The hills and uplands of Ceredigion keep us busy and happy as peaceful havens to walk and cycle but they didn’t used to be this empty. The stories of the ‘lost’ communities inhabiting our mountain uplands have been documented in a very special way: A wealth of ‘Story of the Forest’ sound archives are housed at the National Library in Aberystwyth.
Interviews with community members made in the early nineties reveal what life used to be like in the uplands. After a couple of minutes of listening, the whole world of a surprisingly recent bygone age of our ‘wild west’ starts coming to life. The interviews unveil a history of the mountain communities who farmed the wild uplands before they were planted with forestry and paved with roads. Many farms moved or were left empty when the uplands were planted after World War II and after the cripplingly harsh winter of 1947. The remnants of these crofts, farms, pens and ‘corrals’ can be seen as ruins around Strata Florida and Teifi Pools; on the Abergwesyn pass and the Cwm Elan mountain road. The busy, resilient and hard working mountain communities who inhabited them are still represented throughout the upland towns and villages.
We hear of Dai Jones, the last horseback postman, delivering a weekly round for the General Post Office into the late 1950s. This ‘pony express’ – ran 3 days a week. Horses were central to the hill farming existence, the ‘sheep station’ farms may seem ‘outlying’, but in fact, what appear now as isolated communities were very mobile and culturally central. Men, women and children owned hill ponies which could take them anywhere in the mountain range for the cost of some hill-grazed grass.
Accounts of dragging a forestry siren up the mountain at midnight to ‘serenade’ a bride-to-be gives a sense of both hard work and wild fun. A farmer tells of breaking horses-in double-quick in the exhausting bogland, and one forester recalls encountering the legendary Free Wales Army platoons on mountain manoeuvres.
The depth and strength of the bonds of these hill farming communities is described in their communal work – every summer there would be mass hand-shearings of up to two thousand sheep at a time, the households of the community all coming together to help each other.
Under a National Lottery Heritage grant, National Library of Wales has commissioned Mapping Land Voices, an art project that aims to encourage access to the archive through walking and drawing old mountain paths whilst listening to their relevant oral histories. These creative, remediations of the mountain legends will be geo-tagged and made in the places the voices describe. It is easy to get inspired.
Hosted by the Peoples’ Collection Wales, this new-from-old archive of shared art will be part of a searchable National Library/British Library database, indexing the original sound archives through a twenty-first century community response.
The Mapping Land Voices project works on a first-come, first-served basis: to sign up click here
To see the results as they are created in the coming months, follow the link to the Peoples’ Collection Wales website, and subsequent links to the event page or have a listen to the Tywi Mountain Selection sound files as a taster.
To access the sound archive, all it takes is a reader’s ticket to the National Library. You can research which archives are relevant to your local woodlands, and hear stories which are guaranteed to transport you back in time. Visit the Library
By Rupert Allan and Dorry Spikes