That a school as old as an old oak tree,
Fast by the roots, was flung up in the air,
Up in the air without thought or care,
And pitched on its feet by the sea.
Edward Thring, “The Colony,” in Borth Lyrics, 1881
The Welsh in general know all about their ancestry and are good at keeping up with their extended families. In my case there is precious little to keep up with. On Tad’s side, as I have explained, there is nobody left apart from distant cousins. Mam’s family is almost as sparse. Her mother — my Nain — had been a native of Garreg who died when I was one, and I do not remember her. But, in a place where marriage between relatively near neighbours is the norm, her background was not in the least out of the ordinary.
On the other side of her family, however, Mam has come — according to one way of looking at it — a long way down in the world. Her father Reginald, my Taid, was an interesting if mysterious character. He was eldest son and heir of Algernon Page the third Earl of Bramley, of Bramley Hall in Warwickshire. In the 1870s as a pupil of Uppingham, a major public school, Reginald was at Borth near Aberystwyth in circumstances which I will shortly explain. And there, at the age of seventeen, he committed some nameless indiscretion.
He was cut off by his family, which not only removed him from the school but told him never to darken the ancestral doors again unless he returned in properly chastened frame of mind. To bury his sorrows and to earn a living, he wandered northwards from Borth, taking his precious library with him, and for thirty years found work as a common labourer in a succession of slate quarries. In the process he came to speak Welsh like a native. He ended up at Croesor Quarry and took lodgings near Garreg. But before long he was laid low by silicosis brought about by decades of breathing slate dust in the mills, and my Nain, then young, took pity on him and nursed him. One thing led to another, and before long they married. Then he died, leaving a new-born daughter — my Mam — but no son. Thus Taid’s younger brother, no doubt to the huge relief of the Bramleys, became heir to the earldom, and our branch of the family has had no contact with them since.
All this I had known for years. Mam had never spelled out what Taid’s indiscretion had been. But most children, beyond a certain age, are perfectly well aware that they are not always told the whole truth. If they can read between the lines, or if they think they can, they are generally satisfied. So too was I. The type of indiscretion which seemed best to fit the circumstances was the one of which I had heard the most. In my innocence I assumed that Taid had made too free with a local girl. In retrospect, of course, I was naive. At that date, surely, if not now as well, the nobility would regard such an affair as wholly understandable and not in the least reprehensible.
The day after Stan’s letter arrived from Rosie, we came in from the ffridd for dinner to find an unlaid table and no Mam. Instead there was a note telling us to look in the oven because she was out. I was not in the least worried, for it was quite common for her to help out a neighbour in some emergency, major or minor. When she returned, however, she would not be drawn on where she had been; and that evening, after Stan had gone to bed, she had a word with me on what seemed a totally different subject.
“Dino, here’s a book you ought to read. It’s about your Taid. Not about him personally, because he doesn’t figure in it, but about Borth at the time he was there.”
I pricked up my ears. I suspect most people feel at least a frisson of interest in ancestors who were guilty of some nameless indiscretion. I looked at what she handed me. It was a slender volume in English which opened automatically at the title page: Uppingham by the Sea, written by JHS — whatever name the initials disguised — and published in London in 1878. It did not live on the shelves with the rest of Taid’s English books, and I had never seen it before. I took it to bed to read.
The scene was set mainly at Borth on Cardigan Bay, five miles north of Aberystwyth and fifty south of Croesor. I had never been there, but I did know that the area is rich in legend. The fair realm of Cantre’r Gwaelod — the Lowland Hundred — once stretched, it is said, far out beyond the present coastline, and in the sixth century its lord was Gwyddno Garanhir. According to one strand of the story his son Elffin found, caught in a fishing weir, a basket containing a baby boy, rather like Moses in the rushes of the Nile. Taken home by Elffin and fostered at the court at Aberdyfi, the boy grew up to be the famed Taliesin Ben Beirdd, chief of the bards of Britain. According to another strand, Cantre’r Gwaelod was protected from the sea by a great embankment, but one day Seithenyn, Gwyddno’s keeper of the sluices, was incapably drunk and failed to shut the gates, so that the tide flowed in and drowned the land for ever. Evidence of the truth of this tale, so it is claimed, may be seen in the submerged forest off Borth, the stumps of whose trees are still exposed when the tide is low.
But JHS’s book began far away, at Uppingham School in Rutland, almost as far from the sea as England allows. The Rev Edward Thring, its great reforming headmaster, had built it up from a small country grammar school into a progressive public school of high repute with three hundred boys. Uppingham was a sleepy market town whose sanitary condition was dreadful. Its single sewer, decrepit and unflushed, served only a fraction of the properties. Water came solely from wells, some of which adjoined overflowing cesspits. The authority supposedly in charge was the local Sanitary Committee, which was incompetent, corrupt and dilatory.
