Welsh Heritage in Western, Central, and Eastern New York State
An Essay by Barbara Henry
The best of my trip to Wales was being on foot in the Welsh countryside of Pembrokeshire near the villages of Llanfyrnach and Hermon. My grandmother's people left there more than one hundred fifty years ago. I wanted to savor the land, the smell, the dampness, the light, the scene, the old footpaths linking the two villages. What would the flowers, trees and grasses look like? What of the color and shape of the land as it came up to meet the sky? Would the song of a bird in Wales sound like any other?
On a warm gray August morning the rest of the family, about to leave for a day trip to Stonehenge, dropped me off near a British red phone booth standing alone in Llanfyrnach, a tiny village nestled in a narrow valley, steeped on all sides by rising elevations. The booth, on the surface at least, seemed to be the only visible vestige of the outside world. Where was I? I was totally alone in a strange land, just as my ancestors had been upon their arrival in America. For me it would last a day, for them it was the beginning of a lifetime away from the familiar land of their birth, away from loved ones left behind, never to be seen again.
I had maps, but it took some time to get my bearings. Several false starts. Once I crossed the bridge in Llanfyrnach, I found the church and other roads, one leading to Glandwr where my ancestor John L. James had been baptized at the chapel in 1827. The other direction went to Hermon where the James family had lived on a farm called Gernos. All uphill. But I did not want the paved roads. I wanted to take the old public footpaths through the fields and pastures, the ones that zigzagged across my map.
My ordinance survey map, published not long ago, showed an intricate web of public footpaths. But I quickly found from experience that the paths were now just fragments of what once was, leading somewhere into a field and then vanishing into thin air, perhaps replaced by a farm building erected in the last century.
I walked into a farmer's yard where one footpath led and ended. I knew someone was about. I could hear the life of the farm, the sounds of work and animals but I could see no one. So I went to the farmhouse and knocked. Still no one. When I turned to go, I saw a young farmer loping towards me across the farmyard. He was tall and lanky, dark haired with an angular face, muddy "Wellies" up to his knees. We greeted each other and I said I was from America; that my people had once lived in this area until they left for America about 1840. He said that almost everyone here had someone in their family who had left. Even now they were leaving. His own family had members who had not long ago moved to Australia. He said farming was very hard, especially dairy farming. I told him it was that way in New York State where I came from. We talked a bit. He advised not using the footpaths as they had become so broken up.
Right: A primitive incised cross near Llanfyrnach, Pembrokeshire, Wales.
The farmer then took me to an incised cross of very ancient origin that sat upon his property where the old footpath came through. The stone on which the primitive cross was carved was long and flat, a little taller than past my knee. It stood upright, but tilted. The farmer had wanted to clean it up, but the Welsh antiquities people said, no, no, no. Do not touch it. Leave it as is. So he did. It had some growth on it. He was not sure how old it was, just that it was very, very old. He pointed to the hill and said, there are more standing stones up there. They have always been there.
After that I abandoned my notion of tramping along the footpaths. Instead, I kept to the narrow country roads lined by the ever-present hedgerows that had become the butt of family jokes--like "full cooked breakfasts." I could sense the warm breath, soft snorting, and bodies of beasts on the other side of the hedgerows. I took the fork in the road that led steeply up the hill to Hermon. But, alas, my walk on the land was not to be.
Half way up the hill a kindly soul on her way to a birthday party in Hermon stopped her car and called from her window. You look like you could use a lift! Come on, get in. Yes, I was an old lady with a big backpack (chock full of every possible thing I might need for a day in the Welsh countryside), and no doubt going very slowly. Not wanting to hurt her feelings, I accepted but it was not what I wanted. I wanted to walk the mile that my people probably walked hundreds of times in their lives, although they probably took the footpaths linking farm-to-farm, and village-to-village.
