by Chris Cowland –
Hearing the annual reading of A Child’s Christmas in Wales on CBC Radio during the recent holidays reminded me of my own childhood.
My mother was christened Glenys Eira Wheaton, born in Caerphilly, south Wales. We lived in a small English village called Eton Wick, close to Windsor, but my Welsh grandparents lived just outside Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales.
Every summer we would make the 200-mile drive to visit our Welsh relatives. That sounds pretty tame, but it was a major expedition in a 1954 Morris Minor. Dad would start his preparations about a week earlier, changing the oil and filter, and crawling around with a grease gun to attend to around 20 greasing points around the steering joints and chassis. This would put him in a foul mood, coupled with the prospect of spending a week with his mother in law and having to listen to my mother’s incessant chat for the five hours of the journey each way.
I also dreaded the journeys. I would be relegated to the back seat, and my parents were both smokers. They never joined the dots to realize the direct correlation of their smoking and my car sickness.
That aside, the drive through the picturesque English villages along the A44 was magical – even their names were evocative of quaintness: Beaconsfield, Chipping Norton, Morton on Marsh, Wyre Piddle … .
Eventually we would cross into Wales, with the welcoming border sign “Croeso I Gymru” (Welcome to Wales). Dad would always toot the horn as we crossed the border. The roads would become less trafficked and a patchwork of hedged fields would come into view on the green hillsides, which soon became mountains. My green-tinged cheeks would quickly become greener as dad threw the Morris round one hairpin bend into the next, and the roadside stops would become more frequent.
I loved my grandparents’ cottage and its thick stone walls. You could sit right inside the window well and watch the birds in the garden, or quietly read a book. Unless it was Sunday. My grandmother thought it was ungodly to play on a Sunday, and my toys would be stripped from me. The only book I was allowed to read had a cross on the front cover!
After my grandad died, grandma moved back to Carno, the village where my mother had lived most of her youth. We would stay up in the mountains close by, on a 600-acre sheep farm called “Caeau-Duon,” or “Black Fields.” The taste of fresh-churned butter and milk still warm from the cow will never leave me. I used to feed the chickens, collect eggs and feed milk to the orphaned lambs. I had one particular favourite, who was born with just three legs. She would hop over to me every morning and evening for her bottle of milk. Until one memorable day when she did not show up, and my aunt looked really guilty when I asked if she had seen the poor beast. I don’t need to finish this part of the story … .
Carno became famous later on as the headquarters for the Laura Ashley clothing factory, but I remember it best for its one pub, the Aleppo Merchant. On Saturday nights it would be crowded with farmers, and after a few pints there would always be rousing renditions of Welsh songs and hymns that would bring me to tears with their powerful beauty.
I wonder if Dylan Thomas was ever there.