Capel Celyn And The Struggle To Be Remembered

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On a recent trip to the land of my fathers I decided to take the opportunity to visit Tryweryn. For anyone under the age of, well… my age, the chances are you will not have heard of it, but for me it has always been a ghost of my nationality; something from the past, something that needed visiting in the present, something that personally needed addressing.

The Tryweryn valley is situated in the heart of Wales, the closest towns of note being Bala and Blaenau Ffestiniog. It is tucked away from tourists beneath the majestic hills and mountains of Snowdonia but a more sinister secret lies buried deeper still; below ground level, a secret I was told to remember, not to forget.

I had carried out some research before leaving home, including looking on Google Maps for a chapel that was meant to be on the lakeside, but there was absolutely no reference to it anywhere. Fortunately, someone had posted pictures of the building on the web so I at least had an idea what it looked like. “I’ll wing it” I thought. I like winging it.

Leaving from Llangollen we (my wife and I) followed the A5 Roman road through Glyndyfrdwy a village that lays claim to Owain Glyndwr proclaiming himself to be Prince of Wales on 16th September 1400 here.(Shakespeare was  a fan writing “not in the roll of common men and a worthy gentleman, exceedingly well read, and profited in strange concealments; valiant as a lion, and wondrous affable; and as bountiful as mines of India [Henry IV, Part I, Act 3, Scene i]).

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The Owain Glyndwr Memorial Hall

Further down the A5 is Corwen where a magnificent statue of Owain Glyndwr stands. We then took a left onto the A494 towards Bala; still no signs for Tryweryn though.

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The Owain Glyndwr Statue. Corwen.

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Just before entering the town of Bala, a right turn onto the A4212 was signposted ‘Trawsfynydd, Ffestiniog, Porthmadog‘. It rang a bell, but still no mention of Tryweryn, as if someone, somewhere was trying to keep it hidden. I had no TomTom; no map, and a wife who is to directions what Bobby Gould was to the Welsh national football team, so I was armed only with a pitiful slice of information gleaned from the unhelpful Google a few days previously. I took the turn but wasn’t entirely sure if I was right to do so. We began a relative climb along the eastern border of the Snowdonia National Park past farmhouses crouched on the road side, as if trying to conceal the secret I was searching to uncover. As we passed through Frongoch there was some sort of memorial on the left hand side made up of Welsh and Irish flags. “Was that it?” If we keep on driving and nothing else appears we can always head back and have a look (as it happens Frongoch was an internment camp initially for German POWs during World War I and then for Irish Republican prisoners from the 1916 Rising).

A little further on and the first (and only) hint that I was on the right road was the sign for ‘Canolfan Tryweryn. National Whitewater Centre‘. Not long afterwards, a lake appeared and I spotted the familiar white straining tower that I had seen on pictures of the reservoir which confirmed that we were close.

tower

But where was the chapel? As we approached another lay-by we saw a huge memorial stone at the far end of the parking space. “Was that it?” I parked up and stepped out. The first line of the memorial stone suggested I was close to discovering what I was looking for.

“Under these waters and near this stone stood Hafod Fadog…” I recognised the name of the farmstead Hafod Fadog but was unaware of it’s Quaker links as shown below.

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Hafod Fadog Memorial Stone

Close but no cigar. I now knew Hafod Fadog was part of what I was looking for but where the hell was the chapel? Back in the car and skirting the lakeside I happened to glance to my left and saw a tiny path leading down to the lake. “Was that it?”. I was pretty sure it was but I had already passed it, so a suitable junction was found to turn the car around and head back. No signs. No roadside history lesson, but this was indeed ‘it’. I was where I wanted to be and so now the story can unfold.

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Tryweryn

Back in the black and white days of the mid 1950s, the powers that be in Liverpool believed that the city was unlikely to be able to provide water for its citizens in the near future and so a commission was undertaken to find a suitable site to create a reservoir. The Lake District and the River Mersey (both in England) were examined as potential sites but the projects were deemed too costly. Attention then turned to Wales and the area around Bala, (including one ludicrous proposal that would have seen Llanfor village and Bala itself drowned) before the authorities settled on the Tryweryn valley, and more worryingly, the village of Capel Celyn.

Capel Celyn was an entirely Welsh speaking village consisting of farms, houses, a post office, a school, a chapel and a cemetery. The lives led there were simple yet culturally rich. but whilst the site was being surveyed and investigated by English authorities with the potential aim of destroying it, the villagers of Capel Celyn were kept entirely in the dark regarding their future. In fact most inhabitants only discovered what was to happen when reading about the project in the Liverpool Daily Post. The plan was to destroy everything within the village and then drown the valley.

