We have just returned from another summer holiday in North Wales and it was while there with 51 of the extended family of Mill Grove that the theme of this month’s In Residence crystallised in my mind. But before getting down to business I’d like to share a few highlights of our time there to give a little of the context in which the theme arose.
We stay in two adjoining terraced houses in the picturesque harbour village called Borth-y-Gest, near Porthmadog and across the estuary from Portmeirion. The slipway on which we launch our sailing dinghies and kayaks is about 100 metres from the front of the house as the crow flies, and there is sea at the end of our short street, and plenty of sandy coves reached from the back door via a little children’s play area. Just beyond the wood that cradles much of the village is the hill called Moel-y-Gest. From its summit on a clear day there are extensive views of the Lleyn peninsular, Cardigan Bay, the Rhinogs, and the Moelwyns, the Glyders, part of the Snowdon horseshoe, and Moel Hebog. It is, by any reckoning, an idyllic spot.
On several occasions we sailed in one of more of our little “fleet” consisting of a Topper, Mirror and Wayfarer. The longest voyage took us out past the Fairway’s Buoy to Criccieth for ice-cream and fishing tackle, and then to the serious business of locating the shoals of mackerel: the sea birds guided us, and we landed eleven, which were prepared for breakfast the next morning. Younger members of the family are becoming more competent and confident at the helm, and it is a joy to see various sails criss-crossing the estuary in craft crewed by children and young people.
Cycling has taken off in the UK since the successes of Bradley Wiggins and Chris Frome in the Tour de France, and several were out on roads or on forest cycle tracks in Coed-y-Brenin. It is difficult to say how many miles were logged but it could have been over 500 at a rough guess.
We have a list of about thirty mountains in the area and when a person reaches a named summit they then tick the appropriate spot on the chart. This year one of the group (who joined us as a young girl in the 1970s, and is now a mother of four) completed the last three on this list. We placed a book, inscribed with her name and feat, in the library of Fron Deg, and duly rejoiced. Given the huge crowds and queues on Snowdon over the bank holiday weekend it is probably as well that we gave the highest peak a miss this year!
On a trip to Llyn Gwynant, a lake at the foot of Snowdon, nearly everyone took to the water, swimming or in kayaks, and it was not long before the jumping off Elephant Rock began: starting with the ledges a few metres above the shining water. As it happened, an instructor appeared at just the right time, and confirmed that it was safe to jump off the very top of the rock, some 45 feet above the lake, and so two of the boys did this (appropriately equipped and briefed).
On the beach we crabbed, made a sand mermaid and butterfly (as well as castles), played plenty of cricket culminating in a 22-over match against some neighbouring families, and explored some of the rocks and dunes.
Most evenings there was a “Mystery Trip” or “Mystery Chip” in the vicinity, and one of these entailed trying to work out what six flavours of ice-cream were in a half-litre (unlabelled) tub. On a later evening we went crabbing in Porthmadog Harbour, catching a total of 163 before releasing them on the slipway (and having more chips).
On Sundays we went to the beautiful Cwm Pennant after church and spent the sunny afternoons beside and in the river, while some climbed the slopes overlooking the valley or cycled along a disused railway track. This valley has been rated one of the most beautiful in Wales, and there is a famous Welsh poem about it by Eifion Wyn which contains the lines,
“Pam, Arglwydd, y gwnaethost Cwm Pennant mor dlws,
A bywyd hen fygail mor fyr?”
(Why did you make a Cwm Pennant so beautiful and the life of an old shepherd so short?) And believe it or not on Sunday we chatted with Idris Jones a former shepherd in the valley who went to the village school before it was closed over 80 years ago! He recited the poem for us without needing much encouragement.
We adapt our activities to the weather of course, and on one Saturday when we awoke to a gale and cloud down to sea level, we knew that this was the perfect day for going to Hell’s Mouth to surf. It’s quite a drive to the end of the Lleyn, but the two hours spent in the white waves were worth all the effort!
So much for the flavour of our life together in this remarkable and wonderful part of God’s creation: where does the theme come into all this?
Our group was sub-divided into three “squads” which took it in turns to do a number of tasks: these involved waking everyone up and making sure that they were in time from breakfast at nine o’clock, offering early morning tea to those in bed, and also to those returning from morning swims, preparing breakfast, washing up, getting the ingredients for home-made sandwiches, and serving at meals. Put the duties of a squad alongside the daily adventures of the holiday that I have described, and you might be forgive for thinking that they were seen as unfortunate burdens, or even obstacles to having fun. My discovery was that they were the very reverse.
Every person took delight in being part of their team, and entered enthusiastically into the performance of their tasks. As a consequence some breakfasts were lavish affairs, including kipper kedgeree, bacon muffins, fresh raspberries, blueberries and blackberries, full English breakfasts, as well as over a dozen choices of cereal, ground coffee, tea and fruit drinks, toast and any number of marmalades and jams. The tables were laid carefully and with creativity.
Now the squads were not the end of the ways in which the young people took responsibility for helping to make the holiday special. Whenever we went to the beach everyone made sure that all the buoyancy aids, picnic bags, paddles, oars, cricket bats, buckets, spades, rudders and centre boards were carried along the sandy paths to the rock we tend to refer to as “ours”. And when younger members of the family joined in activities it was natural for the older ones to help them, encourage and support them.
Let me try to reflect on this without sounding overly didactic. Our contemporary era may well come to be seen by future historians as unduly individualistic, rights-oriented and consumer-driven. Earlier in the summer I read a 1960s tourist guide to a part of the UK that I knew well. The most obvious change in the forty or more years since then has been in the provision of “leisure activities” for children and families, all of which have to be purchased. Picnics replaced by “fast food”; walks along coast paths replaced by theme parks; rowing replaced by jet-skis. Now I know this is something of a caricature, but I hope you can see the profound shift that it represents.
The squads have their roots in another vision of life together: not “What do I want to do?”, or “What do I want to buy?”, but “How can I contribute to the well-being and happiness of others?” This vision assumes that it is in giving that we receive, and that there can be fun together in the kitchen as well as on the beach. It is outward rather than inward-focussed. When we reflected on the holiday in a circle, I noticed that people were sometimes quicker to recall and share memories of others enjoying themselves, than they were talking about their own achievements or special times and experiences.
You can think about responsibility in general, and specific responsibilities in particular, as a preparation for future life, parenthood, work and citizenship, but that is to undervalue the joy it can bring in the present as well. It is common knowledge that children tend to be gregarious, to enjoy being with their peers (there are exceptions of course), and squads are a way of acknowledging this. To be with your peers contributing to the happiness of others is rather like a no-lose scenario!
My abiding memories of this year’s holiday may well be of some very young children (aged 2-5 years) joining us for part of the stay. They quickly learned about the squads and wanted to be part of them. And they took their share of responsibilities when we sailed: as one put it, “I looked after the jib-sheet and the centre-board, and my little sister.”!
Unless and until we find ways of re-structuring our institutions and ways of life to build in responsibility-taking at an early age, we not only put the future of our society at risk: we deprive children of a source of much pleasure.