On the ninth of June 1899, the Carmarthen Weekly Reporter recorded a case between a Miss Daniels and a Mr Wilkins, both from the South Wales coastal town of Llanelli. The case aimed to establish that Mr Wilkins was the father of Miss Daniels’ child and that he was, therefore, financially responsible for the child’s upkeep. As this was in the days prior to DNA testing, the evidence relied heavily on the coincidence that both Mr Wilkins and the child had webbed feet. It was asserted by Miss Daniels’ solicitor that being Mr Wilkins’ father and sister also had webbed feet then webbed feet clearly ran in the family. The case was dismissed, however, when it was shown by Mr Wilkins’ lawyer that there were literally hundreds of web-footed people in Llanelli.
‘Welcome to my home town,’ I say to my wife as we exit the motorway slip road and head towards the centre.
‘Really? Webbed feet? You’re kidding, right?’
‘Well, obviously not everybody has webbed feet,’ I say. ‘I did have one friend with six toes, though.’
‘That’s it,’ she says, ‘turn around, we’re going home.’
* * * * * * * *
I’ve managed to time our arrival well. It’s mid evening as we park up along the beach, just in time to watch the sun setting over the bay. Had we arrived two days earlier, we’d have experienced the summer solstice, though I think it would probably have looked pretty much like this. Stepping out of the car, I notice that Nat is instantly cloaked in golds and reds. ‘You look rather good draped in a Welsh sky,’ I tell her. ‘It suits you.’
We take a moment to look out towards the horizon. The sky is heavily smudged, making the darkening water glitter scarlet in its reflection. The tide is fully in and the sound of the surf is already pulling at a part of me that I’d almost forgotten existed. ‘I’m home,’ I murmur to myself.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ I say, absentmindedly bending to pick up a sliver of driftwood that has found its way onto the path. The wooden fragment is coarse and sandy in my hand, linking me immediately back to the child who used to collect these pieces to display around his bedroom, daydreaming about the adventures that lurked behind each one.
‘Ok, you’ve got me,’ she says, following my line of vision out across the expanse. ‘This really is stunning. Though, you must have been quite confident in your overall plan, being your actual intro to this place started so far below ground zero, with your webbed feet story.’
‘Note to self,’ I say, miming the writing of said note, ‘Feet are never a good topic of conversation.’
* * * * * * * *
Nat and I have been married for thirteen years and still she can’t pronounce the name of my home town.
‘People have divorced for less,’ I point out. ‘Llanelli. It’s easy.’ I once more try to model the technique needed to pronounce the double-L sound that appears at both ends of the word, a sound that doesn’t exist within the English alphabet. ‘Press your tongue against the front part of the roof of your mouth … Now, push air along both sides of your tongue … At the same time … No, like this. … LIKE THIS! …’ I imitate the sound for her but all she offers back is something resembling a snake with a lisp. ‘At least try,’ I say.
‘I am trying,’ she complains, giggling. ‘Why couldn’t you have come from Swansea? It’s only up the road. And I can say Swansea.’
I lower my voice to a whisper. ‘Don’t let a Llanelli person ever hear you suggest such a thing,’ I say, stepping closer and looking around to ensure that nobody can hear. ‘Swansea people are Jacks. Llanelli people are Turks. There’s a big difference.’
‘… What are you talking about?’
‘I have no idea,’ I say. ‘But, apparently, them’s the rules.’
There are two theories regarding why Llanelli people are called Turks. One is because of the Turkish ships that docked here for trade in the 1920s; the other is linked to the fact that the town was once known as Tinopolis (due to it being the biggest producer of tinplate in the world). The workmen in the tinplate factories would wrap towels around their heads in order to keep the sweat from their eyes, thus resembling the Turkish head dress.
Nat gives me a sideways glance, as though unsure whether to risk a follow-up question. ‘And, Swansea people? Jacks?’
‘Possibly after a famous dog, Jack, who is said to have saved twenty-seven lives from around the docks and riverbanks of Swansea in the 1930s.’
‘You’re a strange bunch, you Welshes,’ she says.
‘Yeah, I guess we are.’ I hug her close and kiss her face, breathing her in along with the scent of the surf and the wild Buddleia that is drifting through the evening air. ‘On the other hand, we are rather lovely.’
