The Man Who Lived In A Haystack
2. Dai Blaen Nant – The Man Who Lived In A Haystack.
3. ‘We Come Along on Saturday Morning.’
5. ‘Dwr yn yr Afon, a’r Cerrig Yn Slip..’
6. Snow 1962/3
7. Felinfoel County Primary School
‘Clennig Clennig! Bore dydd y Calan.
Nawr mae’r amser i rhanni’r arian.
Blwyddyn Newydd Dda i chi.
Ac i Pawb sydd yn y Ty.
Dyna yw dymuniad i.
Blwyddyn newydd Dda i chi.’
I hope this piece of folklore can be rescued from the scrapheap.
After Penny for the Guy and carol singing another form of winter begging was the ‘clennig’ on New Year’s Day.
Arriving on a neighbour’s doorstep, and chanting this little spell was enough finance the boiled sugar habit of any little boy until the middle of February, if you were in the know, and set off early enough.
At the stroke of noon, the deal was off. And it was only us farmland yokels on the outskirts of the village who understood the rules and more importantly, had been apprenticed by our older sisters and cousins and their gaggle of friends.
By my last outing, at the age of about 10 or 11, I had no competition, and had the route to myself, which was very profitable, but a bit conspicuous. And I had to avoid the newcomers to the road who didn’t know our ways.
I may have been the last fully freelance Clennig collector in Felinfoel.
Dai Blaen Nant
Domestic water drawn from a spring. Rabbits caught for the table. Foxes killed for the bounty on the tail. Baptisms in rivers. Scenes from period drama. Yet these are some of the things I remember from as late as the Swinging Sixties. These antiquities were everyday life in my corner of industrial South Wales until about the time The Beatles released Revolver, and therefore part of who I am.
The man who lived in a haystack was over 60 when I knew him, and was known as Dai Blaen-Nant. ‘Blaen-Nant’ being the name of the field he lived in. The field ‘Near the Spring’. He had moved in to a corrugated iron shed sometime before the war. As the roof began to need patching, and to insulate against the cold, he used the straw from the harvest, piling it on year after year until it was five feet thick on top and had slid down to the ground. It looked like the haystacks we had seen in pictures, and was, effectively, a replica of a traditional Native American wigwam.
There were 3 other single men living in the same kinds of shanty within a quarter mile radius. One was fairly lavish affair with a great black corrugated roof and lean-to, and a glowing iron fireplace and a grandfather clock inside. I used to visit him on Sunday afternoons with his niece, and he used to give us tomato sauce sandwiches washed down with weak shandy, and talk with us about the latest sport, and what we were doing at school, and would listen attentively while we outlined school yard plots and intrigues and betrayals and outrages which he could never have followed. He just let us speak and listened. My Great Uncle Ifan was an ex-collier and professional rabbit-catcher whose business had badly effected by the Myxomatosis epidemic of the early 50′s and hadn’t worked since.
He lived in what was barely a garden shed on a patch of land loaned to him by my grandfather. There was water near in the spring (or Nant), but he washed in the fresh air. His classic collier wardrobe of white scarf white shirt black suit and flat cap never changed. I never discovered what he did in the day, but most nights he made his way home from the White Lion or the Bear, to his tiny stove in his tiny house. I envied him his freedom. He died in 1967 leaving only a tortoise called Cliff.
All the fields were bounded by hedges (which were full of food for summer walks), and all of them had names.
Cae Glas (the Green Field), Cae Garw Mawr (The Great Rough Field), Pen Nant (The Field Above the Spring), Cae Bach (The Little Field), Cae Beili Glas (Green Castle Field), and most revealingly, Pen Tip (The Field by the Slagheap). Agriculture and heavy industry were never far apart where we lived. Our paths and garden walls were hard-cored with the purple volcanic rubble of the old mines and foundries all around. One of our favourite playgrounds was a derelict coal mine.
Some of the trees had names. The ‘Devil’s Oak’, with its great burnt chamber big enough to hold four boys, glowering at the top of the formidable ‘Devil’s Hill’, completely dominating the landscape and sometimes invading our sleep.
