The subject of Into the West, curated and assembled by Jez Danks, is the settlement in inner and upland Ceredigion by young English. The period it revisits is that of forty years ago. Through a blend of personal testimony, artefacts and reproduced news headlines it works on several levels. It has proved popular but is also an insightful piece into an episode of Wales’ social history.
The issue of migration and movement has taken on a new topicality. It did not take long for a fiery letter in the Western Mail to look at the numbers that propelled a novice from Gwynedd into the European Parliament. Bungalow-land sent him there. It is some irony, wrote the correspondent, that the man with an abhorrence of immigration is himself dependent on the support of immigrants.
The difference with Into the West is made clear. The population of Ceredigion reached its peak in the census of 1871 and went into decline decade on decade. The arrivals- a mix of Aberystwyth students who stayed, craftsmen, artists, and an admitted leavening of romantics and city escapees- came to an area of depopulation and abandonment. The nicest reason given is the simplest: ‘I came to visit aunty and never went back.’
The exhibition works on several levels. The first is as documentary. Aberystwyth possessed a single Chinese restaurant and four or five cafes in total. The condition of housing no more than a skip outside the town border is now inconceivable. Today, it is hardship when a cottage in the nook of a hill or deep in a valley crevice is outside Wi-Fi connection. The homes that these arrivals took over were often beyond the reach of the electricity grid. But that was just the start; they were also without piped water.
A voice from a far-away time recalls how Nanteos – in its latest manifestation a country house hotel- was home to thirty people, but lacked a bathroom. The walled garden was reclaimed for vegetables. Another voice recalls how he would search the lanes round Blaenplwyf for herbs to make tea. Winkles were for the harvesting on the Llanon shoreline. Butter, bacon, even toothpaste, were all hand-made. School was hardly more comfortable. Borth Primary School had a coal-burning stove and it was a job of the older boys to bring in the coal.
Secondly, there is the pleasure to be had in evocation. Everyone enjoys the nineteen-sixties. A music loop plays Joni Mitchell, Neil Young, King Crimson, Canned Heat. Cabinets display an assembly of Oz magazine, self-sufficiency and Soil Association pamphlets, bread recipes, John Seymour, Gurdjieff, Ivan Illich and Betty Friedan. An upright case houses fiddle, drums, guitar and a pair of boots, in pink. The album covers that have been chosen are ones that have endured. (Both Liege and Lief and Tapestry have been lovingly treated to retro-documentaries by the old chappies that run BBC4.) Smocks, checked shirts, wickerwork, Indian rugs and fabrics proliferate. A sole mention is made of ‘wacky baccy’. Discreetly, this being a civic museum, no mention is made of the one news item from West Wales that made the national agenda.
Technology intrudes in the form of the first telephone to break with the universal black model that had gone unchanged for decades. True to the times the new telephone came in one model, size and colour only.
The exhibition also catches aspects of a Wales that have forever changed. Road signs always chose the English where it existed. (I recall my own father struggling with our destination, which he at last declared to be ‘ootchy-minned’.) There were still a few monolingual speakers. But schools were saved which would have closed. The new inhabitants did not only sweep chimneys, learn dry stone walling, develop flourishing vegetable businesses and create harps and public mosaics. They created children. When the children went to school, says a contributor, they did not even know they were speaking Welsh. They just did it.
The arrivals re-occupied abandoned homes, from the sea captain’s riverside Victorian villa to the old Sheriff’s house outside Tregaron. The spirit of Into the West is summed up in the line quoted from Llygaid by John Roderick Rees, a teacher and poet from Penwuch: ‘Gwell gwegil estron na’r gwacter gwyrdd.’ ‘Better a stranger’s vanity than empty green-ness.’
The third element is personal connection. The exhibition is centred on Jez Danks’ acquisition of personal memories. Around three walls are displayed crisp biographies and then-and-now photographs of fifty-four arrivals, in the main still resident and now established citizens. The arrival from Somerset thirty years back is now a regular in Aberaeron’s theatre and Aberystwyth’s choral scene. His hand-crafted furniture is to be seen in the showcase display opposite the Wales Millennium Centre. The flower child with the six-inch lacy cuffs is the arts programmer who ensures that Aberystwyth maintains its theatrical wealth and diversity. The organic pioneer at Aeron Parc runs the community choir Heartsong. The healed alcoholic is founder of a drink and drugs charity for young people. The student who acted in Under Milk Wood in Theatr y Werin’s very first summer season is now a curator, critic and author of an exemplary biography of Brenda Chamberlain. The man in the gaiters and breeches who began to make harps, became inevitably known as Robert violins, and ended an authority, whose travels took in Russia and the USA.
Into the West is a model of what a county museum can do and is uniquely capable of doing. Its evocation of a time, both close and far, has filled its visitor book with testimonies of delight. It links the local to larger social and artistic movement. The exhibition’s best response to the settlers is given by a Tregaron resident: ‘it’s not what you look like. It’s how you are that matters.’
It asks for a sequel. A documentary and oral history of the remarkable cultural flowering that was the Barn Centre would fit. Many of the women and men are still in Aberystwyth, the documents are archived in the town, and the time is right.
Photos: Adam Somerset