Last weekend, I had the incredible opportunity to spend 4 days with distant relatives on a cattle farm in North Wales. The woman I stayed with, Eirlys, is second cousins with my grandfather, meaning we share a common relative in my great-great-great-grandfather. To get to Chwilog, where she and her husband Griff live, I first boarded a train at Bath Spa, changed in Newport, and 5 hours later, arrived in Bangor. From Bangor, we drove about an hour south, through Carnarvon and almost to Pwllheli, and maneuvered down a range of country roads until we arrived at their farm. We had a light dinner and cups of tea, and I was told to get some rest in preparation for a jam-packed day on Friday.
On Friday, I woke up around 8 and we were on the road to Aberdaron by 9:30. Our first stop was a random stone wall on the side of the road. Eirlys had me get out of the car and she asked me if I could see the outline of a door and windows. The wall happened to be the remains of a cottage where my great-great-great-grandfather grew up. I could vaguely make out a line in the wall so of course I nodded and smiled for a picture in front.
Next, we stopped by Iris’s house, another relative, and had a quick chat. We arrived in Aberdaron around 11 and Griff dropped Eirlys and I off at a small primary school there. Eirlys had asked the schoolmaster if we could stop by for a bit to give me an idea of what a Welsh school was like. This school was about as Welsh as it could get. There was not a word of English anywhere! The school was full of children reading, working on computers, drawing, building sand castles, and playing with toys. They put me at a miniature table and a girl who looked to be about 10 read me a story in Welsh. I had no idea what she was saying, but she seemed to enjoy the story!
Being entirely surrounded by Welsh speakers was a little intimidating, but a great experience. It’s good to see that little schools like the one I visited are still in existence and keeping the Welsh language alive. After the girl finished the story, I was taken into another room where the pre-schoolers were playing. There was a big cardboard castle set up in one corner and three little girls were having a pretend tea party inside! The teacher explained to me (in English, thankfully) that they were in the middle of their castle unit.
We left the school and walked up the road to the caravan (motorhome/RV) site where Griff was waiting. Eirlys showed me where they camp their caravan in the summers when they visit Aberdaron for a few weeks on holiday. I went inside the house there and met the owner of the campsite, and then Eirlys, Griff and I went into “town” to make a dinner reservation. I say “town” because Aberdaron is a tiny village with little more in its downtown than a hotel, cafe, and gift shop. The scale of the town definitely contributes to its novelty, though, and the area is swarmed by tourists during the summer months.
After reserving a table for 6 at Gwesty Ty Newydd, we hopped in the car and drove to our next destination: the house where Jane Williams, my great-great-great-grandmother grew up. To get there, we had to navigate down more 6-foot-wide country lanes and got lost once or twice along the way. We finally came to the end of a driveway and Griff parked the truck as Eirlys and I followed the tracks up to the house. A farmer was waiting by some machinery at the top of the driveway and watched us approaching. I waited as Eirlys explained to the man that we were descendants of Daniel Williams (my great-great-great-grandfather) at Grepach. He immediately recognized the name and welcomed us to have a look around. After a nice long chat about relatives and land, we walked back down the driveway to where Griff was parked.
Our next stop was Grepach, the revered homestead of the Williams family that sits in a framed picture in my family room at home. I vaguely remembered the site from when we visited in 2003 (I was eleven years old then). This was the cottage where Daniel and Jane Williams raised their ten children, one of whom was John Solomon, who emigrated to the United States when he was 20 years old. I hope I’m getting my facts right — this whole weekend was a bit of a history lesson to me. At Grepach, we had a picnic with chicken sandwiches and (of course) tea.
Next, we took a drive up a nearby hill/mountain to the spot with the best view of Bardsey Island, or as it’s known in Welsh, Ynys Enlli. We could only spend a few minutes there because we had an appointment to make at 2:00. Eirlys had arranged for two members of the County Council to give us a tour of two cottages that were being restored. One was being restored to what it would have been like in the 1800s, and the other was being modernized so that someone could live in it today. Eirlys was unsure of exactly how to get to these cottages (her only directions were to turn right at a church and continue down the road… unfortunately, we weren’t sure which church the directions were referring to). After driving around for a while, we finally stopped by a house on the side of the road and asked the man who lived there if he knew where to go. Eirlys and Griff talked to the man for about fifteen minutes as I sat in the passenger seat awkwardly, not having a clue what any of them were saying (it was all in Welsh). I watched as they pointed one way and then the other and took out their phones and dialed numbers and shook their heads and squinted their eyes into the distance. Eventually they must have come to some conclusion because everyone piled back in the car and we started down the road in the opposite direction. We came to a church, turned right, and soon saw two cars parked on the side of the road. We were only about ten minutes late.
The two council members took us down a steep path and we walked down a dirt road for about half a mile. Sure enough, there were two cottages, and men in hard hats were working away. We got to ignore the “No Unauthorised Access” signs and had a look around inside the buildings. I got my picture taken standing in a primitive pigsty set up outside one of the cottages. After spending a good amount of time at the cottages and having lengthy chats with everyone working there, we finally headed back up the steep path to the main road where our car was parked.
By this time, it was about four o’clock and we did not have any big plans until dinner. So, we went to the Gwesty Ty Newydd for a cup of coffee overlooking the coast. After coffee, we went a few houses down to visit an 87-year-old woman named Olwen, who was apparently an even closer relative to me than Eirlys. It seems like everyone I met in Aberdaron was in some way related to me, and they all knew exactly who I was and how I fit into the history of the town. Olwen has lived in Aberdaron her entire life and has witnessed a pretty large span of generations. We had a nice conversation and invited her to dinner with us at 6.