Everything seemed to have its own identity. From the improvised milk churn-stands outside every farm gate, to each of the three little rivers within half a mile of my bedroom, with their own rocks and mosses and guttering springs.
One of these springs turned into the River Lliedi. Our river, and the one which ran down through the town to the old docks and derelict wharves.. On its way it had powered the watermill which ground the grain for the local brewery, and provided one of the first legal Baptismal pools in Wales. When my mother was baptised in it, they had to break the ice. One minister conducting a service had died with a girl in his arms, only months before my own cousin was baptised in the early ’60’s.
Our main contact with people who did not share our local identity was confined to the exotic people who would appear at certain times of the year trying to sell carpets, or clothes pegs or onions. Or who would offer to sharpen knives and scissors on a huge bicycle-driven grindstone. The Indian Carpet man, with his turban, was supposed to be none other than Hollywood star ‘Sabu’ of ‘The Arabian Nights’ and ‘Kim’. The onion-seller on his black bicycle did wear a beret and a striped jersey.
Gypsies from storybooks would pass the house once or twice a year in hooped wagons. They would graze their horses for a couple of days on the little green in front of the little white council estate built in 1956. One horse one year was pure white, and I was a big Lone Ranger fan at the time. The rest is predictable enough. I was still very much in short trousers, and Gypsy horses have their pride about being pestered by presumptuous Welsh schoolboys on a dare. And they have other uses for their teeth besides quietly eating grass, as I found out.
If this humiliation taught me a degree of respect for my elders, which the horse certainly was, then so much the better. The horse was just part of the community, and as kids on the loose, we were policed by the community far more than by our parents.
The snazzy new council houses (Bryn-Y-Felin’ or ‘Mill Hill’ or ‘The New Houses’ to us) had electricity and gas and inside toilets and a bathroom. Most of us in the older homes, farms and smallholdings along the road didn’t. Not until about ten years later in the mid sixties were all those things guaranteed. The C19 had survived until then in our part of the country.
Nevertheless, we had made some strides in our house. By the early 60′s, we had progressed from the traditional ‘long-drop’ soil-trap, to a modern, hi-tech chemical Elsan, with its own cosy asbestos cubicle proudly standing in the middle of our garden on the side of a hill for all to admire. When the ‘receptacle’ was full, my father would dig a big hole in a convenient part of the garden, and bury the contents. We would not walk on that patch for a few weeks.
It was a beautiful Summer’s Day. I was 7 and without a care in the world. I had been watching Val Parnell’s Sunday Night At The London Palladium the night before, featuring the adrenalin-fuelled Red Army Ensemble, and was ‘Cossack dancing’ around the garden in my new brown wellies, which in themselves were another source of great novelty and joy.
I was posing in mid-air during another HEY-UP! when there was the sensation of not landing when I should have, and what’s more into something warm and sticky and smelly… – And then of being dragged upwards and dangled at arm’s length by my father who chortled how I would be lucky for life, as hosed me down like a bunch of turnips.
This story would not have been possible in an age of universal sanitation. And so I would have been somebody else, and not quite me. Of course, all this may well just be a trick of hindsight. Merely the enhanced perception of childhood, and a not a reflection of the age at all. Pure sentiment and nostalgia. But nevertheless, I’m still glad I was in the right place at the right time to be enchanted by it. And to have known some things out of history books, which I didn’t realise were obsolete or unusual at the time.
Which rather begs a few questions – like how much of what we now take for granted will still be here in 20 years? And what will we miss? And what would we be well rid of?
Or as we used to sing at the tops of our voices:
‘We come along on Saturday morning
Greeting everybody with a smile.
We come along on Saturday morning
Knowing it’s well worth while.
As members of The Odeon Club we all intend to be
Good citizens when we grow up and Champions of the Free!
We come along on Saturday morning
Greeting everybody with a smile.
Greeting everybody with a smile.
And then settle down to a morning of combined cowboys and horseplay and tribal score-settling. The crew from Copperworks and New Dock always vastly out-muscled anything we could produce. And Felinfoel was itself a divided force anyway, so there was no real hope but camouflage for the few of us who used to make the trip from Llethri Road.
