I have found neither the time nor the incentive to publish a conventional diary entry here for the better part of a year, and found when I began collating research on an old house in the parish last week that I hadn’t done that either for six months (and that my subscription to the necessary genealogy website had thus expired). I doubt I’ll return to the former any time soon, due to there being so many more things to do about the place than hours left in the day in which to record what has and hasn’t been done; but I plan to return to the latter when I have money to renew my subscription, as I’ve paid visits to a few abandoned houses since September and would like to report my findings. What follows is a brief snapshot of our current situation which I put together for a local newsletter which was looking to fill pages. I have no idea if they will use it, but here it is anyway:
Like many people, I’ve found my usual routines interrupted this spring. The ongoing threat of an unforeseen global pandemic has quite suddenly reduced life and society to their essentials. Schools are closed to all but the children of “key workers”; “non-essential” shops have been ordered to cease trading; and even those of us showing no symptoms have been ordered to remain indoors to help prevent the spread of the virus, and to try to reduce the very real risk to others.
The jarring halt in so much human activity has not, of course, extended to the turning of the seasons, nor to the cycles of nature. Birds are building nests, buds are unfurling into leaves and flowers, and glorious sunlight is reaching places where shadows have slept uninterrupted for many months. Those of us with ready access to outdoor space, either privately owned or otherwise unlikely to be found thronging with people, are even more acutely aware of our privilege than usual.
And since the manner in which I generate my income is not deemed essential to society (a point on which I happen to agree) I have the double-blessing this spring of being given the opportunity to share the season of rebirth with my young daughters: they are dismayed to discover that in addition to being their father, I am now their teacher. Fortunately, we are not completely confined to the classroom: lockdowns notwithstanding, there is ample opportunity to enjoy spring in Mynachlogddu without any serious risk of coming within 2 metres (or sometimes, so it seems, 2 miles) of another human being. So I have been re-introducing my 6- and 8-year-old children to the joys of tramping around fields looking for standing stones, burial-chambers, and the ruins of old farmhouses.
Just a stone’s throw from the mountain road that runs from Bethel chapel to Pentre Galar is the site of Pantau-Duon; one of an alarming number of abandoned farmhouses in this area, whose name translates roughly as “Dark Hollows” – or, more ominously and perhaps less likely, “Black Depressions”. Though I knew the location from an old OS map, and some of the previous inhabitants from the censuses, I had assumed there was nothing left of it; so I’m sure you can appreciate that upon seeing the towering grey walls appearing from among the brambles we felt like Howard Carter uncovering the tomb of Tutankhamun.
Collecting information about these old farmhouses has become a hobby of mine; one of many which the children, and my wife, are understandably somewhat dubious about. Nowadays I pinpoint my targets in advance. But it occurred to me several days later that this had not always been the case; indeed, I was reminded of the origin of this particular pursuit as I sat eating a boiled egg in the churchyard of the (currently closed) St Dogmael’s church in Mynachlogddu, where my children and I were conducting a biodiversity survey (AKA “a bug hunt”) to pass the afternoon. I was idly removing some lichen from the lettering of a gravestone when I noticed the word I was revealing was unusual, for a Welsh word, in including the letter K. It was “Danperky”. Danperky (probably “Dan-Perci” in modern Welsh orthography) was a labourer’s cottage on the land of Dyffryn Ffilbro, adjoining Gors Fawr common, not a mile northwest of our church. The house has been empty for a century and a half, and there’s little left now but the remnant stones of a cottage garden wall, among close-cropped grass, blackthorn bushes, and sheep skulls.
We can’t know exactly how long ago the house was built, but census records tell us that Edward and Ann John, both born in the late 18th century, lived in Danperci between 1841 and 1861. They named their children William and Mary; the latter was still living there in ’61, the last time the house appears as inhabited on a census record. William had left by ’51, to pursue his own life somewhere nearby, I had assumed – though I was unable to trace him. And where William was in 1851 may forever remain a mystery; but by 1852 it transpires, at the age of just 23, he was dead. That’s what the gravestone was telling me; and might have told me any other time I’d visited the churchyard, if I’d cared to ask it.
I wouldn’t say this came as a surprise as such. It would have been far more surprising to discover that William John was alive and well, and about to celebrate his 191st birthday. But names mysteriously disappearing from census records is one thing; being confronted with the cold hard reality of life’s limits is another. And a tragedy 170 years distant, befalling complete strangers whose descendants, even, are unknown to me, is still a tragedy. I make a note to remember this when I am next told by the BBC how many people have died of Coronavirus in Italy today. It was Joseph Stalin who allegedly said “if only one man dies … that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics.” There is an unpleasant truth to this, but I like to juxtapose it with John Donne’s thoughts on the matter: “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.”
We may feel slightly less involved in mankind than usual this spring. But we remain a part of the greater whole for the duration of our time on Earth, however long we may be lucky enough to have. Part of mankind, but also part of the universe, existence, creation – whatever you want to call it: the tragedy, yes, but the comedy, the history, and the mystery too.
A Velky, Mynachlogddu, 30 March, 2020