Hungry for more in West Wales

And up I go... 
I've been in West Wales following in the imagined footsteps of some of my great grandmothers who were born and lived here in the 18th and 19th centuries, walking the lanes and hills between the farms they worked and the churches they were married in, where they buried some of their children. 

I'm yet to find a map of mid 18th century Carmarthenshire so I can't be sure of the route Anne Protheroe, my 5 x great-grandmother, took from her father's farm at Bron y Gaer, in the parish of Meidrim, to her new husband's farm, Plas Issa, in the neighbouring, and southern, parish of Llangynog. I am sure that some of the lanes might still wind around the same bends, skirt similar if not exact hedgerows, although the 19th century arrival of the railway and the main Carmarthen to St Clears road, the A40(T), have irrevocably changed the landscape since that day she was married in February 1769. 

Did she walk or travel in a cart? Did she take more than her clothes, her personal possessions? Did her father gift her a cow, some chickens, a horse, a sheep? From the few traces of births, deaths and marriages in the parish records I've assembled a family portrait, glued together with some educated guesses, that shows her mother already dead, a few days after giving birth to a baby girl in 1752, an elder sister already married, and the baby long dead too, buried in 1756. Did she carry something of her mother's? I'd like to think she did, a prayer book, a piece of lace, something of her that she could take into her own life as a soon to be mother.
Stone barn/house at Bron y Gaer, Meidrim

At Bron y Gaer there's an old stone building still standing, used as a storehouse and barn, next to a much later build with a bright cream render. Could this be the original farmhouse, its outside steps leading to living accommodation on the first floor over the animals? Or do I just want this to be the case, to be able to touch the stone her hands would have brushed? As if my skin might absorb some of her story. 

I stayed at Sarnau Mansion, a peaceful and welcoming gem of a Georgian country house, then drove to the Fox & Hounds Inn at nearby Bancyfelin for my circular walk to Bron y Gaer. A half pint of Guinness there at midday was my reward for a two and half hour trek and, with hindsight, I probably should have remained for lunch (the pan fried salmon with fresh mint was calling my name from the specials blackboard) and ignored the salty crumbs and greasy smudge or two on the coffee table in the bar where I'd installed myself. But it was early. I'd only cleared a plate of double fried egg on hot buttered toast at 8.30 and I was bound to find somewhere else relatively close-by, wasn't I? Um, no. 

Wern Inn, Llangynog
Do not believe those big blue tankards on Ordnance Survey maps that promise food and drink. The one stamped on the outskirts of Llangynog is the sad and bitter ruin of The Wern Inn. The more promising signs I kept seeing for The Farmer's Arms at Llanybri eventually led me to a fractured conversation through a window with two Thai women. It was closed. They opened at 4. But no food was served on Mondays. And then I found Florrie's at the beach in Llansteffan.

Fish cake and chips and the Tywi Estuary
Oh bliss. And to make things even more blissful there was tea and coffee and walnut cake at the nearby beach shop and tea room. I swear I have never tasted cake so light. Angel fingers at work there. Or angel food-processors.

Anne Protheroe's granddaughter, Anna Morris, my 3 x great grandmother born in 1811, moved here to Llansteffan with her second husband, Jacob, around 1878. Her first husband, Samuel, had died in 1847 leaving her with a farm to work and seven children. She remarried within the year. 

I do not know yet what brought her here, what propelled her to change her life so dramatically at the age of 67, to leave the farm she'd lived and worked on for 46 years. Perhaps they had to give it up and Jacob, who was at least 15 years younger than her, found work here. In the 1881 census he's listed as a Road Contractor, a sign of the industrial changes taking place in 19th century Wales.

I imagine her standing in this same spot, looking over the estuary, the novelty of a tide, seagulls, so different from the enclosures of hills and fields she's been used to, less than 12 miles away by road but hours away by cart and a country away in landscape. She turns her back on the coast and walks home to Bull House where her two unmarried daughters, one from each husband, will be wondering what's become of her. And what will become of them, she thinks. Unlikely to find husbands at their ages now, and in this new town too. But if there's one thing she's learned in life it's never to think you know what the future might bring. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about moving to a new town.


First crop: memory

Dad's first crop of runner beans, picked today, topped and tailed and strung, ribbon sliced and cooked 'al dente', seasoned with butter and pepper. They are the taste of memory, of 1960s childhood summers in South Wales, of caterpillars and the scent of cabbage leaves, sunburn and prickly heat, shell gardens assembled in sand-filled fruit boxes, rose petals soaking for days in water and hope, the three-legged race, a drindl skirt in turquoise seersucker never completed in the last year of Junior school, a new leather satchel, Tuff shoes. 

The years compress: a squeeze box of sounds, some as distant as echoes, others like the ringing of a school bell demanding attention. 

And this one now that arrives like a breeze: a purple swimsuit with a red stripe, the sun beating on my shoulders, the sand hotter than burnt toast, and the sea so far out I think I might never reach it. Or find my way back.

sunset over the sea
I remember when my mother
ran faster than me

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about going home.


Wild Asparagus

Not wild to be fearful of. But wild enough to have seeded themselves at the bases of a dozen or more apple trees and, by the end of June, to have disguised themselves, their fern an almost indistinguishable cloud among the post blossom foliage. 

Last year we walked around the orchard and tagged the trees where we discovered them then, one by one and if they were not too close to the trunk, we dug them up and replanted them along a row of cherry trees in the new orchard near the house.

A minuscule crop this year, snapped from the earth and eaten raw. Now we brush past a hedge of asparagus fern laden with seed pods. Next year we imagine ourselves slicing their stems below the earth, blanching them for a few minutes, watching the melted butter shimmer over their plump tips. Shaved Parmesan? Italian salami scented with fennel? Smoked salmon and a squeeze of lemon? Ah, the decisions we'll have to make.

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about something you did last year.

Weetabix. It's breakfast, Jim, but not as we know it.

Well, do you? And did you? Ever? Spread one (or two) with butter and jam, like a crisp-bread, or a slice of toast? 

It came back to me this morning, a childhood memory of spreading welsh butter and strawberry jam on one in my mother's kitchen, the slow, gum-sticking process of chewing my way through. I can't remember if it was at breakfast, or when I came home from school in the afternoon. If it was breakfast time perhaps we were short of milk... but that doesn't feel right. Milk was delivered in red foil topped bottles to our back door every morning. I do remember it feeling like hard work by the time I'd got half way through one: the butter and jam overwhelmed by the dryness of the biscuit that found its way into every crevice between every tooth and resisted the concerted dislodging efforts of my tongue. 

This morning I use French butter and home-made blackberry and apple jam, more generously, I imagine, than the 10 year old girl would have dared to. And the memory is remade, but differently, as I eat every mouthful with ease and pleasure.  

At the same time this feels like more than re-experiencing a taste of childhood: it feels that it's about culture and economy too. About a working class family who managed and got by thanks to hard-work, thrift and invention. I know I'm teetering on the edge of melodrama and sentimentality, imbuing a simple Weetabix with that back-story. But the objects of our lives, from food and possessions, toys and clothes, the things we preserve and throw away, contain the stories of our lives. 

Hungry Writing Prompt
Write about a childhood breakfast.

And Weetabix have certainly played a part in all our stories: from its creation in 1932, through WWII and rationing, and export to Canada and the USA in the late 1960s. 3D technology, space travel, Dr Who, polar expeditions: yep, Weetabix came with us.  Take a look at this History link on the UK site for 81 years of social and manufacturing history. But it seems I am not as original as I thought I was: back in 1939 Weetabix was 'making a man' of a small boy on a trike. How? Spread with butter and jam.