Up here, on the roof of Snowdonia, we have restored the blanket bog and protected the largest and deepest area of peat in Wales. Not only is this good for increasingly rare birds such as curlew and hen harrier, but it locks up more carbon than all of the woodlands in Wales combined, and stops it from being released into the atmosphere.
This is also the place where I first thought of this tune, which bizzarely went on to be nominated at the Hollywood Music in Media Awards, two very different worlds. But that’s the power of music I guess……
You may have read my earlier posts about my conservation work for the National Trust on a famous Welsh mountain farm, if not you can catch up here and here….
At the end of my last post I mentioned that I had read that Esmé had been buried at Dyffryn and Peter’s ashes scattered next to her and that, had I known, I would have liked to have visited their grave.
In her biography of Esmé Teleri Bevan wrote…”On Sunday, 17 October 1999, Esmé decided to plant daffodil bulbs in the grounds around Dyffryn, ready for the spring. It was a mellow day and when the sack of bulbs had almost emptied, she was tired and content, ‘They’ll be really colourful’. She retired early to bed but in the early hours of Monday, Esmé died peacefully in her sleep, aged 89, with Peter at her side”.
“Peter fulfilled Esmé’s last wish, her burial place. She had chosen to be buried on a small plot at Dyffryn, and Peter had to persuade the relevant authorities for permission. The plot she chose many years earlier overlooked the valley, and it was near the sheep pens on Glyder Fach”.
I returned to Dyffryn earlier this week to carry on my research for the conservation land management plan that I’m writing for the National Trust, the new owners. The first place I wanted to visit was Esmé and Peters grave, but other than the description above I didn’t know where to find it, and it’s a very big farm on a very big mountain. I reasoned though that it must be fairly near to the house, or maybe close to one of the tracks leading from the road, so I made my way up to the nearest group of old stone sheep pens and looked around.
The wind was ferocious and squalls of sleet, hail and snow were falling from the heavy clouds scudding over the mountain peaks and ridges. I carefully examined the land around the pens, but I couldn’t see anything that looked like a grave site. I had been told that there was a simple stone marking the spot, but at Dyffryn countless stones and boulders litter the landscape.
I needed to change my angle of enquiry by looking at my surroundings and asking myself, ‘where would I have chosen to be buried had I lived here all these years?’. My attention turned to a huge rock outcrop and a kind of wide ledge rising up behind me. As I surveyed it something caught my eye. It was the bright yellow heads of hundreds of daffodils nodding in the blustery wind. Strange to see daffodils there I thought, and then I knew what I was looking at and where the grave was. My recollection of the story of Esmé planting daffodils the day before she died had led me to the spot.
I climbed up the steep hillside and there on the ledge, overlooking the valley, was the grave of Peter and Esmé Kirby of Dyffryn.
A simple plaque on a Dyffryn stone, and some juniper bushes planted at their heads to shelter them from the Dyffryn winds marked the spot.
As I studied the grave I was curious about it’s orientation and why it was slightly inclined downhill, but as I turned and looked in the direction it was pointing all became clear. This was the view that they wanted forever.
Daffodils, the Dyffryn “ffridd” where Esmé, Thomas and countless others brought up the Dyffryn lambs, and the twin lakes framed by the rocks and heather. Not a bad view for eternity.
I stayed for quite a while and then felt the need, despite the howling wind and showers, to climb up onto the plateau below Glyder Fach. I’m glad I did, the views were wonderful and the sense of elemental life almost overwhelming.
I felt glad that I’d paid my respects. There is something dangerous about the work that I do. The land has been like this for thousands of years (there are the remains of iron age hillforts on the farm and a Roman camp just down the road), and countless generations of people have lived here and eeked out a living often under great hardship, only for someone like me to come along one day and prescribe a management plan. It doesn’t feel right unless you do it well, and therein lies the challenge. Do right by the land and the memory of those who came before you, and don’t be an arrogant prat. In finding and visiting the grave I felt like I’d opened a path, along which I might tread lightly and get on with the job that I’ve been given to do.
In the next part of my little story I’ll tell you about how I wanted to visit the great Dyffryn mountain wall that was built around 1750 and, in studying it up close, found extraordinary craftsmenship in such a challenging landscape.
I have the rare privilege of writing the conservation land management plan for an iconic Welsh hill farm, here’s my introduction….
