Green Hills and Blue Hamlets

A few weeks ago I wrote about Defynnog a hamlet off the Senni Road, being significant for my ancestors. Indeed it is where they lived, farmed and worshipped for generations.   The A470 is not my favourite route but I always have a sense of homecoming as I turn right towards Brecon after the cut through Llyswen. 

Picnics with Dad in that landscape, along with school trips to the National Park when I was a child, have compounded  that feeling, and when I explored the area a few weeks ago there was a sense of familiarity.  The old family story was that we had at some point owned land “somewhere near Dan yr Ogof.” That this land was lost to our family left me with a sense of injustice as a child. Why had they moved? How did they lose the land? Who took it from them? But this family myth brought with it a glimmering of identity: My family ( at least this side of it ) was Welsh.  They were Pobl y Werin

Dad loved technology. Cameras of course were his passion. He would have loved being able to search the internet looking at census documents . I suspect our forays back to Senni, and the land between the A470 and A40 were his explorations of the past. I vaguely remember chapels but clearer are the moments with him, drizzle, soup in a flask and an image of myself in a layby next to a stile. 

My search is from a distance: trawling through documents online, matching names and dates. Sometimes it’s difficult with a  common surname such as Jones, and with intricate naming patterns where Christian names are replicated , it’s easy to mistake fathers,sons and uncles. Their names are shot through with Margarets, Elizabeths Annes Alices, Jennets and Gwens. and it is thanks to the non-conformist registers that I have discovered their maiden names and am able to search further.

Place names reflect the landscape- Tylegarw (pronounced tille garrw) – rough hill. it was difficult to trace this because the handwriting was tricky to read 

1861 Census for Wm Jones my great great great Grandfather

But the more I read of documents the more familiar the names of adjacent    families became. Tylegarw nevertheless remained a mystery, until I read it on a small scale map. It is/was  a farm. Indeed, its holiday cottages are for sale. The chapel where William was  baptized is now a house. And as Williams family grew they moved to an adjoining farm.Its clear   while they felt ownership of the land, they were tenant farmers. William’s third son, John was my great great grandfather. His older brother William would have inherited. But it was a difficult legacy: good harvests, low corn prices, rising rents impacted on these Welsh Agrarian Communities. Factor in the control of the Church and landowners who dictated how their tenants should   vote, it was a precarious existence. The sheepfolds were anything but”calm and tranquil”. And John’s move to industrial Swansea created our industrial heritage. 

These two aspects though bring conflict. The move from Welsh Rural to a predominately English speaking industrial town has mostly erased the Welsh language from our family. I love rural areas but at the same time Swansea and Cardiff  hold my heart: diesel smells, a  vanishing industrial heritage, the architecture of machinery -gantries black against the skies in the bay.  Then these are all “historied up” in museums so that neither aspect is accessible first hand. Then there is the other side of the family tree.

A roistering drunken debt ridden aspect of the other side  One ancestor caught and aquitted for breaking and entering, two others in debtors prison. The family break in the census that signifies a rift and breakdown in family. The sober non conformists versus the Anglican. The sterotypical wild Scottish-Irish side versus the rural Welsh. Versus Industrial Swansea. The dockers, sailors, railway workers housemaids and kitchen maids versus wives who became head of house, farmers. And that’s the thing. It’s all part of our heritage. If we claim one side we have to at least accept the other. 

Once on a road trip across North Gower Common my head was full of highwaymen, horses damzels in distress. From the back seat I asked my mother, “Have you ever wanted to search your family tree?” 

“Gosh no! What if you found a murder .” I think she’d be relieved. Tnough she might have disowned the distant realtive fined in 1901  for “foul language” and affray.


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