Illustrations from Gwenda Lewis’ collection or from my collection as indicated
Extracts from Gwenda Lewis’ book
‘I Remember … My Life in Bwlchgwyn 1939-1943’
Taken from chapter 1, ‘Croeso i Gymru – Welcome to Wales’. Text (c) Gwenda Lewis 2005
The time: late July 1939. The place: a leafy suburb in North-West London.
I was six-and-half years old and I knew something was up – my parents’ whispered conversation, a sorting of possessions – and much worse, a strange man arriving to take my tabby cat Tinker away in a basket.
“Where is he going?” I demanded.
“He’s going to live with a nice family for a little while,” my father replied.
Tinker knew there was something up, too. He had hidden, trembling, at the back of the airing cupboard and it took several minutes to find him while the man with the basket waited impatiently downstairs.
“Why does he have to go?” I said, on the verge of tears.
“Because you, Mummy and David are going away for a long holiday and he can’t go, now can he?”
I watched sadly as the miaowing, spitting Tinker was crammed into the basket and was whisked away. I hoped he would return when we came home again.
The house in London in 1939 (Gwenda)
Then I was told that the promised holiday was to be in North Wales at the home of my mother’s first cousin Bronwen Harrison and her husband Stanley.
“You’ll meet your little cousin Margaret,” said my mother. “She’s 5 and you’ll have a lot of fun. We’re staying for the whole summer holiday.”
On the day of our departure my father took us to Paddington Station and installed us, our suitcase and a bag of egg sandwiches, on the Chester train and reluctantly bade us farewell. “I’ll come and see you soon,” he promised.
We had packed just enough clothes to last the summer and I was clutching my rubber doll, Mary, but there wasn’t enough room in the suitcase for my teddy bear so I had to leave him behind, which I was sad about because he was my comfort in times of trouble. Still, we were going on holiday so hopefully there wouldn’t be any trouble.
The journey took five hours, which seemed like an eternity to a little girl, but eventually we arrived in the town of Wrexham, Denbighshire. Waiting for us at the station was Uncle Stanley with his little black Standard 8 car. Somehow we all squeezed in, three passengers plus large suitcase, and we chugged our way up into the hills for about twenty minutes until we arrived in Bwlchgwyn, at 1100 feet the highest village in Wales and about seven miles northwest of Wrexham.
We were weary by the time we reached the house, which was called ‘Brythonfa’ but were warmly greeted by Aunty Bronwen who set about making us welcome with a cup of tea. Margaret and I eyed one another. She was a sturdy, confident little girl with olive skin and the darkest brown eyes you ever saw. What did she make of me, all skinny and nervous? I couldn’t tell, but happily, over the next few weeks we were to become the firmest of friends.
Brythonfa and cottages on Wesley Road, Bwlchgwyn (Hilary)
The following morning Margaret, in her lilting Welsh accent, asked me:
“You comin’ up the rec, then?”
“Where is it?” I asked.
“Just up the road.”
“Wreck?” I thought. “Shipwreck? How can there be a shipwreck up the road? We’re miles from the sea.
Puzzled, I agreed to go and see this strange thing. It was, of course, the local recreation ground. Silly me.
The long, fun-filled Summer days passed quickly, but in early September my mother told us we were not returning home to London because of something called a ‘war’. I do remember David trying to explain to me what a war was. He was 12 and understood these things.
It would seem our relatives had already agreed to share their home with us in the event of war breaking out. Now their hospitality was to be put to the test.
Back in London my father at first continued to live in our house, sending parcels to us of various things we were going to need, bearing i mind that Winter wasn’t far off. One parcel contained my beloved teddy bear and for me it was a joyful reunion, so in my childish script I wrote at once to thank him for it – and included a drawing of a cow and calf which I had seen in the steep field called ‘Cae Bonc’, which sloped away behind Brythonfa.
Up in Wales, the village which had now become our home was where my late grandfather, Ben Davies, had his first pastorate in 1888 and where he met and married my grandmother Mary Elizabeth. So Naturally it had a special place in my mother’s heart.
Nebo Chapel, Bwlchgwyn, the Congregationalist Chapel where Gwenda’s grandfather, Ben Davies, had his first pastorate in 1888. (Hilary)
Bwlchgwyn nestled into the side of a steep hillside. It was not a compact village and much of it was strung out along the main road to Ruthin. Before 1850 it was not a village at all, more a general area of countryside and common land, with farms and cottages scattered here and there. But by 1939 it boasted a fairly large number of homes, as many as 13 small shops, some in the tiny front rooms of the cottages, several pubs and chapels, an Anglican church, a Council School and of course, the recreation ground with swings, a seesaw and a ‘king’s crown’ roundabout.
To the east of Bwlchgwyn was the Nant y Ffrith valley, with its huge one-time hunting lodge. Nant y Ffrith Hall, and a little river with a waterfall, edged with steeply sloping pinewoods and clusters of hazel-nut trees. There was archaeological evidence of Roman occupation there and some said that a ghostly army of Roman soldiers marched through the valley late at night, although I never heard of anyone brave enough to put that legend to the test.
Rhododendrons at Nant-y-Ffrith woods (Hilary)
The local cottages, built of grey stone and roofed with North Wales slate, were very much part of the landscape, so much so that they seemed to have sprung from the very ground on which they stood. They were small and primitive and originally would have been lit by oil lamps and candles. Even in 1939 many had electricity downstairs only. There was a small number of relatively larger houses and a row of council houses well outside the main village, as was generally the case in England and Wakes at that time. Apart from the main road, which had only been tarmaced in, I would think, around the 1920s, narrow lanes edged with stone walls threaded through the village.
Stryt Maelor, Bwlchgwyn, an old Roman road, leading up to Wesley Road. (Hilary)
Brythonfa, where we were now to live, was a red-brick, double-fronted house on a steep and narrow lane called Wesley Road. The house overlooked a large sloping field which my aunt owned, and was quite imposing compared to many of the village homes, with a flight of steps leading up to the front door. From there we could see a panorama of fields, woods, mountains and, in the distance, the Cheshire Plain.
Attached to the house were two derelict stone cottages, built probably in the early 1800s and long ago condemned as unfit for human habitation. They still had their slate roofs more or less intact and tiny windows, thick with years of dust and grime, gazed out on the lane like sightless eyes. Once homes to families but now standing forlorn, with weeds and grasses growing high in the tiny gardens and almost obscuring the little front doors. Although they appeared beyond redemption they still had their uses, as I was to discover.
Brythonfa and the cottages on Wesley Road; Ruthin Road is marked by the hedge going across the bottom of the picture, Cae Bonc slopes upwards behind Brythonfa. (Hilary)
The back garden of Brythonfa, more a patch of overgrown land, sloped steeply up to a small whitewashed stone building. This housed one of the less attractive features of village life, the privy, or earth closet. It was known as the ‘ty bach’. which means ‘little house’. Inside was a large enclosed wooden seat over a shallow pit, with a round hole in the top upon which we had to perch. Small squares of newspaper hung from a nail in the wall. It was very unhygienic and, coming from our London home with modern facilities, David and I were aghast. But we had to get used to it; it was quite a trek to reach, it was freezing cold in Winter and smelled terrible in Summer.
However, the village closets had their uses. Their contents would be covered with soil or ash from the fire and later dug out to be used as fertiliser on the cottage gardens. This was not the case in Brythonfa as the steep garden was not cultivated, but gardens on the level were said to yield excellent crops of vegetables and rhubarb – fine as long as you didn’t think too much about what had nourished them, I suppose.