Friday, July 01, 2005

Hannah & Ellis

Two missions today: deal with the lost phone, and check Dolgellau's remaining cemetery. I woke at 6am, but thoughts of my lost phone pushed away restful sleep. I tried calling it after 9am in the hope that a rescuer would answer. No luck. I check off cafe, bookshop, post-office and St Mary's church-grounds without success, then file a report at the police station. I head off to Porthmadog, and try the internet access centre. The lady at the counter is not aware of anything being handed in, and I dispiritedly sat down to send off an email to various folks. Then... her husband appears and strides to my side, placing my phone on the table beside the mouse. Saved!

There are some reputedly scenic towns to the northwest of Porthmadog, and the first that we approach, through rockier countryside is Blaenau Ffestiniog. Although I've never been to Switzerland, the setting brings to mind a stark Swiss Alpine village. Some of the slate-roofed houses look like their back gardens regularly catch avalanche rubble. The town itself seems a bit depressed, with gift-shops and slate-craft dominating. How many gifts, even made of slate, can you give one another to sustain the local economy? As we head out of town, the slate-walled roads bring you closer to the grey hill-sides, which might have been slate-roofed themselves, but smashed up by mighty hailstones.

It is not long before grey gives over to green again, passing through Fairy Glen into the village of Betws-y-coed. I was hoping to overhear someone utter the place name so that I could make sense of it. Even though Welsh is supposedly an easily mastered, completely ffonetyc language, its Latin alphabet does not have quite the same sound correspondences as (standard received) English. Passing through a few Dyddli Dumm Ddydli or Dw Wa Ddydy Ddyddy locations, where the prospect of asking for directions or describing your route for the day can reduce even the most earnest and linguistically sensitive traveller to a cold sweat. It was in fact,not till I got back to the Dolgellau B&B in the evening, that my hostess rendered Betooz-ee-coid for me. Any mistakes I make in re-rendering these here are entirely the fault of a 3000 year old Celtic tradition.

B-y-c is a model amongst pretty villages, and a pleasant place to linger for the afternoon. There are plenty of tourists and tourers around, but it doesn't feel crowded or dirty. Constable & Blyton would have been equally happy setting works next to the river here, and Thomas the Tank engine surely dreams of steaming through the local train station. I was quickly aware of several contingents of gay male cyclists, motor-bikers and cafe patrons as substantial parts of the day visitors. Many people had brought dogs with them, and most stores announced themselves as dog-friendly. I took Bondi down to the river for a swim, but he's always nervous of smooth rocks leading into the water, and stuck to posing for tourist photos. I sometimes wonder how many thousands of people have photographed him over the years. he's certainly been a favourite of Japanese and Korean tourists. I imagine some post-honeymoon slide night in Tokyo, as they show off pictures of the Opera House, Harbour Bridge and Bondi the Malamute. Their guests nod along until they see Bondi and say they have pictures of him, but from Seattle or Vancouver or Edinburgh or a Welsh village.

A "short-cut" along a minor road back to Festiniog, en route to Dolgellau, turns out to be slow going but differently scenic to the main road. Winding through hedgerows, it takes us higher onto grassy sheep-strewn hilltops where the clouds bounce along, softening the transition between vegetation and slate. It had been quite wet when we left Budweiser-in-coeds, but we came back down out of the clouds to a slightly finer day. At Dolgellau, I parked the car in the town square, and walked through St Mary's churchyard again to the other "old" cemetery in a large walled field between town and river.

I was beginning to despair of finding any recognizable relatives. The older cemeteries here are not in a good state, mostly overgrown with grass or bracken, compounded with sunken plots, and broken or collapsed headstones. After the rain, some parts of the grounds seemed marshlike and my hayfever was working its way off the dial due to the huge amount of grass going to seed. I had heard that this cemetery was - at least in part - a relocation of graves and/or headstones from closer towards the town. It seemed that in some spots headstones were arranging in somewhat arbitrary rows or u-nooks, with occasional clusters of identical names. I don't know if the latter was intentional or a side-effect of the small base of surnames in this community. There seemed to be more from the Roberts and Parry clans than in the other places I checked, but still no shortage of Williams headstones. Those who had served in the Royal Navy seemed to have better quality markers and engravers.

I'm getting pretty wet from the ground up, bitten by Welsh midges (undoubtedy larval forms of the great red Cymru dragon) and my right eye is an allergic disaster zone. All of a sudden I see HANNAH MARIA, and below it ELLIS WILLIAMS. It's my great-great-grandparents' headstone, looking back toward Dolgellau town.


the beloved wife of
ELLIS WILLIAMS of this town
Died April 5 1891
Aged 49



It's only as I write this that I realize that this is the first ancestral headstone I have found. My father and grandparents were cremated, and while I found the burial plot of my great grandparents Griffith and Beatrice at Waverley Cemetery in Sydney, there was no marker, simply an orderly rectangle of green; its position recorded on a map in the cemetery office, like an unvisited star in an astronomer's catalogue.

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