The Size of Wales

Peter Finch | 06 / 10 / 2020 | Leave a Comment

Author and poet Peter Finch

In 1803 Napoleon began his preparations for an invasion of Britain. The grand tour of Europe, as it had been known up to then, was put on hold. Brits of wealth and breeding were forced to look elsewhere. The untrammelled wildernesses of the Lake District. The river pools of the Wye Valley. The green mountains of Wales. All these became ready replacements.

In that year Blake scholar and historian Benjamin Malkin took himself off for an early psychogeographical meander across the not-yet mine-filled badlands of the Welsh south. He recorded his observations in The Scenery, Antiquities, and Biography of South Wales. Here he declared that ‘the pleasure of a tour in Wales is in some degree tinged with melancholy, on observing the honest and amiable manners of its inhabitants, to find so many appearances of a fallen country.’ He meant, I suppose, that the Welsh were not like the English he lived among in London. They were not empire builders. They were not exploiters. They were supporters of the underdog. They still are.

Malkin covered the south writ large. Everything from Briton ferry to Pendine sands, Llancarvan to Ceven Hengoed, and the Head of the Rydoll River right down to Welfh St. Donatts. He got into the nitty-gritty and found so much that he ended up reporting that ‘it is impossible, at this period of time, to separate truth from fable’. Wales shrouded by fog, myth and reality blending once again.

Malkin did well with his coverage but can you ever know a complete country? How close do you need to get? To really know and understand in intimate detail somewhere as big as, say, Russia is clearly impossible. But a place the size of Wales ought to be different. There are a few out there who’ve done it. Wynford Vaughan Thomas would be one. Trevor Fishlock another. The late Welsh philanthropist, businessman and poet Cyril Hodges once claimed to me that he had cycled along every road in Wales. He was an obsessive and a clear cymrofile.

For decades I believed his claim until, astride my folding Brompton, I came to try the same thing. I was doing this for Cardiff rather than the whole of Wales. Several thousand thoroughfares, bollards, road junctions, traffic lights, pot holes and other difficulties were before me. I arrived at the top of Moorland Road, Splott and viewed its myriad intersections. It could be done, I guess, but life is too short.

Being a small country we are never defeated by our grandeur, the breadth of our deserts, the unassailability of our peaks or the roaring might of our dams and rivers. We may well have all these things, bending definition slightly to manage deserts, but we don’t let them blind us with might. The land of Wales is touchable, knowable, and ultimately hard to get lost in, although some have tried.

On this basis Wales should be easily governable. The vagaries and fluctuations of our economy, our population, our production and our consumption should be readily understood and easily influenceable. But for a whole raft of reasons they turn out not to be.
For the psychogeographer, however, little of this matters. We see the place and record what it is, what it was and what it might become all in one go. Change is not really for us.

1. Malkin, Benjamin Heath – The Scenery, Antiquities and Biography of South Wales. First published 1804.  S R Publishers facsimile reprint 1970.

Once, when I was asked how a psychogeographic tour of the urban district I was proposing might work out, I suggested that we attempt walking the streets in alphabetical order. I was met with blank looks. Guy Debord, French philosopher and big gun of first the Letterists and then the Situationists defined psychogeography as ‘the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. He was a proponent of the dérive, the wander, the unplanned amble following how you felt rather than where you wanted to go. Progress would be defined by external agents. Baudelaire’s love of the flâneur would be revived. The spirit of a place would outlive everything else. 

In my own explorations I have discovered that rivers shift, names fade, borders and boundaries are endlessly porous and immensely mobile but sacred spots are the things that hang on. Many of the hillforts and standing stones of ancient Wales are lost in our urban developments but the power of the holy wells and transcendent hallowed places somehow remains. A mosque will be sited where a church once stood. That church itself would have been sited in some earlier sacred or blessed pagan place. Memory might be lost but the route to the divine carries on.

