Example of Angharad Price's work

Tynybraich- Angharad Price

Tynybraich: the name belongs to a house and a mountain; to a family too, at least in local speech. They have been farming Tynybraich for centuries, my mother’s forefathers. There’s a genealogy in the family Bible, branches of men’s names dating back to 1012.

We came to Tynybraich every school holiday, leaving the quarries of Arfon behind us and heading south. To Dinas Mawddwy, where we learned how to live with mountains, not against them. Turning off the main road, we saw flowers reaching for the car and rabbits running from it. Coming out from Y Ffridd we looked down at the Maesglasau valley and across to Tynybraich mountain, a pyramid of blue extending upwards from the narrow valley floor. In the distance, the rock of Maesglasau, its waterfall our vertical horizon.

We didn’t care for the mountain, which we took for granted. We cared only for the house. After all, it was the house that gave the mountain its name. Tynybraich: ‘House in the Mountain’s Arm.’ It was our grandparents’ home and we were keen to get there. But there was the steep hill to descend, the brook to cross, the other hill to ascend, seeing nothing ahead but the car bonnet and some sky. Dogs would rush and bark at the sound of unfamiliar wheels.

Only Nan could calm us again. Our mother’s mother, waiting for us at the farmhouse door, touched by the smell of food that came through the kitchen window.

She’d come to Dinas Mawddwy in wartime to visit a cousin. My grandfather, Taid, was newly widowed, nearly forty and a father of two. Nan never returned to her home in Cwm Nant yr Eira, the Valley of Snow, in neighbouring Montgomeryshre. On the day they were married she became a wife, a farm wife, a stepmother and a daughter-in-law all at once. Nan began her life at Tynybraich, soon herself to become a mother of two.

Taid insisted she learn to drive. She was to be self-sufficient. At her first outing, with fresh snow on the ground, the car veered off the mountain road and skidded to the edge of the ravine. He straightened the car and forced his young wife to drive back to the house. It was much later that she thanked him for his lesson. For the rest of her life, the car was her means of escape from Tynybraich. Every Wednesday she went to Machynlleth in it, and every Friday to Dolgellau; and to her sister’s in Arthog on Saturday night. The car took her to the village on social visits, or in condolence. She delivered meals-on-wheels to old age pensioners.

She was at her most independent in the car. At election time, she’d draw out her Plaid Cymru poster from the glove compartment. When Tynybraich was out of sight she’d stick it on the windscreen and drive around - a raging nationalist. Returning to Tynybraich, just before Y Ffridd, the poster was folded up and put away. Taid was Labour. There would have been trouble, for there was nothing he liked more than a good debate, and nothing she liked less.

She was an even-tempered woman. The evenness spread out from her. She organised her world evenly around her. Her kitchen table was an even cosmos: planets of plates and saucers, lids of jam jars, Welsh cakes, a Victoria sponge and rounds of bread and butter. Spoons and knives shone like stars between them. 

She baked her Welsh cakes every morning, rolling out the speckled dough over the table, a continent whose boundaries stretched outwards from the middle, barely visibly, as the rolling pin moved lightly under Nan’s hand. Our anxiety as the rounds were cut out. Pained again as the golden dough was stained on the griddle. Nan just smiled and carried on. She must have made thousands of them in her life, those golden coins, but statistics would be meaningless. Nan wasn’t one to keep count.

The evenness of her handiwork. The swift movement of knitting needles, the controlled loosening and tightening of the wool under her finger. She threw off the stitches carelessly, discarding them as she talked and laughed. But at cast-off and make-up the stitches’ uniform tension proved her even hand.

Remnants of clothing were transformed into patchwork quilts. We watched her do it. Her endless patience. Tracing the aluminium template. Cutting up the hexagons. Tacking. Stitching hexagon to hexagon. Time becoming space. Daily life made even.

Nan created a garden for herself at the back of the farmhouse, a patch of mountain enclosed by a wire fence. The Italian prisoners of war helped her, showing how to carve terraces into the earth, as they’d done in their own vineyards. Nan grew flowers and shrubs, in counterpoint to the mountain, like the Latin plants’ names and her accent.

But the earth was rough and shingly, unfavourable to horticulture. The mountain tended to take back its own ground. The terraces became steeper. But Nan persisted. The garden was her pride.

Sheep would push through, eating all that was edible, trampling on the terraces, leaving behind them nothing but grassless patches. Of course, she’d been foolish to challenge the mountain. But soon the flowers were back. Nan too held her ground.

She was even in walk and even in talk, and even also in grace. Who could have told that she’d spent her life between two mountains?
Nan watched us playing from the farmhouse window. The mountain had lessons to teach, especially to those of us who’d been reared on marshland. It pulled itself from beneath us, made us somersault through thistles, wool and sheep shit.