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Village life

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Dafydd Roberts from Caefadog summed up his horror at what could be lost when he explained;

This is an area where every soul, a hundred percent, speaks Welsh…and have done their part to keep the culture and religion. Although no Ann Griffiths or Williams Pantycelyn (both hymn writers) were brought up here, we can take pride in our poets, our teachers and writers, people who brought benefit to Wales“.

By Christmas 1955 the English authorities had decided to steamroll the project by presenting a private Bill to Parliament for the right to build a reservoir, thus drowning the area.

As reality set in Dafydd Roberts again voiced the concerns of Capel Celyn‘s inhabitants.

We are not pleased at all that the heritage of our ancestors is being stolen, with their chapel; which they worked so diligently to build, and the cemetery, where their ashes rest“.

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Capel Celyn

A Defence Committee was set up in the early days of 1956 under the leadership of Dafydd Roberts from Caefadog and by September of that year Plaid Cymru (The Party of Wales) led a four thousand strong rally protesting against the decision. Dr. Thomas Parry addressed the crowd claiming;

“One of England’s biggest cities is violating an important part of Wales and through that part, the whole of Wales”.

A proposed meeting between Liverpool City Council and the Defence Committee who were hoping to explain the strength of opposition to the project in Wales, was turned down by the Council. Nevertheless Dr. Gwynfor Evans, Mr Daffyd Roberts and Dr. Tudur Jones infiltrated the meeting via the public gallery. When Evans got up to protest, that indomitable fighter for Liverpool causes,  Mrs Bessie Braddock shouted at the top of her voice and banged the lid of her desk up and down with most other Councillors following suit. On the 21st of November that year, the inhabitants of Capel Celyn marched through Liverpool to protest but got nowhere, and in fact, contrary to their hopes, they were abused. That well known State servant, the media, played their part too, publishing astonishing and appalling letters such as this from a certain S. Barnes in support of Liverpool.

“If cultural grounds are one of the objections then ignore it completely because Welsh culture is mythological. I have lived for ten years in the most Welsh part of Wales, I have heard much about this Welsh culture but no-one has ever seen it. The Welsh language cannot earn anyone a crust of bread. it is purely a domestic language taught for sentimental reasons. The commerce of the country is not done in the language, no business house uses it, there is no short hand adapted to the language. The language does not possess words and terms for the Arts or Medicine etc. It has never possessed either literature or author of international fame, neither does it possess a daily newspaper, yet 28% of the people here speak Welsh alone. They can neither read a morning newspaper nor understand a radio programme. In my opinion this is criminal”.

In 1957 the Bill began to make it’s way through Parliament passing through the House of Commons and House of Lords with the support of English born/Oxford educated Henry Brooke, the Minister for Welsh Affairs. Local M.P. T.W. Jones expressed concern that the water was “wanted by Liverpool for industry, and for resale to industry” but he was not heard as Brooke ignored the voice of the people he was meant to represent. On the 1st August 1957 the Bill was presented to Queen Elizabeth II (the very same) who gave it her ‘seal’ and then it was passed by Parliament.

On the 24th September an appeal was made to the Queen who referred it to the Minister of Housing and Local Government and the Minister for Welsh Affairs which was still Henry Brooke, who needless to say advised the Queen of the project’s necessity.

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Work began immediately on the reservoir meaning that everything in the valley had to be destroyed beginning with the railway line. Nevertheless, there were some in Wales who felt direct action might help halt what was occurring. Attacks on the site transformers were carried out by shadowy figures on 22 September 1962, the workshop was attacked on 19 December and the transformers again on 10 February 1963. David Pritchard, David Walters, Owain Williams, Emyr Llewelyn Jones and John Albert Jones were variously fined, put on probation or imprisoned for their actions. Meanwhile the villagers faced up to the inevitable as farmers sold their stock and possessions,whilst the school closed on 28th July 1963 and the Chapel’s dissolution ceremony took place on 28th September of the same year. As the valley was violently emptied, Elizabeth Jones from Boch y Rhaeadr exclaimed;

“We live on the next farm, and on hearing the silence, as quiet as a cemetery at Gwerngenau this morning – none of the usual noises of gathering the cows in, I nearly cried”.

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Meanwhile Elwyn Edwards wrote;

“No sound, walls torn asunder, and the yard

Without children’s laughter, But deep below the water

A tempestuous stillness stirs”.

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By 1965 a reservoir had been created with dimensions of a mile across and approximately 2 and 1/2 miles long, with a depth of 140 feet. On October 21st, the Tryweryn reservoir was officially opened. One person who could not be there was the aforementioned Dafydd Roberts from Caefadog who had also been Chairman of the Defence Committee. He had died ten days before the opening. He was buried on the banks of Bala Lake in Lanycil, some five miles from his now submerged home village. The chapel he should have been buried in was now demolished and below water.

