Speckled, speckled, Dinogad’s coat,
Made it out of pelts of stoat.
Twit, twit, twittering,
I sing, and so our eight slaves sing.
When your Tad hunted the land,
Spear on shoulder, cudgel in hand,
Thus his fast-foot dogs he’d teach —
“Giff and Gaff! Catch, catch! Fetch, fetch!”
From his coracle he’d slay
Fish as a lion does its prey.
When your Tad went to the crag
He’d bring down roebuck, boar and stag,
Speckled grouse from the mountain tall,
Fish from Derwent waterfall.
Whatever your Tad found with his spear,
Wild pig, wild cat, fox from its lair,
Unless it could fly it would never get clear.
“Pais Dinogad,” nursery rhyme in Old Welsh of c.600 AD, preserved in the Llyfr Aneirin
“Dino?” the boy had asked. “That your name? New one on me!”
That was no surprise, especially in London. Even in Wales I have never heard of another Dino. It is short for Dinogad. My surname is Evans, and my first name is really Dewi, but nobody has called me that for years. When we were very young Mam used to sing us “Pais Dinogad,” and one day my brother Madog noticed that little Dewi was wearing a cardigan of speckled brown and white. He pointed at me chanting “Dinogad! Dinogad!” and the name stuck. It fitted in other ways too, not exactly, but pretty well. True, we did not have a single slave, let alone eight. But Tad sometimes went hunting on Cnicht, not with a cudgel or spear for wild boar but with a shotgun for the foxes that preyed on our lambs and hens. And he sometimes went fishing, not in the Derwent — there is no such river name anywhere near — but in Llyn yr Adar or Llyn y Biswail. And so, when a few years later we acquired two new sheepdogs, they simply had to be called Giff and Gaff.
I was born in 1930. Madog was three years older. By the time I could read and write I had absorbed the ways of sheep, the ways of the mountain, and the rhythm of the farming year. Already I was learning to give orders to the dogs. I was nimble and careful enough to be allowed to roam with only Madog to supervise me. Each of us went, when we turned five, to the village school in Croesor, very handy for Garth Llwynog, which is our farm. Our family was close-knit. The head of the household in those early days was Tad’s father, a dear old boy whom we used to call Hendad rather than the more usual Taid. His wife, though, had died in the great flu epidemic at the end of the First World War, and when I was seven he himself succumbed to pneumonia after a fall on the mountain while gathering sheep.
So, now that Tad was the only grown man on the farm, labour-saving became more important. He began, not long after Hendad’s demise, to make changes in tune with the changing times. He replaced the horse and cart with a Ferguson tractor, which we always called the Ffergi. He invested in electric sheep shears instead of the age-old hand ones. He replaced the hand scythe with an Allen auto-scythe. He pensioned off Hendad’s dogs which were becoming geriatric, and bought Giff and Gaff instead.
One of the things about farm children is that even in their younger years they are expected to pull their weight. The son of our teacher was always wanting to play with us, to which we usually had to say no. He could not understand why, because all he had to do was minor domestic chores. But after school, and at weekends, and in the holidays, Madog and I would be out with Hendad or Tad on the mountain, or helping them as far as we could at washing and shearing and dipping. From the age of about nine — as soon as my feet could reach the pedals — I was driving the Ffergi; even, very locally, on the public road, because off-road there is not much a tractor can do in rough terrain like ours.
The farms in the valley are scattered, but the community is tight. Hill farms are unworkable without neighbours. We would help Owain Bach at Bryn y Gelynen to gather or dip or shear, a couple of days later we would help Gareth at Croesor Fawr, then they would all help us. Together, we could muster about twelve hands. Although there was an imbalance, their families being larger than ours, they still helped uncomplainingly, and the womenfolk helped each other with the catering. When we could afford it, extra hired labour was plentiful, for both of the slate quarries at the valley head had closed in the year that I was born and in the depression there were many on the dole.
The thirties, therefore, were busy times for us boys, and happy. For Mam and Tad they were busy too, but not so happy because sheep and wool prices fell through the floor. But we were never quite on the breadline, and our togetherness was wonderful.