Dyffryn Mymbyr is arguably the most famous farm in Wales, possibly in the whole of the UK. It was made famous by the international bestselling memoir of Thomas Firbank, who bought the farm and the flock of Welsh Mountain sheep as a very young man in 1931 and ran the farm, latterly with his new wife Esmé, until he went to fight in the Second World War in 1940. During the war years Firbank and Esmé divorced and he never returned to the farm, leaving it to her to run which she did, often under great hardship, until her death in 1999 at the age of 89.
In the intervening years Esmé Kirby (as she became known following her marriage to Peter Kirby whom she met at the Sandhurst Military Training Camp (now the Plas Y Brenin National Mountain Centre) at Capel Curig) became a tireless campaigner for environmental issues and founded the Snowdonia National Park Society in 1967 with Dyffryn as its headquarters, and the Esmé Kirby Snowdonia Trust Fund in 1990. Esmé fought countless campaigns against developments which she felt threatened to undermine or destroy the natural beauty, character and heritage of her beloved Snowdonia. Whilst these campaigns sometimes upset and disturbed some people, her integrity and passion always ensured her the utmost respect from everyone who came to know her.
Firbank’s book “I Bought a Mountain”, celebrating its 75th anniversary this year and still in print, is widely regarded as one of the best accounts in literature about a working Welsh hill sheep farm. It beautifully describes the knowledge and skills accrued by generations of hill sheep farmers over centuries, bringing them to life through the characters of the numerous shepherds and neighbouring farmers who all helped each other with the continually daunting, but obviously fulfilling, task of rearing sheep in such an inhospitable and challenging landscape.
Sadly all of those people are gone now. The old farmhouse at Dyffryn is 500 years old, and the farmer who built it then was probably shepherding sheep in the Glyders much as Thomas, Esmé and all of the others did. As Esmé wrote in a Snowdonia Society Annual Report in 1975, “those who ‘own’ the land are only life tenants. They cannot take it with them, they must leave the land behind. We must think of these places as great treasures of incalculable value, to be lovingly cherished and respected and handed on unspoilt to the next generation”.
Thomas and Esmé left us, through their written words, a humbling insight into a wild and passionate life and culture shaped by the rocks, the wind and the rain of an iconic Welsh landscape known to millions of people around the world. For Thomas and Esmé, Dyffryn was typical of many mountain farms. Remote and rugged, their home was a solid stone house perched above the Dyffryn Mymbyr valley. The entrance to the valley is guarded by two lakes. The southern wall of the valley is the long hump of Moel Siabod, and the northern wall, higher and rougher, is the Glyders, Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr, both over 3000 feet high. Across the western head of the valley stands Snowdon and the mountains of the “Snowdon Horseshoe”, Y Lliwedd, Snowdon, Garnedd Ugain and Crib Goch.
Above the wall the open mountain had for centuries carried a permanent flock of sheep which knew the boundaries (the boundary of Dyffryn is the ridge culminating at Glyder Fach at over 3000 feet). Each year the ewe lambs were kept to enter the flock, and the four-year-old ewes were sold off to make room for them. Thus there were always 4 generations of sheep on the mountain. The permanent flock stayed at home by a mass heredity, each ewe having her own beat and always being found near the same grassy hollow or sheltered gully. She brings up her lamb on her little range and when in time she is sold the lamb carries on the tradition and eventually bequeaths the domain to her own offspring. This legacy, multiplied by a thousand individuals, tied the flock to its home.
In her book “Esmé, the guardian of Snowdonia”, Teleri Bevan writes that “Esmé had long admired the work of the National Trust, in particular their respect for the Snowdonia landscape and the ancient farming practices of the mountain terrain. She had a warm friendship with Fiona Reynolds (former Director of the National Trust)…who visited Dyffryn many times, and in 2005 after the death of Peter Kirby, Dyffryn was bequeathed to the National Trust for safe keeping. And so a new chapter for this sometimes cruel but always beautiful land begins.
I have been lucky enough to be able to devote most of my working life to learning about nature and wildlife, and then learning about how best to look after it. Of course the old adage is really true here, the more you learn the more you realise how much you don’t know. But if you’ll allow me to put that to one side for a moment, one of the most surprising things that I have learned is that, contrary to what people might think, looking after (or conserving) nature is less about spending your time studying and managing wildlife and much more to do with spending your time dealing with people. If you don’t have the ability to communicate with people, then your ability to conserve wildlife is seriously diminished.