* * * * * * * *
There’s a word in the Welsh language that encapsulates the essence of Welshness far more than any other. It’s a word that there are no words for. Certainly, there is no equivalent in the English language. It’s Hiraeth. Hiraeth is an emotion; it’s a yearning for a person or a place or a time that one can’t get back. It’s an unattainable longing; a kind of grief for something that once existed – or, indeed, perhaps never did. It’s the invisible strings that pull taut whenever we leave our land. I would imagine that other peoples experience this too, it’s just that, for the Welsh, this connection is important enough to require its own word. Us Welshes are a sentimental bunch.
I’ve not been home for a very long time and hiraeth is something that even I have begun to experience. While once, in my early twenties, I couldn’t wait to leave this town, now I seem to be struck with a yearning to return. A sense of home has developed within me, invisible at first but these days quite tangible.
‘You’re like one of those salmon that has to swim back upstream to spawn,’ says Nat. ‘By the way, please don’t spawn.’
‘Don’t worry, spawning is not on my do-to list for this trip or any other.’ I think about the word for a moment. It sounds messy.
‘Stop thinking about spawning,’ she says.
‘How did you … Never mind.’
Llanelli (translated as St Elli’s Parish) is a moderately-sized market town of just over 26,000 people. It sits midway along the South Wales coast, twelve miles west of Swansea, eighteen miles east of Carmarthen. Once a successful industrial town, taking its wealth from mining, tinplate, steel working and car manufacturing, it had found itself pretty much on its knees by the time I hit my mid-teens and Thatcher had hit the unions. In many ways, Llanelli has been the victim of an unfortunate combination of national government policy, local government inertia, and the 1980s. However, what more than makes up for this is the outstanding perennial beauty of its natural setting and the inviting warmth of its people. From the Gower peninsular on one side, to the stunning expanse of beaches on the other, some so vast that land speed records have been set on them, Llanelli sits neatly on the edge of undulant farmland and hills, cute inland towns and villages, and a new growing optimism.
For such a moderately sized town, it might seem remarkable that, as I was growing up, Llanelli had no fewer than twenty-two chapels and seven churches. I often wondered whether the reason that we had to endure so much rain in Wales was because of all those spires continually puncturing the clouds.
Llanelli also had two breweries, a world-beating rugby team, and Wales’s first topless barmaid. Yep, quite a mixed bag. (I am, here, of course, referring to the town, not the barmaid.) Being home to two breweries became particularly significant in 1972, during one of Llanelli’s proudest days, when the town’s pubs were drunk entirely dry following its rugby team’s victory over New Zealand’s world-famous All Blacks, on its home ground. They even made up a song about it. Both the game and the vast consumption of alcohol that followed remain the subjects of great civic pride and folklore, even today:
‘Do you remember the day that we …’
‘Nope. Not a damn thing. Totally drunk. I remember it well.’
Even the schools were closed on that day so that nobody needed to miss the match. If that wasn’t a civilised bit of decision-making, I don’t know what is.
On a day like today, now that the dust has settled on the past and Llanelli is slowly reinventing itself around tourism, I can’t quite believe I ever left this place. I guess it was all tied up with employment opportunities and my own need for adventure.
I’ve chosen a hotel for us that looks out over the expanse of rooftops that make up the town. From here, we can see as far as the coast and the Gower peninsular. About thirty minutes’ drive away is the county town of Carmarthen, with its quaint covered market, where Dylan Thomas’ wife, Caitlin, used to buy shawls and bread and cockles whenever she could salvage some money from the royalties that Dylan would so professionally drink. A little further along the coast is Laugharne, where she and Dylan lived in their now famous boathouse cottage, overlooking the estuary and within staggering distance of Browns Hotel bar, often a grateful beneficiary of much of Dylan’s financial success. (Rumour has it that he’d even give the bar’s telephone number out as his own.)
I haven’t told Nat that there is more to this trip than merely showing her the pretties on offer. My aim is to convince her over the next few days that this would be a great place to move to. I’m going to employ a slow-drip strategy; I’m going to wow her with a succession of landscapes and culture.
‘Bore da,’ I say as we sit for breakfast in the hotel’s atrium. (I’m trying my best to be exotic.)
‘Gwasanaethau,’ she replies, raising her orange juice in salute.
‘That means services,’ I say. ‘As in motorway services?’
‘Yes. I know,’ she says. ‘I learned it from the road signs as we drove here.’
