On the way back from Carmarthen earlier this week we turned off the M4 at Cardiff and meandered northwards. I wanted to visit some family haunts, including my birthplace, partly as I hadn't been back for a number of years and partly as Sidonia had elaborated on some stories concerning various great-uncles and great-aunts and I wanted to see their setting once more.
Rather than take the main road up the Taff Vale, we'd skirted the humdrum, pebble-dashed suburbs on the northern side of the city, before climbing one of the lanes that wind up the wooded valley sides. You soon emerge out of the shade and on to the hilltops where the terrain undulates, small farms nestling in cwms and hollows. This particular lane took us up on to Caerphilly mountain. We halted in one of the dips and pulled over into a gateway to take a closer look at the farmstead where I was born.
It's been empty since shortly after we left forty years ago, the reason being the usual family feud. Just after we left, the elderly cousin who we rented it from died; her daughter inherited and moved in but died unexpectedly and intestate. The beneficiaries were siblings who couldn't agree on who should have the property and as they couldn't afford to buy each other out - or even agree a price - they left it empty, abandoning it by default. However, being a sturdy stone dwelling it's survived in reasonable shape. It's a very pretty little cottage, which I hope one day is restored and re-inhabited.
We then took another of the roads that scale the side of the mountain, this time driving down through open ancient woodland. A milky haze of wood anemones - I've never seen so many - spread in every direction. As we drove, my mother had been pointing out places which brought back memories: that was where the Morris Minor van had flipped over one icy night, skidding along upside-down until they'd hit the bank on the next bend; this was where she remembered hearing the prehistoric bellow of the ships' hooters from outside the fog-bound port of Cardiff; it was down that slope that she'd chased some old broken-mouthed ewes, finally catching them as they paused to munch at the privet hedges of Rhiwbina.
And then we turned a corner and were faced by the fairy-tale turrets of Castell Coch, a nineteenth-century folly constructed to the Romantic requirements of the Marquess of Bute. Many a childhood walk had started here, invariably taking in the Blue Waters, a spring-fed pool that shimmered green-blue for some obscurely geological reason, and sometimes also the more distant Seven Arches, a miniature network of caves and hollows.
This landscape - all of a ten-minute drive from Cardiff - is one that, particularly for a child, possesses an unavoidably magical feel. It doesn't take much to see it as a setting for fairy tales. And this seemed quite appropriate as we drove round that day as it was here that the stories Sidonia had filled out for me had unspooled, stories which possessed some of the qualities of fairy tale, albeit the more grotesque.
For instance, I was reminded by Sidonia that my Great-Uncle M_____, whose fantasies about being a celebrated and feted opera singer I referred to here, had other strange preoccupations. He'd had a religious conversion late in life, prompted by being taken to see Billy Graham by my Great-Aunt J____ (who also featured here).
Her religious mania was very familiar to me. She would write me long letters when I was at university annotated with passages of the Bible picked out in coloured inks. She would strategically blu-tac prayer cards over the pictures of scantily-clad women I had on the walls of my teenage bedroom. She left evangelical booklets in my sock drawer to be discovered - disconcertingly - sometimes weeks later. I was also aware that this obsession stemmed from a mental disturbance occasioned by her being hit on the head by a hammer and left for dead by her husband, who had ended up dying in prison (she'd married late having dedicated her career to nursing, not that that explains much). All very memorable. However, my great-uncle's unbalanced evangelism had slipped my mind, which is strange as it too took on some peculiar proportions.
He had insisted on wearing white (actually, now I picture him, his clothes were more cream-coloured). He had also insisted on painting white various parts of the farm as well as his lorry, a vehicle he'd recently acquired in exchange for a 200-strong herd of pedigree friesians.
This concern with whitening himself and his surroundings culminated in his painting parts of the mountain white - stones, rocks, even trees. The logic to this became more apparent when he began using his white-accented eyrie as a venue for preaching. Perhaps wishing to echo the miracles of our Lord - or perhaps hoping to lure an audience - as he preached he would scatter to the winds cartons of cigarettes he'd bought in bulk for the purpose. I can imagine him cream-jacketed with his fair hair swept back, as impeccable as a hotel waiter, except for his windmilling arms, the twitching of his curled moustaches and his pale eyes burning fervently bright. I have no doubt he would also have attempted to serenade whatever congregation he had managed to attract.
Finally, I learnt more of his final days. Having been tipped over the Cotswolds escarpment in his van (see here), he ended up having to walk back home, the van not lasting much longer than the free-wheel into the Severn Vale. It took him two or three days apparently. Shortly thereafter he entered hospital where his kidneys packed in and he died. When they entered his house they found seven dead dogs in his bath. No-one knew why.