The long valley

This week two interesting things happened – the first of which was that The Flying Scotsman hit the rails and passed through Abergavenny. This was a treat not to be missed so we drove over and managed to grab the last parking space in a layby before walking through some woodland into the train station. Clearly word had got around and hundreds of people had braved the sunshine to line both platforms. It was like something out of The Railway Children.

The local police force had been put under severe strain by the occasion and had provided two officers to oversee crowd control. There was a tense standoff when twenty or so people were told that they couldn’t stand on the bridge between the platforms, as there was no guarantee that the structure would take their combined weight, but common sense and the stubbornness of the rozzers won the day.

There’d been a distinct lack of common sense further north however, and the arrival of the Scotsman was delayed because of sightseers on the track just outside Hereford. But then it wouldn’t have been the same if the train had been on time, would it? Happily for everyone who’d turned out with cameras and grizzly children, we were finally rewarded by two minutes of excitement:flying scotsman june 2016The Flying Scotsman arriving at Abergavenny

The train didn’t stop, but the passengers all waved dutifully, we all waved back and then it was over. The only thing missing was that we didn’t have iced buns for tea.

The second unusual event this week was that for the first time in decades I sat an exam. A Welsh exam, to be precise; and to do this I had to travel to Llandrindod Wells, about an hour’s drive from home. This is because I live in Powys, the biggest county in Wales at 2,000 square miles, but also the least densely populated (this is just a little smaller than Devon, but the population of Powys in 2015 was 132,705 and that of Devon was roughly eight times greater at 1,100,000).

One of the consequences of this is that amenities/services etc tend to be spread out, and I guess that if you want to live in a rural area it’s something you have to accept to a certain extent – though that shouldn’t include schools and hospitals, but I’m going to be good and stay away from politics. According to a study done by the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield in 2008, Powys is also the happiest place to live in the UK! Maybe that explains why people willingly travel miles to take exams they don’t need – to inject some stress back into their lives?

Anyway the exam came and went and was fine, at least I think it was. In fact I probably had a more enjoyable time than Michael, who got to roam around Llandrindod on his own for three hours. Nothing against the place, but I think it was a challenge – especially as one of the star attractions of the town, the National Cycle Museum (what did you expect? Formula 1?) was closed because somebody was off sick. Though apparently there’s a park with wooden sculptures made using a chain-saw but he hadn’t found that, preferring to enjoy a cooked breakfast and a mooch around the town’s second-hand shops.

It was with a sense of relief and excitement (ha ha) that we got into the car and I took him on a short excursion, driving north for a few miles to Abaty Cwmhir – or Abbey Cwmhir in English. Alright, I know that’s not strictly English, but that’s how it’s known. Cwmhir is Welsh for ‘long valley’ and was chosen in the late twelfth century as the site of a Cistercian Abbey. The Cistercians were known for their intelligent use of land and livestock, and became very successful wool traders, forging lucrative links with Flemish and Italian markets. As well as plenty of sheep they also had strong relationships with the native Welsh princes, who became important patrons. It may be because of this that the body of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd was brought here in December 1282.

Llywelyn’s head had travelled in a different direction – initially it was taken to the gloating Edward I at Rhuddlan Castle, and then to be put on a spike at the Tower of London. There are only sparse details in contemporary reports and at a time of war and great confusion that’s not surprising. Nobody knows for certain exactly where Llywelyn was killed (just that it was in the area of Builth Wells; claims have been made for both Cilmeri and Aberedw) or precisely what happened. It seems likely though, that his body was taken in secrecy (and possibly at great risk) by survivors of the attack or by local priests to be kept from further mutilation by the enemy. The story is that he was laid to rest beneath the altar at Cwmhir, some 20 miles from Builth/Cilmery/Aberedw.

It’s a very beautiful place, the long valley. The abbey itself is in ruins and if it wasn’t for the farmhouse next door you could believe that nobody had set foot here for hundreds of years. No people, that is – just several thousand sheep.abaty cwmhir 7 2016The memorial slab marking the site of the burial place of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, at the eastern end of the ruins, the position of the altar

The abbey was partly destroyed by the forces of Owain Glyndŵr but was still occupied by a handful of monks at the time of the dissolution ordered by the dissolute Henry VIII. Its destruction was completed during the English Civil War; much of the stone was taken to be used for other buildings in the area. Interestingly, five complete archways from the north arcade were transported to Llanidloes where they can still be seen, in beautiful condition, in the church of St Idloes.2016-06-13 11.46.34The church of St Idloes, Llanidloes

What’s interesting is that for all the impressive tombs I’ve seen in various cathedrals, of royalty or other nobles, this simple memorial open to the elements at Cwmhir is the most striking. Obviously when Llywelyn was first laid there on a dark, snowy night in 1282, there were walls and a roof, and the burial would have been rushed, secretive and simple. But now? Now the last native Prince of Wales lies enclosed not by bricks and mortar but by the hills of Wales.

Just right.

I gaze upon the glorious sky

and the green mountains round…

*

(apologies to William Cullen Bryant – he said gazed x)

abaty cwmhir 2 2016

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