For weeks I have been trying to explain to people how I came to be going to an isolated cottage in North Wales for a holiday.
It was a friend of my dad’s who told me I had to go to Maes Caradoc.
What’s that? I asked.
The cottage, he said – as if I knew.
But I suddenly did. I saw his boys, jumping on beds. Now, rocks burst up out of the mist. I wander outside in the middle of the night, feeling something unknown in the darkness.
Maes Caradoc means Meadow of Caractacus.
When the Romans took North Wales, they were to occupy Caernarfordshire for three centuries. Despite this, they have left no traces in the valley here. Nant Ffrancon would simply have been a way through the mountains, this wide, meandering valley floor. Now, there are farm buildings set at wide intervals either side of the river, and walled areas of pasture where sheep roam, but then it would have been an uninhabited place, heavily forested.
Caractacus was to take refuge here, among the pines, the steep and rocky mountains beyond. His father held a command under the Romans, but he was to defy them. He became a British king, and was eventually slain. Caractacus fled to Maes Caradoc, though of course it had no name then.
I imagine him sleeping in the woods, howling over his father’s death, his presence perceived as beastlike, forming a legend. This was the space he prowled in his grief. Perhaps those who feared him were too afraid to come near.
Meadow of Caractacus – all because of a man who came to hide in this empty place with his solemn burden.
The room is full of beds, colourful rugs – a burnt orange. Boys are bouncing on their knees – thumping their palms on the mattresses. They look up to where a steep set of stairs leads to a small gallery.
I have climbed over the banister and balance with my bottom against the railing. Something of the drop to the room below seems to suck at me. Even though I am preparing to jump, the thought of falling before I’m ready is chilling. I will jump, but I must ready myself first.
Each time, the boys flung themselves, fearless, messy – sometimes dropping as they swung their second leg over the banister, giggling, shouting, laughing. But I am quiet with concentration, taking my time. I have a firm grip on the rail – but then, there is a beautiful, blissful second when I let go, and down I come in a flash of bright ecstasy, a whoop.
My Dad and I get out of the car and I open the small gate. I think I remember the slate path that leads along the front of the building; perhaps, the small enclosed garden as well, that contained, patch of grass by the cottage – strange, with the vast space of valley and mountains beyond.
We come into a main room with an iron kitchen range on the far wall. Behind, a steep staircase leads up to a small gallery, but something doesn’t fit.
All right? my dad asks.
I nod, moving around to the table, set beneath the window, the rocking chair. Then, I spot the low door beneath the gallery. I duck, going through into a narrow room. Another door leads into an identical space, almost as if the wall between were a mirror. There is a third door. I crouch down and step through. I am in a room filled with beds. Behind me, a steep staircase reaches up. I stand for some time, looking at it, then I turn back to the beds. They are all made up with rugs.
My dad has made a small list of nearby walks, seeing as he will be leaving with the car in the morning and all I will have is my bicycle. Now, he begins to explain how to use a compass.
You have to orient it with the map first, he tells me.
He has me moving the map, with the compass laid on top, until the arrow points north.
Hang on, wait, I’m not getting this, Dad.
No, you’re not are you, he says, looking up at me. He thinks for a moment, flattens the map on the table, resets the compass.
Okay, try this, he says. Where are we? Point on the map.
I lean over and take in the thick white strip that is the Nant Ffrancon Valley, which is rather like a sausage, tied tightly at both ends.
You hold the compass, my dad says. Move until it points to North. Now, look at the map, lay it down and do the same.
Slowly, I begin to understand.
So, my dad says. If you were to walk out this door, which direction would you be headed?
If I went up the old road, I would be just about going north.
I don’t have much familiarity of being with my dad, learning from him. Despite this, I have a powerful desire to please him. In fact, it is more than desire – it is an entire disposition, an inherent quality that exists, despite his absences throughout my life. It’s as if all the organs of my body are inclined, or arranged, that way.
In the past, kidneys were thought to control disposition and temperament. I remember much talk of bile, or bilious natures in Shakespeare. Perhaps this is why fathers are so rankled when their sons are disposed against them – because it is almost a betrayal of genes, cuckolding them.