After the anthem of the Odeon Saturday Cinema club, the programme began. Cartoons, comedy short, serial, feature. Popeye, Woody Woodpecker or Loony Tunes; Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy; Roy Rogers, Gene Autrey or Buck Rogers; British or Canadian Film Foundation lack and white or Disney colour melodrama. Often involving a dog. Everything flickering through a storm of chatter and fighting and shouts at the movie and at opponents above, behind and in front, all bombarding each other with missiles of some kind, especially in ‘the talking’. ‘What was the picture like?’ ‘All talking..’.
We survived. And if we were careful, we could hide until the first matinee started, watch it for free, and stagger out into the mid-afternoon blinking like owls.
The Odeon in Llanelli was the grandest of the cinemas, but I haunted them all. The greatest binge of all was the Hippodrome’s cheap summer season of 1962. Someone at ‘Hagger’s’ had got a bulk deal and was putting on four double bills a week, changing on Wednesdays. Including my regular Saturday movie, I must has seen over twenty movies in four weeks.
The library was an important bit of the childhood Saturday in the industrial Welsh past, at one time. Along with the Odeon in the morning, then rissole and chips at the Savoy, then Frost’s comic and toy stall on the market, and Hodges’ model shop in Market Street with its spitfires, and model aeroplane ‘dope’. The incredibly opulent sports shop in Stepney Street with its arrows, fishing rods, footballs and shotguns with their gleaming walnut stocks. And its high wooden racks and display cases and counters. Apart from being a train driver or fireman or spy or fighter pilot or outside half for Wales, or Davy Crockett, being a shop assistant among such wonders would have been one dream career.
For a particular kind of Llanelli teenage bargain book hunter, there was the ‘Refugee Aid’ bookshop in Llanelly House, the decaying C18th architectural masterpiece at the heart of the old town. This book cave stank so much of mildew you could almost see the spores drifting through the air like pipe smoke in a pirate tavern, and the two little old ladies knitting among a pile of damp cardboard boxes might have been its blousy barmaids. Which particular refugees we were aiding by buying one book for every three we stole, we never knew.
There were strange and expensive books there which must have come from defunct country house libraries and middle class Great Depression bankruptcies. The story of the book was as much in its appearance and smell as in the words. Great rusting tomes of Carlyle’s pernicious and unreadable essays, church editions of The Pilgrim’s Progress, with brass corners and Sunday school lesson plans in a special appendix. History was very near in those books even if the original homes of the books were beyond my experience. But so were copies of the mad, banned Beat poets and Williams Burroughs from god knows what trendy Llanelli avant-garde cellarites. Here was another Llanelli I knew just as little about.
The imposing stone battlements of the town library opposite were quite different.
Since I was little, my father had taken me with him to replenish his weekly ration of Zane Gray westerns, and I’d got used to the place. And rather liked its grown up waxy meaty smell of stout leather municipal bindings and polished wood shelves. I liked the high toplit ceiling with its pigeons and, when I was only 8, the fact that I could go in to a huge stone building, and take away expensive books, and that the adults around weren’t trying to stop me, but were actually at my beck and call.
I definitely liked the record library when I was older, and heard things courtesy of the Llanelli ratepayer, with a dash of teenage random dumb luck choice, which I might never have heard otherwise, and which have served me very well down the years. Likewise the books. And all partly made possible by the subscriptions of people who worked so hard they seldom had time or energy to read a book themselves, and who would probably not live to see much return on their investment.
Then off to the rugby for a 3 oclock kick off against Neath or Richmond or Cross Keys, to watch the brilliant Phil Bennet do things with space and time and a rugby ball which have never been seen since, and which he seldom approached in his televised career, and the laws of which are only now being truly investigated by scientists in a massive hole in the ground in Switzerland. After attempting to imitate him through the exiting multitudes in the cinder crunchy Stradey carpark, it was home for tea and Daleks after a perfect Saturday afternoon.
The prickly heat of the husks jabbing all over your body as you turned the hay before baling. Then the mad teenage machismo of feeding the bales on the elevator as fast as possible. All in a golden haze of pollen and flies and butterflies and beetles and diesel fumes.