How might this apply to the psychogeographer working in lockdown Wales? I’ve been experimenting with scale. How small an area will throw up results? The Sustainable Wales’ Robert Minhinnick and Jon Berry-led Ein Milltir Sqwâr project was a good starting point. Ein Milltir Sqwâr, literally our square mile, is a term for the very local. Our patch, our stamping ground, our immediate locale. What’s outside the door. Minhinnick and Berry have encouraged writers to think about the local rather than the international to see if there is a sustainable route out of the Covid-driven economic and social mess we are now all in.

Initially I measured out my sqwâr mile pretty literally. I checked it on the map, walked it, and reported back. How much of the past remains in my present? How much is still visibly around? How significant is it? What will happen to it next? I wrote my researches up. The results will appear on Sustainable Wales’ website soon and then as part of a Seren-published 2021 book.

But driven and, I have to say, rather excited by this idea I began to experiment with ever smaller divisions. The Hanner Milltir, the Chwarter Milltir. I worked on a piece for a family anthology my cousin is preparing. The family would know the area I was writing about. Many of them came from here too.

I ended up spiritually soaring over the ground immediately to my south where working class Cardiff ended and middle class Cardiff began. This was a fracture zone. Roath vs Penylan. Where the farms of Ty Gwyn and Ty Draw had once stood. Ty Draw is a name which has persisted. The road alongside the park is Ty Draw Road. We all lived in a large house on Ty Draw Place. But the 1830s tithe maps (magnificently available in totally searchable form online via the National Library of Wales) show the farm as Tir Draw, land over there rather than Ty Draw, house over there. For most an arcane piece of information but for a psychogeographer a thrilling find.
But before these never that lush but certainly sustainable Penylan hill farms were here what stood? Who knows? And coming from an era and a place where records were scant, how could anyone ever find out?

I know that later the Ty Gwyn farm and its barn as shown on the tithe map became the Convent of the Good Shepherd. When the Third Marquis of Bute suffered his spiritual awakening to become Catholic he donated these structures (he owned them, like he owned much of the town) to the order and had his architect, William Burges, design and build a chapel there. A Burges Chapel within touching distance of my study. A place near enough for our cats to wander into. But gone, knocked flat in a rush of sixties city clearance and development. Planning laws were weak back then and we’ve lost many ancient structures as a result.

 2. Guy Debord – Introduction to a Critique of urban Geography – Les Levres Nues, 1955

What got built on the site was a girls school and then later, today, the multi-cultural and massively well-attended St David’s sixth-form college. As a child I recall climbing fences and crossing railtracks to wander through the now deserted Convent just before it was demolished. Can I recall the wonders of the Burges edifice? Nope.

When I pass today I can see little. The college and its security men keep visitors well back outside the walls. But there’s something still there. In the psychogeographic air. My antennae sense it. The cries of the fallen women at the Magdalena laundry the order ran maybe? The waters from the lost and ancient holy Penylan Well at hills top flowing through the soil? The stamp of the Romans climbing through here to reach their now half-destroyed by Eastern Avenue quarry. My childhood spread out there across the cowboys and indians conker-rich ground. This is my much less than quarter milltir. My square yard, Fy iard Sqwâr, I guess. Can I go in and have a look round the premises, I ask the mask-wearing guard with an earpiece at the gate. I’m working on a project, I tell him. Are you now. Have you an appointment? I shake my head.

Heading up Ty Gwyn with Allen Ginsberg

A solid mass of Heaven, mist-infused
Same breath as breathes thru Capel-y-ffin
Wales Visitation 67 same year I saw him checking Better Books window on Charing Cross.
Meets Dafydd Rowlands at Laugharne in 1995. He tells me that.
A bard in a land of bards.
Up here the guarded face of the United Synagogue top of this street.
Mezuzah on the doorframe.
Opened one of mine on Bronwydd. Unrolled the prayer. Felt the magic infusing the palm
Ginsberg complaining about his legs pulling up the Ty Gwyn Vortex
Old men on the holy hill
But not afraid

Peter Finch is a Welsh author, historian and poet living in Cardiff, Wales. Until 2012 he was Chief Executive first of Academi., the Welsh National Literature Promotion Agency and Society of Writers and then its successor body, Literature Wales. As a writer, he works in both traditional and experimental forms

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