Monthly Archives: July 2019

07/08/2019: Cofiwch Gwmcerwyn


The stone viewed through the foliage from Pont Mynachlogddu

“Cofiwch Gwmcerwyn” or “Y Carreg Cofiwch Gwmcerwyn” (English: “The Remember Cwmcerwyn Stone”) is a painted boulder in Landskeria, Mynachlogddu, Wales.

When I first saw the stone I had the feeling that it ought to be painted. It was flat and shaped like a canvas. I had quite recently painted the Arms of Landskeria on the side of our old house in Walton East (or Old Landskeria, which we are, at the time of writing, still trying to sell) and had thus developed a taste for introducing incongruity into rural environs via the medium of mural. This rock offered a different prospect. It was visible from the road, as was the side of Tynewydd; but it was farther away, and therefore not conducive to displaying anything especially complex or detailed. 

Quite soon after moving in to the house in whose garden the stone sat, the shape of it reminded me of the Cofiwch Dryweryn wall beside the A487, one of my favourite roads. For those who don’t know, and haven’t clicked the link, “Cofiwch Dryweryn” means “Remember Tryweryn” and refers to the callous flooding of the village of Capel Celyn in the 1960s to build a reservoir to provide Liverpool and the Wirral with water for industry. Twelve houses were submerged and 48 people lost their homes, despite protests. Liverpool City Council issued a formal apology in 2005, 40 years after the reservoir opened. 

“Due to its prominent location, stark message, and history of repeated vandalism, the wall has become an unofficial landmark of Wales.”

— from Wikipedia

I have a dim memory of the wall’s existence from my time growing up in North Wales, but never saw it until I moved to Pembrokeshire and used to drive the A487 to get to and from North Wales. I have been interested in public art, protest, and nationalism for as long as I can remember; so the combination of these three factors means that I always read the (pretty regular) news stories about the graffiti being vandalized and repainted with interest. I like them. I like the vandalizing, and I like the repainting. The vandalizing shows new minds engaging with the old: the need for renewal, reinvention, and reassessment; and the repainting shows the importance of tradition, and maintenance, and graft. The opposing forces of revolution and continuity in harmony, sort of.

Last year when somebody destroyed the wall I felt sad, and quite annoyed. This was not engaging. Changing the “Cofiwch” (Remember) to “Anghofiwch” (Forget) felt like a genuine political statement; a provocation, and part of the cultural conversation, whether or not you agreed with it. Writing “Elvis” over the top was mildly amusing. Especially to someone who lives in the Preselis, where some creative etymologists claim Elvis Presley’s family originally hailed from. But destroying the wall? I wasn’t happy about that. It had echoes of the iconoclasm of the Islamic State: an attempt to erase history. And it seemed to reflect especially poorly on our culture at a time when some typically unexciting Banksy mural (each to their own, etc.) was being protected by perspex in Port Talbot, and awaiting relocation to a “street art museum” at great expense to someone or other with more money than taste.

The ensuing reproduction of the “Cofiwch Dryweryn” graffiti around Wales has been interesting to watch. But also a little worrying. I worried as a child that Welsh nationalism was a personal threat to me and my family, in that it was very anti-English. Like many people without deep roots worldwide, I was frequently told to go back to where I came from; although people weren’t always clear whether that was England or Poland. As an English child (with a Polish surname) growing up in Wales, I was subjected to almost as much anti-English animosity as I was subsequently to be subjected to anti-Welsh animosity when I moved to England at the age of 14, and the children in my new school would accept none of my claims that I was, in fact, English, just like them. Had I been aware of such a thing as a British identity, I might have been keen to embrace it: but it never really reached the rural areas.