And the deep Xmas pudding smell of the hay already beginning to ferment on the wagon as you rode on top of the last load under an unfairly wonderful immense universe, with the starcurtain lowering like snowflakes as the horizon went through blue to indigo to purple and black. Then stacking the barn to the rafters, with the hard fungus tang of last year’s bales being gradually drowned out by the sweetness of the new summer’s wild harvest.
Then later, the barley. With the neighbour’s combine lumbering across the slope like a Baleen Whale harvesting cryll – Comanched on all sides by gulls and daws and starlings.
And then hauling the sterile straw bales, which were much more hypodermic than the hay. Then the stubble burning, with the late summer sun blasting its way through the blue smoke. And the mad scattering of the rabbits and the squealing or exploding of the broiled frogs, their legs like teeny barbecued chicken drumsticks – once the dare had been taken. And much more delicious. And grown-up beer to wash them down – and proper cheese sandwiches on Mother’s Pride – real farmers being far too busy to bake their own bread, like in the stories.
Then the strawfights with tumbly farmers daughters – and then the buckets of water just to wake up out of the heat trance of dust and sunburn and teenage competitive labour. And home to sweat out the sunburn through the sticky night.
• • •
‘Dwr yn yr Afon, a’r Cerrig Yn Slip..’
I remember the simple lane, with its stream on one side, as a fabulous green palace filled with nuts in autumn, with masses of bluebells in spring. We used to climb one of the big trees and sit in it for hours. Apparently, there used to be a woman who lived in one of the more modest cottages up there, who appears in one census as a ‘pauper’. And then when you got to the top of the tunnel of trees, and through the rusting black iron wicket gate on the old right of way. There were the brambles on one side and gorse on the other, and the path going straight up to Cribyn Farm – and the much more fascinating one dipping down and over the stream via two great flat stones, and up again to where the carpark opposite the community centre is now.
Then it was just fields. But the real kick was from turning upstream into the huge great green, clean cathedral of trees on either steep mossy ferny bank. Which is still there, only deprived for some municipal reason of its river, and so now has to make do with piles of fly-tipped rubbish.
It does seem obvious why the Baptist Revival was so popular hereabouts during the time when the temples of industrialisation were making many places was very black and smoky. I remember being very young and being carried/dragged by – I think – my sister and cousins across those stepping stones with the water splashing underneath, and assuming that this was the very stream from ‘Gi ceffyl bach, yn carrio ni’n dau.’ You know the bit: ‘Dwr yn yr afon, a’r cerrig yn slip..’ These were the very stones, my mother knew them, and was singing about them.
They were certainly ‘slip’.
• • •
Boxing Days were normally interesting enough, but when I opened the back door and was faced with a wall of snow above my head, moulded to the shape of the carpentry, all other Boxing Days faded into insignificance.
Within minutes I was out in Cae Beili Glas next to the house, and soon there were a crowd of us doing snowy things while our parents tutted in the background wondering what the world was coming to.
Corrugated iron sheets and tea trays and other improvised sledges were dragged out, and the snowballs flew like pigeons.
The boys soon decided that a walk was called for. Like one of our rambling summer walks with dogs and sandwiches, only up to our knees in snow. It was a boy’s dream come true.
Passing down the road into the village, the sight of more than a foot of snow covering everything was a beginning. At our age, we’d never seen anything like it before, and we would have been satisfied with that. Then we reached the Lliedi, and began to realise the scale of the event. Apart from a little channel running down the middle, it was iced over, and there were genuine Walt Disney icicles from the branches of all the trees. The waterfall into the Lliedi was a pipe of glass channelling water raggedly down through the trees. It was fascinating enough in its usual state. Now it was beyond description. We threw stones at it and brought it crashing down.
Threading our way up the valley one spiky wonder followed another. The constant virgin fluffiness of the pure white drifts. The ecstatic flights of fancy of the random water frozen in time at the ends of branches, or on the green holly leaves, or draped around the arches of brickwork, or exaggerating the barbed wire fences.
