It was 1990 and I had never previously been to Ty Newydd or Llanystumdwy. First, I drove, then walked around the village, passing the now familiar white gates several times but believing the entrance private. Yet I needed to find the house. I was a co-tutor on the first ever Ty Newydd writing course, along with Gillian Clarke.
Ty Newydd was the brainchild of Sally Baker, who had written to me in the 1980s, proposing a ‘house for writing and writers’. This was to be influenced by the Arvon centres yet uniquely Welsh. I had redirected her letter to the Arts Council of Wales.
The striking, long chimneyed residence we now know so well was designed by Clough Williams Elis. Yet there has been a habitation here for hundreds of years.
Twenty-five years after our initial course, Ty Newydd is celebrating its remarkable development as ‘the national writers’ centre for Wales’. And as it has broadened its scope, environmental issues have increasingly influenced the annual programmes.
This is because climate change, precipitated by atmospheric carbon, is a vital political and social subject. The Welsh government had felt that a 40% cut in carbon emissions by 2020 was feasible.
Such a dramatic reduction is now not feasible in this time span, although the Welsh government remains determined to get as close to 40% as possible. Moreover, there is constant pressure on politicians in the Senedd, both from their own scientists and groups such as World Wildlife Fund Cymru, Friends of the Earth Cymru and ‘Climate Chaos’.
Ty Newydd as a house and a writers’ centre has always been immersed in the natural world. My guide to the wildlife of this part of Wales was provided by Elis Gwyn, partner of Sally Baker, who had been brought up in Llanystumdwy.
Every tutor I have worked with at Ty Newydd believes that a consuming interest in local wildlife is vital, and that it is the natural business of tutors and course members to keep eyes and ears open. Any form of writing depends on curiosity.
I remember a dazzling August day in 1995, when the whole of Wales seemed parched and burnt. I was watching a bluetit (titw tomos las…) feasting on a small tortoiseshell butterfly that had become entangled in a spider’s web outside the kitchen window. The butterfly was almost the size of the bird.
On summer courses in pre-dawn hours I’d walk the grounds, noting in the first light breaking over Gwynedd and Cardigan Bay, the Ty Newydd chickens roosting in trees’ lower branches. They did this for safety from foxes. Are there Ty Newydd chickens today? There should be. I recall a Ty Newydd cockerel figuring in many writers’ work, and even the titles of anthologies…
Expeditions outside the grounds were always exciting. Ty Newydd is surrounded by marvelous coastal and mountain scenery, and it is not far from Cwm Pennant, “the most beautiful valley in Wales”, and a popular destination.
The adventurous Hilary Llewellyn Williams and myself as course leaders in one year discovered Cwm Pennant was rich in the small brown mushrooms known as ‘liberty caps’. These are identifiable by the nipple on the cap’s top, but as with any wild mushrooms, you take your chances when harvesting.
In Welsh these are known as ‘bwyd ellyllon’ - elves’ food - or caws y llyfaint – frogs’ cheese – or bwyd y boda – buzzards’ food - and have been consumed for as long as we can read back in history. (It’s not certain whether the Welsh names refer to poisonous mushrooms or not.) Did we add bwyd ellyllon to one of the tomato sauces that were often made in the kitchen? Possibly. Cwm Pennant is a fruitful place for foragers, and foraging has been a constituent of several Ty Newydd courses.
The Afon Dwyfor, which flows through Llanystumdwy and on to where it meets the sea, has its source in Cwm Pennant. It’s only a short walk from the house down to where the Dwyfor passes thrillingly around enormous glacial boulders. Then it creeps into the sea at aber Afon Dwyfor, this estuary covered with pebbles and bright seaweeds.
There are superb panoramas of Cardigan Bay to be viewed from the centre’s gardens. It’s a delightful walk downhill from the house, crossing the railway bridge (the Aberystwyth-Pwllheli line is only half a mile away) and on by public footpaths to the estuary.
The Dwyfor is rare amongst Welsh rivers in that its mouth is unindustrialized. That’s why I like it so much, reminding me of two familiar rivers in south Wales, the Ogwr and the Cynffig, both undeveloped.
Unlike these, the Dwyfor supports local fishermen, whose boats and nets can sometimes be glimpsed on the gravel shores of the estuary. Elis Gwyn is one of these fishermen. Other frequent sights are cormorants, the striking ‘bilidowcar’, often to be seen perched on a rock and drying its wings.
