A few months ago when I interviewed my Grandmother about her childhood, she talked about the mountain around which she’d grown up in the village of Hafodyrynys, South Wales, not far from Pontypool. Her words about this mountain, which is in fact more of a hill, were very moving, for it was on this hill she played as a child and where she would watch her father as he walked to work in the mine at Llanhilleth. Below is part of that conversation:
“I can see him now because he went up our garden over the road and the mountain started from there up… and he’d go so far up and he’d turn back and wave to us, and if we went out to play, our Mam would say, “you can go up the mountain to play…” but every now and then our Mam would come out in the garden and we had to wave to her to know that we were alright you know… always remember going up the mountain…”
One of my main objectives for visiting Hafodyrynys was to see this mountain and to walk from the back of my Grandmother’s old garden in Rectory Road, up the side of the mountain, and to turn and look down at the house, just as her father had done on his way to the mines, and as she had done when playing. Another objective was to visit the graveyard in which a number of my ancestors are buried. Among those I wanted to find were:
Elias Jones (1882-1929)
Mary Jane Rogers (1887-1969)
Henry Jones (1839-1889)
Rachel Jones (1853-1916)
Mary Carey (1843-1869)
First wife of Henry Jones
George Rogers (1864-1944)
Mary Ann Rogers (1864-1941)
As well as being places where one can remember the dead, graves are also important evidence for the genealogist, and as I was to find out in the churchyard at Cefn-y-Crib (a small village between Hafodyrynys and Pantygasseg), the graves of my ancestors both confirmed my research as regards certain individuals, and opened up a new avenue of investigation, which, given my interest in World War One battlefields was to prove particularly interesting.
After visiting the ruins of Raglan Castle, we made our way towards Hafodyrynys and having taken a back road came first to Pantygasseg, a village I knew through my research as being the place where my Great-Uncle amongst many others had worked as a miner. Looking at the census records for the area, almost every man was employed in the mines. The village (which is no more than a single street with houses on one side) also interested me as regards the meaning behind its name, which in Welsh means, ‘hollow in the mare’s back’. This description derives from the shape of the mountain as it appears on the horizon and having researched the theme of ‘distance’ some time ago for an art project, I found it interesting that the village got its name from how it was seen from afar. Pantygasseg is so named through its being a part of (or identified with) the distance.
Standing in Pantygasseg and looking at the surrounding hills therefore, I got the sensation that I had become a part of that distance, or that I was at least closer to it than I had ever been. I was reminded at this point of a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke’s ‘The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge’ where he writes:
“Is it possible that one believed it necessary to retrieve what happened before one was born? Is it possible that one would have to remind every individual that he is indeed sprung from all who have gone before, has known this therefore and should not let himself be persuaded by others who knew otherwise?”
In Pantygasseg, I was indeed ‘retrieving’ the past and reminding myself that I was not only sprung from all who have gone before, but that I was also sprung from this very place.
Just a few minutes down the narrow road from Pantygasseg, we arrived at the churchyard in Cefn-y-Crib (looking through a Welsh dictionary, I’ve tried to get an idea as to what it might mean, and ‘back of the ridge’ is my best guess thus far). According to my Grandmother , the Cefn was regarded (at least by her mother) as a rather rough place, but it was here that a number of my ancestors were buried in the small churchyard of the ‘Cappel Yr Ynys,’ a Congregational Church built according to the plaque above the door in 1832 (I’ve since discovered that a number of my ancestors also lived here).
It was also to this church that my Grandmother came as a child and so for many reasons it was quite an emotional visit for me and my Dad, who, at each stage of the journey (which was indeed something akin to a pilgrimage) phoned my Grandmother to tell her where we were. The knowledge that we were standing at her parents’ graveside brought tears to her eyes and memories back which she could only know and there was something about this relaying of the journey back to her which was particularly engaging. I knew she’d be sitting in her chair back home and couldn’t help but imagine what she was thinking, what she was remembering about those places in which we were now standing of which I at least had no memory; it was as if we were walking within her memories.