We hit the Mynydd Mawr railway and took in the village below, drowned and invisible under the fallen and falling snow. The railway was covered in drifts and we ploughed through like Polar Explorers eating banana sandwiches, tripping over the smothered sleepers. The dogs were even more excited than we were, and missed no chance to wallow in the meringue, and would suddenly jump in the air from surprise or doggy delight. Alongside our furrow were dozens of tracks of birds and rabbits, and other hungry pawprints.
The deep, blasted railway gorge came into view round the corner, and when we realised what had happened to it, we broke into a stumbling trot. Everything before had been leading up to this. We should have expected it, given what we’d seen, but couldn’t have foreseen the kind of mad winter wonderland which surrounded us.
Again, this place was gothic and glorious enough in its usual grey damp weather, with its ferns and hawthorns and sycamore clinging to the bare rocks. But now it was like nothing on earth. Like something from the Ice Fortress of Ming The Merciless, or a Disney extravaganza, or what happens when god takes the day off and leaves winter to a 9 year old boy.
Great curtains of ice hung from crag to crag, glistening in the afternoon light. Ten foot icicles with their sons and daughters layered the rock face, with more families of ice on top of them, and soggy stalagmite icicles on the ground to harness any water which had escaped the initial freeze. There were the gargoyles of leering ice faces and animals everywhere.
After gasping in amazement for however long it was, we scrabbled the granite hardcore from between the rails, and let loose, destroying as much of this glorious creation as we possibly could.
The walk down through the forestry to Swiss Valley reservoir was the most Xmas card experience any of us had ever had, or probably ever will. The towering pines and spruces with sheaths of snow thudding from them in the otherwise utterly silent woods.
And then we saw the reservoir itself, which was totally frozen over. It was so frozen that the weight of the ice had caused the surface layer to collapse under its own weight to a depth of about 6 foot, creating a huge ice basin, or collapsed pie crust. We could see how thick the ice was at the edge, and decided that this was too good a chance to miss out. We slid into the basin, and began an afternoon of hectic sliding and scurrying until we dripped with sweat and our face-scarves had curtains of icicles on them.
Slowly, we began to realise that the sun was going down and that we were getting cold and hungry and should think about going home. We then realised quite quickly that sliding down into a frozen reservoir was a lot easier than sliding back up.
The general approach was the long run and desperate clutching slide. Eventually, one of us made it, and was able to offer a hand to the next person, and so on until we got to the dogs, who were totally stymied, and who could only do a sort of hilarious cartoon running on the spot. They had to be physically hurled up the slope by the last boy, who was grasped by the rest after a last desperate charge.
It took a long hungry, cold time to get home, but the long slide down the still frozen Swiss Valley Hill helped. The snow continued for another two weeks, and we didn’t go to school for ages. The death rate among the old and frail must have enormous. And everywhere more than a mile down Llethri Road was cut off for days.
Felinfoel County Primary School
Standard 3E. Felinfoel County Primary School. 1962. Master Mr John Williams.
Back row L>R Noel Rees. John Armstrong. Vincent Bush. Robert Bartlett. Phillip Williams. Barry Brooks.
Middle row L>R Gareth Roberts. Douglas Jones. Stephen Evans. Robert James. Robert Kenyon. Haydn Beynon. Desmond Butler.
Front row L>R Maria Edmunds. Gwynneth… Karen Davies. Ceridwen Price. Melita Hopkins. Gaynor Lemon. Elizabeth Norris. Susan ….
Master: Mr John Williams.
We all came here aged seven. No longer fuzzy with astonishment at being alive.
Ysgol Y Babanod, our infant school was, in fact, space-age new. Looking back, it was like something out of Tomorrow’s World. It was a shining example of 50’s modern architecture, and still is, though we didn’t know that then, and most still don’t. It had a massive parquet hall, where the beautiful Miss Parkinson, our headmistress, would play the piano with the sunbeams from the wall-high windows lighting her hair. She made all the boys fall in love with her..
Felinfoel CP was a step back in history for us. Our desks must have been 60 years old and had been sat on by some of our parents and even grandparents. Unlike the Modernist tubular steel and plywood creations at Ysgol y Babanod, they were gnarled, oaken and ink-stained, and held together with curved black cast-iron. They looked like they were made by the same company which forged the black open-hearth stoves some of us still had at home. Or the bridges that spanned the railways to the collieries. There was something grim and grown-up about them, compared with the innocent post-war optimism of our gleaming infant worksurfaces.
