hidden europe 17

The road to Abergwesyn

by Nicky Gardner


The tides in the Mawddach estuary never come too early. Nor too late. The rain never beats too hard on the road to Abergwesyn. hidden europe editor Nicky Gardner celebrates the communities in rural Wales where she once lived.

Over the last couple of years, we have explored and reported from communities across Europe. Always trying to distil the essence of a place, whether it be an abandoned township in Spitsbergen, a rural village in Sicily or a bustling street market in Sarajevo. But the texts in hidden europe rarely reveal anything of their authors. The personality behind the pen lies largely hidden.

The unattributed texts in hidden europe are, almost without exception, written by Nicky Gardner. So what of her? In a break with our usual practice, I invited Nicky to write about an area of Europe that has very palpably influenced her feelings for remote rural communities and her understanding of landscape. Nicky has lived and worked in some remarkably obscure places — but the wild moors and mountains of Wales, and the villages of the Welsh valleys, are full of happy associations for her (Susanne Kries, joint editor of hidden europe).

So, just for once, a more personal piece written in a tone and style that is very different from regular hidden europe writing. I hope you like it. If you are blessed with a Welsh accent (or can affect one) and read the piece aloud, you’ll hear it at its best.

Just as the sun set, I caught a glimpse of peat red rills, of deep fissures in the slate, and rough-hewn steps in the rock. There was a moment, just as dusk slipped into night, when the birds fell silent. Even the call of the curlew faded. I was a thousand miles from Wales, but that night I dreamt of Wales. I stood on the bank of the Teifi as it meanders around Tregaron; I touched the heather-clad Cambrian grits, and stumbled up the ancient pony track that edges its way into the heart of the Rhinog mountains.

I have not lived in Wales for years. Yet Wales still haunts me. Ever more with every passing year. I return from time to time for another fleeting encounter with the Welsh hills, to watch the sandbanks grow on the Mawddach as the tide runs out at dawn on a summer morning, and to drive the old drovers' road from Tregaron over to Abergwesyn. That narrow strip of worn tarmac, little more than a dozen miles in all, is my favourite road in all the world. The road, the communities at either end of the route, and the scattered farmsteads along the way, are the very epitome of Welsh-speaking Wales.

Time does not dim the Welsh landscapes of the mind. On the contrary, the gaunt outline of Cadair Idris grows more vivid by the day, and still I could recite, flawlessly even, the names of all the railway stations on the route to Pwllheli. For me, the Welsh landscape is a reference point, a sort of homestead that gives meaning and value to a hundred other territories. Small towns from Sicily to Sweden become outposts in a heavenly schema that pivots on Machynlleth. Cymru is everywhere. The Matterhorn reminds me of Cnicht, that happy little triangular peak that overlooks Cwm Croesor and the golden sands of Traeth Bach.

Related note

Lamb soup galore

Lamb soup is a staple in some parts of Europe, but utterly unknown elsewhere. In Iceland, lamb soup has the status of a national dish. That lamb soup was once judged to be the perfect remedy for dysentery was new to us.