Then came the war, and the happiness ebbed away. In 1939 the men were called up. Madog, by now at the Ysgol Ganolradd — the grammar school — at Porthmadog, was too young and Tad was too old for compulsory service. But Tad had a strong patriotic streak in his make-up. His only brother had been killed in the First World War, and he too felt the urge to fight for his country. In 1941, after intense family debate, he volunteered for the Welsh Guards. Madog, now fourteen, left school to run the farm, with help from me — who had just moved on to the Ysgol Ganolradd — whenever I was free. The labour was hard, time was always short, but between the two of us we managed.
Mam’s place was in the house, which was where she wanted to be. Not being strong, she could give little help outdoors beyond milking the cows. But she cheerfully looked after the paperwork and, struggling with ever more severe rationing, she fed us, and fed all the neighbours when they were helping. Luckily, like them, we did not have to rely solely on our rations. We were all self-sufficient in eggs and milk and hence in butter, which the womenfolk churned themselves. And mutton was there for the taking — we slaughtered ewes in rotation and shared the meat around.
Then in 1942 came the first cruel blow of fate. Tad was killed on active service in North Africa. Our souls were numbed. But we soldiered on as before. There was no alternative. In 1944, as was inevitable, Madog was called up, and he too joined the Welsh Guards. Therefore, as was also inevitable, I left school, also at fourteen, to shoulder the burden single-handed. I had already been growing up fast, both in body and mind. From that point onwards I grew up even faster. I had to.
The next blow of fate was that Madog’s very first active service was on Operation Overlord — the Normandy landings — and shortly after D-Day he was shot dead by a sniper. Mam, it is not unfair to say, never fully recovered from the dual shock. Depression descended on her. Hitherto she had relied first on Tad and then on Madog. Now there was only me left. Although I was careful to go through the motions of consulting her, from then on all the major decisions fell to me.
In this case we really did chew over the options together, not that there were many. We could sell up, but land prices were low. I could get a job, but as what? Or we could carry on. She did not want to live anywhere else. Neither did I. Garth Llwynog, after all, had been in Tad’s family since time out of mind, and just as it now belonged for all practical purposes to me, so I belonged to Garth Llwynog. Outside the house I would be on my own, and I was all too conscious of the challenge. But, being an obstinate young so-and-so, I insisted on trying to make things work. Should I be defeated, so be it.
I was, in effect, a boy, a shepherd and my own master. If the urban reader, from the comfortable depths of his armchair, is tempted to see such a life as idyllic, he could hardly be more wrong. I had in my care, in round figures, a thousand sheep — or two thousand while the lambs were still with us — scattered over three square miles of mountain — not of hill, but of true mountain, much of it precipitous rock and scree — in a climate which varied from the benign, just occasionally, to the downright evil assaults of gale and mist and rain and snow. Just how hostile nature can be will emerge from the following pages. I had no grandparents left, or aunts or uncles, though there were a few distant cousins in the valley. The neighbours were as helpful as ever, but they laboured under exactly the same difficulties. The men had gone to war, leaving behind only the young and the old. Hired labour was now almost unobtainable. Those of us who remained had to do the same work with only half the numbers.
I struggled. I readily admit it. Everyone else was struggling too but, because I was so young, I think it was a worse struggle for me. Not only physically — a hill-farmer needs strength and stamina. Not only mentally — he has to juggle the costs of purchases against returns from sales both for the current and for future years, and try to keep a step ahead of the Ministry of Agriculture. But, looking back, I now see that my main problem was spiritual. Apart from Mam, I was alone in a limbo. I had no real friends of my own age. I was at the stage when boys normally push the boundaries of self-knowledge. But, numbed by our family losses and single-mindedly focused on keeping the farm going, I lacked both the opportunity and the will to explore my soul. Time seemed to rush past. I kept my head above water, just, but had nothing else to show for it. Amid the practical demands of life my emotions were driven into second place. One might say they almost died. And that, in retrospect, was a pity.
