I can hardly believe it but it’s twenty years since my mother died. Alex was just three years old, while Lizzie and Katie were eleven and nine. I’m not sure what their memories are of Mum but these are some of mine.
My parents on their wedding day in 1955
Mum was very pragmatic – as long as there was food on the table, clothes on our backs and a roof over our heads then all was right with the world. In that I think she wasn’t too different from many other women of her generation. Born into a working class family in the twenties, between two world wars, it was natural that the basic needs of life were way more important than anything else. She didn’t have time or patience for anything arty or musical – though she could draw quite well. It’s probably better not to pay too much attention to her attempts at poetry but the words weird, whacky and lunatic come to mind.
She’d take us winberry picking on Baglan mountain and if the weather was fine, no matter what time of year, she’d pick us up from school and take us down to the beach, just a ten minute walk away. We’d have a picnic tea on the sand and in summer that included the famous family delicacy: strawberry sandwiches. I’ve never met anyone else who’s eaten these and the mention of them provokes reactions from hilarity to disgust. Let me just say this – you eat jam sandwiches. You may also eat banana sandwiches. So what’s the problem? Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!
Me with my sisters, aged about 5 (me), 3 and 1. Butter wouldn’t melt in our mouths!
In fact the strawberry sandwiches were the highlight of feeding time in our house, because my mother wasn’t the best of cooks (here I’m being generous, believe me). She was a keen gardener and had to be restrained from lifting plant samples from the collections of various stately homes but didn’t bat an eyelid when we dug up a large portion of the back garden to use as a sandpit – living where we did the soil was almost pure sand. She was great fun and constantly told us stories which I’m not sure to this day had any truth in them. Some of her phrases were repeated again and again, so that they became part of the litany I probably annoyed my own children with: “It won’t take long if we all do them” – washing the dishes; “Never go upstairs empty handed” – take your rubbish up there with you; “He didn’t do it! He was on Aberdare mountain!” – whenever we passed St Mary’s churchyard in Aberavon, where Dic Penderyn is buried.
And that was the only political comment she ever made! She hated controversy and so never discussed politics, sex or religion and would actually leave the room if there was a science fiction programme on the TV. Bear in mind that we’re talking about gems like Dr Who (in the sixties and seventies – all wobbly, cardboard sets and dustbins on wheels), Blake’s 7 and The Prisoner. Funnily enough though, as she got older she developed that habit that many people do with age, commenting on people and situations when she was only a few feet away from them as though she couldn’t be heard. “Mum, shush!” became the most used phrase in the family.
Mum with an eight-month old Lizzie on holiday in Croatia
The other crazy feature was the fact that for the most part we didn’t call her ‘Mum’, but Lucy. This may not seem too strange, just a tad disrespectful – after all, not many people call their parents by their given name. But then, you see, neither did we…because my mother’s name was not Lucy, but Rosemary. In a fun mood one day my Dad just started calling her Lucy. None of us knows why – I don’t even know if he had a reason. It was a bit of a joke at first but after a while it stuck, so much so that even the girls called her Lucy instead of Gran, Grandma, Nan or any of the other tags children usually apply to their grandmothers.
My own girls on a French beach in 1996
It’s hard work bringing up children, as any parent knows, and I’m certain it was no different for my mother. Once we’d grown and those pressures had taken a back seat (although they never completely disappeared – what mother ever stops worrying about her children?) she was able to relax and dote on her granddaughters. They brought her real joy, and her pride in them grew every single day.
I think it would also have given Mum joy to see where we live now. She’d be with us on our wanderings around the countryside and our visits to churches. Which brings me to the latest – the church of St Martin in Cwmyoy. Cwmyoy means ‘valley of the yoke’ and is so called because of the shape of the hill above the village. The whole area is built on a bit of dodgy geology which at one time caused severe landslips. One of these resulted in a gash through the hill in question; as well as that, the shifting underlayers of rock have caused the church to twist. A local friend told me the other day that they call it ‘The Broken Church’, a name I’ve not seen in all the books and websites I’ve looked at, but one which suits it well.The beginning of our walk along the lane from Stanton to Cwmyoy
Looking up to the broken church. From here you can see the bend in the roof
A few of the buttresses propping up the church
As we approached the church we could see that there was a definite problem with the structure. Unable to stand on its own foundations, there have been attempts over the centuries (successful, I hope) to prop up the building with substantial buttresses. But it wasn’t until we went inside that we could see the full impact of the mismatch in the ground beneath. It felt like one of those crazy houses they used to have in amusement parks.Looking down the nave to the west wall (the tower wall) at the back of the church
Looking up towards the altar
There are some interesting memorial plaques inside the church, mostly dedicated to affluent local families. One of the most colourful is this one to the Cadogan family, with a cheerful inscription in Welsh which means: ‘Better death than a long illness‘
There’s also a 13th century statue of Christ which has a chequered history. Nobody has any idea why or when (except that it may have been hidden to prevent it being destroyed during the Reformation or by Cromwell’s guys, as per usual), but at some time it was removed from the church. It was unearthed – literally – from the garden of a neighbouring farm in 1861 and was then placed in the tower of the church in 1935. It was stolen from here – again, nobody knows exactly when or how, but its absence was noticed in 1967. That’s the year after the football World Cup was nicked! I wonder if there’s a connection?Anyway, the statue was recovered, not by a dog named Pickles as the Jules Rimet trophy was, but from a London antique shop where it had been spotted by none other than the Keeper of British and Mediaeval Antiquities at the British Museum! Apparently he just happened to have seen it there…The mediaeval cross, firmly fixed into a cement base
When we’d had enough of the faintly see-sick feeling the sloping floor, walls and ceiling induced, we went outside and around to the back of the church. From here you can see just how skewiff the building is. Apparently the tower lists at 5.2 degrees, as opposed to the paltry 4.7 lean of the Tower of Pisa, but who’s counting?The leaning Tower of Cwmyoy…
…and the view over the valley
St Martin’s is apparently another church on the ancient pilgrimage route to St David’s, just like St Issui’s at Partrishow that we saw the other day. I have a feeling we’ll be indulging in a bit of a pilgrimage of our own, to see how many of them we can collect! This is a good time of year for it; the bleak weather in these valleys and on the hills seems appropriate to communities that reach back to the dark ages, even if the buildings themselves are a mere eight hundred years old.
There are plenty of flowers along the lanes, battling against the winds and cold rain up here, another thing Mum would have appreciated. And I’ve inherited a love of flowers and gardens from her, although in most ways we’re nothing alike.
Although…I also had three daughters, I did feed them stories and strawberry sandwiches when they were young…and I have been known to loudly protest the innocence of Dic Penderyn!
Lovely flowers from my lovely girls xxx