The historians of Wales have been a regular in recent years at the Hay Festival. Their amiable collective panels have been a refreshing, debunking presence. In 2017, as reported by Wales Arts Review, a range of Welsh topics enshrined in myth were lined up for toppling. In particular the Labour-aligned school of historiography has come up for criticism for its limitations. The national story, say the professionals, is simply bigger. In particular, the pioneers and innovators of industrialisation have been sidelined, or so declared H.V. Bowen a few years ago.
It was an omission put right in the third of Dylan Iorwerth’s documentaries for the S4C series, Dylan ar Daith. The first took him to Trinidad to revisit the misdeeds of Governor Picton. In the second he was in Morocco in the footsteps of Margaret Jones from Rhosllannerchrugog. For the third he started in a more familiar environment. The Dyfi Estuary was filmed in the most glorious of seasons. Iorwerth himself spoke from a carriage on the line that arcs first to Aberdyfi and then up the Cambrian coast to Pwllheli. His subject was the maker of the line, Benjamin Piercy from Trefeglwys in Montgomeryshire.
The business inspiration behind the bringing of the railways was top sawyer David Davies of Llandinam, but the man who made it happen was Piercy. The young Benjamin was born into the right circles, his father a surveyor and business partner to Brunel. The son took a degree in Civil Engineering and became assistant to a surveyor and land-agent in Montgomeryshire. In this capacity his help was requested for the Shrewsbury and Chester line and then for a line from Oswestry to Newtown. He was particularly adept in getting the parliamentary approval ahead of rivals and he became the unequalled expert on getting railways through the most challenging of terrains.
Iorwerth stands on a bridge at the beginning of the cutting through Talerddig hill. For a half-century it was the deepest man-made cutting in the world. The stone was used to make the handsome stations at Oswestry and Welshpool that stand to this day. Iorwerth and his crew move to the bridge over the Mawddach, also one of Piercy’s lasting creations. His renown took him to the Chair of the Institution of Civil Engineers.
His career subsequently took him to France, India and Myanmar. An S4C budget cannot go everywhere; the second part of the film moved to the place where Piercy’s career left its largest mark. In 1863 he began to create from scratch the system of the Royal Sardinian Railway Company. Iorwerth’s interviewees, Sardinian historians of the present, spoke reverently of the engineer from Montgomeryshire. His contribution to the development of the island went beyond its infrastructure. He acquired substantial estates and applied all the latest developments in agriculture to aid their flourishing. Iorwerth visits the Villa Piercy, a building of elegance in the shape of a four-sided castle.
Iorwerth is good on the background of Italy in this era of its modern incarnation. Piercy became a close friend of Garibaldi and the revolutionary’s son became his pupil. Piercy’s contribution to Sardinia was recognised by his appointment as a Commendatore of the Crown of Italy in 1882. Ricciotti Garibaldi assisted him on the railway from the tea plantations to the coalmines for the Assam Railways and Trading Company.
Dylan ar Daith avoids the worst fashions of television documentaries. No actors are there to mimic history. There is no rapid editing to simulate action. The quality of the photography is exceptional. Iorwerth has good stories to tell and he tells them via scripts that are lean but full. This Sunday night slot is turning out to be some of the most rewarding television this autumn.