The school was made of stone and red brick and brown tiles wood and more cast iron. There was a radio, which was bakelite. But nothing else electrical other than the lights, and the kettle in one or two of the classrooms for the teachers’ tea.
We soon discovered that the entire week at Felinfoel County Primary used to revolve around singing. There was a hymn to begin and end the day. And on Wednesdays there was the radio singalong session, instilling for life old favourites like ‘John Peel’, ‘Widdicombe Fair’, ‘Men of Harlech’ and ‘Hearts of Oak’.
On Thursday, there was the ‘rehearsal’ for the Friday ‘assembly’ in the formidable Miss Walters’ class. This was a serious trial. For an hour and a half, the entire school would stand in rows, youngest at the front, oldest at the back, and repeat the forthcoming Friday’s programme until Miss (Fatty) Walters, or Miss Thomas or Mr Williams or the ghoulish Mr Morgan was satisfied. Children would be beaten for being late on the beat, humiliated for having no tone, and screamed at for singing too loud – which I never thought fair even at 9 years old. In the winter, people standing too near the coal fire would faint, or throw up.
The year had two musical highlights. The eisteddfod on St David’s Day in the packed Festri Hall of Adulam, and the Christmas Carol Concert in the full glory of the chapel itself, where the boys all wore white shirts and red ties.
At the eisteddfod, the girls would promenade in full Welsh dress and daffodils, while the boys saw the whole thing as a biggest leek competition. During the parade of little earnest songs, poems and dances, which we paid no attention to at all, the air filled with the stench of chewed leek, until by the end, the windows would have to be opened, and heads smacked.
The Christmas concert was the real chance to show off, being in front of the entire village (or so it felt) in the big chapel. Our ‘choir’ sat in the gallery, and ran through the early part of the programme obediently enough. But near the climax, after the ‘silent nights’ and other soppinesses came something more rousing, I forget what, and instantly the budding juvenile delinquents (in our red ties) slipped into full rugby crowd voice, and one teacher at least held her head in her hands. But I couldn’t help noticing that more than one of the grownups looking up at us was smiling broadly.
Additions from fellow alumni.
“I remember being at the whip end of the chain and my head hitting the wall under to Freddy Tripp’s shop, that could be why I can’t recall the name of the game.
I remember the crates of frozen milk with ice-cream like growths under silver caps, standing by the big Cast Iron burner in Mr Rees’s classroom, and unfortunately can still taste the milk we had to drink after it defrosted, yeuch!
I remember taking the dares to climb over the wall into the Girls’ Playground and running around while the girls screamed for Wales.
I remember Tyson caning me and you (?) with his hazel switch. We had tried to be clever and snatched our hands away the first time. I remember that “Oh So Brief” feeling of relief that he had missed our palm up hands on the down stroke, far too quickly followed by the agony of the blow on the back of my fingers on the upstroke, I’m sure he’d be arrested now!
I remember the contests in the Boys’ toilets to see which one of us could send a piss stream from one end of the toilet to the other, by holding the end to allow a build up of pressure. I remember the girls looking over the wall from their playground to see which boy won.
I remember Kathy Groves from the year below us and carrying her books home from school far too regularly, (I also remember snatching a kiss from her and running away in embarrassment!)
I remember the ambidextrous Mr Evans in the Welsh Class writing on the blackboard with two hands.”
Gareth Roberts (pictured above)
“I had Mr Evans after Fatty Walters. He had a hearing aid and glasses I seem to remember. I’m not sure whether it was one or two years with old Fatty. I remember she has spittle drooling out of the corners of her mouth and when agitated (i.e. often) it used to run down even more and she had to dab it off with a hanky. She also used to sweat a lot and had a smell that a dog would be proud of.”
Gary Jones (contemporary in the Welsh Class)
It is interesting that Gary is vague about his period under Miss Walters. My memory is that she taught the first two classes in the same room at the same time. Another echo of the Victorian Dame School in the late C20th. There must have been 40 children in the room, ranging wildly in age and ability.