My Grandmother had given us some flowers to put on the grave of her parents, and this, along with the grave of her mother’s parents were the only ones for sure that we knew of.
I’d been struggling to find the date of my Great-Grandfather’s (Elias Jones’) death, but on the side of the grave he shares with his wife, I found it; September 2nd 1929. He was just 47 years of age and died as a result of the coal-dust he breathed in through his work in the mines. With the Rogers’ grave, I had the dates already, but it was poignant to stand next to them (just as it was with all the graves) and realise that the grave marked the end of the path of their lives; a path around this area and it surrounds, which if it had been any different at all would have meant my not being here. I could only stand there by their being in the first place; my coming into being had not only been shaped by them, but also by the shape of the landscape itself, that of which I was now a part.
The next grave Monika found was that of my great great-grandfather, Henry Jones who died in 1889. Looking at the age at which he died and the date of birth I had for him in my family tree, I was relieved that I had indeed got the right man and below his name was – as expected – the name of his second wife – my great great-Grandmother Rachel, who died in 1916. But according to my research he’d been married before, to – if I was correct – Mary Carey, who’d died in 1869 aged 26.
I looked around the graveyard for her grave but found nothing, and it wasn’t until we arrived home later and, again with the help of a Welsh dictionary, translated a few of the words on Henry and Rachel Jones’ grave, that we realised this stone had initially been cut for his first wife Mary. The words ‘Mari. Gwraig [wife] of Henry Jones,’ can be seen at the top along with the date of death (1869) and the age 27 (I’ve since adjusted her date of birth by one year). Also, listed below Mary, is a daughter, Lydia, who died in 1873 at the age of just 4 years. This would put her date of birth at around 1869, the same year as Jacob and the same year as Mary’s death; could it be that Jacob and Lydia were twins and that Mary died in childbirth?
The next gravestone which was to prove particularly interesting was one which began:
“In loving memory of William George, son of George and Mary Ann Rogers, of Hafodyrynys, Died Sep. 3rd 1897, Aged 10 years.”
George and Mary Ann Rogers are my great great-grandparents. I hadn’t got William George listed amongst their children, but I had got the man named beneath, Jonah Rogers. I knew that he had been killed in the First World War, but was intrigued to find on the grave his rank and his regiment as well as the date and location of his death. Again, once home, I looked up his details on the website of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and found that he’d been killed in Ypres and that his name was on the Menin Gate, places which Monika and I had visited last year and my Dad the year before. Not only that, but given the date of his death, I could trace him to the Battle of Frezenberg Ridge (8th – 13th May 1915), part of the Second Battle of Ypres.
The man below, George, I also had listed. Ruth Hall, who is listed at the bottom of the gravestone I’m
assuming is my great great-aunt Ruth Rogers, the daughter of George and Mary Ann who was born in 1890 and died on April 5th 1925 aged 35 years.
Working on one’s family tree, one is of course deluged with lists of names of both people and places, and it’s only when you stand at the graves of those you have found in the surrounds they knew so well in life, that you can begin to make a real connection, and this connection, in this small churchyard was extremely powerful.
May 1st, the day of our visit, was election day and the annexe attached to the church was being used as a polling station. Having asked whether we might be allowed a look inside the church we were told we’d be welcome to pay a quick visit, and as we stood inside the small chapel, it felt strange to think that as a child my Grandmother had once sat in the pews facing where we were standing. Perhaps all of my forebears buried in the churchyard had once occupied these pews; given the date of the church’s foundation it didn’t seem unlikely. The bible which rested next to the pulpit looked as if it might have been there since that time, and I couldn’t help but imagine the minister reading from its pages as my ancestors listened.
Having left the churchyard, we made our way down into Hafodyrynys, admiring as we drove the scenery and the trees which lined the road. There was something about the trees which particularly fascinated me, they didn’t seem to grow so much as writhe, twisting around themselves, confounding themselves with the fact of their own existence.