Back in the house we found our feet again. The quiet of the hearth. We stared into the fire. Butter melted in a glass dish. Nan would be laying the table.

Then Taid came in cold from the mountain, the stub of a Players cigarette between finger and thumb. He wheezed as he approached. Our chatter stopped. Between snatches of breath we’d hear him talk of the mountain.

At the top there were bilberry bushes and pools of water where people had dug for peat. There were larks rising and peregrines falling. The steep Oerddrws Pass, far below, seemed flat. And above there were nothing but peaks: Waun Oer, Foel y Ffridd, Foel Bendin, y Glasgwm, Aran Fawddwy, Aran Benllyn, Cader Idris... Taid knew all their names.

He’d talk about superstitions. The words were unfamiliar: ‘cotton grass’, ‘the bandits’, ‘causeway’.... There was that sprig of white heather, and the strange flower that swallowed flies. We couldn’t disbelieve him. And yet, we couldn’t quite believe him either. Taid’s testament was ambiguous, he himself so foreign to us.

After supper he fetched his broken glasses and retired to the parlour to read. He adored debates: books on history and politics. His horizons were broad, you’d think he’d always lived on a mountain top. We’d look at him as we looked towards the summit of Tynybraich, obliquely and from a distance. And as with the mountain we sought his attention and feared it. The steep banks of his personality: his strict attitudes and his laughter at men’s folly.

Of course we didn’t know of Taid the shepherd. His daily care for the sheep on the mountain, climbing through the seasons to perpetuate the work of his forefathers.

Between winter and spring, billhook in hand, he’d cut off branches to feed the sheep. At lambing he’d be up there counting, protecting the weak from crows and foxes. A late frost, threatening sleet, Taid would come home with a lamb in his pocket, all damp and slippery, its breath irregular and its head hanging down. It was placed on the hearth in a box lined with newspaper, nourished by Taid with milk from a rubber teat. Nain watched from a distance, new life dirtying the hearthstone. 

In spring, if the kitchen light diminished, Taid climbed up to the reservoir at the top of the mountain. It was frogspawn stopping the flow of water down to the turbine. He’d move it away by the fistful, keeping one for the jar which he’d bring back to his children, a transparent treasure. And the kitchen was lit up anew.

Weaning time, and Taid would have to separate the male lambs from their mothers. For days the mothers would bleat, Taid watching them press their bodies against the bars of the mountain gate.

With his neighbours he’d gather sheep for dipping and shearing, relaxing at the end of the day with banter at the kitchen table, Nan half-listening as she refilled the dinner plates.

But it was in winter that the mountain demanded most from Taid. Sheep would be trapped under the snow. He climbed up, inserting a rod made of hazel through the thick snow. Prodding and poking, he knew from experience where the sheep sheltered. But there was no guarantee. Finally, feeling the living softness, he’d go down on all fours to release it. Then he’d watch it escape, chunks of snow hanging off the wool, shining in the blue light.

Hours later Taid would return home, lame with frostbite. Nan, relieved, would fetch her husband a bowl of hot stock.

We didn’t know how much the mountain had demanded from Taid. My mother’s brother had taken over by the time we came along. We were too young to have heard the story of Taid’s three brothers, born blind, sent away to a boarding school far away in Worcester, and of two other brothers, dead, as well as a sister dead, his only sister. Taid had been the only one left to work on the farm, to continue as his forefathers had. At eleven years of age Tynybraich had demanded his life.

Gravity’s strict lessons, Taid learnt them when he was eleven. Tynybraich tried to possess his life, his education and his wish to study medicine. But he reached a compromise with the mountain, dividing his life between it and his fellow-men. He became a councillor, a Union man, and travelled on business to London and Brussels.

An unwilling farmer, he nevertheless wrote his name in the family Bible, and in local speech, at least, took on the mountain’s name. After their marriage, Nan shared that name with him. Tynybraich: covenant of mountain and house.

I only climbed it once, Tynybraich. Taid had been buried many years, Nan a few months. His testament was there at the top: the bilberry bushes, the water pools, the lark and the peregrine, the Pass, the bandits, the cotton grass, the causeway, and those peaks whose names I didn’t know.

A feeling of trespassing made me leave. In any case I had to go, saying goodbye to my aunt and uncle and turning my back on Tynybraich, driving back to the main road, heading south, towards Cardiff. Tomorrow was work.

I picked my way through thistles, wool and sheep shit. As I came within sight of the house, I slowed down, as Taid himself would have done, and let myself be drawn by the farmhouse’s gravity. There was the sound of Nan laying the table.

I wondered at the narrow ledge on which the house stood. The precipice beneath. And I saw, as Taid himself would have seen, the evenness spreading out from it and filling the valley.

Translated from the Welsh by the author

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