Eryri – People in a Landscape
There is something of the divided mind even in the naming of this landscape. Its indigenous tribes were called weallas – foreigners – by Saxon sailors and invaders, and thus the country gained its English name: Wales. But to those native people themselves – Y Cymry, “our people!” – it was Cymru. The mountains of the north were not Snowdonia (from the Saxon Snawdune) but rather Eryri, which is traditionally and maybe inaccurately translated as “haunt of eagles”.
What of its character, and the interplay between physical land-forms and human history and personality? There’s a wonderfully sonorous and resonant line by the twentieth-century poet from Bala, Alan Llwyd. It runs thus:
Bywyd gwar mewn byd gerwin
And it translates roughly as “a civilized life in a rough world”.
Throughout the first millennium of this region’s written history, the abiding impression is one of a minority civilization inhabiting here under threat from barbarism and invasion. I’d hazard that Welsh traditional culture, clinging to the language which is its means of expression, still feels itself thus in jeopardy, through the swarming influx of recreationalists and second-home-owners; who know nothing and care less of what native riches may here be found; who never bestow a moment’s attention on this region’s human character.
Six centuries of military conquest and subjection, followed by a further three in which an initial trickle of tourists turned into the contemporary deluge, are likely to have bred degrees of resentment. Local populations cannot view those masterpieces of military architecture to be seen at Caernarfon, Harlech, Conwy with quite such appreciative interest and satisfaction as the world-heritage-site aficionados who flock to visit them every year. To a native mind their presences still carry oppressive symbolic weight.
We must balance this with what external consciousness brought by way of appreciation for the mountain landscape, with its exquisite valleys, its oakwoods and birdlife, its high rocky ridges and shapely summit crests.
Historical circumstance played a crucial role here. Edmund Burke’s seminal 1757 essay in aesthetics, “A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful”, had scarcely been assimilated into educated English consciousness before the French Revolution and its aftermath placed the most sublime of European landscapes – the Alps – off-limits. The mountains of North Wales filled the breach and a generation of Romantic celebrants – Richard Wilson, William Wordsworth, J.M.W. Turner – fixed them in the cultural imagination.
All this fed back into a Welsh consciousness that had in recent centuries perceived its home place either through the beauty-shunning lens of Calvinism, or as a working landscape: of sheep-farms and slate-quarries, of flannel-mills and copper-mines. The hills became a place of resort for artists, poets, writers. Later came the mountaineers, and their sub-sect of rock-climbers, among whom in the 1930s was the tragic figure of Menlove Edwards, a psychiatrist and the finest and most original of all writers on his sport.
Now it is a place of recreational resort to which huge numbers are drawn to pursue what those of the tight-knit valley-communities, the run-down slate-towns and the forlorn coastal settlements might consider in their essence to be neo-colonial. Native knowledge is ignored or traduced; not one in a hundred of casual visitors to these mountains gives any more than at best a token respect to the language in which their characters, histories, namings are expressed.
So resentments simmer. Misunderstandings too. A population feels itself devalued. If the colonization itself is scarcely done by stealth, its effect in the extirpation of a topographically-rooted culture and a way of life and means of expression shaped by hill-forms that have at times a formal beauty something akin to musical notation is less strident but as insidiously effective. Rifts widen, anger grows, human equilibria are thus destabilized.
Those peaks, those plunging valleys – they have their counterparts, their objective correlatives, in the jagged landscapes of dispossession, disregard and the suffering mind.
This website details some of these patterns and histories of response. It seeks more, and not less, understanding; studies cause and effect; sees the skull beneath the skin of a landscape as beautiful as any in Europe; is a vital adjunct in the study of this place and the history of mind that inhabits here.
Back to that trope about the foreign, and by implication the alien and the excluded, with which we began. No-one’s thus on this website. You’re all our people – come on in, enter the ‘region of summer stars’ as the sixth-century poet Taliesin called Wales, and see what we have to offer each other.