Much of this coastal area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), designated for its unusual geological features and diverse wildlife. On this area of beach, known as Cricieth West, there can be an abundance of periwinkles, razor shells and peeler crabs.
By the end of many visits, the bedrooms of tutors and course members are decorated with pebbles, released from the soft boulder clay (‘Llanystumdwy till’ in the west, ‘Cricieth till’ to the east), strands of oarweed and other seaweeds. Indeed, it can be difficult to resist taking souvenirs from Cricieth West beach, although this is not encouraged, considering that hundreds of visitors arrive as residents at Ty Newydd every year.
Ty Newydd will always be famous as the former residence of David Lloyd George, and is the place where he died in 1945. It’s easy to walk to his memorial in Llanystumdwy, and to the Lloyd George museum, almost opposite.
Many features of the house and grounds would be familiar to him, not least the extraordinary acoustics of what is now ‘the library’, in which even a whisper might echo, and is a feature of the many public readings that occur there.
Yet David Lloyd George would not have seen the medieval ‘post and panel’ screen, only revealed during renovations for the opening of the Writers’ Centre, and the most historically significant discovery of that project.
Visitors today will find grey squirrels common in the gardens, although Lloyd George might have been more familiar with the native red. But he would have recognized the useful herb, parsley piert (troed y dryw) that grows in cracks in the magnificent garden walls. Lloyd George would have also known the spectacular tulip tree that flourishes close to the house, its leaves like cats’ faces.
Looking through its branches on a recent visit (November 2014) I was reminded that astronomy has always played a significant part in the work done here. It is a wonderful experience to look south from the library windows at the constellations wheeling over Cardigan Bay.
Better still to lie out on the lawns and marvel at the multitudes of stars visible in the unpolluted Gwynedd darkness. From there ‘Llwybr Llaethog’ (the Milky Way) will be visible in all its glory.
While at Ty Newydd, it seems obligatory to make the most of the views afforded by its dominating position. The widest panoramas, however, might be obtained from Moel y Gest, an imposing local mountain, which has figured in several courses, or from Cricieth Castle.
Built on a volcanic headland by Llywelyn Fawr, taken and rebuilt by the English, finally destroyed by Owain Glyndwr in the early fifteenth century, the castle is the perfect destination for a walk along Cricieth West beach from the writers’ centre.
In the twenty-five years since the centre opened, global warming and associated tidal rising have become accepted parts of life. Indeed, this period has seen an extraordinary growth in environmental awareness. Nobody who attends Ty Newydd today is unaware of these issues, and in fact the centre hosted its first ‘green writing’ week not long after it opened.
Today, courses which include environmental elements are common. For example, ‘Birds, Bees and Flights of the Imagination’ (May 2015) and ‘Telling it Slant: Writing about Climate Change’ (August 2015).
It is thought that climate change means newly erratic and stormy weather. But storms have never been uncommon in this part of Wales. In 1927, strong winds destroyed parts of the promenade at Cricieth.
Most recently, the two most notable storms to affect Ty Newydd have been ‘Hurricane Jude’, October 2013, and ‘The Beast’, February 2014, in which trees in the avenue leading to the house were damaged, and the highest ever UK wave recorded.
The Welsh government has an ongoing strategy when dealing with tidal rising. It consists of four approaches:
1. Do nothing. This is where the coastline is left alone and no management practices are put in place.
2. Hold the line. The coastline is held in the location it is at present. Coastal defences are maintained.
3. Retreat. A decision is made to allow the sea to take over the land. For example, in Humberside several kilometres of sea wall are being bulldozed, allowing the sea to advance and the coast to retreat landward.
4. Advance. Sea defences are built. The new coastline may even advance outward, pushing back the sea.
For each of these options a cost-benefit analysis is carried out. This looks at the cost of each sea defense, and the cost to the area if the scheme was not put in place. A decision is then made.
Chief scientist at the UK Met Office, Dame Julia Slingo summarised the UK position on freqency of storms by saying "all the available evidence suggests there is a link to climate change". Yet the full report makes clear how difficult it is to explicate UK weather.
What seems certain is the natural world, including climate change, will be the focus of many future courses in the unique setting of Ty Newydd.
Robert Minhinnick 3.6.2015