Welsh nationalism isn’t as focally anti-English nowadays; not in the mainstream anyway. But, in my view, the reduction of the Cofiwch Dryweryn wall to a meme, being parroted up and down the land, risks dragging Wales’s political awareness back by half a century into an environment which, while not wholly alien, is unhelpful in equipping Wales to respond to its current circumstances. And it risks characterising Wales (or even caricaturing it) as primarily a victim of English dominance; when Wales (unlike the once Brythonic now wholly decymricized regions of Cumberland, Lancashire, Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, Strathchlyde, etc.) is remarkable more by its survival against the odds than by its subjugation, victimhood, or late-medieval-era annexation by a more militarily powerful neighbouring state. I also think the reproduction of the graffiti (and the commercialization of it on mugs, T-shirts, flags, etc.) risks focusing attention too intently on one aspect of the very recent past, and in doing so selling Wales short, culturally, politically, and historically. Tryweryn should be remembered for what it was; but it should not become the dominant national story of modern Wales. Wales is a country whose customs and traditions (not to mention its language) stretch back way beyond the reach of written records. And yet so much of what is considered “Welsh” is now limited by the political environment to the past hundred or so years: the period of national resurgence, yes; but also a period in which the Welsh culture and language has been transformed and eroded—by Anglicization in part, certainly; but moreover (and in common with many regions, nations, and peoples, worldwide) by the economic factors accompanying globalization.

To summarize, I have mixed feelings about Cofiwch Dryweryn. Despite having enjoyed the fluid nature of the monument, I now feel it should probably be protected and thus frozen in time or pickled in aspic in one “agreed” state. Interestingly, it’s claimed the very first daubing by Meic Stephens was “Cofiwch Tryweryn”—without a mutated T>D, and thus grammatically incorrect—and therefore that the original has never been wholly faithfully reproduced. The recent reproductions I’m less keen on for the reasons (or feelings) listed above; though I understand the urge to spread the word, I think that the echo rings hollow, and that the mass reproductions can never match the weight of the original, and may even serve to diminish it. With all of this in mind, I considered the options for my own canvas. I wanted to paint something which spoke to the original monument, and to the act of remembering; but which also aimed to subvert both somehow, and convey something new or at least different.

I went through many ideas over the two years I’ve lived here; and especially since scrubbing the moss off the west face of the stone last summer, in anticipation of painting it this year. One idea I gave serious consideration to was to paint “Cofiwch Lys y Fran”; Llys y Fran is our nearest reservoir. I used to live even nearer to it. That part of the Syfynwy valley was flooded in the ’60s to provide water for Milford Haven, which is also in Wales. As far as I have been able to deduce, nobody was displaced or forced to leave their home. A newspaper clipping from the time said the reservoir was to be a “sporting paradise”, and following a recent refurbishment that promise might finally be kept. Perhaps it could be argued that remembering things being done properly—the unexciting reality of the majority of governmental administration in our relatively stable and functional society—is as useful as remembering largely atypical injustices. But I thought better of this; it didn’t seem serious enough. Just a parody; and I don’t aim to deal in parodies. Furthermore, were I to parody the most sacred monument to Welsh nationalism I might incur the wrath of Welsh nationalists; which is never my intention, although it often happens anyway.

So I eventually arrived at Cofiwch Gwmcerwyn. And I resisted the urge not to mutate the C into a G; although the urge was strong from both an alliterative and a historical point of view.

Why Cwmcerwyn?

Foel Cwmcerwyn is the highest peak of the Preselis, and thus the highest point in Pembrokeshire. Most people around here know that, but relatively few seem to know that it takes its name from the valley (cwm) to its east, in Mynachlogddu parish; or that until the Second World War there was a farmhouse in that valley—one of the oldest houses in the area—which was also called Cwm Cerwyn. There is some confusion in that a house called Cwm Garw still stands in that valley—the last of the many farmhouses that once graced those slopes: Cwm Cerwyn, Tynewydd, Bwlch Giden, Waun Clyn Coch, Cnwc Rhydd…