In 1875 an epidemic of typhoid erupted, with fifty cases and five deaths in the school and more in the town. Agitated parents began to remove their sons, and in November Thring was forced to send the boys home. For three months much was said but little of practical use was done, and in January 1876, in the hope that the disease was gone, the boys were allowed back. But within three weeks the typhoid returned. The school faced ruin. Yet another dispersal followed by yet another outbreak would mean the end, for parents would inevitably take their sons away. Thring and his staff unanimously decided to migrate until the sanitary problems should be solved. On 13 March the boys were again sent home, with instructions to reconvene in three weeks’ time at some place to be specified. Where, nobody yet knew: anywhere but Uppingham. Nor did anybody know how many would obey the summons. There was no precedent. Never before had so large a school been transplanted lock stock and barrel to a new abode, nor in so short a space of time.
Those three weeks saw a fierce race for life. Thring and a handful of masters went hotfoot to Wales in search of a refuge, and on 15 March, in a blustery winter gale, they came to Borth. They found a somewhat bleak and backward coastal village struggling with little success to establish itself as a resort. The main occupation of its eight hundred inhabitants was fishing. Almost all of its simple cottages were strung out along a shingle ridge facing the shore, and just inland the railway ran parallel. But Cambrian Terrace, the short cross-street between station and waterfront, was lined with purpose-built lodging houses and ended with the massive four-square bulk of the Cambrian Hotel. Both had been erected ten years earlier in a bout of speculative optimism but had enjoyed little trade, and the hotel was empty. If not ideal for Thring’s purposes, they would do; and he was struck by Borth’s breezy and healthy spaciousness.
Next day, having signed a contract to rent the whole hotel, all the lodging houses, and rooms in twenty-seven further cottages, he returned to Uppingham for the herculean task of arranging the removal of three hundred beds, desks, chairs, tables, bookcases, blackboards, pianos, and the whole paraphernalia of a large school, including — needless to say — the great roller from the cricket pitch. All this was carted to the nearest railway and stowed into wagons. Thring and the staff hastily adjourned back to Borth to set the stage. The hotel’s coachhouse was converted into a gymnasium, the stables into a carpentry shop, and trestle tables were bought to seat three hundred and fifty for meals. A large timber building was put up as an assembly hall. A huge lavatory was installed. On 27 March the chartered goods train arrived and, amid a conflicting babel of instructions in Welsh and English, the furniture was unloaded and carried to its destinations. Another week, and all the rooms were redecorated. Telegrams were sent to every parent. Precisely three weeks after leaving Uppingham the school, in a triumph of organisation, was ready to reopen at Borth.
Now came the acid test: how many boys would actually turn up? On 4 April they arrived in three special trains. They were painstakingly directed to their new billets, fed, and let loose on the beach. Distribution of their luggage went on far into the night. And it proved another triumph, this time of faith, for of all the two hundred and ninety-odd boys expected only three failed to appear. What with masters and their families and servants, almost four hundred souls had been transplanted from Uppingham, and the population of Borth increased by half.
Recreation was quite easily catered for. Borth offered natural facilities for swimming, fishing and cross-country running, the peaty marshland behind the railway was just adequate for football, and the dunes were suitable for golf. For the sacred game of cricket, however, it could not provide, and salvation came from the local squire who offered a large meadow. It was, however, four miles to the south, so that on two or three afternoons a week a special train had to be laid on. Thring, an enthusiast for long bracing walks, arranged occasional whole-day excursions to the mountains. On half-holidays Aberystwyth, the local centre for culture and shopping, was much frequented, and the school choir gave public concerts there.
Thring expected to stay for only a term, until the Uppingham sewer should be amended and new waterworks completed. But both were delayed — the waterworks by technical problems, the sewer by the procrastinating Sanitary Committee which was only shamed into action by the death of its own chairman from typhoid — so that the exile finally extended to a full year.
Everyone settled into a new routine. The village church, coincidently completed just as the school arrived, served as its chapel. Classes were held in any rooms that could seat twenty, and further rooms were hired in cottages for music lessons and practice and — mindful of recent tribulations — as sickrooms in case of need. But in the event the school doctor ministered less to the school than to the doctorless village, whose heart he won.
The coexistence was remarkably friendly. Life was not easy for villagers who rented out half their small cottage to strangers, nor for boys forced to camp out in cramped, draughty and smoky lodgings. The few disagreements that did arise could be traced to misunderstandings, for some of the Welsh had little English. Many school rules, proving unenforceable in these new surroundings, had to be abandoned. The usual disciplines of roll-call, lock-up and lights out were impracticable and it was impossible for masters or prefects to closely supervise their scattered charges. Yet the boys knew that they, and the school, were on trial, and they behaved. As a leader of the community put it when finally they departed, “no boy had laughed at the villagers, if they were old and queer-looking or queerly dressed; there had been no disorder, no shabby act, nothing undecent during the whole twelve months we had spent among them.”