This is because in most places in the world, people own or have a claim to the land that your wildlife is trying to share, and if those people don’t care about the wildlife, then they are unlikely to let you conserve it, particularly if there is no economic reason for them to do so. More often than not, if you can convince people that the land they have is precious, and the wildlife living there is of intrinsic value, then you’ve got a reasonable chance of getting them to care. What was it Leopold said? “When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect”. Well that’s kind of the sentiment that you’re trying to foster, and of course there are a lot of people who already feel that way, so it isn’t always an uphill struggle.
One of my more recent jobs was to write a management plan for a beautiful farm in the Snowdonia National Park in North Wales which had been acquired by the National Trust, with the help of 20,000 donations from the public and weighty celebrity backing in the form of Welsh Hollywood star Catherine Zeta Jones. The National Trust have the job of conserving places like this in perpetuity, and having a management plan is an important tool in that process.
Having spent some time at the farm and absorbed some of it into my bones, my first task was to communicate the beauty and wonder of the place so that people could begin to appreciate its value. It was inspirational to help with this work, and the added benefit was the inspiration for my music. This is what I wrote……
“There are some places that, when you walk into them for the first time, you know are special, places that make you pause in wonder, places that most of us rarely come across in our day to day lives. Llyndy Isaf is one of these.
It isn’t that Llyndy Isaf is more special than anywhere in the surrounding landscape. The farm lies within Nant Gwynant, which is one of the most dramatic and beautiful valleys in Wales. Its northern slopes rise to the summit of our highest mountain, Yr Wyddfa (Snowdon) and to the south are the relatively undisturbed hills of Moel y Dyniewyd and the Moelwynion range. The Afon Glaslyn river runs through two majestic lakes, Llyn Gwynant and Llyn Dinas, and below the picturesque village of Beddgelert, it tumbles down to sea-level through the positively alpine Aberglaslyn Pass. This is a world-class landscape and is at the very heart of the Snowdonia National Park.
Ask any two people what they think is special about Llyndy Isaf and they will give similar but varying answers, “specialness” is very much in the eye of the beholder. Natural beauty is one term that can be used to describe much of it, and as we shall see as we gather our thoughts on how this place should be cared for in the future, the features that comprise natural beauty are many and varied.
One feeling that dawns on a person at Llyndy Isaf is that this is a very old place. The valleys, hills, streams and lake all feel like they have been around for a very long time, and the rocks from which they have been carved, much, much longer. Even some of the trees are gnarled and twisted by many years of growth in rain, wind, cold and, from time to time, luxurious warmth. And yet there is much that is youthful.
The feathery growth of new young trees, the first spring flowers of dog violet and bluebell tentatively raising their heads through the cold, wet, moss clad ground. This is an unusual place of great antiquity and brand new life.
The unmistakable influence of human endeavour, the farm buildings, the sheep folds and pens, the field boundary walls and fences speak of hundreds, if not thousands of years of toil to provide food and shelter for countless generations of people. Many of these features of the landscape are regarded as our heritage, and it has been, and continues to be, the way people interact with that heritage that defines our culture.
To the untrained or uninitiated eye this place looks wild, wonderful and natural. Well it is wild and wonderful, but it isn’t natural. This, above all else, is a cultural landscape. The rich array of habitats, the woodlands, grasslands and heathlands are as much cultural landscape features as are the buildings and walls.
Like anywhere else, Wales’s landscapes have emerged from people’s interaction with natural resources under changing environmental and economic conditions through time. This continues. But while the character and form of these areas can be explained, it is much harder to predict how they will change in the future.
If we apply international definitions of wilderness, there are no wilderness areas in Wales, and there is no potential for such areas. The common misconception of wilderness relates to people’s sense of exposure to the natural elements and absence of built development, not to wild untouched places. When people understand the history of human settlements, agriculture, forestry and water management, the human influence becomes obvious everywhere.
In its place, we have a glorious living landscape, the wildlife of which has been shaped over thousands of years as the mainly unintentional by-product of generations of people toiling to provide a living for their families. These activities have also left us with a landscape covered in wonderful historic buildings and monuments. This is our cultural landscape and it is special and precious; its valuesshould be celebrated and not diminished through comparison with something that happens elsewhere.
The land at Llyndy Isaf is a magnificent example of this, and now it falls to the National Trust to take responsibility, on behalf of so many people who helped to purchase the farm, for how this place is to be cared for into the future”.
The photographs show what a beautiful place it is, and so inspiration for music was plentiful. This song was inspired by the magic of nature and also by the writings of Aldo Leopold, who proposed the “Round River” metaphor for life’s energy from the ground, through plants and animals and back into the ground in a never ending circle.