‘It’s a start,’ I say. ‘Gwasanaethau.’ I lift my own glass in response.
‘What have we got planned for today?’ she asks, cutting into her Eggs Benedict.
‘I thought we’d start local. Perhaps see how the beach looks in daytime; in the sunshine. Further along the coast, the beach turns into national park. We could pick up a picnic from the covered market. Fresh produce from local family businesses?’
‘Okay,’ she says. And then?’
‘And then maybe I’ll show you around the park where I used to hang out in order to avoid going to school. It’s where I first read Orwell and Samuel Beckett. Waiting for Godot amongst the Eisteddfod stone circle. There really ought to be a blue plaque put up there somewhere to commemorate where I got educated.’
‘You? Educated? Same sentence?’ She smiles at me.
‘I got the worst ever sunburn while reading Alice Walker’s The Colour Purple … There’s probably a joke in there somewhere, but I’m far too woke to articulate it.’
Nat looks at me suspiciously but let’s my comment pass. ‘Is it a big park?’ she asks, instead.
‘Growing up, I thought that a twenty-four-acre landscaped park complete with mansion house museum and stone circle was something all towns had. Turns out they don’t.’
As the waitress comes over to top up our coffee and tea, I decide to test the water a little. ‘I’d quite like to live here,’ I say.
Nat doesn’t respond, which isn’t a good sign. I’ve learned from experience that when Nat means no, she instead remains silent (like she did the first time I asked her out. And the second time, come to that.)
‘… How about you?’ I persevere.
Again, there is no response.
‘Would you like to live here?’
‘It’s very nice but I don’t think I’d know what to do with myself,’ she says, reaching for the toast.
Damn! I’ve broached the question far too early in. ‘These days, it’s easier to work from laptops,’ I say, searching for a persuasive angle on the subject. ‘Your office could be wherever you want it to be – perhaps even the beach itself in the summer, and any number of cafés along the coastline in winter. The landscapes here are amazing.
‘How would you make a living?’ she asks by way of sidestepping my question.
I look out of the atrium window. ‘I think this is a very good place to be a failed writer,’ I say. ‘Though, to be fair, it didn’t do Dylan Thomas any harm.’
‘I’d be afraid I’d be starved of culture,’ she says. ‘I mean, at the moment we live within an hour of London and Oxford.’
She has a point, but I’m not about to let facts get in the way. ‘Llanelli has two theatres,’ I inform her, ‘as well as proximity to a number of sports, literary festivals, areas of outstanding natural beauty … We … We could buy a boat!’
She looks up at me.
‘Okay, we could buy a small boat.’
She continues looking.
‘We could get us a friend … with a boat?’ I sense this particular point is already waning. ‘Or we could join a class and learn the language.’
‘Araf,’ she says.
‘Slow? Did you learn that from the road signs, too?’
‘Yes. But I was thinking more about you.’
‘That’s not very nice.’
‘Moron,’ she replies.
‘As in welsh for carrot?’
‘No, just moron. I’m still thinking about you.’
I leave her to continue insulting me in my own language while I go get more fruit from the buffet table. Possibly to throw at her.
By the time we leave the hotel, we’ve agreed on our first beach and decide to walk into town, to the covered market, to gather picnic provisions. For me, it’s like stepping back in time. The town centre has changed a lot, though not necessarily for the better. I have also changed a lot. The market, however, has remained caught in time: the scents of the fruit stalls, vegetable stalls, fish monger and butcher, all vying for attention, all smells mingling into a confusion of … memory. I smile as I overhear one of the vegetable stall sellers asking a confused customer, ‘Would you like me to wrap your cauliflower for you, or are you going to eat it now?’ The customer is unsure how to respond and flushes red.
‘Yep, I’m definitely home,’ I say to Nat, who has also overheard the conversation.
* * * * * * * *
‘There’s more to Wales than Huw Edwards, you know,’ I say as we drive the ten minutes to Pembrey Country Park, a huge expanse of sand dunes and beach, where I spent a large portion of my childhood summers.
‘Nothing can possibly be more than Huw Edwards,’ says Nat.
I’m unsure how to respond to this comment, so I don’t. ‘This town produced a fifth of The Velvet Underground … Half of Catatonia … The Edge’s mum and dad. It produced the world’s first canned beer, the first schoolchildren’s strike, my first broken nose … which hurt a lot, actually – my god, that guy could punch! … and the spare wheel.’
