Monday, 1 June 2009

A Week with the Mam

Anglesey, Ordnance Survey map 1946 - public domainBeen up for a long leisurely week with the mater on the old Druid's isle of Ynys Môn, that is Anglesey: a great lozenge-shaped island about twenty-five miles on a side, broken off the mountainous north-west corner of Wales by the narrow Menai Straits, and riveted back on in the 19th century by the Menai and Britannia Bridges. The Menai Bridge is a fairly routine masterpiece by Thomas Telford, but the boxy iron Britannia has the fairer aura of the fantastic, courtesy of its famous guardian totems:

Four fat lions without any hair,
Two over here, and two over there!

as the local nursery-rhyme has it. The main courses of road and rail then continue north-westerly to another and lesser island, broken off Anglesey as Anglesey is off Wales - Holy Island, St Cybi's old stamping-ground, reached over treacherous tidal flats by the stout causeway called the Cob. On Holy Island stands the port and town of Holyhead or Caergybi, whence the Irish ferries sail. My own clan's local outpost is discreetly tucked away in a farming village none so far from the sea, somewhere off the main drag between Holyhead and the market-town of Llanfair P.G. - that Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch so celebrated in song and story, to a nursing-home in which my late and distinctly English grandmother finally retired with the remark, "Where did you say, again?"

Llanfairpwll is a pleasant place, quiet when tourist choruses are not attempting to gargle the railway sign, and home to a rather good branch of Pringles. I seem doomed never to sample the renowned pub grub of Ty Gwyn, which was still refurbishing its kitchens when I passed by in April. The little town of Gaerwen is not too far off, however, and the Gaerwen Arms boozer has also been doing good food good cheap for many years. Those of merely mortal gut capacity should beware the Gaerwen's homemade faggots - each of which very fairly approximates that useful academic concept, the spherical cow - but there is little else to be feared at this salubrious and family-friendly establishment.

The Island lies in easy sight of the mainland mountain-ranges of Snowdonia and the Lleyn Peninsula, but is itself mostly flat, though rather lumpy, with ridges and fists of ancient metamorphic rock frequently punching up through the raggedly fertile soil. Only above Holyhead itself does a worthy mountain rear its head: low, tumbled and gorse-grown, with magnificent views over land and sea from the peak.

Anglesey has been farming country as far back as anybody can trace it, with great store of both grain and livestock. The maritime tradition remains strong, though now there is more tourism and less fishing than of old, and the good volunteers of the local lifeboat station are kept as busy as ever. The other main local industries are nuclear power and aluminium - the latter highly dependent upon the former - and the futures of both hang presently in the balance.

Welsh speaking is very strong in these parts, though not necessarily in a form agreeable to the Welsh Language Society - adaptation of English words in preference to 'purer' forms, and promiscuous mingling of English and Welsh in speech, both being common, and the result bursting with such hybrid vigour as cloistered academics and self-contemplators so often find shockingly rude. As a rudely vigorous mutt myself, I am no impartial judge in this matter.

Môn Mam Cymru is one of the Island's proverbial titles - Anglesey, Mother of Wales - coined by Giraldus Cambrensis in reference to its fabulous fertility of old, but now more often used in token of her ancient status as a heartland of tradition: Druidry, Welsh culture, the old and resurgent language. I can hardly claim her even as an ancestor, since my own Welsh roots lie far away in the southern valleys by the Somerset border.

But over the years she has become, at least, something of a favoured auntie; and I always look forward to seeing her, when I come visiting with the Mam.

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