David Lovibond

Weep for Wales

David Lovibond returns to his Welsh roots and finds poverty and decay

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I remember Wales: the early start from a sleeping Liverpool, the changes of trains and freezing waiting-rooms at polysyllabic stations, the endless trek across the permanent Sunday that was Anglesey in the 1950s. None of this was supposed to be fun. There were family connections stretching back over 100 years to a fiercely biblical great-grandfather, who had walked from Somerset to Amlwch for a job on the new railway. The austerity of the grey, disapproving little town must have suited; he married a Welsh monoglot, 'went chapel', and put down a taproot. It wasn't until my father escaped into schoolmastering and England that a chink of light was let in. Grinding our slow way back in those pre-Beeching days was a kind of penance to the maiden aunt who had stayed behind to nurse my spectacularly incontinent grandfather. Amlwch was full of women like Olwen; black-garbed skivvies oppressed by the dead hand of a nonconformist patriarchy, they stare out from group photographs of annual outings to Chester or Llandudno, apologetic and prematurely decayed.

The long, duty days behind the net curtains of Bethesda Street were dominated by the list of prohibited things: making any sort of noise, being seen in the garden on Sundays, talking to the local children – who my mother suspected might be common or, which was worse, might try to speak to me in Welsh. A high spot was the walk to the shops, and the trick here was to catch them open. Like some Latin American pueblo beset by holy days, Amlwch's retailers much preferred to stay shut but found Saturday mornings difficult to ignore. My mother felt herself plagued by the elderly ladies who would stop us on our brief journey and, insisting on some ancestral relationship (which, much to her mortification, seemed to involve calling me 'bach' quite a lot), would press half-crowns on me and invitations to tea on my poor mother. Then, as now, the steep little square was dominated by the tall, blue-slated Anglican church, its services deserted save for the lingering diehards, respectable in suits and hats, who were staunch in their theological and cultural conformity to an England that had long ceased to notice. Facing the church was the town's other monumental institution, the Dinorben Hotel. Massively porticoed and splendidly fenestrated, the Dinorben had liveried waiters who powdered their noses and had watch chains stretched across their bellies, and was full of whisky-fed farmers flush and roaring from market day. The Dinorben was opulent and dangerous, and my father was rarely absent from its company.

Along the high street we would steel ourselves for the sudden silence of the butcher's shop, and for the humiliating dumb-show that the wretched man's pretended ignorance of English required. Then there was the louring presence of the 'milk bar', a forbidden place of steam and Woodbines where the local toughs dared you to catch their eye. And I will never forget the old mad Jew in a hood-up duffle coat, who jigged all day and in all weathers from foot to foot, hallooing the world from behind the padlocked gates of the haberdasher's shop that had been closed for 20 years. Ignored but looked-for, this nameless bogeyman somehow served as the town's sin-eater, and, when he finally vanished from his doorway, was strangely missed. To be sure, this redoubt of Welsh Wales (as my mother called it) had a vaguely threatening air about it, obscurely symbolised by the island's acceptance of Irish money as legal tender and the disloyalty implied by this collusion with the troublesome Republic.

Returning to North Wales with my son on a climbing trip, I went back to Amlwch for the first time in more than 30 years. I had expected the usual agents of change to have had their homogenising effect, but imagined the hard-faced little town to have retained its malign vitality. What I found was a ghost town. It was Saturday lunch-time and mine was the only vehicle in the municipal carpark. The café was closing, and in the two surviving pubs I made the scattering of old men stare when I asked about a meal. The single estate agency was shuttered and for sale, the handful of shops had half-empty shelves of sprouting onions and tinned fruit, like a miniature Moscow, and in the deserted square the grand old Dinorben lay abandoned in chains, its fine windows smashed or boarded up, the stucco falling away. In this Celtic Village of the Damned the only thing needed to complete the picture of desolation was the sight of tumbleweed bowling down the forsaken streets.

But what had happened here? 'Throughout the Sixties Anglesey was a successful, thriving place with a growing population,' says Meirion Davies of Anglesey County Council's policy department. 'Since then there has been a huge outflow of young people from the island; something like 5,000 people in their twenties lost since 1980. Amlwch now is totally dead.' Mr Davies says the town's heyday was in the 19th century, when the nearby Parys Mountain was mined for copper. A local group, the Amlwch Industrial Heritage Trust, is basing an attempt to revive the moribund town on the tourist potential of a mountain celebrated, I recall, for its bottomless mine shafts, eerie pools of foul water and infestation of vipers. 'We already have a circular path, which is safe enough if people stick to it,' says Bryan Hope, secretary of the Trust. 'Amlwch has to capitalise on its industrial heritage; there are no other assets. This corner of the island is particularly poor by Welsh standards, which by British standards is very poor indeed.'

Mr Hope's plan is to attract Lottery funding to restore a windmill and a Cornish engine house on the mountain itself, and the tiny docks at Amlwch Port which were used to export the copper ore. Both sites have been identified as 'historic landscapes' by the Countryside Council for Wales, but Mr Hope says the local town council is behaving insensitively. 'They are putting too much trust in a multimillionaire who has confronted them with a scheme for unwarranted development at the port and on the rocky shoreline close by. They should be supporting the Trust; Amlwch has become decrepit, and the council is not up to doing anything about it. I have never known a more incestuous body.' The chairman of the Town Council demurs: 'We were voted in by Amlwch people. This is the highest unemployment area in Wales; developing Parys Mountain and the port for tourism will be insufficient.'

I walked out of town, passing the house where my grandfather and father were born, and came to the roadside cemetery, long neglected like the town, the paths obscured with bindweed. There I stumbled upon the master mariners, miners and railway porters by whom I claim my connection to Amlwch and to Wales. Standing there, without memory of the faces behind the familiar names and sure only of their shame for what the town had become, I learnt that sharpest of lessons: never go back.