Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Dark valleys, sunny cliffs; Rhossili and Worm's Head

I'm in South Wales, and two days ago attended my aunt's birthday lunch, as part of the family. It was her 90th birthday. And it was a lovely sunny day.

Yesterday was free, so I headed up through the Valleys, eventually taking the A4048 towards Tredegar. When I lived in South Wales as a child, it was on the coast, at Barry, and I saw very little of the grimness and griminess of the Valleys, which were then still heavily involved with coal mining. What I did see was memorable for its drabness. It seemed to be (to my child's mind, used to sunny beaches and beautiful parks) a gloomy, rainy, dirty and depressing world, all closed in; narrow bumpy roads, endless rows of plain terraced houses, schools and chapels with rusty railings, and tired little corner shops, all black with coal dust; railway tracks everywhere, and no flowers, nothing green at all.

How changed now! The blackening hand of the coal industry had long gone. Everywhere was green with trees, and much was hidden behind them. Colour had returned. Fast roads surged up valleys full of new supermarkets and offices. At Blackwood a futuristic suspension bridge took the Tredegar road over a gorge - I think it was called the Chartist Bridge - suggesting regeneration and new vigour in the Valleys. Landscaping everywhere: no sign of the old pits and their slag heaps.

It was impossible to say from appearances whether life in the Valleys was on the up. I suspected not. The topography - long, snaking valleys parallel but mostly separate from each other - still made travel difficult, unless you wanted to go to Cardiff or Newport. And the old houses remained, tarted up, but still recognisably those tiny old-fashioned, inconvenient miners' homes that used to look out onto the local pit or railway yard, and once knew the desperation of layings-off, strikes, and now and then pit accidents. The accident I remember best was Aberfan, in 1966, after we had left Wales and moved to Southampton. A gigantic slag heap (spoil heap?) made unstable by rain, suddenly slid downhill into the village. It engulfed and killed over 140 people, many of them little schoolchidren. It was horrific, even from the safety of Hampshire. We were not so used to disasters then.

The sun really came out when I reached Tredegar, so I changed my plans for the day, and decided to treat Fiona to the Gower. We dashed down the A465 to Neath, through Swansea, and on to Rhossili.

Once parked there (£3.00 all day - compare that to just two hours in Brighton) I sat in the back of Fiona with the hatch lid up, lunched off tongue, olives and sun-dried tomatoes, then walked to Worm's Head, a mile to the west.

The sea was a deep blue with lazy surf, the high rocky cliffs were majestic, the breeze was refreshing. The tide was going out, but the elongated Worm was still an island. Access wouldn't be possible till 5:00pm. I lay back on the high cliff, and let the sun kiss me.

I was last here in April 2009, on a similar sunny day, but with M---. My transition had begun in earnest. I was on hormones, but appearancewise I'd hardly altered except for longer hair and slightly androgenous clothing. I was actually making a special effort, for M---'s sake, to avoid obvious girliness. It was bearable, though a compromise I did not like making. Just as yesterday, we had a nice lunch and a sunsoaked walk to the Worm - and onto it - that should have uplifted the spirits. But all the time M--- must have been sick at heart, full of apprehension at what lay ahead for us. I was very conscious of her edginess. And no amount of sunshine, stunning views, ice cream and (later on) a fantastic sunset, could make her pain - and my pain at seeing her like this - bearable.

And here we are, two years on, with the Cottage - our last tangible connection - almost gone. We are still speaking, but it's a standoff, a fragile thing. Can anything now be revived? Or remade? Or freshly added? There seems to be nowhere to go. The old relationship has gone. No new relationship is in sight. But neither of us are really free. Nor want to be, on my side at least.

What will happen in the time ahead?

Will I return to Rhossili in 2013 with nothing changed?

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