After visiting Olwen, Griff went to buy a newspaper and Eirlys and I went to St. Hywyn’s, the church in Aberdaron where my great-great-great-grandparents are buried. I remembered visiting the church in 2003 and tried to look for my name in the guestbook, but they only went back to 2006. I was able to locate where my parents and sister had signed after their visit in 2011. The church had a table set up with historical documents relating to the church and the town. I found a book that listed all the emigrants from Aberdaron during some year in the late 1800s. Next to each name was listed the place that they emigrated to. Out of about thirty names, I was surprised to see that almost all of them emigrated to Steuben, a town not too far from where I live at home! Reading through the list of names, the connection between myself and my Welsh ancestry really hit home for me then.
The church also had an exhibit on R. S. Thomas, a famous Welsh poet who served as the vicar of the church for several years. Eirlys bought me a book of his poetry at the gift shop in town to read on the train ride home. After seeing our fill of the church, we headed outside to the cemetery to locate the graves of my ancestors. We found the headstones for Daniel and Jane Williams, and one of their sons, David.
It was about quarter to six, so Eirlys and I headed down to the restaurant to meet up with Griff and Olwen. We had a wonderful dinner overlooking the ocean and I was thoroughly impressed with my salmon! After some quality food and conversation, we said good-bye to Olwen and headed back to the primary school for the highlight of our evening, a Noson Lawen.
“Noson Lawen” translates to “Happy Evening,” and was just that. Two Welsh folk singers opened up the show with a few songs. Some young girls came up to sing a few more songs, a woman played the accordion, and a man who looked to be in his late twenties wowed the audience with his powerful baritone voice. The event was entirely in Welsh so I was pretty lost for most of it, but the music sounded nice as far as I could tell.
About halfway through, at which point I had tuned out whatever the people on stage were talking about, everyone in the room suddenly turned around in their chairs so they were looking in my direction. Eirlys nudged me and said “stand up!” and it was then that I noticed the man on stage saying the words “Liz” and “New York” and “Croeso” (Welcome). Obviously embarrassed, I stood up, awkwardly waved, and sat back down. Upon doing so, the man on stage switched into English, saying “Liz, this song’s dedicated to you!” They went on to play Me & Bobby McGee, and despite not knowing the song terribly well I smiled throughout the entire thing. I was just happy to finally hear something I could understand!
After the Noson Lawen ended, Eirlys and Griff said good-bye to their friends and we began our journey home to Chwilog. It was an exhausting twelve hours spent in Aberdaron but definitely worth it! We came home that night, had a cup of tea, and went straight to bed.
The next morning, I woke up and had a full cooked breakfast thanks to Eirlys. After breakfast, Eirlys’s granddaughter Katrin (whose family lives next door) showed me around the farm. At around 11, we drove to Criccieth to pick up Lydia, another one of Eirlys’s granddaughters. We came home and had a big lunch together, then went into town for an Eisteddfod, where Katrin was competing.
The Eisteddfod was held in a church and at the event, children competed in several different areas, including singing, painting, writing, and reciting. There were three judges and a host would announce each competition and age group, at which point those who were competing came to the front of the room and waited their turn. In singing, for example, each child would have the chance to impress the judges with their rendition of a particular song. After everyone had performed, the judge would go up to a podium and run through the list of contestants, making comments and criticism on each one of their performances. Katrin was one of eight children to recite a poem, and she came in second place! Her prize was four pounds. The quality of singing and recitation that I saw was unbelievable. Some of the little girls I heard singing sounded like they were twice their age! The degree of seriousness with which each child approached their competition shows just how large a role the arts play in Welsh culture. After about two hours at the Eisteddfod, we had tea and cake in the adjacent room and headed back to Criccieth to drop Lydia off. Her mother owns a golf course with an incredible view of the Welsh hills surrounding Criccieth. Luckily, she got home just in time to see a group of Junior Doctors playing the course.
After a long day, we went home and had burgers and fries in front of the TV, where Griff was watching some Saturday night football. After the games ended, Griff was flipping through the channels and saw that Crocodile Dundee was playing. After learning that I had never seen the film, Eirlys and Griff insisted we all watch it together as it is one of their favorite movies. We got a good laugh out of the movie and were able to switch to a program on BBC Wales during commercials that Eirlys’s daughter, Non Griffith, directs.
The next morning, Eirlys, Katrin and I walked to a medieval house located about a mile and a half down the road. We worked up an appetite walking and all gathered around the table a few hours later for a Sunday roast. Pretty soon it was time to start heading back to Bangor so I could catch my train back to Bath. We stopped by an agricultural college on the way to Bangor and walked around the gardens there. We arrived at the train station in Bangor around 4:30, had a cup of tea, and said good-bye as my train pulled into the station. Eirlys was nice enough to pack me a dinner for the train ride, and I also had my new R. S. Thomas book to keep me occupied. It’s a good thing I waited until after the trip to get into his poetry, because I don’t think I would have fully understood where he was coming from in his writing before getting the full Aberdaron experience and really interacting with the Welsh. I had a wonderful time exploring my heritage in Wales and I hope I can return to Aberdaron sometime soon!