About fifty of us stood around the open grave, the singing thinner now than it was in the chapel. On this soft autumn day we had come to bury Margied Jones of Craig y Tan, aged 91 years. A warm hearted, sharp-witted woman with a generous spirit, she was totally devoted to the community in which she lived. Amongst the many things going through my head as I stood there was that she was a link to an era that has almost passed from direct memory.
Margied was born and spent most of her life in Craig y Tan, a beautiful and, some would say (not her), remote hill farm not far from here. When she was a girl they cut peat on their mountain land, stacking and drying it, then using it for fuel on the open fire and in the ‘popty mawr’, the big bread oven that was fired up every few days to keep them in loaves. Much of their food – meat, eggs, milk, vegetables were produced and consumed right there on the farm; no food miles or packaging and very little shopping, supermarkets had not been invented. Neither electricity nor the telephone had arrived so the long winter evenings were lit with oil lamps; otherwise they worked out of doors most of the time, going to bed early and rising with the dawn. If they needed to ask a neighbour a favour they walked the mile or two to speak to them – and back.
Margied walked everywhere; it was a lifelong habit. Even as a ninety year old she would walk several miles round the valley (her beloved Pennant Lliw) picking blackberries, which she made into jam – mostly to give away. As a six year old she walked the three miles to school and back again each day whatever the weather – and we have some weather here. She once described to me how, early on before motor transport reached the farm, she and her father walked the sheep to their winter pastures. That meant shepherding 200 sheep along the public roads to Bettws Gwerfil Goch, which is 24 miles from Craig y Tan. Margied, aged about 11, walked at the front, her father at the back with the dogs – to keep the sheep together. Once they had settled the sheep into their winter home they stayed the night with the farmer and then walked back the next day.
Listening to the remembered details of her early life what struck me was how softly their lives had impacted on the land compared to now. I don’t mean to romanticise those times, if people could find an easier or more productive way to work they would do it, but mostly the available technology limited them. Ploughing was by horse, ditches dug by hand and if you wanted to fell a tree you took an axe or a hand saw to it. In this way the land was shaped – slowly and painstakingly over centuries, bequeathing varied and beautiful ‘cultural landscapes’ across the UK which, when Margied was a girl, were rich in wildlife as well as harmonious on the eye.
During Margied’s long life agriculture became mechanised, then industrialised and finally globalised and so the descendants of her generation have (although thankfully not at Craig y Tan) unwittingly hollowed out the wildlife legacy which was integral to the landscapes of her youth. Margied’s focus was always on the human community of this valley so I am not sure if she noticed or regretted these changes. But I do.