In a brief moment we were in Hermon, another little Welsh village on its last hurrah. It reminded me of my hometown in New York State. The bottom had fallen out of that little place too, when the farms began to disappear. Like Llanfyrnach, Hermon had no post office, no store, no shops, and the buses rarely, if ever, came through. But the village still had its own school, a point of pride and distinction. No one was on the street or in the windows. A woman with a van pulled up to deliver groceries and baked goods door to door. At one end of town the Baptist chapel sat worn, unattended and bleak, surrounded by a cemetery. I searched the cemetery row-by-row for stones bearing the name "James" even though the ancestors had been Independents, not Baptists. Still, the genealogist in me said, leave no stone unturned for you may not pass this way again. And didn't the Independents and Calvinistic Methodists, sometimes in their adulthood, come to believe, after much soul searching, that adult baptism was the way and join the Baptists? A sweep of the cemetery revealed no one. Further down the street, The Lambs Inn, a local pub, was closed and deserted. Hermon seemed like a ghost town until I remembered there was a noisy birthday party somewhere behind closed doors.
I was looking for a farmhouse called Gernos, once associated with the Levi and Mary James family. I asked some people in a van who were waiting to pick up passengers. They did not know of such a property. As I walked down the street a man suddenly popped out his door. A few inches separated us for there was no space to spare between threshold and street. I asked him if he knew the property called Gernos. Why, of course, he said pointing, just down the street at the end. On the left. You will see it. He then described it. The present owners were remodeling.
Left: The farmhouse called Gernos in the morning sun in the summer of 2000.
Soon I was knocking on yet another door a few streets over. A schoolteacher and his family. His mother-in-law knew some about Gernos and a James family that had once lived there. The schoolteacher and wife were into local history and genealogy. We hit it off. I, a stranger from America, received the celebrated "Welsh Welcome." It is a familiar story told by many who have returned to the land of their ancestors to find the old family homestead.
After our visit and exchange of information, the schoolteacher, on summer holiday, offered to drive me over to Glandwr to visit the chapel and graveyard associated with the James family. As I waited for him to get ready, his children came and sat all around me on the great stuffed sofa, eager to show the American visitor their newest acquisitions. With great flourish they spread out upon our knees large notebooks of -- Pokemon cards! Suddenly in a flash, my romantic illusion of Hermon, the isolated, remote, quintessential, quaint Welsh village, vanished.
Right: The Congregational Chapel at Glandwr, Pembrokeshire.
After Glandwr, the schoolteacher deposited me right on the doorstep of my next accommodation--a country bed and breakfast just outside the village of Llanboidy near the Pembrokeshire border. After getting settled in, I walked the path to the village until a pasture full of cows forced me to abandon my route. Traumatic childhood adventures with cows on our farm had always made me stay clear of the beasts. Once again, I took to the paved road to reach the village.
Llanboidy had a convenience store called Spar with a post office. The proprietor made a sales pitch for his Welsh souvenirs. I purchased yogurt and Welsh cakes instead and went to the little park to eat. Before returning to my accommodations I searched the old chapel graveyard for family surnames. A most enjoyable walk down and through the village, but hard work going back up the steep incline. As twilight turned to darkness, I finally made it back to find the rest of the family had already arrived. Before bed, we all took a final walk in the darkness on the quiet country road that seemed to run forever out into the Welsh hills.
These were the times on my trip that I was happiest and most pleased. When I was closest to the land, to the ancestors, to the ancient places, to the people, hearing the sounds of daily life, having my feet upon the soil and getting my shoes and pant legs wet with dewy grasses. There was time to stop and listen, to look and smell. These slowly saturating physical manifestations, flooding and seeping into the senses, somehow meant more than ever, truly, that I was really there in Wales. So much could be missed from the window of a speeding car as the land of my ancestors went by in a blur. For me, the only way to really come home was to walk Pembrokeshire, slowly foot by foot.
Learn more about this part of Wales at:
© Barbara R. Henry