Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Illuminating a small field

South Wales is a place of great visual interest. Driving westwards along the length of the motorway you have on your right valleys, ridges and hills with villages suspended along their sides for your perusal; on your left you have the sea, rolling fields, port cities and an enormous steelworks. There's barely a mile that goes by without some striking vista, usually combining contrasting elements.

Formerly remote Carmarthenshire rushes up on you - the distractions playing their part but the M4's new lane and other road improvements being chiefly responsible. We were visiting my Great-Aunt Sidonia, a wonderful name she shares with her grandmother and my great-great-grandmother, Alice Sidonia Thomas. Literally meaning 'from Sidon' (a biblical location), she believes it's somehow linked to the commander of the Spanish Armada, the Duke of Medina Sidonia, whereas I'm inclined to put it down to an ancestor who enjoyed fairly obscure biblical references. I also wonder whether the novels of Disraeli might have had an influence: Sidonia is the name of one of the characters in Coningsby, an avatar of the author but a name that was perhaps thought better suited to a female.

Sidonia lives in a large, boxy Georgian house with a double-gabled roof. It stands alone, near the top of the south-facing slope of the Gwendraeth Fach valley. On the sunny day we visited, the top fields on the other side were green and neat in contrast to the ridge's scrubby crest of golden-brown gorse, bracken and rock. And everything glowed, a glittering light flooding the valley from the west, where lay the invisible sea. I was reminded of RS Thomas's poem, 'The Bright Field':
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying

on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the lit bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help exploring something of 'an imagined past'. It was irresistible in that location.

The house appears in a Daphne du Maurier novel, 'Hungry Hill' (though all names were changed). The eponymous hill was the geological source of the wealth of the Puxley family, Irish copper magnates whose story the novel was based on. They possessed a huge gothic mansion in County Cork next to their mines, now a ruin having been burnt down by the IRA. Sidonia's house was their Welsh home, a place they resorted to for holidays and to keep an eye on the Welsh ports that imported their ore.

It's a fairly plain structure, the uniform, rendered exterior sealing its featurelessness. And although large, it used to be larger: the back third, probably topped by another gable, was demolished at some point, presumably to make it a more manageable property.

Like a number of large Welsh houses it sits next to a predecessor, used until recently as a cowshed. I'd been told this was a Welsh longhouse: a long, low structure built to be shared by people and cattle. It fits this label in every respect bar one: it houses the largest chimney stack I've seen outside of a grand country house.

The chimney is whitewashed brick and has a footprint at its base equivalent to that of a garden shed; it is nearly as wide as the building. It rises in stages like a ziggurat, each irregular step being about three feet high, before resolving itself into a slope, the angle of which becomes periodically more acute as it climbs. Such a chimney seems unnecessarily large for a longhouse, impractically so. My theory is that the present structure was carved out of a much larger building, most probably a medieval manor house. It was, most likely, the kitchen.

Whatever its origins, it's a very atmospheric little building. The ancient walls are intricately constructed from blocks, irregular in size and colour, the local stone being a mix of bluish-greys and rusty purples. Impressive pieces of slate have been incorporated for use as sills and lintels, slick grey-purple slate also tiling the roof.

The living quarters were at the downhill end, their upper parts - formerly a loft - bearing traces of a still vivid and exhilarating cobalt-blue paint. This end is divided from the rest of the building further up the slope by the mountainous chimney, a small connecting door squeezed in alongside its jamb. After a couple of largish rooms that served as byres, the other end terminates in a dovecot, now smothered with glossy tentacles of ivy.

The whole place is on the verge of falling into ruin - another five years and my guess is that gaps will have appeared in roofs and walls. But Sidonia has no desire to re-develop the site, despite the potential of the longhouse and its neighboring stone barn as holiday lets or workshops.


worm said...

lovely vignette, I could really picture the place in my mind's eye! poem was pretty too.

would you ever consider moving out of london and taking the house (or similar welsh dwelling) on as a project???

zmkc said...

And would Sidonia let you do what Worm suggests?

Gadjo Dilo said...

I love chimneys, the bigger the better - are you sure Aunt Sidonia isn't smelting copper on the quiet... or smoking eels?

Brit said...

Wot Worm said... terrific piece. And yes, what a name is Sidonia - lovely and warm with a hint of olive oil and salty Med air.

Gaw said...

Worm and z: Glad you enjoyed it. For some reason I feel resistant to restoring it. It would make it less interesting somehow.

Gadjo: She's quite a girl so wouldn't put it past her.

Brit: Thanks old boy. Haven't you begun some sort of dedicatory poem? It could be a very pleasant one - I especially like the half-rhyme, which suggests a wistful longing:

What a name is Sidonia!
Lovely and warm
with a hint of olive oil
and salty Med air.