There was even fraternisation, despite their wildly different backgrounds, between boys of the school and boys of the village. Village boys were seen to be imitating the school’s athletics — running their own races, jumping across ditches — and were shown how to do it better, and taught the rudiments of cricket and football, and challenged to impromptu matches.
The school particularly endeared itself to Borth during its third term there, which opened with storms. On 30 January 1877 a howling westerly gale so banked up the sea that it overtopped and in places broke the timber sea wall, as if Seithenyn had again neglected his duties. While no lives were lost, many houses were flooded and filled with shingle. All lessons were cancelled and every boy and every master turned to rebuilding and strengthening the defences and to clearing the debris. On the marshes to the north the destruction was worse. Of one flock of over a hundred sheep only eleven escaped drowning. Four miles of railway were scoured away and, during the fortnight before train services were restored, stocks of coal ran out. The school’s response was to raise a large sum of money by subscription to help those who had suffered.
A month or two later the works at Uppingham were complete and there was no longer any reason for the school to stay away. So harmonious had relations been that the people of Borth, who a year before had dreaded the imminent invasion, were now genuinely sorry to see it go. On 10 April almost every inhabitant assembled, with banners and choirs and speeches, to bid a formal farewell. At an unholy hour on the morning of the 13th they gathered again at the station to see the special trains off. They sang their Welsh songs, and every carriage window was thick with boys’ heads cheering them in return. Uppingham, having suffered economically from the school’s absence, welcomed it back with delight, and the school was glad to be home. But its fond memories of Borth remained. The exile had indeed been a triumph. But it had also been a high adventure.
This, then, was the tale recounted in JHS’s book. The whole episode not only came across as an epic which stirred my imagination and warmed my heart, but also supplied, presumably, the background to Taid’s indiscretion. I had learned nothing about him personally. But, as an afterthought, I looked at the flyleaf. And there, writ large, was the reason why the book had not been on the shelf for childish eyes to find. Reginald, it seemed, had made too free not with a local girl, but with a local boy. The handwritten inscription was in English.
In fond memory of my beloved Rhys, lost at Borth 1878. Reginald Page.
It was hard to find sleep that night. Next morning I was down to breakfast at the same time as Mam, who always was an early bird. Often enough I had to be early too, but when the pressures allowed — as they currently did — I preferred to lie in rather longer. Stan, if he could, preferred to lie in longer still. But just as Mam had been carefully indirect in introducing me to this revelation, I was carefully indirect in my response.
“I’ve read that book, Mam. Can you tell me how Taid fitted into the story?”
She looked at me consideringly. “No, I’d rather not. What I suggest is that you go to Borth yourself and find him there. Think of it as a pilgrimage.”
“Pilgrimage? What do you mean? Where in Borth?”
“Well, the obvious place to start is the church, isn’t it?”
That was disappointingly vague, and my enthusiasm began to wane.
“All right. I’ll see if I can fit it in next week. Today I’ve got to deal with the hinges on the barn doors and that leak in the dipping bath.”
“There’s nothing wrong with today,” she said quite sharply. “Stan’s perfectly capable of doing those jobs. Catch the train that leaves just after eight. If you drive me down to Penrhyn, I’ll bring the car back.”
While I took all the major decisions, on minor ones I usually allowed Mam to have her way. Whether to spend the day by the seaside was surely minor, although she must think it important enough to use the car and precious petrol. I surrendered, changed from working clothes into something more respectable, slipped the book into a pocket, and scribbled a note for Stan about the barn doors and the dipping bath. I felt mean at leaving him behind, but if this was a pilgrimage into the mysteries of my forebears I had to be by myself. I also felt mean at seizing another excuse to postpone discussion of our future, but my scree slope was still far from stabilised.
As I drove — now that I was seventeen my licence covered the car as well as the tractor — Mam asked if she should pick me up later.
“No, thanks. I don’t know when I’ll be back. I’ll make my own way.”
At first the train was crowded with youngsters, carefree and innocent, on their way to school. I almost envied them. But after Harlech it was virtually empty. The railway is squeezed, for much of the way, between the sea and the hills, which after a while become more rounded and gentle than the stark crags of Eryri. And the further south I went, the further from home, the more single-minded I found myself about my mission. To begin with, as the train pottered patiently from Harlech to Dyffryn Ardudwy and Abermaw, I wondered why Mam had chosen this particular moment to raise the matter. Then, all the way past Llwyngwril and Tywyn and Aberdyfi, I pondered what I might find at Borth. But I did not know what I was looking for. Anything, presumably, to do with Taid, but exactly where? In what form? It seemed a needle in a haystack.
A short wait at Dyfi Junction while changing trains for the Aberystwyth line brought me no nearer to an answer. After that it was only two stops — Glandyfi and Ynyslas — before Borth. Down here the terrain was flat, not unlike our Traeth, and the church, a little inland, stood in full sight of the station. The porter directed me to the footpath which led to it.