‘Yep. That’s right. If you’re too late to invent the wheel, the next best thing is the spare wheel. My town invented the next best thing to the actual wheel. How cool is that?’
‘… That’s not a thing,’ says Nat. ‘You can’t just rock up after something’s been invented and claim to have invented the spare of it.’
‘Well, … that’s where you’re wrong,’ I say, indignantly. I’m fully aware of how glaringly ridiculous I’m sounding right now, but I’m not going down without a fight. ‘The Stepney Wheel’, as it was called, was legally patented and sold around the world as the spare wheel for cars. ‘By 1909, the Stepney Wheel had been fitted to all London cabs. Soon, it was selling globally-ish.’
‘I suppose it’s typical that you would come from a town that would have the nerve to patent the spare wheel,’ says Nat.
‘I’m offended … I think,’ I say. ‘Though I’m not sure why.’
‘It’ll come to you,’ she says.
* * * * * * * *
I’m impressed. We’ve sat here amongst the dunes for a good hour, wondering whether the tide is coming in or still going out, watching various people jog along the water’s edge, or throw balls into the sea for their dogs to retrieve, and not only have I not spilled any of our picnic over myself, but I’m also not biting down on my lunch through gritted sand. ‘This isn’t how I remember beach picnics,’ I say. ‘Usually, beach picnics include a lot of sand crunching.’
‘Would you like some?’ Nat scoops up a handful to offer me.’
I smile as I look back out to sea. I’m wondering whether my mum used to purposely lace my sandwiches with sand as some kind of aversion therapy, to ensure I always ate at the table when I grew up.
‘People seem very friendly here,’ says Nat, breaking though my thoughts as she too looks out towards the sparkles on the water. ‘It’s nice. Everybody seems neighbourly.’
I have a story that pretty much nails down how friendly and neighbourly people are around here,’ I say. ‘Would you like to hear it?’
‘Do I have a choice?’ she asks, smiling.
‘Not really.’ I pick through the leftovers of our picnic to see what I can salvage.
‘Then I’ll give you fifteen seconds to get it out of your system, starting from …’ She looks at her watch. ‘… Now!’
‘Okay. It’s the 1950s. Trefor and Eileen Bearsley are campaigning to get Llanelli Council to distribute tax papers in Welsh. “If Westminster is going to tax the Welsh, then they should at least have the courtesy to tax us in our own language,” they say. So, the couple refuse to pay their taxes until their demand is met.’
‘Ten seconds,’ says Nat.
‘The council’s reaction is to send in the bailiffs to sell the Bearsley’s furniture in order to recover the money owed.’
‘Eight seconds …’
‘Here’s the beautiful bit. Their neighbours, seeing what’s happening, buy the Bearsley’s furniture and return it to them. And that, right there, is Welsh kindness and Welsh neighbourliness. Isn’t that a beautiful thing?’
‘It is,’ says Nat.
‘In the 1960s, the council eventually reversed their policy, and the Welsh language was given equal status with English. This was one of the starting points for why all road signs in Wales are written in both languages. It’s why you are able to accuse me of being a little bit Araf. … In fact, I may need to have a word with Mr and Mrs Beasley…’
‘That is a nice story,’ says Nat.
‘So, can we move here yet?’
‘Maybe one day,’ she says.
‘Can we get a boat?’
She looks at me.
‘Okay, no boat.’ One thing at a time, I think to myself.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
If you enjoyed this , please consider sharing it on your newsfeeds and leaving a comment below. You can also find more by Adrian Sturrock on https://www.amazon.co.uk/Adrian-Sturrock/e/B07QQDZMKQ? (UK) or https://www.amazon.com/Adrian-Sturrock/e/B07QQDZMKQ? (.com)
6 thoughts on “HIRAETH I STAND”
Lovely, Adrian. This is one of my favourites. I’m pretty fond of Welshes and Wales myself 🙂
Thank you, Val. And thank you for sharing it on your page. Welsh hugs and karma coming your way. 🙂
I didn’t know about the barmaid Ade. How come I didn’t know about the barmaid? Did you keep this all to yourself?
This is really good work, feelings and longings. Well done you, It is often very difficult to put emotions into words, but this is what you do! Like it!
Thank you. xxx
Ha!Ha! Sorry. I’m trying to remember the name of the pub on Station Road. It became Barnums.