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A protest greeted the Opening Committee who spent three minutes on site before scurrying away. Despite the protest being far too late as the waters covered the village, the fighting spirit of Capel Celyn would be seen once more. During the long hot summer of 1976, the water level ran so low that remnants of the village, including the bridge could be seen once more. This moved Elwyn Edwards to write;

“Of my race I see traces, as ruins

Of drowned homes appear

The drained lake of the summer’s drought

Tore an old scar wide open”.

 

And here I was at that scar.

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As we made our way down an unmarked path, the familiar, but tiny memorial chapel came clearly into view. Built with stones from the original Capel Celyn, it sits quietly and solemnly as if wishing to be left alone in it’s private grief. The door to the Chapel is locked. You can just about see through the dusty, filthy windows despite the scratches of crude graffiti etched into them that attest to the fact that violence is still being done to Capel Celyn. Inside a lectern is visible to the right hand side of the names of the villagers who had lived there. A solitary flower accompanies them.

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Behind the chapel lie the disinterred and no doubt fitful sleepers who were dug up from the village that they had lived in; laughed with and wept about. They were ripped from the place where they surely imagined their remains would stay forever.

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Being here; I felt angry but mainly very, very sad. There is a sense of loss at the Chapel that is difficult to explain. Maybe it’s wrapped up in the whole ‘hiraeth‘ thing. Incidentally, Liverpool did apologise fifty years later, but who was alive to hear it? Driving back on ourselves, we decided to head for a stop just by the straining tower where there is a good overview of the whole reservoir. Stood there, taking pictures, I got chatting to a tourist. He was from the North West of England but said he was a regular visitor to Bala and often came up here to walk his dog. I asked if he knew the history of the site. He didn’t; so I gave him a brief overview of what I knew. My wife later heard him re-telling the group he was with. That’s not my job. I shouldn’t have to do that.

What a shame that this historically important site; a place where culture was deemed secondary to money, where villagers were forced from their homes by a foreign government, where a people felt impotent due to their having no legitimate governmental representation to fight their case, should not be marked in any way by signs or roadside history lessons. The Quakers have done something to mark their own individual strife; what a disgrace that Wales hasn’t for Capel Celyn.

As I was reminiscing, I glanced down and saw some graffiti on the huge rocks that skirt the shore. “FWA” screamed out in thick black letters alongside a strange white symbol. Having read To Dream of Freedom by Roy Clews I knew that the symbol was Eryr Wen, the white eagle of Snowdon which was appropriated by the Free Wales Army (FWA) who initially sprung out of the furore over Tryweryn. On the power station opposite, the same was written with the added legend Cofio Celyn (Remember Celyn). It’s good that someone does.

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The still waters in the distance and the magnificent silence here give life to contemplation. No-one died in Capel Celyn, but something else did. A culture that would still be vibrant and alive today was suffocated and drowned at a time when the rest of the Welsh population (save for a few lone rangers) watched on; as silent and as passive as the waters that hide this dark, sad secret. English dominance and Establishment arrogance rode roughshod over the people of Capel Celyn to a multitudinous shrug from their fellow countrymen, and still it seems Wales does not want visitors to know about this doomed struggle of right over might, yet it is a dark history that needs to be exposed. Sadly, the words of Reservoirs by R.S. Thomas are still entirely relevant today. Surely the Welsh Assembly now has the power to ensure that the memory of Capel Celyn and what happened there is suitably commemorated. The case of Tryweryn could be utilised by Plaid Cymru to show what happens when there is no-one to fight your cause, when you are still beholden to a foreign power. If Wales chooses not to remember, who will?

Reservoirs – R.S. Thomas

There are places in Wales I don’t go:
Reservoirs that are the subconscious
Of a people, troubled far down
With gravestones, chapels, villages even;
The serenity of their expression
Revolts me, it is a pose
For strangers, a watercolour’s appeal
To the mass, instead of the poem’s
Harsher conditions. There are the hills,
Too; gardens gone under the scum
Of the forests; and the smashed faces
Of the farms with the stone trickle
Of their tears down the hills’ side.

Where can I go, then, from the smell
Of decay, from the putrefying of a dead
Nation? I have walked the shore
For an hour and seen the English
Scavenging among the remains
Of our culture, covering the sand
Like the tide and, with the roughness
Of the tide, elbowing our language
Into the grave that we have dug for it.

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References:

Roy Clews: To Dream of Freedom

Einion Thomas : Capel Celyn – Deng Mlynedd o Chwalu 1955 – 1965

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