The final blow, eight months after Madog’s death, came in an envelope addressed to the executors of Madog Evans, forwarded from the Welsh Guards HQ. Inside, on thick notepaper with an embossed address, was a letter from a Mr and Mrs Grosvenor in Blackheath in south London. It was a bombshell. Their daughter, they said, had been serving in the ATS and Madog had got her pregnant. The baby, a boy, had just been born, and he and the mother were in their care. They were not threatening. They did not demand money for maintenance. Indeed it sounded as if they were well-heeled. They simply reported the situation and left it to us to do whatever we thought best. They offered, as a matter of duty but without any obvious enthusiasm, to provide accommodation should we want to visit. Their tone was disapproving and distant. They seemed to be hoping we would forget all about it, so that they could forget all about us.
Mam was torn. She was exhilarated by the news of a grandchild. But she was rather old-fashioned in her outlook, as I admit I was too, and the manner of the grandchild’s arrival saddened her deeply. Moreover it surprised — in fact it astonished — us both. We knew very well from local gossip that such passing liaisons were commonplace in wartime. But this did not sound in the least like the Madog we had known and loved. He had indeed had an eye for the ladies, but he wore his heart on his sleeve and always let us know about his latest fancy. And when he left us he had not yet lost his virginity. If he had, he might not have told Mam, but I was sure he would have told me, for we were close. His letters since then had from time to time mentioned meeting pretty girls. On re-reading them, we found that one such occasion had been at exactly the right date. He and a few chums had spent an evening at a pub with a bunch of adorable ATS and he had staggered back to barracks, he confessed, ‘quite merry’. But even when merry Madog was a careful and considerate boy. It was all very puzzling; so much so that Mam’s depression became markedly worse.
She desperately wanted to go to London to see her grandson, but she was not well enough, and for two months from mid-March the sheep-farming calendar is demanding. Throughout the less busy June she was still under doctor’s orders to take it easy, and it was only when I had wound up the season that we could make the journey. The sheep had been shorn and dipped for scab, the hay had been cut, our annual sale was over, the year’s ewe lambs had been driven down to the milder climate of the Traeth for wintering, the rest had been dipped for ticks, and the impatient rams had been released to tup. And by that time, I might add almost by way of afterthought, the war had at last ended, and I was fifteen.
So, late in November 1945, having begged Owain Bach to milk our cows and feed our pigs and hens for three days, we ventured for the first time in our lives to London, and we liked almost nothing of what we found. We took the train to Paddington and the tube and bus to Blackheath to spend a couple of nights with our newly-acquired relatives. As we had guessed, the Grosvenors were very definitely superior, their cut-glass accent contrasting with our soft Welsh intonation, their palatial house with our homely farm. Their welcome was no more than polite. They saw us, it was clear, as well below their station in society. Madog, our uncouth yokel, had lured a young lady of breeding into a deplorable indiscretion, and it was too late even to paper over the cracks with a hasty marriage. Had the offender, I felt, been a sprig of the nobility or gentry, their tune might well have been different. The irony made me smile to myself, for Madog — like me — was actually a second cousin of an earl. But I would never say so. The supposedly noble side of our family had comprehensively cast us out and deserved no loyalty from us.
Even if Madog had thought Felicity — the young lady in question — was adorable, I did not. She coldly showed off her son, whose name was Walter. I was not of an age or a disposition to go into raptures over a baby, not even over a nephew. But Mam seemed not to notice the chill in the atmosphere. She clucked and cooed and dandled and prattled about baby clothes just as grandmothers, I imagine, always have and always will.
Our time passed tediously for me, for I could find no common ground with our hosts, and by the second morning I was glad to be going home, even in a pea-souper. When safely in the train from Paddington and working our way out of the London fog, Mam, who seemed to have banished much of her depression while at Blackheath, was silent and frowning. On my asking why, she confessed that she was uncomfortable again. Looking back at it, she said, she had no sense that Walter belonged to us or to our family. To me in my ignorance (or is it indifference?) human babies are babies. To me they do not yet have real identities of their own. They could be anyone’s. Yet she knew far more about them than I did, and as a sheep farmer I had a comparable sort of instinct which allowed me to understand her doubts. I was able on occasion to say, beyond any question, that this lamb could not possibly be the offspring of that ram. And, with Walter, that was precisely what was worrying her. But there was nothing we could do about it, and I wasted no time on agonising.