Friday, August 01, 2008


As I mentioned last night, I’m now back from my trip to Wales and I suppose I better write something about it. I went, with my family and some extras, to a place called the Gower peninsula, in south Wales, staying in a campsite near the village of Rhossili. The Gower is a strange place, all rolling hills and sheep, lots and lots of sheep. As far as I can tell, the Gower was a horrific backwater that remained rustic and rural when the rest of Wales launched themselves into the industrial revolution with great enthusiasm. The only innovation that they seemed interested in taking from the world around them at this time was Methodism, which they took to with the same vigour as every other part of Wales.

The religious denomination favoured in an area wouldn’t seem to be that important at first glance, but it seems to have had a substantial effect on the landscape of the land, long after most of the chapels have been boarded up and forgotten. The most important legacy is, of course, the chapel.

They are small, squat buildings, architecturally unadorned; they vary from being pretty in their simplicity, to being plain boxes grotesquely spattered with neoclassical decorations, like stone pillars on the side of a warehouse. They manage to be beautiful, however, by always being put in amazing places. I don’t know whether this was motivated by a desire to make people really work for their church, or something, but they are almost always in elevated positions, high on hills and mountains above the towns they serve. It means that their plain austerity acts as a counterpoint to vistas and landscapes more beautiful than anything that would be allowed in a protestant church. It made me think of this poem by Wallace Stevens -- which I’ve never really understood, and still don’t think I do, but it seems apt.

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Wallace Stevens Anecdote of the Jar

I think it’s because I’m from a big city, one where the buildings are often pretty, but the landscape as a whole generally isn’t, but this opposition always makes me happy, like a kind of deference on the part of the locals to the world around them. Sadly I don’t have a picture of the most striking example of this; a utterly dull grey box of a chapel that sat on the top of a hill next to a shimmering, cascading waterfall. I do have a picture of the waterfall though.

The thing that makes the Gower remarkable is that in 1956 it was designated to be an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (mostly because it was such a pristine backwater) which means that planning regulations are extremely tight there, and very little new building goes on. Between the Methodism and the planning department, the Gower is left, tragically, with a dearth of decent pubs, or any pubs at all.

It has no shortage of nice beaches, however, beloved by English surfers (we’re not talking Hawaii-grade surf here, but it’s enough to work with apparently, and closer to home). I didn’t surf, obviously, because I have no sense of balance and wouldn’t look good in a wetsuit, but I did swim in the sea quite a lot. It has to be said, however, that quite often my swims were cut short by the feeling of hypothermia setting in (there’s nothing like swimming away and then being struck by the thought ‘my kidneys are cold… that’s not good’).

I like swimming, I’m like a seal in that I’m slow and ungainly on land, but can more with a little more grace when gravity is no longer an issue. I’m unlike a seal in that I can’t breathe through my ears, which is another one of the ways in which I feel that evolution has short-changed humanity -- along with our absence of tails, and independently movable ears.

There’s loads more to say, but this is all I’ve managed to say before I got distracted by shiny things (well, shiny thing – my new bass is still awesome) I might write some more on the subject when I remember - I feel I should write something about the peculiar delights of camping - but it won’t be for a few days as I’m heading up to my brother’s this weekend for a weekend of computer games, loud music, and drinking – to recover from all that nature and rustic living.