Spending this time with my dad, observing these instincts, seeing his joy at being back at Maes Caradoc, I can begin to understand those parts of me, which before had no apparent source.
As I spend my days here, walking, cooking simple suppers, sitting and reading until I notice it’s grown late, I think of my father, coming here as he did with his university friends. I see them gathered around the coal fire in cotton polar necks – even the Prussian blue of my dad’s, the string he has dangling down the side of his face to keep his glasses secure. He would have been a young man then – daring, athletic – later, dragging his family along with him on his adventures.
This is my second memory – that slate, bursting up out of the mist. It is a mountaintop. Slabs of dark grey rock, forced upwards from the earth. There is a small semicircular shelter, built of the same stone. I sit there with my dad. We have come up through the fog and are above it now, so that we can see clearly about us. My mother and brother wait below. They hadn’t wanted to come any further when we touched the mist and it began to travel along our arms and engulf us. I am sorry that they didn’t know it would be clear up here.
That night, we arrive at the cottage and meet the others. This is the night I go out into the darkness.
Seeing now, the sheep that roam the surrounding mountains, I suspect this was the presence I felt in the night’s black. I didn’t have a torch, but there was a light shining. The cool air was damp – it had darkened the slate path beneath my feet. I felt excitement, being outside at night, having to make my way in this outdoors to reach the toilet; I felt the sense of adventure.
Is this an adventure I’m on now? What it feels like is an act of survival. I’m not like Caractacus, trying to stay alive, but there is an element of endurance involved, compared to the modern world. I am alone, and each day is a struggle on my bike. The track out of here is steep and the altitude makes it hard to breath. The sheep like to dash across the road in front of me. It’s strange to see sheep dash. I expect them to fall over at any moment – everything seems so out of balance, out of proportion: their big fluffy, wobbly figures, and these little pegs, sticking out beneath. But now I’ve seen one leap over a river, I know them far more capable than their ungainly bodies suggest.
The elements are strong, wild. The rain has a sting to it, heavy as if falls with the wind behind it. Often the track is flooded. Though, these are not the inert puddles of the city after a rainstorm, waiting for the sun, or a car to disperse them. Here, the water is in perpetual motion, descending from the hills above. It plunges down steep slate drops, white and powerful, crashing – throwing itself back up again, but always falling back down, habitually, continually, and running on.
I think of Caractacus, hiding here amongst the pines. There would have been little light. Even now, with very few trees, the light is limited. Cloud keeps the sun hidden. Often, I look up and have no idea where it may be. The mountains too, create a sense of being in great shadow. They are the masters here, the great survivors of time – how small they make me feel.
My parents live in a valley, but it is like a little shrunken jumper compared to this. My cottage sits in a vast basin, mountains all around. It is almost as though I am in an enormous, long dormant volcano, something huge and quite beyond belief. When the sun does find a way through the cloud to rest a fingerprint on the slate and grass around me, I am silenced. For in that moment, I see even the sun put in its place, hardly able to light a fraction of these great edifices.
There is also the isolation. How loud and repetitive thoughts can be in the silence. They are like children, clamouring for attention. But listen to them, give them your time, comfort them, and they begin to quieten down, content. This is when the earth starts to speak: the real silence – healing silence – where the body can be at its own pace, moving like an animal without premeditation or concern, just the draw of the world, spinning on its axis and day turning to night. Then I am Caractacus as I lay my head down and know not what of tomorrow, only what the moon speaks now.
I’m glad I came. Through the land’s epic shapes – its shadows and precipices, gullies and curves – I can feel the history of the earth and how it was formed: ice and wind, but most of all time – a vast length of time, which I can only make an attempt at fathoming. It makes me rich with life to be so small amongst these mountains: it is a feeling of privilege, that, in a place so big, I came to exist at all.
Now, this place is peopled – but man is in the minority still, just a tiny scattering of dwellings in this Meadow of Caractacus, layering life on life. It is a meadow of memories too, both mine and those that lie within the earth, all these great secrets of how everything came to be, and will be again, I am honoured.