On Garth Hill

April 28, 2013

iron mine garth
This week I went up to Garth Hill just outside Cardiff to look at the site of an abandoned iron mine, where I’m setting the final part of my new crime novel. It proved just as atmospheric as I’d hoped. Turning off the main road towards Gwaelod y Garth, the former mining village that sits on a hilltop above the city, there’s a gravel path that leads through the woods to a huge quarry. The sides of the quarry have been blasted off in such a way that peregrine falcons now nest there. Walking through the surrounding trees – at this time of year, full of wood anemones and wild garlic – you can see down into some flooded caverns that form part of a warren of tunnels dug through the hill. From the nineteenth century, a million tons of iron was mined here, and you can still see remains of a tramway that carried the ore to the ironworks. Since then, parts of the tunnels have been flooded, the minerals giving them a strange blue hue, like lagoons. There are also yellow pools, deriving their colour from the ochre that was also extracted here, and used for paint.

Lower down the hill, we found the entrance to one of the tunnels. The heavy iron gates were not locked, so we went in a little way. Inside, it was very eerie, the sound of dripping water echoing around, and shafts of light coming in from holes in the ground above. Horseshoe bats live here, apparently, and blind cave spiders. I noticed that the wooden planks forming the walls were still in immaculate condition, not rotted at all.

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This is not a scenic landscape, but it has its own beauty, and curiously, is home to a great deal of animal and plant life – partly because there are very few tourists tramping about the woods. For instance, among these ancient beech woodlands are rare species of coral root orchids and red helleborines. There are also a lot of moles, who seem inspired by the human history of tunnelling here…

Later in the week, I went to see a short film by John Evans, a bird watcher and poet who’d trailed a goshawk for two years, up in rural parts of the valleys. It was quite unlike the usual wildlife film, giving a truly visceral sense of how this fierce, secretive bird lives its life. For example, many small birds live close to the goshawk because it kills larger birds that prey on them (it doesn’t bother with the little ones) – so in this sense, it truly is ‘king’ of the forest. Also, the goshawk’s harsh cry is used in all sorts of films to evoke the loneliness of a rural spot – even when it’s the kind of landscape that a goshawk would never live in. (In that way, its call has become a familiar trope, but one that most of us don’t know the origin of.) Like Garth Hill, the rural parts of the valleys are largely ignored, even though they teem with wildlife, because we don’t ‘read’ them as countryside … just as wilderness.


I returned last week from the Laugharne Weekend Festival which I attend every year. This year, there was a marquee for book readings and a food fair in the castle grounds, as well as the usual indoor events in the village hall, the congregational church, the boathouse, and the rugby club. The only trouble was, on the Thursday before everything kicked off, it was freezing cold and trying to snow. However, the following day, as if by magic, the clouds parted and we had glorious spring weather. The crowds seemed ecstatically happy, and there was a general air of elation at being outside in the sunshine at last, after such a long winter. Also because the line-up of artists was great – so much to see and hear.

I was involved in a couple of events, the first on Friday night, a tribute to Nick Drake by Joe Boyd, his former producer. It was fascinating, and I was honoured to take part, singing a song by Nick’s mother, Molly Drake, at the piano. In the marquee on Sunday I also did my own event, reading from The House on the Cliff, and talking to Peter Finch, whose new book Edging the Estuary, is out soon. And I did make a point of going to see veteran crime writer John Harvey, and Alasdair Roberts playing in the church on the Sunday night – a wonderful end to the festival. Not to mention, of course, Laugharne’s Got Talent in the rugby club, where the Lone Wolf and Dragonslayer – a music-hall family combo from the Isle of Sheppey – were seeing out the night in suitably raucous style.
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Afterwards we stayed on in Laugharne for a few days in a place overlooking the estuary where Dylan Thomas had his boathouse. It was completely mesmerising watching the tide going out for miles every day and rushing back in during the evening. I tried to paint it, but the strange thing was, however much you kept your eye on the sand, you couldn’t see the point when it turned to water. I became completely fixated on this, and spend an inordinate amount of time staring at it. I started thinking about how someone running across the quicksand would be dragged in to it, and how such a huge expanse of nothing would always remain so – no one could built on it, or indeed do anything with it. Permanent limbo. I began to feel more and more passive, as if I was being sucked out with the tide every day, and drawn back in at night. Very enjoyable, but rather strange.
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During the time I was there, I also nipped up to the congregational church, and spent a few hours at the piano. The church, with its wooden pews, is large, light, and spacious, and has the most extraordinary acoustic, a natural amplification that almost overloads if you sing too loud. That too was quite odd, as I was trying to write a song about the tidal experience. I recorded it on my mobile but haven’t played it back yet. Not sure if I want to hear it again.

After all this I began to feel light-headed and was quite glad to get back to my prosaic life in Cardiff, and start tapping on the computer again.