The Welsh were worshipping water before the Romans arrived, and long before Saint David was nicknamed ‘Aquitinus’ for his fondness for showering in waterfalls. What was this world which was only inhabitable for seconds before it killed you, but which was vital to all life? What force lay within it, dispensing death and life with either hand?
The fascination is hardly surprising given the amount which fell from the sky, and the number of rivers it drove to the sea. And the beautiful, dangerous mystery of the valleys it carved.
They continued to worship it when they needed to root their new religious identity in the landscape, and when the rivers exposed the coal and iron which then industrialised the valleys, and burned and blackened them, and sent the people underground. More than ever they turned to the purifying magic of water for comfort and music. The language itself seems to mimic the sound of a stream in spring. A giver of life.
The baptismal pool above was built by Adulam, one of the oldest baptist chapels on record, starting life in 1660 as the barely legal Capel Newydd.
I only remember one ceremony. And at nine or ten I wasn’t especially interested. But it nevertheless made a strong impression. The bridge was crowded with the Adulam congregation and passers by. And on the bank, they sat on benches made of railway sleepers, all dressed in their Sunday best. The sluice gate had been closed the day before to provide enough water for the immersion, but not long enough to allow the eels to gather. The Lliedi had lots of eels. Eels must be another pagan symbol of something, surely?
The minister spoke the service, with the supplicant ready and respectful. When finished, he and his assistant gently lowered her under the rather dirty water, and up again, but not too quickly. The congregation, as I remember, then burst into one of my favourite hymns. ‘Gwyhoeddiad’, better known as ‘Mi Glywaf Dyner Lais’. ‘Wash me in the blood that flows from Calvary.’
I didn’t know it then, but I was watching an exact metaphor of the working lives of much of South Wales. I was watching the tempering or quenching of the hot, adolescent steel, transforming it from a dangerous, unmanageable spirit into a malleable, useful member of society. A brand plucked from the burning and forged into a weapon for Christian war, or a tool for Christian industry.
The Felinfoel pool is under the bridge, almost equal distances from the nearest mine, forge, quarry, watermill, brewery, rugby pitch, baptist chapel, with the Co-op across the road. Just how much Welsh symbolism can one stretch of water bear?
My mother tells the story of how they had to break the ice when she was baptised. When she died, we naturally offered her ashes to the river. Only months before the ceremony above, the minister performing a baptism had died while at his work. The miners and steelworkers of south Wales were not the only victims of industrial accidents.
But in spite, or because of the pain, the poetry of welsh water is always there. Not least in Revered Eli Jenkins anthem to Welsh grandeur and beauty:
‘By Sawdde, Senny, Dovey, Dee,
Edw, Eden, Aled, all,
Taff and Towy broad and free,
Llyfnant with its waterfall,
Claerwen, Cleddau, Dulais, Daw,
Ely, Gwili, Ogwr, Nedd,
Small is our River Dewi, Lord,
A baby on a rushy bed…’