Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Rural Decay: 1

Over the winter, we spent some time discovering and studying a good many deserted dwellings in the Llanllyfni area, on that stretch of high ground to the east above Dyffryn Nantlle.  One of the first (and highest) we found was Maen-y-Gaseg, at the end of a long road on the slopes of Craig Cwm Silyn.

Most of the cottages hereabouts were lived in by quarrymen and their families who, to eke out their meagre wages, did a little farming as well after work. I wonder where they found the energy. There are a few similar ruins along the road to the Cwm, only identifiable by searching the 1890 maps. Maen-y-Gaseg at least had a gate with a name written on it.

The decline in crofting in these parts probably happened after the second world war, when the quarries stopped and council houses with bathrooms and proper kitchens became widely available. No doubt there are some who mourn the way of life, but to me, it seems a brutal and hard way to live. I know what I'm talking about, as I spent ten years on a hill farm in Scotland- even with the aid of tractors and central heating, it wasn't an easy life.

The views from the small windows of Maen-y-Gaseg are sublime but I can't imagine being completely receptive to the scenery when it was freezing cold and there were animals to feed before walking the four miles to work, then doing the same upon one's return. I'd like to think that the cottage was a cosy one- the way it's built into the lee of that massive rock tends to suggest that it might be a draughty spot. I also wonder about the person that built the place. Back in the sixties, I was told by an old lady that her father had built the house I was living in at the time, when he came back from the first world war. Perhaps Maen-y-Gaseg was also built by a quarryman, having been given, or claimed a parcel of land. Many if not all the stones are rounded, glacial rocks, although some bear mason's marks- perhaps by the quarryman himself. It's a far cry from "Grand designs", that's for sure, but at this remove from the reality of life in victorian times, it does seem a delightful spot.


Anonymous said...

Great stuff, Iain. I'm liking the selective focus of the peeling red wall.

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Graham. We've noted that red wall colour a couple of times in old ruins...perhaps it was in vogue in the seventies!

Anonymous said...

I see your point about romanticising the way of life there, although I do wonder if we've traded more of our freedom than we realise for comfort.

By the way, you called the place a 'croft': is that a term used in Wales?

Iain Robinson said...

Thanks, Andy. I agree, it's relative. Thinking about it, our house in Scotland didn't have central heating, but I don't remember it being awful- except for the frost patterns on the windows. I don't think the quarryman had much freedom though. He was in thrall to a quarry owner who could sack him at a moment's notice and if he was killed at work, would send his remains home in a sack on the back of a cart. He earned a pitiful wage and there were no sickness or state benefits. I think rather than trading our freedom for comfort, in this country at least, we've simply voted for the return of good old capitalism, rather like turkeys voting for an early christmas :-)
I used the term croft without thinking, there is a name for it in Welsh, which I will have to find out :-)

Paul B. said...

Frost patterns inside windows, reminds me of my youth in a Bedfordshire council house. No central heating, harder winters, and coal fires. Nothing compared to that cottage though, life must have been hard up there. Your photos are, as usual, superb. But somehow I always feel a little sad seeing an empty house, whether its on a hillside or in a city. A house loses its identity, its purpose, without anyone to occupy it.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you, Paul- I'm very pleased that you liked the photos. I agree with you, there is such a feeling of sadness about these ruins. I felt that too, about the loss of identity. The place seems blank without the signs of human everyday life about it.

Anonymous said...

Also living in a place like this must have been quite hard on the health, especially when worked to the bone and with a poor diet.

I sort of see the point about trading freedom for comfort and materialism but it would be a very hardy soul who would choose to live in a place like this. I just visited the Western Isles and was struck by how many more comfortable, efficient new builds there were when crofting cottages and older houses had been allowed to fall into ruin. I think that's what people choose when faced with building costs and hard climate.

Your ten years on a hill farm in Scotland sounds interesting! Great post as always.

Iain Robinson said...

Thank you very much, Alex. I noticed the same thing in Ireland, modern houses sitting right next to crofts, being allowed to go to ruin.

Yes, I think if you were able to make a living off the land without needing to work for "the man" then yes, it would be freedom. I imagine the quarryman coming home from work, doing a few chores and then collapsing in his bed. They would often work ten hours or more in the quarry, so there wasn't that much time at either end of the day. A lot of the burden fell on the quarryman's wife- often she would have to walk a good few miles for her supplies and of course they usually took in a lodger (another quarry worker) to help make ends meet. The parish registers for the area are a fascinating read and it's fun trying to entangle the stories behind the entries!

Those ten years on the farm were very happy ones, the happiest apart from moving to Wales ten years ago, so perhaps life wasn't so hard- or is it my rose-tinted specs :-)

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