blue lace agate with its threads of greys and whites tacking over the surface like a tailor's dummy. The sea and sky meld and fold into one another in a seamless crease. On a bad day the mists are low and I am sitting there outside my tent in the early morning whiteness with my mug of hot tea waiting for the mist to rise. Then a sudden burst of hot sun on damp tent causes rising steam and an uncomfortable rainforest fug prevails that irks until it too finally disperses and the day can begin.

Most of the time the days are hottish and long (albeit with windbreaks on the beach) and the kids spend their time in wetsuits in the sea trying to adopt all the spare children they can lay their hands on. I am reading cheap trashy novels of the type my mum would definitely not approve of and unwinding to the pace of life which only a tent can command. Every little thing takes so long in a tent; you are constantly in a kind of slow meditative motion, like Tai Chi, froing between the camp cooker with its whistling kettle which takes about a week to boil, and the moving of drying towels and snakes and ladders and small piles of sand that threaten to invade your sleeping bag.

It is not for the feint-hearted, or anyone probably with any degree of sense, but it is extremely cheap if you make it so. Invariably we don't, as the next sea fret of an evening sends us down to the chip shop in Abadaron for piping hot crisp-battered haddock and chunky golden chips - always best eaten by the sea. Sophie and I share a haddock.

Molly, my ragamuffin daughter, is in her element running barefoot the whole time in cotton dresses with her long toffee-coloured hair unbrushed and flaring out behind her. She is a wild child, unkempt and smiling with shiny eyes and a forceful nature. I try and tame this wild child of mine with platted hair and white socks but she will have none of it. And in tentland she is free to be herself.

We make barbecues on long, calm evenings outside the tent. The sun has set and the sea is in sepia. The flames from the barbecue die down enough not to burn the lamb chops and burgers the kids prefer, with just enough over to toast marshmallows on skewers over the white embers. I have remembered a very  helpful idea of Annie Bell's and am also equipped with Tunnock's teacakes. These do not have that caramelised surface that real marshmallows in their gloop are famed for, but they have other interesting properties worth investigating, I think.

Gently piercing the surface chocolate and marshmallow, you anchor your spear in the biscuit base. The good thing about this is that the teacake can be rotated evenly over the heat without threatening to drip off the stick. Once there are tiny bubbles on the chocolate surface it is ready. The chocolate doesn't seem to move, and biting in the mallow is soft and unctuous. Only camp food can do this for you. When else would you be seen cramming your mouth with molten mallow and chocolate and still feel faintly virtuous, as if the cold air insisted that you needed an influx of calories to drive out the damp?

Round the campfire we tell stories of fairies and selkies (the seal people). Molly is animated in her telling, her eyes bright as the flames light up her face. Of all my seven children it is the last, my baby child, who has the gift to carry a story and the passion to make it burn and live.

I am reminded of another story telling session of my own childhood years. Not the romantic headland setting of this night but an ordinary little front room in an ordinary little 1930's house. My grandpa is sitting in his powder blue wing armchair and we children are perching on its uncomfortable arms. There is a three bar fire in the corner with orange glowing strips which stand out against the dark. We sit and listen intently to his lilting gentle voice recounting, perhaps the same tale yet again, of pixies, ghosts and Scottish glens, the scent of highly polished wood drifting over from the grand piano and the street lights trying to push in through the outlined edges of the heavy curtains. I feel safe inside.

A few days later there is an opportunity to go to a real Story Telling session set in a Roundhouse a few miles away. The buildings are based on ancient designs, set into the earth with straw and clay walls, and thatched with reed. There is a huge copper fire pit burning brightly in the middle and candles on sticks jammed into the earth between the stone slabs light up the outline of the Story Teller as he stands to begin his tale. An expectant hush descends on the gathering as the Story teller picks up his Welsh Harp and plays us into his magical world. His broad grin and smiling eyes scan the room taking us all into his world. He has fine lines carved into his face and tightly packed curls which bounce light from the fire. He carries us with him on his journey into the night. And all is silent and intent.

My two are mesmerised, their ears hanging on his every word as he recounts his tale. Molly is particularly taken by the Welsh Harp and, at the interval he lets her sit and play. I am surprised and intrigued to see that instead of taking a finger and drawing it across the strings, she has sat beside him watching intently. Plucking the stings with the thumb  and fourth fingers of each hand she starts to play a fairly tuneful melody from out of nowhere.She is as spellbound, I think, as I am and back home at the tent next day she decides she will make her own Welsh Harp. As you do. So we set to with a biscuit tin and elastic bands from the local post office and a wooden spoon to thread them on to make the acute angle for a range of different notes. She is pleased with our attempt, thank goodness, and demands that we go back to the next session so that she can join in and play.

The next session has a guest Story teller even bigger and bolder than the last. Eric the Brave with his mop of silver hair and sawn out cheekbones has giants to slay and a history of stories of the Llyn to tell. There are perhaps a hundred people gathered round the fire pit tonight, crammed into the alcoves around the edge, huddled on benches and on cushions on the floor.

My two are sleepy as the evening wanes and the tales drift around their heads like the swirls of smoke from the fire. Every now and then a swallow swoops down, wheeling in the smoke, rising with the heat, and roosts back down in the apex of the round thatched wheel above our heads. It is cosy and we have brought cushions and blankets of our own with us. The cushions are old, made from a long discarded worn out blanket from my own childhood, torn up and refashioned as cushions with blanket stitch edges. Time stands still. Past, future. All is still in the telling. Whirls of smoke take the fragments of story out into the ether. This is the skill of the Story Teller. It is one of those perfect evenings.


1 comment:

  1. Absolutely stunning as usual, Martha...a complete story in a post and I see, hear and smell it all so clearly! I love your writing and hope to hear news of your book imminently!? With love for September...x