Reflections on Wales

You have a feeling for a place. It can be comfort, pleasure, security, or perhaps tension, despair, and boredom. Architecture and environments condition the psyche like good or bad nutrition. As a boy, I grew up in suburban Kent but with immediate access to agricultural farmland. The school playground adjoined it, and I went on occasional walks across the fields. Once, during one of those hot summers it seems we had when young but no longer exist, we had a school trip across the fields to a nearby pond where we foraged for aquatic life, transporting it back carefully in jam jars.

Suburban Kent is not exactly bucolic – my home town is now a scruffy downbeat Asda-ville – but parts, at least, border onto open fields and beyond. In part of my psyche, in the childhood that lives in memory, I have this access to Nature.

University at Lancaster was far more rural with the Trough of Bowland to the east, coastal countryside north of Morecambe, the Lake District just an hour away, and the North Yorkshire Moors a little closer. One of my lecturers lived in a farmhouse on the moors and a few us once spent a weekend there, house sitting while he was away. Some fellow students got a house in the countryside, commuting into campus when they had to. Lancaster is well situated for the great outdoors. After there I lived in London for a short time which is as densely urban as it gets, although the parks are a major recuperative resource. I could easily walk to Holland Park, which I particularly liked, and found a route taking me further through the parks avoiding the need for buses, finishing at Oxford Street. I slept through the appalling London storm of 1987, but walked the parks the next day and nearly cried. The beautiful old trees filling the green pockets of the city were broken, uprooted, cast around like seabed anemone. The damage was devastating.

I then lived in Brighton for a few years, which I enjoyed. In my first summer I was undergoing teacher training in the morning out at nearby Lewes and then ‘hit the beach’, as I used to say, for the afternoon. Brighton is a thin strip sandwiched between the South Downs and the sea, with easy access to London for occasional visits. It’s a great place with a large student population keeping the town lively, and the comfortable wealth of the south east. My teacher’s house was surrounded by the Downs and two or three times a week, I undertook gardening work for one of his neighbours. I felt comfortable in Brighton with the sea, Downs, attractions of the capital and itself a great town. I did however move again, this time to Bolton and then Manchester. I had a notion that the former had some good countryside around it, but this is not really the case and disliked the town.

Kent feels comfortable, though it’s somewhat dilapidated in parts. Lancaster is exceptionally well situated but you feel a little cut off; Brighton is vibrant with a nice faded bohemian feeling, Bolton feels odd – clunky, backward, and culturally disconnected from other parts – and Manchester feels like a solid, stodgy pie. There’s a heaviness to the place which, while it has changed with an astonishing redevelopment over the last ten years – I don’t think will ever vanish. It comes from the industrial heritage and the legacy of ugly architecture that feels heavy, with the backdrop of grey leaden skies. Charles Dickens was thinking of Preston when he invented dismal Coketown in his novel Hard Times – but he was further unimpressed with “dark Satanic mills” of which there were plenty in Manchester.

People feel differently about such matters, and I’ve had some vitriolic response to previous comments I’ve made about Manchester: F off back to the south you W, C, etc. I find it psychologically strange, why people should take great personal offence if another person dislikes a city where they both live. It’s not their living room, or their workplace and what they do there, and suggests a geographic psychology where thoughts, feelings and identity become defined and intimately mixed with wherever you happen to live – similar, perhaps, to the tribal affiliations of football fans. I’m not Mancunian, nor Kentish, nor cockney or anything else; my so called identity (a suspect term) is more abstract and complicated. A wild camp in the hills – even for one night – is a delicious retreat from any such entrapment concocted and insisted on by others. This is related, perhaps, to my current enjoyment of a television series re-working The Prisoner that starred Patrick McGoohan. The original programmes never appealed; I found them odd and rather ridiculous, as when you see large white balloons trapping and blocking McGoohan’s escape. The new series is more sophisticated and classy with Ian McKellan in the role of ‘2’, and James Caviezel in the role of ‘6’ shouting in protest “I am not a number!” The themes concern surreal, David Lynchian storylines, hypnosis, hallucinogenic drug experiences, identity theft, mind control, dream manipulation, social indoctrination and individualism versus collectivism. 6 wants to escape a place – the village – which he is told is all that exists. He dreams about the seaside, either in fantasy or memory, much as Winston Smith dreams about the countryside in George Orwell’s 1984. The village is at one level a psychological construct, his predicament a psychological condition, his desire for escape a matter that some people feel, in different ways, seeking and finding different solutions. For me hill walking is a geographic and psychological release, both at the same time, facilitated in the energetic act of walking. It exercises and affirms a different kind of identity than the one I use and variously express in my ‘normal’ life.

Environments condition and trap us. In Self and Others, psychiatrist RD Laing’s study of alienation, he says:

The physical environment unremittingly offers us possibilities of experience, or curtails them. The fundamental human significance of architecture stems from this. The glory of Athens…and the horror of so many features of the modern megalopolis is that the former enhanced and the latter constricts man’s consciousness. (28)

I’m getting a new place-feeling in Wales. I’ve been there many times, but only for about three years and mostly just to Snowdonia. I know Beddgelert, Snowdon, the Glyders, Tryfan, the Carneddau, Cnicht, the Moelwyns and Barmouth quite well; and I climbed Cadair Idris about two years ago. I’ve walked Moel Siabod a few times, once on a day trip, and I’ve seen Llanberis, Caernafon, Porthmadog, and driven the quiet area behind the Nantlle Ridge. I have a ‘special place’ that’s gentle, peaceful and idyllic: in summer, beside a lake, on a quiet path with a profusion of wild flowers, bees, and some dragonflies. Some years ago, I visited a friend in Carmarthen and walked the Pembrokeshire coastline and the Ystradfellte waterfall trail. My first outdoors experience was a school trip to Snowdonia when I bought a Silva compass in a Llanberis shop, which I still use today. We climbed the Idwal Slabs, walked up to Devil’s Kitchen, and failed to master orienteering. I went back there for the first time a few years ago and had a curiously clear memory. Not of being there or of what we did, or any feelings I’d had, but the abstract facts of shape, angle and rock: I didn’t understand how or why the geography had impressed itself on me and was retained in memory for about twenty five years….but it had, like a human face.

From the introduction….coming soon

Wales Photographs