Once in Hafodyrynys, we parked the car and made our way towards Rectory Road, the street in which my Grandmother was born, and of which she’d spoken so fondly when we talked a while ago. Having stopped to ask a resident where we might find it (a man who said he knew my Grandmother) we eventually found the rather nondescript row of houses which looked to me as if they’d seen better days.
It wasn’t that they were neglected in anyway, but with satellite dishes on almost everyone, they seemed to all recall simpler times. Perhaps that was as much to do with what I recalled my Grandmother telling me, about how she would play on the ‘mountain’ behind her garden and how her father had walked over it on his way to work in Llanhilleth.
Having found the house in which she’d been born, we walked up an alleyway just a few doors down and made our way to the mountain. I wanted to walk up it and look back down on her garden, imagining my great-grandfather, looking down on his family and my Grandmother looking and waving at her mother as she played. And having walked to the top I did just that, taking in the view of the beautiful countryside, taking in the shape of the landscape which had in the way it shaped the paths of my ancestors served in part to bring about my own ‘coming into being’.
I also reflected on Jonah Rogers, my great great-uncle, and thought about the misery he’d endured in Ypres and the horrors he must had seen, contrasting them with the view from the mountain, the view he must have known so well and dreamt about in all the mud and nightmare of Flanders. Having been in Ypres last year and now standing in Hafodyrynys, I couldn’t help but feel I had fulfilled a dream of his, to leave Ypres and see his home again.
Having followed the directions of a man we’d met on the side of the mountain, we found ourselves not so much lost, as uncertain of where we should be heading. We walked through the second of two gates on a farm which we’d been told to pass through and found ourselves suddenly in the company of a very young border-collie who came bounding down to meet us before heading off again in the direction of the farmer who was at that point having a rest somewhere up a track which rose to our right.
Unsure as to whether we should take this track or that straight ahead of us, we too made our way up to the farmer who proceeded to take us on a tour of his farm. And so, in the company of him and his two dogs, we saw his fields, his sheep and were given some historical and geographical information pertaining to the area which lay all around us. It was as if for a few moments he were the voice young Jonah’s consciousness, recalling to himself all the familiar place names as he sat amongst those that were unfamiliar, colouring in the lush green fields where he could see only mud, and remembering the trees where in his nightmare all the trees had been gunned down, like soldiers shot at dawn.
In amongst the hills and the patchwork of fields, the farmer told us the names of the various hamlets and villages; Penwaen, Pen-Twyn, Glandwr, but the most interesting thing for me (even more than the fact a walking stick made from a Holly Tree will make your hand turn black) was the stile which the farmer told us had not changed in his lifetime. It might not sound an exceptional fact, but it was interesting in that to me, looking at it for the first time, it was just an old, ramshackle stile, but for the farmer it was an abundant source of memories; memories one assumes about people he recalls from his childhood up to the present day, people who had since passed away, who once walked the road we were walking. It served to remind me of how the shape of the places in which we live serve to shape our lives as well as those who come after us, how the most insignificant thing in the world can harbour the most significant memories; and stiles of course help us on our way, it helps us cross a threshold – a theme which recently I have thought about a great deal.
Having left the farmer and made our way back to the car, we visited another of my Grandmother ‘s churches, one in which my great Grandmother Mary Ann Rogers was a preacher (she was also the town midwife). Following this we made our way home back to Oxford, following the footsteps of my Grandmother and her family, who followed her to Oxford in the 1930s, leaving the Valleys so her brother George would not have to work down the mines. From Pantygasseg, to Llanhilleth, even on the farmer’s land, there was abundant evidence of mining, and one was reminded of the strange duality inherent in this beautiful landscape; the threshold between light and dark, play and the harsh reality of hard, dangerous, often fatal work.
Back in Oxford I looked again at my family tree and though I can’t put faces to most of those at whose graves we’d stood that day, I can at least, and more importantly, put them in their landscape, and, furthermore, by walking in that landscape, put myself not only in their shoes, but somehow in their memories.