It’s feasible that the name Cwm Cerwn referred to the western side of the valley and Cwm Garw to the east. But I once read (and I can’t remember where, but I suspect it was in some of George Owen’s writings) that Cwm Garw was an “alternative” name for the same valley, following a not-uncommon pattern in the area of multiple names for the same geographical feature: garw either meaning “rugged” or more likely being mutated from “carw” meaning stag or deer; while “cerwyn” means barrel, tub, mash-tun, or even whiskey still—but it’s also a Welsh given name, if capitalized. Certainly the name Cwm Cerwyn appears much earlier in available records than the surviving Cwm Garw, and before the latter had that name it was called Tre’r Ap (signifying an abbot’s manor or estate within the wider area which was all owned by the abbey at St Dogmaels). I believe it was also known at one point as Cwmcerwyn Isaf (Lower Cwmcerwyn). But the many old spellings of Cwm Cerwyn blur the lines between stag and still. I’ve seen it rendered as Coomkerwyn, Kome Kerwyn, Kombkaro, and Come Kerw, among numerous others. In the oldest source I’ve read first-hand (a deed from 1611) it’s spelled incongruously as Komberwin; but I’m pretty sure this is a mistake, since the more familiar-looking spelling Come Kerwyn is reported almost 100 years earlier. A book I read in Haverfordwest library claimed that the cwm was marked on a 14th century map of the area by Someone-or-other Rees, but I’ve never personally seen the map.

As to the true origin of the name, in times past there were (apparently) stags to be found in the valley, and at the time of George Owen the area was mostly populated by Irish, many of whom made their living distilling whisky and selling it door-to-door across the county. So either carw or cerwyn might make sense in either respective context; but the name seems to pre-date Owen’s era (the early 1600s) by at least a few centuries, and maybe more; so perhaps it’s impossible to know what it once meant. Since the word “cerwyn” can also denote an open tub it seems a good bet that the name began as a descriptive term for the bowl-like shape of the valley. (My own daughters called it “the bowl” before they knew its real name.)

The river that rises on the eastern slopes of Foel Cwmcerwyn and flows past our house, beside the rock that I painted, is now called Afon Wern; but as recently as 1600 it was called either Clydach Australis (the southern Clydach; to differentiate it from two identically named rivers in the Preseli region) or Kombkaro / Cwm Cerwyn. Clydach / Cladach / Clydagh is a word more often seen in Irish than Welsh, which means “stony shore” or something similar. That the valley of origin (or even the significant farm in the area) might have lent its name to the river, at least for some locals, seems entirely possible; the modern name Wern could as easily be derived from the surviving Wern farm (halfway between Cwmcerwyn and our own house) as from the word gwern, meaning either marshland or alder trees; both of which are also to be found in the area.

So, besides being synonymous with “Preseli Top” or the highest peak in the Preseli range, “Cwmcerwyn” was also a valley with a history stretching back into Arthurian mythology—the alleged site where King Arthur’s men were felled by a rampaging boar called the Twrch Trwyth, and two of his sons were either turned to stone or commemorated by the erection of two megaliths near the track to Cwm Garw farmhouse. “Cwmcerwyn” was also one of Pembrokeshire’s highest rivers, forming the entire western boundary of Mynachlogddu parish (formerly the “Nigra Grangia” of St Dogmael’s abbey, prior to the Dissolution). And “Cwmcerwyn” was one of the important early manor houses in the area (along with Dolaumaen, Dyffryn Ffilbro, Llandre, Blaencleddau, Plasdwbl, etc.); reduced by the early 20th century to the status of just another farmhouse, it was vacant at the time of the Second World War, when it was tragically and somewhat incomprehensibly to be used for target practice by Allied bombers, and utterly destroyed.

Cwmcerwyn was all of this and more. Cwmcerwyn is thus well worth remembering; even if what we remember, as people who were not there, is often that we do not know quite what we are meant to be remembering. To me this message speaks of matriotism over patriotism or society over state; of the importance of local history in informing us about the real significance of grander historical narratives and global events when translated to a local societal scale: like the dissolution of the monasteries changing the pattern of land-ownership and land-use; or the Second World War precipitating irreversible societal shifts, and leaving unexpected scars on the landscape, even far from the field of conflict. The message also speaks to me of the importance of remembering; but also, perhaps, of the inevitability of forgetting: of the great significance of small things, and, paradoxically, the ultimate insignificance of even the greatest events in human history. That history is complex, and full of intrigue; but rarely offers simple comforting truths.

This is what it means to me; but it may mean something completely different to you. Or, indeed, it may mean nothing at all.

I.M. Ffermdy Cwm Cerwyn, approx: 1344–1944.

The stone having just been painted.

A Velky, 2019.