“And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns
And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves
Trail with daisies and barley
Down the rivers of the windfall light.”
~ Dylan Thomas, Fern Hill
As my recent series of essays attest, sojourning in Wales has been thoroughly enjoyable and profoundly fulfilling. It is a destination I highly recommend, and I hope to return to continue exploring the country in the near future. Over the years, I’ve travelled many thousands of miles, with a number of these trips as a photographer, sometimes as a researcher, yet perpetually on pilgrimage. This time, I set forth as a writer. Choosing to visit Wales had been inspired by a lifetime of my mother’s enchanting recollections. Throughout my time on the north coast, I followed her advice and her footsteps, and inevitably found many directions and connections of my own. Indeed, it was an honor to bring tastes of North Wales back to her, through images, artifacts, and conveyed greetings.
Beyond and among these explorations, it had occurred to me during this recent journey that writing has come to inspire my travels. I found myself creating itineraries around places in which to write and to experience writing. As with visual media, the inner drive to write is greatly affected by physical places and their respective environments. The latter aspect comprises intangible qualities, though recognizable when they are sensed. Every region I visited in Wales encouraged me to continue writing and learning. How do places we visit become inspiring parts of our souls?
Great creative potential can be prompted by place; being from the Maine coast, I’m well aware of this. In my experience, though I may be looking toward trees, mountains, waterways, and skies, my written subjects may well be entirely unrelated. I recall once finding the perfect descriptive words for a silent monastic sojourn, while writing in the swirl of a loud and chaotic Boston train station. Words to describe what I craved most came to me first. Often, the imagery of a writing topic comes in clearly by its absence. Surely, in Wales I did often write directly about the landscapes and streets around me, and the writing- as usual- was never at the exclusion of my thoughts. Sights and imaginings are woven together.
Above: slate path in North Wales;
Below: coal path in South Wales.
Scenery becomes a factor, when it inspires clarity of mind, no matter the topic; the important thing is that writing is encouraged. What the writing concerns is less critical. One could write a parched poem about a dry desert, while on a salt-sprayed deck of a ship. The necessary ingredients are the ideas, words, and the will to assemble them to one’s satisfaction. Gratefully, the Welsh scenery gave me plenty to write about, being in itself a source of wonder.
When thinking of what makes Wales a great writer’s destination, the landscape and the general culture immediately come to mind. A lad from Maine finds assurance in the presence of seashores, highlands, and quiet country roads. I’m also undeterred by changeable weather. If your environment is beautiful, then it’s a beautiful day. Admittedly, precipitation does set some limitations upon outdoor writing. In Wales, I found a culture that cherishes being outside. Going for a walk can mean a stroll across town or a hike across mountains, and both are made very easy with paths and stopping places. All ages go walking; I saw groups walking together and I saw solitary hikers aperch on crags like musing poets. Happy the strolling thinkers who needn’t explain themselves.
A culture that treasures a good fresh-air outdoor walk, along with spirited conversation, amounts to a pleasant social context. Another smiling reminder of life in Maine happened each time I’d stop someplace in Wales long enough for an enjoyable give-and-take chat. I could recognize how conversation is something between a beloved pastime and an art form like, say, sculpture. When people meet and regale one another with insights and anecdotes, a harmonized summation is chiseled, filed, and formed into being. I found many words to record and ponder. Gwyn Thomas, a brilliant author from the coal-mining Rhondda valleys said it well:
“We talked endlessly. That was one way of keeping up our spirits in a universe that did not seem very encouraging. A cracked world and a love of the poets gave us all the spiritual incentive and mechanical facility we needed. If we lacked sixpence for the movies we could always float on a sea of metaphor in a session of high Socratic debate under a lamp-post.”
Coal to warm a writer's space.
Throughout my travels I witnessed how Wales is a country of the word. The words are spoken, written, composed, sung, preached, and preserved- all in two refined languages. As no explanations were needed for a pilgrim seeking holy sites, none were asked for a seeker of beautiful words. I heard countless poetic words and songs, saw them in art works, read them in printed and manuscript forms, and even recited my own words to audiences. Much as the ancient stone built structures, words delineate and fashion ideas into enduring memorials. Among treasured welcomes, living for a week in Dylan Thomas’ home brought me to greater appreciation of this man of words, as denoted by the landmark plaque on the house. His poetry reminds me of the value of sound in the assemblage of words. Sound and meaning directly affect one another.
Above: Dylan borrowing my journal, Swansea.
View from the study toward the back garden, Dylan Thomas' home, with his Imperial Good Companion typewriter.
Yet another feature I found to be favorable for a visiting writer is proximity. In Wales, no place is too far out of reach for travel within a day. As well, public buses and trains reach just about every peninsula and village. As transit itself is conducive to writing, so is the immediacy of contrasting scenery and setting. When depths of historicity and intrigue are so consistently prominent, excursions of any distance are replete with interest. In such a place of word and spirit as Wales, there is much for a writer to remark. The sounds, colors, and places are now part of me, and will all be thankfully held close to heart.
Above: Llandaff Cathedral.
Below: At Dylan Thomas' desk
While on pilgrimage in North Wales, my Olympia Splendid 33 (and I) received a blessing from a priest. He exclaimed, "this is all truly splendid!" The machine now sports the Welsh flag.
In Snowdonia (North Wales).